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Activists Allege Industry-Politician Nexus in Western Ghats Railway Project

Ayaskant Das |
The diversion of 596 hectares of forestland will cause drinking water shortage and loss of vegetation as a huge number of trees will have to be felled, conservationists said.
Hubbali Ankola

Representational use only.Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: Environmental activists and conservationists seem to be losing a 25-year-old battle against a proposed railway project apparently envisaged to transport coal and steel through the dense forests of the pristine Western Ghats in Karnataka.

Following objections by conservationists that the State Wildlife Board had flawed in its decision to clear the Rs 5,000-crore Hubbali-Ankola Railway Project, a seven-member expert committee constituted by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) recently visited Uttara Kannada to conduct a feasibility study.

The 167-km broad-gauge track—first mooted during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA I rule in 1997-98—will connect Hubli (Dharwad district) with Ankola (Uttara Kannada) along the Arabian Sea.

NBWL panel members travelled to Uttara Kannada on September 29 following directions of the Karnataka High Court (HC) and met stakeholders of the project, which would divert nearly 596 hectares of forestland.

Despite staring at an inevitable loss against the might of the powers that be in Karnataka and at the Centre, environmental activists are opposing the project. Following the NBWL team’s visit, it was reported that no objections were apparently raised against the project during the meeting with the stakeholders.

Very short notice was given to us for presenting our suggestions and recommendations to the NBWL expert committee. The need to scrap the project has been recommended with scientific and logical backing by the Central government and Supreme Court-appointed committees many times over the years,” wildlife conservationist Joseph Hoover told Newsclick.

However, “for nefarious reasons”, Hoover alleged, “the project is revived every time by new factions of the political-industrial fraternity. This is deeply concerning for the common man because it involves the country’s ecological health”.

The forestland required for the project is spread across the Dharwad, Yellapur and Karwar forest divisions of Karnataka. Environmental activists have pointed out that the project, a major part of which falls in the catchment area of Kali River, will cause drinking water shortage and loss of vegetation as a huge number of trees will have to be felled.

Activists have alleged that the diversion of forestland will lead to its fragmentation and obstruct corridors used for centuries by elephants in search of food and water.

There has been a huge cost escalation in the project. Its ecological loss will far outweigh its economic benefits. At best, the project will serve the interests of those involved in the transportation of imported coal to the steel mills in the Bellary-Hospet region. It will also benefit those who will transport finished steel from the region to ports on the western coast for export,” added Hoover.

Alleging that the clearance for the project was flawed, activists had filed a writ petition in the HC in June 2020 demanding that the clearance be declared null and void since the manner in which it was provided was allegedly full of impropriety.

The wildlife board had cleared the proposal on March 20, 2020—when the nation was on the cusp of the pandemic lockdown—making a U-turn from its own decision of rejecting the project barely 11 days ago.

The Board’s meeting in which the project was cleared was attended by ‘six special invitees’, including the state’s chief secretary and, at least, three ministers in the then-BS Yediyurappa government.

The HC too had punched holes into the manner in which the clearance was granted and noted that the chief secretary and the minister for large and medium scale industries had addressed the meeting despite not being members of the Board.

Division Bench of the HC comprising the then-Chief Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka and Justice R Nataraj stated in its June 18, 2020, order: “… it appears to us that within a span of 11 days, the earlier unanimous decision taken by the State Board was completely changed. The hon’ble minister for large and medium scale industries was allowed to address the meeting though he is not a member of the State Board.” 

Raising doubt on the decision-making process, the court observed: “This decision-making process undertaken by the State Board in the meeting dated March 20, 2020, calls for closer scrutiny, especially when a unanimous decision taken 11 days back was changed in presence of two hon’ble ministers who were not even members of the State Board. Prima facie, serious doubt is created in respect of the legality of the decision-making process adopted by the State Board.”

The Bench halted any further steps that could be taken on the basis of the clearance. However, on December 1, 2021, a new HC Bench directed the NBWL to conduct a survey to assess the project’s potential impact on the wildlife in the forest.

The Bench, now comprising Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi and Justice Sachin Shankar Magadum, observed: “We understand that the development work is to be carried out. However, we have to assess the impact on the wildlife and an endeavour should be made to protect the wildlife.”

On June 7, 2022, the Bench, in which Justice Magadum was replaced by Justice Ashok Kinagi, set a deadline of 10 weeks for an NBWL-constituted committee to furnish a report on the potential impact of the project on the ecology and wildlife of the area.

Notwithstanding the importance placed by the court on the necessity of carrying out developmental work in the region, conservationists have yet again written to the state forest department and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on the greater need for not disturbing the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats, which is one of the eight hottest hotspots of biological diversity across the globe and considered a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

The Western Ghats is among the six tiger-occupied landscapes in India and regarded as the best-connected and contiguous habitat among others. It contains a huge length of mountain ranges composed of diverse forest habitats which help thrive the countless number of plants, insects and animals, and give birth to numerous rivers and other important ecosystems. The proposed rail line goes through ecologically very valuable forests, and some alignments pass through deciduous forests with rainfall varying from 1,200 to 2,500 mm,” a collective of concerned citizens, the United Conservation Movement, wrote.

In August 2015, a Supreme Court-empowered committee had red-flagged the project when it would have cost Rs 2,315 crore upon the state exchequer. The committee had noted that the project’s “huge and irreparable” ecological impact would “far outweigh” its “actual tangible benefits”. In February 2016, however, the National Green Tribunal allowed the Railways to ask the state government to divert forest land for the project on the ground that conversion of forestland for non-forest purposes was a right available to the latter by law.

The project is being promoted by the industry-politician lobby for their own interest. It will not help in passenger transportation but will only enable the sale of natural mineral resources of north Karnataka. Why is the Western Ghats being disturbed when there are alternatives like expanding the road network?” asked Panchayya V Hiremath, an activist who runs an ecological park to create awareness of sustainable living practices near the Western Ghats.

On the other hand, the BJP-led governments in Karnataka as well as at the Centre are more than keen to start the project. At the consultation meeting with the stakeholders, Union minister for coal and mines Pralhad Joshi provided his unequivocal backing to the project.

Joshi said that the project will help in import and export from ports in Goa, Karwar and Mangaluru by bringing down the transportation cost. Railways minster Ashwini Vaishnaw, who had business interests in the mining sector when he was elected to the Rajya Sabha on a BJP ticket, has further assured that the concerns of people opposed to the project will be addressed.

The Karnataka government had revived interest in the project in March 2020 despite strong objections from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) barely two years earlier. In October 2018, the NTCA had rejected the proposal for a second time in a row saying that there should be “complete abatement” of the project.

The NTCA had mentioned in its second site inspection report that “the extremely fragile ecosystems of the Western Ghats will not be able to sustain or buffer impacts likely to be caused by a development project of the scale of Hubballi–Ankola railway track construction”.

Moreover, the NTCA had noted that the project had the potential to cause major irreversible impacts, including “adverse effects on forest contiguity, hydrology and drainage networks, distribution and behaviour of other endangered flora and fauna in the area, conservation of sacred groves, and impact on microclimate”.

Though the NTCA had first rejected the proposal in March 2018, the second inspection was conducted following the MoEFCC’s direction, which was then headed by senior BJP leader Dr Harsh Vardhan.

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