Environmental Justice: Visiting Different Social And Ecological Landscapes And Areas Of Environmental Contestations In Karnataka, India: Course Report

16-23 December 2021

In December 2021, ESG organised an experiential learning certificate course “Environmental Justice: Visiting Different Social and Ecological Landscapes and Areas of Environmental Contestations in Karnataka, India” for 28 students from O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat.  The students came from various academic disciplines which included law, architecture, public policy, and business. The course was conducted by the ESG team, led by Leo Saldanha and Bhargavi Rao, and assisted by Malvika Kaushik. It also received support from Siddhanth Prasad, Assistant Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University.

The course was conducted over a week, from 16 to 24 December, spanning various landscapes of Karnataka: beginning in coastal Mangaluru all the way to Udupi, across the mountainous terrain of the Western Ghats into Chikkamagaluru, then traversing into the Deccan Plateau via verdant Shivamogga, coursing through the arid zones of central Karnataka in Chitradurga, and eventually reaching metropolitan Bengaluru. 

The course began on 16 December with an introductory session at Mangaluru’s Fatima Retreat House. Here, Jocelyn Lobo and Lewlyn Shanti Lobo helped students break the ice with team-building games and exercises. This was followed by Malvika Kaushik from ESG walking the students through the programme and its details, and the policies they were required to comply with. 

Breaking the Ice, Kristalaya Hall, Fatima Retreat House, Mangaluru

Students who had travelled into Mangaluru earlier in the day were excited to meet each other, several of whom shared a class and had seen each other online through the pandemic’s online classes, but had never really met. The excitement was palpable in the high decibels that rocked the quiet placidness of the Retreat house.  

Mangaluru and Dakshina Kannada

The group stayed for two more days in Mangaluru (earlier called Mangalore) region.  Early on 17 December, Joselyn Lobo, who had served as Dean of the School of Social Work, Roshni Nilaya, took the students on a virtual journey of the historical and cultural transformations of the Dakshina Kannada region. He had brought several cultural and historical artefacts, which the students enthusiastically examined – a tactile journey that took them back to the days when homesteads were independent in every manner imaginable.  Joselyn explained how this ecologically fragile region had undergone vast transformations following the building of the Mangaluru port and the concentration of petroleum and chemical industries in the region. 

The first field exposure followed: the learning group headed straight into the Pachanady waste processing centre and landfill. Here, they observed various techniques employed in processing waste, and the managers rued how the case for decentralised management of wet and dry waste was quite essential but missing in praxis. Yet. the facility attempted to  adopt vermicomposting techniques to break down complex organic waste to useful and enriched manure that would be sent back to the city to fertilise its arid soils. As the group walked across a public road to the adjoining landfill, filled as it was with mixed waste to the brim, dumped over years, they saw, smelled and felt firsthand the impact of our consumerist cultures and its terrible impact on once pristine agricultural zones.

At the Pachanady waste processing facility, Mangaluru

The students learnt about the implications for public health due to toxic leachates entering drinking water of the villages, and spoiling downstream farms. The ESG team shared how this experience is similar across many cities of India, and explained efforts through its Public Interest Litigation in the Karnataka High Court to help resolve this vexatious problem.    

Standing here and looking around, the students could for a moment experience how marginalised communities suffer the worst impacts of the waste dumping from cities. They were shocked to learn how in 2019 the mountain of waste at Pachanady collapsed due to a heavy downpour on the village below destroying houses and farms. The students learnt that it took the Court to intervene to compensate the victims, which was indicative of ESG’s own efforts with Dalits in Bengaluru’s peri-urban village of Mavallipura where landfilling had similarly destroyed scores of lives and livelihoods. The impact of consumerism was all too evident.

At the Pachanady Landfill, Mangaluru

From here, the planes could be seen landing at and taking off from Bajpe airport. This compelled Leo to share how the group had worked with communities to stop the expansion of the airport in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as it was a  table top runway. Apart from the dangers of such a precarious location, the landfill heightened the risks to approaching aircraft. He narrated the painful incident that occurred in June 2010, when an Air India Express approaching the airport, which had been expanded despite the risks, crashed down the hill side killing 158 passengers, in exactly the manner that  ESG had highlighted as plausible risk of such expansion in its 2000 PIL, which it had fought all the way to the Supreme Court. 

