It takes less than five minutes for 13-year-old Sunil and a team of eight to bring down a 90-year-old tree in one of the elephant corridors of Londa Forest Range in Belagavi district.
Sunil and team, with their petrol chain-saw, have been culling nearly 100 trees per day since Monday (October 22) between Khanapur and Goa border for the proposed widening of the National Highway 4A inside the pristine forests of the Western Ghats. Sources said, they have been tasked to fell as many as 22,622 trees of various sizes before Deepavali, as the Dilip Buildcon Ltd, a Madhya Pradesh-based company, has decided to start the road works.
Some forest officials and environmentalists have raised questions about the need to widen the highway when there are two alternative roads connecting Goa with Belagavi and the density of vehicular traffic on both the roads is less.
The widening of road inside the forest is part of a two-phase 84.12-km NH4A improvement project that runs from Belagavi to the Goa border.
The first phase of the project had received clearance from the Environment Ministry in 2007. The work on 30-km stretch between Belagavi and Khanapur has been taken up in phase-1. More than 30,000 trees in non-forest areas are marked for felling for converting the road into six lane, which is in various stages of completion.
However, what has baffled the environmentalists is the 52-km road widening, which passes through the Western Ghats.
The National Highways Authority of India has decided to widen the road to 26 metres from the existing 14 metres in the forest area, after receiving an in-principal approval from the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change in 2015.
Since, October first week, hectic activity is being witnessed inside the forest area.
For the last eight years we (Karnataka Forest department) had tried hard to prevent implementation of the project. However, since first week of October, 2018, the project has taken mission mode. On October 3 and 4, the officials marked the number of trees to be felled, and on October 22, felling of trees commenced,u201d a forest guard told on condition of anonymity.
There is no need for widening this road which is not too congested, and even the heavy vehicles can pass through with ease in the morning hours, he said.
The Forest department had time and again expressed their reservations against the widening of the NH4A, which passes trough the 2018 most deciduous and evergreen forest and a habitat for endangered animals like tiger, deer, Indian Bison, leopards, king cobras and others. The Forest officials had, in 2012, written to the governments asking the latter to give their approval to the project only after implementing agency take up mitigation measures such as underpasses for animals movement and trenches preventing animals coming on to road.
Belagavi Wildlife Warden Sachin Patil said that no such mitigation measures have been presented to forest department by the NHAI or the contractors, yet the cutting of trees commenced.201cMitigation measures are critical. Without such measures, this road will end up becoming another death trap for animals, he said.
Sources at the Forest Department said that they are under tremendous pressure from their political bosses in the central and state governments.
We are government servants and we are implementing a project that has been approved by the government, said Belagavi Deputy Conservator of Forests Amarnath M V.