Thursday, November 20, 2014

Coffee Estates in the midst of tiger habitat

Time’s up for Birla, TVS group

It is different strokes for different people. The poor and hapless are harassed and hounded out of their dwelling. But the rich and powerful are allowed to build posh bungalows. This is no exaggeration.

This story unfurls in the very heart of the Billigiriranga Swamy Temple (BRT) tiger reserve in Karnataka, India. The 542 sq km reserve is home to the critically endangered tiger. Leopards, wild dogs, bears, gaurs (Indian bison), elephants, spotted and barking deer thrive in this pristine habitat. It is also home to as many as 270 species of birds.

The flora is made up of mixed vegetation. The sound of rivulets, fed by shola forests, cascading down the valley is mesmerizing. If not for four coffee estates in the core area, BRT makes out to be a fairytale wildlife habitat. It is alluring at its best.

 Disturbingly, these estates are right in the midst of the elephant corridor, obstructing the movement of pachyderms into the adjacent forests of Tamil Nadu. Lack of palatable, nutritious vegetation has driven elephants into farm lands, leading to frequent man-animal conflict in the periphery of the reserve.

Worse, the estates store and use the water from the rivulets that flow through coffee plantations and release polluted water into the streams which are used by wildlife.

Tiger numbers have been increasing every year. The last count puts the figure at 56. That tigers have successfully bred in this fragmented habitat indicates that the numbers could increase if the undulating habitat is undisturbed.

To create an unflustered environment, the estates, which have trespassed 277 acres of leased forest land, should wind up forthwith. Despite defaulting on lease rent, they are not willing to cede ground. Instead, they are engaged in a legal battle with the Karnataka Forest Department (KFD).

Considering that the matter is in court, the KFD had in a last-ditch effort appealed to the estate owners to surrender the land in the interest of wildlife conservation. Though the letter (dated Sept 4, 2014), requesting them to join hands to conserve the pristine eco-system by keeping the habitat free of human interference, was sent to them during the first week of September 2014, the ‘land lords’ have failed to respond to this clarion call.

They are shy of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), though the land in question belongs to the government.

These estates are owned by some very big and successful industrialists who have contributed significantly to the country’s economy through their successful business enterprise.

Billigiri Rangan Coffee Estates (Bedaguli) and Nilgiri Plantation Ltd (Honnametti) are owned by the Kolkata-based Birla group. The Birla’s have given a Power of Attorney (PA) to B H Lakhani, who has been hauled up by the court for illegally felling trees and constructing a tank in the tiger reserve.

Emerald Haven Estates Limited (Beagle) belongs to the TVS group. Sangameshwara Coffee Estate (Attikan), which is located in revenue land abetting the tiger reserve, is owned by an industrialist from Mysore.

While at one extreme we plead with the powerful to save our eco-system, we are luring, also coercing, forest settlers (soligas) to relocate from the very mooring where their great, great grandfathers lived in harmony with the denizens of the forests.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has classified tiger reserves as critical wildlife habitats. Being inviolate areas there ought to be no human habitation. It is for this reason, over 1200 families have been displaced from the Bhadra and Bandipur tiger reserves.

But the Birla and TVS groups have scant regard for the NTCA guidelines. Going by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) diktat, all tiger states have declared eco-sensitive zones, which encompass the buffer zone.

Settlements have been razed in the fringe of the forest to implement the MoEF order. Resorts are being denied licenses to build permanent structures. Encroached forest land is being ruthlessly recovered in Karnataka and elsewhere.

But the Birla and TVS groups have scant regard for NTCA and MoEF regulations.

In gross violation, Emerald Haven Estates Ltd (TVS group) has built two expansive bungalows (pictures and video attached) in the very heart of the tiger country. It is in the process of completing another project. We found elephant foot prints barely five feet from this yet-to-be inaugurated

Considering their wealth and status in society, they should voluntarily relinquish their estates for the goodness of wildlife conservation. Perhaps, someone should educate them that our eco-system will not be the same if the tiger goes extinct. Aren’t we already reeling under the impact of global warming?

As forest and wildlife buffs, let us beseech these business tycoons to surrender their leased land to the government. If they are responsible citizens, they will. Else, they will be consigned to Veerappan’s league.

Joseph Hoover
Senior Journalist/ Member, Karnataka State Wildlife Board

 Observations of the Karnataka Forest department:

1. The total extent of forest lease land is 277 Acres 31 Guntas and 450 yards. It falls within the core area of the Tiger Reserve.

2. Coffee estates are located in the evergreen shola forests, where major streams and nullahs originate. Many streams and nullahs pass through these coffee estates, where the water is stored and used for coffee pulping and processing. Further the contaminated water is released to the natural streams, which are used by the wild animals. This issue has been raised in Hon’ble Lok Adalath.

3. Breach of trust through their inequitable acts and deeds and misrepresentation of facts. As per the agreement if any disputes or differences arises on this account the decision of the Chief Conservator of Forests (General), now PCCF (HOFF) in Karnataka will be final. C:\Documents and Settings\System-1\Desktop\Estate Eng Ltr 25-6-14.doc- S2 Instead he has prejudiciously dragged the issue to the court by twisting the facts thereby he totally violated the agreement condition.

4. Disobedience of court order: There is standing order from the court in OS No. 21/95 to pay the outstanding due. The lessee M/s. Nilgiri Plantations, Honnametti, more particularly their authorized person and the power of attorney holder, Sri. B. H. Lakhani has not bothered to comply with the court orders till today, thereby he has deliberately caused contempt of the said court orders, which needs to be dealt in accordance of law.

5. Present lease holders are not paying the lease rent to the government as per the existing government orders, but are sending the lease rent as per the old agreement. The notice had been send from this office to lease holders questioning their legality of existence and to produce the original documents of Government orders and lease agreement. Till now they have not complied.

6. Niligiri Plantation Limited, though belonging to one of the big companies, namely Birla Groups, is playing a vacillating and indecisive role in making the payment of lease rent to government, thereby becoming a defaulter.

7. Involvement in forest offence case: The power of attorney holder of Biligiri Rangan Coffee Estate Sri. B. H. Lakhani was involved in forest offence case FOC No. 3/2006-07 dtd. 08-08-2006 and FOC No. 05/2006-07 dtd. 27-09-2006 for tress pass and illegal felling of large number of trees in the leased area without the permission of forest department. Further, he was involved in illegal construction of tank in the leased area, diversion of natural water sources, mixing of chemicals into free flowing drinking water in the streams and rivers and causing damage to animal and bird life. Sri. B. H. Lakhani has been prosecuted in JMFC, Kollegal vide CC No. 171 of 2007 dtd. 04-04-2007.



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  2. Shameful. Instead of leading the way in conservation efforts, these so called 'responsible' corporates are openly flouting the law. They should i fact give back the said land and also be made to undertake afforestation in the same land they plunderedmaking with a hefty fine. Hope our judiciary is up to the task. Either way, they better hide their faces under the pillow...