Villages in Challakere taluk, Chitradurga district of Karnataka have been impacted by the illegal and unscientific diversion of nearly 10,000 acres of pristine Amrit Mahal Kaval grasslands to create a Science City. Kavals are unique ecological landscapes that are dominated by grasses and are perhaps the gene banks of future staples. They support livelihoods that are carbon neutral. But unfortunately, there are no laws or international treaties to protect them.

The Challakere grasslands were historically protected as commons critical to local livelihoods, serving as grazing pastures for livestock. They also are a critical source of food, medicinal plants, to source materials for making agricultural implements, and also firewood for more than 70 villages that surround this landscape. Furthermore they also formed They are a critical habitat to a number of vulnerable and also critically endangered flora and fauna, the Blackbuck, Great Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican which thrived here not too long ago.

Kaval1

A glimpse of the kaval landscape

Following the highly controversial diversion to at least 16 projects constituting the Science City, the kavals have been enclosed by about 100 kms of high security walls and barbed wire fences blocking access of villagers to these invaluable commons which local farming and pastoral communities protected for hundreds of years. Within these walls, construction activities of the scientific establishments have begun destroying the living ecological identity of the region decimating the fragile biodiversity the kavals support.

Who is responsible for this atrocity? In 2008, then Deputy Commissioner of the Chitradurge district, in which the Challakere Kavals lie, with tacit support from senior levels of Governments of Karnataka and India, diverted these pristine grassland ecosystems to DRDO, BARC, ISRO, IISc, KSSIDC as well as a private solar park called Sagitaur. The vil-lagers, artisans and several nomadic pastoral communities were completely kept in the dark about this massive diversion. They realised what was happening to their Kavals only when the walls came up.

kaval2

An artisan from the Lambani community in Challakere Taluk. Fencing off the kaval land means that this community has lost access to the eechalu mara (Phoenix Sylvestris), theleaves of which they weave into these intricate baskets.

In 2013, ESG challenged this diversion in the National Green Tribunal (South Zone) and secured a stay on the projects on grounds they all had violated environmental and social justice norms. The Tribunal in its final decision in August 2014 lifted the stay, but directed the projects to proceed only if they secured requisite environmental clearances. The Ministry of Environment and Forests accorded conditional clearances to all projects that needed them, except for the solar park which it had exempted as not having significant environmental impact. The directions also recognized various traditional rights of access to the Kavals, to places of cultural and religious importance, and provided the local communities the un-precedented right to examine compliance based on ‘verifiable evidence’. This condition was imposed as project proponents had sought to escape scrutiny on the claim they all were ex-empt on ‘national security’ grounds. This access to information decision was later reaffirmed by the Central Information Commission as well and the Supreme Court also confirmed the Tribunal’s order as final.

Some of the major directions given by NGT include:

1. The KSSIDC and the IISc are directed to permit the villagers to offer pooja, celebrate festivals and conduct traditional rituals on concerned days at the temples located in the sites allotted to them in the land under question, during and even after their es-tablishment and subsequent operation.

2. The BARC is directed to shift the temporary fence abutting the mud road near the south western corner of their land suitably and open up a passage to the villagers to enable them to reach their respective agricultural lands and also Kaluvehalli village.

3. The BARC and IISc are directed to evolve and implement a joint action to plan to enable free movement of villagers from Khudapura to Old Sheep farm through their respective premises.

4. The ISRO is directed to provide water to the villagers of Ullarti village through the borewells located in the site allotted to them, on a continuous basis i.e., during the establishment and operating phases of the organization.

5. Citing an Office Memorandum issued by the MoEF, M/s. Sagitaur Ventures India Pvt. Limited, the 14th Respondent in Application no. 6 of 2013, claims that it need not obtain EC from the MoEF. We direct the MoEF to revisit the exemption order with regard to EC given to M/s. Sagitaur Ventures India Pvt. Limited and pass suitable or-ders in the light of recent research findings and other relevant materials available.

But eight years after the Tribunal’s decision much has changed for the people of Challakere. Access to places of worship have been cut off, reaching agricultural fields and other basic services in the villages is a long strenuous walk – with little provision for pathways and no consultation ever was undertaken. The solar park has continued to grow. Many of the pastoralists have been forced to sell their cattle as there is no longer any grazing pasture to graze them. Agriculture too has declined as much of the area’s water has been diverted for the Science City. Polluting industries like stone crushers are widespread, providing construction material to the various projects. And villagers are arrested or threatened that they will be shot if they venture into any of the cordoned off land – the very same land that their forefathers freely used for centuries, if not millenia.

In January 2021, the ESG team visited these villages to understand what the futuristic Science City means to the local communities. The stories we heard left us grasping for reason, as we struggled to fully comprehend just how much they have lost; We also were amazed by their resilience, particularly their feisty spirit to struggle on and pro-tect the last remaining patches of these once pristine grasslands.

One story we’d like to share is that of Ramappa, a farmer from Neralagunte village. He owns land adjacent to the DRDO facility and his borewell is right near the boundary wall of DRDO. On several occasions, while going to check the well at night, guards from the DRDO have held up their guns and threatened to shoot him if he approaches too close. They have in-structed him to stay 150 ft away from the wall. But this is practically impossible as his house, borewell and field all fall within this ‘security’ area. “I live in a perpetual state of fear on my own land. Every time I step out at night I’m wary of seeing the glint of a gun or hearing the shout of a guard”, Ramappa laments.

Below are photos from the recent field visit to Challakere which illustrate just how things have changed:

kaval3

Entire landscapes engineered into rubble and dust

kaval4

Livelihoods that remain, but only just

bulls

Once mighty bulls, starved of grass

kaval5

Pastures they grazed, a sea of glass

kaval6

Paths to farms, brutally blocked

kaval7

“Trespassers will be prosecuted. Or even shot.”

kaval8
Fields once fertile, now parched with thirst

charkha
Smiles of hope,despite the worst

 

Entire landscapes
engineered into rubble and dust
Livelihoods that remain,
but only just.

Once mighty bulls,
starved of grass
Pastures they grazed,
a sea of glass.

Paths to farms,
brutally blocked.
“Trespassers will be prosecuted.
Or even shot.”

Fields once fertile,
now parched with thirst.
Smiles of hope,
despite the worst

Weaving blankets of resistance
Finding cracks in the walls
We will keep up the struggle
To reclaim it all

Ashwin Lobo, Research Associate, ESG


IF YOU LIKED THE ARTICLE SUPPORT PEOPLE’S JOURNALISM


 


Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B. Subscribe to our Telegram channel


GET COUNTERCURRENTS DAILY NEWSLETTER STRAIGHT TO YOUR INBOX


Comments are closed.