Laws Broken, Forest Hacked To Widen Highway

11 May 2020 0 min read  Share

By disregarding or manipulating the law, two state governments and the national highway authority hacked more than 20,000 trees—before a court stepped in—for a seemingly innocuous project to widen a national highway, one of 76 projects cleared by Delhi in the once pristine forests of the Western Ghats over six years.

Some 22,000 trees were felled to widen National Highway (NH)-4A that connects Karnataka’s Belgaum district to Goa/PHOTOGRAPHS BY DISHA SHETTY

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

Belgaum & Bengaluru: A road widening project in the Western Ghats is exemplifying how seemingly small-scale disturbances in ecologically sensitive areas are likely to have a compounding impact on wildlife, endanger public health and exacerbate natural disasters.

The Western Ghats is a 1,600-km mountain range that stretches from Gujarat in western India to Tamil Nadu in the south. It is a global biodiversity hotspot and a UNESCO world heritage site. This hotspot covers less than 6% of India’s land area but hosts nearly one-third of the country’s birds, plants, fish and mammal species. Home to at least 325 endangered species of flora and fauna, the Western Ghats support nearly 30% of the world’s Asian elephant and 17% of the world's tiger populations. They are also the origin points for multiple rivers, including the Godavari, Cauvery and Krishna.

India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has granted environment clearances (EC) to 76 projects in the Western Ghats since July 2014, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of proposed projects that have been granted approvals or expedited from July 2014 to March 2020. The maximum number of approvals, 33, were awarded to projects that fall under the ‘Industrial Projects - 2’ category (the MoEFCC website does not explain what this category includes), followed by 18 approvals for ‘Infrastructure and Miscellaneous Projects + CRZ’ and 16 approvals for ‘New Construction Projects and Industrial Estates’.

Of the 76 approved projects, one project is within a Protected Area (PA) [Karnala Sanctuary in Panvel, Maharashtra] in the Western Ghats and 18 are within 10km of a PA.

While PAs help retain forests, road projects and human activities have the opposite effect. “The chances of forest loss 4 km away from a road is 21% lower compared to the chances of forest loss closer to the road,” said Meghna Krishnadas, project scientist at Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) at Hyderabad’s Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB), based on a 2018 study that she was a part of in the Western Ghats. In other words, proximity to a road makes a forest vulnerable to loss.

In this report, we will examine how the impact of one relatively small project, the widening of the National Highway (NH) - 4A, has led to a significant loss of forest cover in the Western Ghats.

This is the second report in our multi-part, data-driven series which explores the environmental, ecological and human cost of India’s chosen path of development. You can read part one here.

Rolling Out An Expansion

Goa, a state with ports, connects to the industrial town of Belgaum in Karnataka via the 153-km NH-4A (also known as NH-748) and via State Highway (SH)-31.

For the NH-4A widening, the administration in both the states, Karnataka and Goa, did not seek the required environment and other approvals due to a selective interpretation of a change in approval norms, official documents show.

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), an agency under the Central Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), undertook the widening of 82-km of the 153-km highway on the Karnataka side at an estimated cost of Rs 1,395.38 cr in March 2018; almost the entire 82-km stretch passes through the Western Ghats, an ecologically fragile region.

The Centre estimates that nearly 22,000 trees were cut along the 82-km road in October 2018 even as local activists have claimed that the number of hacked trees stands at over a lakh. Some of the chopped trees stood on land that was earlier a part of the 475-sq km Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, a PA.

IndiaSpend reached out to the chief conservator of forests for Karnataka Punati Shridhar and to MoEFCC’s additional secretary incharge of biodiversity BV Umadevi for inputs and comment. Both Shridhar and Umadevi did not respond despite multiple calls and emails for months. We will update this report if and when they respond.

Globally, PAs are seen as the cornerstone of conservation as they are able to maintain biodiversity within their boundaries.

