The highways to extermination

The highways to extermination

A recent proposal by the Karnataka Public Works Department (PWD) to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to widen a 21-km-long road inside the Kudremukh National Park (KNP) has annoyed the Karnataka Forest Department officials and environmentalists as the area is a vulnerable tiger habitat.

The proposal for permission to widen the three-and-a-half-metre-wide road to seven considering the gravity of vehicular traffic was sent three months ago to the NHAI. As per Section 33A of The Wild Life (Protection) Act, roads proposed inside Protected Areas can only be permitted if the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state considers it essential. An expansion or conversion of a forest road into a highway inside a protected area has to be finally approved by the Centre.

Out of 25 tiger reserves in India, 19 have roads passing through them, according to the Project Tiger Status Report. These intertwined roads in a national park fragment the habitat and restrict animal movement on age-old routes. Good roads attract and allow high speeds, thereby increasing chances of fatal collision between wildlife and vehicles.

 Animals are attracted to roads in search of food or to the warmth of the sun-warmed asphalt road. Roads hamper the population dynamics of small species like the arboreal species for which a treeless patch of 15 ft is an impossible barrier to cross.

Roads through forests are poised to expand rapidly due to targets set by the ministry of road transport and highways. A single incident of reckless driving on the highways through protected areas is good enough to wipe off exhaustive hours of protection efforts.

For the environmentalists fighting losing battles against habitat loss, encroachment, grazing and invasive alien species, growing incidents of wild animals killed in road accidents have added another cause to this list.

 Hundreds of wild animals are being hit by speeding vehicles on the many roads crisscrossing the national parks and sanctuaries. A rough calculation indicates that vehicles here kill around 15,000 insects every year on just 10 km of road.

Zealous efforts to impose effective traffic management on forest roads are often met with resistance from the public without knowing the gravity of the problem. A case in point is the prohibition of vehicular nigh traffic along NH 212 and NH 67, passing through the core areas of Bandipur Tiger Reserve. The Karnataka High Court banned night vehicular traffic on these two roads bisecting the Bandipur forest in 2009 to put an end to large scale killing of animals in road accidents.

According to statistics, around 15-20 vehicles pass through Bandipur National Park every minute. More than 100 trucks carrying vegetables from Mysore and Chamarajanagar and 250-300 sand laden trucks pass through this park every day apart from thousands of tourist vehicles that ply on this road.

Night traffic ban

Though the Central government itself submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court supporting the night traffic ban, Kerala is still hoping to get it cleared.

The Kerala government has been increasingly pursuing the removal of the night ban. An alternate road passing via Hunsur-Gonikoppa-Kutta-Kartikulam is widened and developed by the Karnataka government in accordance with the Karnataka High Court order of 2010.

It is important to remember that while developmental projects are fundamental to a country's growth, it is a matter of great concern when these projects are taken up at the cost of our ecological heritage. 

In addition to the efforts to get the roads through Bandipur and Nagarhole to be opened for night traffic,  an environmentally and economically unfeasible railway line is proposed to connect Nanjangud in Karnataka with Nilambur in Kerala at a humungous cost of Rs 3,384 crore with about 22 km of the line passing through the Bandipur tiger reserve.

The repercussions of fragmenting wildlife habitats are clearly obvious in the number of wildlife deaths due to railway lines in Assam, West Bengal and Jharkhand. The proposed Nanjangud- Nilambur railway line forebodes a similar fate for wildlife in Bandipur. India has lost around 170 elephants as a result of train hits since 1987.

It is difficult to understand how such projects that have deleterious effects on wildlife can be proposed and supported by the heads of the states especially when an inspection cum traffic survey report submitted to the Railway Board had proposed an alternative alignment that avoids entering into the tiger reserve.

(The writer is with Christ University, Bengaluru)

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