The lunch was a cultural trip into the vegetarian cuisine of the region, which was followed by a drive through the Baikampady industrial area and meeting with members of the Kanara Industries Association, Mangaluru. The industrialists explained the variety of operations that were active in the region, shared with students various challenges they faced, how they had managed to survive the breaks in production through the pandemic, and also how they were hoping to come out with a break even.  They were also wary of the impossibility of climate adaptation, given how the entire region was below mean sea level, even as they spoke of measures for environmental sustainability such as the introduction of solar energy in some processes.  They also shared their perceptions on what developmental paradigms would benefit the region, and of displacement caused by the large-scale industrialisation in the region. 

At the Kanara Industries Association office, Mangaluru

Before the day concluded with a visit to Panambur Beach, the group learnt about the possibilities of a circular economy with a visit to the GWASF Quality Castings foundry, which produces steel and alloy products from melting and repurposing old and discarded metals.

At the GWASF Quality Castings foundry, Baikampady Industrial Area, Mangaluru

The following day, 18th December, began with a quick reflection session on the previous day’s experiences. This was followed by a quick dip into the cultural history of Mangalore with a visit to the incredibly charming St. Aloysius Church, where the students were awed by the frescoes painted by Antonio Moscheni all over the internal walls. 

At St. Aloysius Church, Mangaluru

The group then took off in their bus with its cherubic driver Pritam to the Udupi thermal power plant (originally built by the Nagarjuna group, and now owned by Adani). Here, Bhargavi introduced them to the challenges local residents face, interacting with  Mrs. Baby and her family and learning from her how they struggled to cope with farming, even as their economic and health status suffered immensely. Bhargavi, and then Leo, related this experience with the struggle in the 1990s to successfully stop another power plant (proposed by American corporation Cogentrix) a few kilometres away. 

At Baby’s homestead, Udupi

The group then moved north through the lower hills of the ghats into Manipal, where they had an interaction with leading consumer activist and environmentalist Dr. Ravindranath Shanbhag of the Human Rights Protection Foundation, at the Vaikunta Baliga College of Law. Dr. Shanbhag shared stories that spanned a lifetime of work in environmental, consumer, labour and human rights struggles. His passion to reach out and help those in need was palpable, as he spoke of struggles for justice for endosulfan poisoning victims and in resisting the Cogentrix power plant. He also shared how there is a critical need for  increasing awareness about public health emergencies that are becoming frequent, including through antibiotic overprescription.

With Dr. Shanbhag at Vaikunta Baliga College of Law, Udupi

This interaction with Dr. Shanbagh continued at Udupi’s Malpe Beach. This relaxed backdrop helped in assessing the day’s learnings,  and the group was encouraged to reflect on the exclusionary impacts of rampant over-commercialisation on the lives and livelihoods of traditional fishing communities, and the ecological impacts of privatising coastal commons. 

With Dr. Shanbhag at Malpe Beach, Udupi

Chikkamagaluru

On 19 December, the group bid adieu to Mangaluru after an early breakfast, following reflections in which students were encouraged to identify commonalities between the environmental justice struggles faced by communities in the different landscapes visited. We journeyed over the steep Charmady Ghat into the Western Ghats in Chikkamagaluru district, where the vegetation slowly gave way from the coastal plains and coconut and areca nut plantations to thick shola forests and hilly coffee and pepper plantations. 

A peek out the bus window while driving through the Western Ghats

Stopping at a roadside cafe, students treated themselves to the local coffee brew (and perhaps illegally plucked pepper pods) on a day when open shops were difficult to find due a district wide curfew declared on account of a rally in the sensitive Baba Budangiri hills.  Stopping by here and there, they were encouraged to observe the transformations in the Western Ghat regions into a predominantly coffee growing region and paddies in the valleys, especially over the past two centuries. By the evening, the group arrived at the Lakkavalli Forest Guest House and Bhadra Homestay for a much deserved rest.

Early the next morning, 20th December, the group got into buses and jeeps of the Karnataka Forest Department to visit the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary. As they were entering the sanctuary, a huge flock of Malabar Hornbills greeted them.  The quiet forest was broken with the sound of the shuffling of hooves of deer here and there, and an occasional elephant and even more rare Gaur. The group reflected on how modern tourism and environmental management focuses inordinately on flagship species like tigers and leopards, and treats ecosystems as mere habitats that must be kept “free” of all human influence, to the detriment of both ecosystem health and human rights. The discussion delved into the historical disenfranchisement of forest dependent communities across India, and the consequent displacement of millions to carve such protected areas.  The question was if there could not have been a wiser way to protect forests and tribal communities.  

