Onkareshwar – A National Park in Waiting

I am in Khandwa. The district has good forest. I am keen to visit some wildlife area. There is no well known National Park, Wildlife Sanctuary or Tiger Reserve around. What to do? Where to go?

My forester friend suggests I can visit Onkareshwar National Park with small detour, while I go back to Indore to take flight to Delhi.  This is a proposed national park.

Ideal time to go to forest is early morning or evening to be able to spot some animals and have correct light for photography as well. In prime protected areas, there are fix times for safari in morning and evening. This never works out is non-hardcore wildlife areas. We leave after breakfast i.e. around 9.30.

By the time we are in the region of the Onkareshwar, it is 11 am! The local forester with us tells me, “Sir, there are leopard, wild boar, cheetal (spotted deer), sambar, nilgai (blue bull – antelope), Chosingha (four-horned antelope) to count few main mammals which are usually sighted in the Park but it’s not the right time of the day for wildlife viewing.” I entirely agree and am not expected to see even a rat. Nevertheless, going around the forest itself is a pleasure and raises my spirit.

We arrive on the bridge on Narmada with dam on the right and little water flowing down stream in main river course, followed by Power House with larger part of water from the reservoir coming out from the turbines and passing down the channel.  This is Narmada Hydro Electric Project with Indira Sagar reservoir behind it. This dam has drowned more that 400 sq km of pristine forests upstream!

What we are visiting is part of the remaining forest on the bank of the reservoir. We are driving on a new highway to Bhopal developed due to the Project. This is not widely used road though one day it would have good amount of traffic – bane of the National Park and wildlife therein. On both side of the road is teak forest. We enter the forest on the right side about 5-6 km down the Dam at Kaladev. Just 200 m away is Kaladev Forest Guard Camp.

This is a kuchcha track. Forest is thick – in technical term the density of 0.6/0.7! Teak (Tectona grandis) is the dominant species. It’s dry deciduous forest.  Regeneration is good. The forester informs me, “there are very few spotted deer!” That is shocking.

weed-covering-the-ground

Soon I notice the reason, there is very little grasses – whole ground flora is entirely weedy. This is an irony – a medicinal plant, Van Tulsi (Ocimum gratissimum), has become a weed and is of no use to herbivore! I see all open areas full of Van Tulsi.

Second reason is brought to my notice by local forester is Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) leaf. Fresh flush of leaves from young plants at the ground level are collected. This is major minor-forest-produce in Central India. The leaf is used to make India cigarette called ‘bidi’ – dry and crushed tobacco leaf is rolled into the Tendu leaf and folded at ends.

Tendu leaf is collected in summer. To facilitate collection, the ground flora is set on fire and burnt, leaving nothing to eat for grazing animals e.g. spotted deer. Though this burning is illegal but the contractors for the collection of leaf do this invariably and without fail. The staff is never able to catch the culprit. They just run around to extinguish fire at one place while the contractor /collectors set the other area on fire. This fire is devastating – ground flora is lost, micro-organisms and even some reptiles and small mammals are killed, regeneration of trees too is affected. Besides, the sight is repelling.

Soon we notice, a newly white washed another forest guard camp. This is Mathni – previously a village site, which was shifted because of submergence in the Indira Sagar. The water has receded as the reservoir is not filled to full capacity of 262.13 metre.  We can see the water sheet about half a km away. Fresh grass is growing in the receded portion of the reservoir. Conspicuous in this landscape is remains of massive Banyan tree – main stem still erect while huge dead branches are scattered around. We hear some animals stampeding – oh, cattle! The forester informs, “This is feral cattle, being of no use to villagers, was left behind when they left the village.” I know, this is good fodder for larger carnivore e.g. leopard and tiger.

We notice some people inside the forest – local villagers? No, the forester notices that they are probably workers for Forest Development Corporation, who are removing some marked trees! Thinning of the tree crop, which is a management practice.

Soon the action is there in front of us. We come to a screeching halt. It is rather painful to see a full grown healthy Dhawda (Anogeissus latifolia) tree lying felled across the road – blocking the path. I do not see any reason for the tree to be felled. The forester too feels that this healthy tree located by the side of the road should not have been felled.

Oh! This is unbelievable – we see two female Nilgai (antelope). I have not expected anything at all. And a little later a full grown bull Nilgai. Lovely.

The ups and downs of undulating forest landscape ultimately lead us to a wonderful site – Boria Maal Forest Jal Camp. We are at the edge of reservoir. Huge panorama is spread across – Picturesque view of the irregularly shaped reservoir and forests around it. Its miles and miles of water sheet – sunlight flashing from the mild waves on the surface as if sun is falling on shaking thousands of mirrors. The cool looking water sheet is a mirage – it’s a deep water body and you never know of the turbulence brewing. At times, even a powerful motor boat cannot negotiate it from across, where a tourist resort, Hanumanthia, is located.  I am told, the Chief Minister of the State is keen to visit this Jal Camp but his two attempts by motor boat from Hanumanthia previously failed.

