The fate of Hesaraghatta grasslands near Bengaluru hangs in balance as the government is yet to take definitive steps towards its conservation even though rampant encroachment threatens to alter its diverse ecosystem.
A vital reservoir of biodiversity, the Hesaraghatta grasslands are home to rare and scheduled species of animals. Conservationists have been urging the government to set up a conservation reserve in the area to protect the grasslands and its flora and fauna. The proposal has been backed by around 70,025 people in an online campaign called ‘Save Hesaraghatta grasslands’ by
The Karnataka High Court also recently set aside the State Wildlife Board’s rejection of the proposal to declare a 5,010 acre area of the grasslands as a conservation reserve, asking it to reconsider the proposal. But a decision is yet to be taken in this regard, as the meeting of the board, which would be chaired by Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, is yet to be planned.
Real estate, ‘tourist menace’ 
The Federal, on a visit to the grasslands, observed a slew of issues, from encroachment by real estate mafia to sound pollution to a trail of garbage left by tourists – all that could prove detrimental for the ecosystem of the area.
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In what looked like the handiwork of real estate mafia, certain trusts and individuals have been leased acres of lands of the grasslands and have already started raising buildings and demarcating layouts. Even government-run Housing Board-owned apartments are being built near borders of the grasslands.
Buildings have taken the place of agricultural lands in the grasslands.
Sources said several farmers in the area have sold their land to businessmen and real estate groups for the construction of farmhouses and buildings in its place.
Vehicles travel through the proposed conservation area at high speeds, as the roads that run through it do not have speed breakers or road markers, to ask drivers to slow down. This not only causes noise pollution, but could be distressing for birds and wild animals in the ecologically-sensitive area.
This apart, tourists who visit from Bengaluru often leave behind a trail of garbage like plastic bottles, bags and liquor cans. Several goat farming projects and commercial nurseries have also cropped up on the grasslands, while rampant sand and granite mining on its periphery is a threat to its ecosystem.
Rare, endangered species
The Hesaraghatta Lake, located 18 km to the north-west of Bengaluru and across the Arkavathi river, was dug in 1894 to cater to the drinking water needs of Bengaluru, then ruled by the Mysore maharajas Chamarajendra Wadiyar and Krishnaraja Wadiyar.
The Hesaraghatta Lake, located 18 km to the north-west of Bengaluru and across the Arkavathi river, was dug in 1894 to cater to the drinking water needs of Bengaluru
The lake stretches for 73.84 sq km (18,246 acres). Of this, around 3,500 acres of the land belongs to the state government while the lake bed area where the grassland lies is around 5,010 acres. A memorandum to the government mentions that Hesaraghatta’s grassland habitat is the last such in the Bengaluru region.
According to the forest department, the grassland is home to around 235 species of birds including endangered ones, around 400 species of insects of which 30 are new to entomologists, and 100 species of butterflies, including the very rare Lilac Silverline (Cigaritis lilacinus).
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It is home to the Indian Leopard; the Lesser Florican (grassland bird), an endangered endemic bustard; the Slender Loris, a small, nocturnal primate; and the European Roller bird, listed vulnerable in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
During winter, birds from central Asia and the Himalayan region migrate to Hesaraghatta.
Why Hesaraghatta needs saving
Conservationists say it is imperative to protect Hesaraghatta, the last surviving grasslands around Bengaluru, because of its rich biodiversity.
AN Yellappa Reddy, an environmentalist, told The Federal that almost all living species in the world including human beings depend on the grass families including paddy, wheat, millets and maize among others for food. “A grassland is a gene pool and the gene pool of the grass family should be preserved,” he said.
“Grass gives grains to the birds. No wonder that birds from all over the world fly to Hesaraghatta in search of a habitat which produces grains. This is also the only patch in the entire Bengaluru which has grasslands or pastures and has almost 40 varieties of grasses.”
Reddy said a grassland also prevents soil erosion as it has the capacity to soak 12 lakh litre of water when there is 250 mm rainfall per acre.
Residents whose ancestors have lived on the Hesaraghatta grasslands for centuries are, however, opposed to the idea of converting it into a conservation reserve as they fear it will lead to their eviction. They say they have been living in the area for hundreds of years, have traditions, festivals and deities linked to the area and will not surrender to any government project.
Environmentalists, however, say such fears are unfounded as there is no plan to evict locals and such rumours are being peddled by mafias to stop the project.
Stalemate over ‘conservation reserve’ status
In 2013, environmental activists including Mahesh Bhat, Ramki Sreenivasan and K S Seshadri, submitted a proposal to the Karnataka Forest Department to declare the grasslands as a conservation reserve.
While the government at that time had planned to establish a film city on a grasslands area of 315 acres, the court ordered against it in 2015 after environmentalists raised red flags.
In 2020, the animal husbandry and veterinary services (AHVS) departments agreed to declare 3,500 acres of the 5,000 acres of the land owned by them as a conservation reserve.
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In January 2021, the forest department and animal Husbandry department chalked out a proposal to declare 5,010-acre land of the grasslands as the ‘Greater Hesaraghatta Grassland reserve,” but Karnataka State Wildlife Board rejected the proposal.
In March 2021, the government announced plans to set up a ‘Theme Park,’ spread over 100 acres of Hesaraghatta, under public-private partnership model to provide information and training with permanent exhibition and demonstration of native livestock, breeds of sheep/goats and poultry breeds. But the announcement attracted criticism and the government dropped the project.
In September, the wildlife board yet again rejected the proposal to announce the grasslands as a conservation report and after the high court’s disapproval of its order, is yet to take a final call on the issue.
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