Roads, on the other hand, are valuable in forging connectivity. “A wider road will be better for us. Besides, it will reduce the chances of accidents,” said Majhirao Jadhav, 30, a resident of Kinaya village in the outskirts of Belgaum, who commutes for upto an hour to reach Belgaum.

They also have economic value. “The road sector, especially highways, are important because they enable the growth of logisticsthe freight logistics sectorwhich brings in a lot of jobs and a lot of economic wealth to the area the road passes from,” said Sanjay Gupta, professor of transport planning at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), New Delhi.

Balancing economic needs with environmental concerns is a tightrope walk. Environment minister Prakash Javadekar has spoken about how development and the environment must go hand-in-hand. He granted wildlife clearances to dozens of projects within a fortnight in the early days of the COVID-19-induced, national lockdown.

Javadekar chaired a meeting of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), via video conference, on the first day of the lockdown on March 25 to clear over 40 projects. He chaired another NBWL meeting on April 7 and granted clearances to projects in 11 states, the details of which he tweeted. The approved projects include building highways, stone mining projects and other works that involve diversion of land from wildlife sanctuaries (WLS).

Observers are upset about new works being undertaken in the Western Ghats, and through PAs, such as the widening of NH-4A, when other alternatives exist. They are opting for legal recourse to prevent the onslaught of infrastructure upon sensitive environments.

Economic Arteries

Spanning over 5.89 million km, India has one of the largest road networks in the world. The length of India’s national highways increased from 91,287 km in April 2014 to 1,32,500 km in December 2019, according to the latest data from the MoRTH released in January 2020. The Centre’s spending on national highways increased from Rs 33,745 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 1,37,354 crore in 2018-19. This road network transports an estimated 64.5% of all goods in the country and 90% of India’s total passenger traffic.

*Data for 2019-20 is provisional

Source: PIB release, January 2020

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA)-led government announced plans earlier this year to invest Rs100 lakh crore in infrastructure projects for five years till 2024-25. This will include development of 2,500 km access control highways that are designed for high-speed traffic, 9,000 km of economic corridors, 2,000 km of coastal and land port roads and 2,000 km of strategic highways, the government said in the 2020-21 budget.

Infrastructure investments are needed, according to economists, to promote growth and economic activity. “History shows us that only those countries that made a substantial investment in public infrastructure [such as roads and power projects] have moved ahead in the league tables. China is the most recent example,” R Nagaraj, an economist at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), told IndiaSpend.

Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari laid the foundation stone for NH-4A’s widening in Karnataka on March 19, 2018. The project was part of an investment of Rs 1,44,922 cr for the development of NHs in Karnataka over a period of two years until 2020. At the foundation laying event, Gadkari, who is also the Minister of Shipping, additionally announced 48 new port projects and stressed on improving port connectivity through roads under the Sagarmala project.

Days later, the NHAI handed over contracts worth Rs 1,395.38 cr for the NH-4A road widening in Karnataka to two private companies. While awarding the contracts, NHAI said it was being done to connect “a major city in the state of Karnataka, and Panaji, the state capital of Goa, a major port and an international tourist destination”.

This is the kind of project that India, with a population of 1.3 billion and demand for growth, needs, say transport experts. “There are many studies to show that if you open up areas for roads, there is always economic development around them,” said SPA’s professor Gupta.

Dodging Approvals?

Note: The map is representative, and is based on documents from Karnataka’s 2012 proposed forest clearance, Goa’s environment impact assessment report, and Bhuvan.

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 13.2 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.

Given that NH-4A passes through the Western Ghats, the widening project required environment, forest and wildlife clearances. The NHAI had procured a forest clearance from Karnataka earlier, in 2012; the widening work at the time had stalled due to local opposition.

In 2016, the Gadkari-led MoRTH had taken measures to expedite ‘languishing’ road projects. This included eliminating the requirement for an EC for roads upto 100km long.

Since Karnataka had obtained a forest clearance for the NH-4A widening in 2012, the NHAI proceeded with the project without seeking any fresh clearance after the 2016 tweaking of rules. 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.

