Paving ParadiseDo we really need another highway in the ecologically fragile Chure range?
As part of the government’s budget for the next fiscal year, the Madan Bhandari Highway that will span across the foothills of the Chure range was green lighted last week. With a total outlay of Rs 4.5 billion, the new 1200-km highway is slated to connect Shantinagar in Jhapa to Rupal in Dadeldhura, with the eventual goal of transforming it into the lifeline that feeds a new industrial corridor.
The project, however, has drawn flak from various quarters given that Chure’s fragile ecology is already under strain from numerous other large infrastructural projects and anthropogenic interventions. The region, which spans 50 kms from north to south, currently has the East-West Highway, the Postal Highway, and the proposed East-West Railway and Mid-Hill Highway cutting across it foothills and valleys. This begs the question: does the Chure need one more highway?
The Chure range, also called the Siwalik range, stretches from the Indus River in Pakistan in the west up to the Bramphaputra River in India in the east. In Nepal, the range extends to 33 districts and accounts for about 26 percent of the country’s natural forest. The range is home to 666 different species of flora—including 305 species that have medicinal values. The region also plays an important role in the recharge of ground water in the Tarai plains—the country’s food basket.
Given its ecological significance, various plans for its conservation have been initiated from as early as 1970. The government even unveiled the President Chure-Tarai Madesh Conservation Development Board in 2013 with a budget of Rs 250 million. However, the environmental degradation of the Chure range continues unabated. Deforestation, grazing and excessive mining of sand and gravel have left the region vulnerable to natural disasters such as landslides, erosions and flooding. Now the plans for yet another highway cutting through the range have left experts alarmed. They argue that one more large infrastructural project in the Chure will severely affect water resources in the Tarai, cause water-logging, while also eroding the soil, making the region all the more vulnerable to landslips. Like the East-West Highway once did, the newly-proposed highway will also increase migration to the region, which will in turn result in further encroachment of available resources.
Given the far-reaching ecological consequences the newly-proposed highway will have on the Chure range, it is worth pondering if the cons outweigh the project’s advantages. Infrastructural development has often been touted as the panacea for many of the nation’s endemic problems. But while increased connectivity is undoubtedly a pressing need, it is vital that large projects are planned and executed with due consideration for the environment.
With the World Environment Day being observed the world over today, we too are slated to see a slew of programmes on conservation. But unless a more holistic approach to development filters through at the policy level, conservation dialogue and initiatives lie in the danger of amounting to little else than tokenism and sloganeering.