American conservation biologist Professor Paul R. Ehrlich put the importance of biodiversity in an ecosystem into perspective through the 'rivet popper hypothesis'. It compares the rivets of an aeroplane with species of an ecosystem. He proposed that if all the passengers on board started popping one rivet (causing a key species to go extinct), the plane would stay in flight initially (the ecosystem will function), but the cumulative impact of each rivet removed would mean that the plane will fall apart (the ecosystem will eventually collapse). Going higher up in the order, the same could be said about the role of multiple ecosystems functioning as rivets on the disintegrating plane that is Bengaluru's ecology.
The Hesaraghatta lakebed, 30 km North-West of Bengaluru, is a fragile ecosystem spread across 1912 acres and surrounded by a 345-acre grassland. Together with the catchment, the unique habitat spans over 5000 acres, housing around 235 bird species, 400 insect species and 100 insect species.
It is a haven for migratory species, some of which are also listed as threatened by IUCN: the European Roller, Greater Spotted Eagle and the Lesser Florican. As many as 23 parasites discovered in the grasslands are new to science, and two species have even reappeared after over a century. Among the occasionally-spotted are also the smooth-coated otter and Indian leopard, both listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list.
The rare Lesser Florican, an endangered endemic Bustard, was spotted after over 100 years in Hesaraghatta and is listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Conservation Act (1972). Credit: Mahesh Bhat
Why Hesaraghatta Is Under Threat
The State Wildlife Board last month rejected a seven-year-old proposal to declare the 5010-acre land as a conservation reserve. The decision was taken in a meeting chaired by Chief Minister Yediyurappa, according to sources in the Karnataka State Board for Wildlife. BJP MLA from Yelhanka, S. R. Vishwanath, who was present in the meeting that was exclusively for the board members to attend, cited the loss of access to the road passing through the grassland and opposed the proposal. Scientific evidence backing the proposal was overlooked, and it was dropped from the agenda as the area in question has high real estate value.
Most people—including the MLA—tend to confuse conservation reserves with protected forests. A 'conservation reserve' status only forbids land-use change for the area of land. This means that traditional users of the land, like cattle grazers (or motorists in this case), will not be barred from further carrying out their activities if the proposal is revisited. What will be barred, however, is any activity that fundamentally alters the characteristics of the land, such as construction.
Locals and environmentalists have pulled out all stops over the last decade to protect the land from yielding to commercial interests. Almost 30 years ago, the location was proposed by former Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde for a film city project, but it has not materialised despite three full decades of lobbying from groups in the Kannada film industry and politician promises.
Over the years, governments had their own preference for the location of the film city: SM Krishna proposed in 1999 that the film city be set up in Hesaraghatta. In 2017, Congress CM Siddaramaiah announced that Mysuru would get it, only for his successor JDS' H D Kumaraswamy to propose yet another location, Ramanagara, for the film city. In 2019, BJP CM Yediyurappa said that Karnataka's film city would come up in the Roerich Estate in Bengaluru, which drew heavy backlash from environmentalists for being an eco-sensitive zone. The prospect of a film city has come full circle, with the government now mulling Hesaraghatta as the proposed site.
The proposed Conservation Reserve is a wintering ground for migratory birds of prey from Central Asia and Northern India and a catchment of the Arkavathy river. Some of the bird and insect species found here are on the verge of extinction or critically endangered. Credit: Mahesh Bhat
Using Grasslands For Film City, Not Good Idea
A NITI Ayog report on grasslands and deserts notes that grasslands are the most neglected ecosystems by the Environment Ministry. Not only some of the most threatened species call India's grasslands home, but these ecosystems as carbon sinks are also more resilient than forests, contrary to popular belief and therefore sequester more carbon dioxide emissions in unstable climates.
"We still live in the colonial levels of ignorance. We have no understanding of the value of our ecosystems. Our governments still use obsolete nomenclature like 'wastelands' which the British colonial government used to term lands that had no private exploitative value," Bengaluru environmentalist Sandeep Anirudhan told The Logical Indian.
"It is ridiculous as there are no wastelands. Our education system—again a colonial legacy—is ill-equipped to educate citizens," he said.
In the absence of any constitutionally guaranteed protection for ecologically fragile grasslands, the situation at Hesaraghatta has rapidly exacerbated even without construction. A study conducted by ecologists in 2013 concluded that seemingly benign recreational activities like bird-watching and bird photography are eating into the natural vegetation of the site. In such a situation, building an entire film city may prove to be a disaster.