A small boat, parked at the edge below, adds to the scene – A picture perfect. A crude looking, poorly conceived eco-tourism site /camp has been developed here. There are two small portable plastic and aluminium cabin put here. One has been made into a double bed room, so tiny that the twin beds with a coffee table in between just fit edge to edge in the room. There is small bathroom attached. The other one has been converted into a dormitory to accommodate four persons. One tent serves as a kitchen.  The camp is an example of truly shabby, most awkward, really un-aesthetic and uncomfortable arrangement. Only good thing is solar power, though I am sure, it would not really work in government setup.  They must be using backup generator to do some business or keep the visitors in dark.

Soon, it was time to leave. We drive back. Again, unexpectedly we see a pair of Four-horned Antelope.  I am amazed that neither the nilgais we met while coming down nor this pair of antelope shy away as much as they should be in forest, which is not frequently visited by people. It seems these animals are used to seeing people and vehicles.

The weed packed open stretches of forest pain me. I imagine palatable grasses are growing here, and I am watching herds of spotted deer now and again.  The scene of weed removal in many hectare of grasslands in Gomarda Wildlife Sanctuary in Chhattisgarh and appearance of grasses again and consequent wildlife sighting there flashes back in my mind.

As we emerge from the forest on to the highway at Kaladev, I feel sad. With a sigh, I think, what a pity, this forest has not been notified a Protected Area for three decades in spite of indication at the time Narmada HEP project was cleared. Omkareshwar has national park staff and management in place and some infrastructural works have been done.  All this is ineffective unless the Park is actually notified legally, since at present, forests are under the physical control of territorial forest division.

Protection and conservation issues can be taken care once the National Park is notified – there would be no felling of trees, there would be no minor forest produce collection, there would be no hunting,  there would weed management, there would be relocation of herbivore and carnivore  to populate the area. This can become a real vibrant wilderness and tiger country.

 

Pushp Jain

 

Post Script

 

Omkareshwar National Park & other Protected Areas Waiting for Ages to be Notified

 

Date Activity Remark
07.10.1987 ‘Forest Clearance’ for Narmada Hydro Electric Projects for 411 sq km area, largely going into submergence. One of the Clearance conditions is that a committee would be constituted for suggesting a programme for protection and management of wildlife. The suggested scheme would be implemented with the support of Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA). The idea is to compensate the forest and biodiversity loss.
08.01.1988 State Government Constitutes Committee  
  NVDA engages Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun and Friends of Nature (FoN), Bhopal to 1. Study the flora and fauna impacted due to submergence and 2. To suggest declaration of protected areas ( PAs) outside the reservoir.  
1994

1996

WII of India Submits report

FoN submits report

These organisations suggestions creation of one national park and two wildlife sanctuaries of total 760 sq km area

Too long a time taken (6-8 yrs) in completing the study.
23.04.2004 After ten years, a committee visits site! NVDA again gives a consultancy to Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal to suggest constitution of PAs.

IIFM dilute the suggestion for PAs by WII and FoN – decrease the area and divides the areas in weaker PAs.  It suggests creation of one national park, two wildlife sanctuaries and two Conservation Reserves of total 646  sq km area.

In spite of receiving reports by 1996, no action for 8 years, only a site visit. Action initiated to dilute the reports.
30.07.2004 PCCF (WL) suggests creation of one national park, two wildlife sanctuaries and two Conservation Reserves of total 697 sq km area somewhat more than suggested by IIFM but still less than suggested for PAs by WII and FoN  
19.10.2004 State Wildlife Board recommends notification of  one national park, two wildlife sanctuaries and two Conservation Reserves  
2005-06 Developmental works from the perspective of wildlife management initiated. Wildlife management officials appointed and continue to be in place. The actual control of the area remains with the territorial divisions. Staff in place, while no forest in physical control
27.10.2010 Principle Secretary (Forests) organises a meeting for constitution of PAs. It was decided to prepare and present documents for notification of only two Conservation Reserves of total 153 sq km area. Notification documents can be prepared in days, while it is taking years.
18.01.2013

 

18.05.2013

Sept 2013

The main committee meets –  decides on preparation of management plans for the proposed PAs.

First draft of the management plan

Second draft of the management plan

 
Present Wildlife Manager and staff are in place. Some protection measures e.g. communication in the areas e.g. roads, bridges, culverts, forest guard camps have been developed.

Actual control of the area is with territorial forest divisions.

Wood and non-wood harvest are taking place, resulting in disturbance and habitat alterations, and regular fires affecting ground flora. It is suspected that poaching too is happening.

In spite of condition of forest clearance in 1987, now thirty years later, 2017, the PAs are yet to be notified.

 

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Khurasani of Mandu

 

I am visiting a senior forester friend based in Nimar region in South-Western part of Madhya Pradesh. This is West-Central India. He arranges an exposure of the region for me, which includes some unique places. One of them worth mentioning is Mandu.  Mandu, a hill fort, is known for love and romance, and exotic natural beauty. Mughal called it ‘the city of joy’.

