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Rail route through tiger reserve set to get busier, faster


Highlights:
- The central government proposes to convert Akola-Khandwa railway’s metre-gauge line to broad-gauge line. But the route passes through the Melghat tiger reserve which is home to at least 56 tigers.
- The route is expected to get busier with the upgrade from four trains running at a maximum speed of 20 kmph to 28 trains with a maximum speed of 60 kmph.
- Experts fear that the conversion will lead to fragmentation of the tiger reserve because of a higher frequency of trains and may even force the tigers to leave the area.

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The proposed conversion of the railways’ Akola-Khandwa metre-gauge line to broad-gauge line through the Melghat tiger reserve (MTR) in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region has drawn concern. Apart from impacting the tiger population in the area, the project could severely affect the biodiversity and natural habitat of many other species.

Situated in the Satpura hill ranges, the MTR is a part of Amravati district bordering Madhya Pradesh. The Ministry of Railways is planning to upgrade the 176-km -long Akola (Maharashtra)-Khandwa (Madhya Pradesh) metre-gauge line to a broad-gauge line. Of this, around 39 km of the track falls under the MTR jurisdiction while 18 km of it passes through the critical tiger habitat. The 39-km stretch comes after Akot as the train goes from Hiverkhed station (Maharashtra) to Satpura (Madhya Pradesh) passing through the core and buffer zones of the MTR.

However, environmentalists fear that the fast-moving broad-gauge train may run animals over. Jayant Wadatkar, an environmentalist and coordinator of Melghat Bachao Kruti Samiti, a collective comprising 22 non-governmental organisations (NGO) from Vidarbha, highlighted that this route is the shortest route for Maharashtra and south India to connect with Madhya Pradesh and north India.

In 2017, the government announced the conversion of this line. The stretch from Akola to Akot station was completed recently and was supposed to be inaugurated on March 23, but it was deferred owing to the ongoing lockdown to contain COVID-19 pandemic, PK Srivastava, an official (civil engineer) at the Akola railway station, told Mongabay-India.

Threat to rich flora and fauna

The MTR comprises five protected areas, Gugamal National Park, Melghat Sanctuary, Narnala, Amba Barwa and Wan wildlife sanctuary. While Melghat sanctuary has hilly areas, other ones like Narnala, Ambabarwa and Wan have plains. The existing metre-gauge passes through Wan sanctuary.

According to a 1988 study, over 647 naturalised species of plants belonging to 398 genera of 97 families were found in the Melghat area. Another study in 1999 found an additional 67 species. In 2002, Aparna Watwe, a scientist from the Botanical Survey of India added 58 species to this list taking the total to 772.

During the recent enumeration drive, a leucistic sloth bear was sighted in the MTR. Between 1991-1996, a survey by the Zoological Survey of India had revealed the presence of 80 species of mammals, 262 species of birds, 54 species of amphibians and 96 species of fishes.

Kishore Pathak, an Aurangabad-based environmentalist, cited the 2018 tiger census and emphasised that the project would threaten the flora and fauna of the region. “The Akola-Khandwa route is easily accessible by road, and thus the railway ministry should scrap it. It needs hundreds of years to develop a new ecosystem. No one has rights to interfere in it,” Pathak told Mongabay-India.

One of the major concerns of the environmentalists is that after the conversion the traffic on this line would increase. At present, only four metre-gauge trains run on this route which will increase to 28 after conversion. According to Jayant Wadatkar, the maximum speed is also expected to increase by three times from 20 km per hour (kmph) to 60 kmph after its conversion to broad-gauge.

Wadatkar stressed that after the final resettlement of the tribal people in 2016, the wildlife has significantly increased in the reserve. He pointed out that the government has spent a lot towards rehabilitation, but with the broad-gauge, traffic and human movement would increase.

Satish Patil, who is the head of the environmental science department at the Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, explained that the project would divide the forest into two parts, and affect the tiger population.

“The minimum population of tigresses in breeding age needed to maintain a viable population of 80-100 tigers in and around the core area requires a space of 800-1,000 square km, but the project would cause fragmentation,” Patil told Mongabay-India.

He explained that tigers can’t live in small pockets because as it results in genetic problems like inbreeding and a tiger travels more than 2,000 km in search of a new mate or habitat. “The wildlife will get disturbed by heavy traffic. There are chances that they may leave this area in search of new habitat. The broad-gauge will end the biodiversity of the MTR,” Patil commented.

Earlier in 2019, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife had rejected the proposal based on the recommendations by the National Tiger Conservation Authority and Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. Currently, it is awaiting approval from the Supreme Court of India and the union environment ministry. The project was first mooted in 2007.

Is there an alternative?

Wadatkar pointed out that since the residents of the nearby villages have already been relocated, it (the upgraded route) would serve no purpose. He suggested that as per the railway ministry’s alternative plans, which could cost an additional Rs 1,000 crore, the trains would divert from Akot towards the newly created villages.

He highlighted that the alternative route would add Sonala, Jalgaon-Jamod and Usarani and benefit around 200,000 people while helping the local farmers as well in taking their produce to Madhya Pradesh.

Wadatkar said that alternative route may permanently shut down Hiwarkhed, Wanr road, Dhulghat and Dabka station, which are already not much useful. “As the existing route passes from the hilly area, it is difficult to run a train from here. But the height of hills is comparatively low outside the forest. Hence, it’s more feasible.”

However, an official of the union ministry of railways (who wanted to remain anonymous) claimed that the railways is not willing to construct 6.65-km-long tunnel passing through hills at Kunverdeo village as it will cost around Rs 556 crore. However, Wadatkar stressed that it’s actually cheaper in the long-run as otherwise, railways would need to upgrade the existing tunnels at Wan and Talai inside the MTR.

But probably not all are in opposition to the project. For instance, Vitthalrao Gawande, an Akot-based farmer and environmentalist, said the administration should go forward with the sanctioned project, and claimed that those opposing it have vested interests. While mentioning that no tiger has been run over by a train, Gawande said that wildlife safaris have become mainstream now, and one should look into that as well.

Wadatkar said though no tiger has been run over, bears, deer, leopards and foxes have been killed by trains in past years. He underlined that the increased tiger population and faster trains, mingled with fragmentation could increase the threat to their lives.

Nitin Kakodkar, who is the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Nagpur and the south-central railway division were not available for comments despite repeated attempts.

This story was first published on Mongabay, click here to access it…