No light at the end of Shirady Ghat tunnel

Ayswarya Murthy | Jan 7, 2020 | 6 min read


The state’s only major port, Mangalore, continues to remain woefully under-connected to economic centres like Bangalore and Chennai. This is, in part, because of the precarious stretch of National Highway 75 that cuts through the thickly-forested Western Ghats which has been increasingly prone to landslides. Here, the tensions between development and environment are most stark. While the traffic along the Shirady Ghat stretch has increased exponentially in the past two decades, patchwork and stopgap solutions to tackle this has put the delicate ecosystem at peril.

To stem the significant economic loss from the frequent lane closures during the monsoons, the concretisation of the ghat stretch was undertaken. It was completed only in mid-2018, a whole decade after the Karnataka High Court ordered its restoration (and a CBI probe into the frequent road repairs). But within days of its opening to traffic, it was closed again in second week of August following landslides in at least 12 locations along the stretch. Any road widening or improvement efforts along this existing road alignment have stalled or been sluggish, considering the concerns about the felling of trees in the ghats and difficult land acquisitions. 

A “green bypass” with new alignment and a combination of tunnels and high-pier bridges was proposed as an alternative in 2012 by the state’s public works department. Besides skirting curves, the 23-km bypass tunnel was expected to reduce the distance and travel time through the ghat by almost half. With six tunnels and ten bridges, the four-lane road would cost the government Rs 12,000 crores and was supposed to be taken up through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). 

JICA, of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail fame, has since become involved in several large infra projects across the country like the peripheral roads in Bangalore and Chennai and several metro projects in Delhi, Pune, Vijayawada, Kozhikode, Thiruvananthapuram and other cities. But the Shirady Ghat tunnel is still at the concept stage with no clear construction timetable. We were unable to get any comment from JICA in regards to this.

A government official from the NHAI’s Project Implementation Unit in Hassan, under whose jurisdiction the tunnel falls, said Detailed Project Report (DPR) has been prepared and submitted to the National Highway Authorities of India. “There have been some observations on the DPR. It’s not full-fledged yet,” he said. “No decision has been taken by the NHAI headquarters about whether they want to take it up or not. Right now Section 3A [of the National Highways Act] notification has been issued.” Which means the government has declared in the gazette its intention to acquire land along the stretch. 

The long wait for the DPR is perhaps an indicator of the complexity of the exercise and the uncertainty surrounding it. While in 2015, a team of international experts found no technical difficulties in the project, the DPR missed consecutive deadlines in 2016 and 2017. Among other things, the forest department had reportedly delayed granting permission for a geotechnical investigation that would require carrying out drilling tests to study soil strength and underground rock strata in the reserve forests of Sakleshpur. 

In March 2016, Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadhkari reiterated his earlier assurance that once the DPR is submitted, the work can start in six months and be completed in two years. In 2018, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways listed it among its key projects in the state and, for what it is worth, the DPR was eventually declared ready by Nitin Gadhkari towards the end of last year. But sources say there has been no progress since. 

At the PIU in Hassan, there isn’t much optimism about the project, considering NHAI’s financials. NHAI’s debt shot up from Rs 40,000 crore in 2014 to a whopping Rs 1.78 lakh crore in 2019. On August 17, the Prime Minister’s Office wrote to the NHAI saying it should discontinue constructing roads and encourage the private sector to take over the running of completed projects. “Road infrastructure has become financially unviable; private investors and construction companies are withdrawing from greenfield projects," the letter said. So the tunnel’s Rs 12,000 price tag will be tough to sign off on, despite the Modi government’s unfathomable promise to spend Rs 100 lakh crores in road development over the next five years. “Right now, the government will only be looking at the financial viability of the project,” the PIU officer said, adding that it would be difficult to impose the high tolls required to make it profitable.

Mangalore-based environmentalist Dinesh Holla also says that the project, for all intents and purposes, isn’t “confirmed”. And that’s perfectly fine by him. “The tunnel is extremely problematic for the forests and rivers. Already Shirady Ghat has been extensively damaged because of the dams and pipelines of the Yettinahole project,” he says. This, in addition to illegal encroachments, forest fires and other big infrastructure projects, have increased the frequency and range of landslides. To arguments that the tunnel project is a better alternative to road widening, which would fell more trees, Holla says, “The tunnels will disrupt rain water storage in the Shola forests which will directly impact rivers like Netravathi.” 

Hassan MLA, Preetham Gowda (BJP), says that the tunnel project, which cuts through thickly forested areas, needs a host of approvals from the Ministry of Environment and Forests before work can begin. In the last 24 months, landslides have been occurring with great intensity, not in the ghat interiors but also as far away as Mudigere, he says. “This kind of activity is very uncertain and peculiar. So we need a detailed technical study to figure out the cause for this and ensure that development works don’t trigger disasters.” 

Holla suggests that instead of green-lighting any new projects in this stretch, the existing road can be made more robust. But this too is challenging. In some portions of the existing road alignment, the altitude changes too steeply for any widening efforts. Whether the government will succeed in balancing development needs and eco-preservation here remains to be seen.

[The author is a Bangalore-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters]

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