Forests in mind, Centre draws a line on highways through woods

Environment, nature, forest, The Wildlife Protection Act, NHAI, Nitin Gadkari, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, The Federal, English news website
According to a study by the Wildlife Institute of India and the Wildlife Protection Society of India, wildlife-vehicle collisions have claimed the lives of 270 big cats and 100 elephants between 2012 and 2017. Representational image: iStock.

For years, conservationists have been crying hoarse about the adverse impact of building roads and rail lines through wildlife corridors. And finally now, authorities appear to be dealing with the issue with some seriousness.

In a recent circular, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) asked implementing agencies to consider sparing eco-sensitive areas while planning highways.

“To have minimum impact of highways on the protected eco-sensitive area, the implementing agency should consider to spare (sic) sanctuaries/National Parks at the planning stage and wherever possible take a bypass/detour,” MoRTH said in a circular sent to all states and Union Territories, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), and public works departments dealing with national highways.

It added that if such an alignment is “absolutely unavoidable,” all necessary clearances required under The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 should be obtained before any work is undertaken in such areas.

Highways through protected areas have taken a heavy toll on wildlife in India. According to a study by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the Wildlife Protection Society of India, wildlife-vehicle collisions have claimed the lives of 270 big cats – 256 leopards and 14 tigers – and 100 elephants between 2012 and 2017.

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However, these statistics do not represent the true picture of such roadkills. There is no consolidated collection, storing and analysis of roadkill data at national level. The focus is only on the bigger species, whereas scores of other animals too fall victim to speeding vehicles on roads through forests.

Wildlife activists have welcomed the circular, albeit with some caution. Although such directions, including from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, had come earlier, they used to be “totally disregarded” by NHAI, PWD and other agencies, Sanjay Gubbi, a conservation biologist with Nature Conservation Foundation, told The Federal.

“Hopefully, the line departments will now take this clause seriously as the circular comes from the MoRTH, which plans, funds and monitors development of roads in the country,” he said.

The MoRTH has also told the implementing agencies to follow the provisions of the manual ‘Eco Friendly Measures to Mitigate Impacts of Linear Infrastructure on Wildlife’, prepared by WII, Dehradun, for building roads or any other linear infrastructure. “Accordingly, all implementing agencies are requested to follow the provisions of the manual at the planning stage itself,” it said.

Praveen Bhargav, Managing Trustee, Wildlife First, points out that in the past, the NHAI had resorted to using the ploy of a fait accompli to push its projects through. It would make investments on the premise that the highways are outside eco-sensitive areas, start construction and then say the alignment through wildlife sanctuaries is unavoidable, he said. “While it is a welcome move, we have to see how it turns out on the ground,” he added.

He said he was sceptical because a similar circular was issued in 2014. But that had not prevented the NHAI from proposing a five-km overpass on the Bandipur-Wayanad highway, where a night traffic ban is already in place for a decade now. “How was this proposal made when there already existed a circular that no new roads should be constructed through forest areas?” he wondered.

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Conservation biologist Gubbi said it would be wonderful if the circular could further be strengthened by adding a clause that all suggestions given in the WII report are mandatorily implemented.

The WII report, which details a slew of mitigation measures in terms of design alternatives for highways, says that where impacts are highly significant or could lead to loss of irreplaceable biodiversity or conservation assets, avoidance is the only real option if development is to be sustainable.

For instance, this February, the WII recommended that the only feasible mitigation is ‘avoidance’ of the broadening of railway gauge through the area of Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, for which diversion of 160 hectares of forest land from the Wan Sanctuary was proposed.

The new circular is no doubt a positive development, but the problem of existing highways remains a challenge that must be overcome. A case in point is the highway (NH-67) connecting Mysuru in Karnataka with Ooty in Tamil Nadu, which passes through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. While the highway is closed for traffic between 9 PM and 6 AM, it sees heavy movement of vehicles during the daytime.

Similarly, another highway (NH-766), passing through the same tiger reserve and connecting Bandipur with Wayanad district in Kerala, is also banned for night traffic. Mercifully, the Centre earlier this year said that it does not concur with the MoRTH proposals for lifting of the night traffic ban in force for a decade, the construction of four elevated corridors and the broadening of the highway by 15 metres. The Kerala government has been demanding that the ban be lifted.

Dr Gubbi says that the Supreme Court had taken cognisance of the fact that the MoRTH has withdrawn its proposal to make flyovers through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. “But, my fear is that some people, who have vested interests and want the night ban lifted, will now ask for the matter to be deferred.”

“There is a constant turnover of judges in the Supreme Court… they will come back with the case in front of new judges with the same old arguments. The whole argument will start again from scratch, putting the case into a perpetual spinning wheel,” he says.

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As if lending credence to Dr Gubbi’s fears, former Congress president and Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi brought up the issue in Lok Sabha last week. Referring to the hardships of a large number of people living in north Malabar due to the continuation of the night traffic ban, he sought to know from Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari whether the Centre would consider lifting the ban.

Gadkari replied that a committee of secretaries chaired by the Cabinet Secretary had this February recommended that the status quo should be maintained on the restriction of night-time traffic through Bandipur National Park, as it is a core area of wildlife habitat.

During his election campaign rallies in Wayanad earlier this year, Gandhi had earned the ire of wildlife activists for promising his constituents that he would take up the issue of night traffic ban with the Centre.

“We don’t know what his compulsions are in raising the issue. Rahul Gandhi should remember that it was during his grandmother, Indira Gandhi’s time that the Forest Conservation Act, the Environment Protection Act and the Wildlife Protection Act came into being,” says Bhargav.

“It was also during her time that Article 51(A), which says that it is the duty of every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, was inserted into the Constitution,” he adds.