Rail Road: Trouble
In Jumbo Heartland
03 June, 2007
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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