Q. ‘To ensure protection of ecologically sensitive areas and flora and fauna, the government has asked states as well as NHAI to avoid building highways through wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, unless absolutely unavoidable.’ In the light of the above statement, critically discuss the ecological impacts of highways and other linear projects passing through protected area network of our country.
Ecological Impact of Linear Projects
Rail lines, roadways, canals and electricity cable networks occupy pride of place in India’s rapidly growing infrastructure. These seemingly innocuous lines, together called linear intrusions, are cutting up wildlife habitats and affecting wildlife conservation. To ensure protection of ecologically sensitive areas and flora and fauna, the government has asked states as well as NHAI to avoid building highways through wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, unless absolutely unavoidable. To have minimum impact of highways on the protected eco-sensitive area, the implementing agency should consider to spare sanctuaries/national parks at the planning stage and wherever possible take a bypass/detour. The government has issued guidelines to avoid road alignment through national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, even if it required taking a longer route.
Linear Projects are the arteries of our nation but they possess ecological challenges as well, especially when they are passing through forests – Deforestation and habitat destruction- Linear felling of trees for roads and rails leads to widespread deforestation, causing loss of plant species and animal species dependent upon them.
Effects mobility – of animals especially keystone species like Lion, tiger who depend on mobility for their food.
If these keystone species are harmed, it may affect survival of the whole ecosystem.
Loss of biodiversity due to accidents- Hundreds of animals are also killed in road and rail accidents, causing loss of animal species. Various birds have been electrocuted by high tension power lines. The road passing through Kaziranga National Park, for instance, is the reason for deaths of many animals, including rhinos, from road accidents. A similar problem was being faced in Mudumalai, Bandipur and Nagarhole sanctuaries where night traffic has been prohibited to allow clear passage to animals and avoid accidents. Even a small stretch of road passing through a corridor can have a larger impact on animal dispersal, movement and could affect an entire landscape. Vulnerability to PA – Less than five per cent of India comes under the PA network, and these are already fragmented by roads, canals, railways lines and reservoirs. Effective protection cover would barely be two per cent. National parks and sanctuaries are the last refuge of endangered and, in some cases, endemic species.
Increase in pollution – Emission levels are expected to increase with the increase in vehicle numbers. There are changes in water quality, soil profile, increase in wastes, etc. It also contributes to noise, light and air pollution.
Increased man- animal conflict – The loss of habitat makes the animals to migrate to other places, sometimes they enter into villages thereby leading to Human-animal conflict. For example, the frequent destruction of crops by elephants and Nilgai can be attributed to this phenomena.
Poaching becomes easier – Development of linear infrastructure increases vulnerability of wildlife for poaching and other illegal acts (animal trafficking). However, such infrastructures are necessary in India for its growth and development
Mitigation should be focused on achieving explicit conservation goals within clear timeframes, to be integrated in the broader ‘green infrastructure development’ approach. These goals should be informed by the significance of affected biodiversity, priority of conservation goals and the values of natural systems to affected communities. Use of the SMART approach is recommended to evaluate the likely effectiveness of alternative mitigation strategies or measures: ‘SMART’ refers to measures that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. Mitigation should aim to address not only direct ‘footprint’ impacts on natural systems, but also ecological effects caused by the development of linear infrastructure which may only be manifest in decades to come, affecting regional populations of wild animals.
Linear constructions should be undertaken only when absolutely necessary. If it is absolutely unavoidable, all necessary clearances required under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, Forest Conservation Act 1980 and Environment (Protection) Act 1986 should be obtained before any work is undertaken in such areas. This should be followed up with mitigation strategies to protect the biodiversity there. The management of the existing roads in PAs should be done in order to minimise their detrimental effect on the surrounding ecology. Night traffic (from dusk to dawn) should be banned while allowing passes for communities living within a PA and also regulate traffic volumes in day time, applying speed limits and constructing speed-breakers to reduce animal mortality, ban vehicles from stopping or littering in PAs.
Other measures like having check posts, building underpasses for animals so that their natural paths are not interfered with, should be mooted to safeguard protected areas. Identification of sensitive natural environments in the early planning stage so that alternative routes, changes in width of the road can be examined. Provision of wildlife underpass and hydraulic structure Tiger Corridors, Elephant corridors, etc should be encouraged.
Hence, though the building of rail and road are important for the inclusive development of our country, but it should not be detrimental to our long term ecological sustainability.