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Above: The Rajaji National Park with the Chilla forest range on the east bank of the Ganga, and Motichur on the west bank/Photo: AJT Johnsingh/commons.wikimedia.org

In a stern move, the NGT has asked the NHAI to furnish Rs 2 crore “performance guarantee” for not implementing an apex court directive on constructing an elephant flyover

By Atul Chandra in Lucknow

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) recently asked the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to furnish Rs 2 crore “performance guarantee” to the Union environment ministry for failing to implement the Supreme Court’s directive on constructing an elephant flyover on the Chilla-Motichur corridor in Uttarakhand. The project has been hanging fire for the past nine years.

The corridor, a term used for elephant passage, is a vital link between the Chilla and Motichur ranges of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve. While the Chilla range is on the east bank of the Ganga, Motichur lies on the western bank, which is a tiger habitat. According to a newspaper report, the project was estimated to cost around Rs 100 crore. Incidentally, the Rajaji, Motichur and Chilla sanctuaries were amalgamated into a large protected area of over 820 sq-km to create the Shivalik ecosystem. It was named after C Rajagopalachari, the last governor-general of India.

The 721-metre-long, six-metre-high flyover is to be constructed on the Haridwar-Dehradun section of National Highway (NH) 58 and NH 72 and will pass through the Rajaji National Park. This stretch of the highway is being widened to four lanes. Though it is ter­med an elephant flyover, and also ele­phant un­der­pass, the NGT order is aimed at protecting tigers whose population, according to an NGO, is fast diminishing due to heavy traffic movement.

The order came on a petition filed by the Centre for Wildlife and Environ­mental Litigation (CWEL). The NGT had sought a status report from the ministry of environment and forest, and the NHAI in November 2018.

CWEL claimed that tigers in the Reserve were becoming “locally extinct” due to vehicular disturbance and quoted scientists who were of the view that “the case of Chilla-Motichur corridor is an acid test for the Indian conservation movement”. CWEL said that the construction of the flyover was ordered by the Supreme Court in 2009 and alleged that due to the callous attitude of the NHAI, it had not even started yet.

Criticising the NHAI for the delay, Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, who headed the NGT bench, observed that its red-tape attitude was endangering wild­life and biodiversity on the western side of the Rajaji Park and also tigers, which were facing extinction. Disposing of the petition, the NGT pointed out that the western side of the Rajaji National Park could potentially support 30 tigers, but they were becoming extinct due to the attitude of the NHAI and the environment ministry. (Incidentally, according to Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, the tiger population in Rajaji National Park had gone up from 16 in 2015-16 to 34 in 2017 because of increased security measures.)

Bhanu Bansal, the secretary of CWEL, reportedly said that “the order will enhance the long-term survival of tigers in Rajaji Tiger Reserve because the corridor will ensure that the eastern side of the park will get connected with the western side, resulting in free movement of wildlife” unhindered by vehicular traffic.

Although the NGT order pertained to the protection of tigers, the corridor is important as it is also used by elephants and other wild animals to move between protected forests in search of food and water. To make the habitat ideal for wildlife and to prevent man-animal conflict, concerted efforts have been made to free the forest area of human population. After 12 years of sustained efforts, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) said in January 2017 that it had been able to free the forest area of human habitation with villagers voluntarily agreeing to move to their new homes in adjoining villages.

However, what still remains in the critical zone are a railway line and the busy NH 58. While the issue of NH 58 is now being addressed to resolve the high traffic issue, the threat to wild animals from trains still remains. The WTI claimed that it had “worked with Rajaji Tiger Reserve and Indian Railways authorities and created a successful model to prevent the deaths of elephants and other wild animals due to train hits in the corridor”. As part of the measures, “joint patrolling is conducted on critical stretches of the track and automated Animal Detection System has been field tested to alert locomotive drivers in time to prevent accidents”.

The flyover project, it is learnt, was awarded to a firm in 2010. The contract of this firm having expired, NHAI invited fresh bids as it aims to complete the project in 2019.

Uttarakhand’s former principal chief conservator of forests, Shrikant Chandola, singled out WTI’s Anil Kumar Singh for his work on elephants in the Rajaji National Park.

Chandola himself had mooted a flyover, but not for vehicles. In 2008, he suggested that a flyover or an overpass be constructed for elephants from the Motichur railway crossing to Raiwala to protect them from trains, their biggest killers, in the Rajaji National Park. The project to build an “overpass” above a stretch of railway tracks and a motorable road for the movement of elephants was then described as “unique”.

The project was to be undertaken at the direction of the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court to protect the elephant corridor as elephants were dying in train accidents. Elephants use this corridor to move from one part of the park, located in the Shivalik Hills, to another.

Chandola told India Legal that it was proposed to make the flyover environment-friendly. To attract pachyderms, a sugarcane variety preferred by them was proposed to be planted. To facilitate two-way movement of wild animals, he also suggested a Teenpani Corridor at Chidderwala Grant.

In fact, this proposal to build the world’s first flyover corridor for elephants was shelved in July 2009 by the apex court. Rejecting the idea, amicus curiae Harish Salve argued before a three-judge bench headed by then Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan that the idea had not been experimented with before in the country and that elephants could face a problem climbing the flyover.

Uttarakhand’s coordinator of the WTI was quoted as saying: “Expecting elephants to tread along the flyover would have been the first-ever experiment and risky. It would be more feasible if elephants were made to go through the underpass and flyovers were used for vehicular traffic.

And that is what is being done now. The Chilla-Motichur corridor will also include part of the Motichur-Raiwala stretch. Vehicular traffic will take the flyover, while wild animals will use the underpass for their movement. This is expected to substantially reduce man-wildlife conflict.

But call it by whatever name—overpass, flyover, underpass—the actual threat posed to elephants and other wild animals by the movement of trains in the Rajaji National Park will remain.

Talking about the Chilla-Motichur corridor, Chandola said that the project was being unduly delayed. First, the government settled the Tehri dam oustees “bang in the middle of Motichur corridor. It took several years to shift them to another place. The NHAI was sleeping over the project, leading to even the pillars constructed for the flyover getting dilapidated”.

Emphasising the corridor’s need, especially for elephants, described as “keystone species” by the Supreme Court, Chandola said that Uttarakhand was the last northern terrain for elephant movement.

It is hoped these elephantine problems will soon be surmounted.

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