In a country where some complain that people do not follow traffic rules, the government wants animals to follow them. The rules are meant for the safety of the animals and are becoming increasingly necessary as the country builds highways through wildlife parks and other habitat of animals.
Thus, highway engineers in Seoni in Madhya Pradesh plan to construct 20 underpasses for tigers who may want to cross a road under construction, a four-lane stretch passing through the Pench Tiger Reserve.
Similarly, a highway bridge over crocodile-inhabited lake at a sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh will not be the standard configuration; instead, it will use cables that minimize the use of pillars, to ensure that the reptiles do not feel threatened. Similar solutions to reduce the threat of vehicles crashing into elephants, deer and other animals crossing the road are being planned by the highways authority in many other wildlife parks.
Animal–human conflict has become a sticky issue for India’s national highway development programme, which aims to construct over 54,000km of highways all over the country.
After non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and wildlife authorities prevented many highway projects from being implemented as originally planned, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has decided that innovative engineering that addresses such concerns is the solution.
In 2006, nine elephants, two tigers and eight leopards were killed in road and track accidents, says the Wildlife Protection Society of India. In the first half of 2007, 16 elephants were killed in such accidents in Karnataka alone.
The extra engineering is expected to add to project costs by around 10% on average, NHAI officials said.
According to a member on the NHAI board, Nirmaljit Singh, many projects, especially in the East-West highway corridor (linking the eastern and western parts of the country), are held up because of objections related to environmental issues. “There are some stretches where we have even prepared the detailed project reports after working on them for a couple of years. But now the Wildlife Board has objected stating that the projects would endanger the animals and so we have to do the whole exercise again,” the said Singh.
However, animal conservationists are not impressed with NHAI’s engineering expertise. “If they build underpasses for tigers, are they sure that the big cats would use them? Animals are not used to having cars running above them. Also, common sense tells us that an elephant would find it extremely difficult to cross a four-lane highway,” said Ritwick Dutta, a Supreme Court lawyer who specializes in environment-related cases.
The only solution, says Dutta, is to ensure that the highways do not pass through the national parks and sanctuaries at all.
Dutta claimed that NHAI plans roads through protected areas because the land is easy to acquire. “Forest lands are more easy to acquire than private lands and so the NHAI prepares their alignments mostly through the sanctuaries,” he added.
“The sensible answer is to divert the highways, of course. But it’s a matter of money again. Construction will cause disturbances, noise, vibration, pollution...,” said Ravi Chellam, director, ATREE, an NGO that works on issues related to wildlife and the environment.