The world is pursuing a path of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, keys to human development. India is walking the same track, targeting a five trillion economy in the near future.
We expect higher GDP, better economic status and a high standard of living like other developed countries. However, linear infrastructure does not always propel growth and holds negative implications. Often development comes at an ecological cost.
IndianRailway’s expansion into the hinterlands
In the current scenario, the Indian government is focusing on linear infrastructure development across the nation. The commissioning of new railway lines is also being done at a faster pace.
Railways connect India rapidly, with a 59 per cent increase in the average pace of commissioning new lines from 4.1 (2009-14) to 6.53 km per day (2014-18). In addition to our current railway network, the Indian government in 2006 established a new subsidiary, the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Limited (DFCCIL) that upholds a motto of sincerity, speed and success.
At present, the Indian Railways run a mixed corridor where mail/express/passenger trains and freight trains share the same track. While freight traffic is the bread and butter for the Indian Railways, mail/express/passenger trains invariably take precedence over freight (Corporate Plan, DFCCIL 2020).
With this in view, the Railway Ministry proposed a dedicated freight corridor that will run separately on a dedicated track. Accordingly, the DFCCIL claims that freight trains would now be able to move at a speed of 100 km per hour.
By 2024, DFCCIL proposes to lay a 3365 km track connecting north to south and west to east (Corporate Plan, DFCCIL 2020). However, the downside is that such sanctioned and proposed corridors will pass through different forest patches of different states and compromise animal safety.
As per a 2019 RTI report received from the Ministry of Railways, railway lines currently pass through 19 protected areas, including national parks, sanctuaries, elephant reserves, and tiger reserves. The details are given below:-
Railway Lines Running Through Protected Areas
Alipurduar – Siliguri
Jaldapara, Gorumara, Mahananda WLS
East Central Railway (Bihar-UP line)
Valmiki Tiger Reserve
Kansiya nes – Sasan Gir metre gauge
Alipurduar – Siliguri
Jaldapara, Gorumara, Mahananda WLS
Rajaji National park
Betla national park
Reserve forest, malewada
Walayar range, palakkad forest
Nagzira, Navegaon and Tadoba
Balaghat – Jabalpur
Nagpur – Chhindwara
Pench range, sillewani forest
Nagpur – Durg
Nagzira RF, Dandakara RF, Dakshin bortalao range
Nainpur – Chhindwara
Joranda – Dhenkanal
Sitabinj – Harichandanpur
Harichandanpur reserve forest
Rouli – Tikiri
The Eastern Ghats, Rayagda hills
Kakrigumma – Koraput
The Eastern Ghats, Rayagda hills
Kotgarh elephant reserve, Niyamgiri
The newly proposed tracks by DFCCIL will have a doubled Hospet-Tinaighat-Vasco line passing through Goa’s Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary.
Karnataka’s Dandeli sanctuary, Lucknow-Pilibhit gauge conversion will increase construction and consequently traffic inside the Pilibhit tiger reserve in Uttar Pradesh.
Similarly, a dedicated freight corridor passes through Gautam Buddha WLS of Bihar and Koderma WLS of Jharkhand.
India’s environment ministry recently exempted 13 pending railway projects worth INR 19,400 crore (2.8 billion USD) and spread over 800 hectares of land from seeking forest permits. These clearances could adversely impact the national park, tiger reserve, tiger corridor, and wildlife sanctuaries across Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Goa. It is expected that more protected areas are likely to see railway lines in and around them soon.
The repercussion of Railway expansion on wildlife
The Indian railways’ ministry claims that as many as 35,732 animals were killed on the railway tracks in the last four years. All in all, every day, 31 animals die on the tracks.
In many states, railway lines passing through elephant habitats have led to accidents and the death of 249 elephants during 1987 and 2018.
Since 1987, 18 elephants have been killed in train accidents only in Rajaji National Park. Recent statistics show that elephant mortality due to train hit is ranked third, after electrocution and poaching.
In overall elephant deaths due to anthropogenic causes, rail contributes to almost 12 per cent of India’s total elephant mortality.
According to the official data, the number has been continuously increasing year after year.
The judicious amalgamation of development and conservation
The web of railway tracks will cross through more protected areas and undoubtedly cause more mortality in the coming days. We cannot limit expansion because it would jeopardise the nation’s welfare, but we cannot sacrifice the lives of protected and endangered species to increase the nation’s GDP.
Such a critical situation demands a better strategy in which both development and conservation can go hand in hand. Some key measures have been proposed to balance conservation and development. It is perhaps time to reflect upon them and promise their inclusion at totality.
A. Passage through dense forest should be avoided if an alternative route is available
On several occasions, railway agencies choose the alignment that passes through the protected area to reduce the railway track’s length, thereby lowering the project cost. They do this despite knowing that another alternative route is available. However, such an alternative would cost more.
