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Above: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe at Tokyo Station to board the Shinkansen bullet train to Kobe, in Japan (file pic)/Photo:UNI

In an attempt to storm ahead with the PM’s Bullet Train project, forest and environmental norms have been given the go-by, thereby threatening areas in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries

 

By Debi Goenka

The Indian Railways is one of the lifelines of our country. Originally built by the British to provide fast connectivity for their army, it has now become one of the biggest organisations in the world, both in terms of the number of “customers”, and the size of its workforce. Unfortunately, like all government-controlled organisations in India, it has suffered from lack of resources, political meddling, bad investment decisions and wrong priorities. The Railways today is over-stretched, uncomfortable, dirty and passenger-unfriendly. One can safely assume that it is being used only when there is no other alternative.

The decision to introduce a bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, therefore, has become controversial. Why spend tens of thousands of crores on a project that will not really serve the vast majority of its clients when the Railways is so starved of funds that it cannot even invest in de-bottlenecking its over-congested corridors? A project where the fares will be even higher than airline fares and be unaffordable for the vast majority of Indians? The answer is simple—this project is only happening because of the “generous” loan being offered by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and the support of the Japanese government. Unfortunately, the JICA loan of Rs 90,000 crore only covers the cost of railway hardware and technology. It is still not clear what technology will actually be transferred to the Indian Railways.

However, what seems to have been completely overlooked is the uncalculated costs of this project—the cost of land acquisition, displacement, loss of livelihoods and, of course, the environmental and ecological costs.

It is incredible, but true—a project that will probably cost more than Rs 2,00,000 crore has not gone through either an environmental or social impact assessment because the much-diluted laws of our country do not require railway projects to go through environmental scrutiny. Whatever little attention has been paid to this aspect has been because of the very lax requirements of JICA. Thus, public hearings that would have normally been mandatory under the Environment Protection Act have not been held under the provisions of the EIA Notification of 2006, but as per a self-determined procedure arrived at by the National High Speed Rail Corporation Ltd (NHRCL) and JICA.

There is now widespread opposition to the project at the ground level. Farmers, tribals and fisherfolk are protesting about the manner in which surveys are being carried out on their lands and how these are being acquired. In Mumbai itself, the NHRCL was not able to get land for its Mumbai terminal. Incredibly, even the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) was unwilling to give up a plot in the Bandra Kurla Complex (which also has been constructed in violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification) until Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis intervened.

This project was discussed by the Maharashtra State Wild Life Board (MSWLB) on December 5, 2018, and was chaired by the CM. At this meeting, the MSWLB agreed to set up a committee to consider the mitigation measures for the bullet train project. This committee would be chaired by Praveen Pardeshi, a senior IAS officer, and the right-hand man of the CM. The merits of the project were not considered—it was assumed that the project was to be cleared and that the mitigation measures proposed would be adequate. More surprisingly, MSWLB decided that the decisions of this committee would be binding and ratified at its next meeting.

The Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife considered this project at its meeting on January 10, 2019. The bullet train project was not on the agenda, but was taken up for discussion with the permission of the chair. Interestingly, the project was broken up into two separate agenda items—one for the Flamingo Sanctuary and one for the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS).

Not surprisingly, the Standing Committee chaired by Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan cleared the project at this meeting itself even though the project diverts 3.2756 hectares of forest land from the Thane Creek Flamingo Wildlife Sanctuary, and 97.5189 hectares within the Eco Sensitive Zone (ESZ) around the Flamingo Sanctuary.

In addition, the diversion of 32.75 ha of forest land and 77.30 ha of non-forest land from Sanjay Gandhi National Park and 0.6902 ha of forest land and 4.7567 ha of non-forest land from Tungaresh­war Wildlife Sanctuary for the construction of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Project was considered as a separate agenda item, and also cleared at the same meeting. There was no mention of the impact of this project on the ESZs of either Sanjay Gandhi National Park or Tungareshwar WLS.

Amazingly, all these decisions were taken without any documentation being placed before either the MSWLB or the Standing Committee of the NWLB. Would it be fair to say that both these Boards were railroaded?

To make matters more interesting, the NHRCL has filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the decision of the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) not to grant it permission to destroy 24.0253 hectares of mangroves containing 53,467 trees. It has also offered to pay for reafforestation of five times the number of mangroves that will be destroyed, i.e. it is willing to pay for plantation of 2,67,335 mangroves over an area of 67.5 hectares. Amazingly, NHRCL has not made the MoEF a respondent; neither have the petitioners in the original mangrove petition—the Bombay Environmental Action Group and myself—been joined as parties. And even though this is a proposal for diversion of forest land, the Forest Department has not been joined as a party. Instead, the mangrove cell, that will be paid the money for reafforestation, has been made a respondent.

Doubtlessly, even this will be approved by the authorities, even though no one has any idea where the 67.5 hectares will be found. All reafforestation efforts of the mangrove cell have been dismal failures. Despite RTI requests and several personal appeals, this cell is not even willing to share the locations of its mangrove plantations. Two site visits made with junior officers of the cell revealed the dismal state of affairs at the so-called reafforestation sites.

It is, therefore, quite clear that this project is not being examined in its totality, and is being appraised in a piecemeal manner. So far, the only government agency in Maharashtra that has not rubber-stamped this project is the MCZMA, but it too could be forced into approving this part of the project.

If this project is ever completed, the environment and the forests will be destroyed, and we will probably be left with an “asset” that will be so expensive that no one will likely use it.

—The writer is executive trustee, Conservation Action Trust

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