Environment Ministry allows Gauge Conversion of Akola-Khandwa Rail line through Melghat Tiger Reserve

NEW DELHI / NANDED / SECUNDERABAD: Months after it told the Railways that its projects passing through forest lands and national parks will not be exempted from forest clearance process, the Union Environment ministry has allowed gauge conversion of Akola-Khandwa line through Melghat Tiger Reserve on grounds that there is no necessity for forest approval.

The decision came after Railways sought the view of Attorney General (AG) K.K. Venugopal on the matter, who said that since the land in question has been under use by Railways before the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, was passed, the question of forest clearance does not arise.

On Monday, the AG’s view was discussed in a high-level meeting, chaired by Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari and attended by Railway minister Piyush Goyal, Director General of Forest Siddhanta Das and Akola MP Sanjay Dhotre. Sources privy to developments in the meeting said that the environment ministry sought further examination of the matter. But, Gadkari turned down this suggestion and was of the view that taking AG’s view into consideration, work should begin on the gauge conversion immediately.

Sources from the environment ministry too confirmed the development and said that, “In the event of FC Act not being applicable, there is no necessity for according approval under the Act.”

In light of Monday’s meeting, senior officials of the Railway Board wrote to the General Manager, South Central Railway, Secunderabad, directing them to expedite work on the project and complete “detailed action plan” for the gauge conversion.

Spread over an area of 1673 sq kms, Melghat Tiger Reserve is connected northwards to Satpura forests. Conservationists have slammed the move to not go for an alternative route outside Melghat and stressed that Melghat provides crucial connectivity with other tiger habitats. “The risk of animals, including tigers, being run over by trains will increase. There is a chance that poachers may use the railway line to enter the reserve and hunt animals like it happened in the 2013 Dhakna tiger poaching case,” a forest official said commenting on the project.

The National Board for Wildlife has already cleared the project with certain mitigation measures to facilitate movement of wildlife and prevent their deaths.

Presently, passenger trains run on the 176-km meter gauge line between Akot and Amlakhurd railway stations. Of the 176-kms, the railway line passes through 40 kms of forested area and of that 18 kms lies inside Melghat reserve. According to government documents, the project would require felling of 160.94 hectares of forest from the critical tiger habitat of Wan Sanctuary, a part of the Melghat reserve and 155 hectares from the buffer zones of Wan and reserved forests.

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Presently, passenger trains run on the 176-km meter gauge line between Akot and Amlakhurd railway stations. Of the 176-kms, the railway line passes through 40 kms of forested area and of that 18 kms lies inside Melghat reserve.

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