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NINE months ago, Chhattisgarh East Railway Limited (CERL) informed the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that the corridor it’s building through the state’s worst man-animal conflict zone will have 24 bridges with “underpasses provided to ensure unhindered passage of elephants”. But records show that 22 of them are nowhere near established elephant routes identified by Chhattisgarh’s Forest Department.
Besides, these bridges do not meet the minimum width-height requirement — 300×5 metres — recommended by the Wildlife Institute of India for building wildlife underpasses. The NGT is scheduled to hold the next hearing in the matter on Monday.
Chhattisgarh East Railway Limited (CERL) — a special project vehicle comprising the state government (10 per cent), South Eastern Coalfields Limited (64 per cent) and Railways construction wing IRCON (26 per cent) — is developing the 180-km eastern corridor primarily to carry coal from the Korba and Gare-Pelma mines.
With a 2019 deadline, the Rs 4,000 crore project has made “15-20 per cent progress” in the first 74-km stretch, which passes through Dharamjaigarh forest division in Raigarh district, where 44 people and 39 elephants have been killed in man-animal conflicts in the last seven years.
The project will affect over 125 elephants — around half of Chhattisgarh’s elephant population — that move between Korba and Dharamjaigarh forests. These elephants mainly belong to herds displaced in the 1990s when mines came up in their native forests in Odisha and Jharkhand — Chhattisgarh did not have resident elephants earlier.
In 2005, Chhattisgarh decided to create two reserves for the migrant elephants to reduce conflict. The Centre cleared the plan in 2007, but the state backtracked later to keep its coal-rich forests open for mining.
In December 2014, while evaluating the corridor project, the Environment Ministry had underlined the need for a wildlife management plan and animal underpasses. In March 2015, Chhattisgarh’s Forest Department submitted a detailed plan for underpasses, listing established elephant routes across the proposed track in the Dharamjaigarh division. But the project got forest clearance in May 2015 without finalising either, on the condition that “sufficient underpasses for safe crossing of animals shall be made” and “an integrated wildlife management plan shall be prepared and implemented”.
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CERL began work in July 2015, but two months later, the project was challenged at the NGT by Bilaspur-based lawyer Sudiep Srivastava. It was in its reply to the tribunal that the CERL listed the 24 bridges that were already part of the project that would provide as “underpasses” for elephants. Of these, only two are within 100 metres of an identified elephant path, leaving the animals to take long detours, negotiating water channels, in a conflict-ridden landscape, or risk crossing the railway tracks.
More than hundred elephants have been killed on railway tracks in India since 2003, when Bholu, the jumbo carrying a green signal lamp, became the Railways safety mascot. Already, seven deaths have been reported this year.
Asked how CERL was allowed to start work before specifying the underpass locations, Chhattisgarh’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests B L Saran said: “This is an important project and it will comply with all (clearance) conditions. Yes, these are elephant conflict areas and underpasses are required. We are still looking into the specifics.”
Parvinder Singh, Additional General Manager, IRCON, said that there was “full coordination” among the agencies. “It is a government project. We have given the wildlife management plan to the Forest Department. If they want us to build some underpasses, we will do it. Budget is not an issue. But these are for the departments, and not activists, to decide,” said Singh, who is in charge of the project.