A private project that ends up consuming portions of one forest may now end up giving a fresh lease of life to another forest. With purchase of private lands in and around forests remaining stuck owing to the layers of bureaucracy and lack of funds, the Karnataka Forest Department hit upon a novel idea: Instead of allowing companies to give the department equivalent amount of land (as mandated by Forest Conservation Act, 1980) “anywhere”, the rule was ‘tweaked’ so that these companies will have to purchase land identified by the Forest Department.
With this initiative, the Forest Department is hoping to acquire key acreage that will link various sanctuaries and reserves into a continuous stretch of protected land.
This idea, which was formalised through a gazette notification in August 2016, is already making itself felt. On the fringe of Bandipur National Park, a 56-acre patch of agricultural land jutting into the forests had been a thorn in the flesh for the reserve, which harbours one of the densest tiger populations in the country. However, as one mining company seeks forestland for its operations in North Karnataka, the department has identified this 56-acre patch of land for compensation.
“The land at Omkara range was surrounded on three sides by forests. A couple of weeks ago, this land was bought and transferred to us, making it one of the largest land parcel that was bought as part of extension of the reserve,” said T. Heerelal, Director, BNP.
Instead of land in the drylands, where plantations need to be raised afresh, the department instead identifies plots, which includes enclosures within protected areas or elephant corridors. “While the Forest Conservation Act has strict guidelines, there was a ‘scam’ that has become prevalent. The project proponent would claim there is no suitable non-forestland to be given, and the Chief Secretary would endorse a letter allowing the company to pay additional amount instead of buying land,” said Praveen Bhargav, trustee of Wildlife First.
Apart from Bandipur, the last six months have already seen the purchase of 21.9-acres within Kali Tiger Reserve. “We have asked officers to identify corridors and key patches where people are willing to sell land. Karnataka is the first State to do this, and it will help wildlife protection immensely,” said Anur Reddy, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife).
The hope is that over the years, gaps in the forest landscape will be reclaimed. Bandipur has identified 940 acres of corridors and enclosures, while Nagarahole National Park needs around 700 hectares alone on its Western fringes to mitigate man-animal conflict in southern Kodagu. In its ‘charter of desirables’ presented to companies hoping to attract Corporate Social Responsibility funds, which has yet to fully take off, the department has said over Rs. 300 crore was needed to purchase key private lands.
The ‘tweak’ may play a role in reducing conflict around Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary where enclosures spread over 10,000 hectares within the forests are points of concern.
“There are 18 enclosures here, and even if small patches of land of around 50 acres are bought, it will be a big fillip for conservation,” said B.P. Ravi, Chief Conservator of Forests (Chamarajanagar).