Wayanad fights to keep its highway

Published : Oct 03, 2019 15:01 IST

Schoolchildren take part in a protest march against the ban on night traffic on the Kozhikode-Bengaluru National Highway (NH-766), at Sulthan Batheri in Wayanad on October 1.

Schoolchildren take part in a protest march against the ban on night traffic on the Kozhikode-Bengaluru National Highway (NH-766), at Sulthan Batheri in Wayanad on October 1.

Protests are intensifying in Wayanad district of Kerala over a proposal made by the Supreme Court for a total ban on vehicle traffic through the Kozhikode-Kollegal National Highway 766 that passes through the Bandipur National Park and its likely impact on trade, tourism and daily life of people in the district and neighbouring regions.

A ban on the movement of vehicles at night, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., already in force on the Bandipur stretch of NH-766 for over 10 years, had been a source of continuing grievance in the district, with local residents claiming that it had affected their lives, businesses and transport options in a serious manner.

Although the ban had led to continuous protests, the restriction imposed at first by the Deputy Commissioner and Magistrate of Chamarajanagar district of Karnataka in June 2009, was later upheld by a Division Bench of the Karnataka High Court in March 2010.

The limited ban imposed on movement of vehicles along one of the three major road corridors linking Kerala with the rest of India had since then become a sensitive political issue in Wayanad district.

The court case came about soon after the ban was lifted for a brief period by the Karnataka district authorities. A set of writ petitions were then filed by some individuals in Karnataka and a few environmental organisations in 2009 raising the issue of protection of wildlife in the national park area from the heavy and constant traffic flow through it.

Simultaneously, a group of private transport operators with permits to run vehicle services between Karnataka and Kerala along the Bandipur stretch approached the court against the ban. Later, several parties impleaded themselves in the case against the ban, among them the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation, the Kerala and Tamil Nadu State governments, and the then MPs of Wayanad and Kozhikode.

The Karnataka government, bowing to the demands of forest officials and environmentalists, has since then refused to withdraw the ban and the Karnataka High Court has upheld that decision in the best interest of the well-being of wild animals in an important and sensitive forest habitat.

In the 10 years that the night ban has been in force it is not unusual to hear frequent travellers, including students and professionals based in Kozhikode and Wayanad and businessmen and traders in Wayanad, Malappuram and Kozhikode, complain about the hardships they suffer because of the restriction and the loss of business that has come as a result. There were intermittent protests and demonstrations too even as appeals against the Karnataka High Court order reached the Supreme Court.

But all of a sudden, in the last week of September, protests intensified across Wayanad demanding the immediate lifting of the night ban along Bandipur on NH-766. The immediate provocation was the progress of the case in the Apex court.

In early September the Supreme Court had asked the Central government to respond within four weeks to its suggestion for closing down NH-766 and developing another route as a national highway connecting Kerala and Karnataka. Already there are reports that an alternative route—Kalpetta-Mananthavady- Gonikoppal-Mysore—has been identified and a survey has been undertaken so that a reply can be submitted to the court within the stipulated time.

However, local people from all walks of life irrespective of party affiliation have come together in Wayanad to join a mass protest demanding the lifting of the partial ban on NH-766 and against the proposal for closure of the road. A relay fast by local youth belonging to the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Muslim League, the Bharatiya Janata Party and other parties crossed Day Eight on October 2. Earlier, farmers of Wayanad took out a huge rally to the Karnataka border from Sulthan Bathery, the biggest town in Wayanad. An estimated 20,000 school and college students from the district too have joined the agitation. The Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi is scheduled to visit Sulthan Bathery and express solidarity with the people of his constituency. The Congress-led opposition United Democratic Front has called for a hartal on October 5.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who met Union Environment Minister Prakash Javedkar in New Delhi on October 1, informed him about the concerns of Kerala on the issue and the strong opposition of the people of Wayanad, Kozhikode and Malappuram districts to the suggestion that the road should be closed permanently.

An alternative plan suggested earlier by Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) and the Kerala government for building an elevated corridor along the Bandipur forest stretch of NH-766, was reportedly turned down by the Karnataka government. In a recent letter to the Kerala Chief Minister, Union Minister Javedkar said that the proposal for an elevated corridor had been discussed at length by the committee of Secretaries constituted as per a court direction earlier and that the decision of the committee was that “the status quo should continue”.

He also said “the Centre has initiated action as per the direction of the court” (to file an affidavit within four weeks with suggestions as to how to develop an alternative road). The letter also said that “the core/critical tiger habitats need to be kept inviolate for long-term sustenance of ecology of the area” and that the alternative route suggested was “not a Critical Tiger Habitat” and “can be suitably mitigated”.

Right from 2009, when the issue came up, the courts have sought to weigh the hardship faced by large sections of local people and the economic loss to transport operators, traders and farmers because of the night travel restrictions against “the severe adverse impact” traffic on the highway has on wildlife in a national park area meant for their protection.

The Bandipur Tiger Reserve, which is also a part of the Mysore Elephant Reserve, is one of the most important wildlife habitats in the country and supports one of the highest densities of tigers in the world and of elephants in the country. The area is also part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and lies contiguous to the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve and the Wayanad and Mudumalai Wildlife sanctuaries. NH-766 cuts right through this important corridor for wild animals

Significantly, the Division Bench of the Karnataka High Court had ruled in favour of the ban taking into consideration, among other things, the high traffic density on the highway (with a vehicle passing through it every 0.41 minute then); road accidents, which were killing an unacceptable number of wild animals; the sound and light disturbance from vehicles, which was irritating wild animals no end, driving them to avoid the road and encroach on farmland and villages, leading to man-animal conflicts; and all this was affecting their basic biological needs such as mating, breeding and nurturing of young ones, with a long-term impact on animal populations.

The protests in Wayanad are likely to intensify, now that the apex court too seems to be thinking in favour of the wellbeing of the animals inside the wildlife reserve. T.M. Rasheed, general convener of the action committee spearheading the agitation, told Frontline : “The Supreme Court is being misled. The alternative route being suggested too passes through long stretches of forests. Of the total 186 km road that needs to be developed, only 40 km is a part of National Highway 275. The rest is part of a State highway and an inadequate district road, both in a very bad condition. Developing these roads into a National Highway will require crores of rupees. Such a highway will also affect the ecology and wildlife in equal measure. NH-766 is the only lifeline for Wayanad and has served the entire district for decades. Wayand has no rail or air connectivity. Vested interests are now suggesting a new highway that avoids most parts of the district. We sincerely hope that the Supreme Court will see though their game.”


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