Top Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday joined the backlash against a night-travel ban on the National Highway-766 route, where his home constituency Wayanad in Kerala falls, and one that passes through Bandipur Tiger Reserve Forest, a protected zone filled with tigers and elephants, between Kerala and Karnataka.
Where the tigers roam free, Gandhi may be sensing a silver bullet to retain his Wayanad seat for years to come, after losing his family stronghold Amethi seat in recent Lok Sabha election. It could, however, be his toughest challenge in Wayanad as finding an amicable solution to end the travel ban has been elusive to Kerala politicians for nearly a decade.
Lifting the travel ban has been a long-pending demand of the people in Wayanad, one of Kerala's poorest districts in terms of human development indices, which sank into further peril during the recent floods. Locals believe economic prosperity will accompany if they wide open the border route all across the day, which takes them to the big cities such as Mysore and Bengaluru in Karnataka. But any proposal to lift the travel ban has seen Kannada politicians and activists up in arms, citing the need to preserve the expansive wilderness in the state with the second-highest number of tigers.
Protests have peaked in Wayanad over the last few days, with people resorting to hunger strikes on the streets. This is because the Supreme Court upheld the ban on 7 August and speculation running high among locals that soon, the ban will be enforced on day-time too. Gandhi tweeted in support of the protestors and met Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan in Delhi on Tuesday, bringing to it national attention. “It is causing a lot of pain to the people of Kerala and Wayanad and I think it needs to be tackled at the earliest," he told reporters after meeting Vijayan.
The road-corridor is important for Wayanad, both in terms of trade and travel. Some of Wayanad’s earliest settlers like Bhuddists and Jains came by this route. From the huge jungle it was nearly 200 years ago, Wayanad's journey as an important spice trade, plantation and tourism destination history was practically shaped by this route. The same route also led to Tipu’s army, and later Britishers, invasion of Wayanad and the rest of north Kerala called Malabar.
Currently, it is a major route for anybody to enter and exit Kerala from its north. It has also become crucial for the legion of techies from the state working in India’s silicon valley, Bengaluru. Going by police arrests over the years, the route is even the beloved one for smugglers, of everything from drugs to black money.
But the night ban, enforced in 2009 after a directive from Mysuru Deputy Commissioner to protect wild animals from vehicular movement, has taken a toll. It has made dawn and dusk the peak traffic hours, also the time most active time for wildlife, Gandhi argued in his letter to Vijayan. The alternative routes available, he added, nearly doubles the travel time.
However, wild-life supporters on both sides of the border, along with Karnataka government, has made persistent attempts to preserve the ban, fighting cases in Kerala and Karnataka high courts and in the apex court.
"The ban is applied only from 9 pm to 6 am. The markets in Mysore close by around 5 pm, and the traders can reach Wayanad before the ban is applied on the night. Those who are taking this route to reach Mysore and Bengaluru can leave by the evening, or the early morning, and can still reach their destinations before daily life starts in those cities. So why do we have to hurt the wildlife needlessly?" said KA Shaji, a Kerala-based journalist who has extensively covered Wayanad's ecological issues.
“For any emergency travel, there are six public transport buses each from Karnataka and Kerala plying on the route. The wildlife in Bandipur is already in jeopardy for a variety of reasons, complete removal of the ban will be idiotic," he said.
So what chance do the tigers and elephants have standing up against an important politician like Gandhi, economic chaos and the politics of development? So far, their habitat is probably safe, since there is no workable solution agreed by both states, or the central government, despite several federal discussions.
Kerala MPs had previously pitched building an elevated corridor over the forest, which has been repeatedly turned down by Karnataka and the center. “We are a poor country," told Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari to Kerala MP K Suresh, who renewed the plea for an elevated corridor during a Lok Sabha debate in July. Suresh pointed out that the center is already building one such over Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. “We are spending Rs. 1300 crore to build 9 kilometres there (in Pench). This is public money. It is up to you to decide whether it is correct or not," said Gadkari.