In just two weeks, parts of Nandi Hills have caught fire twice and three more fires have raged on two other hills in the Panchagiri range located just off Bengaluru city.
Forest officials from the Chikkaballapura Range rushed to douse the fire at Nandi Hills, but are yet to ascertain the cause for the fire.
“The latest fire began at around 1.45 pm on Wednesday and a few acres of the green cover near the hill was burnt down,” said Vikram Reddy, Range Forest Officer, Chikkaballpura Range.
Sources in the Forest Department say that hunting traps were found near the fire sites. However, the local forest conservators, who work with the department, have a different story to tell.
According to Channegowda, a member of the Arkavathy Kumudavathy Punarrakshepana Samithi, who also helps conservation of the area surrounding Nandi Hills, says that land grabbing and hunting are the major causes for fires in the region.
“This is not the first time such a thing is happening. Every year, at least six or seven times, people come and set fire to the hills. They do it to poach peacocks, and also to try and usurp the land,” Channegowda says.
Chidananda, a member of the Samithi, who also helps the Forest Department in conservation, says that areas at the foothills are targeted the most.
“It is undeniable that the fires are started by locals in the surrounding villages, but one of the greatest threats is to the gomala land (land set aside for grazing purposes) located at the foothills of the Panchagiri range. These lands are also part of the green belt and every year they are targeted and the trees are being set on fire. Of late, many restaurants and resorts have come up here. This is a classic ploy to usurp forest land. First, they burn the forest area, then convert it to gomala land and this is, in turn, bought by builders, who construct resorts and villas,” Chidananda said.
Corroborating Chidanada’s allegations, a senior forest official said that over the last decade multiple attempts have been made by the sand and stone quarry mafia to usurp the land.
“This area has been declared a green belt. This means that no residential areas can come up here and no commercial activity can take place. With the Karnataka government promoting tourism in the area, the attempts to usurp this land have gone up. Even at Nandi Habba, which was recently held, a separate stall was set up for buying property here. Who gave these people the right to do so? As Forest Officers, we can only try and protect the area assigned to us. We keep busting attempts where stone quarrying work has been carried out on the sly, but it never stops,” he added.
Senior officials with the Forest Department in Chikkaballapura Range say that one of the greatest problems is that the Panchagiri Range lies in the border between Chikkaballapura and Doddaballapura districts. “This makes it difficult to determine whose jurisdiction the said green belt falls under,” an official said.
Conservators working with the Forest Department also say that most of the time officials do not show up to help douse the fires as they are busy passing the buck on the blame.
“The Chikkaballapura and Doddaballapura forest officials are never in agreement. They say that the Panchagiri Range does not belong to their jurisdiction. The Forest Department has, so far, not sorted out the jurisdictional issue no matter how many times we have written to them to fix the problem. Besides, if this excuse does not work, then they say they are short-staffed and they have not officers that they can deploy at the time of the fire,” Channegowda said.