Uncertainty over heritage site status for Nethrani islands

In what may be termed a setback to the initiative to protect the Nethrani islands near Bhatkal, the Karnataka Biodiversity Board  (KBB) has submitted before the High Court of Karnataka that the decision to declare the island a biodiversity heritage site has been kept in abeyance, while the Navy submitted that the Board has dropped its plan to declare the islands a heritage site. 

In an affidavit — filed in response to a public interest litigation by A N Karthik and P Manjunath seeking directions to prevent Indian Navy from using the island for its target practice — the KBB said that though the preliminary notification was published on January 15, 2010, the State government has not issued the final notification.

The affidavit says that the Board, in its meeting held on Ferbuary 3, 2011, decided to drop the proposal to declare the islands as a biodiversity heritage site. Interestingly, it also mentions a letter by Chief Secretary S V Ranganath dated March 14, 2011, requesting the Naval authorities to find an alternative site for their target practice.

The letter by Chief Secretary to Secretary, Union Ministry for Defence, a copy of which is with Deccan Herald  says  any firing activity on the island will have an adverse impact on the biodiversity.

The letter further says, “The Central Marine Research Institute (CMRI), Cochin, has discovered rare corals and other marine life having rich biodiversity in and around the island. This island is home to several rare species of birds and plants.

It is also an active fishing zone and regular firing activity will pose a threat to the life of fishermen. Since the State has identified this island as a heritage site as per the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, I will be grateful if you could kindly issue necessary directions to the naval authorities not to take up firing on this island and request them to find any other suitable land for this purpose in consultation with district magistrate, the rich biodiversity can be preserved.”

Surprisingly the KBB, which had issued a preliminary notification declaring it a biodiversity heritage site has also said in its affidavit no land records were available pertaining to the island. “It is not clear as to under which village, gram panchayat this island falls.”

Stating that even a communication to the deputy commissioner, Uttara Kannada, seeking details of this island was not helpful, the KBB observed that the island would be safe in the hands of government agencies including naval authorities as it has no staff to look after the security of the island as it is opposed to any project like tourism there. However, contrary to this submission, the Jungle Lodges and Resorts has planned some tourism activities there.

In another affidavit dated August 29, 2012, the Indian Navy submitted that the KBB has dropped its plan to declare Nethrani as biodiversity heritage site, and that the firing exercise has not affected life on the island.    

The island, situated nine nautical miles from Bhatkal and 19 km from Murudeshwar, is home to rare birds like white bellied sea eagle and edible nest swiftlets.  Several species found here are protected under Schedule One of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

The heart-shaped island, according to a survey conducted by KBB in early 2000, was covered with hard coral (14.7 per cent), sponges (2.7 per cent), algae (63.2 per cent), boring polychaetes (13.3 per cent) and mussel (0.3 per cent). This is the first report on the existence of small giant clams from the West coast of India.

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