Mangaluru: Dakshina Kannada may have been the cynosure of all eyes in the recent past, having been crowned as one of the cleanest cities in the country and for being considered a district that may shortly be able to boast of a smart city, in its principal city, Mangaluru.
(Left): The proposed plan of the new DC’s Office which was due to be built in Padil (Right)
Smart cities require smart decisions – ones which promote sustainable development, and some recent decisions, by the powers that be, may cause a dent in that ideal. Its usp, a clean and green environment, may be under threat, if one of recent administrative decisions is carried through to its conclusion – the decision to shift the District Deputy Commissioner’s Office to a deemed forest in Padil, which is currently under Karnataka State Forest Industries Corporation Ltd, thereby shelving what can be called as an ecosystem in itself.
The land in question is a quasi Bio Diversity Park. There are over 478 trees here of different species which provide food and shelter to a number of endangered wild species of animals, birds and insects. Thus it meets all the criteria of a ‘deemed forest’ under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.
The district Deputy Commissioner AB Ibrahim has always promoted the idea of shifting his office and all other offices housed in the current DC office building to this area in Padil, citing that it would be ‘helpful’ for the people from Taluks other than Mangaluru.
He has also said, on several occasions, that, as his current office is located in the heart of the city, it causes traffic jams on a regular basis due to the inflow of traffic and frequent protests outside his office.
DK Environment Minister B Ramanath Rai has also been of the same opinion. However, according to an insider, the maximum number of vehicles visiting the DC office on a daily basis does not exceed 70! The source, further adds that the traffic congestion is due to the traffic attracted by the Taluk Office and the RTO and not the DC’s office.
Battle begun, only half done:
Opposing the decision of the administration, which is keen on shifting the administrative office, a group of environmentalists, who believed that the decision had grave environmental consequences, moved the High Court for a stay.
The High Court turned down the Writ Petition stating, “It is not that the property is allotted to a private organisation to acquire the unlawful gain. Construction is made on KSFIC land for the purpose of government offices to help the public. The bench thinks that the government has not exercised its jurisdiction illegally or exceeded its jurisdiction in granting such permission. The Writ Petition is therefore rejected”.
However, it seemed quite like the court of law did not choose to take into account or explain fully its rationale for dismissing the petition.
The counter petition filed by the DC to the Writ Petition filed by the activists, states, “The Petition is devoid of merits and is based on false and misleading submissions. The construction of the office complex in the said land will be a District Government Offices Complex and will not be for the purpose of housing merely the office of the DC, as stated by the applicant.”
“The contention that the said land is a deemed forest is factually incorrect. There are only a few typical urban green trees such as rain trees, teak wood, acacia, casuarinas, bamboo and a few jack fruit trees which are planted by the KSFC as per their requirement. Specifically, there are no naturally grown trees in the area. Hence, Prima facie, it cannot be called a deemed forest. There are no nesting birds, mongoose, peacock, peahens, toddy cats and wild bats habiting in the area, as stated in the petition to typify the area as a biodiversity park.”
The DC in his Counter Petition also attached newspaper cuttings and news web links pertaining to the efforts of the District Administration in conservation and protection of the local flora and fauna.
However, undeterred by the judgment, the activists went on to approach the Green Tribunal on November 23, 2014 and got some relief. Realizing the possible hazards of the project if implemented, the Tribunal ordered a stay on the project. A letter issued by the Tribunal to this effect states: “The Tribunal is satisfied that there exists a substantial question connected to and concerned with environment and ecology to be decided by the Tribunal. Hence the application is admitted.”
Examining the study materials carefully, the Tribunal further states: “After hearing the applicant, who appeared in person and looking into the materials made available, the Tribunal is of the view that it is a fit case where the third respondent should be restrained from cutting or felling the trees in the said Survey Nos 23/6a1b2, 23/4b, 23/12b, 23/6a2b, 23/6b and 23/3 totally measuring 5.89 acres situated in Padil, Mangaluru until further orders”.
Following the stay order, the District Administration was asked to file a counter petition on or by October 28, 2015. When asked about it, the DC replied that he had already filed the counter petition and was confident of winning the case.
In the application to vacate the ex-parte interim stay, the affidavit filed by the DC (a copy of which is available with News Karnataka) states that the petition filed by the activists in untenable in terms of law and on facts and merits, and sought outright dismissal.
Raising another ‘objectionable’ point, the DC stated, “The High Court had dismissed the petition on 14 November 2014 and the applicant approached the Tribunal after three months from the date of disposal and no justification is provided for the same, which is out of stipulated specific limitation period and therefore be quashed.
