Scientists, conservationists urge Javadekar to reconsider forest felling for highway,...

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A group of scientists, academicians, conservationists and concerned citizens from across the country, in an open appeal, have urged Union Minister of Forests and Environment Prakash Javadekar to reconsider the approvals granted to three projects that affect the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife and the Mollem National Park in Goa.

Goa is set to lose around 55,000 trees and 185 hectares of pristine Western Ghats forest cover for three projects - a highway, railway line double-tracking and a new power line. The Railway double tracking will itself take around 98 hectares or around half of the total land.

In the letter to the Union Minister, the signatories - around 150 in number - warned that the projects, if allowed to go ahead, “are likely to lead to multiple downstream effects of fragmentation of these fragile ecosystems. The road and the railway track will create stark barriers that may lead to a rise in wild animal mortality. Movement of arboreal mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians is likely to be hindered by these barriers.”

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“The protected area is also home to more than 721 plant species, 235 bird species, 219 butterfly species, 80 odonate species, 70 mammal species, 75 ant species, 45 reptile species, 44 fish species, 43 fungi species, 27 amphibian species, 24 orchid species, and 18 species of lichens,” the letter reads.

“Two dragonfly species which are endemic to the Western Ghats were described to science from here. In fact, the type locality of Idionyx gomantakensis is adjacent to the railway track which is proposed to be expanded. It has been recorded from few locations elsewhere in the Western Ghats and this is the only location in Goa where it has been known from, so far, close to the proposed railway tracks,” the letter adds.

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“If these projects are cleared, they will have severe repercussions on wildlife and for the livelihoods and ecological security of the people of Goa. Video-conferencing these decisions about forests that are important to us does not allow site-specific scrutiny to substantiate the facts, examine documents, or register the voices and opinions of stakeholders, in a fully democratic manner,” the letter stated.

Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park are home to popular nature tourism spots such as Dudhsagar Falls, Tambdi Surla Falls, Devil’s Canyon and the 12th-century Tambdi Surla Temple, each with popular treks leading up to them.

The group of signatories which includes scientists, naturalists, conservationists, artists, students and allied professionals have expressed their serious concerns regarding the virtual clearances granted to two projects passing through Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife sanctuary and Mollem National Park during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The projects which are a long time in the planning were approved during the 57th meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife on April 20 held via videoconferencing due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

“These forests that have existed for thousands of years are irreplaceable. Direct loss of biodiversity and the far-reaching impacts of habitat fragmentation will reduce ecosystem stability and decrease forest resilience that is also required to deal with the effects of climate change,” the letter reads.

The three projects, some of which have been pending for clearance for more than two years owing to the want for clearance, will be fast-tracked now.

The proposal for doubling of the existing railway line that runs between Castlerock in Karnataka and Margao in South Goa whilst running through the Western Ghats and past the scenic Dudhsagar waterfalls was earlier kept in abeyance and asked to be modified to suitably allow for properly designed underpasses and overpasses for wild animal crossing wherever required along the track.

Since then, the South Western Railways, which operates the line has submitted an undertaking and has made provisions for eight underpasses for the crossing of wild animals in consultation with the forest department.

The present proposal entails laying additional track to run parallel to the existing railway line including 12 tunnels with a 16 kilometre stretch through the wildlife sanctuary.

Back in 2013, the Goa State Wildlife Board had rejected a proposal to construct a separate railway line through a different alignment, one which had an easier gradient but would involve a fresh disturbance in an entirely virgin area of forest.

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