Hills of despair

Society

Hills of despair

In the hinterlands of Malnad, lies an obscure hamlet — Balagi. Three homes, few terraces, plentiful greenery, steep sloped mountains, the landscape is picturesque. Chandra Naik’s family came here about 40 years ago when his house was submerged by the Linganamakki dam. With five sons and four daughters, less than two acres of land, a handful of cows, the nearest road three kilometres away, his life at Balagi is anything but secure and content to an onlooker. But ask this 55-year-old, and he believes god has been kind enough. Quiz him about the future, insecurity is subtle — “let us see what happens in the future.” 

With three of his sons working in Bangalore (one — server at a bar, second — helper at a bakery, third a driver), and the youngest still in school (staying at a government run hostel nearby), effectively three people live at home. All his daughters are married. His wife doesn’t keep too well. The water in the nearest stream has thinned down, farm labour is hard to find and he has no clue about the future. “I am hoping two of my sons will come back, get married and stay at home. The contrast between Bangalore and Balagi is hard to miss. Chandra Naik’s hopes live on.

This is the story in every home. Indigenous communities in the Ghats are clearly in transition — with the youth away in cities in search of work and money, local economy virtually non-existent — urban migration is high. Nearby lies Hebbenakeri, another hamlet tucked deep in the forests. “When my father came here, there was only one other house, now there are 12 in this valley,” says Ramchandrappa, pointing to the many red-tiled roofs that peep out of the green cover. “Can you believe it, we are facing shortage of water in the middle of these dense forests?”

Not very far away in the hills of Uttara Kannda, Suresh Nayak is a worried man. “Every year, by this time the rains are over. I wonder why it is still pouring. It is a curse on us poor farmers. Our standing crop of paddy is soaking in the rain,” he says. Errant monsoon patterns are a new reality in the Western Ghats. “Earlier we had names for each rain. We even calculated our agriculture activity based on the monsoons. They were so accurate,” shares Suresh, adding that “for example, the bittane (sowing) season — this was based on the rohini male — people in villages believed that when the chagate gida (chagate plant) surfaces, there will be continuous rain and so we can start sowing seeds. But today, all this does not hold good. Monsoons have become very undependable. We don’t know what else is in store.”

This sense of ambiguity and uncertainty transcends region, community and background. Sankeshwar from Heggodu in Sagar taluk is anxious as he cautions “imagine Malnad which is the source of so many rivers, is today facing a shortage of water. With this shortage at source, the day is not far when this region will even face drought.” The terrain being treacherous, shortage of water is an absolute curse. “We have to fetch water from as far as two kilometres in the summer months,” complains Gowrakka, from the Mundwala hamlet. “My father-in-law built this house. The forest around was dense, we had channelled the water right up to our door. Today, this water goes dry by March,” she adds.

The Ghats have seen unimaginable change in the last 20 years. Thanks to rapid development thrust upon by the state and central governments (dams, mines, roads etc), the region has witnessed some impatient and untenable planning. The icing on the cake came around 1990-92, when the ‘bagar hokum’ regularisation legislation came into effect. The intent for introducing the legislation is highly debatable and some say politically aligned, to win votes. The legislation said that any occupation on forested lands prior to 1985 would be legalised and regularised under the law.

“Starting in 1992, till 2002 we saw large-scale destruction of forests like never before. I have seen people clearing forests overnight and submitting application for regularization of the encroachment,” shares Maheshwar from Heggodu, adding “these were the darkest days for the Ghats. I lodged many official complaints to stop this in my village. But everything fell on deaf ears.”

Alleging mafia involvement, Nagesh from Nagavalli is deeply distressed. “We see a lot of bad things being done in the name of the local people. There are mafia gangs who cultivate ganja in the middle of the forest and nobody bothers to touch them. Because of such people, we all get a bad name,” he says.

Not far away, Chowdaiah from Agumbe shares, “When we were young, the forests were impenetrable. We had enough firewood, lots of water and virtually no ailments. Today, people can get away with large-scale tree cutting. Some are greedy for extra money, so they hunt animals. Cities are growing, so they need more electricity and thus many dams are being built, forests are getting submerged, we (people who live in remote areas) also need facilities. It doesn’t even rain as much (contrast this with Agumbe, popularly called Cheerapunji of the South).” Honest words over piping tea at a stall by the roadside and I wonder, aren’t we talking climate change!

Speak to any villager in the hills and their grievances about the climate, rainfall, lack of fuel wood, soaring temperatures — resonate, valley after valley. Interestingly, research and science confirms every bit of apprehension and fear that these people ally.
Conservation International estimates that no more than 23 percent of original vegetation remains; the Western Ghats have the highest population density for a biodiversity hotspot — 260 people/km2. With an ecological history of over three millennia of forest utilisation in terms of systematised logging, agriculture, harvesting of non-timber forest produce, spice trade, crop plantations, development projects, the Western Ghats have backboned local economy, water, electricity and other needs for 50 million people — stakeholders in the region. 

Picture this: one of the 34 biodiversity hotspots of the world, a World Heritage Site as declared by UNESCO, the primary watershed for Southern India (source for many Southern Indian rivers), India’s largest carbon sink, a biological treasure trove and all we have left is 23 percent of this magnificent landscape. “It is said that the health of a country is gauged by its forest cover. 33 percent is the minimum green cover required for a healthy nation, India has a mere 16 percent by our records,” informs Dr Harish Bhat, a biodiversity expert.

Against this dismal state of affairs, I am reminded of Kunthru ajji’s (Kunthru is a place near Bhatkal, ajji is grandma) words. Staring into the dense forests that surround her home, she said, “Why do we forget that even we are animals? We are also part of this forest, part of this complex web of life (she meant eco-system). We have to live together with all other animals and maintain a balance. But sadly, we think we are superior and more knowledgeable. We no longer consider ourselves animals, but think we are intelligent and above them. So we think of ways of controlling and destroying the forest. We must learn to live and let live.”  I recollect her reflective stance as she muttered these words.

Reminiscing random conversations as I write this story, the Western Ghats must be laughing. After all nature is supreme, her strength is immeasurable. It is a matter of time before she gets back at us. Wake up — human being!

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