Friday, October 12, 2012

Few good men of Agumbe

    I started this blog as a tourist guide to the beautiful mountain village of Agumbe. As I kept writing more, it turned into a tirade against the political apathy towards survival of such pristine rainforests that are of utmost importance to earth's delicate natural balance. Soon I went back and deleted most of the touristy information as adding google geo-tags no longer seemed important. Now the blog is just a long rant which starts off a bit slowly.

    My cousin's wedding in Udipi gave me a chance to sneak in a one day visit to the rain forests of Agumbe,  in the western ghats of Karnataka. I reached Agumbe after a 16 hour journey from Hyderabad and headed to the house of Kasturi akka ( 'akka' means 'Elder Sister' in Karnataka) - the proprietor of a home stay in Agumbe. The 120 year old house has a huge veranda in the front, huge black pillars made of teak for support and a square-shaped area that opens to the sky in the middle of the house, like the ‘Nadumuttom’ of a traditional kerala house. The famous TV serial of the 90s - Malgudi days was filmed in this very house. Kasturi akka uses a walking stick and is slow in her moments but that does not stop her from fussing over visitors and cooking them delicious north Karnataka fare.

    Agumbe is a quaint little village that retains enough charm and rusticity to provide a refreshing vacation. It receives the second highest annual rainfall in India and there are quite a few water falls, sunset and sunrise points nearby that should keep a casual tourist occupied for a couple of days.
Kasturi akka's house in Agumbe. Malgudi days was filmed here.
Kasturi akka preparing one more delicious lunch
    After breakfast, Kasturi akka and I talked about the village and during our conversation she spoke of their fight against indiscriminate industrialization of the village. Apparently a few industrialists had  turned up in the village promising jobs and established a ceramic factory. Apart from damaging the ecologically sensitive balance, exhaust from the factory also posed a real danger to the quality of life and health of local residents. They also brought in cheap labour from other states and conned the villagers on the employment front as well. The villagers took legal recourse and years later, after plenty of visits to local as well as the higher courts, they won and the factory was shut down. This struggle strongly argues the case for industrial development that benefits local residents and does not obliterate natural habitats. After all, almost half of all the world's rain falls on rain forests that are essential to recycling water.

    Later that morning, I walked to the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station(ARRS) to learn more about the research of king cobras and conservation effort undertaken there. On reaching the station, I noticed that the Research Director, Siddharth was being interviewed by two youngsters writing an article for their college and joined them with a few questions of my own. Siddharth’s replies were surprisingly straightforward and mostly sarcastic. I guess cynicism becomes second skin when fighting to save the last stretch of rainforests in a country that does not want it saved.

    With his wavy hair and muscled arms, Siddharth could pass off as a rock-star but settled for studying snakes and lizards in the wild. His replies at times cut too close to heart, especially when he looks into your eyes and talks about city people who love snakes turning up at the station expecting to find king cobras at a research center when in reality all their ground-breaking research on king cobras happens in their natural habitat.

    “What are forest officials doing to prevent the rain forests from vanishing”, asked the girl interviewing him. Siddharth answered that question indirectly by talking about the difficulties faced by the forest department in enforcing their archaic and rigid laws like “Ensure that not a single tree is felled in the protected zone”. This law if implemented would ensure that most rangers are killed in their sleep by communities that dependent on the forest for sustenance. A sure cure for constipation that, but most forest rangers choose survival over duty and quietly ignore such on-paper laws.

    Siddharth also mentioned that the forest dept was woefully understaffed to do anything of significance to safeguard the forest. “So what do the forest officials really do?”, the girl hurriedly asked, as though her article depended on this single question. Siddharth is scathing in most of his replies but this brings out his best, “They put barbed wires in places where they should not, plant exotic trees like guava in the plains where they don't grow and do all sorts of stuff, but what do they really do, I have no clue...”. I entered the station to learn about king cobras, but left with burning desire to let people know that if we manage to destroy the rain forests through our greed, future generations are doomed to a life of struggle and failure.
Agumbe - Near Barkhan Falls
Agumbe - Jogiguda falls
    The Western Ghats has an exceptionally high level of biological diversity and was recently awarded the World Heritage Site tag. But all parties of the Karnataka Assembly, who fight each other over every other issue, cut across party lines and unanimously passed a resolution requesting the UNESCO to withdraw the world heritage tag given to 10 spots in the Western Ghats. This rare consensus was punctuated with emotional arguments like “We don’t need UNESCO to tell us about conservation of forests", "We don’t need more tiger reserves" etc. Like any convincing lie, there is a smidgen of truth in an argument like "it will create problems for the locals and forest dwellers". But that is not why our politicians are rushing in to reject the 'world heritage site' moniker and accuse the UNESCO of trying to rule the state by proxy. If the UNESCO ruling is implemented, lucrative mining rights would become worthless and that hits our politicians where it hurts most - funding.

    Kasturi akka and Siddharth are among the dedicated few fighting the same battle for the rain forests using whatever means at their disposal. Legal action, as employed by Kasturi akka and the villagers against indiscriminate industrialization takes years of effort. Meanwhile one determined lumberjack can wipe out a forest by the time the verdict arrives. Siddharth, on the other hand, was of the opinion that perhaps colleges should teach anarchy instead language and science. He talked about Greenpeace activists blowing up oil rigs to protect the environment and said that one such act did more for conservation than years of litigation in the courts.

    It is said that the fear of forest brigand Veerappan did more for the survival of the Sathyamangalam forests in Tamil Nadu than any govt could hope to achieve. Now that the brigand is dead, the lumberjacks are back with their axes. Like the Mayor of Gotham calling in the Joker to save the city instead of Batman; our nation has to turn to agents of chaos and anarchy to preserve its forests. Definitely something is wrong somewhere.