After missing from the political action for a while, the former Congress President and Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi has returned back to stoke a controversy over the issue of ban on night traffic along the NH 766 which passes through eco-sensitive Bandipur forest.
According to the reports, Rahul Gandhi on Friday extended his support to the protestors who are seeking revocation of night traffic ban along the Bandipur national forest. Rahul Gandhi is now vehemently supporting the movement of traffic at night in the ecologically sensitive Bandipur forest, which had been closed at night due to the death of animals.
He had also recently met Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in New Delhi and apprised him of the hardships faced by people of Wayanad due to the night traffic ban.
He has expressed solidarity with people of Wayanad who have been on a protest for the past several days on the issue. “I stand in solidarity with the youth on an indefinite hunger strike since September 25th protesting against the daily nine-hour traffic ban on NH-766 that has caused immense hardship to lakhs of people in Kerala and Karnataka,” he had earlier tweeted.
However, Rahul Gandhi seems to have not understood the underlying issue regarding the need of a ban for traffic at night in one of the densest forests in the region, which is home for a large number of tigers, elephants and other endemic flora and fauna.
The current protests in Kerala are driven by the economic interests of the people of Wayanad rather than much critical aspect of environmental conservation. A series of protests erupted in Kerala against a ban on night traffic on the forest stretch of NH 766, a key highway between Karnataka and Kerala that passes through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka.
The immediate trigger for the current agitation was a recent Supreme Court direction to the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to suggest alternative routes so that NH 766 could be shut down permanently.
Since then, Wayanad has witnessed an ongoing indefinite hunger strike and several protest marches. The protest in Wayanad, which picked up with the hunger-strike starting September 25, is being backed by all political parties in Kerala.
The people of Kerala fear that a blanket ban on traffic would impact the economic development of Wayanad, particularly in Sulthan Bathery taluk. Besides, the alternative road is 35 km away, which would cost time and money besides raising prices of commodities.
Lately, Wayanad, which exists at the trijunction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has emerged a major hill destination, catering to tourists from Bengaluru. The NH 766 is also used by transporters of essential provisions from Karnataka to Kerala.
If at all a complete ban is imposed on the movement of traffic on NH 766, farmers would be the worst hit as they would not be able to transport their products within the stipulated time, as claimed by the people of Wayanad.
Meanwhile, locals in Wayanad are also demanding the construction of an elevated highway that will also ensure the protection of wild animals while also not hampering their travel time. Elevated highways of such length will be highly costly, and when alternate routes are available, spending such amounts of money does not make much sense.
Ban on Night traffic on NH 766:
The ban on night traffic is not new. Ten years back in August 2009, the district administration of Chamarajanagar district, Karnataka had banned night traffic on the 19-km forest leg of NH 766 after the project officer of Bandipur Tiger Reserve had prepared a report on the number of animals being hit by vehicles at night.
The report had highlighted that night traffic would affect behaviour biology such as breeding and parental care of animals, disrupt their life cycle and make them stray to human habitats.
Hence, the district administration had banned traffic from 9 pm to 6 am. During the night, vehicles were stopped on both sides of the stretch and allowed to resume the journey in the morning.
Later, the Karnataka High Court had upheld and reinstated the ban by an interim order. The court had observed that the interest of protecting wildlife is important, and no less important is the need to protect the interest of the public, who are commuters and traders. Following an order of the Karnataka High Court, the stretch has remained closed for night traffic for the past 10 years to avoid wild animal casualties.
The High Court had also pointed out to an alternative road that is 35 km longer than travelling through NH 766, had directed the Karnataka government to upgrade this road, which runs from Mananthavady in Kerala to Mysuru via Gonikuppal in Kodagu district.
Why night ban along NH 766 is necessary?
A report in Indian Express states that the implementation of night ban along the Bandipur National forest and Wayanad Sanctuary has saved lives of hundreds of wild animals. According to Bandipur Tiger Reserve project director Thippaiah Balachandra, animal fatalities have come down significantly after night ban was imposed along NH 766, which passes through the national park.
“Before the ban, the stretch was reporting 100-odd animal deaths in accidents, but now it has come down to five to ten. If the highway is opened, fatalities would increase manifold. Over the last decade, animal populations, as well as traffic, have gone up,” Indian Express quoted Thimmaih.
The Bandipur Tiger Reserve is part of interconnected forests that include Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu), Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (Kerala) and Nagarhole National Park (Karnataka), which spreads over 990.51 sq km. The zone is both a Tiger reserve and an elephant corridor as large variety of wildlife including the elephant moves from one stretch to another, cutting the states.
Once a hunting reserve for the Maharaja of Mysore, Bandipur is one of the oldest tiger reserves in the country. It has been declared a Tiger reserve in1973 and a national park in 1984. Bandipur has 140 tigers, 1,600 elephants and 25,000 spotted deer, forest department sources said.
The Alternate route:
Upholding the night traffic ban, the Supreme Court asked the NHAI to upgrade the alternative road and sought the Centre’s opinion on closing down NH 766 permanently. There exist two alternative routes to reach Wayanad apart from NH 766. The first route to connect Mysuru and Mananthavady (Wayanad), passes through the Nagarhole National Park, which also has been closed for night traffic from 6 pm to 6 am since 2008, on the recommendation of an empowered committee appointed by the Supreme Court.
The second route is the one which High Court suggested in 2010, which is also between Mananthavady and Mysuru, but it runs through Kutta, Gonikuppal and Hunsur in Karanataka.
Currently, the distance between Bathery and Mysuru is 115 km. The proposed alternative route would increase the distance to 217 km.