New Delhi: In a final push before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, an environment ministry panel deliberated over 13 projects under the Bharatmala Pariyojana, hailed as India’s biggest highway development plan. The panel rejected none of the proposed projects. It gave its nod to 10 and deferred three.
The cost for the 13 projects would be Rs 40,694.57 crore. The environmental impact would be much bigger, as it would need total diversion of 1,39,01.5 hectares of land (an area slightly larger than Mangalore). Of this, at least 552 hectares is forest land (roughly 850 football fields).
This will potentially lead to the felling of at least 1.18 lakh trees, impact 461 water bodies, including 32 rivers, and seven protected wildlife habitats, including Ranathambore National Park and the National Chambal Sanctuary.
In 2017, union minister Nitin Gadkari had promised “Bharatmala will change the destiny of the country”. But the ambitious project has seen several delays and an analysis of the minutes of the Ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee for projects related to infrastructure development and national highway projects held on February 19 and February 20, reveals the extent of the last minute thrust.
The 13 separate highways traverse a cumulative length of 1,442.106 kilometers, with 10 projects concentrated in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra while two others are in Odisha and Tamil Nadu – all focus states for the BJP.
Of the 10 that the panel gave a green nod to, five projects were recommended for grant of environment clearance while the rest were given the nod for terms of references (TOR) to be prepared.
As per data that the government presented before the Parliament, a total of 20,314.12 hectares of forest land has been diverted from 2015-18. During this period, the ministry had received a total of 4,552 proposals and of those 1,280 (28.11%) got approved.
The diversion of forest land remains a contentious issue, with environmentalists alleging that the union environment ministry has sought to only clear projects that come to it, acting as a rubber stamp.
‘Deferred, not rejected’
Of the three projects deferred, an eight-lane road (NH 148N), with an estimated cost of Rs 1,078.4 crore from Khandwarwasa to Kher in Madhya Pradesh in district Ratlam proposed the acquisition of a total of 336.72 hectares, of which 41.82 hectares is forest land. This would lead to the felling of 2,438 trees.
The alignment of the project, the minutes noted, doesn’t pass through any wildlife sanctuary or its eco-sensitive zone, but “is located within 10 km radius from the boundary of Sailana Kharmor Wildlife Sanctuary and the application of Wildlife clearance from the NBWL is under process.”
Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta explained that deferring a project wasn’t the same thing as rejecting it. “Deferring a project happens when some information isn’t present, or there is some other issue that needs to be handled, like if it is too close to a wildlife sanctuary. It just means they’ll take it up in the next meeting.”
The Sailana Kharmour Bird Sanctuary is situated in the Sailana village in district Ratlam and was established in 1983. It is named after the ‘Kharmour’ of Lesser Florican - an endangered bird, the smallest in the bustard family that was once widespread through India, of which only 1,500 individuals remain, as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Another 208km stretch of the NH 754K from Jodhpur to Sanchore in Rajasthan, as a part of the Amritsar-Kandla corridor, and a 211.49 km eight-lane road on the newly declared NH 148N from Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh to Vadodra in Gujarat were deferred since the public hearings haven’t been completed in the impacted areas.
The two projects include a total acquisition of 272 hectares of forest land, impact on 290 water bodies including 15 rivers, and the felling of 41,318 trees.
An official said, “Both of these projects are likely to be cleared soon. The delay is just due to modalities.”
Of Wildlife and Highways
Apart from this the panel also cleared the way for three 8-lane greenfield highways to get their terms of references (TOR) - each of which pass through or are close to protected wildlife sanctuaries of reserves.
The extent of environmental damage, including the number of trees to be felled is still being estimated in them. Two among them are likely to have a direct impact on the National Chambal Sanctuary - a fragile ecosystem that houses several critically endangered and endangered species including the Gharial (650 individuals), red-crowned roof turtle (500 individuals) and the Ganges river dolphin.
The 65-km stretch from Etawa to Durjanpur, that will cost Rs 3,500 crore, for instance, will pass directly through the National Chambal Sanctuary and be at a distance of 12.9 km from the buffer area of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and 10.58 km from the Sawai Madhopur Wildlife Sanctuary.
Another 43.8 km project, from after the Chambal river near Durjanpura to Banda Hera (NH 148N) passes within 1.7 km of the National Chambal Sanctuary and costs Rs 1,900 crore.
In both, the panel has granted the setting of terms of references (TOR) – defining the purpose and structure of the project, including assessing impact to wildlife. After the TOR stage, the panel deliberates on whether to give grant for environmental clearance, explained officials.
A third project - 59.62 km stretch from Banda Hera to Moondiya in Kota area of Rajasthan - has proposed the diversion of 105 hectares of forest land and will pass through the Darrah Wildlife Sanctuary, Mukundra Hil National Park and the Mukundra Hill Tiger Reserve.
The Mukundra Hill Tiger Reserve was notified as the third tiger reserve in Rajasthan and was expected to cover the tiger population at Ranthambore, covering the existing Darrah, Jawahar Sagar and Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary.
Another 246 km expressway, connecting the Haryana-Rajasthan border to Rasiser in Bikaner district passes at a distance of 8 km from Badpal Lake – a saltwater lake, where a plan to create a bird sanctuary has been in the works since 2013.
The plan proposes the diversion of 71.5 hectares of forest land, the felling of 5,200 trees, impact on 31 water bodies including a river at a total cost of Rs 4020 crore. While noting that the lake was an “important bird area (A)”, the panel gave the environment clearance while noting that a “biodiversity conservation plan should be prepared.”
In Tamil Nadu, a 45.85 km long highway from Melur to Tiruppathur is aligned at a distance of 2.7 km from the Vettangudi Birds Sanctuary - a habitat for 8,000 winter migratory birds and a breeding site for species such as the grey heron and black-headed ibis. The Rs 750 crore project proposes the felling of 2,500 trees.