On Tuesday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced the government will construct a two lane subterranean tunnel between the Chembra and Vellarimala (silver hills) range, which is known as the camel hump and is among the most fragile regions of the Western Ghats, according to experts.
The project will create a 7-km tunnel - mooted to be the third largest such tunnel in the country - and will connect Kozhikode and Wayanad districts. It will also offer a wider and alternate route to the Thamarassery Ghat road which is usually congested, reducing travel time to neighbouring Karnataka significantly, CM Pinarayi Vijayan announced.
“The subterranean tunnel will be built by splitting open 7 kms of rocks underneath the forest cover. We will do this by protecting the environment and forests of the districts. Several challenges such as the forest cover, the road networks and eco-sensitive areas of Kozhikode and Wayanad have to be factored in before starting construction. We will consider this and also the vulnerability of Meppadi and other regions to landslides, before drafting the detailed project report,” Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said on October 5.
However, environmental groups have questioned why the tunnel project was launched by the government, without a Financial Feasibility study, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a Sociological Impact Assessment. All these studies should have been conducted in the first place, they point out.
“The project construction is announced with no economic and environmental feasibility studies done. The government said that a technical feasibility study for the tunnel was done. However, such a report is not available in the public domain,’ says Kochi-based lawyer and environmental activist Harish Vasudevan.
The Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samiti, a well known environmentalist group in Kerala, issued a statement pointing out that the Pinarayi government had not even taken permission from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFF), before announcing the project.
The Samiti also alleged that the state government was targetting the assembly elections and was being opportunistic by accusing environmentalists of being anti-development. Without prior scientific studies, the statement read, the tunnel project was an attempt by the state government to mine 'several lakh cubic metres of quarried stone' in the name of tunnel building, similar to the Gap Road expansion project in Idukki which was done without adequate feasibility studies on landslides and flooding. They called the announcement ' a 'deceptive election gimmick' in foresight of the coming election.'
“If the tunnel is going to be built underneath forest cover, then that would also come under forest land and hence permission has to be taken from the forest department. Mining underneath the forest also required underground mining rules and there are several challenges with regard to the water table which need to be factored in,” Harish added.
The project contract has been handed over to the Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd (KRLC), a company with expertise in building railway tunnels. But what is most worrying to environmentals is the Kerala government’s decision to allow the same company to conduct Environmental Impact Assessment, Scientific studies and Feasibility Tests of the project.
“Allowing the company which will build the tunnel to conduct a feasibility study is a bias in itself. It vitiates the whole purpose of an EIA as the beneficiary of such a EIA gets to conduct the assessment. By allowing Konkan to carry out all assessments and the construction of the project, we can expect the assessment to be done in a way that would favour the beneficiary,’ Harish Vausdevan added.
According to the current environment laws, an Environmental Impact Assessment for a project can only be done by an agency accredited by the Quality Council of India, says Harish. Konkan Railway Board Ltd, says Harish, is not accredited by the agency and hence its assessment report would stand invalid, he added. However, the government is yet to name another agency that has the accreditation.
The underground roadway will have its endpoints at Anakkampoyil in Kozhikode’s Thiruvambadi Panchayat and Meppadi in Wayanad, which saw devastating landslides in 2018. The project’s initial cost is estimated to be Rs 900 crore and it is set to be funded by KIIFB (Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board), a statutory body under the Kerala government to mobilize funds for infrastructure development from outside the state revenue. According to CM Pinarayi, even before scientific studies have been done, KIIFB has agreed to release Rs 658 crore for the project and the feasibility studies. The government aims to complete the project within 3 years.
“This leads to the question of the independent decision making process of financial institutions such as KIIFB. To release funds in bulk without demanding any feasibility report shows that there is political pressure to carry the project out. The government is also destroying the independent decision making process of institutions in this manner,” Harish added.
The Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samiti noted that the tunnel will pass through the Chembramala-Vellarimala camel hub complex, which is highly ecologically sensitive. It is also where the river Chaliyar river originates and is rich in biodiversity. The area also records five fold of the average rainfall received in Wayanad and sees frequent landslides. Notable, the camel hump complex is also the main habitat of the Banasura Laughingthrush or Banasura Chilappan, among the most endangered bird species in the country.
"The mountain ranges, through which the tunnel is proposed to pass, form part of the Chembramala-Vellarimala Camel Hump Complex- one of the most complex and environmentally sensitive ecosystems of the 1600 km stretch of the Western Ghats, as well as the nourishing source of the Chaliyar and Kabini (one of the main tributary of Kaveri) river. This region is unparalleled in its diversity of flora and fauna. The Poothumala and Mundakkai hill slopes, which had witnessed major landslides in August 2019 and 2020 respectively, are part of the eastern slopes of these mountain ranges. Several locations on the western slopes too- including Kavalappara and Pathar- witnessed major landslides in August 2019. Receiving five-times the average rainfall experienced in Wayanad, these mountain slopes are prone to extreme rainfall and vulnerable to landslides during the monsoon. Questions of whether the construction of the tunnel would destabilize the very structure of these mountain ranges- constituted by 150 million year old rock formations and receiving up to 1000 mm of rainfall per day during the monsoons- calls for the scholarly attention of geological experts," the statement said.
In an open letter to the Chief Minister, journalist-author Viju B, who wrote ‘Flood and Fury’ on the Kerala floods stated that both Gadgil and Kasturirangan committee reports demarcated this region as ‘Ecologically Sensitive Areas and a no-go development zone’. He noted that the area is also landslide prone and has received intensive rainfall in the last three years due to the impact of climate change on the Western Ghats.
Viju also noted that the location of the tunnel was not far from Puthumala in the Meppadi Panchayat, which was wiped off by landslides which killed 17 people and left 64 families homeless.
“Like the Chief Minister elaborated earlier, we will only start construction of the project once we apply and get all of the necessary permits and clearances. Currently no construction has taken place in the region,” Dr K Raju, Minister of Forests and Wildlife Protection told TNM.