By Meera Bhardwaj
Even as India battled Covid-19 Pandemic, India felled 30.97 lakh trees during 2020-21. If Madhya Pradesh lost 16.40 lakh trees, Karnataka lost more than 40,231 trees during the same period in forest areas for non-forestry purposes.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg as this massive tree cover loss pertains only to forest areas while lakhs of trees were felled legally/illegally in non-forest areas too. Many metros/cities/towns lost massive tree cover due to Metro rail projects, widening of existing roads, expansion from two lane to four lane, ring road, flyovers, elevated roads, underpasses and what not.
Expansion of National Highways and doubling of selected rail lines are taking a huge toll in Karnataka Forest areas including tiger reserves and sanctuaries. The ambitious Sagarmala highway project that traverses the Western Ghats has not only diverted forest lands but also resulted in loss of rare, heritage and endemic species in the World’s Biodiversity Hotspot. Kodagu, Chamarajanagar, Chikkamagaluru, Hassan, Shivamogga, Uttara Kannada, Belagavi, Udupi and Dakshin Kannada have lost tree & forest cover and biodiversity.
The “Malenadu belt” which was once known for its rich forests and monsoons can no longer be called so as both the western and eastern slopes of the Western Ghats are being denuded without any care or concern. Widening of NH-169A (the highway runs entirely through Someshwara Wildlife sanctuary) and NH-206 in Shivamogga district has taken a severe toll as they pass through old growth and sensitive forest regions. Species like Ficus, Diospyros, Syzygium, Impatiens, Solanum, Dendrobium, Garcinia, Phyllanthus, Terminalia, Senna and fruit species have joined the felling list. Many felled trees were 100-200 years old and were home to birds and mammals.
The forest district of Uttar Kannada has borne the brunt of forest diversion for one or the other project in the guise of “Projects of National Importance” and therefore, become prone to floods, landslides and huge soil run off. Between 1982-2017 itself, Uttar Kannada district lost a whopping 10,000 hectares of forest lands. Instead of increasing forest cover under FCA, 1980, thousands of hectares of forests were diverted for Karwar Sea Bird Naval Project (4200 hectares), Kadra Hydroelectric project (3051 hectares), Kaiga Atomic Plant (732 hectares), transmission lines (800-1000 hectares) and Ambewadi Powerline project (174.7 hectares).
Doubling of rail tracks in Karnataka has fragmented and resulted in huge loss of forest cover. Some rail tracks like the Miraj-Londa line have been wildlife killer tracks. This rail link is a death trap for herbivores like Elephant and Gaur as it passes through thick forests and sees heavy movement of wildlife. With the doubling of this section, activists say not only forest cover will be lost but it will sound the death knell for wildlife.
Further, NH-4A widening project, nearby Castlerock-Tinnaighat-Caranzol rail line, was taken up by claiming that no development had taken place in this region. As per authorities, it resulted in felling of 22,000 trees between Khanapur-Londa. But activists claimed in the Supreme Court – it had resulted in felling of one lakh trees in Belagavi and Haliyal divisions. However, stay was vacated due to difficulties faced by people and so, work was resumed on this project by continuing its felling spree.
Doubling of Hospete-Tinnaighat-Vasco rail track has come as a shocker since this too will entail huge loss of forests, biodiversity. This project was taken up claiming it is for a developed area. The Phase-2 section of Castlerock-Tinnaighat-Caranzol passes through dense forests with rich wildlife in Uttar Kannada district. This will involve diversion of 7.614 hectares in the Kali Tiger Reserve and has received clearance from the Standing Committee of National Board of Wildlife in January 2021. So, expect more destruction.
As per Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) statement in Parliament, almost 31 lakh trees were felled in 2020-21under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for development of infrastructure.
Tree activists and experts say this does not reveal the actual numbers as the country has lost double or more this number – with many states having felled trees illegally without taking any permission during the Pandemic. Further, clearing agencies have allowed permission for tree felling without any public discussion or debate when the country was busy tackling Covid spread.
Highways intersecting forests have proved to be killers of wildlife in many states. Madhya Pradesh has felled the most with the state losing a tree cover of 16.40 lakh trees. MP has the highest forest cover (30 percent of its total area) in the country but it is losing its tree cover and forest cover drastically. It has sustained a loss of 8.80 kha of tree cover due to mining, construction of roads, highways, other linear structures, etc. Although the state tops in tiger conservation, it has lost 17,781.588 acres of very dense and moderately dense forests in the last four years as per the Forest Survey of India Report.