It was between the years 2009 and 2010 that the Amrit Mahal kaval (ancient grasslands) in Challakere taluk of Chitradurga district, Karnataka were diverted to a variety of defence, scientific and commercial institutions. As 2012 came to an end, the pastoral community thriving on the grasslands found barbed wires being put up around their fields. This was when the community learnt about the clandestine diversion of land to organisations like the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Indian Space Research Organisation, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Indian Institute of Science and Sagitaur Ventures India. The villagers were neither consulted nor informed about the allocation of 10,000 acres of their commons land to these organisations.
Soon access to the grasslands was restricted; the pasture lands that villagers had been using as long as they remember sawthe mushrooming of security walls and gates. Angry protests by the 70-odd affected villagers and environmentalists fell on deaf ears. The then Deputy Commissioner Aditya Amlan Biswas, when questioned by the media, absolved his office of all guilt, saying it was the decision of the state cabinet. “The land was never categorised as district forest. It falls in the Unassessed Waste Land category… it is government land and has been transferred to prestigious government organisations for public purpose,” he says.
Orders by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014 to comply with all environmental procedures before proceeding with the construction was also overlooked by project proponents citing ‘national interest’ and ‘security’. This, despite the orders being supported by the Supreme Court in July this year.
On 23 October, slamming the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the government of Karnataka and the project proponents for their complicity, the Central Information Commission has demanded a clear statement piercing holes in their defence that the requested information cannot be disclosed because of national interest and security reasons.
In his order issued to the organisations, Information Commissioner M Sridhar Acharyalu asks, “How can informing about implementation of environmental protection order of NGT affect the security of the country?…It is surprising that well-educated CPIOs who are senior scientists in environmental sciences have taken this stand without applying their minds to the rights of the people and environmental degradation. The [Central Information] Commission records its displeasure.” With its scathing judgement, the CIC order has come as a glimmer of hope for the pastoral community.
“There is 100 percent dependency on these grasslands,” Doddaullarthi Karianna. district unit president of Amrit Mahal Kaval Hitarakshana Horata Samithi, an organisation aiding the struggle of the villagers against this move by the government, tells Tehelka. “Over two lakh families are entirely dependent on them [kaval], they do not have any other alternate livelihood.”
At the time of independence, Karnataka had about 4.7 lakh acres of commons traditionally used as grazing pastures, with a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Today barely 30,000 acres are left, with half of these semi-arid grasslands falling in Challakere. Deriving its name from the ‘Amrit Mahal’ breed of sheep reared here (famous for carrying weapons and ammunitions over long distances to assist the army), the pastures are the mainstay of the pastoral community. The wool of these sheep, also called ‘Deccani’ sheep, is woven into the famous ‘Challakere kambli (blanket)’ used by the Indian army when stationed in the Himalayas. The breed, which has a high demand, also serves as financial security for families, as sale of one animal can easily fetch up to Rs 5,000 in the market.