Assam: Is railway electrification along Deepor Beel blocking elephant paths?

Guwahati: On February 21, residents around Deepor Beel, a perennial freshwater lake just outside Guwahati, Assam and the state’s only Ramsar site, witnessed something odd. An elephant calf had fallen in a ditch, and the mother elephant was doing all she could to save her child. 

But why is this big news, you ask? 

Because it was the NF Railways that had dug the ditch to install underground optical fibre cables. After the mother managed to pull her calf to safety, the duo were stuck on the banks of the Deepor Beel, unable to cross the ditch dug alongside the railway tracks over a long stretch distance. The video circulated by activists and nature enthusiasts, including this correspondent, captured the mother elephant desperately trying to find a route to cross the ditch, which was big enough to trap or injure her calf. 

The ordeal to escort her calf back to the safety of the Rani reserve forest went on for several hours between the stretch of Pillar number 164/6 to pillar no 164/8 until she saw success and the duo crossed the ditch.

Thankfully, after the video circulated over social media, NF Railways responded promptly and levelled the entire length within a day, even though this meant the cable laying works had to be halted. 

Pramod Kalita, an environmental activist and conservationist in the Rani-Pamohi area, pointed out that the railways decided to build tracks passing through the Rani reserve forest and several elephant corridors in the Rani-Pamohi stretch in violation of the forest department’s orders back in 1989.

“The route of the railway tracks did not pass through the reserve forest according to the original plan, but the railways decided to route the railway tracks through the reserve forest and several elephant corridors as it would be a shorter route and hence, would cut down on the costs. Now the damage has been done. The indigenous and endangered flora and fauna are bearing the brunt as their natural habitats shrink and migration routes are lost. Only today, we found a dead king cobra on the railway tracks. King Cobras are a vulnerable population on the brink of being endangered. Around 15 elephants and numerous other endangered species, like the jungle cat and others like the Greater Adjutant stork, vultures etc, have died on these tracks until 2019.”

Do expert recommendations offer hope?

“Our only remaining hope,” he says, “is that the NF Railways take up the promised mitigation measures and follow it through before the railway tracks stretch through the Rani reserve forest and Deepor beel area are electrified.”

The NFR has proposed four mitigation measures on the Azara-Kamakhya section of the railway line passing through Deepor Beel in the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) report.

This includes the NFR’s recommendations on mitigation measures in that stretch of the railway line. RCC Boxes or underpasses measuring 200 m wide and 7 m high are planned on the first (pillar no 164/000 – 164/200), second(pillar number 164/500 – 164/600) and third elephant corridors (pillar number 165/200 – 165/300) out of the total seven elephant corridors pointed out by the survey team. A viaduct will also be built across three other elephant corridors (from pillar number 165/400 – 168/900), ensuring mitigation measures for six elephant corridors out of the seven, leaving out one elephant corridor.

The NFR has also proposed building underpasses on road sections parallel to the railway tracks and guide walls to enhance the efficacy of the railway underpasses and direct animal movement towards the underpasses to mitigate human-elephant conflict in the long term. 

The railways have also planned to install an Intrusion Detection System along the elephant corridor, which is supposed to detect elephant movement near the railway tracks and facilitate automatic control of train speed and even stopping the train if needed. 

The WII report also flags encroachments in the railway track stretch between pillar number 167/380 to pillar number 168/130.

The NFR’s new action plan was after WII released its report in December last year. The WII report came after the NGT had constituted a committee to survey the railway track stretch to determine if taking mitigation measures on it would be feasible.

The NGT constituted the committee while passing an order in January of 2018 while hearing a petition filed by environmental activist Rohit Choudhury in 2014 against damages to Deepor Beel due to pollution and encroachment.

The Chief PR Officer at the NF railways, Sabyasachi De, said, “Of the 5-kilometre stretch of the railway track built on the Deepor Beel elephant corridors, a 3.5 km viaduct will be built. Around 400-500 m will be underpasses. Out of the seven notified wildlife corridors in this stretch, we have covered all of them in the plan. The plan is jointly vetted by the PCCF Assam, Chief Secretary of Assam, General Manager NF Railway and WII.”

“We are trying to save elephants. We at NF Railways have made innovative solutions which are nowhere in the world to prevent elephant deaths. Our pilot projects at Lumding-Hawaipur section and Alipurduar in the Dooars areas of West Bengal are successful. We will put it in place in all elephant corridors across the country,” said De.

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Not all is well

Conservationist and Deepor Beel local Pramod Kalita said the mitigation measures would cause high-level floods in the area. “The NFR has recommended the viaduct only for 3.5 km and smaller underpasses for the rest of the elephant corridors. There is no point in that. We want one viaduct that covers the whole stretch of 4 km from Pillar no 164/00 and 168/00, built in elephant corridors. What if elephants stray in the area between the elephant corridors? An elephant or an animal which calls the area its habitat never follows a delimited path or one distinct elephant corridor. Single elephants always stray in stretches in between the elephant corridors. We, as locals, know that elephants never use the already-installed underpasses. They take whichever path is accessible to them at the moment. Elephants will wander off outside the elephant corridors and try to cross the train tracks where no mitigation measures have been taken. Chances are that elephants and other animals and birds will keep getting hit or electrocuted,” he added. 

The author is an independent journalist, content creator and presenter. She tweets @WhatsayNiharika

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