Wildlife Supreme support

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In a marathon struggle between Karnataka and Kerala, a unique tiger reserve and elephant sanctuary gets apex court’s ban on night traffic

G Ulaganathan

G Ulaganathan

The author is a senior journalist who has worked for 24 years in all major English newspapers in the southern parts of the country, incuding Indian Express, Deccan Herald, helped launch Oman Times and Travelscape magazine

The distance is about 300 km. It may take five to six hours by car during the day, but it may take 15 to 16 hours if you choose to travel by night. Strange? Yes, that is what one has to experience if we travel from Bengaluru to Calicut in Kerala. We had planned to leave early morning by car from Bengaluru to visit an old friend living in Kerala. The route up to Mysore and further beyond up to Gundlupet is quite smooth and takes about 2 hours. Then one gets into the National Highway 212 and this takes us across the Karnataka-Kerala border. On the other side is Sulthan Bathery. But what lies in between, i.e. 17.5 km, is absolutely scenically beatific. The Bandipur forest range takes over and the winding roads amidst the thick forest cover are the most precious and also controversial stretch.

More than 4,000 vehicles cross this NH any day. Bandipur is also a tiger reserve and elephant sanctuary. Most of the vehicles carry tourists to Kerala, especially to Wayanad, the tourist haven situated on the Kerala side. Wayanad has a lot of resorts, and the cool climate attracts many weekend travellers. It is also a gateway to cities like Calicut, Thrissur and so on.

Day-Night Divide

As long as one travels in the daytime, there is no problem and we reached Wayanad at about 3 pm. The real problem was on our return journey.

We left Calicut after lunch a couple of days later and reached Wayanad around 5 pm. Then we were told that we cannot cross the Bandipur range by night, i.e. after evenfall. All vehicles are stopped at the Sultan Bathery border and the same is the case on the Karnataka side.

Though officially the ban on traffic is only from 9 pm to 6 am, we are advised not to enter after 6 or 7 pm. The reason is that on both sides the gates are closed exactly at 8 pm, and if you are not able to cross over before that time, there is the danger of getting stuck inside. It may happen due to mechanical trouble or herds of elephants crossing the highway after sunset.

According to the forest department officials, the rapid rise in traffic of vehicles on this highway has led to deaths of wild animals due to speeding traffic. “Between 2004 and 2009, nearly 200 wild animals, some of the endangered species like elephants, tigers, leopards etc., suffered an ignominious and brutal death due to speeding vehicles on the highways 212 and 67 that connect Kerala and Karnataka and pass through the Bandipur tiger reserve. And, 70 per cent of these deaths were recorded during the night,” they say. As a consequence, the Karnataka government was compelled to act. The Chamrajnagar deputy commissioner, (in the rank of district collector), in June 2009, imposed a night ban between 9 pm and 6 am on vehicles plying through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve.

Bussing Pressure

But there was immense political pressure from Kerala government, mainly due to the strong Omni bus operators lobby. At present, there is only one overnight train between Bengaluru and Kerala, i.e. the Kanyakumari Express, which leaves around 9 pm from Bengaluru.

With Bengaluru being a key southern business hub and also the home of many IT companies, there are lakhs of young Keralites come to the city and Mysore for jobs. Infosys has a huge campus in Mysore where training is given to young technocrats. Many from Kerala are staying there, and during weekends would like to go to their native places, and the only option for them is to take the night bus.Otherwise, it is a circuitous route: they have to travel to Coimbatore via Erode from Mysore and take a bus from there or come back to Bengaluru and go via Salem, and Coimbatore. It is both, time-consuming (it takes more than 16 hours) and costs a lot of money.

Subsequently, though the Karnataka government withdrew the order, under political pressure from Kerala. But the Karnataka High Court, in its order on March 9, 2010, stayed the decision after the public interest litigation (PIL) was filed by a lawyer, L Srinivasa Rao Then the bus lobby, with the backing of powerful politicians, moved the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the ban.

Kerala Lobby

The Kerala government also was repeatedly requesting a relaxation of the ban, because the development in the border sharing Kerala districts like Wayanad and Kannur was affected and commercial business and tourism had declined. The then Kerala Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy tried to persuade his counterpart in Karnataka to reverse the decision.

