By Vijay Pinjarkar
NAGPUR: Among all the projects going through forests, highways seem to be the single biggest threat to tiger corridors in the Central Indian landscape, home to some 688 tigers or one-fifth of population in the wild.
The National Highways Authority India (NHAI), by ignoring mitigation measures for wildlife has consistently failed to adhere to the principles of 'Smart Green Infrastructure' advocated by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Global Tiger Initiative (GTI) and the World Bank (WB). In Vidarbha, two widened highways - NH6 & NH7 - alone have destroyed at least six tiger corridors. It includes Nagzira-Navegaon, Kanha-Indravati, Bor-Melghat on NH6 and Tadoba-Kawal, Tadoba-Bor, and Tadoba-Tipeshwar on NH7.
More is expected between Mansar and Khawasa near Pench, where wildlife mitigation measures as recommended by the WII, have been ignored by the NHAI. "If this is the case in Maharashtra, what will happen across the country," ask wildlife experts. According to documents procured by TOI, in an attempt to solve the imbroglio of proposed expansion of NH7 & NH6, the then director of WII PR Sinha had invited NHAI officials at a meeting on June 13, 2012, in the NTCA to discuss mitigation measures.
The WII director had requested NHAI to come with maps of all highways. WII was to help overlay NHAI maps on all corridors in the country in an effort to work out mitigation measures and clear bottlenecks in road traffic. But NHAI officials were not keen on mitigation measures citing lack of funds as the reason.
Incidentally, NHAI had also attended a meeting on 'Smart Green Infrastructure' organized by the GTI and WII on August 13 & 14, 2012, in Delhi on similar issues. According to informed sources, NHAI officials did not even bother to attend the meeting till the end and walked out just after tea. A copy of the report accessed by TOI does not even mention NHAI as the list of attendees as they walked out halfway. "If NHAI officials were bothered about clearing up the bottlenecks, they would have made some efforts to attend these meetings and pro-actively solve the problems of highways versus corridors instead of letting them be bogged down in litigation," said a former WII official.
"If the WII and NTCA are being so pro-active, why isn't NHAI being sincere about wildlife concerns," asked experts.
Without giving heed to mitigation measures suggested by WII, way was paved for widening of the Mansar-Khawasa stretch. Union minister Nitin Gadkari reportedly pushed through the proposal at a meeting held in Pune last Friday. Prakash Javadekar, union minister of environment and forests and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis attended the crucial meeting. The high court will hear the matter on February 18.
NTCA estimates that a tiger population of 80-100 (with 20-25 females of breeding age) is required to be genetically viable on its own. Not a single tiger population in the Central Indian landscape is genetically viable in the long run by itself. Therefore, immigration and emigration of adult tigers from other sub-populations within the landscape is a must. The long term survival of tigers is highly dependent on the connectivity of tiger source populations through a network of corridors.
There are just three viable populations that meet NTCA's criteria across the country. They are Corbett, Nagarahole-Bandipur-Wayanad and Kaziranga. Tiger experts say the phenomenal growth in tiger numbers in India is partially responsible due to such large viable populations. Uttarakhand and Karnataka have registered growth of over 100 tigers each due to the population of Corbett and Nagarahole-Bandipur. Whereas, fragmented corridors being the major reason, Maharashtra has not fared well despite having highest number of protected areas (PAs) in the country.
Experts said that both Tadoba and Pench have the potential to help revive other smaller and thus unviable tiger populations in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Chhattisgarh. Because of NHAI's reluctance to take systematic mitigation measures, tiger population in these five states is threatened.
"Why are the authorities not considering alternative alignment through Chhindwara that causes less damage to the tiger corridors? It has been advocated by a group of experts in the Centrally Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court," they stressed. Also, for 'Smart Green Infrastructure', avoidance is the first principle. If damage can be avoided by adopting alternative alignment, why is NHAI insisting on the current alignment and that too with inadequate mitigation measures, they asked.