New Delhi: The environment ministry and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) have been unable to resolve their conflict over a stretch of the NH7 that cuts through the Pench Tiger Park in Madhya Pradesh, with the government lawyer asking the Supreme Court for more time to study the case.
Conservationists say the project would set a bad precedent and threaten other wildlife habitats. The NHAI says no tigers have been seen in the area for a while.
Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati, at the hearing on Friday, asked the Supreme Court for two weeks to study the ramifications of the case. NH7 is part of the north-south corridor linking the two ends of the country.
The proposal has in the past been rejected by the Central Empowered Committee and the National Board of Wildlife on the grounds that it will cause excessive environmental disturbance and threaten the tiger population.
The dispute reflects the assertiveness of environment minister Jairam Ramesh as roads minister Kamal Nath seeks to pursue his mandate. Nath wants to overturn the image of the previous United Progressive Alliance as being lax on road-building in a nation trying hard to improve its inadequate infrastructure.
Environment suit: The Pench Tiger Park in Madhya Pradesh. Conservationists say the NH7 project, if cleared, will set a bad precedent. HT
The Supreme Court case has been complicated by amicus curiae Harish Salve withdrawing his note backing the project following adverse media comments.
An environment official associated with the case said the Congress leadership also raised its concern about the project’s environmental impact. He didn’t want to be named as he’s not authorised to speak to the media.
“The two ministries have thrashed out their differences,” said Vivek Tankha, additional solicitor general. “We need time (two weeks) as the amicus curiae has withdrawn his note to the court.”
Wildlife experts say allowing the project would lift the bar on other similar ventures crisscrossing such areas.
“Such intact areas with large mammals are of great value, such landscapes are very few and they comprise less than 2-3% of India’s land,” said K. Ulhas Karanth, one of India’s leading tiger scientists. “It is not just Pench. I am worried because no one talks of the 40km plus of excellent habitat the highway will cut through.”
Other pending proposals for highways passing through national parks include state highways through the Bandipur, Nagarhole and Kaziranga sanctuaries.
The Pench area was identified as a critical corridor between tiger habitats in 2005.
“This is a very vital landscape and one of the rare ones, which will survive through the 21st century,” said a historian who didn’t want to be named owing to the sensitivity of the matter. “This is worse than killing 100 tigers at one go. It will cut a breeding population off.”
NHAI rejected the contention of the conservationists.
“There is no real reason for objections,” said an NHAI official who didn’t want to be identified. “I don’t think a tiger has been seen in that area for a long time.”
The environment ministry and conservationists argue that the highway through Pench has other alternatives, which include building and expanding existing highways on other routes, which will include a 60-70km diversion. NHAI had earlier proposed an elevated highway through the forest stretch but then withdrew it on account of escalated costs.
“No one denies the need for roads but the current road systems are basically bullock cart paths laid centuries ago,” Karanth said. “The problem is NHAI’s basic mandate is wrong, which is to upgrade existing alignments because alignments were done long back. If you upgrade every existing alignment then you completely fragment the few remaining habitats.”
The Supreme Court or Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should take the initiative and change NHAI’s mandate so that it has to circle round any eco-sensitive areas, said Karanth, who had previously advised such a plan to the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court.