In just two meetings in August 2014 and January 2015, the National Board for Wildlife considered projects involving over 2,300 hectares of land in and around wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. In four meetings between September and December 2014, the Forest Advisory Committee considered diversion of over 3,300 hectares of forests for 28 projects. All the proposals were for linear projects and most of them are likely to be cleared.
Linear infrastructure projects — roads, trains and power lines that make long intrusions into forests and stretch ribbonlike over thousands of kilometres — are the new threat to our forests, in addition to submergence by dams or clearing for mining and agriculture.
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has been gradually diluting the norms for such projects. It has, for instance, recently permitted Central agencies executing linear projects in forests to cut trees after ‘in-principle’ or first stage approval under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980; that is, with just an approval from a Divisional Forest Officer, without waiting for second stage clearance related to compensatory afforestation and related procedures.
Double-edged sword Roads and power lines support economic growth and other needs such as mobility and delivery of services, and are vital in a developing country. But they also bring a host of associated problems that affect natural ecosystems and rural and tribal communities. They cause habitat fragmentation. Wildlife species avoid roads, as they become wider and busier, and the roads effectively form barriers separating forest areas. Expansion projects and the four-laning of highways affect wildlife corridors — for instance, National Highway 7 slices crucial corridor forests between Pench and Kanha Tiger Reserves in Central India.
In mountains, roads may lead to severe forest destruction, landslides, and erosion, as seen everyday during road construction in many parts of the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. A 2006 study noted that on steep hillsides, roads may increase landslides and surface erosion fluxes by ten to over hundred times as compared to undisturbed forests. Along hill roads in forests, natural vegetation often helps stabilise slopes and mitigate landslides. Road construction, dumping of debris, and slashing of roadside native plants, when carried out in a manner insensitive to terrain and local ecology, destroys natural cover, and increases erosion and weed proliferation.
Millions of animals, too, are killed along roads due to collisions with vehicles. Indian field research studies have documented that the spectrum of wildlife killed or injured ranges from small invertebrates, frogs, and reptile species — many found nowhere else in the world — to birds and large mammals such as deer, leopard, tiger, and elephant. Estimates from a few studies put it at around 10 animals killed per kilometre per day, but numbers could be higher, as injured animals are overlooked and many kills go undocumented.
Power lines also kill unknown numbers of wildlife everyday. Poachers draw live wires to kill animals such as rhino and deer, while accidental electrocution kills many species from birds such as Sarus cranes and flamingos to elephants and bison. Railways, too, take their toll, gaining attention only when large animals such as elephants are killed along the tracks. The daily death of wildlife shows that linear projects are undertaken with scant attention to conservation needs.
“ The daily death of wildlife shows that linear projects are undertaken with scant attention to conservation needs ”
With multiple linear intrusions — roads, canals, power lines and railways — together slicing up the landscape, the cumulative impact on wildlife and habitat is deadly.
Finding the balance Linear infrastructure projects are needed for the economy but so are forests. They are not mere fungible assets to be compensated by artificial plantations, but unique living systems of plants, animals, and dependent human communities. A knowledge society will tackle development with an approach that uses the best technical resources and digital tools at its command. It must consider wider issues and a larger perspective than that which falls within the purview of a Divisional Forest Officer, as in the Ministry’s recent orders.
Besides espousing economic benefits, linear projects must measure and mitigate long-term costs and ecological effects in a credible and transparent manner. The pursuit of mega-projects, often associated with lucrative contracts and corruption, spurs an undue emphasis on quantity and size (such as road width), which detracts from other priorities such as quality, efficiency, and safety. Worldwide, a growing body of applied research in the field of road ecology and interdisciplinary efforts, involving engineers, ecologists, and economists, is documenting the subject, pinpointing road and rail realignments, more sensitive designs, and sustainable alternatives.
In India, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife prepared a detailed background paper and draft guidelines on linear intrusions in 2011, partly incorporated in the December 2014 subcommittee guidelines for roads in protected areas. The guidelines accord primacy to the ‘Principle of Avoidance’, whereby wildlife protected areas and valuable natural ecosystems are not unnecessarily disrupted by linear intrusions; and where alternative alignments, routed around wildlife corridors, can provide or enhance connectivity to peripheral villages and towns. Site-specific inputs from wildlife scientists can help design overpasses, culverts, and underpasses to facilitate animal crossings, while speed and traffic regulation can reduce animal-vehicle collisions. Infra-red animal detection systems coupled to mobile messaging technology can alert train drivers and help prevent track deaths. Structural modification of power line heights and visibility in risk-prone areas can save elephants and birds from electrocution. Measures to retain overhead tree canopy continuity and roadside native vegetation help conservation while also enhancing the aesthetics along roads.
If linear infrastructure can be scientifically informed, ecologically sensitive, and well designed, it can promote economic development and safeguard the habitat as well.
(T. R. Shankar Raman is a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore.)