“We argued in court that the EC cannot be done away with,” said 69-year-old Suresh Heblikar who is one of the three petitioners to have filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Karnataka High Court in January 2019 against the felling of trees to widen NH-4A in Karnataka. “They [NHAI] admitted that they neither had environment clearance nor a go ahead from the Wildlife Board [of Karnataka].”

The 30-km section of the road connecting Belgaum district to Khanapur was widened in 2018.

The Karnataka High Court stayed the felling of trees in October 2019. Work on the widening has since stopped. “The trees were gone by the time the Court issued a stay. Certain stretches of the road may be left [for finishing work], but these are a few stretches,” Heblikar told IndiaSpend. The noted Kannada filmmaker, actor and environmentalist said he viewed the NH-4A widening project as a “blatant destruction of nature”.

IndiaSpend has reached out to NHAI chairman Sukhbir Singh Sandhu, and to the two companies Ashoka Concessions Limited and Dilip Buildcon Limitedcarrying out the road widening work for NH-4A in Karnataka, to ask about mitigation measures undertaken. We will update this report if and when they respond.

Bit By Bit, The Forest Falls

Roughly 5% of India’s total land area is “protected” i.e. it enjoys special legal protection against human activity. Scientists have now pointed out that in India, the density of linear intrusions within PAs is the same as it is outside the PAs. Nearly 70% of PAs in the country have linear intrusions, such as roads or power transmission lines, passing through them, the scientists stated in a study published in the journal Land Use Policy in April 2020.

Linear intrusions that pass through PAsand NH-4A qualifies as one in both Karnataka where it goes through Kali Tiger Reserve, and Goa where it penetrates the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Parknot only lead to forest fragmentation but also endanger wildlife, as we will explore later in this report.

Fundamentally, roads create an opening in a forest. “And that [the opening] has a mushrooming effect* wherein there is not just traffic but inflow of people and outflow of wild meat to markets and viruses [causing diseases] such as COVID-19,” said Krithi Karanth of Bengaluru’s Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS). Karanth was one of the scientists involved in the study on forest fragmentation due to linear intrusions.

The fragmentation and the consequent mushrooming effect that Karanth and fellow scientists are now warning about was flagged nearly a decade ago by ecologist-scientist Madhav Gadgil. In 2011, Gadgil chaired the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), better known as the Gadgil Commission, which recommended that there be no changes in land-use pattern in the Western Ghats. The panel’s report warned of ecological disasters and sought an absolute ban on mining and large dams there.

“The Gadgil report wanted to identify certain areas as inviolable,” said Nandan Nawn, an economist who specializes in environment and development at TERI School of Advanced Studies (TERI SAS), New Delhi.

None of the six Western Ghats states fully imbibed the recommendations of the Gadgil report.

Indiscriminate mining and infrastructure activities continued unabated throughout the Western Ghats states. Most of the deaths and devastation during the 2018 Kerala flood, described as a once-in-a-lifetime event, were due to landslides in the areas where mining and quarrying are rampant, an IndiaSpendanalysis had revealed. The continued destruction of the Western Ghats was again attributed for the large number of landslides that followed the 2019 floods in Karnataka’s Chikkamagaluru district and large parts of Kerala.

The Western Ghats are among the major global biodiversity hotspots.

Ecosystem Services, Shield Against Diseases

“The forests [of the Western Ghats] provide several critical ecosystem services,” Mahesh Sankaran, an ecosystem and community ecologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, told IndiaSpend. “They are important for hydrological services, provision services and carbon sequestration services.”

Public health fallouts of infrastructure projects in the Western Ghats are beginning to become visible. PAs are hotbeds of zoonotic pathogens, and deforestation is an important factor that contributes to increased interactions at wildlife-human interface, according to a 2014 paper in the journal Acta Tropica.

“Large-scale economic projects such as linear infrastructure, mines, and hydropower projects in natural habitats can disrupt ecosystems, causing conditions that can promote the emergence of zoonotic disease,” said Abi Tamim Vanak, a senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), and a DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance fellow.

