Ignoring project reports and bypassing its own environmental laws, India’s government is set to clear 12 infrastructure projects and cut 270,000 trees in the Western Ghats, already fragmented into 20,000 patches by rail, road and power projects. They are an important water source for the country and one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity
New Delhi: India’s environment ministry is on the verge of clearing at least 12 infrastructure projects in the heart of the Western Ghats, bypassing or undermining its own environment protection laws, reveal government documents reviewed by Article 14.
These proposed highways, railways and power transmission lines will claim approximately 270,000 trees in the rain forests of the Ghats, a chain of mountains older than the Himalayas, dating back 150 million years to the Jurassic age, inscribed in 2012 on a World Heritage List and one of the world’s eight “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity.
Running over 1,500 km along India’s western coast, the Western Ghats influence the south-west monsoon, and feed three of India’s seven biggest rivers, supplying water to much of the Indian peninsula, home to about a fourth of the country's population.
While processing the upcoming road, rail and power transmission projects, the ministry disregarded the recommendations of its own high-level committees that called for “urgent” action to protect the Western Ghats by restricting such projects, which the committees said were key threats to the region’s wildlife, forests and biodiversity.
The 12 projects are described as “linear”, referring to land requirements along a line or route. The Government of India’s draft Eco Sensitive Area (ESA) regulations, drawn up specifically to protect the Ghats and due to be finalised in September 2020, do not even mention such linear projects.
Nine out of 12 projects are being built by the central government, responsible for implementing the laws that are supposed to protect India’s receding forests and water sources.
This is despite scientific evidence that such projects cut a swathe through fragile rainforest ecosystems all along their routes. A March 2020 study showed that railway, highway and power transmission projects have already fragmented these forests into more than 20,000 pieces.
“Very few” forest patches in the Western Ghats still sustain biodiversity, said Rajat Nayak, scientist with Bengaluru-based Foundation for Ecological Research and Learning (FERAL), and lead author of the study.
More projects requiring forest land along routes running hundreds of kilometres can cause permanent loss to ecosystems by blocking wildlife migration, reducing biodiversity, affecting soil health and spreading pathogens in the forest, Nayak and other experts have warned. The Ghats occupy 6% of India’s area but contain 30% of its plant, fish, mammal and bird species.
The push to clear the projects illustrates how India is opening up its wildlife sanctuaries and national parks to roads, railways, mines and industries by weakening its own environmental laws and procedures. At risk are the country's last forests, natural resources and the health of its people, as stories carried in Article 14 (here, here, here, here and here) have explained.
The Ghats are “recognized as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity”, as we said, an area of “immense global importance”, according to a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) factsheet. “The forests of the site include some of the best representatives of non-equatorial tropical evergreen forests anywhere and are home to at least 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species.”
Fragmentation may even lead to local extinctions of wildlife. “There has been zero assessment of the threats of the projects,” said Sreeja Chakraborty, an environmental lawyer based in Bengaluru who has filed cases against three projects and is in the process of filing more. “In reality, there’s nobody watching.”
Over a month preceding 3 September, Article 14 sought comment from the environment ministry, Indian Railways, National Highways Authority of India, Government of Goa, Government of Karnataka and Sterlite Technologies, but none of them replied. We will update this report if and when they do respond.
Undermining Environmental Rules
The Western Ghats are a near-continuous mountain range that run parallel to the Arabian Sea along India’s western coast. They begin at the River Tapi in Gujarat and extend to the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, near Kanyakumari. They cover an estimated 129,000 sq km–roughly the area of Greece–in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
One out of three plant species in the Ghats is found nowhere else in the world, and so is the case with half the amphibians, fish and reptiles of this habitat. New species of frogs are discovered every year. Among its 139 mammal species are the largest population of Asian Elephants.
Between 2016 to 2018, the environment ministry processed 12 projects categorised as ‘linear’. Nine were to be built by central government bodies: The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) proposed five, and the Indian Railways, four. These are in the final stages of clearance at the ministry.
Among the earliest proposals was one by the Indian Railways to lay an additional track through the ghats connecting Kulem in Goa to Castle Rock in Karnataka. Another is a 168-km rail line to connect the western towns of Hubli and Ankola.
