By Dr. Kodira A. Kushalapa
Every educated person is now conscious and knowledgeable about the role of forests, their need for conservation to live safely and comfortably on this planet Earth, thanks to Supreme Court directions to introduce environmental science as a compulsory subject in all colleges and schools.
Forests play a significant role in maintaining a suitable environment around the globe for us to live and survive. But what is a Forest? Even the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and other State Acts have not defined or could not define clearly. The Apex Court has recommended the dictionary meaning of forests for all decisions. The forests, as we understand, consist of tall trees, with lower/ middle tier (canopy) of smaller trees and the undergrowth of bushes and grasses covering the ground.
In Karnataka, we have deciduous, moist, semi-evergreen and evergreen (rain) forests, depending upon the climate, especially in the Western Ghats area with a few grassland patches. But now most of these forests have been disturbed due to over-use, encroachment, re-settlement, and mismanagement, forest fires, over-grazing by village cattle and invasion by weeds.
The forest cover in our country has come down to 21% of the total geographical area (16% in Karnataka) as against 33% envisaged in the National Forest Policy (NFP) of 1988 (NFP-2016 is in draft stage) and that too, 60% in hills and 40% in plains. These figures include even man-made plantations which are in no way comparable to natural forest ecosystems developed over millions of years. Therefore, it is our duty to conserve such valuable natural forests for our future generations.
Forests are our life-supporting systems as well as an asset. They absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen which we breathe for our survival. During evapotranspiration, the plants release moisture, making the surroundings humid, cool and comfortable. They also provide food in the form of leaves, flowers, fruits, roots, honey etc. to various animals, birds and all other living organisms. The leaf fall decomposes into humus and manure for their own survival as well as for our (all animals) survival. Roots prevent soil erosion, especially on hill slopes and helps in the infiltration of rain water to recharge ground water.
Knowing these basic facts, a few insensitive people try to ignore the conservation of our natural resources and destroy rich forests in the name of development for short-term benefits.
The glaring example was the case study of “silent valley” where about 40 years ago, the Kerala Government wanted to construct a dam, which would have destroyed vast areas of richest and biologically diverse evergreen forests but for the intervention of our then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that saved the forests.
The forests saved are the catchment of river-Kunthi and even today there is sufficient flow of water in the river. The adjacent Bharathappuzha River that drains the Palghat gap in the Western Ghats is completely dry during summer as its catchment is devoid of forests.
Coming to the similar situation in Cauvery River catchment area, spread over Western Ghats including parts of Kodagu district, several projects such as two Railway lines and a couple of National Highways, are in the offing and all of them are destructive to forest ecosystems, and that too benefiting only the adjoining Kerala State.
People of Kodagu have already experienced the destructive nature of drawing high tension power line between Mysuru and Kozhikode in Kerala. Such projects should be put to an end, wherever proposed.
The announcement of these proposals is scaring but it requires several procedural actions. Under Forest Conservation Act 1980, the Government of India should provide prior approval to divert forest land for non- forestry purposes.
Since the Railway and NH come under Central Government, necessary initial permission might have been given. The forests come under concurrent list, and though the Government of India has taken a policy decision, but since forests belong to State, they could object and prevent further activities like survey, preparation of feasibility report etc. as the project destroys State forests.
The State Government, however, has recently declared that Railway line to Thalassery will not be allowed (good news). Under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986, as the project destroys natural resources, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is mandatory.
The proposal should be discussed with the affected persons by arranging a public hearing and should be approved by them. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) should also review to clear such destructive proposals.
Under the present conditions, it is impossible to re-create any forest by artificial regeneration. It is only a myth. The human and cattle populations are growing beyond the carrying capacity of their habitat and will further destroy the natural fodder resources of the area. We must try our best to conserve all the existing natural forests, preventing any damage. If the Government and others put up any such proposals in future, people should vehemently oppose and put them on right track.
Currently, people are opposing the Railway and NH through rich Kodagu forests. The tourism boom has already destroyed the environment of beautiful Kodagu. Sensible people have planned for a large-scale protest march and rally in Mysuru on Feb.18 at Karnataka Exhibition Grounds.
This should open the eyes of Governments and others who favour haphazard development at the cost of forests and environment, so that no such damaging projects should come into their mind at all. The impact of this large gathering should be such that no Government or others should think of such damaging projects in future in Kodagu.
(Dr. Kodira A. Kushalapa IFS (Retd.) is the former Regional Chief Conservator of Forests under Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change at Bhopal.)