Crossing the Coal Corridor


Harshad Sambamurthy

A corridor is a passageway. It is a channel that facilitates movement. And when applied to wildlife it serves as refuge; enabling their dispersal and permitting an ease of movement through fast-changing, fragmented habitat. As the expansion of linear infrastructure continues to crisscross forests, preserving and maintaining corridors is imperative.

Recently, on a trip to Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, we travelled through the Achanakmar-Bandhavgarh corridor; traveling from Achanakmar in the south to Bandhavgarh in the north. Moving amongst dense sal forests drenched in monsoon-green, we arrived in Amarkantak on a stormy night. A pilgrim town, it serves as the beginning point of the rivers Narmada, Son and Johila. Last year, two tigresses had moved from Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve to Achanakmar. One theory suggests they might have navigated along the Johila that stretches across the entire corridor. According to one forest official we met, Gaur are said to have used such a route more than ten years ago. The tigress’ movement underscores the importance of this stretch, and links corridor conservation to water security. Obstacles abound however, with mining and infrastructure development showing few signs of slowing down.

Map illustrating connectivity between Bandhavgarh and Achanakmar tiger reserves (Map and illustration: Aditi Rajan/WCS; Prachi Thatte/WWF)

Recently, in May 2021, Madhya Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, declared that no new construction will take place in Amarkantak; to help combat water contamination in the Narmada. This is a welcome decree, however, existing roads continue to thwart safe passage. In June, a smooth-coated otter was found dead on the State Highway between Amarkantak and Anuppur; a victim of roadkill. Scores of roadside eateries and dhabas along such roads use fulgent fluorescent bulbs at night that likely deter animal movement; who probably shy away from the overbearing, polluting light. Human settlements also attract dogs who prey on herbivores, like spotted deer. In the central part of the corridor, in Anuppur town, there is a thermal power plant, along with bauxite, dolomite, and granite mines. Open-cast coal mining occurs in the Bijuri range of Anuppur forest division. Here, there is confirmation of wayfaring elephants roaming through barren lands, an isolated population of Malabar giant squirrel, and a sloth bear population in Jathari range. Rich in biodiversity, striking the balance between environmental health and the execution of development priorities is pressing.

Saffron-clad devotees throng the Narmada Kund mandir in droves one drizzly morning (Photo credit: Author)

As we moved into the municipality of Dhanpuri in Madhya Pradesh’s Shahdol, we visited a coal field. This was part of the larger Sohagpur coalfield operated by South Eastern Coalfields Limited; the largest coal mine in Madhya Pradesh situated at the basin of the Son river. Terraced mountains of gravely sand towered above excavated ponds of foggy-grey, icy Ammaroo turquoise. Mustard-coloured trucks with black carriers were bunched together like a swarm of hungry wasps. Poignantly, isolated patches of clumped-together trees floated above these mounds like shattered chandeliers. With coal demand high, lengthy trains with charred carriages carry coal by the tonne along the high-priority coal freight corridor. Advocating alternative energy sources as a substitute for coal will likely be difficult in the short-term; given its essentiality for powering countless activities. On the other hand, shifting a corridor to allow for the expansion of coal is likely to lead to increased human-wildlife encounters as animals are forced to move in new directions using previously unexplored paths. This can have knock-on effects for communities who are not necessarily equipped to deal with wildlife.

Having your trucks in a row (Photo credit: Author)

As we continued North and approached Bandhavgarh, a jungle cat slipped past. Its silhouette caught in the glare of the headlight looked like a blanched apparition. Numerous resorts abound along the popular Tala zone. A multicoloured water park is one such bizarre construction. While meeting the Deputy Director of Bandhavgarh, he emphasised the vitality of “safe passage”, noting that infrastructure development in and around vulnerable villages—especially those new to elephant movement—is critical. He also highlighted the need for the construction of clearly visible, and strategic underpasses, concerned that there is little “free movement” for animals along highways or railway tracks, as the lethal combination of high speeds and few underpasses make it difficult to safely navigate across. Between Katni and Bilaspur, a triple railway line has now been approved with 8000 trees sanctioned to be cut in Umaria alone. Thus far, more than 4500 trees have been chopped. Given that a corridor is not officially notified, it makes passing environmental clearances for linear infrastructure projects that much easier and hassle-free. Presently, the roads between Dindori and Jabalpur, and Dindori and Mandla are being expanded, with forests on both sides of the road.

While traveling to Umaria, we sped past a crushed carcass of a jackal. Last year, in Ghunghutti range of Umaria Forest Division, a tiger cub was struck by a car along a blind corner on national highway NH-43. We visited this spot, and were told that mitigation measures have been put in place. This included straightening the road—not very noticeably—to reduce its curvature. While here, we couldn’t help notice the construction of a bridge over a two-lane railway track. In a span of fifteen minutes, three separate trains carrying coal trundled past. Roads and railways unfortunately kill numerous species, but these often go unrecorded, as these animals—blackbuck, pythons, langurs—do not command the media’s attention as much as a tiger or elephant kill probably does. Mitigation measures to avoid such fatal animal- vehicle collisions is perhaps well illustrated in the nearby Kanha-Pench corridor. A section of that corridor is cut by NH-44. To mitigate impact, five underpasses and four minor bridges were constructed to help facilitate the movement of wildlife.

Increasingly, large mammals like tigers and elephants are being documented outside designated protected areas. For example, tigers have been recorded within 2-4km of Umaria town. Wildlife also use farmland and crop fields as pathways. No more are they restricted to the boundaries of a designated national park, tiger reserve or wildlife sanctuary. Such movement patterns further underline the crucial role corridors play for wildlife dispersal. Basic awareness on corridors, and their utility must increase. Maintaining corridors is pivotal for wildlife conservation; encouraging animals to move between subset populations and promote genetic exchange, while also providing spaces for these animals to freely move without having to enter human-dominated areas for connectivity.

A section of the corridor from a viewpoint near Amarkanthak (Photo credit: Author)

When a corridor is maintained, it often serves several species, not just the ‘charismatic’ few. Pushing for a moratorium on forest clearances for coal mining (Greenpeace, 2012), or advocating for stringent environmental impact assessments prior to highway expansion proposals might lead to more opposition than support. The case for conservation then, comes down to perceptions; the cornerstone of which is awareness. Along with awareness, calculating a corridor’s value will strengthen general understanding regarding its potential economic contribution towards the broader canvas of enriching India’s natural heritage. To embed corridors as a mainstay of conservation planning in Central India, practitioners must continue to facilitate dialogue and discussion between key stakeholders from the local community, the Forest Department, Railways Department, National Highways Authority of India, and Coal India Limited.

Forest department staff indicated that the maintenance and conservation of corridors is not always budgeted for in division-level workplans, despite there being a section on corridors in each Tiger Reserve’s Tiger Conservation Plan (TCP). Mapping and delineating the Achanakmar-Bandhavgarh corridor in the TCP will bring greater attention to its significance, apportion much-needed money for its monitoring and maintenance, streamline the process of preservation, and strengthen the legal framework for its conservation, in what is otherwise a vague definition at best in articulating the roles and responsibilities of who is responsible and accountable for its management. Notification will provide much-needed legitimation for corridors. Constitutional recognition of a corridor is necessary, but without increased, transparent dialogue among key stakeholders, the needle is unlikely to move, by which time, the corridors of Central India might be blackened by the fast-gathering clouds billowing from its depleting coal reserves.