In the last 50 years, nearly 3,300 sq. km of evergreen forest was lost in Uttara Kannada. Given this history, cutting 2 lakh more trees for HARP could be devastating. A view of Kali Tiger Reserve. Photo: Narendra Patil
- The Hubballi-Ankola Railway Project (HARP) was conceived by the Vajpayee government in the late 1990s and is approaching fruition now.
- However, the Indian government has resorted to multiple questionable manoeuvres to have the project cleared by the relevant authorities.
- Potential wrongdoing includes a wildlife board’s U-turn, the absence of topical experts on assessment boards and emotional appeals to approve the project.
- While the secrecy in the NBWL’s working hinted at the indefensible nature of HARP, the government’s obduracy across decades almost confirms its crime.
Recently, the Government of India had submitted to the Karnataka high court that “the National Board [for Wildlife] has decided to constitute a committee to examine the proposal” – of the Hubballi-Ankola Railway Project (HARP).
The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) constituted this committee on June 3. But by some accounts, the meeting’s proceedings weren’t available in the public domain as of June 26.
HARP proposes to cut through a tiger corridor, but the constituted committee does not have any representatives from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) – a violation of the committee’s terms of reference.
Yet, Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai said on June 26 that work on HARP is in “the final stages of getting environmental clearances”.
What are we to make of these ‘developments’ other than their mockery of India’s environmental governance?
On April 7, 2020, the standing committee of the NBWL set a record of sorts when it fast-tracked environmental clearances to 31 project proposals in a single (Zoom) meeting. The committee’s objective was to instantiate the “ease of doing business”.
Such en masse virtual clearances, during the COVID-19 lockdown for added measure, violated the requirement of due diligence and rightly shocked scientists and conservationists across the country. Ritwik Dutta, a leading environmental lawyer, wrote that the NBWL was “acting in complete breach of public trust” and breaking legal propriety.
In six weeks after that fateful day, the then environment minister claimed: “Nature will provide the solutions. This is our message to the world on International Biodiversity Day.”
Note that India’s position on the Environmental Performance Index slipped 39 places between 2016 and 2022.
Our environment is under assault like never before. Within the neoliberal model of political economy that India shifted to in the mid-1980s, there has been no stopping this tide of environmental destruction from infrastructure development projects. The free-market economy is not designed to conserve natural resources, and the current government – faced with an economic downturn – became a partner in the destruction of our environment.
Today, propaganda and populism has overwhelmed the needs of the people and has transcended scientific knowledge. Sadly, however, a lot of the propaganda and misinformation has emerged of late from the environment ministry itself. A perfect illustration is HARP.
The green clearance for HARP, which cuts across the Western Ghats of Uttara Kannada district, is replete with procedural violations. A back-and-forth on decisions spanning decades between departments and expert bodies constituted by the Centre as well as the state, the multiple site inspections and conflicting judgments are all symptoms of a complete disregard for the environment, wildlife and ultimately the country’s people.
The Indian government conceived of HARP in 1997, and the then prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, laid its foundation stone. Hubli was also made the headquarters of the South Western Railway Zone – an important political achievement for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the region.
In the words of The Hindu, “at least three BJP leaders from Hubballi owe their political career to Mr. Vajpayee” as a result: Jagadish Shettar, Vijay Sankeshwar and Pralhad Joshi. These three individuals have indeed been vocal about their support for the project and have also played an emotional card – that HARP was Vajpayee’s dream.
In the two-decade-long history of deliberations, various expert constitutional bodies – including the environment ministry in 2004 and the NTCA in 2017 – have vouched for the project to be ‘recommended for rejection’ or ‘rejected on merit’ multiple times. In September 2018, the NBWL cited NTCA and site inspection committee reports and didn’t recommend the proposal – but asked for recommendations from the Karnataka State Board for Wildlife (SBWL).
That brings us to the imbroglio of March 2020 and the eventual reconstitution of Karnataka SBWL on October 16, 2020 – to replace members who had opposed HARP with, according to Deccan Herald, “sons of politicians, a mining baron and members not heard in the field of wildlife and forest conservation”.
