RTI reveals Kerala didn't apply for environmental clearance for Western Ghats tunnel

The 7-kilometre tunnel will cut through the ‘silver hills’ of Chembra and Vellarimala, which are among the most fragile regions of the Western Ghats.

The Kerala government’s ambitious project tunnel road project through the Western Ghats was announced in October without applying for an Environmental Clearance (EC), a reply to a new RTI reveals. The two-lane subterranean tunnel will cut through the Chembra and Vellarimala mountains, or the ‘silver hills’. The region is known as the Camel Hump mountains due to its shape. It is thickly forested and is among the most environmentally fragile spots of the Western Ghats in Kerala.

Here, the government plans to construct a 7-kilometer underpass, which will connect Kozhikode and Wayanad districts and provide an alternative route to the crowded Thamarassery Ghat road. However, the Right to Information (RTI) plea reveals that the state government has had zero correspondence with the union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change regarding the project. It was also revealed that the state has not even submitted an application for an Environmental Clearance.

On October 9, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan launched the tunnel project, announcing that it would be “built by splitting open 7 kilometres of rocks underneath the forest cover”. He added that “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.” The Chief Minister promised that a detailed project report would only be drafted after considering the vulnerability of neighbouring Meppadi and other places to landslides.

However, a month and four days later, there has been no application filed in the Environment Ministry regarding the project. Most of the project site identified for the tunnel construction is forest land falling under the Meppadi Range of the South Wayanad Forest Division.  Hence, any survey of land requires permission from the Ministry of Forest, Environment and Climate Change as well as local forest authorities.

However, a question in the RTI document which went, “Has the state government had any correspondence with the forest department or has the state forest department corresponded with the Ministry in connection with the Meppadi tunnel project?”, received a one-word answer: No.

Speaking to TNM, N Badusha, President of the Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samiti (Wayanad Committee for Protection of Nature), said that it was a “betrayal” by the state government. “What is stopping them from applying for a clearance 30 days later?”, he asked. He added that, although there were news reports stating that experts had visited the site to conduct a survey for Detailed Project Report or DPR, the state had not sought any permission from the union to do such a survey.

“DPR typically involves small amounts of mining, inspecting soil, rocks etc to check if the site is suitable for the project to be implemented. In this case, most of the land is forest land and in order to do a survey, the experts will have to take prior permission from the Ministry, which as per the RTI, they have not,” Badusha added.

Allegedly, there has been no EIA study, feasibility report, sociological studies or public consultation done prior to announcing the project. More worryingly, the government allowed the Konkan Railway Corporation - the firm which is constructing the tunnel - to also conduct Environmental Impact Assessment, scientific studies and feasibility tests for the project. This is a bias in itself and also violated environmental laws in the country, point out experts. 

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