The din of controversy around the Kasturirangan Committee and the Gadgil Panel reports on protecting the Western Ghats notwithstanding, the recent visit by the Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to the contentious corridor of the proposed 167-km long Hubli-Ankola railway link in the region, has stirred up hornet’s nest yet again.
In their petition to the CEC, environmentalists have argued that the proposed rail link will clear-fell 727 hectares of pristine forests and ancillary developments along the track will impact an additional 3,000 ha of virgin forests and wetlands. That the proposed rail line will pass through the tiger reserve area has already been highlighted in the impact study by the Indian Institute of Science.
Since Mallikarjun M Kharge from Karnataka became the Union minister for railways, vested interests have worked overtime to reopen the case for getting the pending environmental clearance for the Kalghatagi-Ankola stretch of 122 km on the proposed line. The project requires not just environmental clearance but also an additional `3,000 crore. Not only has the cost of the project escalated three times since it was approved by the Railway Board in 2001, lack of funds has prompted the state government to suggest that the project be taken up through a public-private partnership. No wonder environmentalists have argued that the project is a cover for providing easy access for the Hospet-Bellary mining belt to the port at Tadari.
CEC members are apprised of the fact that the Western Ghats (through which the proposed railway line will pass) has been declared as a World Heritage area by UNESCO. Led by Pandurang Hegde, a group of environmentalists apprised the committee that compensatory afforestation can only be a poor substitute for any stretch of the tropical forests.
The group further informed the committee of its experience with the high voltage power lines passing through the forests in the region. On paper, the transmission corridor had sought a clearance of just three metre width through the forests whereas in reality it accounted for no less than a 56 metre width. The irreversible forest destruction was several times more. However, batting for the project the state government considers the railway line important for linking the hinterland to the coastal region. In reality, however, there exists excellent road connections from Hubli to Ankola built with the help of the Asian Development Bank.
It is shocking that despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on biological diversity, the destruction of 727 hectares of biodiverse tropical forests is considered of little consequence.
Sudhirendar Sharma is a member of the Save Western Ghats Movement since 2009
The views expressed by the author are personal