Mumbai: Batting for the big cats, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on Wednesday opposed the Centre's proposal to undertake a railway gauge conversion traversing through the Melghat Tiger Reserve in the Vidarbha region.
The gauge conversion of the 176 km long Akola-Khandwa line, to be taken up by South Central Railway, passes through a core tiger habitat in eastern Maharashtra, which is among India's oldest.
In letters to Union Minister for Environment Prakash Javadekar and Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, Thackeray has urged them to consider alternative alignment and cancel the current proposal.
The plan involves gauge conversion work on the existing meter-gauge line, which connects Akola and Khandwa, as part of the government's uni-gauge policy.
The proposal includes open cutting of tunnels, which would lead to blasting of rocks using heavy machinery and explosives, realignment away from the existing railway tracks to ease sharp curves, cutting through the critical area of the tiger sanctuary.
Objecting to the proposal, Thackeray pointed out that this amounts to not just a gauge conversion of the existing railway lines, but also a re-alignment.
"Along with increase in the railway traffic, it would also lead to increase in speed of the trains, restrictions on future expansions and modifications and increase in pollution along the track. The core area has been made inviolate by rehabilitating 13 villages and 6 of these are within 10 km distance of the existing railway line. Due to this, wildlife has significantly increased in the area," Thackeray said.
The Melghat Tiger Reserve was among the first nine tiger sanctuaries declared in India in 1973-1974, and is spread over 2,767 sq km in the Satpura-Maikal range, which enjoys the distinction of being one of the global priority tiger conservation landscapes, the CM added.
Satpuda Foundation chief and Maharashtra State Wildlife Board member Kishor Rithe said the reserve is home to around 55 tigers and the state government's move would be beneficial both tigers and the local villages.
However, the proposed gauge conversion will substantially increase railway traffic in the long run, leading to huge disturbances to the core area of the reserve, said Thackeray.
He mentioned that the Wildlife Institute of India (WWI) had recommended that the best mitigation for the railway line is 'avoidance' of the upgradation through the tiger reserve and opting for alternative alignments.
The proposal was considered by the Central Empowered Committee in 2018 which asked the National Board for Wildlife to reconsider its decision to divert 160.94 hectares of forest land for the gauge conversion running through the Wan Sanctuary within the Melghat Tiger Reserve.
On its part, the National Board for Wildlife returned the proposal to Maharashtra, requesting it to reconsider it in view of the recommendations of the WII and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
Referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's statement that "Conservation of Tigers is not a choice but an imperative," Thackeray urged that though railways must be developed, it is equally important to conserve tigers and prevent environmental degradation, for which an alternative route must be selected for the project.