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CM warned: Karnataka's 20 odd projects to 'massively destroy' Western Ghats biodiversity

Counterview Desk

Shankar Sharma, senior power and climate policy analyst, in a representation to Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai, has regretted that the state government has taken up more than 20 linear projects, all in thick forests of Western Ghats of Karnataka.
Stating that these projects are in various stages of planning and implementation, which can lead to massive destruction of natural, thick and very high value biodiversity of enormous relevance to Karnataka, Sharma particularly takes strong exception to the move to revive the controversial Hubli-Ankola railway line project, “which can destroy about 700 hectares of thick natural forests close to a Tiger Reserve in the state.”
Ironically, he says, the controversial project proposal “has been rejected by state government and many agencies of the Union government many times during the last 20 odd years.”

Text:

Rational thinkers in the state, especially the environmentally conscious people of the state, will feel happy to note what you were reported to have stated at a function recently to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Karnataka State Forest Development Corporation Limited.
Your oral instructions to the Forest Department officials from the rank of Principal Secretary to District Forest Officers to move out of their offices and stay in forests for 15 days in a month can be viewed as a first step in the right direction to adequately protect what was once a rich biodiversity of the state, but which must be seen now as degrading alarmingly at a very fast pace with the passage of every year due to deplorable policy regime by successive governments. You were also reported to have wanted the officials to work more vigorously to improve the forest cover in the state from the present 23% to at least 30% over the next 5 years.
Whereas, such statements can be expected to persuade the concerned officials to be much more careful with regard to our forest resources, what is much more critical to improve the forest cover to 30% over the next 5 years is a clear and unambiguous set of policies of the state govt. to enable such a growth. But sadly, the ground reality has not been supportive of such a growth in forest cover.
In this context, may I also emphasise that the National Forest Policy has a clear target of having 33% of the total land area of the country to be covered by forests and trees? This forest & tree cover target, which was originally adopted in the 1980s as a critical need to maintain a healthy environment for our people, and also advocated by the UN (through UNEP), was reiterated twice later.
Although this national target has been adopted by various governments during the past 30 odd years, the forest & tree cover in the country, as well as in the state, is less than 25%, and the credible projections are that it can only degenerate further, unless urgent and effective policies by state governments are effectively implemented.
In this larger context, your instructions/ statements, as in the news link above, are truly welcome. However, it is also unfortunately true that there are more than 20 linear projects, all in thick forests of Western Ghats of Karnataka, in various stages of planning and implementation, which can lead to massive destruction of natural, thick and very high value biodiversity of enormous relevance to our state in the context of calamitous implications associated with Climate Change.
The list of many such projects (click here) should indicate the enormity of threats to our forest resources, at a time when you seem to be keen to increase the forest cover. This list shows that more than 20 lakh mature trees and/or hundreds of hectares of ecologically very high value tropical forests face permanent destruction, unless your govt. take urgent and effective actions to stop such annihilation of the rich biodiversity in the state.
It is an alarming scenario that many of these projects are being planned/ implemented even within the legally protected Protected Areas (PAs), such as Wildlife Sanctuaries, Tiger Reserves and National Parks within the state. The list of such projects will indicate one such hydel power project is being planned in three wildlife sanctuaries in the state, which are entirely avoidable without compromising the overall welfare needs of the state.
Under such a deplorable scenario, it is doubtful how the forest cover in the state can ever improve to 30%; let alone to 33% as per the national forest policy target. It should also be emphasised that, as per the conservation scientists and one retired PCCF of the state, the theory of compensatory afforestation can never replace in practice the biological wealth of a natural forest.
It is also true that compensatory afforestation programmes, not only in the state but also across the nation, have never been successful, as has been the evidence of fast disappearing areas of forest and tree cover in the state. Most importantly, where is the suitable land to compensate for the loss of millions of hectares of forests, which are lost during the last few decades?
Even more alarming scenario is the fact that most of such project proposals, leading to the destruction of large tracts of forest cover, can be demonstrated as non-essential to the overall welfare of our society, as their total cost to the state is vastly more than the meagre benefits claimed for those projects.