On 8 July, Article 14 reported how this rail line—cleared after a 20-year government effort that violated a host of Indian laws—will cut through lush forests around a tiger reserve, a hornbill reserve, wildlife corridors and destroy thousands of trees.
Although as per the 2006 Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification the railways are exempted from seeking environmental clearances under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, it still requires clearances under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
The clearance process requires field-level officials in charge of forests and wildlife to undertake separate site visits and make observations about the impact of the projects, and recommend how to mitigate those impacts and whether the projects should come up at all.
An inspection report by a local forest officer found that the new track would pass ‘very dense’ forests with more than 80% tree canopy cover, and the habitats of the tiger, leopard and the Indian Bison. The report recommended that the railways should build “all possible” underpasses and overpasses on the route to reduce “the death of wildlife by accidents.”
Such field reports are legally required to be then vetted by senior forest officials leading up to the principal chief conservator of forests, the state’s top forest officer who is expected to address concerns raised by the inspection reports.
In this case, the chief forester didn’t address any recommendations for underpasses. His report simply approved the forest clearing “from an economic point of view”. The Goa state government then forwarded this to the environment ministry.
The National Board for Wildlife also ignored the recommendation for underpasses and approved the project in December 2019.
The project is now at the final stage of clearance with the ministry.
In the case of the railway project linking Hubli and Ankola in Karnataka, the field-level officer wrote that the route will cut across the path of migrating animals and, in combination with a nearby national highway, it would “instantly fragment” the pristine and ecologically fragile forest.
The chief forester approved the project without any discussion on these points.
In a span of 11 days in March 2020, the Karnataka state board for wildlife chaired by chief minister BS Yeddyurappa first rejected the project, and then approved it. On 18 June, the Karnataka High Court stayed the approval, noting “serious doubt” over the decision-making process.
In some cases, agencies tweaked the projects so that they bypass existing regulations. In May 2016, the NHAI sought forest clearance to widen the National Highway-4A from Goa to Belagavi in Karnataka. This highway cuts across forests such as the Kali Tiger Reserve and Bhagwan Mahaveer National Park.
Under the EIA Notification, 2006, upgradation of an existing highway requires an environment clearance if work is to be undertaken on more than 100 km of road length. Under the clearance process, accredited laboratories and expert panels of the environment ministry carry out detailed environment impact assessments and may recommend rejecting the project, or allowing it with measures to mitigate those impacts.
The Goa-Belagavi highway widening was proposed for a 150-km stretch. So, the NHAI split the project into four parts.
In 2019, work on sections of the highway within Karnataka was stayed by the Karnataka High Court. The Goa section has reached the final stage of approvals with the environment ministry’s regional expert committee in Bengaluru.
The NHAI is also widening NH-766E within Karnataka. The field inspection report said the road passes through forests with more than 100% canopy density. “These are pristine, undisturbed, ecologically fragile natural areas,” the report said. It recommended against clearing the forests. But the Karnataka forest department approved the project in January 2020. It is now pending before the environment ministry’s regional committee for final clearance.
The NHAI has also not submitted the mandatory district collector’s certificate that all claims on the land under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 have been settled and rightful claimants given titles to the land. If this rights settlement is not complete, forest-dependent communities stand to lose their say in whether more of their forest should be cleared for the highway.
“This hill range is the backbone of the ecology and economy of south India,” noted the first-ever expert committee on the protection of the Western Ghats, appointed by the environment ministry in 2010 under the ecologist Madhav Gadgil. The Congress’ Jairam Ramesh, who headed the ministry then, writes in his memoir Green Signals, that he formed the committee after a visit to Tamil Nadu where many people complained of the ecological damage that infrastructure projects were causing.
According to the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986, the central government can declare an area as an Eco-sensitive Area (ESA) and introduce special environmental regulations within it.
The Gadgil panel recommended all 129,000 sq km of the Ghats to be declared an ESA. In addition to calling for a ban on mining, highly polluting industries and large real estate projects, the panel said roads and railways should not be allowed unless they were “highly essential”. About projects such as highways and railways requiring forest removal along their route, the panel said these may come up only under “strict regulation” with environment impact assessments and public consultations.
