Meera Bhardwaj:

The NBWL Committee on Hubballi-Ankola Rail Project (HARP) is an eyewash, activists say. The National Board of Wildlife (NBWL)’s so-called expert committee to examine the HARP project’s wildlife-impact comprises “government officials” while the inclusion of two experts from the standing committee of NBWL too is unacceptable, stress activists.

Further, how can the committee members do a field visit or field assessment in the project area (high rainfall & hilly) during heavy monsoons? It is ironic that the Committee is expected to submit its report by August 21st after conducting field visits and survey the massive project area of 596 hectares within such a short period.

This area receives heavy monsoons – Karwar has an average rainfall of 747 mm during June and 922 mm during July and 635 mm during August while Yellapur receives 153 mm in June, 172 mm in July and 122 mm in August. The High Court has given clear directions that the endeavor should be to protect the wildlife – so, therefore, the Committee should not just do a virtual survey of the project area as during monsoons, no Survey is Possible.

Activists, experts and forest officials stress, “Hundreds of projects have been cleared in the last 6-8 years despite these two experts being members of the Standing Committee of NBWL. It is to be noted some of the cleared projects have been set aside by different courts of law across the country in view of their serious consequences on the environment. Our objection is if you fill with MoEF officials only, there cannot be a fair and independent assessment. There is undue pressure on government officials to clear development projects in forest areas and we cannot expect a fair assessment.”

It may be recalled making submissions before the High Court, the MoEF had said this Committee will have Experts (in environment and wildlife) and examine the HARP proposal in its entirety and assess its impact on wildlife and environment.

As per Memo of MoEF, it has seven members and excepting two – ALL ARE GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS.

  • ADGF (Forests), MoEF
  • DIGF(Wildlife), MoEF
  • DG representative, IFCRE, MoEF
  • Director, representative, WII, MoEF
  • Director representative, IIT, Dharwad, MoE
  • H S Singh, member, SC-NBWL, MoEF
  • R Sukumar, member, SC-NBWL, MoEF

On 30.5.2022 in its 68th meeting (minutes of meeting not found in public domain), the Standing Committee (SC) of National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) considered the proposal for HARP which falls in the World Biodiversity Hotspot of Western Ghats.  After detailed discussions, it decided to set up this committee to examine the HARP proposal which will involve diversion of 595.64 hectares of precious forests in Uttar Kannada district of Karnataka.

According to an affidavit filed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on 7.6.2022 before the High Court, the terms of reference (ToR) for the proposed committee are:

  • The Committee shall make a field visit and carry out a survey over the project area.
  • The Committee will make an assessment of the effect of laying down of this rail line in 596 hectares of dense forests over wildlife.
  • The committee will go through various reports submitted till date.
  • The Committee shall hear various public representatives, NGOs and concerned stakeholders who wish to present their views on the project.
  • The Committee can co-opt any expert to make an assessment of the project.
  • The Committee will submit its report before the High Court within two and a half months of the issue of the memorandum that is 7.6.2022.

The affidavit was filed by MoEF in response to the High Court order and directions on 1.12.2021 and 20.4.2022 to assess the impact of the 164.44-kilometre broad gauge rail project on Wildlife. This project entails diversion of 595.64 hectares across thick and dense forests in Karwar and Yellapur taluks of Uttar Kannada.

Along with this, the High Court directed the NBWL to go through various reports submitted by concerned organizations on the adverse impact of the HARP project and come out with an independent assessment.

Further, the High Court asked the NBWL to involve experts in making this assessment which involves carrying out a survey of the project area. On 20.4.2022, the High Court had asked the NBWL to seek approvals from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and under Forest (Conservation) Act before forming the committee.

But NBWL has not sought any approval despite the project area being a significant tiger corridor area.

The proposed land to be acquired for HARP by South West Railways is about 995.64 hectares and involve diversion of:

Forest Land of 595.64 hectares,

Wet Land of 184.60 hectares,

Dry Land of 190.00 hectares,

Built-Up Area of 24.00 hectares and

Urban Land of 1.40 hectares).

Unfortunately, the project passes through biodiversity rich dense forests teeming with wildlife of every family and order as also unbelievable and rare floral species. The project area falls in the Western Ghat that is recognised by UNESCO as World’s Eighth Biodiversity Hotspot and if HARP is implemented, it will be an eco-disaster, forest officials say.

Apart from this, the forests of Western Ghats are Water Towers of Peninsular India and any diversion of massive forests i.e., 596 hectares will affect the very existence of rivers and tributaries that originate here. A local concerned resident says, “We can survive without rail and road but not without water or air.”