WHEELS within wheels and shadowy politics. That is what one comes across in the villages of Vihirgaon, Murti, Morwa and Kanhargaon in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. And at the centre of it all is a proposed greenfield airport at Vihirgaon and Murti in Chandrapur district, which will result in the loss of a virgin reserve forest and a vital tiger corridor and pose a danger to a sanctuary that has been proposed in the neighbourhood.
The proposal to build an airport in Chandrapur goes back to 2014. It was only in 2018 that the State government gave the nod for the project in the two villages, which are about 40 kilometres away from Chandrapur city. At the time, the General Administration Department issued a notification appointing the Maharashtra Airport Development Corporation (MADC) the nodal agency for the project. The government had approved 134 hectares of land it owned to be handed over to the MADC and sanctioned Rs.46 crore to acquire 187 ha of private land. The plan was to first develop an airport capable of handling Q-400 planes (basically, turboprops for shorter flights), then expand it so that it could handle A-320s and, ultimately, make it an international airport.
Murti and Vihirgaon are in Rajura taluk, which is known for its dense forest with a healthy population of wildlife such as leopards, tigers and sloth bears. In fact, the region has the highest density of tigers in India. The 2015 census of tigers found that 120 of Maharashtra’s 170 tigers were in Chandrapur district. Good conservation measures resulted in an increase in their numbers in 2018 to 312, the majority of them in Chandrapur. The famed Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve buffer zone is just 38 km away, the Chaprala Wildlife Sanctuary is 32 km away and the proposed Kanhargaon Wildlife Sanctuary is next to the airport site. In fact, Vihirgaon and Murti are both part of the tiger corridor according to a report of the Wildlife Institute of India. Because of the interconnectedness of ecosystems, the Kawal and Indravati Tiger Reserves in Telangana and Chhattisgarh respectively will also feel the impact of an airport in Chandrapur.
All these wildlife areas will be severely affected by the construction of an airport though a cost-benefit analysis dated January 14 submitted to the MADC by an independent assessor it hired says otherwise. The analysis, which took into consideration various parameters for a period of 50 years, claims that the “total benefits [of the project are] Rs.4,93,993.809 lakh. Total losses [are] Rs.1,97,264.15 lakh. Hence Benefit/Cost Ratio = 493993.809 / 197264.15 = 2.5042. Thus the project gives Benefit/Cost Ratio. The monetary returns of the project are positive over the environmental losses.” An activist was dismissive of this analysis, saying: “This is the old method of calculating the value of a forest. The Supreme Court has already set up a committee to find the environmental value of a forest and a wildlife corridor, which is far more than this.”
The office of the Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) at Chandrapur has already said that the project can go ahead with certain conditions. As many as 3,817 trees could face the axe while 75 ha of forest land, comprising 47 ha of reserved forest and 28 ha of protected forest, could be handed over for the project. Despite such safe-sounding words like “reserved” and “protected”, there is actually no real protection for the forests. If “procedure” is followed, a forest can be de-reserved and the land used for any purpose. Procedure, in Maharashtra, means that the CCF refers a proposal with his recommendations to the Nodal Officer who, in turn, will send it to the Forest Department and then it will go to the Regional Empowerment Committee (REC), which will decide whether the forest land can be diverted for non-forestry purposes.
The REC has six members, including three representatives from non-governmental organisations (NGOs). On paper that makes it seem as if there is some hope for the forest, but recent political trends being what they are, the NGO appointees are usually just “rubber stamps”, as a wildlife activist put it. Worse still, according to a source in Chandrapur, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) apparently makes these appointments. The airport proposal is currently with the REC, which is expected to give it the go-ahead.
According to documents with Frontline , S.V. Ramarao, CCF, Chandrapur Circle, and Gajendra Hire, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Central Chanda division, Chandrapur, have given their clearances, but there are some puzzling contradictions. In a site inspection report dated March 20, Ramarao gave his “okay” to the project after having visited the site a month before he submitted his report. He says that the land the MADC has asked for is “unavoidable and barest minimum”. He also says that the site is “important from wildlife point of view” since rare and endangered species such as the “Tiger, Sloth Bear and other herbivorous animals move through the area”. Despite saying this, he goes on to make the point that the “sensitivity of the forest is not affected due to project” and remarks that “it is part of Tiger corridor Grid No. 248 (Vihirgaon & Murti… as per Wildlife Institute of India’s report in Tiger Corridors of Eastern Vidarbha Land scape”. Further down, the CCF avers: “No violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 is noticed.” He ends by saying: “The proposal is recommended for giving approval under Forest (Conservation) Act 1980. Mitigation measures as suggested by Wildlife institute of India as it is a tiger corridor.” In his report, the CCF asks that the following measures be taken: wildlife habitat loss be compensated for, tiger/wildlife movement should not be affected and compensatory afforestation of 1,000 saplings a hectare on degraded forest land in Chandrapur district be carried out.
About 12 km outside Chandrapur city, near Morwa village, there is an airstrip that small private planes and helicopters use. When there is an existing airstrip with basic facilities, it seems unreasonable for the government to pursue a greenfield airport project, which, as the term implies, means starting from scratch. Why is this airstrip not being developed into a commercial airport? Why is the government choosing the long, hard road of dealing with opposition to the proposed site and the even longer road of environmental destruction when it has a ready solution?
For those who live and work in the area, the most obvious question is why a thriving ecosystem that is home to the endangered tiger should be destroyed when there is an alternative site for the airport. Some people even question the need for another airport since Nagpur, only 150 km away, already has one. But given that Vidarbha has not received the infrastructural support that other areas have, the counterargument says another airport will help the local economy. The CCF, too, makes this point in support of the airport: “It will lead to economic development of the backward region of the Vidarbha area.”
Another critical reason to change the site of the greenfield airport is that it is in the vicinity of the proposed Kanhargaon Wildlife Sanctuary. Geographically, the lush forests of Kanhargaon offer tigers a link to move between the Kawal Tiger Reserve in Telangana, the Indravati Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh and the Chaprala and Pranhita Wildlife sanctuaries in Gadchiroli, and it is also a link to the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. Kanhargaon has a resident population of 10 tigers, four of which are female, so it is a crucial tiger-bearing area. A 2015 survey by the Wildlife Conservation Trust found that the forest also had 23 leopards. The increase in wildlife can cause human-animal conflicts, and that is another reason why Kanhargaon should be declared a sanctuary, for which, right now, there is an in-principle approval. It is imperative that the sanctuary be created and made inviolate.
Resistance to the sanctuary also comes from another flank. Many years ago, the Forest Department handed over the forests of Kanhargaon to the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra (or FDCM; mockingly referred to as the Forest Destruction Corporation because its activities centre around exploiting forests). The revenue from the FDCM, which is primarily from logging, could amount to Rs.20-22 crore annually. The proposed sanctuary will have an area of 210 sq. km. Most of this is under felling by the FDCM now. If Kanhargaon is granted sanctuary status, then it will no longer be in the hands of the FDCM, and so it will cause a considerable loss of revenue for those who have benefited thus far. However, a deal is apparently being worked out to give compensatory logging sites to the FDCM in some other area.
Sudhir Mungantiwar, Minister for Finance, Planning and Forests during 2014-19 when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power, put up a spirited opposition to the creation of a sanctuary at Kanhargaon. It was only in December 2018, when former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis gave the green signal for the in-principal approval for the sanctuary, that Mungantiwar backed down.
But all is not yet lost. The greenfield airport project requires three clearances: forest, wildlife and environmental. It is still at the first stage. Wildlife activists say they will resist the project when wildlife clearances are considered.