Reserved for exploitation?

Karnataka repeatedly refuses to declare its forests in Western Ghats inviolate

By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

imageAfter refusing a World Heritage Site tag by UNESCO for its pristine Western Ghats early this year, the Karnataka government has recently shelved a proposal to upgrade the conservation status of 12 reserve forests in the mountain range. Conservationists allege the government is keeping the Western Ghats out of the inviolate zone because such a move does not suit its political and commercial interests.

The proposal was part of the forest department’s long-term plan to connect all national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the state, scattered over 650,000 hectares, by adding some 200,000 ha forest patches in between or adjacent to them. One of the biggest projects was expanding Pushpagiri wildlife sanctuary in the Western Ghats by merging 12 adjacent reserve forests to it. The state wildlife board forwarded the plan to the state government for approval of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) in October. The government did send it to NBWL, but after removing Pushpagiri expansion plan.

The proposal upset Union corporate affairs minister Veerappa Moily. On October 7, unaware of the deletion by the state government, he wrote to Union environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan to reconsider the Pushpagiri expansion plan. Moily, who is from Dakshina Kannada district, said in his letter (copy of which is with Down To Earth) that the residents of Shiradi, Uppinangady and Subramanya villages in the district feared losing their land once the reserve forests are converted into sanctuary. The environment ministry forwarded the letter to the state forest department seeking a detailed report on the issue.

The forest department says its proposal includes only the reserve forests where the rights of people have been settled and does not include villages or agriculture land. “Some vested interest groups want to sabotage the proposal,” said B K Singh, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) of Karnataka, in his letter to the ministry in November.

imageSpread over 10,000 ha, Pushpagiri sanctuary has a good number of tigers, elephants and rare lion-tailed macaques and sloth bears. It is declared as an Important Bird Area. By merging the reserve forests to it, the forest department aims to make it contiguous with other protected areas in the Western Ghats. Pushpagiri lies at the junction of the southern and norther ranges of Western Ghats. Towards the south, wildlife migration corridors extend from Pushpagiri to far away Wayanad Tiger Reserve in Kerala via Nagarhole and Bandipur tiger reserves. In the north, the 12 contiguous reserve forests act as vital corridors, connecting Kudremukh and two other tiger reserves in the state. With 288 to 333 tigers, Karnataka boasts of the highest tiger population in the country. The expansion plan says upgrading the status of these reserve forests will help reduce man-animal conflicts in the region as more funds will be available to erect barriers like electric fence.

But once a forest is declared sanctuary no non-forestry activity can be carried out in it without the permission of the Centre and the Supreme Court. Allegations do the rounds that this would have been a threat to the hydel power, mining, timber and tourism lobbies operating in the area.

Vested interests

The 12 reserve forests have the headwaters of several tributaries of the river Nethravathi. This makes them attractive for mini run-of-the-river hydel projects. The state renewable energy development agency has permitted 15 mini-hydel projects in these forests. Three are operational, while a project by Maruthi Gen Ltd, a Bengaluru-based power company, is under construction. The rest could not start work on their projects as the high court in April ordered a temporary halt on new mini hydel projects in the Western Ghats.

The court order was in response to a public-interest petition by the Western Ghats Environment Forum. The conservation group says though considered environment-friendly, a large number of projects in a particular area will affect the river flow and lead to fragmentation of forests due to setting up of roads, power lines for transmission and labour colonies, affecting biodiversity. So far the state has permitted 137 mini hydel projects across Western Ghats; 27 are on the Nethravathi and its tributaries.

Mini hydel projects are highly lucrative as they get subsidies from state and Central governments under renewable energy development schemes and can also avail benefits under the clean development mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Since such projects are usually of capacity below 25 MW and do not require more than 5 ha, the company does not need to apply for environmental clearance and can obtain forest clearance from the regional office of the Union environment ministry.


Sanjay Gubbi, a conservation biologist who has worked extensively in the area, says the mini hydel project lobby is strong enough to politically influence the state’s decision. This is evident from the way Maruthi managed to get permission for its mega hydel project, projecting it as two mini hydel projects. When forest range officer of the area discovered the fact, she lodged an FIR on October 17. The FIR says the company carried out illegal constructions, dug the hills to reduce the height, dumped debris in the forest and along the banks of the river Hongadall, restricting its flow and endangering the flora and fauna. It illegally carried out explosions in the forest, causing landslides at many places.

Construction on the project was stopped after the FIR was filed. However, when Down To Earth visited the site on December 3, a meeting was going on between forest officials and representatives of the company. A company employee in-charge of construction said they have got informal permission and would resume work from the next day.

People benefiting from such projects are instigating people in surrounding villages to oppose the expansion of the sanctuary, says Bhuvanesh of non-profit Pushpagiri Wildlife Foundation. The forests have rich gem stone reserves, he adds. More than 10 ha in and around Kiribag and Bisley reserve forests are under illegal gem stone mining. People from nearby villages who are involved in the mining say they mine 15 to 20 kg of gem stones per acre (0.4 ha) every day. They get paid Rs 450 to Rs 1,500 for a kg of gem stones, which are then sent to jewellery manufacturers in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Besides, once the forests become sanctuaries people will not be able to harvest timber legally or illegally, Bhuvanesh adds.