An extensive vehicular track of 43 km existed in the area as wildlife enthusiasts chased, cornered and tired birds, often offroading in pursuit of a few shots. Driving in the grassland has become increasingly popular, especially since the sighting of the European Roller and the likes. Unchecked, unethical recreation alone is responsible for the loss of 136 hectares of habitat for these rare migratory birds and butterflies that are highly specific about the host plant.
Unregulated movement of four-wheelers defiles the unique landscape of Hesaraghatta. Credit: Mahesh Bhat
The detailed proposal to declare the entire area as a 'Conservation Reserve' under Section 36A of the Wildlife Protection Act was submitted to the State Forest Department in 2014 by Bengaluru-based photographer and filmmaker Mahesh Bhat in collaboration with two ecologists. It noted that the Hesaraghatta ecosystem is exposed to multiple anthropogenic stressors like sand mining, large-scale tree plantation and unregulated vehicular movement. Water-intensive agriculture and construction around it have resulted in water levels plummeting from 70ft to at least 600ft and going down to over 1000ft.
Speaking to The Logical Indian, Bhat mentioned the changing land-use pattern around the proposed conservation area. "Luckily, all of this 5000 acres belongs to the government, so there's no change in the inside area. However, the surrounding land —as it belongs to the private society—has been slowly changing," he said.
"Hesaraghatta is growing, and houses and restaurants are coming up. This kind of change is given. Garbage, though, has been a problem. It keeps piling up as the construction is increasing each day, and the government has no clue how to handle garbage. It's a pan-India phenomenon."
Bengaluru's Ecological Collapse
Bengaluru, which was once known as the Garden City, has now transformed into a grey cityscape dominated by concrete and conglomerates. Back in 1973, urban Bengaluru's tree cover was just under 70 per cent. Rapid, unceasing expansion during the 1990s and after have left multiple areas with less than 3 per cent tree cover.
Hesaraghatta is the last remaining grassland in the vicinity of a city whose Revised Master Plan (2015) did away with several hundreds of lakes, forests and wetlands that have traditionally delineated the local terrain.
Ornithologist Dr Krishna M B, a co-author of the 2013 study on the impact of bird photography, said, "From a conservation point of view, or from a cultural, heritage, ecological and perhaps even the climatic perspective, it's imperative that we conserve every last one of these natural ecosystems that survived Bengaluru's bad city-planning and habitat destruction: from the Turahalli forest in South Bengaluru to Bannerghatta again in South Bengaluru to the one in North and the lakes as well."
Giving a fresh perspective on the importance of conservation of all wildlife, including avian, he said, "Why is it that we need to have birds amongst us? They are the natural warning signals against chemicals and pollution. In the case of Minamata, people dying due to pollution didn't draw attention. It was the death of birds that highlighted the threat of mercury poisoning. Similarly, DDT and chlorinated hydrocarbons were discovered because they started killing birds."
Ecologist Dr Seshadri K S was the lead author in the 2013 report and also helped Mahesh Bhat put together the proposal for conservation of the lakebed. "Hesarghatta is what we call the type locality for several insects, one of which is Neodusmetia Sangwani," he said, talking about the potential of the biodiversity at the site.
"It was discovered in Hesarghatta by Dr Subbarao and became the first case of effective biological control in the world that saved millions of dollars in the United States. There was a pest that broke out in Texas in the 1960s, and Dr Subbarao, who worked in IBAR as the chief entomologist, introduced it to the United States singlehandedly saving the golf industry," Seshadri added.
The situation at Hesaraghatta, as it stands, is rife with uncertainty. While 345-acres of the grasslands were fenced off following public interest litigation filed in 2012, the rest of the area remains vulnerable and at the mercy of the government. Should the land—that now belongs to the Department of Animal Husbandry—get denotified, or a part of it earmarked for the film city, the petitioner Mahesh Bhat will have the liberty to approach the court as upheld by the High Court of Karnataka.
It is worth noting that the existing film studio in Bengaluru called Kanteerava Studios is a 25-acre public facility that can be enhanced to support the shooting of Kannada films with state of the art technology in a time and age where computer-generated imagery and on-location shoots are central to big-film production.
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