By Garima Prasher:
If National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has sought forest clearance from the Centre for widening of NH-181 (earlier NH-67) inside Bandipur Tiger Reserve, the State Forest department says neither such a proposal has come to its notice nor sent back. However, Bandipur authorities confirm that the feasibility of the widening project has been examined by the forest department and sent back with due objections.
In May-June, 2021, NHAI sought forest clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) for diversion of 9.451 hectares of fresh forest area in Bandipur Tiger Reserve. The land is required for widening to paved shoulder from 504.500 to 517.200 Kilometre of NH-181 on the Coimbatore-Gundlupete section. This means NHAI has applied for widening the existing lane road to two-lane with paved shoulder on a stretch of 12.7 kilometres.
In his Justification Letter, the Assistant Executive Engineer, NHAI, Mysuru Sub-division states, “The Existing Road is passing through forest within Right of way. Widening is required due to non- availability of non-forest area in this zone. The proposed Road shall be run within the existing road RoW limits without disturbing wildlife movement etc. Statutory approvals as may be required for widening of road in the forest limits shall be obtained by us from the Karnataka state Forest Department.”
NO PROPOSAL RECEIVED
On his part, Vijaykumar Gogi, Karnataka PCCF (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden says, “It is too premature to comment on it as we do not have any proposal with us. To the best of my knowledge, no such proposal has been received or sent back. Any such project must pass through the chief wildlife warden and should include my recommendations, whether positive or negative. I have not seen this proposal so far.”
Further, S R Natesh, director, Bandipur Tiger Reserve adds that he is not aware of any site assessments done by NHAI at the tiger reserve.
SENT BACK WITH OBJECTIONS
On the proposal for widening, the Director said, “NHAI must have come and visited, but I am not sure of it. This is a NH, and anyone can come in and go. NHAI must have submitted the proposal in the prescribed format. The feasibility and other critical aspects of the proposal have already been examined by the state forest department and it has been sent back with objections. It will reach me only after scrutiny by the headquarters.”
EIA is required for such projects but that is the last thing to worry about. “It must first get the forest clearance which is going to be difficult,” stresses S R Natesh. Further, Bandipur Director reiterated the state government is rooting for night traffic ban (NTB) in the tiger reserve from 6 pm to 6 am, replacing the prevailing ban from 9 pm to 6 am.”
IS MoRTH DIRECTIVE A NON-STARTER?
It is ironical that in 2019, the NDA government came up with a new directive for all state governments to avoid National Highway alignments cutting through wildlife habitats. This was a directive from Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), applicable to all highway projects taken up by NHAI, NHIDCL, CPWD, PWD, Border Roads and other centrally sponsored schemes.
In fact, MoRTH had directed all concerned agencies to opt for a detour or bypass at the planning stage itself. However, this seems to have fallen on deaf ears as far as NH-181 is concerned.
NBWL GUIDELINES ONLY ON PAPER?
As per National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) document dated March 18, 2010, there is a need to evolve guidelines to mitigate the ever-growing impact of various linear intrusions, including roads in wildlife habitats. It stated that there should be no change in the type of surface of all existing roads in these areas in the name of repair, upgradation, widening, strengthening etc.
According to the NBWLguideline, any planning on alignments of roads, especially in or in the vicinity of PA, it should involve wildlife scientists and conservationists; shall be undertaken only after requisite permission is obtained from the Standing Committee of NBWL or the Forest Advisory Committee (for other forest areas); should be planned only after a site assessment is carried out by members of the above statutory committees and/or independent experts commissioned by the committees.
ACTIVISTS ON WARPATH
(Only) to be expected, this road widening proposal has miffed retired forest officials, wildlife experts and wildlife activists who opine that the Move is not just farfetched but is plagued with Multiple Procedural Lapses that flout various guidelines put in place by MoEF&CC, time and again.
Guruprasad Timmapur, a wildlife activist with Wildlife Matters opines, “The proposal has multiple procedural lapses. This is in clear violation of the sub-committee’s recommendation on framing guidelines for roads in Protected Areas in 2013. As per the recommendation, the road can be repaired only in its current form and width. There are already two national highways going through the tiger reserve with speed limits imposed just on paper. If these highways are widened, wildlife will have to cross a bigger stretch as also overcome and avoid faster moving vehicles. Road kills will increase if this proposal receives the green signal.”
A retired PCCF adds, “The AEE of NH, Mysuru should have approached the ACS for any forest land diversion who will in turn, forward it to HoFF. He should discuss the proposal including the procedural details and then apply for permission. Since this is a tiger reserve, he has to approach the CWW and understand the procedures that apply for such proposals. In fact, permission of the reserve director is needed for field survey otherwise, he can be held for trespassing.”
THE PLIGHT OF BANDIPUR – VEHICLES & PEOPLE
Now will NHAI and wildlife authorities follow existing orders, guidelines, Supreme and High court directives and their own MoRTH guidelines in the NH-181 widening case or bow down to political pressures, well it remains to be seen.