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Nilgiri Rail Road: Trouble
In Jumbo Heartland

By K.A.Shaji/ Udhakamandalam

03 June, 2007

Guess who is going to inherit the dubious legacy of forest brigand Veerappan in the Sathyamangalam range of forests, which form part of the highly sensitive Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve?

The Indian Railway, it seems. Sounds strange….? Take a look at the recent writ petition filed by Chief Engineer-Construction (West) of South Western Railway before the Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court seeking directive to Tamil Nadu Forest Department to permit it to conduct survey for the proposed 156-km Chamarajanagar- Sathyamangalam-Mettupalayam broad-gauge railway line. The petition, a copy of which is now made available to this correspondent, has ironically turned into a document substantiating fears of environmental groups and concerned citizens that on realization the new railway line would sound death-knell for nearly 2,500 elephants in the Sathyamangalam forests, described as the elephant corridor that bridges Nilgiris and Western Ghats.

In his petition, Adesh Sharma, the chief engineer, reveals that the proposed railway line would pass through 58 km of dense forest area in Tamil Nadu and even the survey work requires `felling of trees of spontaneous growth in meager level wherever is necessary.' He also accepts the fact that the planned railway line is coming under `Nilgiris Eastern Ghat Elephant Reserve, part of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and proposed Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary.'

Despite strong pressure from the ruling DMK Government in Tamil Nadu and its prominent allies like Pattali Makkal Katchi, the State Forest Department is denying permission to Railways to conduct the survey work keeping in view of a Supreme Court Order (No:202/95, date 12.12.1996) banning felling of trees of spontanius growth in the forest areas of Tamil Nadu. According to highly placed sources, it was as per instructions of PMK leader and Union Minister of State for Railways R.Velu, the South Western Railway approached the Central empowerment Committee to get the clearance. Velu is claiming that the project obtained `in principle sanction' during 1996-97 and as a result there was no need for the project to stand further scrutiny from railways. Once the final clearance from Forest Department is available, the Railway Board should get funds and execute the project, he says.

The South Western Railway requires `30 meters on either side from the centerline of the track all along the length of the proposed railway line in forest area about 58 km.' That includes approach road to track space for collection of ballast and for any `emergency recoupment of materials near the track.' The engineer also informs that the survey work in non-forest areas are going in `full swing' now and on getting clearance the survey in forest areas would be completed in a three months period. He also reminds that the survey work in forest areas would result in clearing of `small trees, branches and bushes' for the sake of `visibility purpose.' Interestingly, the proposed railway line is passing through erstwhile Veerappan territories like Talawadi, Gattawadi and bannari. However, the writ which talks at length on the benefits for people of the region on commissioning of the new railway line is silent on the damages it would cause to the flora and fauna of the region.

Around a dozen conservation groups in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are accusing the project of causing enormous destruction to the sandalwood forests and Asiatic elephants of the region, filling up the gap left out by the notorious brigand Veerappan, who was killed in an `encounter' two years back. ``The area needs no other Veerappan. The Railways is all set to inherit his legacy. Afterall, the real sufferers would be the rich biodiversity and wildlife of the region, especially the elephants,'' opined S.Jayachandran, joint secretary of Udhangamandalam-based Tamil Nadu Green Movement. According to him, the new line would be not development but an elephantine barricade.

The Tamil Nadu Green Movement, along with other conservation groups in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, is planning to approach the Supreme Court as the proposed line would divide the only contiguous elephant habitat which spreads over 15,000 sq km across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

``Our prime concern is to conserve elephants, whose numbers are dwindling. Now, if the new railway line comes through, large tracts of forests from the north-eastern slope of Nilgiris to Kotagiri, to Thengumarada Valley to Talamalai Hill to Mudiyanoor will be virtually destroyed,'' pointed out Nirmalya, another activist of the region. ``On completion, the railway line would have 277 bridges, 138 curves and 61 tunnels. Imagine about the men and machinery that will move into this elephant habitat once the construction works get started,'' says Jayachandran.

``This is precisely what is happening in Uttaranchal's rajaji National park through which a railway line passes. More than 20 elephants have been killed by the fast moving trains in the park in the last one decade. The same trend might continue down south if the new railway line is laid,'' pointed out manjunath of Bangalore-based Wilderness Club. He also contended that the line also has to be stopped in terms of protecting the Mysore Elephant Reserve. ``In fact, it was the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests which had in its communication (Letter No: 7-2/00(PE) dated 28/09/2000) to the Karnataka Government requested the later to notify the elephant reserves in Karnataka. Subsequently, it gave its approval for setting up of the Mysore Elephant Reserve-which covers Chamarajanagar district. Now, the Railway Ministry has taken up the rail project in Chamarajanagar district itself'' Manjunath pointed out.

However, the Railway authorities are claiming that the new line would directly connect the North Western Tamil Nadu with economically advanced regions of Karnataka like Bangalore, Mysore, Mandya, Mangalore and Hassan besides boosting transportation in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Scores of Tamil repatriates from Sri Lanka , who have been rehabilitated in the Nilgiri region, would be the main beneficiaries of it according to them.

Visualised as a new line that reduce the rail distance between Coimbatore and Karnataka cities like Bangalore and Mysore, it passes through Kanakapura in Karnataka and touches no forest land in that state. The survey works in Karnataka portion is already over. According to railways, they have no alternative to the dense forests of Sathyamangalam. The Railway Chief Engineer also reminds the empowered committee that railways continue to remain the `cheapest among all modes of transport' and the new project is a long cherised dream of people of this most backward region of Tamil Nadu.

``Nilgiris and Mettupalayam are home to a large number of Tamil refugees and repatriates from Sri Lanka and they wish to travel in other parts of South India in search of jobs. The new railway line would be a great help for them. On completion, it would work as a catalyst for the sustainable development of the entire area and its people',' said another railway officer.

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, notorious for the earlier presence of forest brigands like Veerappan and severe encroachment big plantations and laterite quarry lobbies, is passing through yet another severe challenge, that too from a prime institution of the government. The remaining precious forests and the remaining elephants have to bear the brunt of the new move of authorities.

(This story is part of a media fellowship awarded by national Foundation for India)


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