Granite greed could drive animals out of BRT reserve

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As officials look away, reckless mining and quarrying is threatening rare species inside the wildlife sanctuary, says Imran Khan

Digging deep Quarrying in broad daylight inside the BRT Tiger Reserve, Photos: L Venkatesh

THE RECENTLY declared tiger reserve, the Biligirirangan Temple (BRT) Wildlife Sanctuary in Chamarajanagar district, Karnataka, is under increasing threat due to illegal mining of black granite on its fringes. Even though a state Audit and Accounts Department report in 2011 sounds alarm bells and pegs a loss of over Rs 1,600 crore to the state exchequer, no action has been taken to check the mining.

In December 2010, the BRT sanctuary was declared a tiger reserve by the government. Spread across 550 sq km, the sanctuary is adjoined by the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary and the Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary. Its close proximity to Bengaluru (250 km) makes it a must-visit wildlife tourist attraction. The sanctuary is a confluence of both the Western and Eastern Ghats and is home to some of the most rare and endangered animal species, including tigers, elephants, sambar and the barking deer. With habitat fragmentation due to quarrying, a severe toll has been inflicted on this wildlife habitat, especially for those species that require large home ranges and are sensitive to various disturbances.

DS Doraiswamy
Activist DS Doraiswamy

Until the mid-1980’s, quarrying was unheard of in the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary. During former chief minister S Bangarappa’s regime in 1990, a few licences were issued to granite miners even when section 33 of the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963, prohibited quarrying around forest reserves. In 1992, when dreaded forest brigand Veerappan was on the run, the state government was forced to enforce a mining ban, as there was information that miners were supplying him with explosives. After Veerappan’s death in 2004, quarrying activities took off with renewed vigour and strong political backing.

The Audit and Accounts Department report of the state shows that between 2004 and 2007, unlicenced quarrying in and around the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary resulted in a loss of 1,683 crore to the state exchequer in terms of royalty and revenue. Miners, who were issued licences and even those who were not, ended up mining land around the sanctuary without the permission of the Department of Mines and Geology.

For Jyothigowdanapura village in Chamarajanagar taluk, the report says that miners violated sections 71, 70 and 73 of the Karnataka Land Revenue Act wherein they mined in gomala (cattle grazing) land without the permission of the state government. In total, the miners encroached on 226 acres of government land, resulting in a loss of Rs 895 crore to Karnataka.

In Kollegal taluk, black granite was mined in 102 acres of agricultural land without the permission of the deputy commissioner of the district and without obtaining a licence from the Mines and Geology Department. This, again, was in violation of section 70 of the Karnataka Land Revenue Act. The total loss to the government due to this illegal diversion is estimated at Rs 792 crore.

The report is currently gathering dust, even when it had sought action against the guilty miners.

Unlicenced quarrying in and around the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary has resulted in a loss of Rs 1,683 crore to Karnataka

According to information obtained under the RTI Act by activist DS Doraiswamy, more than 66 mining companies are still operating in the area; some have even encroached on forestland. One of the mine owners, DK Suresh, is a brother of Congress leader DK Shivakumar, who again is a quarry owner accused in the Lokayukta report on illegal quarrying in the state.

“I had written to the Lokayukta in 2001 and in 2008 highlighting the massive illegalities in and around the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary,” says Doraiswamy. In his mid fifties, Doraiswamy, a farmer by profession and an environmentalist by passion, had to contend with the fact that nothing changed on the ground even after approaching the anti-corruption agency. “They just kept asking me to reply to one question or the other, while mining continued unabated,” he says.

For going against the powerful granite lobby, Doraiswamy says that he has been threatened, abducted and implicated in a false case that also sent him to jail. “They even tried to bribe me,” he says.

The absence of any crackdown on illegal quarrying has angered conservationists. Sanjay Gubbi of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) says that there are enough studies done to show that quarrying has a direct impact on the ecosystem of an area, and how dynamite explosions have a serious impact on ranging patterns, distribution and behaviour of elephants. Elephants are highly sensitive to noise disturbance and they can also hear through infrasonic waves.

In a classic case of government blame-shifting, NC Sonnegowda, deputy director of the Department of Mines and Geology, says that the job of bringing the culprit to book is that of the Revenue Department, as violations mainly concern land use. “We know that there is mining around the sanctuary,” he admits. “But there are no specific orders on the part of the state government. There is a bill pending about restricting non-forest activity around ecologically-sensitive zones. The state government has to take action on it.”

In January, state forest minister CP Yogeshwar had instructed the forest department to take action against errant mining companies carrying out stone crushing activities around the BRT Sanctuary. However, no change is visible on the ground. “Mining continues here since there are powerful politicians involved and we have been ordered to look the other way,” says a mining official on condition of anonymity.

When contacted, Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF), BRT Tiger Reserve, Vijay Mohan Raj absolves himself of the responsibility. “Let me tell you one thing,” he says, “there is no quarrying happening inside the tiger reserve. As far as the report is concerned, it is a territorial issue and I am not responsible for that.”

Reminded of the forest minister’s letter on quarrying taking place inside the reserve, he calls it a “territorial issue” and that the person responsible for the job is CCF, Chamarajanagar. CCF Dilip Kumar Das refused to comment on these “sensitive issues” since he has only recently taken over. “We are finding a solution to all problems,” he adds.

Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
imran@tehelka.com

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