CHENNAI: At a time when drought is sucking life out of the Cauvery delta region affecting lakhs of people in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Kerala’s move to go ahead with the grand expansion plans of the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (KVASU) in the deemed reserve forest of Wayanad district destroying 100 acres of the Kabini watershed area has evoked sharp criticism from environmentalists.
The proposed constructions are coming up on grasslands nested between evergreen and shola forests that are integral part of the Project Elephant. The region is ranked among the top sites in the country receiving highest amount of rainfall estimated at 6,000 mm annually on an average. It feeds almost 90 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of water into the Kabini River, which is the main tributary of the Cauvery.
Though the Forest Department, Kerala High Court and Union Environment Ministry have issued stop memos on the construction activity, the university officials have reportedly burnt large tracts of grasslands two days ago preparing to resume the work. The Express has managed to access some of the photographs.
Interestingly, the case came up before the NGT, Chennai on Tuesday during which Justice P. Jyothimani passed critical remarks over the Kerala government’s actions and threatened to order demolition of the university buildings. However, he sought further technical clarifications from the government and the university before adjourning the case to the first week of May.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF,) in its reply to the NGT, a copy of which is available with the Express, has literally called the project a ‘bluff’. A site inspection of the area in question was carried out by the Chief Conservator of Forests (Central), Regional Office, MoEF, Bengaluru along with the DFO, South Wayanad Division and authorities of the Kerala Veterinary & Animal Sciences University during which it was revealed that 341 hectares (843 acres) was diverted for the re-settlement of landless tribals in the re-Survey No.172 of Kunnathidavaka village of Vythiri taluk.
However, only 121 hectares had been distributed to tribals and rest of the land was being used for other purposes, mainly for establishment of the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University over an extent of 100 acres for which no approval under Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 was obtained. The reply also confirms large-scale cutting of hillocks for construction of new structures.
Speaking to Express, P Dhanesh, Wildlife Warden, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, confirmed that the land in which construction work to be done is a part of main landscape Pookottumala connecting the mountain belts of Wayanad and Kozhikode districts forming a continuous stretch of forests.
Former V-C Refutes Charges
Dr B Ashok, former Vice-Chancellor of Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University and currently secretary of general administration, told Express that since the matter is in the court, he could not comment. However, he said there was a technical issue over whether the land has the forest status or not. The university says it is not a forest land, but the Forest Department has different view. “After the stop memos were issued, there haven’t been any constructions. He added that if the court sought any clarification from him, he would oblige.
Topography of Wayanad
Wayanad is a mid-level plateau llying in the northwest corner of the Nilgiris. Placed on the southern tip of the Deccan plateau, Wayanad’s prime glory is the majestic Western Ghats ranging from an altitude of 600 to 2100 m above sea level. It is an east-sloping, gently undulating, medium elevation plateau abruptly descending in the west to Kerala plains. The east-flowing Kabini and its tributaries water almost the entire area of Wayanad district. Total catchment area is 1934.50 sq. km. The river Kabini has a basin length of 56 km in Wayanad.
Shola Grasslands maintain Water Cycles
The Sholas are a mosaic of mountain evergreen forests and grasslands. They are found only in high altitude (>1500 m ASL) regions within the tropics, and are limited to the southern part of the Western Ghats. They are also vitally important in keeping the water cycles alive. They retain most of the rain they get over the monsoons and release it slowly through the year via a network of streams and rivers. The microclimate and the soil properties within the shola have been found very conducive for retention of precious water.