Kapil Kajal | May 31, 2020 | 8 min read
The story behind the approval of a controversial railway project in the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats shows how politicians and bureaucrats can reduce the government’s checks and balances to mere farce.
The project in question seeks to connect Ankola town on Karnataka’s coast with Hubballi, in the north-west of the state. A statutory body had unanimously rejected it but this decision was reversed merely 11 days later at the insistence of three political heavyweights. Moreover, the research paper these netas cited to allay the project-related environmental concerns was coerced out of unwilling scientists by the bureaucrats. The lead author of the study revealed this to Newslaundry.
Laying the broad-gauge line as currently planned will require felling of about 2.2 lakh trees in the biodiversity hotspot, which is also a Unesco World Heritage Site. The approved rail route cuts through an area between two tiger reserves, endangers multiple species endemic to the Ghats and is slated to trigger landslides, floods and droughts in adjoining regions. Also, an alternative rail route already exists, taking merely an hour-and-a-half more than the journey time of the proposed railway line.
In Karnataka, development projects in and around protected forest areas can’t materialise without a clearance from the Karnataka State Wildlife Board (KSWB). The board had met on March 9 and all the 21 members had recommended scrapping the Hubballi-Ankola railway line for the aforesaid reasons. Karnataka Chief Secretary TM Vijay Bhaskar, who was attending the meeting as a special invitee, was the lone voice in the favour of the project. Heeding their views, the board’s chairman, Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, had decided to shelve the project.
On March 11, state ministers Jagadish Shettar and Shivaram Hebbar stated at a press meet that they would get the decision reversed. On March 20, the duo sat in on an urgently called meeting of the KSWB along with senior Congress leader RV Deshpande. In this meeting, Shettar and Deshpande argued heavily in favour of the project, made light of its environmental impact and dismissed the concerns of the experts on the wildlife board.
They did get the KSWB’s previous decision reversed as Yediyurappa agreed with their assertions and approved the project, noting its importance for the development of north Karnataka.
The forced report
At the core of Shettar’s and Deshpande’s rationale that the project won’t affect the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats is a report the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) had prepared in 2011 at the government's behest. A part of the report suggests remedies of the damage that the railway line will lead to. However, the lead author of the report, Dr TV Ramachandra, categorically told Newslaundry that this project will cause irreparable harm. A 2019 research report he co-authored states that human interference in the Ghats is responsible for floods and drought in Kerala and Karnataka. The report says any further deforestation will elevate the intensity of these disasters.
A professor at the IISc’s Centre for Ecological Studies, Ramachandra revealed the pressure tactics of the government that compelled them to bring out the 2011 report. He said the government had scrapped two other development projects at the IISc’s recommendation as these too stood to harm flora and fauna. He said government officers used the shelving of these projects as leverage. In the spirit of quid pro quo, they would say it was now the IISc’s turn to do the government’s bidding.
Ramachandra said he didn’t want to conduct a study that could be used to aid the approval of the Hubballi-Ankola railway line as it is bound to have severe consequences. He said he tried to wriggle out of the government’s request and even stalled a response for five-six months. But then, he said, this happened: “The incharge of the state infrastructure department came and told the IISc director that they would go on a hunger strike if we didn’t take up the project.”
Reluctantly, Ramachandra and his team then prepared a report about the environmental impact of the railway line and how to minimise it. The mitigation measures—citing which Shettar and Deshpande pushed for the project’s approval in the March 20 meeting—are just one part of the report. The rest of the findings establish how sensitive the project is from the point of view of the environment as well as wildlife.
Report technically invalid
That the netas paid selective attention to a lone part of a forced report aren’t the only troubles with it. According to KSWB members, it is null and void on technical grounds as well. In the March 20 meeting, three board members highlighted that the National Green Tribunal had asked the South-Western Railway to submit a fresh application for the railway project; this renders any feasibility report that came earlier invalid.
There are further procedural issues with the IISc report that make it unfit for consideration. Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) Sanjay Mohan, who is the MD of Karnataka State Forest Development Corporation and a member of the KSWB, stated in the March 20 meeting that the report was prepared without consulting the Chief Wildlife Warden. He said the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) mandates that the respective state wildlife board be involved in any study involving the wildlife.
Praveen Bhargav, who has served in the NBWL and is a trustee of Wildlife First (a conservation advocacy organisation), told Newslaundry that the IISc does not hold any legal authority to suggest mitigation measures for a project like this. He said it appears that the terms of reference for the study were not framed by the Chief Wildlife Warden or any statutory authority.
He further noted that the IISc is not an accredited Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) consultant organisation under the National Accreditation Board of Education and Training (NABET). He said only the organisations approved by NABET are authorised to study EIA.
KSWB member and PCCF (Head of Forest Force) Punati Sridhar told Newslaundry it was apparent that the government asked the IISc to recommend mitigation measures so that it could use this report to counter environmentalists’ objections.
Dominating the meeting
The March 20 meeting was held in violation of Karnataka State Board for Wildlife Rules, 2006. As per the Rules, notice for a meeting of the KSWB ought to be served to the members at least 15 day in advance. For the March 20 meeting, however, the notice was issued only on March 17. Because of such a short notice, five KSWB members could not attend the meeting.
KSWB member PCCF Mohan told Newslaundry that Shettar, Deshpande and Hebbar put pressure on Yediyurappa to approve the project. Three other members of the KSWB told Newslaundry that the trio dominated the meeting and influenced the board’s decision even though they were there merely as special invitees. These board members requested not to be identified as they are speaking out against political heavyweights.
Shettar, 64, is a former chief minister and currently the state minister for large and medium industries. Deshpande, 73, is a Congress veteran and has served as the industries minister on two occasions, including when the railway project was first proposed in 1998. Hebbar, 63, is the state minister for labour and sugar.
KSWB member G Malleshappa, President of Swamy Vivekananda Sewa Trust, Chamarajnagar, said that when such tall political leaders push hard for their demand at a meeting, the board members automatically come under pressure to keep mum.
Congress MLA Sowmya Reddy, who resigned from the KSWB after the March 20 meeting, told Newslaundry that Shettar, Hebbar and Deshpande bulldozed the members and no matter how much the members objected, they weren’t willing to listen. She said the entire purpose of creating statutory bodies such as the KSWB is defeated when non-members come, push their agenda and don’t listen to the experts. She said Shettar, Deshpande and Hebbar don’t care about the environment.
PCCF Sridhar said Yediyurappa heeded only Shettar & Co even as the board members opposed the project. He said this shows that the meeting had taken place only to approve the project.
Newslaundry could not contact Yediyurapaa despite repeated attempts. Shettar refused to discuss the issue and hung up the phone. Deshpande said that while saving the environment is important, development of Uttara Kannada—the region he has been representing in the Legislative Assembly for decades—is also important. He said Karnataka has carried out multiple afforestation drives to balance the axing of trees for development projects. He cited the IISc report and said the railway line won’t affect the wildlife much after due measures are taken. When told that the study’s lead author differs, Deshpande brushed it aside as the author’s personal opinion.
State environment minister Anand Singh—who too is a member of the KSWB, had opposed the project in the March 9 meeting and had missed the March 20 meeting—did not agree there was anything controversial about the project. Speaking with Newslaundry, he merely said that the state wildlife board’s decision alone doesn’t matter and that now it was up to the NBWL to take a call on the railway line.
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