Environmentalists and concerned residents fear destruction in the name of development after the rejection a plea to grant Bengaluru's Hesaraghatta lake and adjacent grasslands protected status | Photo: Bala Bhat/ Shutterstock

Continued neglect an existential threat for India’s grasslands

With no protective policy in place, the country’s once dominant grasslands, essential for climate mitigation, have been shrinking under pressure from development and human activities 

Ripples flow gently in the shallow waters of the Hesaraghatta lake or what’s left of it. Located 30 km to the north-west of Bengaluru, the lake was an important source of water to the city until the early 1990s. The lakebed spans around 1,912 acres, but the entire catchment area is about 5,000 acres and a small part surrounding the lakebed, around 350 acres, is the last remaining grassland in the Bangalore region.

KS Seshadri, an ecologist from IISc, Bengaluru, said, “That small part of grassland in Hesaraghatta is what is keeping the ecosystem together. The patch of grass is key for several threatened species such as the lesser florican and several species of Harriers which migrate to India.”

The area is an important hotspot of biodiversity and is home to over 200 species of birds, several mammals, butterflies and insects. Many endangered and vulnerable species such as leopards and smooth coated otters have been spotted here.

But the biodiversity and ecology of these grasslands have been under constant threat from development and human activities. 

In 2011, the Bangalore Development Authority went on a tree plantation drive, digging up holes to plant saplings, most of which did not survive eventually. A 2013 report by Seshadri and others found that bird photographers drove their vehicles over the dry lakebed to chase and photograph the birds, causing damage to the ecology. 

Last year, the Karnataka government announced in the state budget that ₹500 crore would be allocated for building a film city, which was speculated to be in Hesaraghatta. In this year’s state budget, the government announced a theme park on 100 acres in Hesaraghatta for the exhibition and training of native livestock. 

Development trumps ecology 

Concerned citizens and environmentalists have been calling for the conservation of the Hesaraghatta grasslands. Finally, a proposal for conservation was tabled by the forest department at the state wildlife board meeting in January 2021. 

Joseph Hoover, member of the wildlife board of Karnataka, said, “The department of animal husbandry and the forest department sat together and after much dilly-dallying decided to propose the land be declared as a conservation reserve.”

The state animal husbandry department owns 3,500 acres of the 5,000 acres proposed for the conservation reserve, and has leased some of the land to the central animal husbandry department, which runs several institutes in the area such as the Central Poultry Breeding Farm and the Central Cattle Breeding Farm.

The proposal was, however, rejected by the chief minister, who is also the chair of the Board. According to the minutes (in Kannada) of the meeting, Alok Vishwanath, son of an MLA, whose recent appointment to the board was deemed controversial, opposed the proposal stating that declaring the area as a conservation reserve would deprive the government of land available for development. 

Thyag Uthappa, another member of the state wildlife board, said, “The matter was unfortunately not discussed at length and there was no debate. This is the only grassland in Bangalore. If we fail to protect this land, it will be disastrous.” 

“We need to educate our leaders on the importance of the grasslands for our future given our current climate crisis,” Hoover added. 

Mahesh Bhat, photographer and a resident of Hesaraghatta, has been advocating for the protection of the grasslands for more than 15 years. He had started a trust with the villagers and other like-minded people and tried to rejuvenate the lake by desilting canals.

In 2013, he sent a proposal along with Seshadri, wildlife conservationist Ramki Sreenivasan and ornithologist MB Krishna to the state government to declare the Hesaraghatta area as a conservation reserve.

Although the proposal was ignored, he has been acting as a custodian, following any developments concerning the area. He said, “If the grasslands are not conserved for posterity, we have to be constantly under vigilance.” 

Neglected grasslands shrinking in India

Grasslands cover about 24% of India’s land, spread across diverse geographical locations. There are reportedly 11 types of grasslands in India, with varied ecological characteristics such as the moist Alpine grasslands of the Himalayas, the Shola grasslands in Western Ghats, the desert savannas, Banni grasslands of Gujarat. 

Grasslands became dominant in the subcontinent’s natural landscape around 5-7 million years ago, around which time large herbivores such as giraffes made an appearance. This dominance, however, has scant presence in India’s land management priorities over past centuries.

Trisha Gopalakrishnan, DPhil candidate at the school of Geography and Environment, University of Oxford said, “Grasslands and other non-forest systems, such as India’s savannahs, have a confused legacy that has led to the assumption that these systems are not dominant in India. Also colonial practices of planting trees in these systems has supported the idea that forests, and not grasslands and savannahs, are dominant.”

