CHENNAI: The ambitious India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) project, proposed in Bodi West Hills in Theni district, has hit a roadblock as the construction site is reportedly falling inside the designated Mathikettan-Periyar tiger corridor.
Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) has filed an application seeking wildlife clearance, which is currently pending before the State Board for Wildlife. Sources told The New Indian Express that the Tamil Nadu government may choose not to allow the INO project in the tiger corridor. "The decision will be made this week," said a source.
It looked like all the hurdles were cleared when the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) issued the final notification of the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) for the Mathikettan Shola National Park in Idukki district of Kerala in December last year. The national park is located on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border and the notification provided 'zero' ESZ towards Tamil Nadu side, which effectively placed the neutrino project outside the ESZ. This meant the INO project no longer needed wildlife clearance from the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).
But, a closer scrutiny of the proposal by the Environment and Forest Department of Tamil Nadu revealed that the construction site spread over 31.45 hectares was falling inside Mathikettan-Periyar tiger corridor, which is among the 32 such tiger corridors recognised by National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). In 2014, the NTCA along with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) identified 32 major tiger corridors in the country and published them in a document titled “Connecting Tiger Populations for Long-term Conservation”, which are operationalized through prescriptions of a Tiger Conservation Plan mandated under section 38V of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
Reliable sources confirmed to The New Indian Express that this critical aspect was flagged by the Tamil Nadu government, represented by Additional Chief Secretary Sandeep Saxena and Special Secretary to Environment and Forests Departments Shekhar Kumar Niraj, in a meeting convened by the Department of Atomic Energy on February 17 this year. The meeting was also attended by senior officials from the Department of Science and Technology and MoEF&CC.
State government officials said the INO project would lead to fragmentation of the critical Mathikettan-Periyar tiger corridor. Besides, the project does not have Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) done by an accredited agency as mandated by law.
Sumesh Soman, District Forest Officer of Theni division and Wildlife Warden for Megamalai Wildlife Sanctuary, also confirmed to The New Indian Express that Bodi West Hill where the INO project is proposed is falling on the designated tiger corridor. "We checked the maps. The site is located inside the tiger corridor and the INO project requires wildlife clearance," he said.
As per the documents available with The New Indian Express, the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, which is leading the INO project work with a consortium of other research institutes including Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai and IIT Madras, has filed an application seeking wildlife clearance on May 20.
TIFR officials did not respond to calls by The New Indian Express.
"Tiger corridor area can't be diverted for unsustainable uses"
When contacted, an NTCA official told The New Indian Express that as per Section 38 O(1)(g) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, areas linking one tiger reserve or protected area with another tiger reserve or protected area are not diverted for ecologically unsustainable uses, except in public interest and with approval of the National Board for Wildlife and on advice of the NTCA.
The official said these corridors hold the key to tigers' genetic flow and dispersion, which results in an increase in population. "They (corridors) assist movement of the spillover population of tigers from one reserve to another," said the official.
Meanwhile, Mathikkettan-Periyar tiger corridor is part of the first major tiger population south of the Palghat Gap, which is a major barrier to gene flow from the northern Western Ghats to the southern Western Ghats for most wildlife species including tigers.
This tiger population is spread over Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, Eravikulam National Park and Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala; and Indira Gandhi (Annamalai) Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. All of these protected areas are connected through forested habitats interspersed with plantations, agriculture, and settlements, consisting of a habitat matrix that is permeable for movement of wildlife.
Recognising the importance, NTCA has identified two corridor systems in this vast complex. One connecting Peechi-Chimmony to Parambikulam and second, connecting Anaimudi Shola National Parks to Pambadum Shola which further extends into Mathikettan Shola National Park. This connectivity extends further south along the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu as narrow ridge top forests of the Ghats, through plantations and agriculture west of the Ghat ridge, connecting the population of this landscape with that of Periyar-KalakadMundanthurai.
A WII official said, "This connectivity is very precarious and needs ground verification urgently and conservation action is needed to secure this connectivity. Tiger occupancy on the Kerala side of this landscape was 1,483 sq.km with an estimated population of 32 to 36 tigers. This area showed a significant increase in both the area occupied by tigers since 2006 and their abundance."