The Delhi-Dehradun highway is up for expansion into a four lane expressway. The 20 km stretch of NH72A, between Ganeshpur and Dehradun, passes through the wildlife rich habitats of Shivalik Forest Division, Uttar Pradesh and Rajaji Tiger Reserve, as well as the Dehradun Forest Division of Uttarakhand.
Camera-trap pictures collected by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in July 2020 reveals an extraordinary abundance of life on this stretch.
The report titled ‘Rapid Assessment of Wildlife and Suggested Mitigation Measures for Development of Delhi-Dehradun Highway in Shivalik Hills’ by Dr Bivash Pandav and Bilal Habib highlights the presence of 27 species of animals, from leopards and elephants to the yellow throated marten.
The findings of this report by WII may not come as a surprise. After all, the 20 km stretch abuts Rajaji Tiger Reserve in the western-most part of the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL), a major conservation landscape of the country.
For the development of the highway, nearly 2572 trees in Uttarakhand and 8588 trees in Uttar Pradesh, will be cut.
How Inspection Reports ‘Overlooked’ Wildlife & Set Off a Chain of Clearances
What IS surprising is that, as per a report filed by the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Dehradun, Rajiv Dhiman, who was sent to do the site inspection, “there are no rare/endangered/unique species of flora and fauna in the area”. Likewise, a site inspection report from the UP section, by the Saharanpur DFO, Saharanpur, R Balachandran, also denies the existence of any wildlife.
The report is critical for obtaining forest clearance, as the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) wants to convert this 20 km stretch into a four lane expressway. Not only will a critical wildlife corridor be destroyed, the road expansion will lead to the chopping of more than 30 species of trees, numbering more than 10,000 — some older than 75 years — in both states.
It was the DFO’s report that then sets off a chain of clearances, from bottom to top, in the state governments’ hierarchy. The Conservator of Forests, Dehradun, PK Patro, based on the faulty site Inspection Report, recommended the project on 4 August 2020.
The proposal was considered in the 50th Meeting of the Regional Empowered Committee (REC) Dehradun held on 24 September 2020, and the Committee accepted the statement of the DFO at face value.
However, since the area falls within one km of a protected area, the matter then goes to the highest decision-making body in the country for conservation — the standing Committee of the National Board for wildlife at the Centre for consideration. Since the project falls within the Eco-Sensitive Zone of the Rajaji National Park, and is a tiger corridor, NHAI submits its application for the grant of Wildlife Clearance to the Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).
Potential Case of ‘Conflict of Interest’
In the 60th meeting of the Standing Committee for the National Board for Wildlife (SCNBWL) held in January 2021, both the projects from Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh were considered and cleared.
Incidentally, the Wildlife Institute of India is also a member of the NBWL, but the minutes of the meeting show no evidence of WII recusing themselves from the meeting.
This should have been the right thing to do, given the potential conflict of interest, since it received money from the NHAI for conducting a rapid assessment mitigation survey.
What the Wildlife Institute of India’s Report Revealed
The NHAI had requested the Wildlife Institute of India to conduct a “rapid assessment of wildlife” in order to suggest a mitigation plan. And as they say, the camera never lies. The camera traps deployed by WII blows the cover on the first site Inspection Report filed by the DFO, revealing thousands of pictures of wild animals on this stretch.
The report authored by Dr Bivash Pandav and Dr Bilal Habib, that came out in August 2020, deployed more than 81 camera traps, and clearly stated that “our study clearly indicates that this 20 km stretch of NH72A passes through a wildlife rich area.” Thus, contradicting the claims made by the DFO.
It then went on to further observe that “leopards were photo-captured in 39 of the 81 camera traps deployed along the road.
Further captured were the rusty spotted cat, Asian palm civets, small Indian civets, yellow-throated martens, masked palm civets, grey mongoose, leopard cats and monitor lizards...”
And it finally concluded by saying: “With the possible recovery of tiger population in Western Rajaji in the near future, tigers will soon regain their former range along this western most part of TAL. Therefore, maintaining the integrity of this landscape is an absolute necessity for achieving future conservation goals”.
A Dehradun Citizen’s Lone Battle to Save Wildlife
The report then goes on to build a case for the construction of underpasses on critical road segments, in order to mitigate the negative impacts of the highway expansion. This, on a road that was claimed to have zero presence of wildlife.
Himanshu Arora, a citizen of Dehradun, has been fighting a lonely battle for protection of this crucial wildlife corridor. He has witnessed several wild animals on this stretch of the road including an elephant.
Through a series of RTIs filed by him, he was able to get access to the Wildlife Institute of India’s report by Pandey and Habib. Says Arora: “We are a group of citizens called ‘Citizens for Green Doon’, which we formed around 11 years back. I came to know about this road from an article. This kind of road construction will lead to greater man-animal conflict which is already on the rise in Uttarakhand.”
What the Trail of Documents Reveals About the Highway Project
The trail of documents accessed by this author clearly indicate that in spite of strong evidence that the 20 km stretch is rich in biodiversity, every institution within the government, whether at the state or central levels, meant for the protection of wildlife, chose to look the other way — or contradicted its own reports to give the go-ahead to this project.
Mitigation measures like bridges and underpasses can work in extreme circumstances when no other options are available. Says Arora quite aptly: “ This project will only shorten the distance by 15 or 20 minutes. Is it really worth losing trees more than 100 years old?”
(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environmental journalist in search of a greener world. She is also the author of two books. She tweets @bahardutt. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)