Controversy over J&K government's plan to revive Mughal road

By Zahoor Wani
Published: Monday 15 October 2007

Controversy over J&K government's plan to revive Mughal road

Down to EarthThe revival of a historic road should ordinarily not attract the wrath of conservationists. But in Jammu and Kashmir it did. The state government's decision to upgrade the almost five century-old Mughal Road is being opposed by conservationists who believe that it will fragment the habitat of the highly-endangered markhor goat. The Supreme Court has intervened in the matter, giving a conditional go-ahead to the state government's plans.

The 83.9-km long Mughal Road connects Shopian town in Kashmir with Poonch in the Jammu region. Its origins are said to lie in the Mughal conquest of Kashmir in 1586. Mughal forces had taken this route to conquer the Kashmir valley. The road is now being used by trekkers. The 300-km Jammu-Srinagar highway is currently the only motorable road linking the valley with the rest of the country. But maintaining it has proved a tough task for the Jammu and Kashmir government.This highway cuts across a mountainous terrain, is prone to landslides, avalanches and other natural vagaries.

In 1980, the then chief minister of the state, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, had mooted the upgradation of the Mughal Road as a supplementary road link to the highway. Construction began in 1983, but was stalled with the onset of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir.

Work on the road resumed in October 2005. The construction order was challenged almost immediately by the Kashmir-based ngo Bio-diversity Conservation Trust. In a writ petition to the Supreme Court, ngo representatives said construction work would affect the region's biodiversity--the movement of wild animals, especially the Markhor goat, would be disturbed. This was a serious allegation because the animal is on iucn's Red List of highly endangered wild animals and is also named in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and the Jammu Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act, 1978 (amended in 2002). Bio-diversity Conservation Trust's chief grouse is that the road will bisect the Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary into the north-western alpine area and the south eastern area, which is spread over alpine as well as forest ecosystems. Around 67 hectares (ha) will be diverted, the conservationists alleged.
What got the short shrift? Fazal Ali Ansari, managing trustee of Green Kashmir, a Srinagar-based ngo, argues, "We need an alternate road for winters when the Jammu-Srinagar highway is closed, but the mountainous range along the Mughal Road always gets early and heavy snow. So it's a delusion to think it will supplement the highway. The road is being constructed through an eco-sensitive zone."

M Y Yousuf, director of the University of Kashmir's Centre of Research for Development (cord) agrees "The environmental clearances were not in place and the road was being constructed without an environment management plan. It's true that the initial construction work on the Mughal road began before Hirpora was notified as a sanctuary. But over the years there has been little coordination between government departments concerned."

Yousuf says the state government sought environmental clearances only after conservationists took the matter to court. cord was asked to submit an environmental impact assessment report to the Jammu and Kashmir Pollution Control Board. The report, submitted in January 2006, said the road would cut through 67 ha of the Hirpora sanctuary disturbing the habitat of the Markhor. It questioned the utility of the project saying, "3.63 km of the road is highly landslide prone and around 20 km of road length on either side of Pir Panjal pass have snow bound sections".Down to Earth

It added "Road construction activity in itself would result in cutting of many trees, which in turn would have a cascading effect on the associated biota. Besides, traffic on the road may cause death of many animals that utilise verge habitats or try to cross the road...The presence of motor vehicles may introduce the potential for contamination of soil, air and water adjacent to the road and in the case of surface water, well beyond the immediate surroundings. Chronic contamination may become a problem for animal species, especially those at the top of the food chain... ."

Environmentalists blame Jammu and Kashmir's wildlife department for the omissions. AK Srivastava, chief wildlife warden, does not deny the charges. "When the initial construction work began, environmental conservation was not given significance," he says. But he also says that the department lacks personnel. "Presently we have only five employees deputed in the area," he explains. "We have submitted a Markhor Recovery Plan for the Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary to the Union ministry of environment and forests which has been approved. Also, the state government has agreed to provide Rs 10 crore to our department for protection of the Markhor."

On July 25, 2007, the Supreme Court gave a conditional go-ahead to the Mughal Road project, on the recommendations of the Central Empowered Committee (cec)--the body which advises it on forest-related matters. The conditions imposed include

Down to Earth A complete ban on movement by graziers through the sanctuaries and the conservation areas. An alternative corridor/road and grazing areas outside and away from the sanctuary areas should be earmarked to enable the nomads to move and graze their livestock.

Down to Earth The sanctuary/conservation areas which neighbour human settlements should be fenced to prevent poaching and other illegal activities.

Down to Earth An additional 149 sq km located on the eastern side of the sanctuary, which is presently in the possession of Pir Panjal forest division, should be included in the Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary

Down to Earth The Species Recovery Programme for Markhors prepared by the Jammu and Kashmir's wildlife department be implemented

Down to Earth Five per cent of the project cost be deposited in the Compensatory Afforestation Fund by the user agency for undertaking conservation and protection work in the sanctuary

The apex court's order has drawn mixed reactions. Srivastava welcomed the decision to charge 5 per cent from the project developers for the development of the sanctuary. "We plan to take up fencing, demarcation, infrastructure development, afforestation, development of ecotourism and other works with the fund," he said.

Yousuf, however, does not vest much hope with the department. He notes that Hirpora sanctuary's management plans for 2006-2011 do not take cognisance of recommendations made in the road's environment management plan. "Specially neglected are recommendations to create facilities that will allow uninhibited movement of animals in the sanctuary," he says. Other experts doubt the practicability of some of cec's recommendations. Political compulsions will make it almost impossible to implement the ban on graziers, they say.

Khurshid-ul-Alam, an environmentalist at the Centre for Human Develop-ment, another Srinagar-based ngo , has the last word, "The affair is a mistake of the past. We need to amend it."

With inputs from Archi Rastogi

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