Road of contention

By M Suchitra
Published: Sunday 30 November 2008

Traffic through Nagarhole
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Karnataka's wildlife vs Kerala's trade

FEARING a threat to wildlife, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests recently rejected Kerala's request to lift a ban on night traffic through Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka.

The 19.5 km stretch between Dammankatte in Karnataka and Bavali in Kerala is part of the Karnataka State Highway. It is the only straight route connecting Karnataka's Mysore district with Mananthavadi in Kerala's Wayanad district. At present, the road remains open from 6 am to 6 pm. Following public hearings by the Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Commi- ttee, the district collector of Mysore had imposed the ban in July this year. The road was closed in the interest of wildlife since heavy traffic at night caused animal casualties and disturbance, said K N Srivastava, Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Karnataka.

Spread over Kodagu and Mysore districts, the park is part of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, one of the finest remaining habitats of the Asiatic elephants and Royal Bengal tigers. The road cuts through a sensitive Asiatic elephant corridor that connects Nagarhole National Park with Bandipur National Park. A survey done by two Bengalooru-based organizations, the Indian Institute of Science and the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, in 2007 estimated 1,005 elephants in Bandipur and 591 in Nagarahole. The region surrounding the corridor is also one of the best habitats of tigers. "Schemes such as Project Elephant and Project Tiger are being implemented in this biosphere reserve," said Srivastava.

Green groups also allege that the road had come in handy for timber smugglers and poachers.

The Kerala government has a different contention closure of the road hampers business. It plans to send an all-party delegation to New Delhi for again appealing to the ministry to revoke the ban. A Wayanad-based People's Action Committee has filed a public-interest petition in the Karnataka High Court challenging the ban. The group is also fighting a case in the Supreme Court against poor maintenance of the road.

"Since alternative roads are not easily accessible, it is an important route for over 600,000 people, mostly tribals, agricultural labourers and marginal farmers, who live in villages along the border between the two states," said Fr. Thomas Joseph Therakam, chairman of the committee. "About 30 buses ply daily on this route. Trucks also regularly use this road and the ban has affected the traders badly," he said.

Of late, the road has become important for tourism after it was linked to the Bangalore-Pune National Highway. "Not a single animal casualty due to vehicle movement has been registered by the Karnataka Forest Department since 1978," said Therakam. He links the ban to strong lobbying by resort builders. "At least 30 companies have bought land in the neighbourhood of the national park and have been building pressure for a diverted road through the resorts," he said.

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