But as some state governments complained that such regulations would hamper economic growth, the central government appointed another expert committee to review Gadgil’s report. The second group, led by space scientist K Kasturirangan, halved the area of the Western Ghats ESA to about 60,000 sq km in its 2013 report. But it reiterated the need to regulate roads and railways, saying these were necessary but must go through “a careful scrutiny of impacts” including cumulative impact studies, public hearings, and environment clearances under the 2006 EIA notification, which otherwise exempted railways and some highway projects from environment clearances.
The following March, the central government published draft ESA regulations and sought public comments. The draft proposed a ban on mining and large real estate projects in the Ghats but makes no mention of roads, highways and power transmission lines. The deadline to finalise the draft is September 27 this year.
Impact of Roads, Railways On Western Ghats
A number of similar infrastructure projects already criss-cross the Western Ghats.
By their nature, projects requiring removal of forest cover along their route restrict the natural movement of animals searching for food, mates and new territories. Animals also die in collisions with trains or vehicles, or get electrocuted by power lines. Some animals that move only from tree to tree, such as the Slender Loris, a nocturnal primate with large round eyes, get entirely cut off.
These projects trap animals in isolated patches, shrinking their resources and forcing them to breed in a limited population. Eventually, the smaller forest patches may not sustain wildlife, and in-breeding could lead to “local extinctions,” said Anisha Jayadevan, a wildlife scientist with the Bengaluru-based Centre for Wildlife Studies. “There are already very few large patches of forests left in the Western Ghats. The new projects are very worrying.” A 2018 study on central Indian forests found that highways built without mitigation measures increased the extinction risks of tigers by more than 19 times.
One of two studies published early this year on the Western Ghats found that about 10% of the Ghats area is already under some form of ‘linear infrastructure’. The other said that highways, railways and power lines have fragmented the Western Ghats into 20,284 patches, separated by an average 150 metres, or double the width of an average four-lane highway.
The second study recommended that further fragmentation in the Ghats be avoided. Destruction by such projects is not as visible as mining, said Nayak, the wildlife scientist with FERAL. “Mining is ugly and you can see it. Linear projects are not as visible so it doesn’t get much attention from the public.”
According to Ullas Karanth, a renowned wildlife biologist and tiger expert based in Bengaluru, the demand for these infrastructure projects in the Western Ghats is on account of the hills’ location between two densely populated regions–India’s western coast and the south Indian plains. The economic need for connection between the two “cannot be wished away,” he said.
He suggested that a few major corridors be built using tunnels and high bridges instead of “hundreds of low technology roads and railways” that damage watersheds, wildlife and forests. “This is a conservation issue that needs a cutting-edge engineering solution.”
Changes to the Ghats would also affect millions of people in southern India who depend on the rivers that originate there, said Vijay Nishant of Bengaluru-based Vruksha Foundation, which moved the Karnataka High Court seeking that the Hubli-Ankola railway project be scrapped.
The developers of these projects have also not assessed their impact on local communities. For example, hill cutting can cause soil erosion, which could lead to landslides during heavy rainfall and siltation of rivers. This may then lead to fewer fish in such streams, according to a letter written by over 150 conservationists opposing the Goa-Karnataka railway doubling project. The letter also pointed out that there is no assessment of the impact of three projects—the NH-4A, a power transmission line, and the Castle Rock-Goa railway—coming up in the same Bhagwan Mahaveer National Park, known locally as the Mollem forest. With steep slopes, a dense canopy and tiger habitats, Mollem is “probably one of the best forest patches in the country,” said Abhijeet Prabhudesai, an environmental activist in Goa.
In Goa, the projects have sparked social media campaigns to protect the forest. When Goa chief minister Pramod Sawant commented that the project opponents were all “abroad”, the protestors came to the streets of Goa.
Prabhudesai has opposed the highway and railway project since they were proposed in 2016. “We have been writing to the government from the beginning,” Prabhudesai said. “But they have their head in the sand.”
(Nihar Gokhale is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)
Previously on Article 14: