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URBAN LUNG SPACE

Bengaluru activists up in arms against attempt to grab Hesaraghatta grasslands

Print edition : Sep 06, 2022 T+T-

Bengaluru activists up in arms against attempt to grab Hesaraghatta grasslands

The manmade reservoir that is part of the Hesaraghatta grasslands.

The manmade reservoir that is part of the Hesaraghatta grasslands. | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

On September 5, the Board for Wildlife is to decide on protecting the city’s last big lung space.

Bengaluru was once fondly known the garden city and the city of tanks before it became a polluted concrete jungle with a burgeoning population. And now, as more and more areas come under pressure from a plethora of human activities, uncertainty hangs over a crucial lung space that will unarguably influence Bengaluru’s continuation as a liveable city if urgent conservational intervention is not initiated.

On September 5, the Karnataka Board for Wildlife under the stewardship of Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai will decide whether it should accept a proposal to notify and protect the Hesaraghatta grasslands, the last big lung space for the city, as a conservation reserve, or reject it as it had done in January 2021 under the chairmanship of the then Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa.

Acting on a petition filed by the ecologist Vijay Nishanth, the Karnataka High Court had reverted to the Board to reconsider its refusal to declare the 5,010-acre Hesaraghatta grasslands as a conservation reserve.

M.R. Seetharam, Mahesh Bhat, and Sreenivasan Ramakrishnan filed a separate petition that was clubbed together with Vijay Nishanth’s petition.

Also read: Bengaluru’s water woes

In 2021 the High Court had directed the State government to ensure that the existing status of the Hesaraghatta grasslands should not be altered in any manner.

Distinctive ecosystem

The Hesaraghatta grasslands, about 18 kilometres from Bengaluru, form a distinctive ecosystem that is a unique mixture of 356 acres of grasslands, over 1,000 acres of scrubland, and the 1,912-acre Hesaraghatta reservoir created during the last decade of the 19th century, besides hundreds of acres of greenery.

The importance of the grasslands cannot be overemphasised. The Hesaraghatta lakebed and its surrounding scrub forests and grasslands in the northwest, and Bannerghatta to the south, with patches of greenery in between at Cubbon Park and Lal Bagh, are the only large lung spaces and green habitat in the Bengaluru region.

An important repository of biodiversity that is critical to the city’s water security, the Hesaraghatta reservoir is one of the two major watershed reservoirs of the Arkavathi river and is an important element in the government’s Yettinahole river diversion project and proposed rejuvenation of the Arkavathi river basin, which aims to provide water to rural Bengaluru.

Several studies have indicated that the grasslands, a unique heaven for many forms of flora and fauna, host 39 native species of scrubs, 10 species of mammals, five species of reptiles, and 133 species of birds, apart from dozens of species of butterflies, including the very rare Lilac silverline ( Cigaritis lilacinus).

The scrub jungle is a nesting place for many huge birds, with the winter months bringing many birds from Central Asia and the Himalayan region. According to entomologists, the area is home to several unique insect species, including Astroscopometopus hesaraghattaensis.

Also read: Where are Bengaluru’s lakes?

With the September 5 dateline looming large, ecologists and environmentalists who fear that the grasslands will be converted into a concrete jungle have been organising awareness campaigns both on social media and on the street, inviting and encouraging bird watchers to visit the grasslands and post images on social media platforms. They are also documenting the region’s rich flora and fauna.

According to the activist Mahesh Bhat, who has been in the forefront of the campaign to protect the grasslands for 18 years, activists are preparing a dossier for the Karnataka government as to why it “should mandatorily save the grasslands”.

Speaking to Frontline, Bhat said: “The government should declare the Hesaraghatta grasslands as a conservation reserve at any cost.”

The Karnataka Forest Department, along with the Animal Husbandry Department, had chalked out a proposal to declare the 5,010-acre land area as “Greater Hesaraghatta Grassland Conservation Reserve” and placed it before the board, which rejected it, citing commercial considerations.

The State government had even planned to hand over 140 acres of land in Hesaraghatta for the construction of a film city, which was opposed by green activists.

Former Chief Minister Yediyurappa had even declared that a theme park would be established on a 100-acre land parcel in Hesaraghatta, during his Budget speech on March 8, 2021.

Also read: Wetlands in peril

A member of the State Board for Wildlife said that in January 2021 the board rejected the proposal to declare the area as a conservation reserve allegedly under duress from a non-board member, the Yelahanka legislator S.R. Vishwanath, who reportedly opposed the idea and convinced Yediyurappa against it saying it would impact farmers. Curiously, Yediyurappa, as chairman of the board, rejected the proposal without seeking the opinion of the other members.

Bhat said: “This is a grassland and scrub forest for a reason. We are on the southern tip of the Deccan Plateau. Average annual rainfall is less than 1,000 mm. The land is rocky. Grass is one of the most resilient living beings. Their roots can survive the dry periods and shoot up when it rains. Scrub has evolved to survive without much water and in dry weather.”