Safety of wildlife can’t be ignored for road projects, NGT tells CentreUpdated: Jul 10, 2020 00:38 IST
The Centre has been informed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that it cannot ignore or compromise the safety of wildlife while developing new road projects through tiger corridors in Maharashtra. The NGT principal bench headed by chairperson Adarsh Kumar Goel on Tuesday said the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) cannot proceed with projects along tiger corridors in Maharashtra unless they comply with safety guidelines as per the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s (NTCA) action plan.
“It is necessary to take precautions in view of the potential of affecting wildlife. If project proponents wish to proceed with a project, they cannot do so without taking safety precautions for protection of wildlife,” the bench said in its order published on Thursday and disposed the matter. NGT has been hearing the matter for the past two-and-a-half years after taking cognisance of a news report in 2018.
Principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife) Nitin Kakodkar explained that the matter involved nine existing road projects in Chandrapur around the buffer areas of Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) where dispersal of tigers has been identified. These included five national highway (NH) projects and three state highway projects (principally declared as NH).
“These are all existing roads that needed expansion. Mitigation measures were crucial and required in each case as identified by NTCA to maintain functional connectivity of tiger corridors,” he said.
Chandrapur has the most dense tiger population with over 170 of the 312 tigers in Maharashtra.
In February 2019, the tribunal had directed the Union environment ministry to prepare an action plan and oversee its execution. The plan was prepared by NTCA in August 2019 identifying mitigation measures to be implemented over a period of seven years across five phases (underpasses at several locations) along nine roads. Subsequently MoRTH accepted some measures, but later on October 17, 2019, they said they would not be able fund additional expenditure over ₹100.81 crore for proposed mitigation structures.
In addition, MoRTH requested the Maharashtra government and forest department to fund remaining expenditure for two roads — Mul Chandarpur and Bamni-Navegaon (NH 930 & NH 353B). NGT, in its order in January this year, had not accepted MoRTH’s submissions highlighting that the mitigation measures were ‘binding’ on them and needed to be ‘duly adopted’.
The bench also directed NTCA to submit a revised mitigation plan reducing implementation period to three years. The plan was submitted on April 15, 2020 stating that MoRTH had not accepted conditions for the two roads.
“We note that MoRTH has stated that the ministry cannot fund any additional expenditure for the mitigation measures. We are unable to accept such a plea for the reasons already mentioned. Accordingly, the project proponent may proceed only subject to the action plan prepared by the NTCA,” the NGT order from Wednesday said.
A Srivastava, chief engineer (Maharashtra regional office), MoRTH, said, “The cost of building underpasses along some of the other tiger corridors was coming to roughly ₹1,100 crore; and our work involved only basic expansion, not four-lane mega projects. None of our activities would disrupt wildlife, and the intention was to improve connectivity to Naxal-affected areas by improving the condition of the highways on the request of the state government.”
For this very reason, the state government should also contribute, said Srivastava. “The response from Maharashtra is still awaited. We will be taking a call on what is to be done based on the latest order,” he said.
Tiger density is maximum across corridors where these nine roads are located in Chandrapur. Human-tiger conflict had caused around 140 human deaths since 2007, said Kishor Rithe, member of the recently constituted State Board for Wildlife. “This was mainly due to landscape connectivity issues and habitat fragmentation. In such a situation, mitigation measures are essential with appropriate structures (overpasses and underpasses). The user agency must be open-minded towards wildlife conservation. Here they are more concerned about spending money, making it doubtful whether appropriate mitigation structures would actually ever be built.”
WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?
HT reported on Wednesday that MoRTH had expressed its intention to make it easier for state bodies to garner faster forest clearances pertaining to national highway projects. On June 30, MoRTH issued a letter to all state governments informing them that state bodies like the public works department working on Central government projects such as national highway development be exempted from purchasing non-forest land in lieu of forest area being diverted. This is mandatory for state agencies as per the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Instead, MoRTH said state agencies be allowed to carry out compensatory afforestation on degraded forest land, which is applicable to certain small projects. MoRTH said the decision was taken in consultation with the Union environment ministry. However, the latter is yet to respond to queries raised on this by the Maharashtra forest department on this.