Activists decry Gauge Conversion of Akola-Khandwa Rail Track through Melaghat Tiger Reserve

Activists argue that gauge conversion will lead to greater frequency of trains at higher speeds and carry higher volumes of passengers which will eventually disturb the sanctity of the tiger reserve and affect conservation.

NANDED: PROTEST by wildlife activists against what they term as a “hasty and illegal” go ahead granted to the metre-to-broad gauge conversion of a 29-km stretch of a railway track passing through the “core and critical tiger habitat” of Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR) has brought to fore several unanswered questions regarding the project.

Activists argued that broad gauging will lead to greater frequency of trains running at higher speeds and carrying passengers multiple times the current numbers and will eventually disturb the sanctity of the tiger reserve and affect conservation.

The stretch is the only remaining metre gauge section in the South Central Railway (SCR) Nanded division. According to Divisional Railway Manager Trikalagya Rabha, it caters to about 3,000 passengers in eight to-and-fro of four trains, two each from Akola in Maharashtra to Khandwa and Mhow in Madhya Pradesh. The 29-km track is between Akot in Akola district to Amla (Khurd) on the border of MTR and is the only section yet to be broad gauged. Incidentally, the track predates MTR, which came into existence in 1973 as one of the first lot of tiger reserves in the country under then Project Tiger.

While the demand to shift the track out of the reserve has been an old one, it gathered steam over the past three years after the new government at the Centre hastened the process of initiating broad gauging work. Wildlife activists have heightened their campaign over the past few days as the work got underway. On Wednesday, a PIL was admitted by the Nagpur Bench of Bombay High Court issuing notices to the Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Union Railway Ministry, SC Rly and Maharashtra Revenue Depart-ment seeking their replies to the petition by one Pramod Junghare.

While DRM Rabha claims that the work is progressing after securing all requisite clearances, activists have alleged bypassing of provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) and cited an adverse report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in the execution of the work.

“Earlier, the railways itself was contemplating an alternative route that bypasses MTR for their own concerns like achieving higher speed, which is not possible in its current position in the mountainous terrain, and lesser population being catered to on the existing track. A report to this effect by then General Manager of SC railway is available. Instead of following the counsel by its own officer, the railways is preferring to go the wrong way. What is highly objectionable is that this is being done without statutory clearances from the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) and the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL),” Kishore Rithe, a former member of the NBWL and wildlife activist, said.

Incidentally, Rithe and former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (wildlife) Shri Bhagwan had jointly conducted a study as per SBWL directive and had submitted a report in May 2016. They had stated that the auction of alternative route bypassing MTR must be fully explored first or, otherwise, mitigation measures for protecting wildlife must be put in place. Among the mitigation measures suggested by them included no station on the MTR section of the track, every stoppage by chain pulling in the two existing tunnels be treated as attempt to commit wildlife crimes, restricting the speed to 60 kmph, warning to passengers not to throw litter along the track, no lifting of water by railways from the Wan sanctuary, which is part of MTR and provision of adequate wildlife passes based on scientific data on wildlife movement, among a few other suggestions.

However, Rithe said, “Since the existing track has itself caused a hindrance to wildlife, leading to several deaths and has also been used by wildlife criminals and forest produce thieves, broad gauging will only add to the problem. Therefore, a new alignment outside MTR is the more viable option. It is so also for the reason of public utility since there are no villages inside the core area of MTR after the rehabilitation work done by the Forest Department over the past few years. The new alignment will actually serve greater populations.”

At least two MLAs, Harshwardhan Sapkal of the Congress from Buldana and Sanjay Kute of the BJP from Akot have come out in support of the demand to change the route for reasons cited by Rithe.

Even the NTCA has opposed the conversion in its 2015 report saying, “Alternative route must be explored as the inviolate space could be disturbed by the project. It will have serious long-term consequences for tiger conservation.”

PCCF (wildlife) A K Mishra said, “I have nothing to say now that the matter has passed through several stages before coming to its current status.”

Rabha said, “We are only following public demand. All the steps necessary to be taken, have been taken.” Asked why the railway is not contemplating the alternative route, Rabha said, “The Akola-Khandwa section of 175 km is already catering to 16 stations. And as far as problems caused to wildlife are concerned, the MTR has much less wildlife population compared to some reserves in the north-east, where also broad gauge trains run with even greater frequency.”

Rabha said, “As of now, there is no proposal for increased frequency of trains but it cannot be ruled out in future.” “That precisely is why the current plan must be shelved,” added Rithe.