Morning Safari at Lakkavalli Forest Range, Bhadra Tiger Reserve

The group was surprised with a long boat safari across the Bhadra Dam Reservoir later in the morning. While coursing on the placid waters and observing the breathless beauty of the place, the students were alarmed to learn that the waters had submerged over 17 flourishing villages, and that the boat was sailing close to the mountain peaks with the dam full. They were encouraged to critically interrogate these developmental choices, even as they marvelled at nature’s adjustments to human interventions. 

That this stunning beauty of the reservoir was constructed on the edifice of vast displacement of villages due to the hydroelectric project (a common occurrence across the country since independence) remained a theme of the day, as haunting as the skeletons of trees that struck out from the water once in a while. They now serve as nesting and roosting sites for several families of great cormorants, at once a reminder of the ecological destruction caused by dam submergence and of ecological resilience. The upscale, commercialised Jungle Lodges resorts peeking out of the woods presented a stark contrast to the ramshackle forest guest house and the barebones working conditions of the forest rangers, safari guides and boatmen. 

Boat Safari with Great Cormorants at the Bhadra Reservoir

Debriefing after the boat safari

In the afternoon, the group bus set off on a journey to Heggodu, Sagara Taluk, Shivamogga district, stopping en route at the Mandagadde Bird Sanctuary: which has ended up in a decrepit state after suffering neglect over the last few years. The journey ended late evening at the Shramajeevi Ashram of Charaka Co-operative Society, where the group was greeted by the cheerful community and with a warm rustic dinner. 

At Mandagadde Bird Sanctuary, Shivamogga

Heggodu 

Following an early breakfast, the learnings of 21st December began in the idyllic environs of the ashram with a meeting with the ashram management led by Mr. Terrence Peter and Mrs. Mahalakshmi. They explained the history of Charaka, which was founded by noted theatre personality and activist Mr. Prasanna Heggodu as an experiment in sustainability and women’s empowerment. The co-operative employs women from nearby villages to create handwoven fabrics that are ultimately sold under the brand name Desi in major cities of Karnataka. Profits from the venture are ploughed back into the co-operative. The group also connected with Mr. Prasanna virtually over Zoom, who shared his vision of the future for Charaka. 

Orientation about Charaka Co-operative Society at Prayer Hall, Shramajeevi Ashram, Heggodu

This was followed by a tour of the Charaka facility led by Ms. Jayalakshmi. This was fascinating learning to understand the different stages of cotton yarn dying, weaving, and stitching. The students listened with rapt attention as she explained how the dyes for the fabrics and the block prints are sourced from natural ingredients ranging from areca to pomegranate, and how the wastewater is recycled in the wetland system set up on the campus. 

Jayalakshmi explaining processes and motifs at Charaka

Wastewater treatment at Charaka

The learning community met several of Charaka’s members hard at work at their respective jobs, including its President Mrs. Padmamma. Their humility left the students in wondrous admiration. The group visited Charaka’s various facilities, where the fabric is finished into various clothes and utility items such as handbags and prepared to be shipped out for the market.

Women hard at work at Charaka’s facilities

Block printing fun!

Following a sumptuous lunch, the group bade farewell to the community, and on the way to Chitradurga, stopped at Charaka Angadi at Sagara, the society’s local retail outlet. Here our enthusiastic group of more than thirty persons virtually ransacked everything there was in the shop, and bought out loads of clothes and year end gifts for family and friends.

Ransacking Charaka Angadi!

Challakere, Chitradurga

Following a late night arrival in Chitradurga, which also involved a sudden change to a hotel to sleep, the group left early on 22 December to visit Challakere. Trekking up the  rocky expanse of Ramadurga hill to get a bird’s eye view of the vast grassland and agricultural expanse of the region, the group was stunned to see the massive diversion of the Amrit Mahal Kaval grasslands to a military-industrial-nuclear-energy complex dubbed the ‘Science City’. From the remnants of a mediaeval fort atop Ramdurga, the students absorbed the modernistic manifestations of the State’s approach to secure the nation, in stark contrast to the calmness of an old rock-cut cave temple. 

View from Ramadurga Hill, Challakere, with fort remnants visible in the foreground

Mr. Obanna of the Amrit Mahal Kaval Hitarakshana Horata Samithi along, with Leo and Bhargavi, provided a comprehensive overview of how Challakere was transformed into  the ‘Science City’ through the diversion of 10,000 acres of the Amrit Mahal Kavals, which was staunchly resisted by the local communities for years, and involved a systematic legal effort through the Karnataka High Court, the National Green Tribunal and ultimately the Supreme Court. They rued how the injustices of the diversion were sustained in the ‘national interest’ and the communities of over 60 villages were now left scrounging for a living, working their ways through a maze of walls built to protect defence, solar parks and nuclear enrichment facilities. The students tried to wrap their heads around how such decisions could be made, taking away the last remaining stretch of contiguous arid grasslands left in  Karnataka, which are a habitat for the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, and across which the cheetah, now extinct in India, hunted not more than a century ago. 