Overnight, we have stayed at home of a local host at Khargone. In the morning, breakfast starts with Halwa – a real sweet and heavily buttery stuff. I am taken aback when the host tells me that this delicacy is made of seeds of Afeem! Afeem is opium, a narcotic! Opium is also famous as ‘God’s Own Medicine’. The host assure that the seeds have been treated – no narcotics to be concerned about. All said and done, I am keen. This is a new dish for me. And it involves a kind of adventure. We eat a bowl full of halwa and drink a cup of masala tea. All is normal! I prepare to leave, when I am informed that this is starter only! The ladies are busy in the kitchen, we can smell the stuff. There is no way I can refuse. So another round of traditional north Indian meal – stuffed parantha (fried bread), spicy dry potato vegetable and curd.

Filled to brim, we start around 10.30. End-January weather is just pleasant. It’s sunny and cool. After two hours, we are driving in a hilly terrain. Good forest – though it’s dry. Hills look desolate. Forest does not make the impact at this point of time, being of dry deciduous nature with teak as dominant species, which is mostly in leaf fall.

As we ascend the plateau and drive around, three things strike conspicuously – monuments, poor people living is shacks around them and Khurasani.

Regarding monuments, there are 48 of them, including palaces and fort; tombs and memorials; mosques and temples… I rapidly go through pages of a book published by Archaeological Survey of India on Mandu to get some rooting of history and monuments.

Mandu is famous for the selfless and devoted love between Baz Bahadur, a defeated ruler who turned to music and Rupamati his main associate and consort in mid-16th century. The glory of Mandu is said to have subsequently faded, though, Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan have visited Mandu for brief periods.

It is reported that most of the standing monuments were built between 1401and 1526 AD, the age when the Muhammadan kings of Malwa ruled independently from Mandu. Jami Masjid, Hoshang Tomb, Jahaz Mahal & Hindola Mahal are some of the famous ones.

I am not a keen lover of monuments. But Mandu is different. I loved to have one round of exposure. I am surprised that I visit about a dozen of these monuments including Rani Rupamati Pavallion; Baz Bhadur Mahal, Jali Mahal, Chorkot Mosque, Malik Mughith’s mosque, Jahaz Mahal, Hindola Mahal, Jami Masjid, Hoshang ShahTomb and others.

These monuments have grandeur but are simple and austere. What confuses me about these Mahals (Palaces) created by Mughal rulers is virtual absence of rooms in them – where is the private space that too for kings and queens? Secondly, all these monuments lack any art and delicate carvings. Thirdly, for the sake of convenience some of the structures have used the stuff obtained by cruel demolition of old temples.

 

What attracts me most is Khurasani – the very first sight hooks. There is nothing like this in indigenous species of trees in India. I have not come across Khurasani in my far and wide travel in forests and otherwise in India.

My forester friend too has flagged the species to watch. He is right. It’s worth it.

First attraction is bulk of the trunk. We actually measure one, which at breast height turns out to be 7.3 m in circumference! By this scale, I am sure some bigger ones may very well be more than 10 m. Second attraction is the shape – it’s like a cone or bottle with big bottom. In comparison, the canopy is smaller, irregularly scattered. Presently, being leafless – looks like an art installation!  Third attraction is the bark – somewhat shiny and copperish-creamish colour. Fourth attraction is, some of them may be 500 year old. It is just a guesstimate, can be more or less, but pretty old. Fifth attraction is the conspicuous fruit – about 8-12 inches long oval dull green big fruit. This is known as Khurasani Imli. Imli is tamarind. Sixth attraction is its capacity to store water. According to one source, ‘Old trees are known to have a capacity to store upwards of 120,000 litres of water. Aboriginal people in Australia and Africa have known this for long and have devised their own methods of tapping this water in times of scarcity.’

The local vendors all over Mandu, more so at the monuments, are selling, Khurasani Imli. They are selling the whole fruit, as well as seeds with dry pulp around. The pulp has mild sour taste.

There are several Khurasani scattered in the Mandu landscape. Local vendors point out that the tree was brought from Africa and planted here particularly for soldiers to carry with them, to meet shortage of drinking water, during wars. They point out that the most important property of the fruit is that it decreases thirst.

One article on internet indicates ‘The tree that we are talking about is the Baobab, also known as the Boab, Monkey Bread Tree, Boaboa, and Bottle Tree among others… The Baobab has nine species, six of which are native to Madagascar, two to Africa and one to Australia.’ It’s difficult to pin-point species, origin and its history of arrival in Mandu without going into research, which of course, has not been the objective of my visit.

All said and done, Khurasani fruit attracts us – let us feel and taste it. We stop at one vendor. It’s not very expensive. One cost us, Rs 50. He breaks it open – bangs it against a rock and the fruit split into two – pulls out the fresh interior stuff and removes seed with pulp from the fibre. Offers few to us to taste – yes it is sour, but mild, not as strong as Indian tamarind. There is just little pulp around seeds. He packs the stuff in a bag – A bit of history and souvenir to carry home.

 

Pushp