Two months after the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change asked Uttarakhand government to consider avoiding sensitive areas of the Shivalik Elephant Reserve while exploring land suitable for expansion of Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport, the state government, in its response, has stated that there is no viable alternative for the proposed activity.
In a letter in October, the ministry had sought information, documents and justification on 14 points regarding the project from the state Forest Department.
The state had sent a proposal seeking the Centre’s approval for non-forest use of 87 hectares (ha) of forest land in Dehradun district for the airport expansion project.
In response, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (APCCF) and nodal officer, Uttarakhand, D J K Sharma’s letter justifies the proposed activity by stating that Uttarakhand shares an international border with China and Nepal, and thus this airport is also of immense strategic importance, especially in view of its proximity to the LAC and the current geopolitical situation on northern borders. The letter also stated that Dehradun airport plays a key role in rescue, relief and rehabilitation works during any disasters across the state and large aircraft need to operate from this airfield during such emergencies.
It says the runway at Jolly Grant Airport is currently equipped to enable landing of only narrow body jets.
“The proposed alignment of forest land is the only option for carrying out extension of the runway. There is no other alternate option which is technically feasible, as the alignment of runway cannot be changed,” reads the letter.
When contacted, Sharma said reply has been sent to all queries from the Union ministry.
On the MoEF’s query that the entire proposed forest area for diversion falls within the Shivalik Elephant Reserve and elephant corridors within its 1-km radius, the reply said, “While it is true that the area forms part of Shivalik Elephant Reserve, it is not an identified elephant corridor. Further it is not in close proximity to the core and critical elephant habitat of Rajaji Tiger Reserve. The Kansaro-Barkot elephant Corridor is also located at least 4 to 5 km away from the proposed site. However, occasionally elephants cross over the area through the Jakhan river…taking that into account, necessary wildlife mitigation is proposed for the diversion of the forest land.”
In the letter, the stater government reiterated that the setting of a greenfield airport at any other location is not feasible, as availability of land is limited. It states that such an exercise would potentially inflict greater loss of natural resources such as standing trees, would incur huge costs and would render a large investment which is already in place at the existing facility as in fructuous.
“As such, the alternate option does not exist in this case,” the government stated.
On the query about the area being a High Conservation Value area, the state government stated that about 79 per cent of trees of various species that will be affected because of land transfer proposal comprise pole crop. So the number of trees to be felled is not a true indicator of losses to that area on account of the proposed expansion. With more such explanations, the state government stated that proposed area for the project is not a high value conservation area.
The letter stated that the proposed area includes about 30 hectares of compensatory afforestation plantation done in 2017-18. In all about 9,745 trees will be impacted by the project, it stated.
Also, the state government’s reply says that the proposed forest land falls in category of two forest type—Low Alluvial Savannah Woodland and Khair-Sissoo Forest (as per Champion and Seth classification).