Over the last one week, Kerala’s Wayanad district has witnessed a series of protests against a ban on night traffic on the forest stretch of NH 766, a key highway between Karnataka and Kerala that passes through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. Although the night ban was first enforced a decade ago, the immediate trigger for the current agitation was a recent Supreme Court direction to the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to suggest alternative routes so that NH 766 could be shut down permanently. Since then, Wayanad has witnessed an ongoing indefinite hunger strike and several protest marches.
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In what circumstances was night traffic on the highway banned?
In August 2009, the district administration of Chamarajanagar district, Karnataka, banned night traffic on the 19-km forest leg of NH 766. This was after the project officer of Bandipur Tiger Reserve had prepared a report on the number of animals being hit by vehicles at night. An inspection had found that 44 vehicles were on this 19-km stretch in a span of 30 minutes. The report said night traffic would affect behaviour biology such as breeding and parental care of animals, disrupt their life cycle and make them stray to human habitats.
Using the central Motor Vehicle Act read with the Karnataka Motor Vehicle Rules, the district administration banned traffic from 9 pm to 6 am. Vehicles were stopped on both sides of the stretch and allowed to resume the journey in the morning.
Were there no protests then?
After the ban, transport operators in both states and people’s representatives in Kerala petitioned the Chamarajanagar Deputy Commissioner, who lifted the ban. Then conservationists moved the Karnataka High Court, which reinstated the ban by an interim order. At one point, the court observed that the interest of protecting wildlife is important, and no less important is the need to protect the interest of the public, who are commuters and traders.
In 2010, the court upheld the night traffic ban. Pointing to an alternative road that is 35 km longer than travelling through NH 766, the court directed the Karnataka government to upgrade this road, which runs from Mananthavady in Kerala to Mysuru via Gonikuppal in Kodagu district.
The Kerala government moved a special leave petition in the Supreme Court; conservationists too were impleaded. The issue remained inconclusive despite discussions between the states. Kerala’s suggestion for an elevated highway through the forest reserve was turned down by the ministry.
Has the night ban met its objective?
According to Bandipur Tiger Reserve project director Thippaiah Balachandra, animal fatalities have come down significantly. “Before the ban, the stretch was reporting 100-odd animal deaths in accidents, but now it has come down to five to ten. If the highway is opened, fatalities would increase manifold. Over the last one decade, animal populations as well as traffic have gone up.’’
Spread over 990.51 sq km, Bandipur Tiger Reserve is part of interconnected forests that include Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu), Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (Kerala) and Nagarhole National Park (Karnataka). A large variety of wildlife including the elephant moves from one stretch to another, cutting the states. Once a hunting reserve for the Maharaja of Mysore, Bandipur is one of the oldest tiger reserves in the country, having been declared as such in 1973 and a national park in 1984. Bandipur has 140 tigers, 1,600 elephants and 25,000 spotted deer, forest department sources said.
Is there no way to avoid the highway?
The Kollegal-Mysuru-Kozhikode road has existed for 200 years and remains a major link. It was declared a national highway in 1989, then named NH 212, and later renamed NH 766. The opening of the Pune-Bengaluru Hyderabad-Bengaluru highways, along with the development of the Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway, made NH 766 a major link between Kerala and the rest of the country. With 150-odd registered resorts and hundreds of homestay facilities, Wayanad has emerged a major hill destination, catering to tourists from Benagluru. NH 766 is also used by transporters of essential provisions from Karnataka to Kerala, and by commuters from Kerala to Bengaluru for want of good rail connectivity.
Two other roads exist between Wayanad and Karnataka. One of these, between Mysuru and Mananthavady (Wayanad), part of which passes through the Nagarhole National Park, has been closed for night traffic from 6 pm to 6 am since 2008, on the recommendation of an empowered committee appointed by the Supreme Court. The other road, the only alternative that remains available for night traffic, is the one that the High Court referred to in 2010. Also between Mananthavady and Mysuru, it runs via Kutta, Gonikuppal and Hunsur in Karanataka. This too cuts through forest.
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Who are behind the present protest?
On August 8, the Supreme Court upheld the night traffic ban, which was supported by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu while Kerala wanted it lifted. The court asked the NHAI to upgrade the alternative road and sought the Centre’s opinion on closing down NH 766 permanently. The protest in Wayanad, which picked up with the hunger-strike starting September 25, is backed by all political parties in Kerala, religious organisations, traders and youth organisations. People fear that a blanket ban on traffic would impact the economic development of Wayanad, particularly in Sulthan Bathery taluk. Besides, the alternative road is 35 km away, which would cost time and money besides raising prices of commodities.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 3, 2019 under the title ‘Highway versus forest’.