The spread of Kyasanur forest disease (KFD), a tick borne disease, that is believed to jump to humans from affected monkeys, is a case in point. The disease is known to cause headache, fever, chills, severe muscle pain and bleeding in humans. KFD’s emergence was first recorded in the late 1950s in Shimoga district in Karnataka’s Western Ghats region. It has since spread to other states, including Kerala and Tamil Nadu with stray cases being recorded as far as in Gujarat. Between 400-500 cases of KFD are reported in the Western Ghats on average annually, and of these between 3-5% turn fatal, according to the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which monitors global disease outbreaks.

“Changes in the land use in the Western Ghats, particularly, the mix of moist evergreen forests with plantations, and the increased presence of human activity and livestock, results in higher incidence of KFD,” Vanak told IndiaSpend. 

Number Crunching

Healthy forests and habitats in the Western Ghats perform ecosystem services that are critical but hard to translate into monetary value. The economic value of ecosystems are difficult to capture, let alone compute,” said Nawn of TERI SAS. “Non-market valuations [ways of valuing goods that cannot be traded directly, like air or wildlife] are yet to receive acceptance beyond a section of academia.”

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 don’t offer the same benefits that an ecosystem does, as IndiaSpend reported earlier.

The monetary value attached to forest clearance approval is very low, said Jagadish Krishnaswamy, senior fellow, Suri Sehgal Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, ATREE. The amount is usually a fraction of the project cost and inadequate in terms of the long-term impact the project might unleash on the environment, he said. “We cannot have sustainable development by inflicting irreparable loss to ecosystems. We need these ecosystems for the future,” said Krishnaswamy, who co-authored the United Nations report on land degradation.

In the case of NH-4A widening project, understanding the value of the forests is further compounded by doubts that have been raised about the number of trees that have been cut to make space for the road widening.

The NHAI is said to have cut 22,000 trees, according to court documents. Locals say this is far from accurate.

“On average, there are around 1,000 trees in a km-long stretch in this [between Belgaum and Goa-Karnataka border] area. If trees have been cut on both sides of an 82-km long road, how can the number [of trees that the NHAI estimates it has cut] be just 22,000?” said Lingaraj Jagajampi, the 38-year-old joint secretary of Belgaum-based NGO Paryavarni.

Jagajampi claimed that patches faraway from NH-4A have witnessed loss of trees in the months following the NHAI’s clearance of 22,000 trees in October 2018. IndiaSpend tried to assess his claim by looking at satellite image data. IndiaSpend reached out to remote sensing analyst Raj Bhagat Palanichamy for this. Palanichamy examined satellite images for the area for three months, December 2018, January 2019 and February 2019, and found that forests along NH-4A were thinning over the period of time. This appears to be in line with the findings of Krishandas’ study on forest loss as a result of road proximity.

Satellite images show the widening of the NH-4A and the thinning of forests around it/RAJ BHAGAT PALANICHAMY, WORLD RESOURCES INSTITUTE

Jagajampi warned that the 13.2 km stretch of the road that passes through the Kali Tiger Reserve would encourage more traffic at the expense of wildlife, such as tigers, leopards, elephants and gaur, and to the detriment of their habitat.

Collateral Damage: Invasives, Inbreeding, Roadkills

“We have a lot of endemic species that are not found elsewhere, particularly plant species. That is reason enough to conserve it (Western Ghats),” said Mahesh Sankaran, an ecosystem and community ecologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru. Animals such as the Nilgiri tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius) and the lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) and plants such as several climbers, medicinal and aromatic plants (Acronychia pedunculata, Chloroxylon swietenia) are native to the region.

Road projects through tropical forests, like the one in Western Ghats, imperil the region’s wildlife and birdlife. Roads fragment both animal populations and plants. “Animals tend to avoid roads,” Sankaran told IndiaSpend. “When you fragment smaller animal populations, there is a chance of them going extinct purely due to inbreeding.”

