Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) has thrown to the winds all its commitment to the Supreme Court by deviating from the approved master plan for utilising the forestland released to it for Sabarimala development.
This is the essence of a communication the Chief Wildlife Warden V. Gopinath had sent on February 22 to the Principal Secretary for Forests and Wildlife. His letter also encloses an 18-page letter of the same date he had addressed to the chairman of the High Power Committee for the Implementation of the Sabarimala Master Plan K. Jayakumar, giving a long list of “deviations” the TDB had indulged in while implementing the master plan.
The land released to the TDB in 2005 includes 12.675 hectares of forests in Sabarimala within the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) and 110.524 hectares of forests at Nilackal outside the PTR. The release of the forestland had come in response to ardent pleadings in the court that pilgrim influx to the forest shrine had become extremely unmanageable in the congested area that was already with the TDB. There had even been stampedes on peak days of the pilgrimage claiming heavy casualties. Further, waste accumulation in the wildlife territory had become an extremely serious problem.
While giving its permission for the release of the forestland, the Supreme Court had instructed the TDB to utilise the area only according to an approved master plan. The master plan would address the task of relieving the congestion caused by limited availability of space and also because of the chaotic way in which concrete structures had come up in Sabarimala, without any planning. The TDB had given an undertaking in the court that it would adhere to such a master plan while utilising the applied for forestland. The master plan was got ready and approved by the government in 2006. A high-power committee too was set up to ensure that the works undertaken in Sabarimala and Nilackal were strictly according to the master plan.
The Chief Wildlife Warden’s letters, copies of which were obtained by The Hindu under the Right to Information Act, pertain to the utilisation of the 12.675 hectares released to the TDB in PTR. He tells the government secretary that he had constituted a four-member team of his officials to inspect and make a comprehensive list of all the changes the TDB had made in the approved master plan while utilising the forestland (which continued to hold the legal status of ‘forests’ even after the release for creating pilgrim facilities). He says the team had found “large-scale deviations.”
The crux of his long letter to the chairman of the high-power committee is that the master plan, on the one hand, had at its core the vision of ensuring better spatial planning and, on the other, lessening the deleterious environmental impact of uncontrollable crowding in a forest area rich in wildlife. However, the way the TDB was undertaking development works in the released forestland, the concept of spatial planning had gone down the drain to lead to further fragmentation of the wildlife territory by obstructing natural movement corridors of wildlife by creating deep cuts in the earth for laying trekking roads, building retaining walls on either side, concreting the trekking roads along stretches that should not be concreted, erecting railings and fences, destroying “arboreal continuity” (which means canopy continuity for animals such as monkeys and flying squirrels) and constructing queue complexes without referring to the master plan. He also describes the calamitous impact the huge accumulation of waste, including plastic, was having on the forests and wildlife in the area.
“Generally the agenda notes for the high-power committee…give an impression that the various works taken up are in accordance with the master plan. Neither sketches nor plans are placed before the committee. No indications are given regarding deviations from the master plan, if any, contemplated. Hence, on the presumption that the works are in consonance with the master plan, the committee accords sanction for various works. But in reality, when it is implemented in the field, gross violations are noticed causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem and wildlife of PTR,” the Chief Wildlife Warden says in his letter to the chairman of the High Power Committee for Implementing the Sabarimala Master Plan.
The Chief Wildlife Warden proposes a series of “remedial measures” including the dismantling of all structures and development works that violate the master plan. “If no remedial measures are taken, we may have to resort to legal measures to safeguard the integrity of Periyar Tiger Reserve,” he informs the Principal Secretary.