Karnataka SBWL U-turn
State governments and project proponents can’t approach the NBWL without the SBWL giving its recommendation. So the Karnataka SBWL considered the HARP project in its 13th meeting, held on March 9, 2020. The chairman of the board and the chief minister of Karnataka agreed to reject the HARP proposal. Their comprehensive grounds for rejection included procedural impropriety, economics, hydrological concerns, biodiversity loss and the impossibility of mitigating environmental damage.
A summary of the meeting follows:
* Proposal was discussed in earlier SBWL meetings, and the project has been rejected by KFD, GoK, and GoI.
* Even though the then PM AB Vajpayee had laid the foundation, the proposal was rejected by MoEFC&C.
* NTCA and GoK have already rejected the proposal, so it is not proper to approve an already rejected proposal.
Present infrastructure adequate:
* Iron ore and steel production from Bellary sector does not require this new line.
* The existing road that has undergone widening serves the purpose of connectivity.
* The doubling of the existing railway line via Londa will increase the freight capacity.
* Existing rail line requires only two hours extra time.
* Proposed project is in the major catchment of Kali river, and if implemented will lead to a severe drinking water shortage in Uttara Kannada.
Tree and biodiversity loss:
* More than 2 lakh trees have to be cut for the project.
* Due to various development projects in the last 30 years this landscape has already lost a lot of trees.
* This area is a mega biodiversity hotspot on the planet, and rail accidents are a threat to endangered/ endemic species.
* Proposed lined cuts across the forest corridor between Kali Tiger Reserve and Bedthi Conservation Reserve.
* During the 5-10 years required to complete the project there will be a negative impact on forests and wildlife.
Mitigation measures inadequate:
* Mitigation measures recommended by IISc are unscientific and the Forest Department has not been consulted for the same.
* Elsewhere, mitigation measures like much shorter flyovers have been rejected by the Government of Karnataka.
* There is adequate railway connectivity to the west coast hence existing pristine forests have to be conserved,
Lone dissent by the chief secretary:
* The entire project expenditure would be borne by Indian Railways
* The Central government has been enquiring about the delay
But this decision by the Karnataka SBWL wasn’t acceptable to those political leaders who had pitched their political careers on the promise of this project. So the SBWL held its 14th meeting in a hurried manner only three weeks later, on March 30, 2020. These vested (and non-expert) political leaders were also part of the meeting as ‘special invitees’.
At the end of the meeting, the board had reversed its decision and decided to recommend HARP to the NBWL.
Populism > expertise
What gives the special political invitees so much weight in a meeting where their very presence was legal impropriety? We need to know why expert opinions on subjects that require experience and expert knowledge were not deemed to represent the interests of the people. Congress politician R.V. Deshpande and BJP politician Jagadish Shettar were also united in favour of the project, and in undermining experts.
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2006 and the National Green Tribunal in 2010 were created to curb the flagrant violation of environmental justice. But when the 2014 Lok Sabha elections dawned on the horizon, economic development became a populist political plank and political parties abruptly dropped concerns about the environment.
The art of rendering the EIA ineffectual was begun by the United Progressive Alliance government and has been sustained since by the BJP government.
Populism continues to be a winning strategy when experts and their knowledge, of utmost relevance to the people, don’t reach them or when scientists bend their work to the will of political leaders.
Governments have been constituting committees for site inspection as a way to protract environmental review processes, thus giving project proponents opportunities to work their way out of a bind. The NBWL recently did precisely that in front of the Karnataka high court and put together a committee of members on June 3 to assess HARP. It had no representatives from the NTCA, while HARP proposes to cut through a tiger corridor.
Joseph Pulitzer had said, “There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.” While the secrecy in the NBWL’s working hinted at the indefensible nature of HARP, the government’s obduracy across decades almost confirms its crime.
Narendra Patil has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society (India) and the Centre for Wildlife Studies for a decade, and with the Snow Leopard Conservancy (India Trust) in Ladakh for two years.