New Delhi | Updated: July 16, 2021 7:29:03 am
The Central Empowered Committee (CEC) set up by the Supreme Court has decided to “examine the records relied upon” by the Environment ministry for relaxing the conditions it earlier fixed while clearing the 4.7-km stretch of the Laldhang-Chillarkhal road that runs through Rajaji national park.
An 8-metre-high wildlife underpass was set as a condition to approve a highway project, but it has now been relaxed.
At its last meeting on June 11, the Standing Committee of National Board of Wildlife (SC-NBWL) modified the “condition of construction of an underpass of 705-m with a height of 8-m” imposed in December 2019 to a 400-m underpass with a height of 6-m. The underpass is vital for allowing movements of elephants and other wildlife across the road between the Rajaji and the Corbett forest landscapes.
In a letter to the Environment secretary on July 7, CEC member-secretary Amarnatha Shetty pointed out that while clearing the 30-km Haridwar-Nagina section of NH-74, the same SC-NBWL meeting stipulated a minimum height of 8-10 metre — “thrice the height of an adult bull elephant” — for underpasses in elephant landscape.
“Since the same population of elephants share the habitat involved in both these projects, there can not be different height prescriptions in the mitigation measure… (which) can not be decided taking into consideration the cost of (construction),” wrote Shetty, conveying that the CEC would “like to examine the records relied upon in revising the condition”.
Chaired by the prime minister, the NBWL is constituted under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and serves as the apex advisory body for all wildlife-related matters. Its standing committee meets periodically to decide on projects in and around protected forests.
In March 2019, The Indian Express had reported how the Uttarakhand government diverted land belonging to Rajaji Tiger Reserve, without seeking approval from statutory authorities, for widening and blacktopping a forest path as part of constructing a highway along the old Kandi road that would cut travelling distance between Garhwal and Kumaon. In June 2019, the CEC placed its findings before the SC, and the construction work was halted pending green clearances.
Subsequently, underlining the importance of the forest corridor for elephants, tigers and other wildlife, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in 2019 recommended that an 8-metre-high underpass — single of multiple —totalling 705 metre in width would have to be provided while upgrading the 4.7-km stretch of the forest road. The SC-NBWL imposed the same condition while clearing the project.
As recently as last October, the SC-NBWL reiterated the condition while rejecting the Uttarakhand government’s request to reduce the underpass width to 470-m and height to 6-m. This January, however, a committee with NBWL expert member Raman Sukumar and a representative each from the NTCA, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and the Uttarakhand government was formed to reevaluate the matter.
In their report, the NTCA and the WII sought to double the width of the underpass to 1,410 metre — 30 per cent of the 4.7-km stretch, as per the WII guidelines made in consultation with MoEF and NHAI in 2019 — while the rest of the panel recommended a width of 300-400 metre with a height of 5-6 metre.
At the last meeting of SC-NBWL on June 11, Uttarakhand forest minister HS Rawat said that “due to non-construction of the road, lives of around 100 people have been lost during the COVID-19 pandemic” as patients had to travel long distances to Najibabad or Bijnor. Submitting that an underpass of the prescribed dimensions would cost Rs 80 crore which the state was unable to bear, Rawat requested that the length and the height of the underpass be reduced to 470-m and 6-m.
While NTCA member-secretary SP Yadav declined to comment, a senior official who attended the SC-NBWL meeting said that the Authority agreed to the reduced height of 6-m as long as a team of technical experts from WII and NHAI decided on the width of the underpass. “Instead, it was arbitrarily decided to fix the width at 400-m even though the state itself was agreeable to a 470-m underpass,” he said.
SC-NBWL member and elephant expert Raman Sukumar defended the decision. “We are not talking of a busy four-lane highway which will require an elevated stretch across the entire forest area to allow wildlife movement. The road in question is 3-m-wide with paved shoulders of 1.5 m on both sides, and the traffic is minimal, for now,” he said.
As a thumb rule, the wider the view of the habitat on the other side of an underpass, the more it is likely to be used by wild animals. That is why road width, traffic load and the size of the largest wild species present in the landscape are factored in while determining the adequate openness ration — height and width — for a wildlife passageway.
“Naturally, mitigation measures will have to be reviewed if and when this road needs further upgrade. For now, along with the underpass recommended, speed-breakers at regular intervals and restriction on night traffic should be sufficient,” said Sukumar.