The decade-long Kerala-Karnataka border dispute, over whether to allow night travel through Bandipur tiger park or not, is set to intensify as top Congress leader Rahul Gandhi prepares to visit the Kerala protestors on Friday.
Kerala’s border district Wayanad, Gandhi’s home constituency, has already been witnessing tense protests over this issue for the past few days. Kerala wants to remove a travel ban on National Highway 766, which cuts through Bandipur forest area, between 9pm and 6am. Karnataka vehemently opposes the lifting of the ban. The night traffic ban was introduced following a directive from the Mysuru Deputy Commissioner in 2009 to provide wild animals a reprieve from vehicular movemen.
Gandhi will visit Freedom Park in Wayanad on Friday, where five young Congress workers have been staging a hunger strike on the issue for the last nine days. About 150,000 people have participated in the public protest so far, according to local news reports. Former Congress Kerala president V.M. Sudheeran, Bharatiya Janata Party Kerala president P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, among others, also visited the venue on Thursday. Gandhi had met Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Tuesday, who discussed the topic with central government ministers in Delhi on the same day.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa reiterated the state’s opposition to any change of the ban. The Supreme Court had upheld the ban on 7 August. "I cannot go against the court order. The court has ordered not to allow vehicles in the night in Bandipur forest area," Yediyurappa told reporters in Bengaluru.
The ban has become an emotional issue for the Kerala side of the border, amidst complaints of economic hardships and hours-long traffic snarls. The protests intensified after the apex court verdict, and are also seen as an effort to pressurise the Central government. The Supreme Court in September asked the Central government’s response on shutting down the highway altogether. The union government has done a survey for the feasibility of another route, which will nearly double the travel time, and is expected to give a response to the court this month. Kerala MPs had previously pitched for an elevated corridor over the forest to circumvent the ban, which was repeatedly turned down by Karnataka and the Centre, citing heavy money and ecological costs.