MEET OUR STAFF: Gopalakrishne Gowda
Growing up in the parched and drought-prone district of Kolar, Karnataka, Gopalakrishne Gowda harboured a fascination for rivers. Kolar has long grappled with acute water shortages, and consistent droughts and famines, and continues to struggle with these issues. Having observed such difficulties up close is perhaps what ingrained Gowda’s resolve to protect and preserve the forests and rivers that flourished around him – a mission that he has pursued throughout his life as an officer of the Indian Administrative Service.
As DC, Chikmagaluru Gopalakrishne Gowda inspecting the relocation works at MC Halli, Bhadra.
During his career in the IAS since 1986, he has worked from within the system to catalyse various conservation initiatives in Western Ghats of Karnataka. Being posted in some of the state’s ecologically robust and biologically diverse regions, like Mysore, Uttara Kannada, Belgaum, etc. Mr Gowda recalls his initial fascination with the rich natural landscapes of the state: “I was very captivated by Uttara Kannada Chikmagalur’s forests and natural forms, especially the Western Ghats. The region sees rainfall of 360 cm per year and is blessed with unique forests with sloping shola grasslands and Sharavathi, Aganashini, Kali and Gangavati rivers. Multiple rivers originate here –Tunga, Bhadra, Hemavati. As a government servant posted in the area, I saw it as my responsibility to work for the conservation of these forests that were being consistently mined or encroached for several years.”
Gopalakrishne Gowda presently works with WCS India as Senior Advisor – Policy and Conservation, a position he took up in 2015 after retiring from the service in 2012. His insights on having worked from the government are meaningful in coordinating work towards achieving conservation outcomes.
In early 2000, he was posted as the Deputy Commissioner of Chikmagalur, a district of Karnataka, the region that is home to Kudremukh National Park and Bhadra Tiger Reserve. As District Commissioner of Chikmagalur district, he played a decisive role in catalysing the voluntary relocation project of communities that lived in 16 villages spread across the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, a venture that is widely considered a successful example of voluntary relocation. In his capacity as the DC, he coordinated with the efforts of the local government, forest department, and local conservationist, DV Girish to ensure that the relocated families received a fair allotment of land to start their lives outside the reserve. “The process had been due for almost a decade despite funds being available. Fortunately, we had some very dedicated people working towards this project.”
He stresses that while the relocation was a successful team effort, one rarely finds such support trying to work for conservation from within the government. G Gowda initiated steps for the notification of thickly wooded Western Ghat slopes of Chikmaglur district constituting Tunga and Bhadra catchment area in the Koppa Forest Division as Reserve Forest.
This forest itself is a vast montane grassland-jungle mosaic spread over 400 sq km. Recalls Gowda, “Koppa division had been seeing consistent encroachment, hunting and poaching for several years. When I was posted to the area, I saw an opportunity to put a stop to it and give these forests their due.”
Gopalakrishne Gowda being felicitated
Koppa’s natural landscapes are stunning in their biological diversity, but the process of getting them legally notified as a reserve forest wasn’t half as exciting. As the process usually goes with notifying new PAs, here too the process involved a lot of non-glamourous paperwork: procuring land records, recording thickly wooded forest areas. It was around this time that the Godavarman case was capturing a lot of media attention, due to its legal definition of what comprises a forest. Gowda saw an opportunity to provide legal protection to large forest tracts here and began working towards getting this land notified. The process took two years, but today the forest is legally “reserved forest.”
It was also during the time of his posting in 2000-02 that the Kudremukh Iron Ore Mining Company was continuing extensive mining operations in Kudremukh’s forests. This is a thriving mountain range comprised of tropical rainforests with heavy rainfall and montane grasslands and forms the largest protected area of the Western Ghats. It is also home to several endangered wildlife species like the Lion-Tailed macaque, tigers, leopards, gaur. KIOCL was running Asia’s largest iron ore mining operation, and since the beginning of its establishment in 1969 inside Kudremukh, had been conducting regular iron-ore extractions from the landscape.
Kudremukh National Park was officially notified by the Central Government in 1987, based on a survey by Dr Ullas Karanth, which threw light on the presence of the endangered Lion-Tailed Macaque populations that were thriving in these forests.
After pillaging the forest for around three decades, KIOCL’s mining lease expired in 1999, but the company continued its operations by exploiting various legal loopholes. The battle to conserve Kudremukh’s forests from KIOCL’s exploitation was led by several NGOs and local conservationists like Poornachandra Tejaswi for many years.
As DC, Gowda’s recommendation for a mining lease renewal would have made its processing a smooth affair. Not only did he decline signing on a recommendation but also refused to visit the mining township established around the mine. Why would a District Commissioner refuse to visit a township under his own jurisdiction? For Gowda, the reason was clear: “The River Bhadra was flowing red due to the mining residue flowing downstream from KIOCL’s operations, and the open-cast mine has been destroying the stunning forests and grassland areas atop Kudremukh. I was very clear that this needed to be stopped.”
In 2005, the Supreme Court finally ruled in favour of the mine being shut down, and this conservation battle, hard-fought by several NGOs and conservationists, was won.
Gopalakrishne Gowda refused to recommend a renewal of the licence for KIOCL to mine in Kudremukh © Kiran Yadav
Gowda’s story is a testament to the difference one can make towards protecting wildlife and forests from within the system. By taking a stand where required, as well as actively working to catalyse the notification of forests lands and other conservation projects, he has been able to make a lasting contribution towards conservation. In a system that doesn’t always support them, there are several government officers working tirelessly to protect forests and wildlife. We just don’t get to hear their stories very often.
Reflecting on the work he did before retiring in 2012, Gowda feels that these lesser-known contributions, involving least expenditure on the part of the government, like being able to protect crucial resources like flourishing forests, clean air and flowing rivers, were the lasting impacts he could make as a government servant. “In the end, such contributions justify my pension from state exchequer.”
Written by Vaishali Rawat