Kerala Tunnel Project Could Damage Fragile Ecosystem Of Western Ghats, Say Activists
Exactly two days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Atal Tunnel, under the Rohtang Pass in the Himalayas, Kerala Chief Minister launched the Anakkampoyil-Meppadi Tunnel project, which will be built by cutting the sensitive forests and hills of the Western Ghats in northern Kerala.
But green activists are already apprehensive about the damage to the fragile ecosystem that this project could cause.
“Both Gadgil and Kasturirangan committee report had demarcated this region as Ecologically Sensitive Areas and a no-go development zone. Apart from the rich biodiversity of this region, the area is, unfortunately, landslide-prone, and to make matters worse, there has been intense rainfall here in the last three years due to the impact of climate change in the Western Ghats region,” said Viju B, a Kerala-based journalist and author of Flood and Fury, which details the ecological devastation in the Western Ghats.
He explained to The Lede that the tunnel project is planned between the scenic Chembra and Vellarimala (Silver Hills) ranges, known as the famous Camel Hump mountains, which is one of the most ecologically fragile regions in the Western Ghats region, situated in north Kerala.
Viju added that the region is host to some of the endemic species of flora and fauna found in the Western Ghats.
“The project is a circus, announced by the government eyeing the elections. Through the project, the government is planning to source tonnes of rock from the Western Ghats,” N Badusha from Wayanad Prakrithi Samithi told The Lede.
While the 9 km-long Atal Tunnel, completed in 10 years, reduces the travel time by four hours and overall distance between Manali and Keylong on the way to Leh by 38 km, Kerala’s 7 km-long Anakkampoyil-Meppadi Tunnel, when built, is expected to shorten the Kozhikode-Wayanad travel by 31 km.
The existing road connecting the two districts, Kozhikode and Wayanad, passes through a 13 km Wayanad ghat section road, with nine hairpin bends, known as ''Thamarassery Churam'', along National Highway 212.
The narrow and landslip-prone road gets crippled quite often due to one or the other reason including minor landslides during heavy rains.
The proposed tunnel through the Western Ghat will start at Swargam Kunnu in nearby Kodenchery panchayat in Kozhikode district and will end at Kalladi near Meppadi in Wayanad district.
A bridge across Iruvanjippuzha is also planned to be constructed as part of the two-lane tunnel connected highway.
Launching the Anakkampoyil-Meppadi Tunnel project online, the Kerala CM said that in 34 months beginning from March 2021, the tunnel would be completed.
However, other than entrusting Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KCRL) to survey to build the tunnel and sanctioning Rs 658 crores, the Kerala government does not have a survey report, a detailed project report, or even clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
While launching the project as part of the 100 Days, 100 Projects, the Kerala CM said that his government was in favour of taking a decision that could address the environmental concerns and bolster local development.
“We are not ready to succumb to unwanted controversies,” he had said.
Previous Projects Yet To Be Completed
Activist Badhusha said “During the last 40 years, many such impractical roads, bridges, and hospital projects were announced in Wayanad. None of them materialised. This Anakkampoyil-Meppadi Tunnel project is also going to start and end in Anakkampoyi.”
“It took nearly 10 years for the defence engineers to build the Atal Tunnel. Here, the Kerala government claims, it will complete the work in three years. Interestingly, the Kerala government is still unclear on the completion and opening of Kuthiran Tunnel,” Badusha said.
The work of the 900 m-long Kuthiran Tunnel in Thrissur was started in 2009, but it is yet to be completed and opened for traffic.
Journalist and author Viju pointed out that the geographical location of the proposed tunnel is not very far from Puthumala village in Meppadi Panchayat, which was wiped off by a massive landslide, killing 17 people and rendering around 64 families homeless last year, pointing out to the fact that these hill ranges are vulnerable to landslides.
“So, it is suicidal to undertake any kind of major project works that will disturb the fragile landscape that may act as a trigger for landslides,” he said, adding that the unscientific expansion along the Gap Road stretch of Kochi-Dhanushkodi national highway in Munnar is a classic example.
According to Viju, in the last one year, 20 landslides occurred in the narrow scenic hill road that passes precariously through the Ghat section connecting Kerala to Tamil Nadu.
Viju also alleged that the tunnel project is expected to generate thousands of tonnes of rocks, not only destroying the biodiversity of the region but disrupting the wildlife corridors of elephants once the construction begins.
While concluding his comments, Viju said that if the government is planning to go ahead with the project, then we would be hearing the last cackle of endangered songbird Banasura Chillappan as the project will disturb its habitat.
Chillappan is a tiny olive-grey bird that has an ancestry of over five million years. It is the distant cousin of the laughing birds in the Himalayas, and its ancestors undertook a daring journey and flew over 3000 km, crossing the Deccan plateau, to make the Shola forest of Chembra peak their permanent homes in the Western Ghats.
However, the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Board (KIIFB), which has been entrusted with carrying out the project, has been optimistic.
On October 07, KIIFB had uploaded a detailed post and video on its official Facebook page signalling that the project will be done.
The Lede sent a detailed questionnaire to the chief minister's office as well as to the KIIFB regarding the concerns raised by activists but is yet to receive a response.
This story will be updated when a response is received.