GIM: Investment is OK, but not at the cost of ecology, forests

GIM: Investment is OK, but not at the cost of ecology, forests

In a few days’ time, the median on the highway from the Bangalore International Airport leading to the city centre will have a new lawn and various stone statues. Any small pothole on the highway will be filled and parts of the city will be spruced up. This will be part of the preparations for the Global Investors Meet (GIM). 

The government has taken keen interest in drawing both local and international investment into the state, a laudable effort indeed.In this background it has been successfully organising the GIM and the next one is now at our doorstep. The most important activity that follows the investors’ meet is the process for land acquisition for various investments agreed during the meet. For this, the government has set up a single window clearance system to clear and provide permissions to set up industries, tourism and other projects. Along with this fast track clearance process, several economic impetuses are provided by the government.  All these are positive steps that bring in more investment and employment opportunities facilitating improvement of our economy. 

However, a key element in the process of land allotment for projects seems to be missing the government’s attention. Some of the projects allotted fall in ecologically sensitive and key wildlife habitats or corridors leading to controversies and media attention. 

The core of the issue has been that no opinion of forest department or people working in the field has been elicited. As the projects are approved in GIM, investors compel government officials for speedy clearance of their projects. Several Acts, guidelines and norms are violated in the urgency to clear these projects and there are quite a few examples of such clearances from the previous GIM. 

The forests on the periphery of Bandipur Tiger Reserve under Bachalli, Kebbepura, Yelchetti and other villages have decent forest cover and act as connectivity corridors for tigers, elephants and other large mammals to move to Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. During the previous GIM, the government approved a tourism and Ayurveda wellness resort in this vital corridor. This resort, if constructed, would have permanently severed this fragile corridor. Fortunately, due to the efforts of conservationists and forest officials, this project has currently been put on the back burner.

There are other examples of industries creeping next to our biologically diverse areas. The dry plains of the state have very few protected areas, and Daroji Bear Sanctuary is one of the few areas in the country earmarked for sloth bear conservation. The sanctuary is a unique effort on part of the government of Karnataka to protect sloth bears. However, a recent short-sighted proposal to set up a steel plant right on the boundary of this unique wildlife sanctuary has raised controversies.

Ensuring protection

A scientific report by wildlife conservationists and prompt response of the previous forest minister supported by the chief minister ensured that the bear sanctuary was protected. If the state had preferred steel to bears, it would have unquestionably attracted the wrath of the Supreme Court and the Central Empowered Committee. 

A sugar mill has been permitted on the borders of Biligirirangaswamy Betta Wildlife Sanctuary -- an important habitat for tiger, elephant and other large mammals apart from several other lesser known taxa. The pollution impact of the sugar mills on wildlife would have proved disastrous, but due to the laudable efforts of a few local forest officials, the project hasn’t materialised yet. 

Investors look for best returns on their ventures. They may mean well and are perhaps unaware of the ecological importance of their project locations. The goal is not to oppose every developmental activity but to keep them away from ecologically sensitive areas, critical wildlife corridors, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

It has been announced that tourism would be a focal subject of this year’s GIM. The districts of Mysore, Chamrajanagar, Kodagu, Chikmagalur and Uttara Kannada which have high forest cover would be attractive locations for tourism investors. Most would dress their projects as eco-tourism investments and would be enthusiastic to construct lodges in attractive locations. Unfortunately, these resorts would have little interest in wildlife or nature conservation, and obliterate the very habitats in whose name the lodges would be set up. 

In the west during 19th Century industrial revolution, forest destruction for timber industry and hunting led to extinction of several of its important wildlife species. Wolves from Scotland, bear and lynx from Switzerland, European bison from Poland, bottle-nosed dolphin from Netherlands, Northern bald ibis from Spain are a few of the several species Europe has lost. These countries are now interested in spending heavily to bring back the species they have lost. It is wise to learn from the hard lessons learnt by these countries. 

How we manage our common lands, a severely limited resource, will define the overall sustainability of our country. Less than 5 per cent of our country’s geographical area is dedicated to wildlife conservation. If we keep away our industries, tourism projects and other developmental activities from these biologically diverse areas, there will be no dent in our goal of achieving the 9 per cent economic growth. 

(The writer is a wildlife biologist)

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