The tragic death of a mature bull elephant near Mathigodu rescue center on State Highway 90, passing along the northern boundary of Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, has yet again brought to focus the threat posed by highways to wildlife. The fact is that, in this era of high-speed vehicles, any road through forests poses a grave danger to animals trying to get across from one side to the other. Four or six-lane highways, with a median in between, present an almost insurmountable barrier for wildlife, particularly, animals with cubs or calves. In Bandipur Tiger Reserve, it has been documented that 93 animals were killed by speeding vehicles between 2004 - 2009. So, from a merely compassionate viewpoint alone, it behoves us, as a civilized nation, to take all steps necessary to minimize the impact of roads on wildlife.
Apart from direct killing of endangered wildlife, highways passing through forests cause severe fragmentation of habitats. This disruption of ecological connectivity curtails or restricts gene flow that is crucial for sustaining healthy wildlife populations and ecosystems. Additionally, highways create new edges that are highly vulnerable to fire and incursion by pernicious weeds, attract ancillary developmental activities and provide easy access to the interiors of forest for hunters and timber smugglers.
In 2010, all 15 non-official expert members of the National Board for Wildlife (including the author) had unanimously presented to the Prime Minister that bypass roads must be constructed, to avoid intrusion of highways through scientifically identified wildlife landscapes. Broadly, the idea, which is based on how bypass roads are constructed to divert traffic entering large cities, was accepted.
Subsequently, the matter was pursued with formation of two sub-committees of the NBWL. Four key policy principles / recommendations emerged from this important intervention.
First, the Principle of Avoidance which would be the foremost option to altogether avoid areas that are within or in the vicinity of any Wildlife Reserve and to find alternatives that are socially and ecologically more appropriate. If we are willing to think afresh on urban development by way of designing ‘Smart Cities’, why not ‘Smart Highways’ that will traverse the country with the least disturbance to our last remaining natural habitats?
Second, the Principle of Realignment that would require all Road projects to investigate and explore all alternative routes that avoid natural areas of high ecological value. Here it must be highlighted that in the past, when the concept of land use planning was still nascent, highways metamorphosed from roads that were once footpaths or cart tracks. Therefore these old roads need not be the alignment of a brand new four lane highway.
Third, it was recommended that status quo of roads passing through National Parks and Core Critical Tiger Habitats (CTH) shall remain. Most importantly, a clear decision that no new roads shall be proposed inside National Parks and Sanctuaries was also taken. On 22nd December, 2014, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) accepted these Recommendations of the NBWL sub-committee including the avoidance and realignment principles and issued Guidelines. By making use of all the sophisticated mapping technology at our disposal today, it is possible to ensure that roads steer clear of most wildlife areas. The extra cost or effort in creating a few detours is a small price to pay for safeguarding our priceless wildlife heritage and must be built into the budgets of road projects.
As for existing highways through forests, particularly those for which bypasses are absolutely not feasible, we need to retrofit them with state-of-the-art, science-based solutions for minimizing road kills. Carefully conceived underpasses, overpasses, flyovers, culverts and canopy bridges, which take animal behavior and traditional wildlife movement patterns into consideration, can help provide a safe passage for animals. In this context, it must be clearly emphasized that the National Highway Authority of India’s recent proposal on building around five one kilometer overpasses and barricading the remaining 28 kilometer stretch of NH 766 in Bandipur Tiger Reserve would be ecologically disastrous.
There are several precedents of imposing dusk to dawn closure of Roads in several Reserves. Our intervention before the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) led to one such a closure of the Mysore –Manandavadi Road between 6 pm and 6 am, with the Supreme Court Order accepting all the recommendations of the CEC. Such closure of night traffic is another important mitigation measure in Wildlife Reserves to minimize the negative impact. In many forested landscapes, there are parallel roads cutting through where such mitigation measures ought to be implemented. The persistent attempts of Kerala to undo the ban on night traffic on NH 766 imposed by the Karnataka High Court is causing great concern and the matter is now before the Supreme Court.
For protection of wildlife during the day, an elaborate set of speed calming measures including chicanes, road humps, surveillance cameras etc would also need to be deployed along with active enforcement to punish delinquent drivers.
In order to cleverly overcome legal impediments to highway expansion, road building agencies often resort to creation of a fait accompli situation by strategically splitting the project and widening the highway upto the boundary of Wildlife Reserve from both sides. Citing the investments made, they then seek – and usually receive - ex-post facto clearances. The Supreme Court in the Lafarge Judgment (2011) again stepped in and laid down clear Guidelines that clearly red flagged this aspect. Even though grant of ex-post facto clearance and fait accompli are strictly prohibited, the MoEF&CC has not yet strictly implemented the guidelines of the Supreme Court.
Finally, we must recognize that the Nagarahole-Bandipur landscape has the highest densities of tigers and Asiatic elephants and therefore requires all the protection available under law to stop road building agencies from widening existing roads. Instead they must perforce be directed to find alternative alignments to bypass these Reserves. Furthermore, such agencies are actively pushing for clearances of several proposals like Shishila-Byrapura, Kadamakal and Dabbadka Road that are wholly un-necessary and stink of a contractor- bureaucrat - politician nexus. They must be rejected outright.
The author is a trustee of Wildlife First and has served on the National Board for Wildlife