While going through a petition seeking the lifting of night traffic regulations on the Bandipur National Park stretch of Kozhikode-Kollegal National Highway 766, the Supreme Court made a chance observation that an alternative route be explored, facilitating permanent closure of the national park stretch. This evoked huge protests in the northern hill district of Wayanad in Kerala—the largest protest the district has ever witnessed. True this: devoid of any rail link and located close to Mysore in Karnataka and Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu and accessible from the rest of Kerala only through ghat roads, it is a lifeline for Wayanad.
A hunger strike was organised in Sulthan Bathery Town by various youth organisations with the backing of all major political parties and Rahul Gandhi flew down from Delhi to express his solidarity. Thousands took part in the mega rallies held in various parts of the district. The protestors shouted slogans against a few local environmentalists, who according to them, had tried to mislead the Supreme Court and its learned judges. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan rushed to Delhi to seek the intervention of the Centre in convincing the Supreme Court about the implications of such a ban on the hill district, affecting tourism and normal life.
Though the hunger strike was called off following assurances from the Centre and Karnataka that no plan for permanent closure of the route was under consideration, the real issue continues to remain unaddressed. At one level, a few self-proclaimed environmentalists with unrealistic goals are making the issue complex by engaging in a prolonged process of litigation. They seek more travel regulations on the route without factoring in that the road had existed for centuries facilitating trade, commerce and other interactions between the Kannadigas and the Malayalis.
This route was used by the rulers of Mysore, Hyder Ali and his son Tippu Sultan, to reach Wayanad to expand their empire southwards. The British colonial administration facilitated better trade relations and social connectivity between then Malabar province and the princely state of Mysore. Post-independence, the route was the lifeline for people of North Kerala, who frequently used it to access Bangalore from Kozhikode for education, jobs and healthcare facilities.
Wayanad is on the tri-junction of three states which connects the reserved forests of Nagarhole National Park and Bandipur National park of Karnataka with Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. As no road can be built between Wayanad and Mysore without touching forest regions, the environmentalists’ demand for an alternative route while closing down the Bandipur stretch seems impractical. The alternative route cutting through Mysore, Kutta, Gonikuppal and Hunsur in Karanataka involves forest stretches and is 35 km longer than the national highway. The obstinate stance of environmentalists, active in both Karnataka and Wayanad, make life difficult for people.
On the other hand, vested interest groups, with full backing of land encroachers, resort lobbies and timber smugglers have been trying to hijack the protests. One of the highlights of the recent protests was a procession of earth movers to the Wayanad district border at Muthanga, to warn environmentalists and conservationists who stand for wildlife. These lobbies have attempted to turn the popular demand of the people to their ends. They hope the restrictions imposed on unmindful construction following the recurring floods will be lifted by this backdoor lobbying.
Caught between the warring self-seeking interest groups, Wayanad is losing its chance to find a pragmatic solution to the travel-related issues of the local community and at the same time, protect the precious wildlife of Wayanad, Bandipur and the adjoining forests. Though it’s the lifeline, the prevailing night travel ban existing for over a decade had considerably reduced wildlife casualties on the stretch. So the practical solution lies in ensuring safe and monitored travel on the stretch without causing any damage to the flora and fauna.
Before the night travel ban was imposed, a number of private contract carrier buses had occupied the stretch during odd hours and their over-speeding had caused animal deaths. The need now is operating more public transport buses owned by the both the states on the stretch during night at regulated speed.
There is no truth in the claim that night restriction affects movement of trucks with vegetables between main market in Mysore and Wayanad, an agrarian region. The Mysore vegetable market downs its shutters by 5 pm and even the last truck that leaves Mysore at 5 pm can cross the border before 9 pm.
A sincere effort must be made to win the confidence and cooperation of the people of Wayanad in protecting Bandipur, one of the oldest tiger reserves in India with a tiger population of 140, and more than 1,500 elephants. The 19-km stretch where vehicular movement is not allowed between 9 pm and 6 am is part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Panicking people with the proposal for a complete travel ban would not yield any positive result. Even the decade-old regulations at night had not evoked much protest from the locals.
The proposal to construct an elevated road over the national highway was rejected by the central government, citing the huge expenses involved. With vehicular density increasing by 10 percent annually, a long-term proposal catering to people’s aspirations and protecting the wildlife in equal measure is the need of the hour. As far as Wayanad is concerned, co-existence is the way forward rather than collision.