Although three routes connect Belagavi and Goa with none of them seeing any form of congestion, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is adamant on widening an 85-km stretch of NH4A despite objections. The project affecting Belagavi and Uttara Kannada districts, has been officially approved by both the state and national wildlife boards allegedly under pressure from political-industry nexus, despite the reservation of forest officials.
Work on this stretch began in October 2018, as part of the Centre’s ambitious Bharatmala project launched in 2017.
The road passes through the sensitive Western Ghats and cuts across dense forests which are mainly responsible for healthy rainfall in the region. As trees will be cut for the project, it will result in water scarcity in the area, say activists. Already, with three successive drought years, most parts of northern Karnataka are reeling under a severe water crisis. Not only this region, but the trees are also responsible for monsoons which feed the Kali, Mahadayi, and Malaprabha rivers.
While authorities claim that 22,000 trees will be felled, activists fear the number could be as high as 1 lakh since 14km of the land falls under Eco-1 category class forest and is also a part of Dandeli Elephant Reserve.
“The forest department strangely is only counting big trees but not the girth of smaller trees. This is like as if small children and young people die, it does not matter, but only elderly people are important. None of the routes including this have that much vehicular density. This widening is done just so that 10-wheel lorries can pass through the forest areas,” Sahadev Shivapur, member of the Pashchima Ghatta Jagruthi Vedike (Western Ghat Protection Forum), told TNM.
“If at all a sapling survives for one or two years, it is highly likely it will grow into a tree even through the drought. Even the people who are cutting the trees themselves know that the number is more than a lakh. These are evergreen forests and if the government is serious about global warming, it should not touch these forests. Compensatory afforestation may work in urban areas but how can street-side trees create biodiversity or trap moisture like the Western Ghats,” he added.
Moreover, the road widening project will be an additional threat to the already depleting wildlife populations of elephants, tigers, leopards, black panthers and king cobras among others.
Some activists like Sahadev are also petitioning state Forest Minister Satish Jarkiholi and Union Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari to oppose this ecologically harmful move. Sahadev has previously written to Rajya Sabha MP Rajiv Gowda and MLA Sowmya Reddy, following a meeting at the Congress’ manifesto consultation.
Jhatkaa.org, a non-profit organisation campaigning for various issues including the environment, has started an online petition addressed to the state Forest Minister. Within a week, the petition has gained momentum with 500 people speaking in support of the campaign.
The Jhatkaa petition points out, “Our sustenance on agriculture in these areas are primarily due to these forests. Diversion of forest would mean lesser water security in the coming years, drastically affecting farming and increasing man-animal conflicts.”