Mumbai: After opposing the auctioning of coal blocks adjacent to Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur district, the Maharashtra Government has taken a strong objection to the diversion of 160.94 hectares of forest land in Wan sanctuary for 176-km Akola-Khandwa gauge conversion work by the South Central Railway.
In two separate letters to the Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said the proposed gauge conversion passes through the core area of Melghat Tiger Reserve in Amravati district, which is among the first nine tiger reserves to be designated as such in 1973-74.
The conversion will increase railway traffic substantially, leading to huge disturbance to the core areas of Melghat Tiger Reserve. It will also increase the pollution. Thackeray has urged the Union Railway Minister to withdraw the proposed alignment and consider an alternative.
‘’The project will involve works like open cutting of tunnels; this, in turn, will involve cutting and blasting of rocks using heavy machinery and explosives. It will also entail realignment away from the existing track, to ease sharp curves on 23.48 km of route passing through the core area of the reserve.
''This amounts to realignment and not just gauge conversion along the existing railway track,’’ said Thackeray. He further noted that along with increase in the railway traffic, it would also lead to increase in speed of the trains, restrictions on future expansions and modifications and increase in pollution along the track.
‘’The core area has been made inviolate by rehabilitating 13 villages and 6 villages out of these are within a 10 km distance of the existing railway line. Due to this, wildlife has significantly increased in the area. The proposed gauge conversion project would reverse the benefits that have accrued from rehabilitation and habitat development,’’ said Thackeray.
He informed that the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has also recommended that the best mitigation for the railway line is “avoidance’’ of the up-gradation through the tiger reserve and opting for alternative alignment.
According to Thackeray, the National Board for Wildlife has returned the proposal to the state government with a request to review it in the light of recommendations of the National Tiger Conservation Authority and WII. ‘’However, considering the long term irreversible impacts of gauge conversion on endangered species like tiger and their habitat, it would be appropriate to focus on alternate alignments which would not only ensure much needed space for the wildlife but also bring railway connectivity and greater economic development to hitherto unconnected villages.
Thackeray has reiterated that the gauge conversion be withdrawn by considering an alternate alignment outside the Melghat Tiger Reserve in the interests of wildlife conservation and for protection of the tiger habitat, in particular.