She added that there is now evidence from recent scientific literature and fossil records that grasslands and savannahs were more widespread and are more ancient than India’s forests. 

These grasslands, however, have long been neglected. It is estimated that there was a loss of about 20 million ha of grassland and shrubland in India between 1880 and 2010. But not much has been done to address this loss.

Robin VV, assistant professor of Biology at IISER, Tirupathi, who has been studying shola grasslands said, “The lack of protection to grasslands stems from the colonial times when timber and wood from forests were seen as a resource (and hence valued) while other ’non-productive’ habitats were not valued.”   

He added that as legal framework and land use planning from that era are still followed, many grasslands have been lost rapidly. In the Shola habitats, grasslands have been appropriated for agriculture and timber plantations. 

The loss of grassland habitat has caused a decline in several species such as The Lesser Florican and The Great Indian Bustard, which are now endangered and on the verge of extinction

Grasslands an easy prey for infra development

Bengaluru Sustainability Forum (BSF) is an initiative by scientists from various research institutes across Bengaluru, to address issues of sustainability in urban areas, particularly in Bengaluru. Lena Robra, BSF co-ordinator and spokesperson, said, “Without a declared official state of protection, Hesaraghatta grasslands will always be on the radar of developers and decision makers in the government and private sector, just because of its sheer size and proximity to the city.” 

“The fact that Hesaraghatta grasslands are owned by a single stakeholder and that it so far is not protected under the forest department or any other environmental protection acts makes it an easy prey for large-scale development projects. It is an opportunity to amass wealth and assets for the involved decision makers and developers, which will tempt people in power again and again,” Robra added. 

The fact that grasslands in India are classified as wastelands because they do not have any productive value, makes it easier to seize land in the name of development. For example, 10,000 acres of the Amrit Mahal Kaval grasslands in Chitradurga district of Karnataka were earmarked for academic and defence institutions, and this has affected the livelihood of herding communities. 

Robra explained, “This narrative of grasslands being wastelands has been pushed by people who see the economic use [often very short-sighted and to their own benefit] of land as a way ahead into a prosperous future. Grasslands and its ecosystem services are needed for a future that looks beyond the current generation and it will have dire consequences if we choose not to become aware and act accordingly”.

Role grasslands play in climate mitigation

GS Rawat, scientist at Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, said, “Natural grasslands, especially the Shola grasslands and alpine grasslands, store a considerable amount of carbon in the soil. Degradation of these grasslands due to overuse leads to loss of carbon. Hence, their role in climate change mitigation is very important.”

A recent study found that anthropogenic activities on grasslands, and land use changes such as conversion of grasslands to croplands had reduced carbon storage in the soil, increased greenhouse gas emissions , and had a net warming effect on climate. Whereas natural and sparsely used grasslands acted as enhanced carbon sinks, and had an overall climate cooling effect. 

Further, natural grasslands are better carbon sinks than forests in response to changes in climate.

Chetan Misher from ATREE, Bengaluru. who has studied Banni grasslands, said, “Grasslands are an important carbon sink as, unlike forests, they store carbon mostly in their below-ground biomass, which is less vulnerable to getting re-released into the atmosphere through fire.” 

But he added, “Not even one percent of grasslands fall under any type of protected area category and there is no ownership defined for these landscapes. They are hardly recognised as a complete functioning ecosystem in India.”

The urgent need for a dedicated policy

In 2013, a report released by the Planning Commission Government of India, stated that grasslands are among the most neglected ecosystems and  recommended an urgent need for a National Grazing Policy and the inclusion of grasslands under protected areas. However, the recommendations have not been included yet. 

Rawat said, “We need to evolve a land use policy for the country, which should highlight the significance of all classes of grasslands [including alpine meadows, shola grasslands, banni grasslands] and the policy should help in preventing the  conversion of grasslands into human habitation, woodland or other land use category.” 

The BSF group also underscored the need for a national policy for grasslands. Robra said, “A separate policy could help make decision takers as well as the public and policy makers aware of the very different value grasslands hold, along with the different, but necessary, ecosystem services they provide. It could help law enforcement and provide a framework to work out efficient protection measures on the ground.” 

This could also pave the way for better monitoring of grasslands, and help to allocate dedicated resources such as guards and information to protect grasslands from falling prey to development, land grabbing or becoming garbage disposal places, Robra added. 

Seshadri said, “We need natural landscapes to be left alone. By declaring Hessarghatta as a conservation reserve, we are only going to preserve the natural beauty of the landscape. We can learn from other countries to use these areas close to cities as nature education hotspots, or to simply let people enjoy nature, responsibly.”