On the afternoon of Makar Sankaranti in mid-January, a group of men and women gathered in GB Papanna’s house in Kudapura, a village in Karnataka’s Chitradurga district. The morning’s rituals celebrating the advent of spring had been performed and a special lunch partaken of, but the mood was hardly festive.

“We are all getting by with bare essentials. Why do we need someone making a bomb here?” Papanna asked.

For the past month, the Kudapura villagers had been in panic. They had been reading in local Kannada papers that the government was planning to build a facility to build nuclear bombs in Challakere taluk where they lived. The papers cited some news reports from the United States, so it must be true, they said. After all, they had been watching an imposing stone compound wall gradually seal off 10,000 acres of land in the area for the past four years.

The villagers talk about the lush vegetation of the kavals that makes good animal fodder and keeps their livestock healthy. Indeed, the Amrit Mahal cattle are popular draught animals known for their speed and endurance. Residents say that the kavals are full of medicinal herbs that they have been using for their ailments since before hospitals came to the area. They are livid that the commons that had been given to the people by the Mysore kings and carefully tended to and guarded by them have been fenced off overnight without anyone asking them about it.

The battle

The fight over the kavals has even gone to the National Green Tribunal, which in February 2014 in response to a petition by local non-governmental organisations and Bengaluru's Environment Support Group, ordered that all construction activity be stopped because the requisite permissions had not been obtained from the environment ministry. The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre told the activists that the clearances had been received but could not be shared on account of security concerns.

In October last year, M Sridhar Acharyalu, information Commissioner of the Central Information Commission, slammed the defence and atomic agencies saying that they could not site national security or strategic reasons to avoid complying with an environment protection order by the green tribunal.

The information commissioner ordered the central environment ministry and the Karnataka government to show what efforts they had made to protect that ecologically sensitive kavals and the endangered Great Indian Bustard that live there. Both BARC and ISRO were directed to release copies of the environmental clearances and the Indian Institute of Science and the industries corporation were asked to show that they had restored the local residents' access to water and livelihood from the kaval grounds.

A few days before Makar Sankranti, and possibly because of the media coverage of the issue, officials from ISRO came to meet some residents at Ullarthi village. “The ISRO guys had assured us that only if we supported them would they build here, and if the public didn’t support, they wouldn’t,” said Eswara, who has about 800 square feet of land abutting a section of the wall on which he grows onions and tuberoses. He held onto that assurance even though he felt that nothing good had happened ever since the wall came up.

The contentious wall is the boundary of a proposed research complex that will have facilities of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the Indian Space Research Organisation. Between the villages of Ullarthi and Kudapur in Challekere taluk there will also be facilities for the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, the Karnataka Small Scale Industries Development Corporation and a solar park of a private company called Sagitaur Ventures. The wall surrounds an area treasured by the local people – common pastoral lands called Amrit Mahal kavals.

The media frenzy

Since 2012, when the construction of the wall began, residents of Challakere have been objecting to being cut off from the kavals. In July 2013, newspapers reported how hundreds of sheep and cattle herders brought thousands of their livestock with them to protest outside the district commissioner’s office.

But it took a report in the international journal Foreign Policy in December 2015 for Challakere to get India-wide attention. The Foreign Policy carried a report by the Centre For Pubic Integrity about how India was planning to expand its nuclear programme by producing thermonuclear weapons at the “top-secret nuclear city” in Challakere. The report says that nuclear experts feel that the site may be used to stockpile enriched uranium fuel, not only the kind used for nuclear power reactors but also the kind that could be used to power nuclear submarines and in new hydrogen bombs. The strategic designation that will keep international nuclear monitors away from the facility adds to such speculation.

The Foreign Policy report was picked up by national papers in India and trickled back to the vernacular press triggering panic among villagers, some of whom had spoken to the journalist who reported the story for the Centre for Public Integrity.

Till then, they hadn’t feared for their lives as much as for their livelihoods.

Road to development

The road from Challakere town to Ullarthi village is the very picture of development in rural India – wide and well maintained with its shiny, tarred surface winding across dry expanses of grassland. At many places, the road runs along the wall allowing occasional views of construction activity within the premises.

Doddaullarthi Karianna, who leads the Amrit Mahal Kaval Hitarakshana Horata Samiti – a movement to protect the Amrit Mahal kavals, disapproves of all the water that’s possibly being used for construction of the research facilities in a historically drought-prone area. Karianna and his neighbours say that ever since the wall came up, the taluk’s precious water supplies have been drying up.

Most residents here have small farms ranging from a few hundred square feet to 20 acres on which they grow a mishmash of pulses, greens, vegetables, ragi, jowar, groundnuts and coconuts when they can.

KV Obanayak, a village elder who worked as a kavalgaru to guard and maintain the kavals explains how the way of life of the people of Challakere and its landscape are meant for each other. “There is never any rain. Even when there is rain it isn’t enough to grow crops. If this 4,000 acres kaval grounds remains untouched that’s the only thing suitable for people to make livelihoods in this area. Why? Because in the one or two brief spells of rain, grass for grazing cattle grows well in the kavals and that’s why this is the main livelihood here,” he said.

In Challakere, people of the scheduled tribe community Nayak, the Kurubas, the Lingayats and the Reddys are all dependent on livestock in some way. “We farmers make a living from rearing sheep, cows and goats,” said Karianna. “If a farmer has 50 sheep and, of these, 40 give birth to lambs and there are about 20 male cubs, he can sell each for Rs 5000 and make Rs 1 lakh. That is enough to run the house and pay for the children’s school and everything.”

At the other end are the Kurubas who make blankets from sheep wool and sell them in the markets or just along the main roads and highways of Challakere taluk and other parts of the district.

The common pastoral space of the kavals is, therefore, critical to this way of life. “Right now the cattle are grazing on fallow land because the harvest is over,” said Papanna of Kudapura on that Makara Sankranti afternoon. "Once we sow rice and groundnuts we will have no space."

Karianna is still waiting for the government or agency officials to step up and disclose basic details of what has been planned for Challakere and in doing so follow the directives of the National Green Tribunal and the Chief Information Commissioner.

Karianna said that there has been no public meeting held or any request for approval from the gram sabha, which is standard procedure for environment clearances. Now he is worried about the uranium programme. “Even for nuclear enrichment, we know that there will be storage facilities and from there it is possible that there will be seepage into the water sources. We use only all the well water here and that could cause health problems and handicaps.”

“No one has yet come to meet us,” he said, speaking to Scroll.in in the beginning of April, while making plans to organise another protest meeting of all the farmers and residents of Challakere.

This time, they hope someone will hear them and at least respond.