A convention centre in Kohora, the central gateway to the wilderness of Kaziranga National Park, a World Heritage Site recognised by UNESCO is all set for a public hearing which is likely to take place on September 5 afternoon. For the first time, locals, foresters, wildlife experts and the public works department would discuss a series of elevated sections in an existing highway planned exclusively to safeguard wildlife from being hit by cars in this public meeting. 

A senior PWD official confirmed two public meetings would be organised on Sunday by the Golaghat district administration in Kohora and Nagaon administration in Kuthori to discuss the proposed alignments for the elevated sections of the road. In 2019, the Assam government awarded Rs 2,625-cr flyover project to Wadia Techno-Engineering Services, a Mumbai based company owned by business tycoon Ness Wadia and Zoma Engineers, a New Delhi company. 

A notice published on September 2 in a major Assamese daily stated that the senior Assam PWD officials accepted the proposals for the alignment as suggested by Wadia and Zoma along the highway in Kaziranga where the elevated sections have been proposed. Earlier in 2015, National Green Tribunal in a petition filed by Rohit Chaudhary, an environmental activist questioned the park authorities over the rising number of deaths on the road. Chaudhary, in his petition, demanded a complete stop to the widening of the highway connecting Kaziranga with the rest of Assam, following which the Assam government started looking for alternatives. 

Curiously, the Assam government in 2017 had blacklisted Wadia Techno-Engineering Services following allegations of forgery levelled by a South Korean company, Yooshin Engineering Corporation. Both Wadia and Yooshin were awarded survey contracts for a proposed bridge connecting Majuli, World’s largest river island on the Brahmaputra and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Assam PWD earlier terminated the contract due to delays by Wadia. Similarly, National Highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, the Central government-owned road-building undertaking, blacklisted both Wadia and Zoma Engineers for three years after it was found that fake curriculum vitae was supplied for a participant in the bidding process. In 2019, Delhi High Court upheld the NHIDCL order. While the Golaghat district administration did not comment on the award of the contract to the controversial companies, senior PWD officials did not respond to the queries sent by EastMojo.

For years, this highway snaking through the Southern fringe of Kaziranga National Park, which is also is the Asian Highway 1, connecting Northeastern India to Southeast Asia, gained notoriety over the years for the roadkills. In 2019, when a severe flood drowned more than 150 animals, one Sambar and 16 hog deer were killed by speeding vehicles on the 66 kilometre stretch of the highway along the national park. According to Swapan Nath, a senior journalist and conservationist belonging to the region has been working closely with conservation NGOs such World Wildlife Fund, when the park is flooded, the animals cross over to the Southern fringes of the park towards Karbi hills for refuge. “We want a permanent solution to this problem, but we are not sure how will animals behave when the construction takes place over the corridors,” Nath told Eastmojo.  

Over the underpass

According to a note circulated among PWD officials, which will be discussed in the public hearings, five main objectives have been outlined for the proposed elevated sections. As per the note shared by a senior PWD official, the elevated sections are a part of long term measures for reducing the impact caused by the national highway on the integrity of one of the most important wildlife areas of the world. Second, it would allow unhindered movement of wild animals which will further enhance tourism and mitigate anthropogenic fragmentation. The objective for the PWD is also to have unrestricted traffic flow as there are strict speed restrictions imposed on the highway. 

The total proposed elevated sections will be over 35 kilometres along the 66-kilometre stretch, of which 18.81 kilometres in Rangolu to Deopani section in Nagaon district will have elevated road as an animal underpass. Three tunnels would act as an animal overpass and two rope bridges for monkeys and Hoolock gibbons. The same section will have two 100-metre long viewpoints with watchtowers, washrooms etc. In the Harmoti-Hatikhuli section along the Nagaon and Golaghat district borders, 11.476 kilometres would have elevated roads, while Panbari – Borjuri section in the Bokakhat subdivision will have 4.91 Km of elevated roads.

Assam PWD officials consider this project to be the biggest and the most comprehensive wildlife-friendly road in which they are likely to transplant trees to reduce tree felling. While elevation across the length of the road will not be less than six metres anywhere, the minimum span will be 30 metres. The three tunnels in the overpasses will be 200 metres, 140 metres and 90 metres in length. Trees would be planted above the tunnels. The width of the elevated sections will be 18 metres overall with an 11 metres carriageway, a 2-metre cycle track and a 1.5-metre footpath. PWD officials maintain that the flyovers are designed to have vegetated noise barriers on both sides. “The height of the noise barriers will be such that the glare of headlights will not fall on the animal movement track. Piers of the elevated road will be vegetated with creepers to minimise the tunnel effect for the animals,” the note by PWD official stated. Further, the note stated that there would be a provision of funnel fencing to guide the animals towards underpasses/overpasses.

Kaziranga Park Director, P. Sivakumar seemed optimistic about the project. “We are looking forward to the meeting and hoping that there is a positive outcome. A permanent solution is needed to mitigate the deaths caused by the highway,” he said. On the other hand, Probin Pegu, General Secretary of Jeepal Krishak Sramik Sangha, a local farmers’ organisation from Bokakhat said that the timing of the public hearing is not opportune for the local people. “We are facing the impacts of the recent floods. Much of our crops have submerged. Organising this meeting with such short notice will be problematic. We at least need 15 days. We fear that such projects would be passed without the proper consent of the people who live close to Kaziranga National Park. The policies shaped for the park also impacts the people here,” Pegu added. 

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