And then there are roadkills. While there is no publicly available record of animals dying in road accidents in the Western Ghats, we know that at least 161 wild animals died in road and rail accidents across India in 2018, according to data from the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). The Society provided data for roadkills they’ve recorded for two animals: tigers and leopards.

“There is a lot of blasting, leveling and earth-moving work [when a road is widened],” said Raman Kumar, a Dehradun-based researcher with Nature Science Initiative who studies the impact of human activities on birds. “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 disturbance that roads create in the vegetation also allows invasive species to take hold and thrive. “Most invasive species do well in disturbed habitats because they are good colonizers,” said NCBS’ Sankaran, adding that these species might not have had the chance to thrive had the linear intrusion (road or railway track) not been built. “Once they come in, they outcompete the natives.”

The concerned ministry, while granting environment clearances to proposed projects, should therefore think hard about how roads threaten plant and animal diversity, said ATREE’s Krishnaswamy.

Protected Area Predicament

The PA through which NH-4A passes in Karnataka itself has been in a flux since 2015, IndiaSpend found during the reporting of this article. The initial 2012 forest clearance granted for widening NH-4A states that the highway passes through the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS). Dandeli WLS was merged with Anshi National Park in 2015 to form the Kali Tiger Reserve.

The MoEFCC recommends an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of up to 10 km around PAs in order to restrict human activity around it. “The purpose [of declaring ESZ] is to secure the areas around the national parks and the wildlife sanctuaries so that they have some cushion, and that development projects do not intrude, particularly the nasty ones, right up to the boundary of the national park or the wildlife sanctuary,” said Praveen Bhargav, managing trustee of Wildlife First and a former member (2007-10) of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).

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”.

Just weeks ago, in March, the Karnataka State Wildlife Board, chaired by chief minister BS Yeddyurappa, cleared a proposal that would see a 164.44 km-long railway line penetrate through the heart of the Kali Tiger Reserve to connect Hubballi in the east to Ankola in the west. The proposal, cleared despite opposition from member of legislative assembly Sowmya Reddy, who resigned from the Board; The proposal is now pending for approval by the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL).

Landslides are common during the monsoon in the Western Ghats and unchecked development makes this worse.

Need For Creative Solutions

Professor Gupta of SPA said it is important to balance environmental concerns with the growth needs of the country, and feels that the numerous processes that are in place weed out projects that could cause massive damage to the environment.

And when there is a tug between balancing these needs, conservationists propose looking for solutions that tread a middle path.

With regards to NH-4A, one option might be to build a longer road that would go around the PA rather than through it. This is the most viable alternative [to road projects that penetrate PAs], according to CWS’ Karanth.

If a road must be built through a PA for unavoidable reasons, then she advocates for mitigation measures to be adopted, because animals have been found to use such funneling mechanisms if the right kind of pathways are created. “There are enough examples from the US, Canada and Australia where authorities have built overpasses, underpasses and tunnels [in order to facilitate wildlife movement where roads interfere with their natural habitat].”

On a national scale, “Identification and designation of ecologically sensitive areas has to be an informed process involving political decision making,” said Nawn of TERI SAS. He further pointed out that there is currently no space where policy, regulation and scientific evidence intersect to aid conservation on balanced development. Scientists will have to make a case for conservation and quantify it better, policy makers will have to find a way to ensure that the value of the ecosystem services are taken into account and laws will have to be adequately stringent to prove as deterrents.

ATREE’s Krishnaswamy would like to see the MoEFCC to champion the environment. “The ministry [MoEFCC] should be focusing on stewardship of environmental protection and ecological concerns. It should be less of a project sanctioning agency,” he said.

This is the second in a multi-part series that explores the environmental, ecological and human cost of India’s chosen path of development. It was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. You can read the first part here.

(Shetty is a reporting fellow with IndiaSpend. Data analysis by Pankhuri Kumar and with inputs from Tish Sanghera. Copy editing by Marisha Karwa)