A group of 120 concerned ecologists and activists, including several residents of the affected districts, wrote to Mr. Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change asking the National Board for Wildlife to reject the proposal for the Hubballi Ankola Railway Line. This Railway Line is set to pass through the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats region, threatening 1.58 lakh trees. This comes a few days ahead of a second hearing on the Project in the Karnataka High Court on 14 July, 2020. The group has also written to the Chief Minister of Karnataka, as well as the Chief of National Tiger Conservation Authority, expressing their concerns.
On March 20, 2020, the State Wildlife Board abruptly approved the proposal for the Railway Line, reversing its previous decision to reject it. It now awaits the approval of the National Board for Wildlife. On June 18, 2020, however, the High Court issued a stay order on all proceedings pertaining to the Railway Project, questioning the legality of the decision making process adopted by the State Board for Wildlife.
The State, as it mulls legal options to vacate the stay order, turns a deaf eye to all voices of opposition. An online petition against the project has over 15,000 signatures, and more than 2,800 people have sent mails to authorities against the project, but their concerns have gone unacknowledged. Conservationists are writing to the authorities in hopes of reiterating the impact the project will have on the local population and biodiversity of the region.
Anindya Sinha, a Former Member of Karnataka State Wildlife Board points out how the project area is home to over 300 species of animals that come under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. “Several of these species are endangered and are enshrined government protection under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972” she points out. “Deforestation will affect the ability of forests to regulate rainfall, control erosion and sequester carbon,” points out Prof. Harini Nagendra, Bangalore based ecologist, which can accelerate the effects of climate change.
Omkar Pai, naturalist and researcher based in Uttara Kannada region, where this project will pass through, mentions how the “immediate direct benefits to the local communities by implementing this project is minimal” since a report by the National Board for Wildlife mentions that “no passenger trains will ply over along this track”. He fears that deforestation will bring to Uttara Kannada disastrous events similar to the flooding and landslides experienced in Kerala and parts of Karnataka in recent years. “This project will also affect the catchment areas of the Kaali and the Gangavalli rivers,” he says, and he worries this will worsen the existing water shortages the region is facing.
Dr. Jayanand Derekar, Wildlife Conservationist and member of the Kunbi tribe of Uttara Kannada details how “forest dwelling communities like Gowlis, Siddis, Kunbis, Halakkivokkaligas depend on collected forest produce like honey, wax, shigekai, among others.” The total economic value coming from the affected forest area is estimated to be Rs. 297 hundred crore per year, which stands to be lost due to this project, he explains in the letter.
Divya Mudappa, Senior Ecologist, stresses that no amount of mitigation can compensate the huge cost of ecological damage this Project will have on the Western Ghats. Compensatory afforestation is insufficient because “Forests, especially global biodiversity hotspots like the Western Ghats are complex networks of not just trees but also small plants, creepers, insects, fungi, mammals, birds and other living beings. The combined interaction of all these different species is essential for maintaining critical ecosystem functions of the forest” she elaborates. The letter also highlights the history of afforestation in this country, fraught problems like occupation of indigenous lands, improper implementation and introduction of non-local exotic species. Such plantations can anyways never replicate the crucial functions an ecosystem that has taken millions of years to evolve performs, it points out.
A project that was originally proposed because of transporting iron ore from Bellary to the Western Coast, Hubballi Ankola Railway Line has no use now that mining has been banned in the Bellary, says Basvaraj Bagewadi a former Municipal Officer from Dharwad. “Other existing routes can thus accommodate the existing and anticipated traffic in the region,” he adds. He thus joins the hundred and nineteen other Conservationists in appealing to the National Board for Wildlife that the Hubballi Ankola Project be rejected, so that “our Western Ghats can be saved.”