The controversial Hubballi-Ankola railway line project, which came up for discussion at the State Board for Wildlife meeting held on Monday, saw stiff opposition from a majority of the board members.
The proposed rail project entails large-scale destruction of forests, including the felling of nearly 2.2 lakh fully grown trees in a biodiversity hotspot, but a section of officials argued in favour of the project. Sources said that there was political pressure from elected representatives of the region to get environmental clearance and permission from the wildlife board on the grounds that the project was a demand of the people of north Karnataka. The board met in Bengaluru and the meeting was chaired by Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa. Forest Minister Anand Singh and senior Forest Department officials, members of the wildlife board, and Chief Secretary Vijay Bhaskar were among those who attended the meeting.
A senior official supportive of the project argued that the railway line did not cut through a protected area and was outside it, and hence the permission of the board was not required. But those opposed to the project argued that any forest between two protected areas acts as a corridor, and so a discussion on the project was well within the purview of the board.
Some of the members pointed out that the project, which was announced in 1997, has met with stiff opposition at all levels. It was rejected by the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had opposed it, and even the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had rejected it twice on the grounds that the damage rendered by such a linear project through pristine forests could not be mitigated and the adverse affect on flora and fauna would be irreversible.
Kept in abeyance?
However, there was no response from the Chief Minister, who suggested that they move on to the next subject. This is interpreted to mean that the project may be in abeyance, but not rejected. A senior forest official who attended the meeting said there was opposition to the project from the members, but there was no confirmation on whether it was “officially off”.
The 164.44-km railway line passes through pristine forests between two major protected areas — Kali Tiger Reserve and Bedthi Conservation Reserve. A 75-km stretch between Hubballi and Yellapur comprises plain land, while a 56-km stretch between Yellapur and Sunksal is a ghat section where the track alignment cuts through the Western Ghats. More than 80% the line has to pass through the dense forest lands of the Western Ghats, and this entails the diversion of 727 hectares of prime forests. According to a railway document, the total land required is 995.64 hectares, including 595.64 hectares of forest land, 184.6 hectares of wetland, and 190 hectares of dryland.