Dudhwa rail track triggers ecology vs tourism debate

LUCKNOW:  Railways’ decision to enhance Dudhwa’s rail network may be aimed at giving wildlife tourism a boost, but it is likely to make animals lose their peace. The metre gauge line that runs through the national park is a part of the Mailani-Bahraich rail track which would be taken up for a gauge conversion survey. The metre gauge line, at present, has six pair of trains running on it, two pairs being Express trains. But, with the Mailani-Bahraich track being recommended for a gauge conversion survey, the number of trains passing through the wildlife area would increase in years to come.

The track is not a profitable operation for railways for the simple reason that there are no goods trains running on it to generate revenue. “On the contrary, we have to spend much on maintenance,” said railway sources. Introducing more trains on the track would raise railways’ revenue and, on the other hand, concerns of the forest department. The track passes through Pilibhit forest division, Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, North Kheri forest division, South Kheri forest division and Katarniaghat wildlife forest division.

Animals dying on the track has made Forest department write several letters to railways to ensure speed restrictions. At times, dismantling of the track has also come up in official discussions, but railways, given all the opposition, has now decided to survey the track for conversion into a broad gauge. At least 60 kms of Mailani-Bahraich railway track passes through dense patches of Dudhwa National Park. At least 70 animals have been run over by trains on the track between 1998 and 2010.

The letter written by then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav to railway minister Lalu Prasad on May 22, 2006, highlighted that only 33 km of railway line through Dudhwa posed threat to wildlife. He had asked for speed restrictions on only the track between Palia Kalan and Bilrayen, 15 km/hr for the first 5 km of the track and 30 km/hr for the remaining 28 km.

“Forest officials have written to us asking for another meeting,” said sources in railways. On dismantling of the track, railways is clear it would not be done, keeping in mind the transportation needs of people in the region. Railway officials too deny Forest department ever asked them to dismantle the track. “On the contrary, there is immense pressure on us from all quarters to restore rail traffic on the same track that passes through the forest area as quickly as possible, after floods disrupt services every monsoon,” said sources.

The controversy over the existence of rail track within Dudhwa reserve is an old issue. The letter dated June 5, 2006 by A Raja, minister, environment and forest, to railway minister Lalu Prasad said the ministry had been receiving reports time and again about wild animals getting killed on the railway track passing through Dudhwa reserve in Uttar Pradesh.

The letter stated further that the issue had been taken up with railway authorities both at state and Central level for ensuring necessary safeguards in the interest of wild animals but redressal was awaited.

Railways, on the other hand, said the track was important for movement of security forces, since Dudhwa almost shares its border with Nepal. Besides, the train is also least polluting mode of transport, hence, there will never be an ecological damage to the reserve, compared to other means of transport.

“Nonetheless, if Forest department wants us to close down the track, the state government has to be categorical about it. Secondly, Railways has to be given the land at an alternative site to lay the new track,” said railway sources. Since the decision to close the track and acquire land to give railways an alternative site would involve political considerations, state government might take time to decide.