The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has tasked a committee constituted by a Union Ministry with looking into the death of wild elephants on the rail tracks that link Tamil Nadu and Kerala through the forest areas of Coimbatore and Palakkad districts.
The Central Monitoring Committee, constituted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), is dealing with Project Elephant.
The NGT took suo motu cognisance of the death of elephants on the basis of the report, ‘Night, early morning trains cause most elephant deaths,’ published in The Hindu on May 29, 2021. The report said trains that plied between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. had caused the death of seven out of eight elephants on the two lines, A and B, between the Kottekad and Madukkarai stations in the last five years.
The Bench, headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, judicial members Justices Sudhir Agarwal, M. Sathyanarayanan and Brijesh Sethi and expert member Nagin Nanda, asked the committee to look into the issue in coordination with the Railways, the Wildlife Institute of India and the States of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
It said at a hearing on July 8 that the Central Monitoring Committee should hold a meeting with Tamil Nadu and Kerala and Southern Railway within a month to work out the modalities, including the authority that would incur the expenditure.
While the A line runs through the reserve forest for 17 km between the Chullimada and Madukkarai stations, the B line passes through the reserve forest for 23 km between Madukkarai and Kanjikode.
In reply to a notice served by the NGT, Southern Railway submitted that the Palakkad Division had taken steps to mitigate accidents involving elephants in the last few decades. The Division said that along with the Forest Department in Palakkad and Coimbatore districts, it was regularly reviewing elephant passages.
It said a permanent speed restriction of 45 kmph was imposed on 13.9 km of the vulnerable section on the A line and 19.41 km on the B line from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. During the daytime, a permanent speed restriction of 65 kmph was in force for passenger trains and 25/35kmph for goods trains.
Signage boards, solar fencing, elephant ramps on tracks, audio alarm, widening of cutting, engagement of elephant trackers and sensitisation programmes for loco pilots were among the measures the Division had taken.
In its status report, Tamil Nadu submitted that the two lines passed through the Boluvampatti block-I reserve forest. Elephants crossed the lines frequently and were subject to the risk of train hits. They also crossed the tracks to raid crops.
It said most of the accidents took place on the B line, which had an acute curve that reduced the visibility of loco pilots. The B line ran for 2.5 km into the reserve forest. Most of the stretch was laid on a path raised with steep slopes on both sides. it was tough for elephants to ascend or descend. When the train arrived, they found it difficult to get down from the track, it said.
The report said the Forest Department had set up structures similar to ramps across the track B to help elephants cross it easily.
R. Pandiyaraja of Tenkasi district, who got the details of the elephant deaths under the Right to Information Act, wanted the Central Monitoring Committee to inspect the tracks, accident spots and vulnerable locations. “Members of the committee should also travel on the stretch at night to have a clear understanding of the issue. They should also speak to loco pilots to find out their difficulties,” he said.