CHENNAI: WIDENING the Girivalam path at the Arunachala Hills in Tiruvannamalai, which is mired in controversy over felling of trees, is to be reviewed by an expert panel, headed by a retired IFS officer. The panel is yet to be appointed.
Though locals and activists pressed for cancelling the work that would entail cutting 125 full-grown trees, the southern bench of National Green Tribunal (NGT) declined while assuring them to protect the green cover in the hills.
After considering the concerns expressed by local villagers during the hearing of a petition filed by S Krishna Kumar, the bench comprising judicial member P Jyothimani and expert member PS Rao observed that the government was correct on widening the Girivalam path.
“Yes, so far no untoward incident was reported. But, we can’t wait for a stampede to happen, which we see often in shrines in North India. Considering the massive crowds witnessed especially during every full moon night and during ‘Karthigai Deepam Mahotsavam’, there is a need to widen the pathway. The project can’t be stalled,” justice Jyothimani said categorically.
However, the expert committee, yet to be appointed, would conduct a case by case study of these 125 trees so as to ensure that not a single tree is cut unnecessarily. “No tree will be allowed to be felled in the Sonagiri forest area, which is an ecologically sensitive belt in the entire 14-km stretch,” the bench assured.
According to the report submitted by Tiruvanamalai district collector earlier, lakhs of pilgrims undertake circumambulation around the 14-km path of the famed Arunachaleswarar temple. The existing path was inadequate to accommodate the sea of devotees, making the widening of the path necessary. This would also facilitate movement of emergency vehicles.
The tribunal on Thursday said Girivalam should have a dedicated lane for emergency vehicles like ambulances especially during peak season. The tribunal was handicapped in passing appropriate orders since the special government pleader Abdul Salem, representing the State government and other departments, resigned for unknown reason while Tiruvanamalai district collector A Gnanasekhar had been transferred to Cuddalore on Wednesday.
The expert panel will be appointed during the next hearing on August 17.
Highways department seeks modification in interim stay
Meanwhile, the Highways Department, is executing the project, sought modification in the interim stay passed by the NGT. Jayasekharan, Tiruvanamalai Divisional Engineer, Highways Department, told Express that the collector has assured in his affidavit that no tree would be felled in Sonagiri forest area, which forms 5.2 km out of total 14 km.
“Let the tribunal decide related to works in Sonagiri forest area, but we request the activists and the court not to stall the work in the remaining 9 km. The stay order has hampered the work in the entire 14 km, which is leading to unnecessary cost escalations,” he said.
The proposed expansion is divided into five works. Pondy-Krishnagiri Road, Sonagiri forest area, Hill round road, Kanji road and Anna arch road. Majority of widening has been already carried out except in Sonagiri forest area. “Only finishing works are pending. Only 6 trees were felled so far. Other roads are urbanised and there is no threat to environment. People will benefit if the project is completed,” the official said.
Separate census to be carried out
Renowned photographer Dev Gogoi said he would carry separate census with the help of locals on the number of trees felled and submit it before the tribunal at the next hearing.
“Every tree is part of a 600-year-old heritage attached to the sacred hill. Many are several hundred years old. To our estimate, 50 trees are already cut. The footpath that the contractors are laying is unscientific covering the root area, harming growth of the trees. If you cut a 300-year-old banyan tree that can shelter 50 pilgrims and compensate with 10 saplings, what purpose will it serve?” he asked.