29th July 2001
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Conservation kicked around

By Hiranthi Fernando
Do recreational concerns outweigh envi ronmental needs? This controversy sur faces once more with the construction of a National Football Training Centre at Kotte on protected sanctuary land.

The foundation stone for the training centre at Baddegana Road was laid on May 5 this year with much fanfare during the visit of Joseph Blatter, President of FIFA. A few feet away from the plaque listing the names of the dignitaries associated with the ceremony, stands another board put up by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) many years ago, proclaiming the land to be a part of the Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte Sanctuary. "Within the state lands of this Sanctuary, felling, debarking, collecting or extraction of any plant or clearing any forest, constructing or occupying any permanent or temporary buildings are prohibited," reads the notice on the board.

"The Wildlife & Nature Protection Society protested the takeover and reported it to the Department of Wildlife Conservation," says Dr. Malik Fernando, President of the Society. "This sanctuary, with the Diyawanna Oya Lake at its centre, serves not only to preserve a habitat for water birds but also protects the marshland that is part of the water retention system protecting Colombo from floods."

"The society is unable to understand how the authorities can permit such action, particularly at a time when there is a lot of effort being made to obtain a huge loan from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to fund a seven-year Protected Areas Management and Wildlife Conservation Project. Surely, Protected Areas (PA), once declared, should be kept intact before vast sums of money are spent on their management? If it is possible to carve out bits of PAs now and then, whenever someone wishes, why bother to declare them in the first place?," Dr Fernando questioned. The Wild Life & Nature Protection Society has requested President Kumaratunga to allot suitable alternative land for this training centre.

Acting Director, Dept. of Wildlife Conservation, Mr. Janath Guneratne, who assumed duties just two months ago is not aware of how this matter originated. "These lands have been declared sanctuaries because they are the habitat of some very rare birds. A total of about 1000 acres in this area was declared a sanctuary in 1985. This includes state lands and some private lands as well. In the case of privately owned lands there are no restrictions imposed. However, in the case of state owned lands such as those of the Urban Development Authority (UDA), approval should be obtained from the Director Wildlife Conservation before it is utilised for any other purpose," the Acting Director said.

Wildlife Conservation officials say they were not consulted prior to the release of this land for the football centre. The Director has sent a report on it to the President, under whose Ministry the Department of Wildlife Conservation functions and is awaiting instructions. "If we had been consulted, we could have discussed the matter and made some arrangement," Mr. Guneratne said. "We have to preserve the sanctuaries but we must take into account that the football ground is also of importance."

An official of the Department of Wildlife Conservation explained that according to the law, DWLC approval has to be obtained to use state lands within the sanctuaries for any other function. The user first has to obtain an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA and all the authorities concerned such as the Urban Development Authority, Land Reclamation and Development Corporation, the local Municipal Council, Central Environmental Authority, and the DWLC all sit on a committee to take a decision on the matter. When a similar issue was referred to the Attorney General on a previous occasion, the AG ruled that the Wildlife Conservation Ordinance supersedes others in such cases, the official said.

Deputy General Manager, Design Research, of the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLRDC), Mr. Kirthi Jayawardena said their concern was the drainage of water. Areas for flood retention have been demarcated and it is not permitted to fill these lands. When there was a request for a football ground to be used during dry weather, Mr. Jayawardena said they first checked the water levels and found the existing levels higher than the normal water level of the wet season. By excavating part of the land, making ponds and drains and filling a part of it with the excavated earth, the drainage could be taken care of. According to the layout submitted for the football centre, the flood buffer capacity was checked before clearance was given. "An exception was made because of the overall benefits," Mr. Jayawardena said. "If environment friendly development comes in, it is better than leaving the land as a marsh since people start dumping garbage on it." 

Kotte Mayor Chandra Silva, who was apparently responsible for getting the land released, said he was not aware that the land in question was a wildlife sanctuary and referred us to the Urban Development Authority. "In 1982, a master plan was worked out by the UDA for Sri Jayawardenapura to be converted to the country's capital. Even the wildlife areas were identified by the UDA," said Mr. Hemantha Jayasundera, who handles New Projects at the UDA. "The DWLC declared these areas as sanctuaries but, since then what has been done to protect the area?"

