With the cleaving out of Uttaranchal
from the state of Uttar Pradesh, the long-standing aspirations of its
people to acquire statehood for their region, may have been fulfilled.
But in doing so, the political scythe unwittingly inflicted the
unkindest cut on countless people like me, who prided themselves on
being denizens of a state which boasted of such wild havens as Dudhwa,
Corbett and Rajaji national parks, not to speak of a lofty mountain
range within which nestled many other places of greater pristine
If forfeiting its green crown was a
great loss to Uttar Pradesh, the fledgling state found itself flush with
a relatively high percentage of forest cover, and a rich biodiversity
that came along with it. From the wildlife conservationists’ viewpoint,
the new state has inherited this immense forest wealth not for
exploitation or financial gain, but as a natural heritage that is
sacrosanct, and to be honestly preserved.
No doubt there is the need
for the new state to enhance basic infrastructure like roads, in order
to set the pace for economical development and self-sustenance in vital
sectors like transport and tourism, on which it is heavily dependent.
But this development has to be carried out carefully, without inviting
opposition from environmental groups and activists who are of the
focused view that they would blow the whistle on any large-scale
developmental activity in Uttaranchal, if it is carried out without
taking environmental concerns into account
As it happened, one of the first few
developmental projects of the government turned out to be a highly
contentious issue. This project involved the construction of a proposed
highway from Kotdwar to Kalagarh and on to Ramnagar, on an existing
route alignment that passed through the Corbett Tiger Reserve along its
southern boundary, with several stretches of the planned road traversing
the core areas of the tiger reserve between Khara Gate and Kalagarh
town, while the remainder largely running through the buffer zone.
As expected, the conservationists were
up in arms and managed to get a stay order from the Supreme Court in
April last. The order was passed during proceedings in an ongoing PIL on
tiger conservation, when Solicitor General Harish Salve mentioned an
interim application submitted by the Wildlife Protection Society of
India (WPSI), which clearly outlined the apprehension that such a high
way through the Corbett Tiger Reserve would be disastrous for wildlife,
bringing in its wake a high frequency of heavy vehicular movement,
proliferation of road-side establishments for food and vehicular
maintenance, thereby causing noise and disturbance levels to reach
mind-boggling levels in this hitherto prime wildlife habitat.
Thanks to the Supreme Court
directives, the highway construction has been stayed for the moment, but
it is far from being a permanent solution to the problem. Considering
that road transport is the key to development, it is understandable that
the compulsive road building activity of the Uttaranchal government is
ostensibly guided by the objective that movement of commercial vehicles
within the state should be made possible without them having to criss-cross
through Uttar Pradesh roads. To create such a road network, it would
necessitate new route alignments. At present however, the existing road
network makes it incumbent upon vehicles plying between far-flung
origins and destinations within Uttaranchal, to make use of roads lying
in UP jurisdiction - and thereby becoming liable for payment of various
taxes that accrue to the UP Transport department.
Obviously this dual taxation, as well
as the compulsion to traverse longer distances on circuitous routes
through UP, had become a point of contention for Uttaranchal
transporters, and the need to provide them solace in this regard must
have been the priority which determined the state government’s decision
to go ahead with the highway construction.
However, the thing to note here is the
evident glee with which this remedy was sought to be applied. It clearly points towards
the tremendous benefits that lie in store for wood contractors and the timber
industry through the execution of such projects. This can be gauged by
the fact that by the time the stay was ordered, around 7000 trees had
already been felled in the process.
It is this unholy speed which is
blatantly exhibited in implementation of destructive projects, which
raises doubts and questions. It also reinforces the fear that if this
project had been allowed to go on without taking environmental concerns
into account, the process of planning and executing more road projects
in the future, would have left more and more Uttaranchal forest areas
susceptible to felling and encroachments.
Had the solution to this problem been sought with environmental concerns – and not "developmental" ones -
being paramount, it might have been a good idea for the Central
government to arbitrate between the UP & Uttaranchal governments, and
enforce either some kind of a moratorium or waiver of this dual
taxation, or maybe effect an increase in the number of kms which a
vehicle is allowed to traverse in another state without inviting
taxation – if its origin and destination is within its own state.
Calculated on the basis of state's annual revenue, this financial
setback may undeniably amount to a sizeable sum, but in the long run it
would still be too little as compared to the massive environmental
degradation we may suffer at the hands of faulty planning at this stage.
Although the highway construction has
been stayed for the moment, it should not be forgotten that that its
planning and execution was bad in law, otherwise it would never have
invited the attention of the Supreme Court. The significance of the
Supreme Court stay order lies in the fact that for the time being the
road cannot be constructed even in the reserve forest land, as has been
proposed by the state government. Initially, the Centre had approved the
proposed highway under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, provided no
part of the road went through the national park area. However, the
three judge bench comprising Justice A.S. Anand, Justice R.C Lahoti and
Justice Brijesh Kumar clarified in their order that the stay would not
hinder the Uttaranchal government as long as the road did not pass
through the tiger reserve.
It is now up to the development
agencies in the state to take advantage of the considered view of the
Supreme Court ruling and reconsider this problem with a holistic
approach in order to seek a solution that does not disregard
environmental and wildlife conservation issues.