Karnataka

Issue of political appointees to Karnataka State Wildlife Board resurfaces

A file photo of the site of a mini-hydel project taken up by P. Syama Raju’s company Maruthi Powergen India Pvt. Ltd. in Sakleshpur taluk.  

In 2012, members of the Karnataka State Wildlife Board produced a 300-page report on the violations and damage to wildlife and forests caused by two mini-hydel power plants in the forests of Sakleshpur in Hassan district. There was a furore.

A number of cases were filed, there were expert visits, and forest officials faced disciplinary action for approving the project.

Now, ironically, the proponent of the project has been chosen to sit in the newly reconstituted board, having been chosen in the category that encompasses “conservation experts, wildlife biologists, and environmentalists”.

P. Syama Raju, managing director of Maruthi Powergen India Pvt. Ltd. and a hotelier, was chosen as one of 10 expert members on the board, which is chaired by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. The appointment has raised eyebrows as it was his mini-hydel projects in Sakleshpur in 2009-12 that were cancelled. Forest officials, former board members, and environmentalists who spoke to The Hindu said with the appointment, there’s now a mini-hydel proponent sitting at the table where wildlife and forest policies are determined.

Three years after the appointment of Rana George, son of Bengaluru Development Minister K.J. George, to the board brought the question of political appointees, the issue seems to have resurfaced with the appointment Mr. Raju.

Sources in the Department of Forests confirmed that Mr. Raju’s name was included after recommendation from the Chief Minister’s Office. “As there are many other experts and officials from the Forest Department, it is very difficult for these political appointees to interfere in the decision making,” said a senior official. The reconstituted board — gazette notification issued on August 9 — includes conservationist Sanjay Gubbi, researcher C. Made Gowda, apart from Mr. Rana George, tribal leader P.M. Subru — who was booked in a forest offence case in 2014 — it is the selection of Mr. Raju that has drawn flak.

For many activists and conservationists, the appointment may adversely influence judgements on mini-hydel projects, many of which had been rejected by the board previously.

Kishore Kumar, president of Malnad Janapara Vedike based out of Hassan district and which has opposed mini-hydel projects in the Western Ghats, said, “It is not right to appoint someone who has destroyed forests and harmed wildlife to the board.”

Similarly, Praveen Bhargav, co-founder of Wildlife First, said the board was a statutory body which required the best of the experts for forest conservation. “They are expected to intervene in key issues. It is detrimental to have ‘yes men’ sitting there with no knowledge of ecology or law. Non-government experts are needed to speak out against destructive policies or projects,” he said.

The controversy

The controversy over Mr. Raju’s selection pertains to his company, Maruthi Powergen India Pvt. Ltd., which in 2009 started construction of mini-hydel projects at Hongadahalla (19 MW) and Yadakumari (19 MW) in Sakleshpur. Subsequently, the power generation limit was extended to 24 MW each.

In 2012, a report by the Forest Department stated that though the company claimed these were two projects, sketch documents showed both were “conceptualised” to be a part of one big project and subsequently cannot be considered a “mini-hydel” project. Similarly, the company had started tunnelling works over 1.6 km even though its proposal before the Forest Department had not mentioned that. The company was accused of illegally using explosives during construction and dumping the debris by streams. Moreover, the project had encroached upon 1.424 hectares of forest land, causing “damage to forest areas”.

In 2011, a forest offence case was filed against Mr. Raju for alleged violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980; while, the State Cabinet approved action against three forest officers for having allowed the project. The lease for the project was cancelled in April 2013.

With the High Court of Karnataka allowing the company to reapply for approvals, permission was granted recently considering the “large investment” (₹53 crore) and advanced stage of construction already done in forests. The forest offence case, however, has not seen any progress over the years.

‘Pro-wildlife’

Mr. Raju termed the allegations as false and said he was selected as he showed “immense interest” in the environment and that he was “pro-wildlife”. “The cases were taken to the courts, and the matter is closed now. We have got all the permissions ... I have been selected because of my actions for wildlife. I have planted more than 10,000 trees,” he said.

Furthermore, he said he was one among 10 “experts” from various fields, and he brought in expertise from the hospitality sector. “I do not have an agenda, and I cannot push for any so-called interests when there are so many other members. I only intend to work for the development of wildlife,” he said.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2020 9:14:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/issue-of-political-appointees-to-karnataka-state-wildlife-board-resurfaces/article19527169.ece

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