Highway project in Odisha threatening birds, turtles rejected

  • Expert panels of the environment ministry are infamous for recommending environment clearances to a majority of developmental projects that come to them, but in some rare cases, they decide otherwise as well.
  • In January 2019, in one such rare case, an expert panel refused to consider a highway project whose proposed alignment would have threatened migratory birds, olive ridley turtles and local rivers.
  • The expert committee of the environment ministry asked the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to explore the possibilities of an alternate alignment.

It is only in rare instances that the development projects are outrightly rejected by the expert panels of India’s environment ministry due to environmental and wildlife concerns. But in one such recent case, it happened.

An expert committee even refused to consider a proposal for construction of a highway in Odisha as it would have threatened migratory birds, olive ridley turtles and disturbed flow of various rivers.

The case pertains to the proposed construction of a national highway project of the National Highways Authority of India in Odisha which was starting from Gopalpur port to Ratnapur (length 240.12 kilometres). It had sought the Terms of Reference (ToR) from the EAC. ToRs can be explained as the guidelines for undertaking environmental impact studies of proposed projects after which it comes to expert appraisal committee (EAC) for environment clearance.

The project was discussed in the recent meeting of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s (MoEFCC) expert appraisal committee for projects related to infrastructure development.

During the EAC’s meeting on January 24-25, 2019, the project proponent made a presentation before the EAC and informed that the proposal involves “development of new highway 516-A”.

According to the minutes of the EAC’s meeting, the present “project stretch starts at Gopalpur port in Ganjam district (Odisha) and passes through Satapada, Konark, Astarang, Naugaon, Paradip Port and ends at Ratanpur (Odisha).” The length of the proposed alignment is 240.12 km, and the estimated cost of the project was about Rs 22 billion (Rs 2,196.49 crore).

The panel was told that the land use pattern on 10 kilometre on “either side of the project road was analysed and is found to be predominately agriculture followed by fallow, wastelands, wetlands, saltpans, estuaries, rivers, forest, and few habitations.” It was also informed that the land acquisition required for the project is around 996.25 hectares. Of that, at least 33.6 hectares is forest land, but the proposal for seeking forest clearance from the MoEFCC is yet to be applied.

The project included axing of about 25,000 trees

During the meeting, EAC was told that three alignments were considered for the project but the proposed alignment was chosen on the grounds that its length is less than other options, construction cost is also less as compared to other two alternatives, and it is a greenfield alignment which gives ease of construction.

Other reasons listed for selecting the said alignment were “minimum disturbance to the habitations area, avoiding of forest to the maximum possible extent, better connectivity to ports, overall economic development of the areas, reduction in fuel consumption due to better geometrics and straight alignment leading to lesser pollution.” The alignment involves cutting of at least 24,596 trees as well.

The total water requirement for the project was estimated to be 3,000 KLD (kilolitres per day) which was to be met through surface water sources.

However, during the meeting, it was revealed that there are “13 stream crossings – Rushikulya river, Chilika lake, Kushabhadra river, Kadua river, Prachi river, Baradia river, Borwan river, Saunlia river, Harhua river, Gobari river, NuaNai river, Devi river, and Mahanadi river.”

While presenting the proposed highway’s benefits, the EAC was told that the alignment has been “envisaged through an area which shall have the advantage of simultaneous development as well as shall result in a shorter distance to travel.”

The project would have threatened migratory birds and olive ridley turtles

It was also emphasised that the proposed road would act as the prime artery for the economic flow to this region. It will enhance economic development, provide employment opportunities to locals, strengthen tourist development, ensure road safety, and provide better transportation facilities and other facilities such as wayside amenities. Vehicle operating cost will also be reduced due to improved road quality. The compensatory plantation and roadside plantation shall further improve the air quality of the region,” the committee was told.

Olive ridley turtles are protected under India’s wildlife laws. Photo by Alternativetours/Wikimedia Commons.

But the environment ministry’s expert panel was not satisfied.

During the meeting, on January 25, 2019, the EAC noted that the proposed road starts near “Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary and further divides Balukhand Konark Wildlife Sanctuary and Chilika (Nalaban) Wildlife Sanctuary” — an important bird area and winter home for millions of migratory birds from the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions during their onward and return migration along the east coast.

“Balukhand Konark Wildlife Sanctuary is a nesting site for olive ridley Sea turtles. The pillars will have grave consequences on flow regime of 13 rivers and floodplains that it will pass through/over -Rushikulya river, Chilika lake, Kushabhadra river, Kadua river, Prachi river , Baradia river, Borwan river, Saunlia river, Harhua river, Gobari river, NuaNai river, Devi river and Mahanadi river. Rushikulya and Devi River mouths are home to over million nesting olive ridley turtles,” the panel noted as per the minutes of its meeting.

While rejecting the proposed alignment, the EAC observed that as the “proposed alignment is passing through a number of ecologically sensitive areas as well as critical wildlife and wetland areas.”

It added: “the proponent should explore the possibilities to find alternate alignment that is far away, and to the west and beyond Chilika Wildlife Sanctuary, of the current alignment to avoid disturbance to the wildlife especially water birds in Chilika lake, Bhitarkanika National Park and olive ridley turtle nesting sites in Balukhand Konark Wildlife Sanctuary for further consideration of the ToR.”

Banner image: Migratory birds in the Chilika lake. Photo by Government of Odisha /Wikimedia Commons.

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