Construction of Madan Bhandari Highway via Chure worsens the fragile zone, a report saysThe 1200-km under construction highway, which will traverse the Chure range, fails to consider the region’s geology and possible environmental damage, including serious impacts on the ecology and people of Tarai.
Environmentalists have slammed the ongoing construction of Madan Bhandari Highway, which passes via the fragile Chure range, for the adverse impact it will have on the range and the Tarai belt downstream.
An environmental impact report, prepared after a field study of the 371-km Hetauda-Sindhuli-Gaighat-Basaha-Chatara section of the under-construction highway, concludes that the sensitive geology of Chure, environmental aspects like biodiversity, wildlife corridors, and forest protection were completely ignored while planning and building the highway.
“Around 25-30 percent of the highway will pass via the Chure, which is already a fragile zone facing massive exploitation,” said Bishwamani Pokharel, a geologist and coordinator of the research commissioned by the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists. “We can only imagine the level of impact the project will have on the Chure, its ecology, forest, wildlife and people in the Tarai. ”
Despite the severity of effects, the report has found that construction of the highway had begun even without an environmental impact assessment (EIA), which is mandatory for all the big projects with the potential for damaging the environment.
“If the EIA were conducted, it could outline the damage the project could do to the environment and suggest the measures required to mitigate it,” said Pokharel. “This practice seems to be guided by the psychology that conducting the required EIA and abiding by other provisions could be a hindrance to the roads being constructed through a sensitive terrain like Chure. So they simply avoided it.”
According to Pokharel, not only the EIA, the detailed project report (DPR) was also not conducted for the four-lane road that passes between two other highways—Mid-Hill Highway to its north and East-West Highway down south.
The need for another highway, parallel to the existing two roads, has long been criticised by environmentalists for it only worsens the critical Chure range which has faced massive degradation over the years.
The under-construction highway, which begins from Shantinagar of Jhapa and end in Rupali of Dadheldhura, is situated 15-20 kilometres north of the East-West Highway. The Postal Highway is under construction to the south of East-West Highway.
Over 8,000 trees have already been cut down in Udayapur, Sindhuli and Makawanpur districts for the eastern section alone.
According to Batu Krishna Uprety, an environmentalist and former joint-secretary with the Forest Ministry, it is questionable how the forest area was granted for the project.
“For any project to access a forest area, it must be a national priority project, a status mostly recommended by the National Planning Commission,” said Uprety, who has years of experience in environmental assessment. “Forest can be provided only if there is no option and the project must guarantee that there will be no harm to the ecology. But in both cases, EIA is a must.”
Although the highway was named a National Pride Project three years ago, its outline was built over two decades ago when the district development committees opened a 3-metre wide track with the aim to link Inner Madhes with the district headquarters.
However, a series of Madhes movements, which saw frequent disruptions in vehicular movement along the East-West Highway, motivated the government to develop the road as an alternative.
Initially planned as a double lane highway with a width of seven metres, it was upgraded to four lanes after the 2015 Madhes movement and formation of local and provincial governments.
But the preliminary feasibility report and Initial Impact Assessment (IEA) report carried out for the single lane road were used for the construction of the four-lane highway, according to the report released in Kathmandu on Monday.
“As we talk about good governance, the government itself ignoring the existing provisions of the EIA and DPR for big projects comes as a surprise,” said Prabhu Budhathoki, an environmentalist and former member of the National Planning Commission. “That nearly 30 percent of the road passes via the Chure raises questions about its operation in the rainy season. Land erosion and landslides are going to be rampant. But the government seems more concerned about rapid development instead of sustainable development.”
According to experts, construction of the highway along Chure will be disastrous to the fragile zone, which has been a lifeline for the people living in the Tarai as it plays a crucial part in recharging groundwater. With the ongoing construction, more link roads from down south Saptari, Siraha, Dhanusha, Mahottari and Sarlahi have begun to connect with the highway.
Experts argue that the road will not serve as a full-fledged highway as vehicles will not be able to ply it at high speed. Also, the road cannot be useful for large vehicles due to a high number of turnings.
This highway, which costs more than Rs 850 million per kilometre, will just serve as an alternative route, said Pokharel. The benefits won’t match the high investment.
Commenting on the report and the ongoing developments in the Chure region, former president Ram Baran Yadav, under whose tenure the President Chure-Tarai Madhes Conservation Development Board was established, said he was not happy with the current model of development in the region.
“After 2006-07, deforestation has been slightly controlled whereas the exploitation of Chure area has continued unabated. The area should be preserved because it recharges water for the Tarai region,” said Yadav.
“The exploitation of Chure has already caused water resources in Tarai districts to dry up. Unchecked exploitation will lead to desertification in the Madhes. By constructing a road through the Chure, the government is disturbing the ecology and water cycle.”