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Why Karnataka is saying no to the UNESCO tag

It should hardly come as a surprise that the government which presided over one of the biggest mining scams to have hit this country should be averse to a UNESCO heritage tag for the state’s natural resources.

The BS Yeddyurappa government in Karnataka, which sat over widespread environmental degradation in Bellary not to speak of the preceding loot, has written to the Union government refusing permission to allow UNESCO to nominate 10 forests in the Talacauvery and Kudremukh regions of the Western Ghats for the World Heritage Site tag.

The government, not surprisingly, had raised the “people” and “development” bogeys. The state’s Minister for Forests CH Vijayashankar on Tuesday asserted that the decision had been taken following opposition to this move by “peoples representatives such as MPs and MLAs.”

The minister had the gall to say, “There is no benefit from the tag. We have to protect and develop the areas, while UNESCO doesn't give any grants. The international body has no laws, guidelines or schemes. Moreover, once these areas are declared as World Heritage Sites (WHS), we won't be able to take up any developmental activities. Why should we allow someone else to control us?”

On the face of it, this minister looks like a proverbial village idiot who’s in dire need of some education. But make no mistake here, Vijayashankar’s only playing the fool. He knows what a WHS tag will prevent his rapacious government from doing. Vijayashankar’s retrograde statement needs to be torn apart – point by point.

The minister is right in a way when he says there are no benefits from the WHS tag. Yes, there are certainly no monetary benefits either for him or for his party. Or, for that matter, the industry lobby whose interests he seeks to promote and protect. But there are benefits, nonetheless, and it is not about just being listed as a WHS. The main benefit is that it thrusts a sense of responsibility on us. It becomes the prime liability of the government to protect the land and its biodiversity. This is clearly a government that does not want to be burdened by any such accountability.

The question of UNESCO not giving grants does not add up. Why should it be the headache of an international bureaucratic body to give grants? All that the state government needs to do is allocate enough money to forests and wildlife in its annual budget, instead of ensuring that these natural resources are plundered by corporate interests and the mining mafia. Of course, we should be free to hazard our own guesses as to why a politician should be talking of funds before anything else. Hush!

Image from discover-of-india.blogspot.com

And no, there are certainly enough guidelines about UNESCO sites. The WHS tag is not about being in a formal list, it is about protecting your natural heritage. Karnataka needs to take a lesson from Assam, where Manas National Park lost its WHS status years ago. Since then, the state government, the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and NGOs have been working together to restore the park’s pristine glory and get back the precious tag. It all depends on whether you want to protect your heritage or not.

It’s doubly funny that Vijayashankar should talk of the lack of benefits of a WHS status. Does it mean that his BJP government will also cock a snook at UNESCO over the WHS status that it has given to the groups of monuments at Hampi (Bellary district) and Pattadakal (Bijapur district)?

But then, the reason why the Karnataka government does not want a WHS tag for the Western Ghats forests, ironically, comes from Vijayashankar himself. In his assertion that the government will not be able to take up so-called developmental activities in the region, is essentially the reason.

Look at the 10 proposed sites for which the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), on behalf of UNESCO, had written to Karnataka’s Chief Wildlife Warden asking for a management plan. These were four wildlife sanctuaries: Pushpagiri, Brahmagiri, Talacauvery and Someshwara; five reserve forests: Padinalknad, Someshwara, Agumbe, Kerti and Balahalli; and a national park: Kudremukh. All rich in wildlife and forests. All ready for unabashed and heartless plunder.

If these sanctuaries and parks were accorded legal protection in the past, it was for a reason. It is the state government’s constitutional duty to protect them. The natural heritage of a country is not about selling them off to the highest bidder and pocketing your own commission in the bargain.

The Karnataka government knows that once these sites get WHS status, it will be difficult for it to launder the forests away without being shamed internationally for doing so. It needs to play the “people” card and whip up “developmental” passion to do so.

 

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