The affidavit also states that the land is not a deemed forest land in terms of applicable law or even otherwise. “The land belongs to the Karnataka State Forest Industries Corporation Limited (KSFIC) and as part of the larger area, there is an old mill shed and offices and staff quarters of the said corporation. There are also concrete roads and railway stations abutting the land”.
“If the ex-parte interim order dated 29 September 2015 is not vacated, grave injustice would be caused to the respondents and public welfare and government projects will be put to a stop for no valid reason”, it reads.
The fate of the land in question is now solely dependent on the verdict to be announced by the Tribunal.
“Cutting of these trees will be irreparable loss for the people of Mangaluru”
Expressing agony over the lack of empathy displayed by the DA, activist Suma Nayak, while speaking to News Karnataka, said that the administration had mentioned that the land in question was futile and was of no use to the KSFIC. She outrightly objected this statement and counter argued that a land with over 478 trees cannot be called as a “futile land”.
“Apart from the precious trees, the deemed forest in Padil contains peacocks, peahens, toddy cats, mongoose, bats, butterflies, birds etc. If the project sees the light of the day, gone will be these mighty trees. Gone will be the precious epiphytes growing on these hoary trees – orchids, ferns and herbs”, she added.
“Gone will be the living space for the birds which will not return to nest in the new trees several years later after being driven away. Gone will be the unique ecological niche preserved for thousands of years which can never be restored again. The cutting of these trees will be irreparable loss for the people of Mangaluru”, she said.
Report by experts from St Aloysius College
A report on the bio-diversity of the KSFIC land in Padil, prepared by the Biology and Zoology Departments of St Aloysius College, Mangaluru states that the area can be considered to be a ‘Dendropark’ representing the fast dwindling flora of Mangaluru. Currently, about 478 trees there are growing naturally and have great environmental significance.”
“It must have taken centuries for them to reach this size. The strong old trees with sprawling branches are also home for a large number of bat populations. They also form refuge for a number of birds and honeybees which are all fast disappearing from urban areas”, it said.
Dr Harish Joshi, former HOD, Department of Zoology who is a specialist in frog species noted that the area is home to a large number of reptiles like pythons and cobras and frogs, some of which are considered to be endangered.
“Frogs need a very special environment to live and the very fact that such a large number of frogs are found here is a proof of its being a unique niche”, he said.
An alternative cut at the roots
In a Karnataka Development Programme (KDP) meet held at DK Deputy Commissioner’s Office on 21 June 2014 headed by Minister for forest, ecology and environment and DK District In-charge Minister Ramanath Rai, Mangaluru and South MLA JR Lobo had suggested that in Urwa Store and Bondel, there are as many as 421 government houses which are half a century old and desperately need to be renovated. If these shelters are converted into apartments, an area huge enough to build the DC office can be made available.
In the subsequent KDP meet held on 19 July 2014, a senior engineer from the Public Works Department supported MLA Lobo’s plan and said that he had verified the land proposed for the new DC’s office and that establishing the office there would be a good move. However, neither Minister Rai nor DC Ibrahim was keen on moving ahead with the project there.
When the DC was questioned about this recently, he said that the land in Urwa Store would be developed gradually and that there were no plans currently to venture into the project. He further went on to say that the forest land in Padil was best suited to build his office.
Suitable alternatives provided by environmentalists
A set of experts, speaking to News Karnataka, opined that in order to reduce the bustling traffic outside the DC’s office, a circular model for the main bus stands i.e. State Bank and Mangaladevi can be put in place. According to the model, buses are to be operated between two key stops with a calculated feasible distance.
This will ensure that a maximum of 55-60 buses are good enough for carrying the public within the Mangaluru city limits. At present as many as 490 buses operate within city limits, thus causing chaos. They also bat for shifting the RTO office as according to them, the RTO is the one attracting most of the crowds and traffic.
Padil forest land eyed for financial benefits from Timber?
The reasons cited by the District Administration to shift the DC office to Padil sound shallow, as the ground reality favours the activists. Activists allege that the deemed forest is eyed only for its treasure trove of timber, and there seems no counter to this argument of the activists.
On the other hand, preserving the status quo of this forest of 5.89 acres located very close to the heart of the Mangaluru city has the advantage of providing a much needed green cover for the industrially growing commercial coastal city, and not creating avoidable anthropogenic pressure that indiscriminate construction and industrialization can bring.
For the moment, the birds continue to perch and twitter in their traditional homeland, but their fate hinges on the verdict of the Green tribunal.