As a power sector professional with more than 40 years of experience in India, NZ and Australia, I can demonstrate that, in the case of power sector projects in the above mentioned list (for hydel power generation and power transmission), there are suitable or even better options of very low overall cost to the state to achieve the same objective without damaging even a single tree.
The question is whether your office and the energy department will be interested to consider such a rational approach in protecting the forest cover and the interest of our people. In this regard, I am sad to state that none of my representations to your office and to the energy department are ever responded to; so indifferent our administrative machinery seems to be to the considered opinion of the public.
In this larger context of your desire to increase the forest cover in the state, a controversial statement has also been attributed to you in the media today. You have reportedly stated that the vastly controversial Hubli-Ankola railway line project will be taken up this year, which can destroy about 700 hectares of thick natural forests close to a Tiger Reserve in the state.
This statement of yours, if true, is not only surprising and unfortunate, but also controversial legally, because this project proposal can be said to be sub-judice and is being deliberated in the High Court of Karnataka. May I draw your kind attention that this controversial project proposal has been rejected by state government and many agencies of the Union government many times during the last 20 odd years, basically because of the large scale destruction it can cause to the forest cover and the ecology of the Western Ghats in the state?
The long history of enormous controversies associated with this project proposal, which may ultimately lead to diversion of about 730 hectares of thick natural forest land from the core area of the Western Ghats in Karnataka, if not briefed to you by the concerned officials, can be noted in another attached file in the form of a representation of 7th July 2020 addressed to the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).
You may also please take note of the fact that a recent OM by the MOEF&CC, Government of India (MoEF & CC (WL-Division) OM No. F.No.1-99/2021-WL, dated 3rd June 2022) has indicated the Constitution and TOR of the committee to examine the proposed Hubli-Ankola Railway Line Project, Karnataka, within Western Ghats -- vis-à-vis W.P 8067/2020 before the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka. In this context, should it not be against the official protocol for a CM to state that the government will take up Hubballi-Ankola railway project this year, much before the associated petition is finalised by the judiciary?
Whereas, some political critics may associate such a statement with probable contempt of court, I can clearly understand that your recent statement has come because of the absence of a suitable briefing in that regard by your officials. You may also like to seek all the necessary details from the legal department, and may also like to issue a corrective statement so as to prevent any further controversy.
However, what is much more disconcerting is the fact that the concerned officials might have continuously failed/ omitted to adequately inform the ministers in successive governments of such associated judicial processes/ reports/ rejections from various concerned authorities in the past. In the context of such omissions, it is very unfortunate and deplorable that this disastrous proposal has been taken up again and again by successive governments, without considering the larger interest of our forest resources and the all important ecology and true welfare of the state.
It is in such a larger context, that I request that I may please be excused to say that many such statements by our political leaders and ministers of the day calling for the protection/ enhancement of our forests, natural resources and biodiversity are unlikely to be taken seriously by our people because of the perception of lack of honesty behind most of such unsubstantiated statements.
May I also request you to reverse such a poor opinion of the people of the state on many such political statements, by undertaking a thorough and diligent review of every project proposal needing the diversion of forest lands and/or the felling of mature trees, and thereafter cancelling/ rejecting all project proposals which clearly indicate more costs than benefits to our state, and/or which have many better options to realise the same objectives?
Effective and urgent consultations with the project affected communities, concerned CSOs and domain experts with regard to each of these project proposals will not only help support your recent call for the enhancement of forest cover in the state, but will also be critically needed in the overall welfare context of the state.
May I also hope to get a suitable response to this representation through your personal intervention? A team of few concerned people and domain experts in the state will be happy to make a detailed presentation to you on the associated issues at a time of your convenience.

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