Green highways: Rhetoric and reality

Green highways: Rhetoric and reality

Are changes in green highway policy just an eyewash to propagate the ongoing destruc-tive ways of building?

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has launched an ambitious project of greening our national highways. While releasing the green highways policy, the Minister Nitin Gadkari said, “Under this policy, we are making it mandatory to set aside 1 per cent of the total project cost of national highways to be kept aside for greening, plantation, transplantation, beautification and maintenance”.

This is an innovative idea, implementing this along the highways would bring multiple benefits for people and ecology, with an additional bonus of changing desolate aesthetics.

 Decades ago, these highways in numerous parts of the country had centuries-old neem or ficus trees providing shade and nesting sites for birds and insects. The gigantic mango, jamun trees provided free food to wildlife and human beings, and the tamarind trees provided cash income for the poor.

Like our heritage buildings, these were part of the legacy. Unfortunately, they had to be sacrificed for building the four and six lane highways. We had no mercy even to conserve some stretches of this heritage to showcase it to younger generation!

It is refreshing even to hear the idea that these new highways will be once gain lined with greenery on both the sides. India ranks second in the world, with 48 lakh km of road network, of which about one lakh km is national highways. With an estimated cost of Rs 5 lakh crore being spent on these highways, the transport minister aims at keeping aside 1 per cent of the project cost, Rs 5,000 crore to implement the policy.

The salient features of the policy to delink the plantation work form civil contract of road building, creating employment opportunities for five lakh people, and providing usufruct rights of these trees to local people will help in implementation of the project. The clause of releasing money only after 90 per cent survival rate of saplings may be difficult to implement.

With the urgent need to build huge infrastructure and road connectivity in the country, the Central government has extensive plan for expansion of highways form two to six lanes across the country. This cuts across the most fragile ecological regions like forests and coastline. The mandatory environmental impact assessment of these highway projects is being done away with by the NDA government.

The Ministry of Forests and Climate Change has simplified the procedures for speedy implementation of such projects. There is undue haste to give clearance to projects that cuts through national parks and wild life sanctuaries. This will take a toll of existing forests and be major cause for death of wild animals.

At one level, Gadkari wants to plant trees, but at the same time, his ministry is seeking permission to raze the natural forests for expansion of new highways. This contradiction is bound to have negative impact on implementing the principles of green highways. They build by-pass to reduce the traffic in cities, but do not think of building by-pass to protect the wild life and save the forest?

The overall attitude of the engineers who build our national highways or road is obvious, the trees and forests are an impediment to road building, blurring the drivers vision.

Narrow mindset

With this narrow mindset, they have no regard for implementing green policies that has positive impact on ecology. For them, any obstruction of the road by large canopy of trees is a hindrance. In the high rainfall regions, the force of water from the tree canopy will damage the roads. Obviously, the multifunctional neem, mango or tamarind trees with huge canopy have no use in the green highways project.

Instead, what they will eventually plant is ornamental and exotic trees without wide canopy. The ministry has clarified that it plans three layers of green cover - of bushes, middle level trees and large tall trees. However, it is doubtful if the road building engineers will endorse this idea.

In order to realise the green highway policy on the ground, it is essential that the mindset of the engineers has to change, the concept of respecting nature, greening of mind is the need of the day. With this, they will think of not felling the age old trees, but how to transplant them or how to save the wild life that get killed by speeding vehicles.
 
Clean, green and pollution free roads are a catchy slogan of green highway policy. With high emphasis on the policy to propagate private transport, it is bound to raise pollution levels. There is need for serious effort to improve public transport to reduce impact of pollution. The mandatory use recycled plastic in building highways might assist us in diffusion of plastic bomb.

Are the cosmetic changes outlined in green highway policy just a eye-wash to propagate the ongoing destructive ways of building highways?

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