ECOLOGY WATCH Columns

Disappearing forests of Kudremukh

The Kudremukh National Park in the Western Ghats is a part of the world’s 38 ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity, a UNESCO world heritage site. Its more than 630 sq km area of montane grasslands and tropical rainforests form the largest protected block within the Western Ghats. The park is home to unique, threatened and endangered biodiversity including lion-tailed macaques, tigers, Malabar civets and great pied hornbills. The rivers Tunga, Bhadra and Netravati, which originate from the heart of the park, sustain millions of rural people in south India. The park provides invaluable ecosystem services, such as water security, nutrient recycling, climate regulation and carbon sequestration — all of which are issues of global concern.

Destruction by mining

For these reasons, Kudremukh was notified as a National Park in 1987, based on a survey by wildlife biologist Ullas Karanth, which pointed out the park’s uniqueness including hitherto undiscovered large populations of lion-tailed macaques. Unfortunately, in 1969, long before the park was notified, 48 sq km of pristine forests right in the middle of Kudremukh had been leased to a gigantic strip mining operation called the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL). This led to the destruction of Kudremukh’s forests, wildlife and caused massive siltation of the rivers and reservoirs. Even after the lease ended in 1999, the company continued operations under temporary permits, using legal subterfuges.

Finally, a hard-fought legal battle by conservationists, led by the NGO Wildlife First, culminated in the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment of October 2002 which recognised that this opencast strip mining operation in the middle of the mountainous nature reserve was an environmental abomination. The judgment, which ordered the closure of the mine by December 2005, stated: “By destroying nature, environment, man is committing matricide, having in a way killed Mother Earth. Technological excellence, growth of industries, economical gains have led to depletion of natural resources irreversibly. Indifference to the grave consequences, lack of concern and foresight have contributed in large measures to the alarming position. In the case at hand, the alleged victim is the flora and fauna in and around Kudremukh National Park, a part of the Western Ghats. The forests in the area are among 18 internationally recognised ‘hotspots’ for biodiversity conservation in the world”.

The court also upheld the recommendations of its own central empowered committee, as to what was to follow next. It clearly ordered the State and Central governments to complete the termination of mining operations by the end of 2005; implement an eco-restoration plan for the mine-damaged area at cost to KIOCL; completely evict all KIOCL equipment, building and machinery from government forest and revenue land; and transfer all the lease area and standing infrastructure to the State government.

Scientific assessments after mining ceased have documented significant improvements in water quality and reduction in silt load levels in the Bhadra river. Echoing the court’s decision, ecological experts endorsed total elimination of all “developmental activity” in this “hole” in the heart of Kudremukh in order to facilitate natural ecological recovery.

Violation of the law

However, astonishingly, in defiance of the Supreme Court judgment, KIOCL, with tacit support from local politicians and officials, has continued to encroach on large areas that now belong to the government. The company was fined Rs. 130 crore for its violations of forest laws by the Comptroller and Auditor General. In spite of the State Public Accounts Committee also endorsing this penalty, the Karnataka government has not bothered to collect the fine and evict KIOCL.

After its initial suggestion of running an ecotourism resort was turned down by the State government, KIOCL has now leased its buildings to a private luxury resort called Alva’s Kudremukh Nisargadhama. In an appeal to the businessman who operates the resort, many of Karnataka’s leading conservationists, social activists, scholars and literary figures recently questioned the folly of his abetting the company’s efforts to continue to illegally squat on public land earmarked for nature protection.

The most obvious illegality in all this is the fact that KIOCL does not even own the land it has leased to the resort. Furthermore, the apex court, in its December 2006 judgment, had rejected KIOCL’s plea to use its existing infrastructure for promoting eco-tourism. The ‘leasing’ of property to Alva’s luxury resort thus amounts to blatant contempt of the court’s orders. The luxury resort is surrounded by the Kudremukh National Park and is a part of an eco-sensitive area. Yet, mandatory environmental and forest clearances have not even been obtained for its establishment.

The establishment of such resorts and townships within the heart of the park will entail development of infrastructure such as approach roads, electrical lines, water and sewage lines, buildings, and swimming pools and the like. Apart from this, tourism results in resource consumption, waste generation, vehicular traffic, pollution and other disturbances — all of which pose a chronic threat to the ecological integrity of the park. It is precisely for this reason that the court in its interim orders in Ajay Dubey v. National Tiger Conservation Authority insisted that all tourism infrastructure be moved out of national parks and sanctuaries that constitute tiger reserves within the next five years. In many areas, these are now being shifted out.

Wildlife conservation groups working to protect this landscape for decades are firm that the entire 281-acre enclave owned by KIOCL must be acquired by the forest department and merged into the surrounding Kudremukh National Park. Both KIOCL and Alva’s resort have already transgressed several conservation laws and are liable to be prosecuted, as has been argued by Wildlife First in a recent writ petition pending before the Karnataka High Court. In the words of Dr. Karanth, senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS): “We must preserve this ecological marvel for future generations by making sure that the now defunct ghost town of KIOCL does not become a virulent nucleus for the cancerous spread of yet another trashy urban centre to ravage our precious mountains”.

(Suman Jumani is a conservation biologist and an alumna of the WCS-National Centre for Biological Sciences wildlife programme in Bengaluru. D. V. Girish is a coffee planter, naturalist, and a conservation partner of the WCS-India programme.)

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Printable version | Aug 7, 2020 1:41:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Disappearing-forests-of-Kudremukh/article14094143.ece

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