Road to mayhem: Infrastructure projects affect protected habitats

  • Riddhi Doshi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 18, 2015 14:11 IST
A new power line in Kodagu, Karnataka, runs through lush forests and has led to a spurt in the number of elephant-trampling deaths reported in nearby coffee plantations. Ecologists say an existing power line could have been upgraded, or a new one built outside the forest, along an existing coastal road.

Why did the elephant cross the road? Because it had to.

It's not a joke any more. As roads, highways, railway links and power lines eat into shrinking forest cover, tigers are coming up against trucks and elephants are being forced to cross highways and railway tracks.

This is bad news, and not just for them. Ill-conceived and hastily executed infrastructure projects are eating into wildlife habitats, sending the wild animals trampling into areas inhabited by humans. And the bodies are piling up on both sides.

In Karnataka, 46-year-old Muttaku Kambiranda won't leave the house any more. The wife of a coffee plantation owner, she's terrified of the elephants that trampled her mother to death at the gate of their property last December, and almost killed her 13-year-old daughter.

"My daughter ran straight into the house and was saved. But that incident has scarred me. I am really scared for myself and my family," Muttaku says. "The elephants would come around earlier too, once every two months or so, usually at night. But for the past year-and-a-half, ever since the construction of a power line here, they have been walking around the house at all times of day."

The power line Muttaku is talking about stretches 500 km from Mysore in Karnataka to Kozhikode in Kerala; 55 km of this stretch is through the lush agro-forests of Kodagu, where wild vegetation, coffee plantations and paddy fields co-exist.

"Fifteen people have been attacked since December, when work on the power line began in full swing," says CP Muthanna, president of the NGO Coorg Wild Life Society. The NGO began opposing the project when it was first proposed by the state government in 2007.

"The heavy machinery and trucks have agitated the elephants and, in many places, blocked their routes between the plantations and the forest," Muthanna says.

"There is already a power line between Mysore and Kozhikode. The government could have upgraded that, or built the new one along the coastal road so as not to disturb the forests," says BC Nanjappa, an environment activist from Kodagu.

Across the country, from Kerala and Karnataka to Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, similar projects are eating into wildlife corridors and sanctuaries, intensifying man-animal conflict.

In addition to tigers and elephants, leopards, gharial, monkeys, blackbuck and wild pigs are finding the paths that they once used blocked by traffic or construction work, and are heading instead into fields, residential projects, plantations and settlements.

In Rajasthan, the upgrading of a state highway to a national highway running through the Sariska reserve is set to disrupt the habitats of 13 tigers and endanger the entire conservation effort here. Experts say the road should have run around and not through the forest. In Kerala, a recent study by the Forest Research Institute has cited increasing pressure on wild habitats due to 'organised encroachment' into the territories of big cats, elephants, sambhar and wild boar. Two leopards and one tiger have already been killed this year, and another tiger trapped after it strayed into a residential area. Attempts to limit development in these areas have been met with howls of protest from politicians whose votebanks stand to be affected.

In Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the proposed linking of the Ken and Betwa rivers stands to submerge 4,600 hectares of the Panna Tiger Reserve, affecting tigers, crocodiles, vultures and an entire ecosystem.

In Maharashtra, a 3.5-km stretch of highway within the Karnala bird sanctuary is set to be widened. "The National Green Tribunal had asked the ministry of environment and forests to carry out a tolerance study of birds in view of the planned development. No such study has been carried out," says Godfrey Pimenta of the NGO Watchdog Foundation. "Just because there is an industry-friendly policy from the Centre, doesn't mean all projects must be given clearance. When the previous National Board of Wildlife rejected it, what is the reason for giving it the go-ahead now?"

While some of the projects causing disruptions date back to the Congress-led UPA government, experts are concerned about a vital change since the BJP-led NDA came to power last year - the dismantling of the legislation set up to prevent just such environmental damage.

Zooming out

India's national parks make up just 5% of its land mass - a much lower ratio than even in other developing countries, including Sri Lanka, which stands at 10%. And yet, instead of extending these areas, the government has been destroying them. The overall long-term effects include climate change, natural disasters of the kind we saw in Uttarakhand two years ago, and changing rainfall patterns - all of which stand to greatly affect the human population. The immediate effects, of course, include increased man-animal conflict.

- NVK Ashraf,
Senior Director of the NGO Wild Life Trust of India

"The current government has shown an utter disregard for the environment, for conservation and for wildlife," says Himanshu Thakkar, ecologist and coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People. "In fact it is systematically dismantling environmental checks, weakening institutions such as the crucial Expert Appraisal Committees, Forest Advisory Committee and National Wildlife Board, which were formed to protect the environment, forests and wildlife."

The solution, activists agree, is to find alternative routes for linear projects such as roads, railway tracks and power lines.

"This may result in higher immediate costs, but that is a small price to pay to protect the ecosystems that sustain all life on the planet, including ours," says Belinda Wright, executive director of the NGO Wildlife Protection Society of India.

"Roads and railway lines, although they occupy relatively small strips of land, result in wide effects on habitat. They cause habitat fragmentation. These fragments become isolated from one another, their edges more prone to disturbance, making them less suitable for wildlife. They affect the ability of species to cross from one fragment to another, thereby limiting their ability to forage and breed and causing deaths when crossings are attempted. They also increase pollution by human presence and in the form of emissions and noise."

(With inputs from Snehal Rebello)

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