The night travel ban on the Kozhikode-Kollegal National Highway-766, which passes through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, connecting Kerala and Karnataka, has been a bone of contention in the past decade.
The issue revolves around the closure of night traffic through the portion of NH that passes through the tiger reserve and the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.
Wayanad district witnessed a series of protests and a hunger strike against the ban last month after the Supreme Court asked the Centre about possible alternatives so that traffic through NH-766 could be shut down permanently.
The agitation hogged national headlines when Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi visited the protesters lending his support. The agitation concluded after the State government promised the leaders that it would effectively intervene in the issue.
The Kerala Assembly unanimously passed a resolution recently calling for the Centre’s intervention for lifting the decade-old night traffic ban and to protect the freedom of movement of the people in Malabar.
How it unfolded
It was on June 3, 2009 that the deputy commissioner of Chamarajanagar district, Karnataka, passed an order under the Motor Vehicle Act prohibiting traffic of motor vehicles of all kinds from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. on NH-212 (now NH-766) between Gundlupet and Sulthan Bathery and on NH-67 between Gundlupet and Udhagamandalam to prevent wild animals from being killed by vehicular movement. There is no ban on the movement of emergency vehicles (ambulance, fire force, people going to hospitals) and 16 State transport buses continue to ply at night.
However, the order was lifted on June 10, 2009 with various representations claiming that it would inconvenience the people of Kerala.
It was later challenged in the High Court of Karnataka and the ban was reinstated in 2010. However, emergency vehicles were permitted to enter the region from both States during the ban time.
The length of the highway is 272 km, and 34.6 km of this passes through the protected areas in both the States. The road cuts through 19.7 km of the core zone of Bandipur and 4.5 km of its buffer zone.
In Wayanad, it passes through 4.8 km of the core zone and 5.6 km of the buffer zone. In all, 24.2 km of the highway passes through protected areas in Karnataka and 10.4 km through such areas in Kerala.
The core zone is the most critical part of the reserve, where tigers reside, feed and breed, and the area must be left undisturbed at all costs. In the buffer zone, meant for enhancing the conservation of the core zone, limited activities such as tourism, fishing, grazing, and research activities may be permitted.
Many rounds of talks between the Kerala and Karnataka Chief Ministers failed to resolve the issue as Karnataka was firm on its decision on restrictions. It had already built an alternative road, Mananthavady- Kutta-Gonikoppal, at a cost of ₹75 crore for goods and other traffic to Kerala. However, those travelling from Kalpetta to Mysuru on this road would have to cover 43 km more.
The Kerala Transport Department challenged the ban in the Supreme Court by filing a special leave petition. In 2018, a panel constituted by the apex court filed a report recommending the continuation of the ban.
Meanwhile, the Kerala government put forward a demand for an elevated road on a 19-km stretch covering the core area. Of the 19 km, 4 km is in Kerala and the rest in Karnataka. But after the recent exchange of letters between Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, the Centre ruled out the possibility of an elevated road.
Affidavit in SC
The Centre filed an affidavit in the apex court in May 2019 recommending continuation of the nine-hour traffic ban on this highway. In September 2019, the apex court upheld the ban based on these inputs.
The court also questioned the rationality of Kerala government’s request to revoke the ban when its neighbouring States, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, were ready to accept the decision of the court.
The Supreme Court also directed the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to suggest alternative routes so that NH-766 passing through the forest area could be shut down permanently. The court had allowed six weeks to the State government on Friday to submit its affidavit regarding the alternative route.