Rising assault on forests worrying

The Karnataka government, with support from the Centre, is planning to provide permanent power connections to as many as 39 villages with around 950 households located deep inside the forests of the Western Ghats. In  wake of the Ministry of Power, Government of India, setting the target of electrifying villages in the entire country by 2017, the state government has decided to declare Karnataka as ‘100 per cent electrified state’ by completing this programme.

Earlier in this month, realising that the land for grazing in non-forest areas had reduced in the state, the government decided to open forests for grazing of sheep and goats.

In a similar move, Karnataka wrote to the Union government requesting it to reduce the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around all protected forest areas by a km or even 500 m, especially around the Bannerghatta National Park (BNP) where real estate development is quick and land prices are soaring.

Studies establish that in human inhabited forests, wild animals become so used to people that they stop behaving normally. Animals attacking tourists due to their familiarity with humans or due to irritation caused by their presence, has become common in many protected areas. Monkeys that become overly familiar with people display increased aggression towards each other and humans. Animals have learnt to scavenge human-discarded food, and plastic bags have been found in elephant dung.

Other stresses include transmitting diseases, interfering with parental care, increasing the vulnerability of some animals to predators and the loss of animals in road accidents. Pathogens and parasites can pose severe threat to species in restricted environments such as forest fragments where there is increased contact of wildlife with human and livestock populations. Environmental stress and reduced nutritional level in forest fragments can influence parasite infection of native species.

Ecologically fragile

When wild animals can be subjected to a range of such problems by human activity, deadly developments like electrifying villages located in remote areas of forests can only make the already risk-prone and ecologically fragile region more vulnerable. Erecting poles and power lines fragment virgin forests and thus accelerate man-animal conflict. Development strategy for the remote villages in forests should take into account the vulnerability of the region and the requirement for environment protection.

The ESZs are ecologically important areas around forests notified under the Environment Protection Act to be protected from industrial pollution and unregulated development.

Apparently, under pressure from mining and industry lobbies, many states have excluded such areas around wildlife parks and sanctuaries from being protected. Diminution of buffer zones, gomalas etc and leaving livestock to graze in the wild can result in severe aftermaths, like spreading diseases to wild animals and deficit in the natural feed of wild herbivores.

To accommodate the needs of conflict prone communities living in forests, the Government of India, through the National Tiger Conservation Auth-ority (NTCA), has set up well funded voluntary resettlement packages for households within protected areas. These benefits include high quality agricultural land, access to good housing, schools and medical care.

Relocation has been attempted in many Indian reserves like Gir National Park, Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary, Kanha National Park and Nagarahole National Park to help resolve complex conservation issues in an equitable and ethical manner.

Voluntary resettlement programmes implemented in the Kudremukh National Park and Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary are commendable and have been adopted and mentioned in parliament as the model for successful voluntary resettlement.

At a time when several NGOs and corporates are keen to fund resettlement programmes of forest dwellers along with NTC instead of electrifying villages and allowing cattle grazing in forests, prying possibilities of resettlement of such communities is more conscientious than destroying catchment areas in dense forests.

In the mad rush towards ‘development’, a systematic onslaught is mounting on the spectacular forests of our country.  The often-debated ideals of ‘nation building’ programme does not mind sacrificing the country’s natural resources especially forests to make way for industry.

It is estimated that out of the 260 million people who live below the poverty line, the socio-cultural ethos of over 100 million are related to forests. This symbiotic relationship between forests and man is being constantly ignored by leaders to woo the voters and enrich political royalty.

(The writer teaches at Christ University, Bengaluru)

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