The National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) has given a nod to the railways for a survey on the proposed line from Sevoke to Rongpo, the second within Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. This key elephant habitat in North Bengal has already seen six elephant deaths so far this year
While experts feel a second line within the sanctuary will only result in increase in traffic, Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) sources revealed that even though the survey nod has been given, permission for starting construction on the stretch is subject to fulfilment of certain conditions.
“Since a stretch of key elephant corridor is being used for a rail link, the Bengal government has been asked to make up for this and legally notify the forests of Baikunthapur and Upalchand, covering an approximate area of 25 square kilometres. This stretch of reserve forest is a corridor between Mahananda and Gorumara National Park and is often used by the jumbos,” said NBWL member M D Madhusudan, adding that the state was supposed to notify the area in 1995, when an environment clearance was granted to the Teesta Barrage project near Gajaldoba.
But it was never done. Sources revealed that even rhinos from Gorumara sometimes cross over to Mahananda using this corridor. “If protected, this forest patch could prove crucial for conservation of wildlife in North Bengal,” said a conservationist.
Forest department sources revealed that since the environment clearance was given to the Teesta Barrage Project authorities then, they were supposed to take up the initiative. “The plan was to notify the area as a conservation reserve and it would have enjoyed the same protection status like a sanctuary or a national park. But the Teesta Barrage officials never took it up with the foresters,” said an official.
The Army’s Eastern Command is, however, relieved that a go-ahead has been given to the railways to carry out a survey for the proposed 44.39 km rail link. The Army has, for long, sought rail connectivity to Sikkim for movement of men and equipment.
“In today’s world of precision guided missiles, it is always prudent to have an alternate route to move troops and equipment to the Line of Actual Control (LAC). China has already got a rail link to Lhasa. While movement of troops by road is not a problem, it is time consuming to move heavy equipment along mountainous roads. Movement of heavy equipment by rail is much faster,” a senior officer said.
A three-member NBWL standing committee team, who had visited the site in February, has submitted a report to the Centre last week. A copy of it has also been sent to the state government.
Among other conditions, put forward to the state, is setting up of a monitoring committee with geologists, seismologists and elephant experts, who will monitor the project site once the construction starts and submit a report to the Centre every six months. “We have also asked the state and railways to set up a join corpus, funds from which will be utilized to manage man-animal conflict in the area,” added Madhusudan.
“Once they submit a detailed report on all this, along with their survey findings, then only we will give a nod to the construction,” said Madhusudan, adding that in the long term, the state has been asked to divert traffic on this route via Jalpaiguri, instead of Alipurduar.
Meanwhile, Union minister of state for railways Adhir Chowdhury said that the construction work on this stretch will take time to start since a survey for this project is a time-consuming matter. “But as I said earlier, we are not irrational and everything will be done after protecting the wildlife in the corridor,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Army also wants the government to expedite work on all railway links in the North East. Many of these are tied up as clearances from the MoEF are awaited. These include the 88 km Dimapur-Kohima link in Nagaland with a project cost of Rs 850 crore and the 97.9 km Jiribam-Imphal link with an estimated cost of Rs 4,478.17 crore.
State told to legally notify a 25-sq km forest patch between Mahananda and Gorumara
Railways has been asked to submit plans to check elephant mortality in the corridor after consulting experts
A joint corpus to be set up by the state and railways, funds from which will be used to manage man-animal conflict in the area
A state-level monitoring panel will be formed, which will review the project site once the construction starts and submit its report to the Centre every six months