The Hesaraghatta grassland is back on center stage following Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai’s directive to the Forest Department to conduct public consultation before declaring the grassland as a conservation reserve.
During the recent meeting of the Karnataka State Wildlife Board, Mr. Bommai, who is also the chairman of the board, said the local population should be taken into confidence before any decision is arrived at. He also asked the department to submit a report once the public consultation is over.
In 2021, the Forest Department placed a proposal before the State Board for Wildlife to declare 5,010 acres of grassland as a conservation reserve which was rejected by the board. It was alleged that an MLA from the ruling party had influenced the decision.
However, in July this year, the High Court directed the State Board for Wildlife to reconsider the proposal to declare the grassland as a conservation reserve. Since then, there have been volunteer meets and signature campaigns organised by activists and environmentalists who have been batting for the grassland to be declared a reserve.
Fear among shepherds and cattle herders
Locals fear the proposal would affect their livelihood. They say there are about 100-150 shepherds and cattle herders who graze their sheep and cows on the grassland. A few of them, who spoke to The Hindu, expressed their concerns over the move.
“We oppose conservation reserve plan as it will hamper our livelihood. The number of shepherds and local cattle herders has decreased over the last few years,” said Chennappa, a cattle herder.
Venkatesh, another cattle herder, said earlier, there were more livestock, but many have sold them in the past few years and switched to other professions.“
“We are being told that a wall would be built and we would not be allowed to enter the grassland. Our cattle have been grazing here for years now. They cannot expect us to go somewhere else,” said Mr. Venkatesh. He added that as the Hesaraghatta lake has filled to the brim, a major portion of the grassland has been submerged under water and thus they are having difficulty in locating new spots for the cattle to graze on.
The Hesaraghatta lake is spread over 1,100 acres. Following heavy rains, the lake is full after more than three decades, said Ramesh Kumar M., a fisherman.
He added that even farmers in and around Hesaraghatta hold very small portions of land and have to depend on cattle rearing as an additional source of income.
“Most of these farmers own about 5 to 10 guntas of land; they are dependent on their livestock to supplement their income. Making the grassland out of bound will affect them in a big way. Besides, we don’t know what will happen to us. Will we be able to enter the lake and fish like we do now? There are a lot of issues which some of these activists do not understand,” Mr. Ramesh added.
Environmentalists dispel concerns
Those who are in favour of declaring Hesaraghatta grasslands as a conservation reserve dispel these fears and say falsehoods are being spread by vested interests.
“When you have conservation of an ecosystem, people will benefit as forests and grasslands are known to act as sponges. Grasslands help in recharging the groundwater and retain the rainwater in the catchment and this definitely benefits the local people,” said Dr. T.V. Ramachandra of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc.
He added that a conservation reserve would mean that there would be restrictions on building an industrial layout or a housing society, but no one would be deprived of any access to the region.
Siddharth Goenka, member of the State Wildlife Board, during a recent meeting, clarified that a conservation reserve will not deprive the locals of development. He listed out seven misconceptions and clarified them. He said a conservation reserve will not displace locals, local communities will have a say in managing the conservation reserve, there would be no buffer zone or eco-sensitive zone, new wildlife will not be introduced, local communities will not lose access to roads, livelihoods of fishermen and farmers would be secure, and communities are custodians of the conservation reserve.
He also stated that in case the State government is unable to declare the entire 5,010 acres as a conservation reserve — a smaller area of approximately 2,800 acres consisting of 345 acres of grassland, about 1,000 acres of scrub jungle that is adjacent and to the east of the grassland and the 1,500 acres of Hesaraghatta reservoir — could be considered for the proposed conservation reserve. “I would also like to record that constituting the Hesarghatta conservation reserve will not involve any expense for the state exchequer since it involves government land only,” he stated.
Rare and endangered species
Hesaraghatta is home to several rare species like the Lesser florican ( Sypheotides indicus), European roller ( Coracias garrulous) among others.
The lake and the surrounding grasslands are home to over 150 species of birds, including migrant ducks and harriers. Nearly 10 species of amphibians have also been documented from Hesaraghatta. The area is a type locality (where a species is first discovered) for several commercially important insects also.