The State government, which cleared the proposed Hubballi-Ankola railway line, appears to have underestimated the total number of trees that would be felled in the process while ignoring the biodiversity of the region.
Railways claims that the project involves felling of 1.78 lakh to 2.2 lakh trees. But according to a report submitted by an expert committee, these figures are a gross underestimation given the high canopy density along the track alignment extending to 168 km.
The committee comprised Rajendra Garawad, Assistant Inspector General of Forests, NTCA Bengaluru Regional Office, R. Gopinath, Joint Director (Wildlife) and from MOEFCC, and Kaushik Banerjee from the Wildlife Institute of India. The report was submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in August 2018.
The committee members conducted a site inspection to study the environmental ramifications of the project, which entails diversion of 595.64 hectares of forestland in Karwar, Yellapur and Dharwad divisions. It also pointed out that the total project cost when it was first announced in 1997 was pegged at ₹483.15 crore, which was later revised to ₹1,153.08 crore and further revised to ₹2,315.384 crore and stood at ₹3,750 crore as in 2018 but could escalate manifold as the gestation period of the project spans about 8 to 10 years.
The report pointed out that the alignment of the track passes through the Western Ghats forests and the region is part of the Bedthi Conservation Reserve (at Yellapur), closer to Dandeli Hornbill Conservation Reserve and located in the buffer region of Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve, which is about 6.5 km from the track alignment.
The railway line passes through different types of forests, including evergreen, semi-evergreen, moist deciduous, and dry deciduous forests with a high canopy density. The overall floristic diversity comprises 43 families, 106 genera and 134 species of trees and 58 families, 128 genera and 146 species of woody ground flora of shrubs and regenerating tree stocks. Also, the highest percentage of evergreen trees were reported from Vajralli-Birgadde villages of Yellapur taluk, as per the authors of the report. They have pointed out that the forests along the proposed project zone is rich in fauna represented by 29 species of mammals, 256 species of birds, 8 species of reptiles, and 50 species of butterflies. “Majority of mammals belong to IUCN Red List and most of them are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972,” says the report.
The species identified in the project area include tiger, leopard, sloth bear, gaur, sambar, chital, mouse deer, common giant flying squirrel, malayan giant squirrel, Indian giant squirrel, striped hyena, jackal, common wolf, Indian fox, Indian porcupine, common mongoose, small Indian mongoose, hare, common langur, and Indian pangolin, among others. The committee feared that the railway line could be a leading cause of wildlife mortality as it intersects with the elephant movement corridor. Already, Dharwad, Haliyal, and Belagavi forest divisions are regularly witnessing wildlife deaths due to train hits and a similar situation may prevail in Yellapur and Karwar divisions, say the authors.
The other reasons for rejecting the project was the presence of an ADB-funded road that was underutilised and projected decline in mining activity in the region which will render the project redundant.