The standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has directed the Union environment ministry to organise a workshop under the chairmanship of the additional director general (wildlife) to discuss the Hubballi-Ankola railway line project proposal in detail. It has asked officials of the ministry of railways, National Highways Authority of India, Gati Shakti, Karnataka government, and experts from the Indian Institute of Technology, Dharwad; Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru and Central Public Works Department (CPWD) to be included in the workshop.
The committee also suggested that railways, which is the user agency, should make changes in the proposal to minimise the project’s impact on the environment. “There is a need for an integrated plan for this important tiger corridor area. Further, the mitigation measures proposed in the project are not sufficient, which have been proposed based on the railway’s convenience and not by considering the wildlife movement. Therefore, the project proposal is not acceptable in the present form and the proposal requires a lot of modifications,” the committee said.
Dr HS Singh, member, NBWL, suggested that the railway line should be doubled. In its original plan, the railways proposed a single-track, broad gauge line.
“This being a more suitable site, there would be demand for doubling of the railway line in the near future. Therefore, if approval has to be given, it should be for the doubling of the railway line. This project proposal should also have animal passage structures of a longer span. The railway line would cut across several roads connecting villages and there would be the need for temporary roads also. These additional structures have not been included in the proposal. The User Agency needs to submit the proposal in revised form and the committee does not recommend consideration of the proposal in the present form. The roads which are associated with this railway line belong to National Highways Authority of India, State Highways and Local Authorities. At some points, the National Highway and this railway line would be very close. The mitigation measures proposed in the railway line would not be part of the National Highway. Therefore, an integrated approach is required,” he said.
The proposal for wildlife clearance for Hubballi-Ankola new railway line project was received by the ministry from the Karnataka government in 2017. The project involves the diversion of an area of 595.64 ha of forest land for the construction of a new broad gauge railway line from Hubballi to Ankola passing through tiger corridors connecting Kali Tiger Reserve with Sharavathi Sanctuary in Karnataka.
The Union environment ministry constituted a seven-member committee on May 30, 2022. The committee carried out a site inspection and heard the views of stakeholders in Uttar Kannada and Dharwad districts of Karnataka from September 26 to 29, 2022. The Committee submitted its report to the Ministry on December 26, 2022.
The meeting of the standing committee of the NBWL was held on December 29, 2022. According to the minutes of the 71st meeting of the standing committee of the NBWL, which was shared with the media on January 30, the committee said that it found certain gaps/discrepancies in the project proposal. “The committee, therefore, recommended that the project proposal in the present form should not be considered. The project may qualify for consideration by the Standing Committee of the NBWL only when all gaps/discrepancies and issues raised by the committee members are addressed to minimise ecological loss and submitted afresh,” the minutes of the meeting said.
Dr Sukumar, member, NBWL, stated that there are both costs and potential benefits associated with linear projects such as this. “There would be collateral damage which has not been properly explained in the proposal in terms of access roads that are needed for the project during the construction phase. Therefore, the assessment is that more than 1,000 ha forest land will be affected by this project. It has got enormous implications for the overall integrity, biodiversity, and animal passages of the Western Ghats which have to be addressed,” he said.
He further stated that there has been a range expansion of elephants. “The elephants are now crossing these areas. There is evidence that tigers are moving from Kali Tiger Reserve to Sharavathy Sanctuary. There is a need to avoid deforestation,” he said.
The Hubballi-Ankola project was originally conceived in 1998. According to the official reports over 80 per cent of the Hubballi-Ankola railway project passes through dense forests. Out of 995.64 hectare of land required for the project, 595.64 hectare is forest land. The proposed 168 km railway line passes through forests between two major protected areas – Kali Tiger Reserve and Bedthi Conservation Reserve. The project would cost 2.34 lakh trees.