Recently, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray wrote to Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal objecting to gauge conversion of an old railway line that goes through Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. After doing his best to stall the metro project in Mumbai, this is his next attempt at stalling an infrastructure project.
In the letter, the CM has said that the project to convert 176 km of meter gauge tracks to broad gauge will involve cutting and blasting of rocks using heavy machinery and explosives. He also claims that the project will involve realignment of the existing track to avoid sharp curves on 23.48 km ot total 38 km that passes through the core area of the Tiger Reserve. He also says that gauge conversion will increase the frequency and speed of the trains passing through the forest, which will also increase pollution in the area.
Therefore, Uddhav Thackeray has proposed that the railway line in the region should be realigned to avoid the Tiger Reserve completely.
While the Shiv Sena leader has once again used the excuse of conservation of wildlife to obstruct a Railway project, the facts are actually different. The CM’s claim that the track’s alignment will be changed in the forest to avoid curves is not correct, as Railway Ministry has confirmed that they are not going to acquire any land in the Reserved Forest and Melghat Tiger Reserve. The Railway had indeed wanted to ease the curvature of existing alignment, but Forest Department of Maharashtra had rejected the proposal, and it was dropped from the project.
The Maharashtra CM has suggested an alternate route for the railway track to avoid the forest, but actually this alignment will actually need acquisition of more forest land, apart from large areas of residential and other areas. According to a study done with the help of Regional Remote Sensing Center Nagpur, the railway line will be 30 km longer due to the diversion. Moreover, 152 hectares of virgin forest land will need to acquired, apart from revenue land and residential areas. The alternative alignment will also need a 7 km long tunnel.
All these means that the project cost will go up significantly due to need to acquire lands, and it will also be delayed as a lot of approvals will be needed for a railway line in a new area. Apart from requiring large areas of virgin forest & revenue land, the project will be delayed by 6-7 years, and the cost will go up significantly.
The experts have already studied this alternate route, and suggested that it will be best to follow the existing meter gauge line to build the broad-gauge line. Accordingly, the Railways has decided to upgrade the existing line within the existing Railway land boundary without acquisition of any land specially in the Reserved Forest area & Melghat Tiger Reserve.
Moreover, the Railway had already informed the Maharashtra govt back in 2014 that Railway will bear the cost of any Mitigation measures required by the Forest department like avoiding the blasting, quarrying and mining in forest areas etc. The Railways has also ensured that underpass and overpass etc. will be provided for animal movement on locations identified by the forest department. Around Rs 200 crore has been kept in the project for such mitigation measures. The department has also said that the speed of the trains will be limited to 60 km per hour in the forest area for safety of the animals.
The Railways has also pointed out that the existing meter gauge line was built in 1959-60, and before train operations on it were stopped from 2017 for the gauge conversation work, the Railway track, trains & wild animals were co-existing without any problem for several decades. While Uddhav Thackeray alleges that the broad-gauge line will increase pollution in the forest area, he missed a very important detail in the project. The conversion project has been planned with electrification of the railway line. Therefore, after 100% electrification of the track is completed, there would be no fuel pollution at all from train operations.
The railway line being converted to broad-gauge in the Melghat Tiger Reserve is part of 473 Km long Gauge Conversion project from Akola to Ratlam. 299 km length of the project falls in Madhya Pradesh, out of which, 198 Km length has already been converted into Broad Gauge and commissioned for train services. The work of Gauge Conversion in balance 101 Km length is in progress. 174 Km of the project falls in Maharashtra State, out of which work on 43 km has already been completed. The Gauge Conversion work in 53 Km from Amlakhurd-Khandwa is also in progress. The Work of Gauge Conversion in sandwiched portion of 78 Km length from Akot to Amlakhurd is pending on account of pending Wildlife clearance.
About 17 Km length of existing Meter Gauge section between Adgaon Buzurg & Tukaithad Railway stations passes through Amba Barwa/Wan Reserve Forest. This was declared as “Sanctuary” in 1998 and had become part of Melghat Tiger Reserve.
Earlier, Uddhav Thackeray had stopped the work on Aarey Car shed for Mumbai metro after becoming CM of Maharashtra, following huge protest against from left-wing activists despite courts and green bodies giving go ahead for the project. On the other hand, the same government led by Uddhav Thackeray had allowed to cut more than 700 trees in Navi Mumbai for a golf course and a residential project in January this year. Again in March, the government had decided to cut and transplant more than 300 for the elevated Metro-2A corridor.