Guest Post by AR VASAVI
January, 26th, 2016, the 66th year of celebrating the declaration of India as a ‘Republic’ and the passage of the Indian Constitution, witnessed an unusual gathering at an auditorium at Challakere town (Chitradurga District, Karnataka). Local residents, farmers, shepherds and a number of environmentalists, academics, reporters, and students from various towns and cities of Karnataka participated at a public hearing on the appropriation by the governments of India and Karnataka of more than ten thousand acres of a common grazing land called the Amrut Mahal Kaval which had been allocated to various public and private sectors for the construction of a futuristic ‘science city’. Organised by Amrit Mahal Kaval Hitarakshana Haagu Horata Samithi [Amrit Mahal Kaval Conservation and Struggle Committee] the public hearing was to assess the pros and cons of such land allocation. Local shepherds and farmers from the surrounding villages highlighted the impact of the loss of their grasslands (kavals). In their eloquent and well-thought-out statements, the local residents sought to retain their rights to the grassland (a collectively maintained resource) and to the livelihoods and life that it enabled. They questioned the undemocratic process by which their land had been appropriated and commented on the nature of the nation’s institutions. Although they had all been invited, none of the representatives of the government departments and the organisations which had received land deemed it worthy to attend this public hearing. This meet and the visit to the Kavals (now cordoned off with a double boundary; an outer wire fence and an inner stone, concrete and steel meshed 15 feet high fence, reminiscent of high-security prisons) were testimony to the unusual trajectory of the Indian Republic where the voices of common people are increasingly silenced and the state, and its institutions of the military, the science establishment, and some private players have gained ascendency.
This large-scale grabbing of the Challakere grasslands needs to be questioned not only because of the ecological devastation that such massive construction will have on this centuries-old commons but on the functioning of democracy and on the role of the military and science establishments in the life of common people. Without public discussions and due processes mandated by various laws and regulations, between 2008-2010, the Government of Karnataka allocated 10,000 acres of this biodiversity-rich, grassland ecosystem for various defence, nuclear, industrial, infrastructure, institutional and commercial purposes. Not recognising the collective, community-based use and maintenance of the Kavals, the government has declared the area fit for construction of this new ‘Science City’ in which issues such as compensation, rehabilitation, and resettlement etc are not even considered. A comprehensive report by the Environment Support Group (ESG), Bengaluru provides a summary of the process and impact of such land grabbing:
“ Though these decisions may have had the approval of the Karnataka Cabinet, the entire exercise was undertaken in comprehensive violation of various applicable laws, norms, procedures highlighting provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 (and Rules), Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and went ahead without involving any of the local elected governments, local MLAs, and relevant departments dealing with forests, lakes, agriculture, animal husbandry, horticulture, commons lands, planning, etc. As a consequence of the secretive and unilateral decision-making that was engaged with in diverting the said Kavals, the true nature of the environmental and social impacts of the project has been hidden from directly and indirectly impacted communities, relevant regulatory authorities, and the public at large. The proposed investments are all highly sensitive, hazardous and will destroy the grasslands, its rare biodiversity and livelihoods of thousands in over 70 villages[i].”
The projects proposed at Challakere and the land allocated to various organisations are the following:
- Defence Research Development Organisation/ Aeronautical Development Establishment (promoting a weaponised drone testing and manufacturing facility) Land allocated: 4,290 acres
- Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (promoting a special materials and nuclear enrichment facility, for both civilian and defence purposes): Land Allocated: 1,810 acres.
- Indian Institute of Science (promoting a Synchrotron and Advanced Aerospace Research Centre): Land Allocated: 1,500 acres
- Indian Space Research Organisation (setting up a centre for Spacecraft Technologies): Land Allocated: 573 acres
- Karnataka Small Scale Industries Development Corporation (promoting various ancillary industrial units): Land Allocated: 300 acres
- Sagitaur Ventures Pvt. Ltd. (promoting a solar park): Land Allocated: 1,250 acres.
- There is also the possibility that an additional 10,000 acres may be acquired to locate a Brigade of the Indian Army.
The significance of the Kavals must be discerned from the fact that they represent one of the few cases of common lands that have over centuries been collectively held and used by customary norms and have provided viable and sustainable livelihoods to the people in the region. While experiments in forging collective property and economies have met with large-scale violence (as in the failed efforts of the Soviet Union and China), the Kavals are one example of how local socio-cultural institutions sustain a complex agro-pastoral economy and society. What the Gandhian economist, J.C. Kumarappa, considered as imperative for a nation like India, that of an ‘economy of permanence’ are all too evident in Challakere’s regional and cultural economy. Resilience, sustainability, and integration are woven into the human-land relationships. Sheep and goats that graze on the commons provide wool that is spun into blankets which are famed for their durability and warmth (and sourced by many including the Indian army) and their meat is the backbone of a flourishing meat industry. The dry cultivation belt yields groundnuts which form the basis of an edible oil industry and millets are the basis of their staple diet. Adding to this is the rich bio-diversity (the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican, a variety of endemic flora that have medicinal value, the highly threatened Blackbuck, Indian Wolf, etc.) that has been sustained and which makes it a habitat worth preserving. At a time of global warming and climate change, when there is search for viable and sustainable cases of climate-adapted economies, it is indeed ironic and tragic that a viable and self-sustaining habitat is sought to be destroyed.
