The 168-km long project will be entirely on forest land, and involves cutting down close to two lakh trees.
The controversial rail infrastructure project connecting Hubballi in north Karnataka and the port of Ankola through the eco-sensitive Western Ghats has come to life again, under curious circumstances. The project, originally proposed two decades ago, was put on the backburner after getting a thumbs down from the National Tiger Conservation Authority. Not only would the 168-km long project be entirely on forest land, but it also involves cutting down close to two lakh trees, and will pass through the Kali Tiger Reserve.
But strangely, it has made to the list of agendas of the Karnataka State Wildlife Board meeting on January 9, which has alarmed environmental activists. The meeting, as per protocol, will be chaired by Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy and it is being speculated that the government is keen on the project, even though the Railways seems reluctant to pursue it.
Activists had approached the Supreme Court in 1999 after the foundation stone of the project was laid. The apex court stayed the matter, and asked the Central Empowered Committee to look into the matter. Even the Ministry of Environment and Forests had not given its nod for the project.
Moreover, a site report by the Railways in August 2018 also suggested that the project was not feasible.
Activists opposing the project in unison blame the top forest officer, currently the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Jayaram, who is due for retirement, to be one of the few officers within the forest department to greenlight the project. Jayaram has been criticised for his role in proposing private forests and for other controversial decisions he took, allegedly under the influence of political class.
A top source in the State Wildlife Board said, “Jayaram had given clearance for the project without informing his senior when he was serving as the chief wildlife warden. At that time, it had gone to the Government of India and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had rejected it. The National Wildlife Board pointed out that the state board had not okayed it, so it did not okay it either.”
“Since the Chief Minister heads it, the political class can go ahead with the project citing infrastructural needs even if forest officials do not support the move. But in actuality, the Belekeri Port, which is underused and already connected by Railways, is just one-and-a-half hours away, so there is no practical economic need for the project,” he added.
Forest Minister Satish Jarkiholi has been briefed by top forest officials, who highlighted the environmental damage the project will cause to the local habitat.
Manjunath J, founder of the Wilderness Club said, “The Railway ministry backed off from the project only last week. More than two lakh trees are to be felled and if the State Wildlife Board gives the go-ahead, we will fight it out again in the Supreme Court. Global warming is at its peak and natural disasters have become as common as the flu.”