By Meera Bhardwaj
Karnataka’s proposal to build a “Concrete Road” to Kodachadri hills through the heart of the Mookambika Wildlife Sanctuary – is now before the Standing Committee of National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) for Wildlife Clearance and also before the MoEF (ministry of environment & forests) for Forest Clearance. Earlier, on January 15, 2021, the Karnataka State Board for Wildlife had recommended the Kodachadri Road project proposal to MoEF for approvals as they are not authorized to give clearances.
Presently, the existing Mud Road (Kaaldaari) itself is illegal as the “right of way” was only for a footpath of two metres for people and cattle. Later, in 2005-07, this footpath was converted into a mud road of five metres that runs through the Mookambika sanctuary. This mud road is now being converted into a Concrete Road despite no demands made by local people or trekkers or researchers.
Environmentalists and activists are shocked at the attitude of the state government to push this project that will destroy pristine evergreen forests in the Western Ghats with its endangered Lion Tailed Macaque (LTM) population. Even as the chief minister stressed the importance of Western Ghats in February this year and “proposed” to increase the state’s forest cover from 20 to 33 per cent, the state government has been rampantly taking up linear projects inside Protected Areas and reserve forests, thereby diverting forests for non-forest activities.
LION TAILED MACAQUE HABITAT
Out of 8.3 kilometres of the road from Kattinahole to Kodachadri, 6.574 kilometres will be constructed inside the Mookambika Sanctuary. This PA is home to tiger and dhole (both endangered species), leopard and sloth bear (both vulnerable species) and a variety of fauna.
However, this sanctuary is a very important habitat for LTMs and studies have shown it has significant groups of this endangered old world monkey species. Unfortunately, the mud road is cutting through the crucial habitat of two resident LTM groups and if the road is upgraded to a concrete one, it will cause irreversible damage to the habitat and maybe, disappearance of this endangered species from this area, activists say.
This is a unique habitat in Western Ghats ranging from tropical evergreen to mixed deciduous to grasslands. Further, it supports a variety of bird species that are native to Western Ghats. The Great Hornbill and Broad-Tailed Grassbird that are on the IUCN Vulnerable list too are found here. Apart from this, more than 1000 trees that are native and endemic to Western Ghats will have to be felled for building this road for tourism purposes.
Looking at the DPR of the Kodachadri road project prepared by KRDCL, Shivamogga division, it clearly says this concrete road is basically being developed for tourists and trekkers and therefore, it is clear that this is for a non-forest activity. Further, the DPR fails to mention that three-fourths of the Kodachadri Road goes through the protected area of Mookambika in the Western Ghats.
The DPR is very clear on one point and says, “The hill road is in a poor condition where only skilled drivers can drive a jeep on this mud road. This is a heavy rainfall area receiving rains for 8 months in a year, so the existing road becomes slippery. Since it is a very steep and rocky area, the width of the new road will range from 3.5-5.5 metres. There are 40 curves and here, the road will be 5.5 metres wide.”
A perusal of the documents submitted before MoEF reveal that 4.5 hectares of pristine forests under Kudremukh Wildlife Division and 0.99 hectares under Sagar division has been submitted for approval. The Site Inspection Report (26.2.2021) of DCF, Kudremukh Wildlife Division states, “Out of the total proposed area for diversion, 4.5053 hectares belongs to Mookambika Wildlife Sanctuary in KWD. The road falls in Chakra, Madibare and Kodachadri ranges. Major part of the route passes through dense evergreen forests and at higher altitudes, it is shola grasslands. Numerous trees abound this route and have been marked, identified. Providing road to the public in this area will help the department to gain confidence of the villagers.”
Another document – the CA land suitability certificate issued by Sagar DCF (7.8.2020) clearly shows the forest department has accepted the diversion of these pristine forests for a tourism project. For diversion of 5.5 hectares of forest land, they have accepted “alternate revenue land” in Nagodi village (Survey No: 305) which is just 25 metres from a residential area – located in Kasaba hobli in Hosanagara taluk. Further, the certificate says the CA land is nearer to Mookambika Wildlife Sanctuary and is a good wildlife habitat.
WILDLIFE PROTECTION ACT
The Justification Letter submitted by KRDCL clearly says this road is for benefit of the tourists only and also for urban dwellers to visit the Kodachadri peak as this is a calm and peaceful place.
However, as per Section 29 of Wildlife Protection Act, it restricts any non-forestry activity inside a Protected Area unless it is for the betterment of the Wildlife Sanctuary or a National Park. Betterment in this context means – the forest department can build water holes, tanks, bunds, etc for conservation and protection of the wildlife and its habitat. So, no project can be taken up that will destroy the habitat and its unique wildlife.
Wildlife activists add, “As per Section 29, there is no justification to take up this project as the DPR clearly mentions it is only for tourism purposes to cater to urban dwellers. In fact, the DPR fails to justify the purpose of this project inside a wildlife sanctuary that falls in the Western Ghats, a World Biodiversity Hotspot.”
Akhilesh Kumar Chipli, wildlife conservationist and environmentalist who has been in the forefront to save such disastrous projects in Shivamogga wildlife areas says, “The Kodachadri Road will be a big disaster as the present mud road has been existing for the last 15 years. But even this is illegal. Pilgrims, tourists and trekkers use this Kaaldaari which was done through human efforts, not using any JCB or any other machinery. No permission was sought for this mud road despite being inside a wildlife sanctuary. Only jeeps can go on this mud road. The government is pushing through this road project as this is basically to push their cable car – ropeway project to Kodachadri hills. If NBWL clears this project, it will destroy the biodiversity and the LTM habitat.”
Local communities will become outsiders and lose their livelihood if this road project is implemented as this will only benefit the corporate sector. The concrete road will have a direct negative impact on local livelihood. Tourists will no longer depend on the Jeeps and Homestays run by locals, activists opine.
LOCAL LIVELIHOOD LOSS
Chipli adds, “With the advent of this road, resorts and definitely JLR and other luxury hotels will follow and small homestays will have to make way for them. Local people will be badly affected. More than 100 families survive by eking a livelihood that is almost 500 dependents. Indirectly some 5000 people will be affected. Many vendors will lose their jobs, while 100 or more small wayside shops who cater to trekkers too will be affected.”
The hill area of Kodachadri is already severely polluted by plastic debris and trash littered by irresponsible tourists and trekkers.
If this existing road is upgraded, then enhanced tourism activities will be another activity that will directly threaten the endangered wildlife species that inhabit the Mookambika wildlife sanctuary.