On March 20, the controversial Hubballi-Ankola railway line project was cleared at the Karnataka State Wildlife Board meeting in Bengaluru amid protests from members. The proposed 164.44-km line will pass through the Western Ghats, a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Heritage Site, and see felling of 2.2 lakh trees, a move that has been opposed even by some members of the wildlife board.

According to a site inspection report submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, nearly 80% of the proposed line passes through the dense forest lands. The total land required is 995.64 hectares, including 595.64 hectares of forest land, 184.6 hectares of wetland, and 190 hectares of dry land.

Sanjay Mohan, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests with Karnataka Forest Department and a member of the Karnataka State Wildlife Board, told Mongabay-India that the people of North Karnataka want development and jobs in their area, and this project will ensure both.

This railway line will serve the freight traffic and link the West coast to the state’s hinterland for socio-economic development of the Northern and the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, as the current mode of road transport is inaccessible for five months during monsoons.

As per the project layout, the main reason for proposing a new broad-gauge line was for the transportation of iron and manganese ore from Bellary and Hospet to the upcoming ports at Tadri, near Ankola; Karwar in Western Karnataka; and ports of Vasco and Madgaon in Goa.

Though covering an area of 1.8 lakh sq km – or just under 6% of the total land area in India – the Western Ghats contains more than 30% of all plant, fish, bird, and mammal species found in the country. The Western Ghats, apart from being a storehouse of tropical biodiversity, is also the source of 38 East-flowing rivers and 27 rivers flowing into the Arabian Sea. The Godavari, Krishna, Mandovi, Cauvery and Zuari are some prominent rivers that originate in the Western Ghats. Approximately 24.5 crore people living in the peninsular Indian states receive most of their water supply from rivers originating in the Western Ghats.

Vijay Nishanth, biodiversity management committee member of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Forest Cell, highlighted that the area is among the biodiversity hotspots in the world as it houses about 2,500 endemic species of plants, insects, animals and amphibians. If a part of the area is used for development, many of the endemic species will go extinct, he added.

Erratic rainfall, soil erosion

The project is set to affect the vegetation, faunal diversity and animal movement in the Western Ghats. The proposed railway line passes through different types of forests, including evergreen, semi-evergreen, moist deciduous and dry deciduous with a dense canopy.

According to a former chief wildlife warden with the Karnataka Forest Department, the project is a “complete hoax and professional fraud”. The ex-official, requesting anonymity, added that the project will also affect rainfall. The forests release tiny particles which seed clouds and induce rainfall due to which the top ridges receive 4,000-6,000 mm of rainfall. On account of good vegetation cover, there’s good organic matter in the soil, and it helps in the percolation of water, he informed.

The water comes out at lower ridges in the form of springs even several months after the rains stop, leading to the availability of water even during dry periods, he explained. The destruction of vegetation in the Western Ghats will lead to erratic rainfall, no scope for rainwater to percolate into the soil, and the water will rush downstream at high-speed, taking away the soil along with it, he highlighted.

“In this way, the Western Ghats start getting destroyed and the eroded soil deposits in lakes and rivers, which will reduce their capacity to hold water,” said the former chief wildlife warden. “Either there will be a flood or a drought, as we have already witnessed in 2018 and 2019. All this can lead to a reduction in crop yields and subsequent food shortage.”

Threat to endemic species

In its report to the state government, the Indian Institute of Science had stated that a frog species that had gone extinct was rediscovered on the proposed railway stretch. The institute still gave a green signal to the project, suggesting measures to minimise damage to biodiversity.

Such rediscovered species will be in very limited numbers and with the implementation of this project, this species is definitely going to become extinct, Vijay Nishanth highlighted.

Nishanth added that there are many other species in the Western Ghats that have medicinal, industrial and food value. They play an important role in the ecosystem and there is a need to preserve them by not implementing the project, he mentioned.

TV Ramachandra, a scientist with the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science-Bengaluru and lead author of the institute’s study, said the project would have a severe impact on the ecology of Western Ghats.

He said that in the 168-km railway line area, anthropogenic factors had already reduced the forest cover to 83.14% in 2010 from 98.78% in 1973. If that land is used for railway track, the forest cover will reduce further by 16.23% and every species of tree and shrubs from the floristic study will be hugely affected.

Further, in the faunal diversity study of the area, Dr Ramachandra confirmed the presence of 29 species of mammals, 256 species of birds, eight species of reptiles and 50 species of butterflies that feature in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. Most of these species are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

Ramachandra said the entire faunal diversity is endangered by this project.

He added that if the railway line is constructed, there is a 96% chance of landslides in North Karnataka. He further informed that the project would induce a loss of nearly 2.5 lakh ton of carbon removal due to the loss of vegetation. Another report by Ramachandra’s research group states that further deforestation of the Western Ghats will trigger higher instances of flooding and drought.

On August 12, 2017, the environment ministry stated that while there are about 50 tiger reserves in the country, Kali Tiger Reserve and the Western Ghats constitute the best of the habitats for tigers and elephants.

The ex-official highlighted that the proposed railway line would shrink their habitat, take away their homes and will cut the movement of elephants and tigers, which will lead to more instances of man-animal conflict. He mentioned that no one is ready to analyse the past and the present decade’s accelerated climatic changes, which have resulted in a series of ecologically and environmentally disastrous events across the globe. The ecological repercussions of this project would be severe, he cautioned.

Past attempts

The Railways ministry had proposed laying a broad-gauge line on the Hubballi-Ankola route in the railway budget of 1997-’98. Resistance from ecologists kept the project from realisation. In 2011, Karnataka government asked the Indian Institute of Science to look into the concerns and present a report. The report, published in 2011, said the project could go ahead with certain adjustments to minimise damage to flora and fauna. The state government chose to go ahead with this report instead of the findings of two other committees – set up by the National Board for Wildlife – which recommended scrapping the project altogether.

In 2017, the Karnataka government had recommended the proposal to the environment ministry based on the report, where it recommended the implementation of the project with suggested improvements. However, in 2018, the National Board for Wildlife introduced two committees comprising the Inspector General of Forests, Wildlife Division of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Wildlife Institute of India, National Tiger Conservation Authority.

The committees rejected the project in its entirety, considering its wider ecological ramifications on the fragile Western Ghats and its impacts on the endangered species. In one of their reports, the committees said, “It is reiterated that extremely fragile ecosystems of the Western Ghats will not be able to sustain or buffer impacts likely caused by a developmental project of the scale of Hubballi-Ankola railway track construction.”

Requesting anonymity, a highly placed Karnataka State Wildlife Board member told Mongabay-India that every department had been opposed to the project from day one. He informed that on March 9, the bard had met to discuss two options: the Hubballi-Ankola railway line and the Hubballi-Madgaon railway line. The latter, too, provides rail connectivity to Ankola but takes an hour and a half longer than the Hubballi-Ankola line.

The official informed that they had given wildlife clearance to the Hubballi-Madgaon railway line in the March 9 meeting to save the Western Ghats. This project would have required the felling of trees only on six or seven hectares. The official said Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, too, had accepted the proposal but had to reverse the decision within a fortnight, reportedly because of political pressure.

After the meeting on March 20, the day the Karnataka government gave a green signal to the controversial railway line, Jayanagar MLA Sowmya Reddy resigned as a member of the state board. She took to Facebook, where she mentioned that the project would have a severe impact on the environment and wildlife.

“I am not against development, but I cannot support something that is harmful to the environment where there was an alternative, my conscience will not allow me to. Natural disasters in the recent past have shown us that nothing is bigger than preserving the exciting nature,” she said.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.