As the sun goes down on 2005, there will be cause for both rejoicing and depression over Kudremukh. The depression will mainly be among the 2,500-odd employees of Kudremukh Iron Ore Company, who see their future threatened by the Supreme Court's refusal to budge from its decision that mining should stop in the Kudremukh National Park by the end of the year.
The rejoicing will be among the much more spread-out groups like farmers in Karnataka who live by the Bhadra river and many in India and around the world who feel preserving the environment and wildlife should be among mankind's key concerns.
The battle to save the Kudremukh area of the Western Ghats, one of the globally identified bio-diversity "hot spots" (areas rich in native plant and animal life minus a large part of their original habitat), from the devastation wrought by open cast mining, is important not just for itself, but also as a guide to how such issues can get sorted out even in a poor country like India.
It is tempting to think that India, with its strong courts and tenacious NGOs, is better off than China, which is visited by one environmental disaster after another and countries like Indonesia which continue to burn rain forests and literally spread a pall of gloom over the area.
If we recall that the Silent Valley in Kerala was saved for posterity effectively through the intervention of one person, Indira Gandhi, the denouement of the battle over Kudremukh indicates that the country need no longer be dependent on the good fortune of having the right person in the right place at the critical time. The country's institutional mechanism ensures that justice and foresight will prevail and the powerful defeated.
Over the Christmas weekend my family and I went holidaying to Chikmagalur and took a short drive through parts of the Kudremukh National Park. If the green hills of Chikmagalur are soft and pretty, Kudremukh in a way represents its crowning glory.
It is an area of outstanding beauty, marked by alternate stretches of grassland and dense forests. This contrast at not so high an altitude (alpine meadows come above 10,000 feet whereas Kudremukh mostly averages 2,500 feet) is remarkable.
Familiar as I have been with the often-denuded slopes of the UP and Himachal hills, I could only think that Kudremukh is a treasure that has to be preserved for future generations.
But the value of the Western Ghats or Kudremukh or any such region goes beyond aesthetics. To preserve the diversity of plant and animal life is to ensure the future of life on the planet itself.
This is by now well-known but bears repetition as a lot of the debate on environmental issues in India still depicts environmental concerns as upper-class fads. Very simply, we need to save the environment for our children and their children.
To do this you have to concentrate on areas rich in diversity but simultaneously threatened. And you preserve such bio-diversity by not fragmenting its home or habitat. R Sukumar, who led an Indian Institute of Science study of Kudremukh, told Frontline, "Habital fragmentation is the single largest threat to bio-diversity and biological integrity." So to argue that the iron ore mining concession covers no more than a fraction of the Kudremukh National Park is to miss the point.
To break up a continuous region which has its own integrity is to get ready to destroy it. And how much ruinous can you get than to do open cast mining in such an area! You are not just digging narrow shafts but literally shaving off layers and layers of earth with all the micro organisms in them. It is on these that the pyramid of life is built with the large predators at the top.
The IISc report asserts, "open cast mining causes virtually irreparable damage." The well-meaning gentlemen who run the iron ore firm are upset that they get no credit for planting millions of saplings to reforest the area.
First, what they planted were acacia and eucalyptus, which are exotic (alien to the region) and that too on the grasslands, not where they shaved off the earth through their mining. They show you tree cover where there was grassland originally, when it is quite wrong to think that natural grassland is devoid of its own life.
The iron ore mining lease in Kudremukh was granted in 1969 for 30 years. In 1987 came the pelletisation plant in Mangalore, where beneficiated ore was sent as slurry via a pipeline. This beneficiation process is a particular culprit. It leaves behind waste tailings which are polluting the Bhadra river (it looks different from what it used to) and rapidly harming farm yields along its course.
In 1987 also came the notification, on the pleading of conservationists like Ullas Karanth, declaring 56,000 hectares as a national park. The key issue was the state government quietly leaving out 3,700 hectares where the iron ore company worked.
So after the lease ended in 1999, K M Chinnappa, a retired forest officer who led an NGO called Wildlife First, moved the Supreme Court, seeking an end to the mining. The court posed the primary question - why allow mining in a notified forest area - and answered with its verdict in 2002 that mining end by 2005.In endless legal battles over the last three years, the court has stood firm in its resolve. In a small way a new dawn will break over Kudremukh and India in 2006!