Discussing Challakere’s history at Ramadurga

From Ramadurga, the group passed through the Science City, absorbing the massive scales of the Special Material Enrichment facility of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the Sagitaur solar park, the drone testing centre of the Defence Research Development Organisation, and the yet to be decided what use to put to Indian Institute of Science campus, to reach Mr. Doddaullarthi Karianna’s farm. 

Sagitaur Solar Park at Science City, Challakere

A lavish country-style lunch was followed by a long discussion on the difficulties being faced by the agro-pastoral communities in Challakere due to the Science City. As evening set in, the group bid goodbye to their generous hosts and set off on the last leg of the journey to Bengaluru, to arrive at the Indian Social Institute, Benson Road.

At Karianna’s farm

Bengaluru

On the morning of the 23rd, we were greeted by the light mist and chill of the Garden City. The students were divided into groups and allotted topics to prepare skits touching upon important themes covered in the field course, such as eco-tourism, sustainable fashion, power production, and grassland protection. After brainstorming amidst the beautiful blossoms of ISI’s gardens, the students went on to present their innovative skits, which reflected a remarkably critical understanding of the complex issues covered in the course. This amazing learning experience was wrapped up with a critically guided reflection and analysis of the students’ learnings and experiences. Following a relaxed lunch at Jayamahal Palace Hotel, the students bade farewell to each other and went home for their Christmas break.

Brainstorming in the Indian Social Institute gardens, Bengaluru

Taha, Anuraj, Sandeep, Bhuvana and Unnati present their skit on the impacts of prevailing eco-tourism and conservation ideologies 

Our students acknowledged that seeing these issues close up had completely changed their perspective on environmental issues and their own potential to be changemakers. We leave you with their testimonials: 

“This trip was a real on-field experience for me… In Mangalore, we visited the Adani thermal plant and areas around it. Speaking to the people impacted by it, I realised the peril they were in as a result of being near a thermal plant. The health implications were astronomical. I am a business student, and in our studies we are mainly taught to run a business, effectively making profits; however, the environmental impacts are often neglected. This trip gave me a whole new lens on the need to preserve the environment and the implications of business on the people and the community, and the urgent need to move towards true sustainability.” 

Hredaye Jalan, II Year, BBA (Hons.), Jindal Global Business School

“The learning programme was not just an educational trip but also the start of a journey. On this journey, I got to discover and learn about the interconnection between environment, public health, development and socio-economic status… My personal favourite experience was at Charkha, a women-run organisation which produces naturally dyed handloom products… This journey is always going to stick with me and work as a driving force which makes me ask questions at every stage.” 

Anushree Agrawal, III Year, B. A. LL.B. (Hons.), Jindal Global Law School 

“This trip to Karnataka gave me a reality check that I was not expecting but definitely needed. There were so many instances that helped change my perspective on life – one such instance was our visit to the Bhadra Dam. We were taken on a boat ride through a serene scene of greenery and clear water all around us. We were absolutely astonished by the beauty of nature and could not stop talking about it. We later found out that the dam was built by submerging 27 villages… These are the people and creatures that deserve legal aid and justice to rightfully get what they deserve and receive apt compensation for it all.”

Bhavya Bharadwaj, II Year, BBA LL.B. (Hons.), Jindal Global Law School

Course Details

Course Directors

Leo Saldanha, Environment Support Group

Bhargavi Rao, Environment Support Group

Course Facilitators

Malvika Kaushik, Environment Support Group

Siddhanth Prasad, Assistant Professor, Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability

Course Participants

Aadya Gupta 

Abhijith H Nair 

Ankith C Wilfred

Anshula Tiwari 

Anuraj Singh 

Anushree Agrawal 

Bhavya Bharadwaj 

Charvi Rawat 

Chavi Malhotra

Devayani Meena Aravindan

Erik Thomas 

Hredaye Jalan

Isha Suraj Puthenpurakal 

Ishika Garg 

Ishita Gupta 

Mahima Ray

Manasi Singh Rathi

Manu Shukla 

Namrata Rajesh Menon

Praneetha Shivaprasad 

Ronnit Agarwal

Rushi Mayank Patel

Sashwat Mishra

Sai Sandeep Ramakuru

Taha Mohammad Mama 

Unnati Patel

Vasu Agarwal

Yannamani Bhuvanasri Kala Madhavi

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