Vijay Pinjarkar | TNN | 10 Feb 2017-09.30AM IST
NAGPUR:In a move that will spell doom for tigers, the National Board for Wildlife(NBWL), the top decision making body on projects falling in and around protected areas (PAs), has cleared diversion of 160.94 hectare forest area of Wan sanctuary inside Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR) for upgradation of metre gauge railway line.
The railways has taken up work on Akola-Khandwa (176km) gauge conversion work between vulnerable Akot-Amlakhurd railway stations under South Central Railway (SCR). It involves diversion of 160.94 ha forest area of Wan and cuts the reserve towards southern tip.
The issue had figured in April 5, 2016 meeting of state board for wildlife (SBWL) in which, owing to opposition from a section of members, it was decided to form a panel to conduct site inspection. The state's chief wildlife warden has already recommended the project with certain mitigation measures.
Of the 176km railway line, over 38km passes through wildlife rich area of tiger reserve and buffer zone. Yet, the upgradation was recommended as there was tremendous pressure from the MoEFCC to clear the project at any cost.
On May 9-10, 2016, a five-member expert panel conducted detailed assessment with regard to feasibility of the project, vis-a-vis tiger dispersal, habitat connectivity for genetic exchange, protection threat at present and after the project impact by NTCA.The project is going to cause permanent damage to wildlife and tigers, that migrate till Muktainagar in Jalgaon and beyond. However, the railways is of view that alternative route will involve felling of thousands of trees and would lead to cost escalation by several times. No mention is made by what amount the cost will escalate.Sources said, when NBWL meeting was held on January 3, environment minister was not ready to listen anything against the project. Hence, the Standing Committee of NBWL recommended it subject to mitigation measures.
On the contrary, ex-member of NBWL Kishor Rithe, who was member of the joint inspection panel, had suggested an alternate alignment in the same report where PCCF (wildlife) had suggested mitigation measures further, if alignment is not possible. Later, Rithe, in his representation to railway minister Suresh Prabhu on June 9, had said that work between Amalakhurd-Akot (77. 5km) passes through hilly part of MTR. "If the railways follow the same alignment and gradient, it will not allow to attain the speed more than 60 kmph and also won't connect maximum villages from Akola-Amravati and Buldhana districts. Considering both the aspects, people in this region as well as MTR administration had demanded diversion of this line through plain area to maximize benefits," said Rithe.
Kishor Rithe, Member of Maharashtra State Wildlife Board and former member of Standing Committee of National Board For Wildlife, welcomed the directives of the court, saying , "Their orders have sent a message among masses that wild animals are not the substance of delicacy and enjoyment. Conservation of lesser known species is equally important," he said. Elaborating its numerous negative impacts on wildlife, Rithe stated that present line passes through core area and has caused deaths of many wild animals and reptiles, especially during monsoon and winter. There are several incidents of using this train route for illegally transporting forest produce and wildlife derivatives from the reserve. Earlier, PK Srivastava, the then GM of SCR, had conducted a detailed inspection of this line on May 29, 2014, and had suggested alternative route from outside sanctuary area. Accordingly, an alternate route bypassing sanctuary was planned but due to political interference the plan was killed. "The change to broad gauge is bound to increase traffic and disturbance in the reserve. This would certainly result in increase in animal kills and increase in trafficking of wildlife," says Pushp Jain, director, EIA Resource and Response Centre.
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