The scenic Sulthan Bathery in Kerala's Wayanad district has become the centre of mass protests, with thousands of locals from all walks of life expressing their solidarity over the last week. These protests spiraled after the Supreme Court recently sought a response from the Centre on the possibilities of banning travel on National Highway 766, which passes through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, stirring strong protests among locals in Wayanad. The top court had asked for suggestions on alternate routes.
For the last decade, night travel on National Highway 766, through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, has been banned between 10 pm to 6 am.
"The night ban itself has affected us, but under no circumstances will we allow for a complete ban of travel through the National Highway into Karnataka. Wayanad is an agrarian economy, and people cannot afford to travel hundreds of kilometres more through an alternate route. This national highway is also a backbone to the inter-economic activities of Wayanad, with this road connecting to Mysuru. We want all forms of bans to be lifted," Tiji Cheruthottil, the convener of the protest, told NDTV.
The Karnataka High Court had in 2009 upheld a night ban on the petitions of conservationists, concerned over the deaths of wild life as well as the increasing threat to their lives, based on a report submitted to the court. Bandipur Tiger Reserve is one of the first nine tiger reserves of the country and is at the forefront of eco-tourism. The reserves spans across three states - Karnataka (Bandipur-Nagarhole), Kerala (Wayanad) and Tamil Nadu (Mudumalai-Sathyamangalam).
The locals in Wayanad, who have been organising these protests worry that if the highway is banned, the entire economic activity of a town, centred around agriculture and commerce, will collapse. For the last nine days, young men, from different political organisations, have been on a relay hunger fast.
Rahul Gandhi, the parliamentarian elected from Wayanad, is set to join the protesters on Friday morning. He had earlier tweeted saying, "I stand in solidarity with the youth on an indefinite hunger strike since September 25th protesting against the daily nine-hour traffic ban on NH-766 that has caused immense hardship to lakhs of people in Kerala and Karnataka".
"I urge the Central and State Governments to safeguard the interests of local communities, while upholding our collective responsibility to protect our environment," Mr Gandhi had added.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had also met the Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, who according to the Chief Minister, has assured to set up an expert committee to look into the issue.