The widening of NH-6 is slicing apart the central Indian forest landscape. WII prescribes flyovers worth Rs 1,200 crore to protect over 15,000 sq km of wilderness but the NHAI worries the cost is too much
By Jay Mazoomdaar
FIRST, THE stake: the heart of the central Indian forest landscape and the future of at least 300 tigers in nine reserves across three states. Now the cost: Rs 1,191 crore; reasonable if you consider the Rs 25,360 crore annual budget of the Ministry of Road and Surface Transport. Peanuts when you recall that the Central government annually forgoes revenue worth Rs 5 lakh crore ostensibly to boost growth.
But numbers do not tell the entire story. Biodiversity has no future in isolated pockets. To avoid genetic bottleneck, wildlife must flourish in good numbers across sizeable forest landscapes. A viable tiger population, for example, requires at least 20 breeding females and roughly 80-100 tigers. None of the reserves in central India — not even Tadoba with its 70 tigers — makes the cut.
But since these reserves are connected through forest patches, wild animals move across the landscape and the collective population remains viable through genetic exchange. Melghat, Satpura, Pench, Kanha and Achanakmar form such a connected east-west land-scape to the north of Nagpur. As do Navegaon, Tadoba and Indravati in the south. These two landscapes are connected through a narrow northsouth corridor. Together, more than a dozen pocket populations of tigers have a robust future as a single mega-population of 300-plus individuals.
Four years ago, under the National Highway Development Programme, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) started widening the two-lane NH-6 to four lanes. On both sides of Nagpur, it is creating a deadly barrier few animals will ever attempt to breach.
MAKE NO mistake, NH-6 is one of the most important road links of the county. Running through Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, it connects Surat to Kolkata. When upgrading began along a project length of 80 km in Maharashtra, the NHAI did not even seek the mandatory permission before felling trees to widen this critical link. But since 23.85 km of the road stretch passes through 10 forest patches where diversion of forestland was necessary to maintain a 60m-wide Right-of- Way (RoW), the NHAI sought permission for diversion of 85.050 hectare of forestland.
In June 2009, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) filed a petition before the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) and the CEC suggested construction of underpasses to avoid roadkills. In 2010, NHAI hired two retired forest officers to prepare a mitigation plan. In June 2011, the state Forest Department pointed out a number of inadequacies in that report. In November, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) finally told the state to ask the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to prescribe a mitigation plan.
Meanwhile, except for just 10.40 km in three forest stretches, the entire project length of 80 km has been widened. At a meeting held in New Delhi on 13 June, the WII presented its recommendations to the NHAI, MoEF, state Forest Department and WTI. TEHELKA has a copy of the report.
In 2011, the state Forest Department and NHAI agreed to reduce the RoW of NH-6 from 60 m to 45 m in the forest stretches. The WII report warns that such a move will result in more roadkill as the road verges (strip of grass or trees beside the carriageway that allows animals to get accustomed to the presence of traffic) will be reduced from 15 m to 7.5 m without influencing the volume of traffic.
The WII report also rules out the option of not upgrading the forest stretches of NH-6. Due to bottlenecking, the time spent by a vehicle in the two-lane segment will increase, leading to additional disturbance. Closely spaced vehicles will ultimately result in creating a physical barrier, the report said.
Growth is essential, perhaps inevitable. But is India willing to safeguard its few remaining forests?
On the NHAI’s argument that not many road kills have been reported in the forest stretches where NH-6 has already been upgraded, the report says that few animals may even attempt to cross the road. As traffic volume increases, the report explained, the proportion of animals that is simply repelled, and who abandon their attempt to cross the road, increases and eventually this becomes the predominant response to a very busy road.
On an average, 6,000 vehicles use NH-6 in 24 hours. The WII report finds this traffic volume close to the threshold where numbers of animals that may be repelled are equal to the number of animals that may cross the road. Therefore, it prescribed immediate mitigation measures in four key stretches.
In the first forest patch of 6.3 km between Sirpur and Nawatola, where upgrading of the NH-6 has already been completed, the report points out that two box culverts — each 3.05 m in height and 6.10 m in width — are more of drainage structures and too small for wild animal movement. The remedy is to construct two flyovers — of 1 and 2 km length, respectively — in this stretch before animals stop using this area as a corridor.
Similarly, the report recommends construction of another three flyovers — one 2-km long and two 1.5-km long — in three forest stretches to facilitate wildlife movement. Pointing out that road upgrading has bifurcated more than 70 percent of a vital wildlife corridor along the first 15 km of the NH-6 on the Chhattisgarh side, the WII report recommends two flyovers in this stretch. Recently, the Chhattisgarh Forest Department has also submitted before the court expressing similar concerns.
CONTACTED REPEATEDLY, NHAI and MoEF officials refused to go on record. While a formal response from NHAI is awaited, sources tell TEHELKA that the representatives of the NHAI strongly opposed the WII recommendations during the 13 June meeting. Claiming that the flyovers alone would cost Rs 1,191 crore ( Rs 800 crore in the Maharashtra stretches and Rs 391 crore in Chhattisgarh), NHAI officials dubbed the idea “absurd” since the original project cost was just Rs 825 crore (Rs 425 crore in Maharashtra stretches and Rs 400 crore in Chhattisgarh).
Though tight-lipped, a senior official in the Maharashtra Forest Department said that they “would press for the best mitigation measures” possible. Litigant Ashok Kumar, vice-chairman, WTI, refused to comment “at this stage” and reposed full faith in the court.
“We certainly need better roads but we cannot compromise the biodiversity,” said Milind Pariwakam, a wildlife biologist who has been following the case since 2009. “Money should never come in the way of preserving our natural heritage. Besides, this is a one-time investment that will secure these forests for posterity.”
The larger central Indian forest landscape connects Ranthambhore (Rajasthan) to Sunabeda (Odisha), Bandhavgarh (Madhya Pradesh) to Khammam (Andhra Pradesh), and Melghat (Maharashtra) to Palamu (Jharkhand). A vast repository of biodiversity for future generations, this intricate network of forests is being dug up by miners and sliced up by roads and railways.
Growth is necessary, perhaps inevitable. But is India willing to safeguard its few remaining forests? The National Highway 6 may just show us which way the government intends to go.
Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent journalist.