The Problem With Forest Roads

Have you ever played a video game where an obstacle showed up on your screen out of the blue?

Has is ever taken you by surprise? Did you get hit?

What happened after that? Nothing too troublesome, I’m guessing. You probably just restarted the game using a new life. Maybe you had to wait a while because you were out of lives. How long did you have to wait? An hour? A day, maybe? Not too long. And the wait ended, eventually.

In the real world, however, there are no new lives. Not in an hour, not in a day, not ever.

A road through the forest might not seem like a great disturbance. It is. And preventing animals from crossing to the other side is just the beginning.

The forest is no longer a forest, but two smaller forests.

Animals need space. Tiger cubs need to establish territories, elephants need to follow traditional migration patterns and herds of deer need to find fresh grass. They need to be able to move away and come back and live without having their lives turned into a nightmarish version of Super Mario.

And when they can’t? What happens then? Habitat fragmentation. Localized extinction. Genetic inbreeding. A lot of fancy phrases that all mean the same thing for the animals: problems. Big problems.

Another problem? Trees. Several hundred will have to be cut to make way.

It doesn’t end there. The absence of trees perpetuates a sort of ripple effect of habitat destruction know as “edge effects”. Plants that are used to growing in the shady forest get disturbed by the new opening to the sky, and eventually get replaced by plants that don’t belong. The cutting of trees also means less roots are available, and soil gets eroded as parts are washed away or swept up into the air. Landslides go up, soil quality goes down, and reservoirs and water catchments begin to shrink.

Edge effects sometimes extend half a kilometre into the forest. That’s half a kilometre for the entire length of the road.

And the problems don’t end there.

Roads are easy to travel on. That’s their purpose: roads are built to offer easy access to previously inaccessible areas.

That’s also their downfall.

Where there is one road, there will, almost inevitably, be more that join it. Small roads and smaller branches that are hard to monitor. Why monitor? Because poachers, who cut down trees of financial value, can transport their goods comfortably. Animal hunters, who illegally set traps for animals, can get to prime spots more easily. Tourists, who tend to be loud and boisterous, can get away with littering.

So why does the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) insist on building roads through the forest? The most obvious reason, of course, is that they’re the Authority of National Highways, and their job is to build roads in India.

To the NHAI, a road through the forest makes perfect sense. Why build a road like this…

…when you can build it like this instead?

Especially when the second option is several crores cheaper.

The NHAI is supposed to consult other authorities like the National Tiger Conservation Authority or the Forest Advisory Committee before starting new projects, but as with most cases in India, what the government is supposed to do and what really happens are two very different situations. As of late, it seems like the government has begun paying less and less attention to the forests and wildlife and the few rules that they have imposed are not being enforced.

A young cub was killed on NH121 late 2013 and a leopard early last year on NH6. Why? Fast cars, with reckless drivers, on badly planned roads. But death by car isn’t new. Several animals die every year. And the fact that it isn’t new should be horrifying — so why is it still being allowed to continue?

Maybe we’ve all become desensitised by hearing it so much. Maybe we’re so used to losing lives in games that we don’t realise this is any different. Maybe the presence of so much violence in what we see and hear and play every day has made us to lose our value for life.

Or maybe it’s just because not many were aware of the problem — and that’s where you can help. Talk about it. Tell people about it. Maybe something will happen.

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