A source in the forest department says, the villages around the reserve forests are a strong bastion of the state’s BJP government. Elected representatives from these areas are spreading the information that people may lose their land to the sanctuary expansion. They are also misguiding the chief minister that the development of their regions would be hindred because of the expansion. The chief minister perhaps stalled the proposal to handle the delicate political situation in the state, he adds.

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  • Good work Mr kumar. Keep the

    Good work Mr kumar. Keep the good work going we will support you.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Don't know why Karnataka Govt

    Don't know why Karnataka Govt is behaving Kerala's way? ie, anti wildlife. Bisle and surrounding areas are still rich in bio diversity and have primary forests. It will be a fatal mistake if we are not going to spare these. Its shame on part of politicians for opposing greater Pushpagiri sanctuary, even though the inhabitants are not going to be evacuated. Playing politics with forest policies will do no good in long term. If we don't take strict measures to conserve forest and wildlife, soon it will all be lost forever.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • This article is a very good

    This article is a very good insight and eye opener about the problems faced by wildlife as well as priceless Western Ghats. If we do not wake up atleast now, we will definitely would be swamped in and get suffocated due to these vested interest lobbies! How sad and terrible !!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • In these contemporary times,

    In these contemporary times, wildlife-based commerce has turned into money churning machinery. There should be no place for corruption and nepotism in wildlife policies and management. Lack of political will to genuinely care about the survival of wildlife species is arguably the biggest impediment to conservation of these species. The resulting loss is horrendous. This is ironically also the place where new amphibian species are being discovered and long-lost species thought to be extinct are being re-discovered after decades. Incursions into protected areas under the veil of concern for public welfare is, unfortunately, short-sighted suicidal tendency. Political and commercial support has sadly become a principal currency for the annihilation of our last fragments of wilderness.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • new species are being

    new species are being discovered frequently here, The area is one of the worldÔÇÖs ten "Hottest biodiversity hotspots" and has over 5000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species and 179 amphibian species, many undiscovered species lives in the Western Ghats. At least 325 globally threatened species occur in the Western Ghats.Yet the the government report to threat to flora and fauna here.
    Also there seems to be clandestine racket in clearing this project which is quite evident from the fact that they evade scrutiny by MOEF by carefully splitting the projects.Good expose by Down to Earth.Hope members from MOEF are watching.

    Praveen Ram

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • There seems to be clandestine

    There seems to be clandestine racket in clearing this project which is quite evident from the fact that they evade scrutiny by MOEF by carefully splitting the projects.Good expose by Down to Earth.Hope members from MOEF are watching.

    Praveen Ram

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Unfortunate to know this.

    Unfortunate to know this. Forest department is the only department in the government to protect our natural resources. If government doesnÔÇÖt listen to them consequences would be severe. Development pressure is so much that, if we don't provide maximum protection for these forests we are going to lose them in another five years or so. Vested interest corporate finds some or the other way to exploit these forests. Declaring these forests as Wildlife sanctuary is the first step of protection. Sanctuary doesn't effect in any way to the villagers in and around instead it keeps away such ill-planned development projects from such forests. Educating villagers is very important.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
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    Dear Naveen, Nisarga and Praveen, thank you very much for appreciating the article. Dear Rashmi and Mr Guruprasad, I agree the lack of political will is a major impediment to conservation. It reminds me of the response, a very senior official in Karnataka government gave to me when I asked him why the Pushpagiri expansion plan was shelved. "The tigers and trees do not vote, you know," he said.

    Posted by: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava | 3 years ago | Reply
  • It is sad that the local

    It is sad that the local residents give heed to the rumors. Vested political interests have always been detrimental to any kind of 'real' development. Its high time that people start thinking rationally and not to go along with the corrupt interests of a few. It is not rocket science to realise the importance of nature with forests and wildlife unless we are blind with greed and covetousness. Its the locals who have to raise their voice now against the exploitation and destruction of nature. Its better that people realise now than experience it later, that they cant eat money!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Interesting information as to

    Interesting information as to how callous could the attitude be towards conservation of such a treasure.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Good to read the article and

    Good to read the article and know the facts. But have any Govt agencies or NGO's Visited these villages and studied the round situation. I am from the same area and people from these villages are basically into agriculture and they know how to cultivate and they know their soil better also if these native people or settlers who are settled from 1948's would't have cared much from the environment and the forest nothing would have left there for us to preserve... or expand the sanctuary... like other parts of western gaght thickly populated After generations of settlement if people are asked to vacate their land how does that feels... If you take examples of other sanctuaries there are hotel and Resort lobbies who are keen on making sanctuaries and mint money in the name of tourism... People just want an corporate nation by suppressing the poor villagers.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply