Lines Of Blood
Using the example of National Highway 7, writer-conservationist Neha Sinha reveals how poorly-planned linear alignments are taking a vicious toll of wild species across India.
Author: Jegadeesha Perumal.
What is the shortest distance between two points? Geometry lessons say the answer is a straight line. But real life teaches us that the world doesn’t obey textbooks. In the real world, connecting two lines on the ground would involve encountering a rush of water, the whisper of forests, the clamour of cities, and the undulation of hills. In real life, the shortest distance between two points would be the straightest; but invariably, the shortest and straightest line is not always the best one.
Projects in ‘lines’, or ‘linear’ projects, have an enthusiastic new benefactor: the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which has fast-tracked all linear projects – roads, highways, transmission lines, pipe-lines, among others. As per the government’s own announcement, in the next few years, a 3.8 billion dollar outlay is planned for highways in India, which will complete 1,00,000 kilometres of highway by 2017. The NDA government has invited public-private partnerships for roads and highways, possibly why a ‘unified policy’ has been made for all roads. All roads and linear projects will be, literally, in the fast lane (refer box). Tragically, these alignments are also lines drawn in blood in the natural world. A stroke of road, an abrasion of transmission lines, a welt of railways – these are all efficiently cutting animals into shreds, and wildlife areas into fragments.
THEY FALL ONE BY ONE!
One of the best known forests of India, declared a “crucial corridor” by none less than the Supreme Court, is set to be further fragmented. The government is keen to four-lane the existing National Highway 7 (NH7), which connects Kanha to Pench Tiger Reserve, and Kanha to Nagzira Tiger Reserve. This two-lane highway is in disrepair, but even in this state, it exacts a heavy toll. A local citizens group, NH7 Crusaders, estimates that more than 1,030 animals have been killed on NH7 in about 400 days. The proposal to double the highway lanes may well lead to the death toll doubling, or worse.
On the recommendation of its forest bench, the Central Empowered Committee, the Supreme Court had earlier turned down the road-widening proposal. More than a thousand concerned citizens have signed an online, self-made petition to not widen this highway and further jeopardise the forest. More than 45 NGOs have written to the Prime Minister asking him to reconsider the project. The Wildlife Institute of India is working on a second version of a mitigation plan, and there is no agreement on what mitigation work needs to be undertaken by a government in a hurry. Yet, despite the lack of any working plan or adequate Stage II environmental clearances, the tree-felling in this forest stretch has started.
Why this haste? And why this particular stretch? The answers may not abide by reason, but an alternative surely is reasonable to ask for. NH67, which passes through Nagpur and Chhindwara, is operational. Using this highway instead of widening NH7, would mean a detour of just 70 km. On a road without traffic lights, that’s a maximum of two hours more of travel time. “Till recently, NH67 was a state highway. It was later expanded to a National Highway, at great public cost,” says Milind Pariwakam, a biologist who works in this area, and is at the forefront of a legal battle to save the Kanha-Pench corridor. We have made mistakes in the past, and we should not repeat them in an area inhabited by tigers for generations, he stresses. “NH6 and NH7 have already destroyed six tiger corridors by not putting in any mitigation measures. The Kanha-Pench corridor has one of the best connectivity among all corridors in the country. If we cannot save the best, we can forget about the rest,” he says.
JUST HOW IMPACTFUL CAN A ROAD BE?
I’ll start with a simple analogy. What’s the biggest road you have ever crossed comfortably? Two lanes, a maximum of two lanes, with a central verge is probably the answer most will give. How fast would you need to sprint to cross a four-lane road, if there were no traffic lights, no zebra crossings, and no rear-view mirrors?
Despite their sheer numbers, and their recorded impact, linear projects, especially roads and railways, have been fast-tracked by the NDA government, arguing that they do not have much impact. While there is no formal definition of linear projects, these include transmission lines and pipe-lines, roads and highways, railways and canals. Typically, linear projects pass through several states. The government has recently relaxed a gamut of clearance requirements for these projects. For instance, all linear projects will be ‘fast-tracked’, Gram Sabha clearance will not be required for them, and the work on such a project can start without forest clearance. In border areas, linear projects will not require scoping or public hearings as part of their Environmental Impact Assessments. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has said this is to “set in place a policy” for these projects, to ensure, for instance, that every Highway is (speedily) cleared, and the same rules apply for all roads. The Controller and Auditor General finds, in a new report, that roads lead to secondary disturbances, mushrooming of uncontrolled shops, pollution and garbage, as in the case of NH37 passing through the Kaziranga National Park.
The rest of the linear projects, too, are burgeoning in number. As per data submitted to the Lok Sabha, at least 16 tiger reserves have one or more highways passing through them. As per the Make in India programme, it is likely that these highways too will be expanded. It is now imperative to have an integrated vision and avoid areas that pass through irreplaceable habitats. Where bypasses are not available, existing highways should be repaired but not widened.
Apart from roads, there are also serious concerns with other linear projects. Each year, birds such as flamingos, Great Indian Bustards and pelicans are electrocuted on overhead electric lines. As far as railways go, it appears we have lost the battle for any sort of mitigation. In 2013, the world held its breath when seven elephants – yes, seven – lost their lives in a single collision with a train on a railway track in Jalpaiguri. For all their proclaimed sorrow over the incident, neither West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, nor the Union Environment Ministry did anything to mandate changes in the way trains run. Trains continue to go through wilderness habitat, do not follow speed limits, and are pushed forward by more and more traffic backlogs.
On the question of mitigation for highways and roads, there are numerous issues to be considered. Many mitigation measures involve built-up infrastructure, like culverts, and underground tunnels for wildlife to ‘cross’ roads. Since wild animals do not attend traffic lessons, it is hard to determine whether an animal will actually cross using a culvert. Thus, several mitigation plans suggest fencing all along the linear intrusion to enable crossing only from earmarked areas, which actually leads to habitat fragmentation in its most classic form. Other aspects to be considered are that culverts and other such structures can become hotspots for poaching, or can flood over. For all the infrastructural mistakes we have made in the past, there is logic, and ethics, pointing us towards just leaving certain forest areas as clear of vehicles and intrusions as possible.
The very basis of making a unified policy for linear projects, bulwarked by the idea that these projects do not actually cause much harm to wildlife, is a mistaken notion. History is proof of this.
FLAMINGO CITY IN PERIL
Flamingo City in Gujarat is the only known breeding colony of flamingos in the Asian subcontinent. This area is flat, massive, mostly pristine and seasonally flooded. The waters here are unique: a curious mix of fresh and saline water that makes this area a hotbed for flamingo breeding. The area holds rows upon rows of the unique mud nests made by flamingos. The Gujarat government has for years been pushing a proposal for creating a road here, which they say is at the behest of the Border Security Force. Due to the flat terrain here, the road will be made just so it can be used during the monsoons. To avoid the seasonal wetlands, the road will thus be elevated, which also means it can seriously affect the hydrology of the area. Once the road is made, not only may the water composition change, tourist activities, garbage and pollution will also follow. Keeping these factors in mind, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) under the UPA government had turned down the proposal for this road, but the NBWL constituted by the new government has given it the go-ahead.
A practicing conservationist with the Bombay Natural History Society, a guest faculty at Delhi University and environmental commentator, Neha Sinha is particularly interested in environmental policy and alternate sociologies of development.
Author: Neha Sinha, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 6, June 2015.