He even came all the way to Bengaluru on April 15, 2015, to meet Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah who also is from the Chandy’s Congress party. Chandy thought persuading Karnataka CM would not be that difficult. He wanted the ban lifted at least partially.

But, after a patient hearing, Siddaramaiah diplomatically declined to accept Kerala’s appeal to lift or relax the night ban imposed on the grounds that the state cannot take an independent decision since the issue was pending before the Supreme Court.

Chandy, during his meeting with his Karnataka counterpart, apprised the latter about the importance of goods movement and how economic activity in Kerala had been affected following the ban. “It has become a question of life and death for many students, employees and traders in Kerala,” he added.

Siddaramaiah said he would hold talks with Karnataka forest officials and other experts in the field and examine the issue.

In a memorandum submitted to his counterpart, Chandy also sought relaxation on the ban by 2 hours, because it caused great hardship for passengers travelling by road between Karnataka and Kerala, as they had to wait at the borders the whole night. Instead of imposing restriction between 9 pm and 6 am, Chandy wanted the ban to be imposed between 10 pm and 5 am.

In the interest of wildlife, he said they were ready to run goods vehicles at 30 km per hour. Kantharaju, Deputy Conservator of Forests, says: “I stand for the ban imposed on Bandipur NH as the deaths of the animals during the night has come down and also the illegal activities have also come under control. Before the ban, every 40 minutes a vehicle would cross the highway. The number of deaths has come down from 165 to below 20 in three years after the ban imposed on the NH”, he added. He expressed his concern about illegal activities too: “As liquor is banned in Kerala, if the ban imposed on vehicle movement is withdrawn, it will be an opportunity to transport the liquor illegally and will lead to many illegal activities such as timber smuggling, wildlife poaching, illegal transport of livestock and sand mining,” he felt.

Country-wide Issue

In two other tiger reserves, Sariska and Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam, similar bans were imposed on night traffic on the highways that passed through these.

According to wildlife experts, wildlife species have poor eyesight or slow movements, and an over-speeding vehicle proves fatal. These unnatural deaths can have the catastrophic effect on the animal population.

Finally, a shot in the arm came for the environmentalists recently when the Supreme Court refused to lift the night ban on vehicles plying through Bandipur Tiger Reserve.

A three-judge Bench led by the then Chief Justice of India HL Dattu (who incidentally belongs to Karnataka) orally observed that “forests primarily belonged to animals and tribes who resided in them, and not to men who carve roads through it”. Referring to its 2013 ban on tourists taking the Andaman Nicobar Trunk Road that passed through Jarawa tribe habitats, the apex court said it could not be seen to be taking a contradictory stand now.

In the Jarawa case, the court had stopped commercial and tourism activities within a five-km radius of the tribal reserve in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Senior advocate Gopal Subramanium, who appeared for Kerala, produced an RTI reply which showed that only 14 wild animals died between 2000 and 2012. He contested the claims that a large number of animals had been killed in road accidents due to night-time traffic through the forest. But the Chief Justice countered, saying “I know that one tiger was also killed. Forests belong to animals. You cannot carve a road inside that.”

Subramanium then informed that there were proposals for alternative routes in the Kerala-Karnataka connect. They are the Mysore-Hunsur-Gonikoppal-Kutta-Kalpetta, Mysore-Bavali-Mananthavady and Virajpet-Kannur as well the one via Bylakuppe Bridge to Wayanad district from Mysore.

The Kerala government has also decided to approach the Union railways and environment ministries to clear a proposal on Nanjangud -Nilambur rail line via Sultan Bathery.

Buoyed by the verdict, the Karnataka government decided to extend the duration of night traffic ban on two National Highways that pass through Bandipur National Park (BNP) from the present nine hours to 12 hours.

The government will shortly notify its decision to extend the duration of traffic ban on Gundlupet-Ooty (NH-67) and Gundlupet-Wayanad (NH-212) routes by three hours, making it a 12-hour ban between 6 pm and 6 am, the state forests minister announced.

Goods transporters from all three states – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – have, however, opposed the decision. The matter has again been referred to the Apex court. Meanwhile, the Bandipur forest reserve falls silent from 9 pm till 6 pm and the rule of the animal kingdom prevails.

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