In what is seen as the last nail in the coffin of the rapidly compromised lungs of the city, the Centre has sought to reduce the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of Bannerghatta National Park (BNP) by 100 square kilometres. Conservationists feel that this will adversely affect the critical wildlife corridor while stunting preservation efforts in the area.
From its existing 268.96 sq km, the latest draft notification issued on 30 October seeks to cut down the ESZ of the National Park to 168.84 sq km, leading to a state-wide outcry by environmentalists who fear further exploitation and degradation by the illegal mining mafia operating in the region.
The state Forest Department and the Mines and Geology Department has identified at least 44 stone quarries, jelly crushing units and m-sand crushing units operating within the recommended 10-kilometre buffer zone of the Park, in June this year.
Considering that there has been no formal notification of the ESZ for Bannerghatta National Park as yet, 10 such units were ordered to be closed down and slapped with fines to the tune of Rs 80 crore.
A resident of Ragihalli, bordering BNP, Venkat* told The Quint that while things had improved in the area from June onwards, there was still a powerful mining lobby at play in the area.
“Mining activities were still happening because the owners were hand-in-glove with Mines and Geology Department, Forest Department and the local Taluk people. While it was reducing, it has only stopped in the last 10 days due to media attention. With the reduction in truck movement, blasting sounds and heavy activity, slowly the wildlife is coming back. But we are awaiting the official notification so the illegal mining can stop for good.”Venkat*, Resident
Why Are Activists Up in Arms?
Activists claim that there are several unanswered questions, in light of the most recent draft notification issued by the Centre, that expose the misplaced priorities of the state Forest Department as well as the Mines and Geology Department.
In 2016, the Centre has issued a draft notification of various national parks in the country, and had notified that of BNP as 268.96 sq kms. The relevant departments of the Karnataka government had to review such a suggestion and send in their responses and final notification to the Centre.
However, this was not done.
Some activists say that this was not done deliberately, in order to allow the draft to lapse, so that a more “mining lobby-friendly” decision could be taken. In the absence of an official notification, which BNP still does not have, a default ESZ of 10 sq kms is in operation.
“From 268.96 sq kms two years ago, the fresh draft seeks to reduce this to 168.84 sq kilometres without any explanation for the same. There is no clarity on what the motivations of the government are or who made this recommendation to them. The lives of several villages, as well as wildlife and biodiversity of the Park hangs in the balance here,” said activist Vijay Nishanth.
“This is being done for no other reason than to satisfy the powerful mining lobby operating in the safe zones and buffer zones of the Park. They think that they are above the law. With crores of money being generated from the quarries daily, it is clear why the vested interests are operating.”Vijay Nishanth, Conservationist
Vinay Prakash, from the Namma Bengaluru Foundation, points out that there is also no clarity on where the Centre came up with figure, as RTIs have not revealed any official communication between the state departments and the Centre in the matter of ESZ notification.
Why Is the Mining Lobby is So Powerful?
With daily revenue that runs into several crores, conservationists are not surprised that efforts are being made to transform the lust Park and its surrounding areas into a “mini-Ballari.”
While the Forest Department continues to claim that it has shut down the operation of all illegal mines in the area, on the ground, residents paint a different picture.
Activists said that even the shutting down of the units from June this year raises doubts over how they were allowed to operate for so long. A city-based activist told The Quint:
“These stone quarrying and mining activities have been going on for several decades. Was it not illegal all this while? Why did they only wake up in June? If environmental clearance is required from the National Board for Wildlife, doesn’t this mean that their very existence is in question? What is the point of reducing the ESZ and giving them free reign? It is clear that some powerful interests are being protected. A lot of palms are being greased.”City-based Activist
Conservationists and those lobbying to end mining permanently in the park areas also said that locals remain frightened of the quarry operators and that there have been several instances of media persons being roughed up and their vehicles and belongings destroyed.
Why Is Bannerghatta National Park So Important?
Spread over an area of 260 sq kms, the park is home to dozens of species of animals. An extremely important wildlife corridor, particularly for elephants that are migratory animals, cuts through the park to extend to Madikeri, Kabini, Bandipur and all through the Western Ghats.
“Mining activities so close to an ecologically significant park such as Bannerghatta will obviously hinder the wildlife of the area. The blasting noises coupled with the movement of trucks and humans has caused the elephant population crossing through to severely come down. Since the activities have slowed down since June, some 25 new elephants have been spotted. We want BNP to be restored to the way it was,” said Nishanth.
“The main problem is with its proximity to southern part of Bengaluru, there is a lot of real estate and industrial interest, ESZ covers agrarian land, there are no guidelines to govern this land. Notification will put pressure on the land owners to sell it. Most of the government land has already come under illegal exploitation.”Vinay Prakash, Namma Bengaluru Foundation
What Can Citizens Do Now?
A thunderous online campaign is on to save BNP. Online petitions on various portals have garnered thousands of signatures from concerned netizens.
Starting 30 October, the draft notification allows a period of 60 days for citizens to file objections to the draft, which the Centre is obliged to respond to.
Come 30 December, while the deadline will officially pass, there is still time for citizens to save this critical green space by making their dissent heard.
The plan, conservationists say, is to use the might and objections of the online petitions to put forth a case for saving BNP from reducing the forest cover, by filing a PIL in the courts.
Meanwhile, activists are moving from pillar to post to generate awareness about the disastrous draft notification. From educating college students to residents’ welfare associations, the idea is to gain the momentum of a city-wide movement to crush the latest notification and to ensure that ESZ of 268.96 sq kms is maintained.
You can sign one of the petitions here.