In addition to the threats that the proposed ‘Scientific City’ poses to the ecology and livelihoods of the local people, the dangers of promoting such a military-nuclear-science-industrial complex are all too imminent. A recent article[ii], based on research supported by the U.S. based Center for Public Integrity and published in the ‘Foreign Policy’ journal highlights how the proposed uranium processing plant at Challakere will feed into India’s larger military and nuclear ambitions:
“Western analysts, speaking on condition of anonymity, say, however, that preparation for this enrichment effort has been underway for four years, at a second top-secret site known as the Rare Materials Plant, 160 miles to the south of Challakere, near the city of Mysore. Satellite photos of that facility from 2014 have revealed the existence of a new nuclear enrichment complex that is already feeding India’s weapons program and, some Western analysts maintain, laying the groundwork for a more ambitious hydrogen bomb project. It is effectively a test bed for Challakere, they say, a proving ground for technology and a place where technicians can practice producing the highly enriched uranium the military would need”.
The article goes on to detail India’s ambition to join the nuclear weaponisation club in which Pakistan and North Korea have the lead. Critiquing the ‘high security, zero accountability’ way in which a ‘Science City’ is being built in the Challakere area, the article warns of the dangers of promoting such militarisation despite the numerous risks involved. In addition to all these issues, there are several questions that need to be raised about the loss of the Amrut Mahal Kavals: In a country in which land deprivation is severe and the average size of cultivated land is only 1.15 hectares, is it reasonable and just to allocate thousands of acres to science and technology endeavours? Can an exclusive, high-security ‘Science City’ sustain itself when basic resources such as adequate water are not available? At a time when international discussions call for local, decentralised, and sustainable models of development, can such a gargantuan enterprise that envisions a gated lot of ten thousand plus acres be viable? Promoted with a lack of transparency and debate, and overriding the local people’s concerns, Challakere’s kaval or commons is sought to be transformed into a ‘Science City’ that will meet the aspirations of a nation that is seeking to build itself into a military and science power. While militarisation itself forebodes the erosion of democracy and peace, the promotion of activities and projects on the grounds of enabling science makes a mockery of science itself. How will a synchrotron, built over the graveyard of a once-thriving common land, enhance the reach and spread of science? What cost must agricultural and pastoral peoples pay to enable a select few to realise their aspirations mediated by high science and technology dreams? While the proposed synchrotron for IISc may meet some fundamental research work for the science community, are 1500 acres required for this? What are the dangers of locating these science endeavours in a locale that will also house a nuclear-military establishment?
That science can and must be built on democratic norms and that it is the onus of scientists to uphold humanitarian and ecological priorities is now well-recognised. Rather than big science and technology, the current predicament of the planet requires a plurality of small sciences that can heal and repair the tremendous damages that big science and technology have wrought on the planet. At a time of global climate change, Zika, and other epidemics that are spreading from the erosion of localised habitats, what cautions must be exercised to retain diverse eco-socio-cultural niches that also have their autonomy? Recognising the resilience of varied habitats, such as that in Challakere, would be one way for democratised science to engage with the lives of citizens. Science need not seek to conquer nature and can now seek ways in which to be a companion to nature (as in the efforts by the biomimicry group). Yet, the silence from India’s science establishment over the Challakere project/s is deafening. Will the high-tech ‘Science City’ that will house potentially high-risk activities (such as uranium processing, testing of bomb-bearing drones, etc.) be able to assure the safety, health and well-being of the local community? Will the proposed ‘Science City’ be an exclusive citadel that is built on the land, labour and memories of these people but which will not be able to cater to their own needs and aspirations? Questioning the establishment of the ‘Science City’ is to not only recognise the ecological worth of the Kavals but also the citizenship rights of the local people. Since the land allocation, the construction of the boundary walls, and the plans for the ‘Science City’ have not been done in consultation with the people, how legitimate will this be in a democratic nation and who will bear onus for the impact that this will have?
The public hearing at Challakere on Jan 26th rightly had as its slogan, ‘Protecting Local Rights is Protection of National Security”. One can only hope that the science and technology establishment in India will recognise this and will let the Amrut Mahal Kaval be its self: an open commons that has been sustained by the local community over centuries and that in turn sustains the local economy and society.
Forfeiting Our Commons: A Case for Protecting and Conserving Challakere’s Amrit Mahal Kavals asLivelihoods-Supporting, Biodiversity-Rich and Ecologically-Sensitive Grassland Ecosystems. Report Submitted to the Committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal. Environment Support Group: Bengaluru. June. 2013.
[ii] India Is Building a Top-Secret Nuclear City to Produce Thermonuclear Weapons’. Adrian Levy. Dec 2015. Foreign Policy.
A.R. Vasavi, a Social Anthropologist, is based in Karnataka.