Wildlife & Biodiversity

Govt must rethink railway projects in Uttara Kannada

Uttara Kannada is home to not just a diverse number of flora and fauna, but also ancient cultures

By Kunal Sharma, Abhijit Dutta
Published: Friday 19 June 2020

The National Board for Wildlife has given clearances to over 500 projects inside protected areas and eco-sensitive zones since 2014. This includes several linear projects such as roads and railways through protected forests.

Numerous railway projects in the pipeline are expected to have a negative impact on our forests. The doubling of the Katni-Singrauli railway line is one such example: Thirty-three kilometres of the railway line will pass through Chhattisgarh’s Sanjay National Park, acting as a barrier against its critical corridor to Madhya Pradesh’s Bandhavgarh National Park.

The 175-kilometre-long Akola-Khandwa railway track gauge conversion project is another example. Eighteen kilometres of this track will cut through Maharashtra’s Melghat Tiger Reserve, one of India’s first. The reserve is home to the critically endangered Forest owlet.

For the Lucknow-Pilibhit gauge conversion project, the track will cut through Uttar Pradesh’s Pilibhit Tiger Reserve. The doubling of the Hospet-Vasco railway line will pass through evergreen forests in Karnataka and Goa.

The Western Ghats are an ecological miracle and a biodiversity hotspot with several endemic flora and fauna. Numerous railway lines, however, crisscross the ghats (mountain passes) across Maharashtra.

The Mumbai-Nagpur route cuts through the ghats at Igatpuri creating an artificial ecological barrier. Several tracks have been pushed through in Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra, including the Mangalore-Bangalore, Kozhikode-Chennai and Mumbai-Pune routes respectively.

With the number of animals dying on Indian tracks increasing every year, another ill-conceived track through the pristine ghats will only contribute to large numbers of dead animals.

The Hubbali-Ankola railway line proposed to pass through the Kali Tiger Reserve and the Bedthi Conservation Reserve is one such project.

Biological diversity in Uttara Kannada

An additional proposal for the expansion of Karnataka’s Kaiga power plant will require around 50 hectares of forest land. This has the potential to destroy the unique landscape of the Uttara Kannada district, which has deep valleys and a thick blanket of 7,000 square kilometres of dense forest area.

It supports a vast diversity of birds and insects. More than 1,741 species of flowering plants, mammals, zoo planktons, reptiles, insects call the Uttara Kannada landscape their home. This section of the ghats is also home to the Myristica swamps, an ancient evergreen forest system. More than 50 such swamps were recorded in the ghats of the Uttara Kannada district.

Tigers and elephants reportedly traverse from one patch of forest to the other in this area as well. Uttara Kannada also has a number of ancient cultures, including the Lambanis, Gawlis, Medars and the Siddis, a tribe known to have migrated from Africa and settled in this area’s forests.

The Hubbali-Ankola railway line will not only dissect this heritage landscape, but also create a barrier between the Kali and Bhadra reserves.

The proposal to lay a 168-km-long railway track by cutting more than 200,000 trees through this fragile land belies all established environmental ethics.

It also begs a question from activists gearing up for the fight against the interests who seek to push for the project no matter what: How did this totally unwarranted and archaic form of development get a go-ahead from our policy makers, even as the ill effects of deforestation are now acknowledged worldwide?

More importantly, at what stage in the quest for development did we lose track of our deep-rooted connections with nature?

Re-thinking the project

Nearly 80 per cent of the proposed railway line passes through the dense forest lands, according to a media report that cited a site inspection report submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

The total land required is 995.64 hectares, including 595.64 hectares of forest land, 184.6 hectares of wetland and 190 hectares of dry land, said the report. The proponents of such linear infrastructure projects, however, fail to acknowledge that in addition to trees, an untold number of fauna will also be exterminated.

Even by the lofty standards of the Western Ghats — a globally recognised world heritage site — the patch of forest being discussed about can perhaps be among the most pristine in the entire world.

In its report to the state government, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) said an extinct frog species was rediscovered on the proposed railway stretch and another stretch spreading across the Dharwad, Yellapur and Karwar forest divisions.

The entire stretch is home to more than 29 species of mammals, 256 varieties of birds, eight species of reptiles and 50 species of butterflies.

The ecological importance of the landscape is not in question. The intentions behind destroying this habitat are.

Alternatives to the project

With much of the coastal landscape well connected and the coastal highway exponentially increasing transport alternatives, it is convenient for the government to utilise the rapidly developing Mumbai-Mangalore transport hub, rather than slash the forest.

If the state feels that the march towards development will be halted if this project stops, the state and specifically the people in this landscape can be compensated as upstream beneficiaries.

In this case, the state’s position of the project linking the west coast to the hinterland for socio-economic development of the north Karnataka region is something that should be praised.

With the rail corridor, the state hopes to transport iron ore and other minerals to the upcoming port at Tadri near Ankola and to ports such as Karwar, Madgaon and Vasco in Goa. This is where the irony is.

There is an existing railway track, 65 km longer and substantially underutilised that connects Hubballi to Madgaon and further to Karwar junction and Ankola.

Additionally, a road network connects Hubballi to the Tadri port via National Highway 52 and has been used for transporting iron ore for years.

There exist several minor roads like the state highway to Kumta, used by the local population without any disruption to their lives. With the proposed rail track planned only for freight traffic, it is unlikely that locals will use this railway network for any time in the foreseeable future.

If completed despite the opposition, the Hubbali-Ankola railway line will only be a white elephant, having devastated a vibrant landscape.

Lessons can be learned from a similar project planned through the Coimbatore-Chamrajnagar landscape in 1922. The project went through several years of revival and rejection, till 1996, when it was finally approved. Years of protests, however, led to the scrapping of the project.

In Coorg, a sustained citizens’ protest movement led to the Karnataka High Court halting the Mysore-Kodagu railway project till the Indian Railways sought environment-related clearances.

In yet another development, the state government opened another window after recently constituting a panel to study landslides and form guidelines for the protection of the Western Ghats.

It is hoped the panel studies the Yellapur-Ankola region critically and dissuades the government against taking up any project against the local interests of the region.

The land that is the birthplace of the Appiko movement, where people shrugged their complacency, fought through apathy and struggled to protect their forests. The Hubbali-Ankola railway line must be opposed with reason and science: It should be spearheaded by its own people who should bring forth the legend of the Appiko to stop this devastation.

Views expressed are the author's own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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