Former Congress president and Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi landed in his constituency Friday morning to lend his support to the ongoing mass agitation there over the ban on night traffic through the forest stretch of Bandipur on NH 766 connecting Kerala and Karnataka. The national highway connects major towns in Wayanad like Sultan Bathery and Kalpetta to cities in Karnataka like Mysore.
The Congress leader’s visit, the second in two months, comes after the agitation, attended by school and college students, women and locals, assumed mass proportions with several representatives of the agitation committee sitting on a hunger strike. Gandhi was last seen in his constituency in August as part of flood and landslide relief efforts.
On Friday, Gandhi began his visit to Wayanad by interacting with the protesters on hunger strike at the Vinayaka Hospital in Sulthan Bathery. He was joined by top leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League including Ramesh Chennithala, KC Venugopal, PK Kunhalikutty and MK Raghavan. Later, he made his way to the grand protest stage erected at a ground in the town.
Addressing the gathering, he promised his personal support to the agitation and vowed that the country’s best legal resources would be used to fight the case, currently being heard in the Supreme Court, on behalf of the people of Wayanad. The top court had recently directed the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and the NHAI to suggest alternative routes so that the NH766 through Bandipur tiger reserve could be shut down permanently. It was in August 2009 that the district administration of Chamarajanagar had first imposed the ban on night trafffic through Bandipur citing several cases of animals being hit by vehicles and the impact on their breeding habits.
Gandhi said, “All political parties are united as far as the night travel ban is concerned. This issue has to be resolved in an intelligent and productive manner. The suffering has to be removed. I’m confident a compromise solution can be reached where the people of Wayanad can benefit and where the wildlife can be protected.”
He added. “This has been achieved in other parts of the country and can be achieved here. There must not be unfairness as far as Wayanad is concerned. I understand this is a legal issue and has reached the Supreme Court. I have talked to our legal experts and I have asked them to help us with the legality of the issue.”
This is the 10th day of the indefinite strike launched by the agitators in Wayanad. According to reports, close to 1.25 lakh people have been a part of the daily protests here in Sulthan Bathery. The protesters believe that the efforts by the state’s ruling LDF governnment and the influence of the former Congress president will help strengthen their hand when the case is heard next in the Supreme Court. The agitators demand that the state government must submit an affidavit in the top court asking for the traffic on NH766 to be opened completely at all times.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan held talks with Surface Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari and Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar in New Delhi and has pondered about constructing an elevated highway on the 19-km forest stretch of NH766 so that wildlife movement can remain unrestricted.