Wildlife regularly uses 27 overpasses built over Maharashtra canal: Irrigation department
Wild animals, including tigers, are using overpasses built atop an irrigation project on the Wainganga river in Maharashtra, underscoring the importance of built-in mitigation measures for linear infrastructure and other developmental projects.
The state irrigation department informed a sub-committee of the State Board of Wildlife (SBWL) authorities during a meeting on Thursday evening that they had completed constructing 27 of 54 overpasses that are on average 30 to 50 metre (m) wide each. The underpasses are built over the 99-kilometre (km) Gosikhurd irrigation canal, which extends from Bhandara to Chandrapur districts. The canal passes through protected areas such as Umred Pauni Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve as well as the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR).
Irrigation department officials stated that tigers were using the overpasses across at least two locations in south Brahmapuri region surrounded by fragmented forest patches. They also shared photographs to bolster their contention.
“We have documented tiger movement across Halda and Wandra areas in this region, where photographs have been taken over the past year at two specific overpasses. However, there are reports of several other areas, where local villagers have spotted tigers and other animals, including deer, boars, wild dogs etc, all using these overpasses,” said JM Shaikh, chief engineer (projects), Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC).
The Gosikhurd project starts from Pauni in Bhandara district and it was inaugurated on April 22, 1988, to divert water to Wainganga, Wardha and Tapi basin and annually irrigate 3.38 lakh hectares (ha) in around 720 villages in western Vidarbha.
The break-up of the areas irrigated annually in Bhandara, Nagpur and Chandrapur districts are 89,856 ha, 19,481 ha and Chandrapur 1,41,463 ha, respectively, in a bid to boost commercial crop production.
This is the first irrigation project in Maharashtra that has built-in wildlife mitigation measures, the state forest department authorities said.
“The feasibility of these overpasses shows that we need many more such structures to ensure the uninterrupted movement of big cats and other animals and are not deterred due to developmental models,” said Nitin Kakodkar, principal chief conservator of forests (PPCF) (wildlife), Maharashtra. He claimed that this could be one of the first wildlife passages built over a canal in the country.
The forest department has planned a study by setting up camera traps in the area. “Over six months, we hope to get an idea of how many tigers or other animals are using these structures,” said Kakodkar.
A February 2020 report by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, had recorded 5,450 wild animal photographs captured through camera traps over a 10 month period – between March and December 2019 -- across nine underpasses along the National Highway (NH)-7 near the Pench Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra.
The study documented 18 animal species using these mitigation measures, including 11 tigers using six of the nine underpasses.
Kishor Rithe, member, SBWL, said, “At present, these wildlife overpasses are concrete structures. The fact that it is being used is the first step. We have suggested that there should be greening of these structures with soil and vegetation to resemble forest in a bid to encourage the animals to use them regularly. Besides, they should be made in such a way to discourage local villagers from using their vehicles. Boulders can be put up to ensure unhindered movement of animals.”
Though the original proposal was to build 64 overpasses, it was realised that 54 overpasses were sufficient following site-specific studies, said Shaikh. While 27 have been constructed across the 99-km stretch since 2017, 10 are under construction ranging from 47 to 99 km.
Of the remaining proposed underpasses, local villagers have opposed the construction of five that are located within the first 30 km. “However, three structures can be built,” said Shaikh.
Kakodkar said, “The irrigation department has informed us about the opposition from local villagers due to fear of tigers and other carnivores entering the agricultural landscape leading to conflict.”
Rithe said a team of non-government members and forest officials from the sub-committee would visit the site to assess alternate options for constructing the five overpasses.
COMMITTEE ASKS MSEDCL TO ALLOCATE FUNDS TO ADDRESS ANIMAL ELECTROCUTION DEATHS
Another major issue discussed by the SBWL sub-committee on Thursday involved addressing cases of animal electrocution due to transmission lines in TATR buffer zone.
In 2016 and 2018, 16 and 11 animal deaths, respectively, were electrocuted by live wires in agricultural patches that are located close to forest areas. Majority of these areas are located in the TATR buffer zone.
In October 2016, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had issued guidelines underlining safe practices to avoid animal deaths due to electrocution by power transmission lines.
The ministry had directed electricity distribution companies to preferably use air bunching of cables (ABC), including both overhead and underground, as much as possible.
The SBWL sub-committee in its previous meetings had directed the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Corporation Ltd. (MSEDCL) authorities to undertake ABC across the TATR buffer zone to address the electrocution issue.
Though initially MSEDCL had identified 49 locations for this exercise, later it had whittled down its estimate. The cost of implementing ABC for 16 locations amounted to Rs 14.65 crore and the forest department was asked to bear the expenses, which coughed up Rs. 2.45 crore. Tenders were issued by MSEDCL using this Rs. 2.45 crore for two locations such as Chichpalli to Mamala and Padmapur to Mamala, while awaiting funds for the rest of the project.
“We have asked MSEDCL authorities to explore the possibility of allocating funds for ABC,” said Kakodkar.
Rithe objected to the paltry allocation for ABC by the wildlife department.
Ultimately, it was decided that the matter would be taken up before a ministerial-level committee.