Incision into Western Ghats leaves environmental activists worried

Road and railway projects cutting through eco-sensitive forests are unnecessary, they say

February 25, 2018 11:45 pm | Updated February 26, 2018 07:14 pm IST - Bengaluru

 MoEF clearance and wildlife board data shows that applications are pending for diversion of more than 42 sq. km of State’s forests since 2012.

MoEF clearance and wildlife board data shows that applications are pending for diversion of more than 42 sq. km of State’s forests since 2012.

Last week, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari launched a 2.16-km bridge connecting the pilgrimage spot of Sigandur to the mainland across the Sharavathi river. Along with the bridge, the approach road from Sagar will be widened.

Barely a few kilometres away, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) — in 2016 — proposed a ₹2,100-crore, 168-km road connecting National Highway 66 (Mangaluru to Karwar) to National Highway 48 (Bengaluru-Mumbai). NH766C will see the diversion of more than 362 acres of prime forest land, including the fragile Mookambika Wildlife Sanctuary. The widened Sigandur road will eventually meet this.

These projects are just in a long line of road and railway projects that will cut through the eco-sensitive forests of the Western Ghats. For locals, however, much of these are unnecessary.

Immediately after Mr. Gadkari’s announcement, Akhilesh Chippali and 10 other activists spent five days enumerating the environmental costs of the Sigandur bridge and road-widening. “Even considering 25m width of the road, as announced by the Minister, over 3 lakh trees, saplings and plants will be levelled,” he said.

With at least three National Highways being or proposed to be widened, Mr. Chippali says the “unnecessary” projects will lead to the isolation of forest patches. “Roads through Mookambika will end up bifurcating populations of lion-tailed macaques who will not be able to traverse easily across the road,” he says.

A little further down, Sahadev S.H. from Paschima Ghatta Jagruta Vedike has been protesting the expansion of Shivamogga-Mangaluru road. “There is hardly any traffic on these roads. While, close to Sringeri, some roads can be widened without affecting forests, there is no need to convert State Highways to National Highways and NHs to four-lane roads,” he said.

‘Stimulating growth’

While the justification remains that the highway project will “stimulate growth”, for many, this incision through eco-sensitive forests is just one among many being planned in the State.

In all, MoEF clearance and wildlife board data shows that applications are pending for the diversion of more than 42 sq. km of State’s forests since 2012, apart from 15 sq. km, which have been granted. Of these, nearly a third are in the districts along the Western Ghats, while Ballari, where applications for mining are seeing large-scale diversion of land, tops the list with over 14 sq. km of forest land in the process of being diverted.

Of the 378 projects that have applied for forest clearance, 70 are for roads and railways.

And it is these linear projects cutting through Western Ghats that are worrying environmentalists and conservationists. In almost all cases, NHAI or Indian Railways has cited “stimulating growth” and “access to ports” for iron ore mines in Ballari as justification for the projects. In Belagavi district, National Highway 4A widening is claiming 38,000 trees and 210 acres of forest land; while, the controversial Hubballi-Ankola line project will clear 1.73 lakh trees in 1,472 acre of forest land. In the same region, doubling of the track through Tinaighat–Castle Rock line will further claim 28.04 acres of land. “It isn’t just highways. Even local roads follow a width determined by the Central schemes. Such wide roads are not needed in hilly areas where there is low population,” said Ananth Hegde Ashisara, president of Vrukshalaksha Andolana and ex-chairman of Western Ghats Taskforce.

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