Even as everyone heaved a big sigh of relief thinking Karnataka Government had dropped the most controversial and ecologically disastrous Hubballi-Ankola Rail Project (when it was ‘rejected’ in the March 9 meeting of State Wildlife Board) – Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa has dropped a bombshell by calling a meeting of the Wildlife Board on Friday that too within 11 days.
Official sources say this is to clear the 168.28 kilometer long Hubballi-Ankola rail project which traverses Western Ghats and needs diversion of more than 596 hectares of forest land as also felling of nearly two lakh trees. Activists add that the CM has bowed down to pressures from his political colleagues including Jagdish Shettar, Prahlad Joshi and Suresh Angadi who are bent upon pushing the project.
This is despite the project being rejected from every central and state agency and even the central empowered committee of the Supreme Court. For the last two decades, the project has been kept alive by vested interests and politicians from both BJP and the Congress. Decrying the state government’s stubborn stance and anti-ecological attitude – environmentalists and activists stress that this shows how politicians are bent upon destroying the ‘Western Ghats’ and the precious forest habitat of Karnataka which is responsible for bringing rains to a state that is three fourths parched and semi-arid.
Pandurang Hegde and J Manjunath of Wilderness Club (along with Parisara Samrakshana Kendra) who both filed a case in 2006 against the massive diversion of forest lands in the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats state the CEC gave a clear report on the disastrous consequences of the project. They add, “WE the petitioners would like to inform the state government as also people that the project has been rejected by every government agency right from CEC, NTCA, NBWL and MoEF&CC. Why do they want the project now after 15 years of rejection and litigation?”
Further, in 2005, the user agency had taken up construction activities in the eco-fragile areas for which no permission was taken from the forest department, the litigants add. Manjunath informs, “More than Rs 200 crore was spent on non-forest activities in verdant forests sans any permission. Our fight will not stop now and we will go back to Supreme Court and take up the issue to protect the remaining forests of the state.”
Chronology of Rejections
2002 : STATE FOREST DEPARTMENT REJECTS
Way back in 1998, the Hubballi-Ankola Railway line project was first mooted and proposed for forest land diversion under the Forest Conservation Act. However, in 2002, the then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Head of Forests Force) after comprehensively analysing the facts in respect of forest land diversion, economics and other allied factors that were inimical to the environment of the Western Ghats, rejected the proposal.
2010 : CEC REJECTION
In 2010, the Central Empowered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court comprising Jai Krishnan, the then Environment Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, M.K. Jewarajika, IFS, Member Secretary and an IFS officer of Maharashtra Cadre, after assessing the Environmental impact of the project, summarily rejected the said proposal.
2017 : A CONTROVERSIAL RECOMMENDATION BY IISC
In 2017, the then Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) & Chief Wildlife Warden holding the concurrent charge of Infrastructure Development Department (based on the letter of the Deputy Chief Engineer, Railways), obtained the recommendation of the Deputy Conservator of Forests and Chief Conservator of Forests, Kanara Circle for implementing the project without really carrying out the all-important exercise of Wildlife Critical Appraisal and possibly even without even going through Indian Institute of Science Report.
Further, he submitted the proposal to the State Government without bringing it before the State Board for Wildlife. Then the State Government conveniently recommended the said proposal to the Ministry of Environment and Forests based on the controversial technical report of Indian Institute of Science suggesting it’s so-called mitigation measures.
It was user agencies – the South Western Railways and State Infrastructure Development Department which obtained a report from the Indian Institute of Science in respect of the above project and not the State Forest Department. Forest officials say “However, the Indian Institute of Science is not a competent authority for providing such a report on this issue and moreover, the Chief Wildlife Warden/Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) were in no way involved in this process.”
2018 : NBWL & NTCA REJECTION
In the 48th and 49th meeting of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife – two committees were constituted under Somashekar, Inspector General of Forests, NTCA and Deputy Inspector General of Forests, Wildlife respectively. Both these committees after carrying out thorough field exercises – rejected the project in its entirety.
2019 : NBWL SENDS BACK PROPOSAL
However, in the 50th meeting of National Board for Wildlife – the standing committee instead of taking any appropriate decision on the report of the two committees constituted by the National Board of Wildlife sent back the proposal to State Board for Wildlife for its clear opinion.
2020 : BEFORE THE STATE BOARD
On 9 March, 2020, the matter was placed before the State Board for Wildlife for approval. After unanimous opinion of the entire board and the strong objections raised by the members who are wildlife experts, Chief Minister/Chairman of the Board is reported to have rejected the proposal.
However, calling one more meeting just after 11 days, it now clearly spells political pressure on the CM and therefore, activists request the Chief Minister not to review the decision of the 09-03-2020 meeting. Further, any decision of the state government should be done in the background of the novel coronavirus pandemic which has struck the world – all due to destruction of biodiversity and continuing disappearance and encroachment of the remaining wildlife habitat.