Since they were appointed guardians of the Amrit Mahal Kaval Grasslands in Challakere in Chitradurga district in Karnataka by Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, the agricultural and shepherding communities in the region have been preserving this ecologically important zone. They were given land here by the erstwhile rulers to cultivate on the condition that they look after the Amrit Mahal breed of cattle, which was of strategic importance in battles and, hence, in sustaining the empires. These grasslands were intimately connected to the communities culture and livelihoods.
But the grasslands were never officially recognised by the Government of India, which denoted the commons (thousands of acres of grasslands available for common use) as degraded forests, stripping them of the protection accorded to forestlands. This made it easy for the government to divert these lands for developmental and industrial purposes without the need to set up forest rights committees or without seeking the consent of the Village Assemblies.
Since 2009, nearly 10,000 acres of these grasslands have been diverted to several strategic and defence institutions, such as the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Indian Space Research Organisation, Indian Institute of Science and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). The herding communities only became aware of the problem in 2011 when walls started to be built around the demarcated lands and they found themselves losing access to their grazing grounds.
Before 2011, there were three lakh livestock in the 60 villages in the region. But once they started losing access to the grasslands, most of the herders were forced to sell their cattle as they were no longer able to feed them.
The work undertaken by these organisations is also affecting the quality of life in the villages. A private solar company, which has been allocated 1,200 acres of land, has destroyed hundreds of check dams built inside the grasslands by the Village Assemblies. This has dried up their lakes. As a result, the population is now dependent on groundwater, which is allegedly contaminated with fluoride.
The administration had subverted crucial laws, such as the Revenue Act, to legitimise the diversion. The Revenue Law determines how many acres of grasslands are needed for certain breeds of cattle. Here, the cattle census was fudged. The number of cattle on paper was barely 10 per cent of the actual number, and it was demonstrated that the grasslands were in surplus, Leo Saldanha of the Bengalurubased Environment Support Group (ESG), which has been fighting for the protection of the commons, told Land Conflict Watch. When the village residents approached the Karnataka High Court in 2011, their case was dismissed, and they were penalised a fine of Rs 70,000. Their appeal was subsequently rejected by the Supreme Court too.
The petitioners then moved the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which said the various ventures could go ahead subject to stringent environmental clearances, considering there were plans by BARC to enrich uranium. The organisations had to comply with twostage clearancesreceive consent for establishing their industry as well as consent for conducting their operations. In February 2014, the NGT stayed all activity until the clearances were produced. While the parties maintained that they had the necessary clearance certificates, they refused to release them citing the Official Secrets Act, 1923.
Petitioners like ESG then moved the Central Information Commission (CIC). In a landmark directive, the CIC noted that when it comes to the matter of lives and the environment, defence cannot be used as an excuse to deny information. Despite this, there continued to be resistance. BARC gave us a twopage clearance copy with most of the information redacted, Saldanha said. With further appeals, the ESG could finally gain access to all the clearancesalmost 3,500 pages of documents. The ESG is now combing through the minutia to challenge the claim that these organisations are indeed complying with environmental norms.