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Rail project gets Karnataka board nod as experts raise concern

The proposed rail track will pass through a wildlife corridor between Bedthi Conservation Reserve (BCR) and Kali Tiger Reserve (KTR), a natural habitat for many species, including tigers and elephants.

Updated: Jul 13, 2020 02:57 IST

By Jayashree Nandi, Hindustan Times New Delhi

The proposed railway project involves entails of felling of around 190,000 trees. (HT File Photo )

A railway line proposed to be built in the Western Ghats, rejected by several statutory bodies in the past amid concerns that it could cause irreparable damage to prime forests and unique biodiversity in the region, received approval on March 20 from the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL), which rejected the project 11 days earlier.

The SBWL approval was granted after the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), under the union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC), started reviewing the project in Karntaka and asked about the reasons behind the delay in implementing it, documents reviewed by HT suggest.

SBWL’s approval has resurrected the serious environmental concerns that held up the project for the past two decades.

At least 101 scientists have endorsed a letter written by 11 ecologists and wildlife biologists to the NBWL member-secretary and MoEFCC minister Prakash Javadekar on July 2, raising several concerns about the Hubballi Ankola Railway Line Project (HARP) in Karnataka, including irreversible damage it could do to forests, fragmenting wildlife habitats in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) world heritage site.



The project is likely to come up for NBWL’s nod before other requisite clearances are sought.

The proposed rail track will pass through a wildlife corridor between Bedthi Conservation Reserve (BCR) and Kali Tiger Reserve (KTR), a natural habitat for many species, including tigers and elephants. The project involves entails of felling of around 190,000 trees.

The habitat of Great Pied and Malabar Pied Hornbills, both keystone species -- species critical for the survival of other species in the region -- are likely to have a major impact due to the project.

It also passes through habitats that host many endemic and endangered species such as the Malabar Tree Toad, said the letter written by ecologists that quoted from various peer-reviewed papers in a bid to bolster their argument.

The letter and details of the project have also been published on the Conservation India website that is spearheading a campaign to protect ecology.

“No amount of mitigation will compensate for the damage to the ecosystem that will be lost for good. Ultimately, the well-being of local communities will be jeopardised,” the letter said.

The Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot has already lost 33,000 square kilometres, or up to 40% of its forest cover, in the last 100 years, according to scientists.

A significant proportion of this forest loss is attributed to linear projects such as power transmission lines, highways, and construction of dams.

“The existing railway line (Tinai Ghat-Castlerock), located around 50 km north of the proposed site, along with several state roads and power lines have significantly contributed to fragmenting forests of the region and creating edges. Implementing HARP will create many more edges by splitting 10 large forest patches of conservation significance into 15 smaller patches,” said the letter, endorsed by scientists from various research organisations.

They have argued that mitigation measures would not be able to counter the ecological impact.

The project has in the past been rejected by the Supreme Court (SC)-constituted Central Empowered Committee (CEC) in 2015 and by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in 2018, according to documents seen by HT.

The MoEFCC’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) had also raised several issues regarding the project.

“The CEC is of the considered view that the project would cause huge and irreparable damage to forests, wildlife and biodiversity of the Western Ghats, which would far outweigh the actual tangible benefits of the project. The CEC report was based on a number of hearings, documents, and meetings with various senior Karnataka government officials,” the CEC had said while rejecting HARP.

A MoEFCC letter to principal secretary (forests), Karnataka, dated September 29, 2018, had stated that a site inspection committee of NTCA has rejected the project because out of the six tiger-occupied landscapes in India; Western Ghats tops on habitat connectivity and contiguity counts.

The project has come up, pending NBWL and other national-level approvals, despite a spate of rejections in the past.

HT has seen the minutes of Karnataka SBWL meeting, which suggests that the project was rejected unanimously by board members and special invitees on March 9.

The minutes suggest that a majority of SBWL members had opposed the project.

The additional chief secretary (ACS), forests, Karnataka had said that since the rail network had already been strengthened in the Tinnaighat-Castlerock-Caranzol area, HARP was redundant.

Karnataka chief secretary (CS), who was a special invitee to the SBWL meeting, cited the Centre’s enquiry regarding the delay in the project’s implementation.

In the March 20 meeting, the Board reversed its own decision.

The minutes show that a number of special invitees attended the meeting, including the state minister of industries and the CS along with chief minister BS Yediyurappa.

The Board recommended the project because of the need for development in the north Karnataka region.

Environmentalists have found holes in SBWL’s approval for the project.

“The decision taken on March 9 to reject the proposal was in conformity with legal and statutory procedures. However, handpicked special invitees with no expertise in wildlife were allowed to deliberate at a hurriedly convened meeting on March 20, violating all procedural norms. This smacks of arbitrariness. There is no legal provision under the Wildlife Act, 1972, that empowers the State Board to review its own decision taken after completion of a statutory process,” said Praveen Bhargav of the Bengaluru-based Wildlife First, a conservation advocacy group.

HT had sent queries on whether Javadekar had received the scientists’ representation on Monday but did not get a response till Tuesday evening.

Another NBWL, member, however, said on condition of anonymity that all members had received the representation and it would be deliberated upon.

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