The Rs 2,315-crore Hubli-Ankola railway line, cutting across the Western Ghats in Karnataka, has been shown the red signal by a Supreme Court panel on forest and wildlife, which said that the project’s “huge and irreparable” ecological impact would “far outweigh” its “actual tangible benefits”.
Last August, Railways Minister D V Sadananda Gowda, who is also a senior BJP leader from Karnataka, had claimed that he was in touch with Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar on the issue and that the 168-km rail link project — conceived in 1998 primarily to transport iron ore from the Bellary-Hospet mines — would be cleared in a year.
However, in its report submitted earlier this month, the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) underlined that the net present value of the modified requirement of 727 hectares of forest land for the project works out to Rs 7,426 crore ? more than triple the project cost.
“These figures most effectively demonstrate the extraordinary high ecological and economic value of the forest land involved in the project,” it said, recommending that the apex court may direct the Environment Ministry not to reconsider or approve the project it had earlier rejected.
MoEF officials refused to comment as the matter was sub-judice.
A joint venture between the Railways and the Karnataka government, the original project involved construction of 329 bridges and 29 tunnels, and required felling of more than 2.5 lakh trees on 965 hectares of forest land.
The proposal was rejected by the Environment Ministry in 2004 but revived with modifications in 2006. Pushing the rail link in 2008, the Karnataka government claimed it was “inevitable that the Western Ghats has to be pierced through at some point to ensure this connectivity between coastline and eastern plains of the state.”
The CEC’s opinion follows a series of adverse reports the project has attracted since its foundation stone was laid by then prime minister A B Vajpayee in May 2000.
In 2002, the Karnataka forest department observed that no national interest would be served by dissecting the forest landscape of Uttara Kannada with a new rail link when the potential of the existing alternatives such as Hubli-Vasco, Hospet-Chennai and Hospet-Vizag lines was yet to be tapped fully due to the low volume of iron ore traffic.
It further reasoned that the deposit of Bellary-Hospet itself would not last beyond 20 years, making mining economically unviable.
But by then, the Railways had already started work on the project in a non-forest stretch. In 2003, the then Karnataka forest chief reiterated that “the forest and terrain really do not permit a railway line” but the proposal “has to be considered in the light” of “more than one commitment” already made by the state government and the Railways Ministry.
Submitting the proposal to the Union Environment Ministry, Karnataka’s then principal secretary (forest) acknowledged that the rail link “will further fragment the forest and expose fresh areas to anthropogenic pressure”, before concluding that “these appear inevitable given the importance of the line”.
In May 2004, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Environment Ministry observed that the project “for transporting mainly iron ore has not much justification” while “this will simply be a tragedy on the prime forests of the Western Ghats. Accordingly, the ministry rejected the proposal.
In the following months, the Railway Ministry mounted pressure, underlining the importance of the project in view of increasing global demand for iron ore. In September, the FAC asked the Karnataka government to critically revise the proposal. The Railway ministry modified the proposal in 2005, reducing the forest land requirement to 720 hectare.
In 2006, two NGOs approached the CEC which found that though the project was rejected, work was in progress on a 40-km non-forest stretch. Before CEC could take action, 80 per cent of earth and bridge works up to 47 km between Hubli and Kiravatti was complete.
In 2011, the state government engaged the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) to prepare a technical report. Recommending a Rs 450-crore mitigation plan, the IISc report said in 2012 that the proposed link would cut through a key elephant corridor and trigger conflict, while removal of trees would lead to a loss of 2.25 lakh tonnes of carbon and annual sequestration potential of upto 3,696 tonnes.
Between 2006 and 2013, the CEC held seven hearings and meetings on the project. During this period, the Railways proposed to implement the project in stages while Karnataka further reduced the total forest land requirement to 687 hectare.
Dismissing the reduction in forest-land requirement, the CEC said that “no amount of mitigation measures would be adequate to contain the severe adverse impact on the biodiversity-rich dense forest of Western Ghats.”
However, it said that the MoEF may divert five hectares of fringe forest land for the Hubli-Kalaghati stretch of the proposed link as sought by the Railways if the latter confirmed that the segment would be commercially viable by itself.
13 YEARS, MANY TWISTS AND TURNS
2002: Karnataka forest department says no national interest would be served by dissecting forest.
2003: Karnataka forest chief says forest and terrain “do not permit” railway line.
2004: Environment Ministry panel says project will “be a tragedy on the prime forests”.
2005: Railways cuts forest requirement to 720 hectares.
2006: CEC finds work in progress on a 40-km non-forest stretch.
2012: IISc says link would cut through elephant corridor.
2006-2013: Railways says will implement project in stages, Karnataka cuts forest requirement to 687 hectares.
2015: SC panel says “no amount of mitigation measures would be adequate to contain the severe adverse impact on the biodiversity-rich dense forest”.