My cattle are 150 years old. They are the progeny of aramane dana (palace cow), which my ancestors had purchased in an auction,” says Srinivasa Reddy, a cattle herder from Dodda Ullarthi village in Challakere taluk in Karnataka's Chitradurga district. He was referring to Amrit Mahal, an indigenous breed of cattle. The Amrit Mahal kavals, the grasslands where these cattle graze, have sustained the livelihoods of people in nearly 70 villages in the region for centuries. Today, however, herds of cattle and sheep are disappearing, with the kavals no longer being accessible to the locals. A high compound wall and heavily guarded gates keep them away from their traditional pastoral lands.
The struggle of the pastoral communities to save the grassland ecosystem started sometime in 2009, following reports about a Science City coming up in 10,000 acres of Challakere's grasslands. Major projects under it included a facility to test unmanned aerial vehicles of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), a uranium enrichment facility of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), a synchrotron [particle accelerator] to be developed by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and a satellite centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Land was also allotted to the Karnataka State Small Industries Development Corporation for developing an industrial area, the Karnataka Housing Board for a housing project and Sagitaur Ventures, a private company, for setting up a solar park.
The DRDO, which was allotted 4,290 acres, wanted a site closer to Bengaluru’s aero cluster labs for testing its unmanned aerial vehicles. It was in search of a location to set up a new testing facility as flying restrictions were imposed at its integrated test centre in Kolar after the Kempegowda International Airport came up in Devanahalli, near Bengaluru. BARC intends to set up a plant to produce enriched fuel for India’s nuclear power programme. Sources say the fears of radiation leakage from the plant are unfounded as the facility follows a zero-discharge concept.
“Of the 12,855 acres of kavals, 10,000 acres have been allotted for various projects. We fear the remaining land, too, will be taken away. Where will we graze our cattle? We are a sheep- and cattle-rearing community and many families weave woollen blankets, which are patronised by the Army. Why is the government disrupting our lives?” asks D. Karianna, who leads the agitation against the project under the Amrit Mahal Kaval Hitharakshana Haagu Horata Samiti.
While the state government says the grassland is its property, the locals claim it to be a gift from the erstwhile rulers of Mysore. They say it was taken away in a secretive manner. “The government kept the gram panchayats in the dark. Why is it so secretive? What is the guarantee that the facility will pose no danger?” asks Hanumantharaya, a member of the Samiti.
“TILL A DECADE ago, thousands of Amrit Mahal cattle owned by the government grazed in the kavals during the rainy season. The villagers got a chance to take their cattle there only after the government cattle got their fill. Many locals bought the Amrit Mahal breed or crossed the local breeds with them to get robust progeny. But, over the years, the cattle stock has reduced,” says Sanna Thippeswamy, a former member of the Dodda Ullarthi gram panchayat.
It is not easy for the livestock that remains and those who take care of them. Seventy-year-old Boramma, who continues to graze her sheep and goats along the compound wall, says the cattle keep moving fast as there is no grass to feed on. “I cannot keep pace with them any longer. One day I drove my cattle inside the gates to reach the grassland, but I had to retreat as I spotted the military [security guards],” she says.
Meenakshiamma, the 50-year-old caretaker of the Sri Sadguru Gudikal Ghouse Peer Ashram, which shares the compound with the BARC facility, says after the farm was moved out of the kavals, she has no income. “I used to make a living by collecting firewood and selling them. I also worked on the government farm and earned 0150 per month. Now, I am told that water supply to the villages will be cut off soon,” she says.
The green brigade has joined the protesting villagers against destroying the ecologically sensitive grasslands. Early in 2013, Environment Support Group, an NGO, filed a public interest litigation with the south zone bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in Chennai, questioning the decision to develop a “nuclear-military-industrial” complex on Challakere’s ecologically sensitive grasslands. (Last month, Foreign Policy, a prominent US-based magazine, published a report alleging that India was developing a top secret nuclear city in Challakere to produce thermonuclear weapons. While the government has denied the report, it has been less than forthcoming in sharing the details about the project.)
A report by the ESG says the Challakere kavals are a crucial habitat for critically endangered species like the great Indian bustard, lesser florican, blackbuck and the Deccan wolf. “It is safer in the hands of the locals, who have been its custodians for centuries,” says the report. Following the petition, the tribunal ordered the halting of all construction in the kavals and directed those who were in charge of the projects to seek the “consent to establish” new projects from the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board. It also appointed a fact-finding committee headed by S. Ravichandra Reddy to study the impact of the project on the grasslands.
THE COMMITTEE, in its report filed on July 29, 2013 observed that the kavals no longer sustained any indigenous breed of livestock and justified the suitability of the site for the proposed projects. It said the site had the right topography, it fell in the correct seismic zone, it faced no resettlement and rehabilitation issues and it was not within the 10-km-radius of any biodiversity park or sanctuary. It had no sustainable agriculture or other income-generating activity and had no perennial water sources passing through it and was sparsely populated, too, observed the committee.
In August 2014, the tribunal directed the Union ministry of environment and forest and the Karnataka government to go ahead only if clearances were granted as per the law and were open for public scrutiny. Taking note of the cultural, economical and social rights of the pastoral communities and the possible disruption of their life and livelihood, the tribunal barred the building of walls that could deny access to the grasslands. It, however, does not seem to have much effect on the construction process. The Central Information Commission on October 23, 2015 criticised the Union environment ministry for its delay in complying with the tribunal's order. Yet, no new information has been shared by the participating institutions.
NEARLY 20KM FROM Dodda Ullarthi is Kudapura village, which houses a Talent Development Centre run by the IISc. A Sheep Breeding Station under the Karnataka Sheep and Wool Development Corporation was renovated to set up the centre. The expansion of the Talent Development Centre is also on the cards under the Science City project. Every house in this village has a pit loom and the families engage in their age-old craft of weaving woollen blankets.
“A majority of the population here is engaged in sheep rearing and weaving,” says G. Thippeswamy, deputy director of the Sheep Breeding Station. “The Challakere Sunday market is famous for its woollen blankets. But there is a need for value-addition and innovation for better quality and variety of products. We must sustain traditional economy, too,” he says. But with the Science City coming up, such traditional forms of livelihood are facing a serious crisis.
While the Science City project is opposed by many, it also has its share of supporters. In 2007, Chitradurga MP N.Y. Hanumanthappa had written to the defence ministry asking it to set up the project in his constituency. His successor Janardhana Swamy allayed fears of the water-intensive plants drying up bore-wells in the region by getting the Upper Bhadra Irrigation project, which was pending for the last 40 years, operationalised. “The government has to examine whether the people’s fears are based on real threats or perceived ones,” says Swamy, an alumnus of the IISc. “Unlike its neighbours, the Chitradurga district has no rail connectivity, which is the reason for its stunted development. The young and the educated are moving out and there is an urgent need to reinvent the district.”