'Assam officials widened Kaziranga highway instead of taking steps to protect wildlife from accidents'

Wildlife activist files affidavit before green tribunal saying he was forced by state government officials to sign site inspection report in presence of local musclemen who want the road to be widened

By Anupam Chakravartty
Published: Thursday 07 August 2014

During rainy season, flooding in Kaziranga National Park forces the wild animals to move southwards to elevated ground; many wild animals are killed by vehicles while they attempt to cross NH-37

Over two months ago, the National Green Tribunal had ordered a site inspection of National Highway 37 that passes by the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, which is a World Heritage Site. But instead of taking measures to prevent killing of wild animals in road accidents, the state government has widened the highway, alleged an environmental activist from the region, Rohit Choudhury, in an affidavit filed before NGT on Wednesday.

On May 21, this year, the National Green Tribunal asked Choudhury, the park officials and national highways unit of the state Public Works Department to conduct a site inspection of the 66 kilometre stretch that runs parallel to the national park. The site inspection was to check if the mitigation measures have been undertaken to prevent wildlife accidents. According to Choudhury, on July 13 when the site inspection was conducted, he was forced to sign the site inspection report in presence of a mob and some government officials, while the team was yet to inspect about 32 kilometres of the stretch.

Choudhury's petition of 2013, which the tribunal is hearing, states that on an average 5,000 vehicles pass through the highway every day. This and the construction along the road has restricted wildlife movement in the corridor between Kaziranga, the only habitat of one-horned rhinoceros, and the Karbi Anglong hills, and has resulted in countless deaths of endangered wildlife species, including rhinos and tigers, over the years.

RTI applications filed by Choudhury had revealed that instead of diverting the existing road, government planned to widen the two lane highway. A contract for this purpose was awarded in June this year. The petition has, therefore, sought stay on the expansion of the road and action against the authorities for non-compliance with the conditions in the environment clearance granted to the Numaligarh refinery nearby. “The road divides the landscape between the low-lying grasslands of Kaziranga in the north and the elevated Karbi Anglong hills in the south. During rainy season when flooding in Kaziranga National Park forces the wild animals to move southwards to elevated ground, many wild animals are killed by vehicles while they attempt to cross NH-37,” says the petition.

Road widened by three metre

According to the affidavit filed by Choudhury on August 5, the highway was widened by three metre, increasing the the total width to 10 metre. When he asked the PWD officials why the road was widened, he was told that white lines will be used to mark the seven metre stretch, while slow moving traffic can use road outside the lines. Incidentally, Choudhury has stated in the affidavit that the roads department has not even installed proper sign boards to mark the places where the speedbreakers have been built.

The tribunal in its earlier order asked Assam government to ensure that a speed limit of 40 kilometre per hour is maintained when the vehicles cross the sanctuary area. However, the ground reality, according to his affidavit, is that there were no speed guns maintained by the government while only two interceptor vehicles have been procured by the state government. Choudhury states that these vehicles are not deployed by the state government at all hours.

On Wednesday, Choudhury told Down To Earth that he was threatened in presence of the officials at a forest guest house in the sanctuary by some locals. “An atmosphere of fear was created to force me to sign the inspection report on the spot. Most of these locals, I have been told, want the road to be widened,” he said.

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