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Thursday, October 22, 2020

A proposed road tunnel beneath Western Ghats in Kerala: purpose, concerns

The 7-km tunnel, being described as the third longest in the country, is part of an 8-km road cutting through sensitive forests and hills of the Western Ghats.

Written by Shaju Philip | Thiruvananthapuram | Updated: October 7, 2020 11:11:09 am
kerala tunnel road, tunnel road kerala, wayanad kozhikode tunnel road, western ghats tunnel, indian expressThe tunnel road is an outcome of a decades-long campaign for an alternative road as the Thamarassery Ghat Road is congested and gets blocked by landslides during heavy monsoon. (Express Photo: Prashant Nadkar, File)

On Monday, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan “launched” a tunnel road project that would connect Kozhikode with Wayanad. The launch actually meant the beginning of a survey and fixing the final alignment ahead of the detailed project report, which should be followed by steps such as technical sanction, environmental impact assessment report, and seeking mandatory clearance from various agencies including the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). Vijayan promised the survey would be over in three months and work would start next March with a deadline of 34 months for completion.

What is this Kozhikode-Wayanad tunnel road?

The 7-km tunnel, being described as the third-longest in the country, is part of an 8-km road cutting through sensitive forests and hills of the Western Ghats. Its endpoints are at Maripuzha in Thiruvambady village panchayat (Kozhikode) and Kalladi in Meppadi panchayat (Wayanad). At present, Wayanad plateau is linked to the rest of Kerala via four roads, all with hilly sections, the longest being the 13-km Thamarassery Ghat Road along the Kozhikode-Mysuru NH 766.

Map not to scale; Google Earth image; Graphic: Ritesh Kumar

The tunnel road is an outcome of a decades-long campaign for an alternative road as the Thamarassery Ghat Road is congested and gets blocked by landslides during heavy monsoon. A proposal for widening the road has been pending clearance from the MoEFCC. Two alternative routes have been suggested connecting different parts of Kozhikode district to Wayanad, but those proposals did not make much headway either, mainly because of forest patches that would need to be cleared.

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How did this plan for a tunnel road emerge?

At the very route of the proposed tunnel road, a surface road had been debated since the 1970s, but did not take off because forest land was involved. In 2015, the previous government finally ordered a survey by a private agency for a road through the forest between Maripuzha and Kalladi. The agency found the surface road an uphill task, but suggested cutting a tunnel with entry and exit points in private lands close to the forest.

After the current government came to power in 2016, the project got a push. When Metro pioneer E Sreedharan was approached for support from Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, he suggested Konkan Railway Corporation (KRC) take it up. In 2019, the government engaged KRC as a special purpose vehicle for the survey, DPR and project execution on a turnkey basis. The government gave administrative sanction for the project earlier this year and promised Rs 658 crore from Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB).

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How will the road impact the ecology?

The Forest Department has identified the proposed route as a highly sensitive patch comprising evergreen and semi-evergreen forests, marsh lands and shola tracts. This region is part of an elephant corridor spread between Wayanad and Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu. Two major rivers, Chaliyar and Kabani that flows to Karnataka, originate from these hills in Wayanad. Eruvazhanjipuzha, a tributary of Chaliyar and the lifeline of settlements in Malappuram and Kozhikode, begins in the other side of the hills. The region, known for torrential rain during monsoon, has witnessed several landslides, including in 2019 at Kavalappura near Nilambur and at Puthumala, Meppadi in Wayanad.

So, will it not face a challenge in getting environmental clearance?

Proponents of the project have been stressing that the tunnel will not destroy forest (trees). The MoEFCC guidelines state that the Forest Act would apply not only to surface area, but the entire underground area beneath the trees. For tunnel projects, conditions relating to underground mining would be applicable. As the proposed tunnel is 7 km long, it will require emergency exit points and air ventilation wells among other measures, which would impact the forest further.

How much has actually been cleared?

With an eye on elections early next year, the government “launched” the project with several procedures pending: a survey report, DPR and even environmental clearance. The two entry points of the tunnel are in Thiruvambady and Kalpetta constituencies, both held by the ruling CPI(M). Forest officials, meanwhile, are yet to get applications from KRC for conducting the survey, which is now outside the forest land.

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