Highlighting the right of animals to live free from fear and distress, the Madras High Court has ordered relocation of 495 families of Thengumarahada village, situated within the eastern boundary of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, on payment of ₹15 lakh each in compensation.
Justices N. Sathish Kumar and D. Bharatha Chakravarthy ordered that the total compensation amount of ₹74.25 crore be released from the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) forthwith.
Thereafter, the NTCA was directed to transfer the amount to the Tamil Nadu Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) within two months. After receiving the amount, the PCCF must disburse the compensation and relocate the villagers within a month, the judges ordered and called for a compliance report by October 10.
“Merely because Thengumarahada is located in Tamil Nadu and merely because the State of Tamil Nadu contributes only a negligible or minimum share to the CAMPA funds on account of its laudable policies of not parting with any of the forestlands, the avowed and noble purpose of relocating the village cannot suffer,” the judges wrote.
Authoring the judgment, Justice Chakravarthy said Thengumarahada was formed through State action after the issuance of a Government Order on August 5, 1948 for leasing out 100 acres to Thengumarahada Vivasaya Corproation (now Thengumarahada Cooperative Society) for farming. In 1961, the extent was increased to 500 acres.
However, subsequently, it was found that human settlement in the forest area was leading to man-animal conflict as the village was located at the confluence of the rich biodiversity regions of the Eastern Ghats and the Western Ghats and was serving as a corridor for most of the long-ranging wild animals.
“Thengumarahada area and the adjoining landscape is one of the rare places in India where healthy breeding populations of tiger, elephant, leopard, sloth bear, wild dog, hyena, black buck, four horned antelope, barking deer, mouse deer and sambar are found together. The place is also home to many reptiles like star tortoise, rock python, russell’s viper, saw scaled viper, cobra and common krait to name a few,” the Bench wrote.
It went on to state, “In the last tiger census, around 33 tigers were reported in the landscape surrounding Thengumarahada... It can be seen that the village lies in the valley and had heavily fenced farmlands spread over 500 acres in the mist of pristine forest. It blocks the crucial migratory routes of elephants in the Mudumalai-Sathyamangalam landscape.”
Therefore, from 2011, the Forest Department began taking steps to reclaim the land. The State government forwarded a proposal to the NTCA in October 2022 but the latter did not have any funds. Though the National CAMPA had ₹8,154.84 crore, it too expressed reservations about parting with ₹74.25 crore required for relocating the Thengumarahada residents.
Criticising the authorities for such reluctance, the Division Bench said Article 48A of the Constitution states that the Centre should endeavour to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country and therefore, it was for the government to allocate the necessary funds to the NTCA.
“When funds to the tune of ₹8,154.84 crore is available with the National CAMPA, which can be utilised for the present purposes, and when the Union of India has a statutory duty, which duty is pursuant to the manifestation of the Directive Principles of State Policy, to protect the wildlife; considering the extreme urgency and critical nature of the issue, we hold that a direction is liable to be issued to release the funds,” the judges concluded.