Mr. Jayasundera explained that in the Sri Jayawardenapura area, there were three aspects to consider and protect. The bird sanctuary, which comes under the DWLC, the ancient ramparts of the Kotte Kingdom handled by the Archaeology Department and the flood retention areas, which are the responsibility of the SLLRDC. However, the UDA was compelled to look after all these areas on behalf of the various authorities, he said.

The marshy area where the football centre is to be sited was used by people as a garbage dump, Mr. Jayasundera said. "There was waste material from garment factories and other industries and once, I even found syringes dumped on the land. When I sent officers there to stop the dumping, they were threatened by those who dumped garbage. It was uncontrollable."

Further, Mr. Jayasundera said although the land was located within the bird sanctuary, it was already used by children as a playground. There was a filled area created during the dredging of the Parliament lake. There was an application from the Football Association, for a football training centre with foreign funding also available. After a meeting with the Mayor of Kotte, the UDA supported the proposal because it was compatible with the present use of this land, Mr. Jayasundera said. 

Approval, he said, was given under certain conditions. Buildings should be of a maximum ridge height of 17 feet, which means they cannot go up two floors unless they have a basement. A storm water drain has to be constructed for drainage. They also have to enhance the environment, by planting trees and greenery, providing walkways and bird watching areas.

If all such requirements are met, the football ground may not be harmful to the environment since 80 percent of the land would remain an open field. Yet with the increased activity, there's no denying, that bird life would be affected. Whatever the pros and cons of the project, what is disturbing is the lack of coordination between the various agencies involved. If this land had been declared a wildlife sanctuary, should not the Wildlife Department be consulted in its development plans? Are there definite guidelines about the use of wildlife conservation sanctuaries or can land be parcelled out for varied uses? 

Once approval is given for a project and it gets under way, are there any controls to ensure they do not violate the conditions under which approval was given? These are questions that have to be resolved jointly between the various authorities in order to ensure that there is a proper balance between development and preserving the environment.

She will always be known as the Bandit Queen

Violent end to a dramatic life

Life dealt Phoolan Devi, better known as India's Bandit Queen killed in New Delhi by masked gunmen earlier this week, some early blows. Kidnapped by dacoits and forced into becoming one herself, she lived a fugitive's life for years in the treacherous ravines of Uttar Pradesh - looting and killing. Phoolan often recounted gruesome tales of the killing of her lover in 1980 by rival upper caste dacoits, who then gang-raped and assaulted her for days, parading her in villages.

She took her revenge soon, with her gang massacring 22 upper-caste Thakurs in Behmai village the very next year. Phoolan finally surrendered in 1983 on her own terms to the Madhya Pradesh police, refusing to do so before the UP police. 

The surrender was made amid high drama before the images of Mahatma Gandhi and Goddess Durga. The first trace of the politician-to-be.

Released in 1994, a much vocal Phoolan made an easy transition to politics in 1996, snapped up by Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. She was elected twice from Mirzapur, UP, to the Lok Sabha. 

Desperately seeking social acceptance, Phoolan settled down with Umaid Singh, who had earlier married her sister, to what she liked to paint as domestic bliss. 

In her new avatar, she even liked to sport a different look, carefully erasing the image of the gun-wielding, trouser-clad brash young woman of the past. The politician Phoolan wore a sari and tried to say and do politically correct things.

Every once in a while, however, the old fire would flash, like when she commandeered a Kanpur-bound Shatabdi Express, climbing into the engine and forcing unscheduled stops. In all that, the one thing she did not fail to do was grab the headlines.

Fame was never a stranger to Phoolan. Already a legend by the time she dramatically landed in jail, she was immortalised in print and celluloid in controversial but critically acclaimed works. Her rough life has fascinated the media, both at home and abroad, with everything she did becoming newsworthy.

The epithets have been wide-ranging - from champion of the oppressed to violent and opportunistic. Many have discounted Phoolan's tales of her bleak early life, as she was given to making contradictory statements. But her statement in an interview to a newspaper seems to ring remarkably honest: "What could I have done differently? There was no other way, when the dacoits took me away and made me a dacoit. If I could do anything differently, I would not be born a girl in a poor family."

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