Goa-Karnataka road widening project
The National Highway (NH) 4A connects Belgaum (Karnataka) to Goa covering a distance of 153km.The highway will require a diversion of 65.1809 ha of forest land in Goa (based on forest clearance reports). The number of trees to be felled in two of the three affected divisions in Goa are estimated to be 12,238 trees in one division and 8102 trees in another respectively.Before entering Goa, the road passes through the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot and a UNESCO world heritage site, which hosts nearly one-third of India’s biodiversity.
According to a PIL filed by four petitioners including actor and environmentalist Suresh Heblikar, a letter by the Chief Conservator of Forests (Karnataka), “the diversion is for 93.568 Ha of forest in Belgaum and Haliyal forest divisions. Out of the 93.568 Ha , 53.744 Ha is proposed to be diverted to the Belgaum Division and 39.824 Ha is diverted to the Haliyal division.”
The letter (actually from the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka) states that “approximately 22,622 trees (as per sample enumeration)” are proposed for felling in Belgaum division. In Haliyal division, “approximately 13,450 trees are to be cut”.
Satellite images have shown, that apart from the visible impact from the widening of NH-4A, forests along the road were also thinning over a period of time.(December 2018 to February 2019)
At least 36,072 trees were to be felled in Karnataka alone. However, activists and environmentalists claim that more trees have already been cut along the highway for widening.
The proposed area in Karnataka goes through 13.320 km of Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary.
The project in both Goa and Karnataka was exempted from environmental clearance.
“The Karnataka government had sought a forest clearance for the same in 2012. The widening work at the time had been stalled.
In 2016, the Gadkari-led MoRTH (Ministry of Road Transport and Highways)had taken measures to expedite “languishing” road projects. This included eliminating the requirement for an EC for roads upto 100 km long.
In 2018, the NHAI proceeded with the project without seeking any fresh clearance after the tweaking of rules in 2016. Similarly, the government of Goa took into account the 69.07-km section from the Goa-Karnataka border to Panaji, in its Environment Impact Assessment report made for the Goa side of the road in July 2018; it neither sought a wildlife clearance, nor an EC, for the widening project.”
The PIL mentioned earlier in the report was filed as a response to this.
The Karnataka High Court stayed the felling of trees in Karnataka in October 2019, and later noted that since the road stretches for over 100 km across two states, “it cannot be said that widening is undertaken for the length which is less than 100 kilometers”.
Similarly, in Goa, the larger plan of four-laning NH-4 is already being executed and only a stretch of 12 to 13 km which passes through protected forests is awaiting permissions (according to the Goa State Board for Wildlife).
The report by IndiaSpend says: “Under the NH-4A widening project, 30 km of the 82-km road starting at Belgaum was proposed to be widened from a two-lane road to a four-lane one. The next 52-km stretch that cuts through the Western Ghats was proposed to be widened from one-lane to two lanes. The last 13.3 km of this 52-km section passes through what was formerly the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary (475 sq km) and is now the Kali Tiger Reserve. The road then proceeds towards Goa.”
Wildlife which will be affected
Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, now a part of the Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve (Kali Tiger Reserve), is home to animals such as tiger, sloth bear, Indian pangolin, barking deer, and giant squirrel. It is also a birder’s paradise, with birds like Great Pied Hornbill, Blue-throated Barbet, Malabar Trogon, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, White-bellied Drongo, Oriental Honey Buzzard, and Peregrine Falcon.
The Bhagwan Mahaveer WLS and Mollem National Park are home to a wide range of biodiversity. Animals include tiger, leopard cat, mouse deer, gaur, panther, lesser Indian civet, hyena, sloth bear, slender loris, scaly anteater, flying squirrel, flying fox and common otter; and over 120 species of birds including the Ruby-throated Yellow Bulbul Pycnonotus melanicterus gularis, which is the state bird of Goa, Great Pied Hornbill, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Malabar Trogon, Crested Honey Buzzard, White-rumped Spine-Tail, Olive-backed Pipit, Pompadour Pigeon, Jungle Owlet, White-bellied Woodpecker, Black-crested Bulbul, Forest Wagtail, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and the Sulphur-bellied Warbler.
Why is this project problematic?
Impact of Roads/Highways on Forests and Biodiversity:
Direct loss of habitat: Any linear development through a closed forest would lead to a loss of habitat, which would further lead to a reduced carrying capacity of the landscape to sustain wildlife.Degradation of habitat quality: Air pollution, soil pollution and erosion, water pollution, landslides, invasion by exotic weeds.
Road kills and injuries: Road-induced mortality of animals has always been of concern to biologists. Road-induced mortality is probably the most acknowledged effect on wildlife - kills ranging from those of snakes to small rodents to deer, to large cats and mega herbivores such as elephants are a common view along roads. The number of casualties appears to be growing constantly as traffic increases and infrastructure expands. Roads have taken over hunting as the leading direct human cause of vertebrate mortality on land. The number of kills on most roads is likely to be higher than immediately visible, as many animals that are hit by vehicles die later and elsewhere from injuries or shock.
Ecosystem services provided by Western Ghats are affected and undervalued. They are important for hydrological services, provisioning services and carbon sequestration services, amongst others. A forest clearance approval for a proposed project entails the project proponent having to pay a certain amount for compensatory afforestation activities and plant trees elsewhere even though plantations do not offer the same benefits that an ecosystem does.
The monetary value attached to forest clearance approval is very low, said Jagadish Krishnaswamy, senior fellow at the ATREE and a coordinating lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate change and land degradation. “We cannot have sustainable development by inflicting irreparable loss to ecosystems.”
Invasive species: The disturbance that roads create in the vegetation allows invasive species to take hold and thrive.
Road projects through tropical forests, such as the one in the Western Ghats, imperil the region’s wildlife and birdlife. Roads fragment both animal populations and plants. Animals tend to avoid roads. When you fragment smaller animal populations, there is a chance of them going extinct purely due to inbreeding.
Birds too are unable to escape the damage. There is a lot of blasting, leveling and earth-moving work when a road is widened. Apart from creating physical disturbance, road construction in mountains for instance also creates a lot of debris that is often dumped into nearby streams and rivers, which can destroy riverine habitat and pollute the water upon which birds and other animals depend.
The MoEFCC recommends an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of up to 10 km around PAs in order to restrict human activity around it. In 2015, Karnataka told the MoEFCC that they wished to propose an area of 1,201 sq km as an ESZ around the Kali Tiger Reserve. Two years later, the state shrunk this proposed protected cover by 75% to 312.5 sq km citing “public demand”.
The rules and clearances needed for project approvals differ depending on whether a project falls within a PA, within an ESZ or outside it. Reducing the ESZ leaves room for projects closer to a PA.
Increased human pressure: Roads and highways lead to increased human activity along the way, and in this case would lead to direct and indirect increase of infrastructure in close proximity to the forest. They may give access to previously inaccessible areas, changing the way human pressure impacts the concerned forest. They also pave the way for increased cases of poaching and illegal logging, particularly during the construction phase when camps are installed around forests for the workers.
In conclusion, not only is the exemption from environmental clearance for this project suspicious, but the lack of information about proper mitigation measures to be taken to avoid such impacts is also a cause of concern.