A tiger in Karnataka. Photo: gskep-photo/Flickr, CC BY NC ND 2.0
In February 2021, the environment ministry issued its in-principle forest clearance to the Indian railways for adding a second track to the railway line connecting Goa and Karnataka. The track goes through dense forests of the Western Ghats, including the Kali Tiger Reserve in Karnataka and forests near Mollem in Goa. The clearance allowed officials to fell at least 22,000 trees in the forests.
Now, a petition challenging the project in the Karnataka high court has presented government records that suggest that the approval to the project had ignored warnings by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the government agency tasked with protecting tigers, over the project’s impact.
The NTCA report from July 2020 had said that the project could affect prime tiger habitat and “damage the integrity of the last remaining wilderness of the Western Ghats”. The report had criticised the environmental impact assessment of the project, done by researchers at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, as being biased to the railways, and said that the Railways plans to cut down more trees than it had declared in its clearance application.
The records further show that these observations of the NTCA were suppressed by the NTCA’s own headquarters, which presented only a short version of the report to the National Board for Wildlife, which eventually issued wildlife clearance to the project in January 2021.
A.N. Yellappa Reddy, an 84-year old retired forest officer from Bengaluru who was involved in the decision to notify Anshi National Park – now a part of the Kali Tiger Reserve – filed the petition in the high court on April 23. Reddy retired in 1995 as secretary, department of ecology and environment, in the Government of Karnataka.
On April 23, the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee recommended that the court cancel the project, stating that its ecological costs outweighed any benefits.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority and the National Board for Wildlife did not respond to questionnaires sent on April 16 about why the full site inspection report was not provided to the board, and why the board did not ask for the full report either.
The Railways project is one of those being opposed by the Save Mollem campaign in Goa. Hundreds of Goans staged an overnight sit-in on the railway tracks in November 2020. The project is funded by the Centre’s ‘Sagarmala’ programme as a ‘port connectivity’ scheme to connect the Mormugao Port in Goa with Karnataka. The port has described the completion of the railway project as a “very big factor” in its future growth, as it will expand the transport of imported coal to steel and power plants in Karnataka.
In recent years, a dozen such projects of the Central government, including highways, power transmission lines and railways projects, have been proposed in a narrow stretch of the Western Ghats in Goa and Karnataka. There is growing evidence that these projects have not been adequately scrutinised by the environment ministry and that warnings in site inspection reports by field-level forest officers have been ignored.
Site inspection report
The NTCA’s site inspection report resulted from a request from the National Board for Wildlife’s standing committee in July 2020. Under Section 38O(1)(g) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, NTCA is to ensure that projects coming up in tiger habitats are not for “ecologically unsustainable uses except in public interest and with approval of the National Board for Wild Life.” After the Board’s request, the NTCA formed a site inspection committee consisting of Rajendra G. Garawad, the NTCA’s then assistant inspector general of forests in Bengaluru, along with the field director of Kali Tiger Reserve Maria Christu Raja D., and general manager of Rail Vikas Nigam Limited B. Chandra Sekhar.
The report, submitted to NTCA headquarters in July under Garawad’s signature, features photographs of the sites covered in monsoon mist with dense forests and steep cliffs on either side of the existing single-track railway line. It also features photographs of snakes lying dead on the tracks and local forest department records of elephants and bison killed by trains.
The report criticised the environment and biodiversity impact assessment report for the project prepared for the railways by the Indian Institute of Science professors Raman Sukumar and T.G. Sitharam. The impact assessment “lacks in critical assessment particularly of project impacts and merely reiterates project proponents’ views,” the NTCA’s report said. Out of 230 pages, mitigation measures covered a “mere six pages” and these too were “fairly generic in nature” that did not take into account “ground realities” and some suggestions, like joint patrolling by railway and forest staff to monitor wildlife presence, were “impractical and theoretical in nature,” the NTCA report said.
The report also said there was a conflict in interest as professor Sukumar was also a member of the National Board for Wildlife, which assesses such projects for wildlife clearance.
The project may have an even greater impact on forests than currently estimated, the report said. This is because the Railways’s forest clearance application does not include a 15-metre wide strip of land along the existing route that the Railways says it owns but which has dense forests of high ecological value.
The report pointed towards the ongoing widening of National Highway 4A, which also connects Goa to Karnataka, passing “within an aerial distance of 5-6 km” in “one of the most ecologically
sensitive and biodiversity-rich part of Western Ghats.” The projects “will definitely have far reaching implications for the wildlife due to habitat destruction, disturbance, habitat fragmentation, road kills and train collisions,” the report said.
The site visit report concluded with recommendations, including carrying out a feasibility study of the mitigation measures suggested in the impact assessment report, and a cumulative impact study and cost-benefit analysis of the railways project along with the NH-4A widening.
NTCA headquarters excludes sections
The site visit report was submitted on July 21 to the headquarters of the NTCA in New Delhi. NTCA records show that on the next day, the NTCA issued an office memorandum containing its advice under Section 38O(1)(g) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act.
But this advice did not convey most of the issues raised by the site inspection report, including issues with the impact assessment report, the risk to the Western Ghats, the underestimation of the impact on forests, the cumulative impact of the railway project along with nearby NH-4A widening work.
