Work in progress on widening of the Balipara-Bhalukpong road in Assam’s Sonitpur district. Telegraph picture
Guwahati, Aug. 20: The Assam forest department has allowed the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to widen the Balipara-Bhalukpong road in Sonitpur district, putting in peril the habitat of the Sonitpur elephant reserve and the buffer of Nameri tiger reserve.
The BRO has started massive hill-cutting in the area to facilitate the widening despite the Union ministry of environment and forests not issuing the mandatory clearance.
In fact, a three-member expert committee of the forest department, which was asked by the department to give an on-the-spot report, had observed massive earth-cutting from the adjoining hillocks and also found that 4km of the road inside the buffer area has already been constructed.
“The construction of culverts and retaining wall at almost all places is complete,” a source said.
“Even the raw materials like earth for raising of the road at certain points, besides sand and boulders for metalling, are being collected from the adjoining hillocks of the buffer area. Mechanised appliances have been used for collection of these materials,” the source said.
Sources in the forest department said the BRO had sought right of way of 36 metres, which was later reduced to 22 metres.
“The BRO was pressuring the state forest department from Delhi, pleading that the request for widening the road not be turned down,” a senior forest department official said on condition of anonymity.
A senior BRO official said they have documents showing that they have a right of way of 36 metres and they are perfectly within their rights to ask for it.
As a face-saving device to show its concern for wildlife, the forest department has asked the BRO to pay for five per cent of the proportionate project cost for wildlife conservation and human wildlife conflict mitigation measures.
The forest department has also asked them to put up speed restriction signals on the road similar to what has been done in Kaziranga.
“We have given them the scope for impinging on the forest land and hence cannot blame them,” a source said.
The Border Roads Organisation had requested the state forest department to give them forest clearance for widening the Balipara-Bhalukpong road, which is a strategic road for movement of heavy armoured vehicles, more so in the wake of Chinese build-up.
The Assam forest department had overturned the recommendations of its own expert committee on the impact of diversion of Balipara-Bhalukpong road which will now result in endangering the habitat of the Sonitpur elephant reserve and the buffer of Nameri tiger reserve.
The expert committee, in its report on the impact on wildlife after widening of the road, said, “Wild elephants from Nameri tiger reserve use this road frequently as a corridor throughout the year, more so in the winter season and move to Sotai Pahar, which is a part of Balipara reserve forest on the western side of the road. A major part of Sotai Pahar is still intact with presence of bamboo at many places and few degraded patches.
“While the population of elephants has been going down according to the figures available, the fragmentation of the elephant reserve will further act as a nail in the coffin for the poor pachyderms,” the expert committee said in its report.
The construction and widening of the road will also result in felling of many species of trees like otenga, amari, khokan, am, bohera, foma, jamuk, eola, ficus, amlakhi and pichola, which will be contributing to the loss of important habitat for wildlife.
The buffer area of Nameri tiger reserve is 144 square km, whereas the core area is 200 square km.
The buffer of Nameri tiger reserve extends up to the rail line beyond the existing road (on the western side) and is a potential area where wild animals take refuge.
“If the proposal is allowed, the elephant movement to Sotai Pahar will be hampered/hindered and the wild elephants will lose the opportunity of entering this area. It may also result in the elephants being hit by speeding vehicles if the pachyderms attempt to cross the road. Besides, it would also mean loss of potential habitat and loss of areas in the buffer of Nameri tiger reserve where the wild animals take refuge,” the expert committee report said.
“We have been coordinating with the forest department at each and every step and there has been no foul play by them” a Border Roads Organisation official said.