Envis Centre, Ministry of Environment & Forest, Govt. of India

Printed Date: Monday, February 26, 2024

Saving tigers caught in the headlights

 Any decision to expand roadways must take into account the shrinking wildlife spaces.


On April 6, a unique State Environment and Forest Ministers’ conference took place in New Delhi, the first of its kind under the Narendra Modi government. The Prime Minister, Ministers of State for environment and forests and other officials discussed agenda items related to the environment, and worked towards finalising proposed changes to India’s environmental laws. These agenda items, in the Ministry’s terms, included clearances, ease of doing business, and development.


While there has been a lot of rhetoric in the past few months over ‘balancing’ environment and development, the acid test for this complex issue is still in the making. Perhaps one of the most classic trials is unfolding in the backyard of Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh: the playground for Rudyard Kipling’s man-cub Mowgli, the site for one of India’s most impressive tiger landscapes in India, and the location for the proposed expansion of a newer, wider, National Highway (NH). The question is: who gets to cross the road: a truck, a tourist car, or a tiger?


The National Highways Authority of India wants to widen NH 7 into a four-lane highway in areas where it passes through the Pench Tiger Reserve, and in the living corridor between the Pench and Kanha Tiger Reserves. With sal forest cover packed with tigers and their prey, this dense and enigmatic forest complex is one of the most well-known in the country. It is widely reported that the Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, has placed tactical pressure on the Environment Ministry to agree to NH 7’s expansion, which would entail cutting thousands of trees on forest land, and cutting off wild animal movement. Further, taking suo moto note of the poor condition of the road, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court ordered tree-felling for expanding and widening (not just repairing) the highway, for which many trees have been cut. And this was done without even requisite clearances.


Dangerous roads


While the Supreme Court’s forest panel, the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), has shot down the proposal, the Wildlife Institute of India has said the project can go forward only with major mitigation measures. The National Green Tribunal has said no trees can be cut on forest land without obtaining permission under the Forest Conservation Act, even as the project was being rushed through. In the face of all the ecological wisdom, the question of who gets to cross the road becomes more problematic. It has become clear that one of the priorities of this government is to make project development and clearances easier, which is why ‘linear projects’ have been relaxed and clearances are being done online. Roads, highways and railway lines will be fast-tracked. Despite apprehensions about this project being recorded by the Environment Ministry, they were missing from the minutes of meetings.


Why would a road be at the centre of such a debate? This is because roads, much like ubiquitous ‘linear projects’, are misleading in what they do not reveal. What appears to be just a line on a map is dangerous at many levels. Roads bring with them a plethora of threats, both direct and indirect, so much so that ‘road ecology’ is widely studied under conservation biology. Large animals become roadkill. Roads also bring with them ‘edge effects’ — the ecology around the road gets depleted through loss of vegetation and refuge, alien invasive species are introduced, and ecosystem services are displaced. Roads also bring with them ancillary threats such as more cars, and light and air pollution.


Last month, a rare animal, a black leopard, was found dead on NH 4 in Khindwadi in Satara district of Maharashtra. Before this, in Jim Corbett National Park, barely seen animals such as leopard cats were found dead on major roads. For all their agility and velocity, cats are not good at averting road collisions. Tigers freeze when light falls on them. Even in daylight most animals are unable to estimate the speed and the size of a car hurtling down the road. As a result, thousands of animals die on the roads each year. The question of who should be allowed to cross roads, given that highways are large and difficult to cross even for people, is thus not a rhetorical one. Animals move in herds and have deep bonds; they suffer distress beyond just the death of a herd or family member. For instance, in a recent case in Assam, elephants blocked a highway after a young one was run over. Earlier, mother elephants died while desperately trying to save their calves from a railway line in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri; other herd members, in attempting to save each other, also died.


Roads and surface transport, while touted as a backbone of human enterprise and reach, thus have impacts which are not just permanent, but also uncontrolled and escalating. In the case of NH 7, an alternative already exists in the form of NH 69. Passing through Chhindwara and Nagpur, this highway can be upgraded and lengthened to roughly 70 kilometres more. In the long run, is this too much of a cost to pay?


Leaving spaces inviolate


It is undoubtedly the government’s job to balance environment and development. However, the matter becomes more skewed as a value judgment when we see what little of good habitat remains in the wild. An iconic forest like the Kanha-Pench stretch is one of the “largest and most viable tiger corridors” in India, as per the CEC. In this stretch and many others, NH 7 cannot just be a blunt-edged proposal under ‘linear projects’. It is telling that under its recent compilation of milestones, the MoEF lists clearing projects, including construction and widening of NH 31 (in West Bengal) and NH 13 (Maharashtra) as achievements. Clearly, this is a trend that will follow.


With spaces shrinking for wildlife, the question of what to include and what to preclude becomes more significant. In the backdrop of impending changes in environmental laws, leaving spaces inviolate where biodiversity still exists would amount to actually balancing environment and development. It is often said that music is not only the art of singing but also listening. Similarly, conserving the environment is as much about proactive action as it is about leaving certain habitats undisturbed.


Who gets to cross the road, and how much of the road we need, is a question and a value that India needs to answer.