Supreme Court panel: Uttarakhand tiger reserve road not for commercial traffic

UNDERLINING THAT “conservation priority of the forest area far outweighs the commercial transport needs of the state government”, the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court has recommended against blacktopping a 4.7-km stretch of a key forest road in the buffer zone of Uttarakhand’s Rajaji tiger reserve, The Indian Express has learnt.

An unpaved segment of the old Kandi road that once connected Haridwar and Ramnagar, the Laldhang-Chillarkhal forest road runs along a high-priority wildlife corridor between the Rajaji and the Corbett tiger landscapes. Upgrading this to an all-weather blacktop road has been a major poll plank for the BJP since the 2017 Assembly polls.

The CEC report, submitted to the Supreme Court last week, is learnt to have highlighted that the corridor is extensively used by long-ranging animals, including elephants and tigers — and not maintaining it as a forest road would hamper wildlife connectivity that is already threatened by the growing township of Kotdwar, and agriculture and human habitation.

The panel’s key recommendations include:

  • Only the first and last 3 km stretches of the 11-km road should be blacktopped.
  • All elevated structures and large bridges across streams should be replaced by causeways to avoid bringing an enormous amount of concrete into the forest and causing disturbance to wildlife during the construction phase.
  • A ban on night traffic (7 pm to 7 am) and a speed limit of 30km/hour should be imposed.
  • Movement of commercial heavy vehicles through this forest road should be discouraged since an alternative road (NH-74) is available between Kotdwar and Haridwar.

In March 2019, the Uttarakhand government had transferred two segments of the forest road to the state’s Public Works Department without obtaining clearance from the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) in violation of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Subsequently, the CEC filed two reports and the Supreme Court asked the state in July 2019 to withdraw the land transfer orders, stop road work, and approach the Environment ministry for statutory wildlife clearance.

In December 2019, the NBWL cleared the road on the condition that a 705-m long and 8-m high underpass would be provided for elephants and other wildlife in the 4.7-km central stretch of the 11-km road.

With the state government pursuing the matter, the NBWL in June 2021 modified that condition to a 400-m long and 6-m high underpass.

Under a Supreme Court order passed in 2015, the CEC has the liberty to approach the court if it was not satisfied with any decision of the NBWL. While the CEC was examining the NBWL’s recommendation on the Laidhang-Chillarkhal forest road, a petition was filed seeking the apex court’s direction to quash the NBWL clearance.

The CEC’s latest report was submitted after holding discussions with various stakeholders and conducting site visits.

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