A third of the vast Amrit Mahal Kaval grasslands of Challakere, where several defence and science establishments have been proposed, is ‘deemed forest’ and requires forest clearance before it is diverted, according to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

In its submission to the National Green Tribunal (South Zone) during a recent hearing, MoEF said that nearly 3,000 acres of the total 10,000 acres of these grazing pastures are deemed forest and added that “there is a case for examining the inclusion of the remaining area also in the deemed forest [category]” as both areas are “similar”.

The status of the 10,000 acres (whether forest or non-forest) should be determined through a “joint inspection” by the State Forest Department and the Union Environment Ministry, the affidavit adds.

However, the Ministry denied that Amrut Mahal Kaval lands have been declared as district forests. Earlier this year, petitioners, Environment Support Group, had said that “all Amrit Mahal Kavals were declared as district forests as per the Karnataka Forest Rules, 1969.” The organisation said that these grasslands were diverted for other uses without the permission of the Union government and therefore violated the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.

MoEF conceded that site inspections revealed that these grasslands, which have now been allotted to institutes such as the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Indian Space Research Organisation and the Indian Institute of Science, supports a variety of wildlife such as black buck, hares and sloth bear and that it could be a potential habitat of the endangered Great Indian Bustard.

The Department of Forest Ecology and Environment of the State government, in its submission earlier, had said the grasslands were not forests and are “not mentioned as forest in any government record”. Most of these lands were given to various central establishments in 2009 and 2010.