Resembling a camel’s hump, Vavul Mala, at 7,677 feet, is the highest point in Kerala’s northern Kozhikode district. It is also one of the most ecologically sensitive portions of Western Ghats. A little further, in the adjacent district of Wayanad, is Chembra Peak, one of the prime eco-tourism spots with a lake at the top. These two locations are among the several sensitive locations that may get impacted by a proposed 6.8 km long subterranean road tunnel.
The road tunnel, reported to be India’s third longest tunnel when built, is considered a dream project of Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government. It involves digging a highly sensitive portion of Western Ghats and the primary works for this have already started with the state empowering Konkan Railway Corporation Limited to conduct surveying.
According to conservationist, PK Uthaman, Vavul Mala and its surroundings are home to several species of flora and fauna endemic only to the Nilgiris-Wayanad-Coorg stretch of the Western Ghats. This area also receives the highest rate of rainfall during the southwest monsoon.
The project is facing resistance from environmentalists and civil society groups who fear that once completed, the project could lead to natural disasters in both Wayanad and Kozhikode districts. They note that the state government initiated such a project without conducting studies related to its financial feasibility study, environmental impact assessment, or sociological impact assessment, which are usually done in advance.
In August 2019, Puthumala, an ecologically fragile area near Chembra and Vavul Mala, had witnessed a massive landslide during which 11 people died and six are still missing. Soil piping caused by surface soil erosion was cited as one of the prime reasons for the incident in which several houses and vast stretches of agricultural lands were also destroyed. Now, according to the present plan, the proposed road tunnel will go below the surface of Puthumala.
The Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithi, a local environmental group, claims that many feeders of river Chaliyar which originate from the Wayanad-Kozhikode Mountains will be affected by the road tunnel project. “These mountains have rock formations which are more than 150 million years old. In-depth studies are required to know whether the construction of the tunnel would destabilise the structure of the whole mountain range,” said T Sobindran, a Kozhikode-based environmentalist.
‘Environmental concerns would be addressed’
Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said, according to reports, that the subterranean road tunnel would be a two-lane one and it will offer a wider and alternate route to the existing Thamarassery Ghat road, which gets congested during peak hours. On completion, the road tunnel would significantly reduce the travel time between Kozhikode and Bengaluru, Karnataka.
He has said that the road, which would be built by splitting open rocks underneath the forest cover between Kozhikode and Wayanad, would be constructed only by protecting the environment and forests of the Western Ghats stretch.
According to N Badusha, who is the president of Wayanad-based environmental organisation Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithi, the road tunnel will end at Meppadi region in Wayanad, a high-intensity rainfall area that receives abundant rains during every monsoon. Reports of both the Gadgil Committee and the Kasturirangan Committee which probed the environmental decay of the Western Ghats had earmarked Meppadi as a highly sensitive area. This area is also an important place for Asiatic elephants.
“The government is simply claiming that a subterranean tunnel would not cause any damage to the dense forests and pristine hills in the area,” Badusha told Mongabay-India. “While claiming so, it refuses to conduct any expert study. It was announced all of a sudden and within days after the inauguration of the Atal tunnel in Leh. We suspect that mining barons might have influenced the decision with an eye on the granite and stones to be drilled and removed.”
VS Vijayan, veteran environmental scientist and an expert member of the Madhav Gadgil Committee, lamented that the road tunnel project clearly shows that “literate Kerala” has not learned any lesson from the consecutive floods in recent years which caused severe damages in both Wayanad and Kozhikode districts. He told Mongabay-India that tunnelling work would disrupt the elephant corridors of the region.
Is the road tunnel project viable?
While the government claims that the project would be helpful for the residents of Wayanad, many in the hilly district doubt the viability of the project.
“The government can decongest traffic in the Thamarassery Ghat Road by widening it and further expanding the Vadakara-Kuttiyadi-Mananthavady road,” said K Raveendran, a resident of Pozhuthana near Vythiri and active in the hospitality industry of Wayanad, a popular tourism destination. “Floods and landslides have become annual affairs in Wayanad because of climate change. Such so-called developmental projects would definitely aggravate further the situation.”
In the 2018 floods in Kerala, Vythiri and surrounding areas witnessed a large number of landslides and even the local bus stand and police station were reduced to rubbles in the incident. Vythiri is located very close to the proposed alignment of the road tunnel.
CK Saseendran, member of the Kerala legislative assembly from Kalpetta in Wayanad, said the road tunnel would help develop Wayanad further by reducing the travel between Kalpetta and Kozhikode by 31 km.
“The existing road connecting the two districts is passing through a 13 km ghat section with nine hairpin bends,” Saseendran told Mongabay-India. “At present, it is the most congested portion of the National Highway-212 connecting Kozhikode with Kollaigal in Karnataka. Minor landslides and heavy rains are damaging the ghat road often. The road tunnel would be a permanent solution to our travel woes.”
The road tunnel, which will start at Swargam Kunnu near Kodenchery in Kozhikode district and will end at Kalladi near Meppadi in Wayanad district, is expected to be complete in 34 months starting from March 2021.
Environmental impact assessment rules flouted
Advocate Harish Vasudevan, who handles environment-related cases in Kerala High Court, said the project construction was announced by the Kerala chief minister without undertaking any economic and environmental feasibility studies.
“The Kerala government is claiming that it had done a technical feasibility study for the tunnel,” he alleged. “However, that report is not available in the public domain. The government has handed over the project contract to KRCL which has expertise only in building railway tunnels. Besides, now the same company is entrusted with the task of Environment Impact Assessment apart from initiating scientific studies and feasibility tests of the project.”
He said entrusting the task of feasibility study on a company chosen already for construction involves procedural lapse and makes the whole purpose of EIA meaningless.
According to the rules, EIA for any large-scale project can be done only by an agency with the accreditation and approval of the Quality Council of India and in this case, the KRCL is not an accredited agency.
According to government sources, the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board is meeting the expenses of the project and has already agreed to release Rs 658 crore for the project without waiting for the feasibility studies.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.