In the throes of change

DEVELOPMENT

In the throes of change

A Western Ghats-like verdure with rich biodiversity right on the outskirts of Bangalore City, an organisation which is into comprehensive development of a village without seeking publicity for its activities, a monastery where silence and work co-exist and complement each other, where rural poor youth are trained to face the competitive world...

Just step into Shivanahalli in Anekal taluk, Bangalore rural district, where you will find all of the above.

Shivanahalli forest is spread over 438 sq km, and the Bannerghatta National Park (BNP) has been carved out of this forest in an area of 109.25 sq km. Shivanahalli village is hardly 10 to 12 km from the Indian Institute of Management, Bannerghatta Road. Unlike villages of this taluk, Shivanahalli is not dry and barren. It has lush greenery. It has a Kannada medium school which is soon going to get accreditation from Quality Council of India (QCI).

The village also has a dispensary with diagnostic facility. Many self-help programmes for rural women and vocational training programmes for the youth are in place. The credit of transforming this nondescript remote village into a model one where urban elite with spending power like to invest quality time and money, goes to the Ramakrishna Mission.

For a first-time visitor, it will take a while to understand the development and activities taking place in this village. At the outset, you may enjoy only a walk in the evergreen forest cultivated by the mission or the desi meal served by it. However, while leaving the mission’s premises, you will do so with a resolve to revisit it.

Way back in 1984, the mission consciously chose Shivanahalli under the Ragihalli panchayat limits for its rural development activities. The village is three km from Tali forest of Tamil Nadu and less than two km from Kanakapura and shares its boundary with BNP. A village that was steeped in poverty without basic infrastructure such as power, roads, potable water, medical help  – these were the conditions that compelled Swami Vishnumayananda of the mission to settle here.

Mission’s activities

In the 20 acres granted by the government, the mission took up soil enrichment. Today, the cultivated forest occupies nearly 100 acres, thanks to donations from philanthropists. The mission plans to extend this forest cover to 200 acres.

The mission took no ad hoc decisions to transform the village or its people. It took up capacity building exercises through various means. Its sense of duty, devotion, warmth and love apart from focused plans have made even the most obdurate villagers work for their own betterment. A Kannada medium school which offers quality education from the first to seventh standard is a happy destination for 400 students of Shivanahalli and the surrounding villages. English and computer science are taught along with other subjects.

Though the school follows the State syllabus, it has formulated value-based conceptual curriculum which is yielding the desired results. It is an integration of value, multiple intelligence and life skill development. This will be the first Indian rural school to get the QCI tag.

The mission could transform the 100 acres of scrub land in rocky terrain into an evergreen expanse with the advice of A N Yellappa Reddy, retired IFS officer, environmentalist and currently a trustee of the Bangalore Environment Trust (BET) headed by Capt S Prabhala.

Reddy hand-picked several rare species across the State and planted them at Shivanahalli. Today, it even has endemic species like jaalaari (Shorea). Thimmarayappa, a villager who has been nurturing the trees, recalls how donkeys used to be the primary carriers of water to the plantations two decades ago.

Kalkare forest

When Yellappa Reddy lent his support to the mission to cultivate the forest in the mid-80s, he simultaneously developed nearly 190 acres of Kalkare forest on either side of Bannerghatta road into a patch like the Western Ghats. He was then a silviculturist. Now Kalkare forest, which once had greenery in parts, has mature trees of many varieties. “It took 12 years for the trees to grow fully.

“The ground level temperature is almost like semi-evergreen and evergreen forests. It is witnessing natural regeneration. It is the best example for ex-situ conservation. The forest is serving as a carbon sink to Bangalore,” he declares proudly. Kalkare forest is out of bounds to the public. It is not an entertainment park. It is like a lab for scientific study by college students and researchers, he says.

Reddy gives credit to forest department watchers Arogyaswamy and Gowramma for maintaining and protecting the forest.

Seeking an elephant corridor

The mission, with the active support of the BET, is now trying to make the Central and State governments consolidate the boundaries from BNP to Nagarahole to declare it an elephant corridor. The Bannerghatta National Park is one of the oldest habitats of Asian elephants, which move periodically between Bilikal range in Kanakapura and Tali in Tamil Nadu.

Quarrying is rampant in this area leading to man-elephant conflict. Yellappa Reddy says that 1,000 acres of gomala land adjoining Ragihalli should be part of the elephant corridor. The mission wants to develop an eco-theme park in these 1,000 acres which can impart nature education to students and as an outdoor lab for life sciences students.

It will also be a vast carbon sink for Bangalore City. The 4,000 acres of government land that has been identified, extends from Mekedatu through BNP- Malaimahadeshwara Hills – Biligirirangana Hills – Bandipur – Kakanakote – Nagarahole.

There are some patches of private land along this stretch where farmers find it tough to cultivate because of the straying of elephants. It would not be difficult for the government to take possession of private land, Reddy says.

The Trust submitted a memorandum to the Chief Secretary last year requesting him to consolidate the boundaries to save plant life and wildlife. But action is yet to come. In 2009, a BNP deputy conservator of forests had submitted a detailed report to the government explaining why rationalisation of elephant corridor and consolidation of boundaries in BNP area should be done.

Rehabilitation

Will the government be able to rehabilitate people who have been moved out of the forest area? Reddy feels it would not be difficult because the government has not less than Rs 400 crore under the Compensatory Plantation Funds which is deposited with the Supreme Court. When the government can carve out special economic zones by acquiring vast tracts of land, why can’t it do the same for conserving forests and wildlife, he questions.

The government has declared a one-km radius around BNP boundary as a ‘no stone-quarry zone’. But that is not sufficient. Officers in the forest and revenue departments have not yet applied their mind in this regard for various reasons, including vested interests, Reddy points out. But, the mission and the BET are both hopeful of achieving the goal – which is realistic. The mission is hopeful of developing an eco-theme park.

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