While deciding on the selection of route, agencies must keep in mind that the cost of an animal’s life is far greater than the project’s cost. The right decision might save species’ lives and subsequently help them maintain ecological balance. Economic non-viability should not be cited as a reason for non-ecological viability.
B. Imposing restriction on the speed of the trains passing through the dense forest areas
Speed kills both humans and wildlife in different ways. Unfortunately, there are no prescriptions in any rule/act/policy/guidelines on the exact speed limit to be followed by the Indian railways while passing through dense forests/protected areas/critical wildlife habitats.
This is the most contentious and critical point in terms of wildlife conservation. As per a 2016 report, 1200 trains run through India’s protected area, which poses a grave danger to its sensitive wildlife. Evidence from research suggests that a restricted speed limit for trains in dense forests is an effective mitigation strategy to avoid incidental mortalities.
It has been shown that an increase in the speed limit of the train caused more elephant fatalities due to the elephant–train collision. Different committees constituted on mitigation measures also suggest a speed limit of 20 km within the protected area.
Other studies reveal that the frequency of wild animal fatalities is much higher during the night than during the day and hence suggested the restriction on railway movement on the tracks that is passing through the forested area in between 7 pm to 6 am.
The concerned authorities have proposed no pre-defined speed limit applied throughout Indian PAs regardless of their protection status (whether it is a Sanctuary, National Park, or Tiger Reserve).
A Uttarakhand HC order of 2016 states that trains need to run at 30 km per hour while passing through national parks. The 34th meeting of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) in 2015 also mandated that trains passing through a tiger reserve must travel at a maximum speed of 35 kmph at night and 40 kmph during the day.
In 2013, public interest litigation (Shakti Prasad Nayak Vs Union of India) was filed in the honorable Supreme Court regarding the train’s speed restriction. The Supreme Court passed a Judgement in 2014 on this writ petition, ordering speed restrictions to be strictly followed by trains of Indian Railways passing through dense forests and is applicable across India.
In this crucial verdict, the order pertaining to the speed limit was generic, and no range was defined, and hence there was no clarity on the speed limit.
Such a policy gap attracts a slew of unwanted incidents, the cost of which is borne solely by ‘protected’ species. Several new railway projects will increase the traffic within various protected areas in the coming days, but there are no speed limit mandates in order.
Several times, forest officials report that the railways have not adhered to the prescribed speed limit. The railway officials are fully aware of the flaw in policy and are confident that no one will penalise them despite casualties on the track. It would perhaps be prudent at this stage to define the speed limit for the country’s entire protected area and draft strict penalty provisions for the railways.
C.Need for a monitoring committee on the efficacy of mitigation structures
Any development project necessitates an environment impact assessment (EIA), and in such a study, various mitigation measures such as culverts, overpasses, bridges, and tunnels are proposed to facilitate safe passage to animals from one side to the other so that the rail tracks do not pose a risk or a barrier. Such mitigations fulfil the concept of sustainability and ensure animal permeability.
The concern is that mitigation measures proposed by EIA agencies should not be limited to paper only, required for clearance from the relevant authorities. Project personnel should abide by the suggestions made by the EIA organisations. Several accredited agencies do the EIA and propose well-designed mitigation structures by keeping in mind the habitat use of animals, water flow regime, movement pattern and several other ecological parameters.
For such environmental projects, a monitoring committee should be established to oversee the technical recommendations made by authorised agencies for the mitigation structure to be designed correctly and in the best interest of the endemic species. This committee will also monitor the effectiveness of the constructed design in terms of animal use.
In the past two decades, several projects were cleared with mitigation structures. However, it is time to assess the efficacy of those mitigation structures, and a detailed study has to be conducted. The results of this study can strengthen our policies relating to EIAs and implementation and mitigation strategies in linear infrastructure developments.
A guideline prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) titled “Eco-friendly measures to mitigate impacts of linear infrastructure on wildlife” in 2016 (WII, 2016) is being largely suggested by various apex agencies like the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) during clearance of project for implementing mitigation measures.
In the last five years, there has been a tremendous increase in the linear infrastructures in and around protected forest areas. Also, there have been scientific advancements and knowledge generated in the past few years pertaining to mitigation strategies. It is high time to review and update the existing WII guidelines and make them more scientifically robust by improvising them with recent knowledge and experience.
There is growing recognition that people and wildlife can coexist in human-dominated landscapes with appropriate tools and management, public policies, and societal support.
An ancient Sanskrit verse expresses “Ati Sarvatra Varjayet “, meaning anything in excess is harmful. This verse shares the key to sustainable consumption. Human conflict with wildlife has contributed to the decline and extinction of many species, terrestrial carnivores and herbivores.
The loss of a species as a result of train collision had a cascading effect on the ecosystem. This skewed growth-oriented approach will continue to put more pressure on forest lands. Nature has already defined the line between animals and humans, and it is our responsibility to keep it as straightforward as possible. It is time to make sustainable consumption and instil one’s ethical and social responsibility for nature conservation.