The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has given clearance to the long-pending demand for the Ekal-Bambhanka road, which will connect the Khadir island with the rest of Kutch through an alternate route. The new road, connecting Ekal village on the southern edge of the Great Rann of Kutch with Bambhanka village on the southern rim of Khadir island, will reduce the distance between the island and Bhachau town, the headquarters of Bhachau taluka of Kutch district, by around 100 km.
The proposed road will pass through Kutch desert sanctuary, a habitat of the endangered Indian wild ass (Equus hemionus khur), a species which has been categorised as “near-threatened” globally by the International Union on Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“The standing committee of NBWL considered the proposal and approved it with certain riders. Based on the approval granted by the NBWL, we shall issue the final clearance order ensuring the project proponent implements a wildlife mitigation plan… The project will have to ensure that the road does not hamper movement of wild animals and flow of water. While we are yet to finalise a wildlife mitigation plan for the area, we shall ask the project proponent to construct underpasses so that wild asses can move across the road and culverts for flow of water. We shall also suggest elevated sections so that water and wild animals can move freely from one side of the road to the other,” Gyanendra Sinha, principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF) and chief wildlife warden of Gujarat, told The Indian Express.
The clearance from NBWL — a statutory body with Prime Minister as its ex-officio chairman — comes around 10 years after the road was approved by the Gujarat government. In 2007-08, the state government had allotted Rs 40 crore for the project.
“The road and buildings department had applied for the first time in 2009, seeking wildlife clearance for the road project. However, the NBWL rejected the proposal underlining the proposed alignment of the road was passing through some good habitat and required diversion of 203 hectare of forest land. In 2017, the road and building department gave a revised proposal with a new alignment of the road and also reduced its width in 2017. The NBWL cleared this revised proposal at its meeting on January 25,” Sinha said, adding that the new proposal requires diversion of only around 24 hectare of forest land.
According to Lalsinh Madia, executive engineer in the roads and buildings department of Kutch district panchayat, the width of the proposed road was reduced from 36 metres to 12 metres with a 7-metre-wide carriageway in the revised proposal.
The reduction of width of the road brought down the land requirement drastically, Madia said.
The Ekal-Bambhanka road will be the third major infrastructure project to affect the Kutch desert sanctuary. The Kutch branch canal of the Narmada dam project and a national highway from Ghaduli in west Kutch to Santalpur in Patan district also passes through this sanctuary. However, constructing a road to connect the Khadir island across the sanctuary has been a long-pending demand of the residents.
“Before 1986, when that section of the Great Rann of Kutch was not declared a protected sanctuary, people in the villages bordering the desert and those living on Khadir island were connected socially and culturally as vehicles used to ply on a dirt track across the desert. But with the area becoming a sanctuary, restrictions were imposed on the vehicular movement on that dirt track. Consequently, people of Khadir island have been forced to take the route via Rapar to reach Bhachau. With the wildlife clearance in, the old route will be restored and it will help social and cultural development of the area,” said Vinod Chavda, Member of Parliament from Kutch.
Besides 11 border villages with population of around 10,000, Khadir island is also home to Dholavira, the world famous site of Harappan civilisation. The existing road between Bhachau to Khadir via Rapar is nearly 170-km long. However, the road distance between Bhachau town to Bambhanka village via Ekal is merely 75 km with its 19.5 km stretch — from chainage 45 km to 64.5 km — crossing through the Kutch desert sanctuary.
“At present, villagers use a dirt track through the sanctuary to travel to Khadir or from Khadir to Bhachau. But as the sanctuary remains submerged during monsoon, this link is cut off. An all-weather road is the only solution,” said Ramji Meria, a resident of Chobari village near Ekal, adding that the new road link will also help dissuade residents of Khadir to leave their villages.
“For residents of villages on Khadir island, Pakistan is nearer than Bhachau if one were to come to Bhachau via Rapar. But if the Ekal-Bambhanka road becomes a reality, it will persuade villagers to stay put in the border villages,” said Meria, who has been fighting for the road for a long time.