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Monday, July 15, 2024

Would saner counsel prevail? Proposed illegal bus route via Wilpattu National Park in Sri Lanka

Despite a Supreme Court order, plans are afoot to introduce two buses along the Puttalam-Marichchikadai route. Image courtesy – WNPS


  • In 2010 Environmental Foundation Limited filed acase (SC/FR/224/10) against opening this route for commercial purposes and the case is ongoing
  • Since 2009 Wilpattu has been subject to rapid deforestation attempts and illegal encroachment
  • Sections 3 and 6 of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance underpin the illegality underlying the construction of a road through a National Park
  • The main reason to introduce a bus service is due to the collapse of the Eluvankulama causeway
  • The area known as Pomparippuwa has some of the best vegetation for elephants to feed on

For any nature lover, a path off the beaten track is an adventure on its own. An occasional call of a Malabar hornbill, a leopard’s footprint and elephant excreta add more depth to the lush terrain along this scenic route via the Wilpattu National Park. Hence, environmental groups have been fighting to protect this route, known as the Puttalam-Marichchikadai route or B379 from being vulnerable to further destruction and chaos. But the Daily Mirror learned that plans are afoot to introduce two buses along this route despite a Supreme Court order.

 Legal battle 

Following the end of the war, the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) together with three other NGOs noted that two roads within the Wilpattu National Park were being opened to the public. The two roads had been built for military purposes when Wilpattu ceased to function as a National Park. But environmentalists observe that these two roads didn’t exist when the Park was gazetted between 1938-1973. Despite significant attempts to open the two roads to manage the traffic between Puttalam and Mannar, legal issues barred successive governments from destroying a sensitive ecosystem. In 2010, the EFL filed a case (SC/FR/224/10) against opening this route for commercial purposes and the case is ongoing. Since 2009 Wilpattu has been subject to rapid deforestation attempts and illegal encroachment. In response, the Supreme Court granted an interim order in 2010, halting further development activities within Wilpattu. But Wilpattu remains vulnerable to commercialisation attempts even at present.
In its 2009 amendment, the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance (FFPO) stipulates that no construction project can be carried out without officially obtaining prior written approval, whether by a private party or the state. Sections 3 and 6 underpin the illegality underlying the construction of a road through a National Park and also stipulates that it is illegal for anyone to use such a construction due to restricted access. In addition to the legal framework provided by the FFPO, the Forest Ordinance, the National Environmental (Protection) Act, the Soil Conservation Act, the Felling of Trees (Control) Act, the Land Development Ordinance, the Crown Land Ordinance and the Land Settlement Ordinance have also vested substantive legal responsibilities on administrative bodies.

Disaster in the offing

The main reason to introduce a bus service is due to the collapse of the Eluvankulama causeway. Therefore two buses, one from Mannar and the other from Puttalam will bring passengers to Eluvankulama transit point and they will interchange buses from this point onwards.
Home to many elephants and leopards, the Puttalam-Marichchikadai route falls through the Kallaru forest reserve which has been subject to much deforestation after 2012. “The area known as Pomparippuwa has some of the best vegetation for elephants to feed on,” explained an official who spoke on conditions of anonymity. As such the forest patches on either side of this route serves as a grazing area for more than 65 elephants. The official said that the terrain is being shared by other charismatic species such as leopards, bears and is also home to a large population of deer. “There’s a huge risk to wildlife as there are no speed limits imposed along this route,” the official added.

Authorities unaware of recent developments 

The Road Development Authority’s 2019 National Road Network map indicates route B379 as a B class road. The definition of a Class B road is that it channels traffic from residential areas, town centers and industrial zones into Class A roads and facilitates the connection between administrative districts and provincial cities.
However the Daily Mirror learned that the RDA’s Puttalam office had not been informed about introducing two buses via this route. An official who spoke on conditions of anonymity affirmed that a decision should be given by the Supreme Court as to whether or not this route can be used for commercial purposes.  Echoing similar sentiments, DWC’s Director General M. G. C Sooriyabandara said that as per a settlement reached with the Supreme Court this route cannot be developed but can be used as it is. “No bicycles or motorcycles are allowed to travel along this route either.”
When asked about a recent decision to add two buses via this route Sooriyabandara responded in the negative. “We haven’t been informed about such a decision nor has anybody submitted a request in this regard,” he added.

An urgent plea to govt.

The Supreme Court has issued an interim order halting the development of this route. “When I visited this route around 3-4 years ago there were large potholes,” recalled Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director at Centre for Environmental Justice. “If two buses are going to operate along this route then it has to be developed first. According to information we have received, the plan is to transport around 300 passengers on a given day,” said Withanage.
Responding to claims made by the former MP, Withanage said that if the SLTB is going to provide two buses to operate along this route, that too is an illegal move. “Because there’s a court order against developing this route. If it’s an illegal route and if nobody is allowed to use this road, then why are they giving buses,” he questioned.
He further said that this route serves as a wildlife pass where around 150 elephants cross from one side of the forest reserve to the other. “At the time when one bus operated along this route there were many roadkills. There were no speed limits and they travelled from 60-80kmph,” he added.
Withanage underscored that the government should use its powers to prevent politicians with vested interests from acting in this manner.

SLTB undecided

When inquired, an official at the SLTB Puttalam depot said that MP Ali Sabri Raheem had requested to add a bus to transport passengers coming from Mannar towards Puttalam via this route. This official had therefore suggested to introduce a bus at a specific time on any given day for the convenience of passengers. “But a bus cannot simply travel via this route as it needs to be developed first. On the other hand the causeway had collapsed. Therefore I have to first discuss about the bus timings with the SLTB Depot officials in Mannar. Once the proposal is done it needs to be approved by SLTB Chairman and other officials,” the official underscored while adding that there is a procedure that needs to be followed and that there is no specific date for the operation of the bus service as yet.

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