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Bandipur National Park is home to two of India’s most iconic endangered species—the Asiatic elephant, and the Bengal tiger. Along with having the largest population in the wild of these pachyderms, Bandipur, when combined with Nagarhole, Sathyamangalam , Mudumalai, and Wayanad has an estimated 382 tigers. However, it’s been in the news of late for different reasons. Thousands of locals—several of them school students—are protesting against a night traffic ban imposed on a part of NH-766 that passes through the protected area.
NH-766 is a 272 kilometre-long roadway connecting Kozhikode (Kerala) and Kollegal (Karnataka) via Mysuru. While most of the highway lies in Kerala, 34.6 kilometres of the road passes through Bandipur National Park in Karnataka and Wayanad’s forests in Kerala. This includes the core and buffer zones of Bandipur forest: ecologically critical areas where animals rest, feed, and breed, and where human activity is restricted to research, subsistence jobs like fishing and grazing, and limited recreation and tourism.
To protect against human-animal conflict and collisions in this stretch, an order was passed under the Motor Vehicle Act in 2009 that prohibited night traffic between Gundlupet and Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad district, and between Gundlupet and Ooty. The ban, operational from 9pm to 6am for regular vehicles, and from 6pm to 6am for two-wheelers, has seen temporary lifting and reinstating in the past. However, protests were renewed after a recent Supreme court observation that the highway in this area should be closed off entirely in the interest of wildlife, and that an alternative route be established for motor vehicles.
Environmentalists support this move. However, many locals—and some say, lobbies with vested interests—don’t. Political compromise hasn’t been attained in a decade, and seems unlikely in the near future.
The Karnataka government has largely been firm in implementing the restrictions, and has already built a Rs 75 crore alternative route for transit to and from Kerala. However, the residents of Wayanad district in Kerala don’t find this a viable solution. The night ban and alternative route would increase the distance travelled by students, farmers and daily wage labourers greatly: for residents of Sulthan Bathery, the distance to Mysuru jumps from 98 km to 217 km; the delay in transporting and treating those with medical emergencies increases; and the trade of produce and livestock, of which locals are dependent on neighbouring districts in Karnataka, is also affected.
For several such economic and developmental reasons, Wayanad locals want the ban to be revoked, or at least that the highway be modified to meet their concerns halfway. The Kerala government has proposed building five elevated sections on the highway to the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways for approval. If this doesn’t go through, the alternate road to Mysuru, via SH 90 and NH 275, will completely bypass Sulthan Bathery, Gundlupet and Nanjangud (Karnataka).
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Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi recently backed the protests, so resistance may continue. However, one solution is likely to be the strengthening connectivity in the alternative route. Though it passes through forest areas, and increases the distance to Karnataka by 40 kilometres, it is familiar to commuters in the area, and does not pass through core tiger reserve areas such as Bandipur.
Has the traffic ban actually done its job, in terms of reducing wildlife mortalities? It seems like it. There were 93 recorded wildlife deaths between 2004 and 2009 before the ban was imposed. Post the order, “between 2010 and 2018, the number of recorded mortalities reduced to 34,” says Praveen Bhargav, formerly with the National Board for Wildlife.
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