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Cost of three lakh votes in Andhra: 50,000 acres of sanctuary land

The Indian Express , Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Sreenivas Janyala
Kolleru Lake in troubled waters as Assembly passes resolution seeking Centre’s nod for reducing sanctuary area
Hyderabad, September 9: The contours of the Kolleru Wildlife Sanctuary, which has Asia’s largest freshwater lake, are all set to change in a move that will choke the unique ecosystem and gradually destroy the lake.
A resolution passed by the state Assembly seeking the Centre’s approval for reducing the size of the sanctuary from the existing 84,000 acres to 30,000 acres sounds the death knell for the lake, which attracts nearly 20 lakh birds of 187 species, including flamingoes and pelicans.
Behind this move is a votebank of about three lakh farmers who have land in the lake and sanctuary area spread across five Assembly segments in Krishna and West Godavari districts. TDP president N Chandra Babu Naidu promised these farmers that if he is voted to power he would reduce the size of the lake. Not to be left behind, the Congress government went ahead and brought in the resolution last Friday. And though all parties supported the resolution, they accused each other of doing so with an eye on the coming elections.
If the proposal is cleared by the Supreme Court central empowered committee, about 50,000 acres around the lake would be freed for agriculture and pisciculture, which means chemical fertilisers and pesticides would flow into the lake, thereby slowly choking it. The lake also supports about 60 species of fish and 10 varieties of prawns.
“It will ruin the sanctuary and destroy the lake,” said Deputy Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) K Vara Prasad. “If the land is freed and obstructions come up, it would set off a chain reaction that will not only affect the ecosystem, wildlife and the lake but also cause inundation in the surrounding areas during monsoons. The people who are looking at short-term gains are not looking at this long-term disaster,” he said.
“The lake has already shrunk from its original size of about plus 10 feet contours, or roughly 2 lakh acres, to 84,000 acres. Besides the resident birds, lakhs of migratory birds come here, including pelicans, painted storks, flamingoes and various species of ducks and teals. If the land is freed, farmers are going to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides for their crop. Ultimately, this deadly mix is going to drain off into the lake, rendering it infertile. The fish and aquatic plants are going to be affected first due to which the birds would be affected too. In addition, fish tanks and fish ponds are also going to come up, which will obstruct the flow of water into the lake from the tributaries of Krishna and Godavari. This will result in inundation of lakhs of hectares of farm land outside the lake and sanctuary area,” said Prasad.
The famous Kolleru Lake is fed by several tributaries of the Krishna and Godvari, including Budameru and Tammileru. The lake flows into the sea at Uppateru. Forest officials say that due to obstructions upstream, if the inflow into the lake decreases, there is also the danger of the freshwater turning brackish due its proximity to the sea.
According to Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife) Hitesh Malhotra, even with the existing boundary at plus five feet contour, two-thirds of the lake is still outside the sanctuary. “No one is talking about that and what impact unlawful activities taking place are having on the lake. The lake will be finished if the size is further reduced. Either the state or the central government should pick up the burden of Rs 650 crore needed to acquire the land or let the lake wither. There is no use talking of Ramsar Convention and wetland preservation if money cannot be spared to protect the lakes,” he said.
The fate of the Kolleru Lake was sealed in 1986, when former chief minister N T Rama Rao proposed that plus five feet contour would be the boundary line of the sanctuary. Based on this proposal, a notification was issued and private land — about 14,000 acres — in the plus five feet contour area was to be acquired by the state government in a phased manner.
However, this was a huge burden on the government as nearly Rs 650 crore was required to acquire the land. Meanwhile, farmers owning land in the notified plus five feet contour area were allowed to grow crop with restrictions on use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This led to a lot of opposition, with some farmers unwilling to sell their land to the government.
“These farmers are still protesting and do not want to sell their land to the government. About three lakh farmers having land between plus three feet contour and plus five feet contour are unable to generate enough income because they are unable to get proper yield through traditional agriculture without using fertilisers and pesticides,” said Forest Minister S Vijaya Rama Raju. “Even if the government wants to buy this land, the proposed compensation is too huge a burden on the state exchequer. We have no option but to pass this resolution to reduce the size of the sanctuary,” he added.
The resolution in a complete turnaround from the stands that both the TDP and Congress had taken earlier. Former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s government issued a GO in 1999 including about 15,000 acres of private land in the Kolleru Wildlife Sanctuary. However, there was rampant land-grabbing, and illegal fish ponds mushroomed in the area, following which the Supreme Court intervened and asked the state government to clear the area of all encroachments.
When Dr Y S Rajasekhara Reddy came to power in 2004, he launched Operation Kolleru in 2005 to remove the encroachments in the sanctuary area and sought to restore the Kolleru Lake to its original glory. However, with polls round the corner, both Naidu and Reddy are having second thoughts about antagonising the farmers having land between plus three feet contour and plus five feet contour.