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
ByÂ Jay Mazoomdaar
FIRST, THEÂ 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 â€” not even Tadoba with its 70 tigers â€” 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 NOÂ 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 Courtâ€™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.