Lifelines that can sound death knells

A flock of Pigeons sitting on high tention wires during a pleasant weather in New Delhi. File photo  

Thin lines criss-crossing and connecting the country, like arteries and veins connecting different organs of the human body, drive the economy. Rail lines, roadways, canals and electricity cable networks occupy pride of place in India’s rapidly growing infrastructure. Investments in them have been huge and their expansion immense. It is a win-win situation, it is argued, that benefits all.

At first sight, these seem rather harmless: the widest highways are less than 30 metres wide and a double line on a broad gauge railway is 10 metres wide at most. What impact can these have? But look closely, and these seemingly innocuous lines, together called linear intrusions, are cutting up wildlife habitats and affecting wildlife conservation in a way that we have never seen before.

Recent proposals

Even a casual look at what the media has reported in the past year gives us a glimpse of what is happening. There are proposals for a railway line and for the widening of NH-44, both within the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, and for a 65km road connecting Chikkamagaluru and Dakshina Kannada that will require 30,000 trees to be felled. Fifteen animal deaths were reported in two months earlier this year on a highway near Haridwar in Uttarakhand. There is a proposal to reopen the 60km-long stretch of road for regular traffic within the Kawal Tiger Reserve in Telangana. Flamingoes and bustards have been electrocuted by high tension power lines in Gujarat, highways have destroyed some of the most important wildlife corridors in eastern Maharashtra, and elephant deaths occur in railway accidents across the country.

It is no coincidence that an increasingly large number of forest and wildlife-related proposals coming up for approval are for such intrusions. Of the 266 projects approved under the Forest Conservation Act in the last three years, more than half (125 road projects, 20 transmission lines and two for railways) were for linear projects. Of another 174 granted in-principle approval within the same period, more than 50 per cent were again for linear projects: 78 for roads and 12 for transmission lines respectively. In the first six months of 2016, the Regional Empowered Committee, Nagpur, of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF) sanctioned the diversion of 263 hectares of land for linear projects. This is nearly 75 per cent of the total 351 hectares for which the committee granted approval. And as was reported in The Hindu (“The long road to growth”, March 19, 2015), the Forest Advisory Committee of the MoEF considered diversion of over 3,300 hectares of forests for 28 linear projects in just four meetings between September and December 2014. All this is in addition to the larger legal and policy framework that is making the process for granting these approvals simpler and faster.

Each linear intrusion project has a significant ecological impact. For instance, studies in the field of road ecology suggest that ‘edge effects’ impact a much larger area than what is actually set aside for the project itself. Animal behaviour is affected, plant diversity is reduced, wildlife habitat is fragmented and eventually lost, and all this is in addition to the hundreds of animals killed everyday in road and train accidents, or by electrocution.

And when hundreds of these linear intrusions are implanted on the landscape simultaneously, the severity of the consequences can only be imagined. A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on road infrastructure underlines the collective impact. It notes, for instance, that the infrastructure boom being seen currently in Asia is likely to lead to the construction of nearly 11,000km of new transport projects, carving up the habitats of flagship species such as the tiger and preventing them from moving across the large ranges that they require. Dealing with this infrastructure boom, the report suggests, will be a bigger challenge than looking after protected areas or dealing with the poaching threat. There cannot be a more urgent wake-up call in the matter.

Working together

What is unfolding before us is nothing short of a nightmare for India’s wildlife and this issue needs urgent attention. The first step would be to recognise and accept the huge impact of linear infrastructure on wildlife and wildlife habitat. It follows that civil engineers, spatial planners, conservationists and ecologists should work together with policymakers, bureaucrats and politicians to develop the common framework needed to negotiate this challenge. Where possible, planning processes should avoid placing linear infrastructure in forests and other wilderness areas. Only when this is impossible should minimisation and mitigation be considered, and when all else fails, attempts should be made to compensate for the loss to the nation by offsetting.

These lifelines of the economy are the death lines for the natural infrastructure on which everything depends. India’s long-term ecological sustainability is being ruthlessly sacrificed for short-term economic gain, and these are damages that can scarcely be undone. The faster we recognise this and initiate course correction, the better it will be for all of us and for the future.

Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of Kalpavriksh and editor, Protected Area Update. Shashank Srinivasan is a conservation scientist currently with WWF-India as Coordinator for Spatial Analysis. Views are personal.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 11:53:43 AM |

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