Development projects have struck at the heart of the state’s forest ecology in Uttara Kannada district, where 9,628.30 hectares (23,792 acres) of forest land have been given away for various works, including defence and Hydel power related works, over the last 30 years.
As per documents provided by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the major shift in change in land use can be traced back to approval for the construction of Kadra Hydroelectric project on 3,051 hectares in 1987, a year after 2,259 hectares were diverted for the Sea Bird naval base at Karwar.
On top of this, the government is pushing the Hubballi-Ankola rail line, which may take a toll on 2 lakh trees.
The Railways is also seeking the pristine forest land for doubling Hubballi-Vasco line. Wildlife activists noted that providing land for defence establishments may be unavoidable, but the state and the central governments should be cautious while allowing other development projects.
Giridhar Kulkarni, a wildlife activist who obtained the information under RTI, said that Uttara Kannada district is losing its natural forests at an alarming pace to non-stop assault by mining, quarrying, hydroelectric projects, highways, railway lines, dams, reservoirs, nuclear power plants etc.
In 2013, the Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc, noted a decrease in the evergreen forests in the districts from 67.73% in 1973 to 32.08% in 2013.
“A portion of the evergreen forest is lost due to horticultural plantations like areca and coconut which have shown an increase from 2.01% to 5.25% during the time period from 1973 to 2013,” researchers led by Prof T V Ramachandra had said in the report.
Forest officials said that while big projects are a visible threat, a major portion of the forest land is degraded by illegal encroachment by people which goes unnoticed.
“People file applications for land rights, burn the forest and occupy the land. We have been unable to protect forests from such brazen violations because the moment we take up recovery activities, they bring political pressure to stop us,” an official in the Forest Department said.
Giridhar said the fragmentation has already led to several problems in the district with a place like Joida facing severe water shortage.
This summer, 195 villages in the district were fed through water tankers.
“I have written to the chief minister to protect and preserve forests. While development is important for a nation like India, it should not happen at the cost of forest and wildlife. Both the governments should chart out a scientific management plan of the forest areas based on the National Forest Policy,” he said.