The NTCA conveyed only one recommendation, and that too was not mentioned in the site inspection report at all. The recommendation called for “a detailed study prescribing mitigation measures in this difficult terrain.” But the site report had instead called for “a detailed study of feasibility of mitigation measures in this difficult terrain” (emphasis added). The recommendation said that the study “should focus on structural and non-structural mitigation measures” – which the site report had neither recommended nor mentioned.
The National Board for Wildlife’s standing committee in October 2020 asked the Wildlife Institute of India to carry out the study prescribing mitigation measures as recommended by the NTCA headquarters. The meeting minutes do not say if the panel saw or discussed the site inspection report.
The NTCA should have submitted the full site inspection report to the Board, said Praveen Bhargav, managing trustee of Bengaluru-based non-profit Wildlife First and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. “After spending public money to carry out the site inspection it becomes mandatory for the NTCA to present the full site inspection report,” Bhargav told The Wire. “It also is the responsibility and duty of the standing committee [of the Board] to insist on filing of the full report.”
“The NTCA report is explicit and emphatic on the heavy ecological costs of the project; it has clearly stated the need for an independent and detailed assessment of the cumulative impacts of the project,” Prerna Singh Bindra, author, wildlife conservationist and former member of NBWL told The Wire. “The issue here is not the availability of the report – all such documents pertaining to a project under consideration, are made available to the Standing Committee of the NBWL,” Bindra said. “The issue here is – has the NTCA report weighed in the decision of the SC, NBWL, and has the report been given the due diligence it deserves?”
Professor R. Sukumar, a member of the NBWL, told The Wire that he had not seen the NTCA site inspection report. The minutes of the NBWL meeting in January 2021, when the project was discussed and approved, do not mention the site inspection report but only the final submission.
Sukumar also denied the conflict of interest mentioned in the site inspection report, saying he had been commissioned by the railways to prepare the project’s impact assessment report one year before he was appointed to the Board.
On the report’s claim that mitigation measures did not take into account “ground realities”, Sukumar responded that “ground ‘realities’ can change over time,” and that patrolling to avoid wildlife collisions with trains is a practice in West Bengal and is also not the only solution.
Sukumar did not offer specific responses to allegations in the report about the quality of the impact assessment, only saying that the impact assessment covering the railway track from Castlerock to Kulem (which covers the most dense forests) was “reviewed by the Goa Forest Department and their comments [were] taken into account.”
Sukumar recused himself from the NBWL meeting when the project proposal was considered and approved, according to the minutes of the meeting.
The NTCA’s suppression of the site inspection report shows that it was a “mala fide” decision of the government, Sreeja Chakraborty, the counsel in the high court petition, told The Wire. “Any administrative decision which is mala fide is illegal because it vitiates the decision-making process. It deserves to be struck down by the courts under judicial review,” she said.
WII’s study in too short a time
The recommendation that was passed on by NTCA – for a study prescribing mitigation measures – was eventually carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India. But not without controversy.
The introduction to the WII’s report mentions that in August 2020, the deputy inspector general (wildlife) of the environment ministry told WII to complete its study “within three weeks”. But WII responded saying it required more time, and also financial assistance. The correspondence apparently ended there.
On October 20, 2020 at the NBWL’s standing committee, which discussed the project, asked the WII director to conduct the study “within two months”. That is when WII submitted a formal proposal, and upon receiving financial assistance it initiated its study in November.
The study was conducted over just 15 days from November 19 to December 5, 2020. The WII report says that this was a “rapid survey” conducted “over a short period”. The report said that since this was a “non-breeding season” its inventory of species was “far from complete” and “perhaps just representative and not exhaustive.”
The WII recommended several dozen mitigation measures including culverts and bridges at several dozen locations along the rail route, as well as fencing along the full route to prevent animals from being hit by trains. In the few openings in the fencing, the WII recommended detectors that could automatically warn a train of wildlife crossing the track. It also recommended canopy bridges every one kilometre to allow monkeys and other arboreal animals to cross the track from above.
On April 5, a group of 30 wildlife scientists wrote to the WII raising concerns with its mitigation measures. Their letter said that the measures “are not based on rigorous scientific data and lack information in several aspects.” The letter said that “the rapid manner in which the study seems to have been conducted raises doubts about the accuracy and reliability of the data and the ensuing mitigation measures suggested.”
Inadequate assessments in Western Ghats projects
Records available on the environment ministry’s green clearance tracker show that over 12 linear infrastructure projects are currently proposed or coming up in the Western Ghats in Goa and Karnataka. These projects include the widening of the National Highway 4A, National Highway 766E, a new railway line from Hubli to Ankola in Karnataka and three power transmission lines.
The records consist of site inspection reports by field-level officers that warn of damage to biodiversity. But these find no mention in approvals issued by senior officials and bodies like the NBWL (also available on the website).
A critique of three of these projects, including the railways double-tracking, published by 30 scientists in the Journal of Threatened Taxa says that impact assessments of the projects were “considerably weak and evidently overlooked” by authorities.
Bhargav said that linear intrusions need to be carefully analysed from various angles such as distance between parallel alignments, utilisation levels and measures to improve utilization of existing infrastructure.
“Unfortunately, a slew of redundant parallel alignments of highways and railways are being pushed through in the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats without due application of mind,” he said. “This puncturing of the Western Ghats every five to ten km must stop.”
Nihar Gokhale is associate editor at Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.