Sultan Bathery: The recent agitation against the night traffic ban on the National Highway 766 passing through Wayanad was a landmark movement, considering the popular support it attracted. The people in the district had taken to the streets concerned over the possibility of the night ban, which was imposed on July 27, 2009, being extended to daytime also.
The 34.6 km of the 272 km long NH 766 passes through the Bandipur and Wayanad national parks. The road cuts through 19.7 km of the core zone of Bandipur tiger reserve and 4.5 km of its buffer zone. The rise in the roadkills of wild animals reported here led to the night ban in 2009. Though the ban was briefly lifted, the ban was later upheld by the Karnataka High Court and recently the Supreme Court.
The SC directive that even the existing stretch must be closed for traffic once the NHAI completes the upgradation of the alternative alignment, however, triggered the widespread protest in Wayanad. For people in Sulthan Bathery the distance to Mysuru increases from 98 km to 217 km without NH 766. They have to first travel for 37 km to Mananthavady to start the journey.
The strike was successful to the extent that the Environment Ministry decided to appoint an expert committee to study the issue in-depth and submit a report to the Supreme Court, which is considering the case.
The apex court had earlier issued a directive to the Central Environment Ministry and Surface Transport Ministry to explore the possibility of permanently closing the Bathery - Gundlupet stretch of NH 766 after finding an alternate route by widening the Kutta - Gonikope state highway and connecting it to the National Highway 275 coming from Hunsur. The ministries were asked by the court to file a report in this regard in four weeks. The court is now set to consider the case on October 14.
As the stand taken by the two ministries is crucial, the NH Transport Protection Action Committee, which led the stir, held discussions with Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan twice. After the first round of talks in Thiruvananthapuram, Pinarayi wrote to the Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. However, as there was no favourable response, the action committee office-bearers travelled to New Delhi to hold more consultations. At the national capital, talks were held with local MP and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Union Environment Minister Javadekar and Surface Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari. Subsequently, it was decided to constitute an expert panel to study the issue.
The Wayanad stir turned into one of the biggest popular agitations in Kerala and received wide coverage even in the national media. All political parties supported the agitation, which started with a hunger strike by R Rajesh Kumar, Lijo Johny, Sinish Vakery, Safeer Pazhary and C K Mustafa. When their health deteriorated, these activists were replaced by others.
The flow of local people to the agitation venue was much more than the organizers expected. Small processions started from various parts of the district and reached the spot, turning the area into a sea of people. Regional organisations, clubs and other groups from each village expressed solidarity with the cause. Vehicle processions too were taken out. The presence of women and children at the venue was also noteworthy.
As part of the stir, a 'long march' was arranged by various farmers' organizations under the leadership of P M Joy to the Karnataka border, where the travel ban is in force.
Another major event in support of the hunger strike was a students' rally. Tens of thousands youngsters marched through the streets of Bathery town in heavy rain as part of their agitation. The participation of youths made the social media take note and posts about the stir became viral.
The Action Committee has I C Balakrishnan MLA as chairman, Suresh Thaloor as general secretary and Saji Shankar as treasurer.