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Nature A Road Through El Dorado


Aug 17, 2010
World citizen!
A proposal to construct a road through the Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary could destroy Asia’s only breeding ground for flamingos, endanger the sacred mangrove of Shravan Kavadia, damage geological fossils embedded in the regions Jurassic and cretaceous rocks and threaten the historical ruins of Dholavira.
Cara Tejpal

The treasures of Gujarat can evoke patriotic fervor in the hearts of even the most cynical anarchist. Spread over 7506 sq. km the Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary alone hosts several rare archaeological and ecological wonders. Yet a proposal to construct a road through this Protected Area threatens to irrevocably damage a number of these exquisite sites. The fate of Hanji Bet, Shravan Kavadia, Dholavira and species like the endangered Wild As s will be decided in the upcoming meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife.

The Gujarat State endorsed proposal is ostensibly in the interest of national security but a number of conservationists cry foul to this claim. An alternate road already exists for the use of the BSF and experts suspect that the main motive is to expand tourism in the region. Ironically the construction of the road could obliterate the region’s prime tourist attractions.

Come monsoon and the featureless landscape of the Rann of Kutch undergoes a magical transformation. The collusion of sea, river and rainwater allows a rich flow of nutrients and creates unique mudflats. It is to this seasonal ecosystem that every year thousands of Greater and Lesser flamingos flock. Once here, the flamingos give in to their amorous instincts, build mud nests, lay eggs and raise the next generation. The crustacean, fish and prawn that thrive in the saline waters of Flamingo City, feed not only the young grey hatchlings and their parents but also provide for a number of other species and even local fishermen.

This vast breeding ground prompted not just the creation of the sanctuary but has also been identified as an ‘Important Bird Area’ by the Bombay Natural History Society and the Birdlife International.

The proximity of the proposed road to Flamingo City is of grave concern as the intended construction is sure to obstruct the flow of fresh water and thus tamper with the fragile balance of this unusual marine ecosystem. A site visit carried out by three members of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife yielded a report that unanimously rejected the proposal. The proposed construction would not just entail building a road but also an embankment of a total length of 62km and 6metres high that would artificially impound water. Dr MK Ranjitsinh, Dr Divyabhanusinh Chavda and Dr Asad Rahmani write in their report: “The team is of the considered opinion that if the proposed road is allowed to be constructed, it would in all probability result in the abandonment of this breeding site and thus India would lose the only breeding site of flamingos, which in turn could spell doom to the population of birds in the Indian Subcontinent.”
The other significant ecological site that would be affected if the road alignment were to be accepted is the sacred grove of ‘Shravan Kavadia’.

This unique mangrove system is found nowhere else in the world – entirely cut off from the sea and over a 100km inland of it. The mammoth stand of Avicennia mangroves depends entirely on an underground supply of saline water from the sea. If built, the road would impede this influx of water and have an unknown effect on the mangrove.

Another section of the same proposed construction is slated to pass just above the ‘chicken neck’ where the Great and Little Rann meet. NH15 and a railway line already run just south of this area. The proposed road is 17kms long with 15km to be built in a submerged area and requiring the additional construction of embankments with deep foundations.

The Little Rann receives fresh water from Kutch and semi-saline water from the Great Rann and these two sources determine the existing hydrology of the region. A principle-breeding site for fish and prawn, the local fishing industry depends on the continuity of this aquatic ecosystem. The water flow to the Little Rann from the Gulf of Kutch has already been hampered by existing constructions and if built, this road may well irreversibly damage the delicate balance that the region holds.

The Little Rann is the last stronghold of the endangered Wild As s and the road must not be built before a complete assessment of possible impacts on wildlife and abiotic systems is taken in to account. Bangalore based wildlife photographer and co-founder of Conservation India; Ramki Sreenivasan can’t stress enough on the ecological importance of Kutch. He says “ Desert and semi-desert landscapes are too often overlooked because of a ‘no forest, no biodiversity’ mentality.

The truth is that these are extremely unique and endangered ecosystems that are breeding habitat for flamingos among others. Further, the Kutch area is home to an entire host of other species endemic to the eco system like wild as s, desert fox, desert cat etc. It also forms a critical passage for migratory birds from across the globe in to the Indian sub-continent. Tampering with the fragile balance that sustains these life forms is a sure invitation for disaster. The consequences of disturbing the Kutch ecosystem are unknown!”

Even if one were to brush aside these pressing ecological concerns, the geological and archaeological value of the region would demand a more thorough examination of the project. The sixth largest city of the Indus Valley, Dholavira holds the cultural remains of this 5000-year-old civilisation. The proposed road passes in close proximity to the site and as yet no clearance has been sought from the Ministry of Culture.

The Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary is also bursting with fossils of trees, ammonites, gastropods and bivalves amongst others. Though portions of the road passing through this area were granted approval in the site report, it would be essential to get a clearance form the Archaeological Survey of India and conduct a comprehensive survey of cultural and geological deposits in the area.

A crucial argument against the construction of the parts of the road that would traverse the Rann is the fact that it would at most be accessible for only 7 months a year. During the Monsoon the road is impassable for all vehicles. The massive expense of development and maintenance coupled with the ecological damage of the construction make a concise point.
The wonders of vibrant Gujarat’s fragile desert ecology belong to the nation but paradoxically are threatened by tourism as the state government wildly markets the Rann as a major tourist attraction. It’s now up to the environment ministry to decide the fate of this region. It has recently made landmark decisions, in favor of the conservation of the Nicobar Megapode and Narcondum Horbill. Let’s hope it does the flamingos the same courtesy.



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