Amruthmahal Kaval: Unique Grazing Pastures Under Threat
By Jahnavi G Pai
03 June, 2013
A lone hillock rises from the dry, dusty plains of Ramdurga, a small village in South India. The remains of a fort on the hilltop indicates that it must have served as a vantage point for detecting any looming threats to the kingdom. Today, these ruins offer a glimpse of the troubling state of affairs of the world’s largest democracy.
The hillock is surrounded by arid agricultural lands, villages and tanks on three sides. On the southern side, an unusual green carpet swathes the landscape. The setting sun shines its fading light on an unmistakably manmade structure – an insurmountable stone wall that runs all the way to the horizon. This newly constructed wall ensures that people and livestock do not trespass into the upcoming campus of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Similar fencing measures are being undertaken in adjoining lands by other premier research institutes such as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), and Indian Space Research Organisation. In a zealous bid to put a ‘backward region’ on the world map, about 10,000 acres have been transferred to these institutes. Thus, the vista from the hill is in some sense a picture of the current state and aspirations of the country – agrarian landscape juxtaposed with the new campuses of some of the top research institutes and the almost impenetrable wall that divides the two institutions. This visible divide is also a reminder of the underlying deeply undemocratic processes involved in alienating people from the lands they have depended on for generations and the socio-cultural and ecological repercussions that ensue. The story that follows has a familiar plot, only the players and landscape are different.
Kudapura Kaval, Varavu Kaval and Ullavarti Kaval are vast grazing pastures totalling about 10,000 acres in Challakere Taluk in the Southern State of Karnataka. The term Kaval refers to pastures that were reserved for seasonal grazing of the state-owned Amruthmahal breed of cattle since the sixteenth century. Due to increasing mechanisation and unfavourable policies, the numbers of this draft breed and consequently, the Kavals are on a decline.
In Challakere, grazing of Amruthmahal cattle in the Kaval stopped in 1971. Subsequently, these pasturelands were handed over to ‘Sheep Breeding and Training Centres’. Between 2008 and 2010, this land was transferred to the research institutions. The process of land transfer took place through a cabinet approval supported by a report from the Deputy Commissioner of Chitradurga which stated that the Kaval are no longer used for the intended purpose i.e. grazing of Amruthmahal Cattle and thus are in danger of being “encroached” by the villagers. The report also mentions that the villagers graze their livestock in their own lands or in the forests and not in the Kaval.
On ground the situation couldn’t have been more different. Except during the months when Amruthmahal cattle grazed, the Kaval have been used by surrounding villagers since time immemorial. This has been recorded in the Mysore Gazetteer of 1897 and reiterated by people whose intimate bond with the Kaval manifests even in their cultural practices.
Like in most other landscapes defined by water scarcity and unpredictable rainfall, livestock rearing is the most reliable agricultural strategy in the villages of Challakere. The Kaval are important grazing pasture for the thousands of livestock in at least 60 villages. People here also eke out a living by weaving woollen blankets known as Kambli. Apart from being an important watershed for this parched region, people have also depended on this land for fruits, greens and firewood. In their songs, they make mentions of Kaval and Boraiah – the deity who they believe resides there. Thus, the Kaval dominates not only the visual but also the underlying cultural and economic landscape.
The Amruthmahal Kaval are biodiversity havens for some very rare and endangered species. A rapid biodiversity assessment carried out by IISc in Kudapura Kaval revealed the presence of rare flora and fauna such as the blackbuck unique to grassland habitats. While similar habitats are fast disappearing elsewhere in the country, the mere existence of a vast expanse of an intact habitat in this region stands as testimony to the sustainable management practices of the villagers that have also led to conservation of biodiversity.
Now as the DRDO prepares to test drones in their new facility, the question that lingers is if new ones are in the making in nearby villages. When Papanna, who has lived all his life grazing sheep in the Kaval, satirically remarks that he is unable to decide if he should continue to be a shepherd or become a scientist, the answer is clear. With all their protests and legal petitions falling on deaf ears, many of them have already started selling their livestock to meet their daily expenses. If the situation continues, they fear that they might have to live in slums and start working as daily wage labourers in far-flung cities. For people who have been self-reliant, these prospects are unsavoury.
A petition has now been filed in the National Green Tribunal questioning the legitimacy of commencing the projects without obtaining mandatory environmental clearances and for flouting several applicable biodiversity and forest laws. As the blackbuck and blanket weavers along with their hero Boraiah await justice, this story echoes contemporary struggles in the forests, coasts and cities in India. The situation yet again begs for justification for a model of development that favours a few privileged beneficiaries while rendering farmers, shepherds, fisherfolk and weavers jobless, silences their dissent, endangers biodiversity and then depends on the very same beneficiaries to solve problems of unemployment, poverty and biodiversity conservation.
Jahnavi G Pai is an independent researcher and hold a Masters degree in Ecology and Environmental Sciences from Pondicherry University and a Post Graduate Diploma is Environmental Law from WWF-India. She has studied Giant Squirrels in the rainforests of Western Ghats to participating in socio-economic surveys of forest-dependent communities in and around protected areas in the grasslands of Bihar and mountains of Uttarakhand. She worked for six years at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, where she co-authored and coordinated the production of a bilingual field guide titled 'Treasures on Tiger Tracks'. With a keen interest in applying conservation science for policy-making, she later worked on identifying policies that India needs to adopt to mitigate an impending pollinator-decline which, if unaddressed, would severely affect food security. Currently she is carrying out a study on the biodiversity of the Amruthmahal Kavals and have been assisting lawyers at Alternative Law Forum and Environment Support Group, both Bangalore-based NGOs who have filed petitions on this issue in the High Court and the National Green Tribunal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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