The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, February 27, 2000
Time Off

Orphans from the wilderness
By Manohar Malgonkar

LAST week I wrote about how Indira Gandhi, guided solely by the dictates of her own conscience, saved one of the country’s heritage forests in Tamil Nadu from destruction and thereby, without ever realising it, created for herself a memorial truly worthy of her posthumous recognition as the Woman of the Century. What better memorial would even the greatest figures of history — conquerors, inventors, saints — want to be remembered by than that a patch of forest and its wildlife should have survived because of something they had done?

To give force to my argument, this week I offer the example of what happens to a fabulous national heritage left unprotected in the free-for-all of commercial exploitation.

The abiding fact is that, for any country, such things as rain forests are the gift of gods. Man can never create them; all he can do is to slow down the process of their extinction. Especially in a country such as India which has a teeming population, the rain forests are perhaps the last patches of uninhabited land. As such they are the target of industrialists who are looking for thousand-acre plots to set up their plants on. Since this class of people also have at their disposal vast sums for use as ‘seed money’ they find it easy to line up the support of politicians, officials, and even of the local inhabitants for the usurpation of lands from rain forests. Practically the only way that this process can be halted, no matter how temporarily, is by someone in a position of the highest authority to exercise a veto — Indira Gandhi did.

  What happens to a precious natural heritage which is subjected to the depredations of rampant commercialism is demonstrated by the example of the forest of the Uttar Kannda district of Karnataka.

This belt, evergreen and hilly and a virtual treasurehouse of Indian wildlife, measures about 80 km long and 50 km broad. In the late sixties, when the state’s government invited the novelist R.K. Narayan to write a book describing the natural and man-made wonders of Karnataka, which, incidentally, is believed to be the oldest land in the world, Narayan called this forest the Emerald Way.

Emerald, may be when Narayan breezed though it 30 years ago. Since then it has been subjected to a variety of ordeals and large chunks of it given over to some of the most horrifyingly pollutive industries or taken up for the government’s own installations, with the result that the forest in Narayan’s ‘Emerald’ belt has been greatly reduced, and the wild animals that lived in it perished in large numbers or were forced to seek shelter outside their normal habitat. Their predicament can be judged by the fact that, one small herd of elephants, desperate to find a new home, actually slithered down a sheer rock-face of the Western Ghats and landed in Goa — to become the first wild elephants there since prehistoric times.

Rain forests are fragile and highly vulnerable, and this particular one subjected to relentless exploitation over the past four decades and severely mauled has taken about all the punishment it can absorb without keeling over, a fact not only acknowledged, but lamented by high-ranking political leaders, notably, in 1997, by Karnataka’s Chief Minister, J.H. Patel, and in 1998, by the Environment Minister, Suresh Prabhu, both of whom made ringing appeals telling us how, it was ‘our duty’ to protect our forests, and their wildlife.

Our duty, but, seemingly, not theirs — those who had the authority to do something concrete to put a stop to further assaults on whatever was still left of this forest, shrunk to about half its original size within forty years.

Large parts of it were systematically deforested for setting up what is believed to be the biggest hydro-electric project in Asia, and is now a complex of several townships, sub-stations, road systems, grids. Admittedly, the lake that was thus created for generating electricity is itself a beauty spot, but it, too, is now targeted for severe deprivations amounting to vandalism — all to serve the demands of an industry that is shunned as being harmful to the environment in Europe and America.

One of the two rivers that flow into the Supa lake is to be diverted to meet the needs of a gigantic Coke Oven Plant — this in a chronic situation of the lake never filling up to its full potential. As though this itself were not damaging enough, the bulk of the water in the river below the dam is again to be pumped back for feeding the coke ovens, thus, as it were, choking off the flow of the river in mid-course and, even more, exposing the lake as well as the river system to the risk of receiving both the flow and the seepage of used water full of industrial waste.

At the very heart of this no-longer-Emerald-belt, is a wildlife sanctuary, designed as a tourist attraction, but much of its space has already been taken up by an industrial colony which could serve as a role model for a township in the jungle with levels of pollution surpassing those of major cities.

All of which, brings me to the nitty-gritty of my case: The plight of the wild animals for whom this forest was a home. I give below a sampling of the complaints against them reported in the local newspaper, Tarun Bharat over the past few months:

July, 30. Two tigers seen near Osmani village cause a wave of fear.

August, 31. Tigers as well as bears are frequently seen prowling near Kunkumbi village. A cow and a bullock were killed by tigers within a month.

November, 12. Herds of wild elephants ravage paddy fields in Godholi village. One man was severely hurt by the lash of an elephant’s trunk.

December, 2. Nagargali farmers demand reparations for damage to rice crops caused by elephants.

Of course, the villagers frightened by tigers and bears in their outskirts and whose ripening crops are frequently raided by wild elephants have valid grounds for complaints, and all one can do is to keep one’s fingers crossed and wish that they don’t resort to their standard mode of retaliation: Shotgun-traps for the elephants and the larding of tiger kills with Warfarin. Both guaranteed to kill their victims with maximum pain.

Perhaps one should read these farmers’ complaints as the protests of the wild animals, too: The trumpettings of wounded elephants, the roars of tigers with rotting intestines, the whimpers and wails of lame bears. Help!

It was ‘our duty’, our elected leaders had told us, to save our forests, our wild life. O.K. So, we, meaning those of us who are concerned about the forest and its animals, have, in fact, done our utmost. We have sent fervent appeals to the state and the Central Governments to declare the Karwar forest as an ecologically protected zone, closed to all further depredations by commercial enterprises. And here, the ‘we’ stands for Belgaum’s Nature Lovers Club, Dharwad’s Samaj Parivartana Samudaya, The Chief Warden for Wildlife in Karnataka, and the Karnataka Heritage Society of Bangalore.

And as I write, only days into a new thousand-year cycle, some members of the Lingayat community have announced that they are carrying out a padayatra to highlight the very cause we have espoused, that of getting the Karwar Forest set aside as an ecologically protected zone in honour of one of their Saint, Basawanna, who when hounded by his enemies, took refuge in the depths of these jungles and spent his last days here.

But that is about all ‘we’ for our part can do: Like the animals, pray, and curse and yelp! As Indira Gandhi did for Tamil Nadu’s forest, either Karnataka’s Chief Minister, or the Prime Minister, will have to bang a first on the table and say; It is done: Now stop raiding village paddy fields or killing village cattle. Go back to your jungles, to your homes... and Basavanna’s final resting place.

This feature was published on January 16, 2000

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