If one were to track back to when it all began, the date would probably be February 27, 2014, when the Madras High Court directed the Tamil Nadu government to frame a comprehensive policy for annihilating exotic and invasive species, such as eucalyptus and wattle, from the Western Ghats and instead restore the shola forests (a name derived from the Tamil word Solai and referring to tropical montane forests) to protect the indigenous species from extinction.
Eight years have passed since Justices R. Sudhakar (since retired) and V.M. Velumani passed the orders and Justices M.M. Sundresh (now a Supreme Court judge) and N. Sathish Kumar followed it up. Yet, the Forest Department has not begun even a pilot project so far.
Losing patience, a Division Bench of Justices V. Bharathidasan and N. Satish Kumar has begun cracking the whip. Understanding the seriousness with which the court is viewing the issue, Additional Advocate-General J. Ravindran has assured it of the government’s commitment and promised to show progress by March 25.
This is just one of the many wildlife and forest-related cases that the Bench had been dealing with of late and had even succeeded in speeding up the government machinery.
Taking a serious note of numerous elephant deaths due to train hits, the Bench on February 3this year directed the Railway Board to sanction funds for constructing two underpasses for the safe passage of elephants across the tracks between the Ettimadai station in Tamil Nadu and the Walayar station in Kerala. The Board sanctioned ₹7.49 crore out of turn and tenders were also invited on March 4.
Southern Railway counsel P.T. Ramkumar on Thursday told the Bench that the tenders would be opened on March 28 and the construction would be completed in four to five months, depending upon the monsoon. A nudge by the court has also ensured erection of solar lights and solar fencing along the track. Now, it has been pressing the Forest Department to deploy elephant watchers and erect watchtowers.
On learning from newspaper reports that Southern Railway had constructed a wall along the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) line, between Mettupalayam and Udhagamandalam, and it was obstructing the free movement of elephants, the Bench made sure that the wall was demolished at once and the debris was removed so that the animals could move about freely.
Apart from accidental deaths, poaching of wild animals had gained the attention of the court. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the inter-State forest offence cases that were transferred to it, the Bench has decided to constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) comprising officials of the CBI and the police departments in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
On March 4, the CBI nominated four of its officers to be part of the SIT and the Tamil Nadu government nominated two officers. The court has granted time till March 25 to the Government of Kerala to nominate its officials and directed the then Chief Wildlife Warden, Shekhar Kumar Niraj, to provide a list of important wildlife cases that could be handed over to the SIT.
While dealing with a case related to the Narcotics Intelligence Bureau-Criminal Investigation Departemnt (NIB-CID) in Ramanathapuram having seized lion teeth and deer horns along with narcotic substances during a routine vehicle check, the judges came across a legal hurdle which allows only Forest Department officials, and not the police, to prosecute individuals under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1975.
They immediately asked the government to look into the issue and come up with a notification empowering the police, customs officials and others to prosecute offenders under the Act.
When it was brought to their notice that failure to perform Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) profiling during elephant deaths was causing difficulties in probing cases of poaching and arresting those involved in illegal ivory trade, the judges ordered that henceforth, the Forest Department should conduct DNA profiling after every elephant death, whether unnatural or otherwise, and preserve it for comparison and verification.
Further, dealing with yet another writ petition filed through Madurai-based advocates T. Lajapathi Roy and R. Alagumani for establishment of a wildlife forensic laboratory in the State, the judges came to know that an advanced institute for wildlife conservation was conceived at Vandalur in Chennai in 2013. The institute, involved in multidisciplinary wildlife research, was formally inaugurated only in 2017 and began its operations in 2019.
The judges were told that the laboratory in the institute was still in the initial phase of setting up and handling DNA samples up to the level of sequencing and that the sequencing part was being outsourced to laboratories in other States since the institute did not have the requisite equipment. Appalled, the judges summoned Environment and Forests Secretary Supriya Sahu to explain the delay in equipping the lab and appointing scientific officers. The Secretary appeared before the court on January 25this yearand submitted that the DNA sequencing equipment had been procured and that scientific officers would be recruited soon.
In its attempt to make the government walk the talk on saving the forests and protecting wildlife from extinction, the judges appointed environment-conscious lawyers P.H. Arvindh Pandian, T. Mohan and M. Santhanaraman as amicus curiae to assist the court. They also availed themselves of the assistance of conservational biologist Priya Davidar in a case filed against permitting domesticated cattle for grazing in forests.
After obtaining her expert opinion on the harmful effects of letting cattle into the forests, the Bench banned the entry of cattle into tiger reserves, sanctuaries and national parks. They could be allowed in other forest areas, subject to the welfare of the environment and wildlife, the Bench said.
Ms. Priya Davidar said livestock compete with wild herbivores in protected areas for food. “Cattle-lifting by tigers also becomes a problem in these areas, which in turn leads to poisoning of carcasses, leading to the death of tigers and other wildlife.”
“Tigers and cattle cannot co-exist in shared spaces. Efforts must be made to wean people off cattle-grazing, especially in protected areas, and other more sustainable livelihood models should be explored for local communities,” she added.
It was not just cattle, even human habitations inside the forests gained the attention of the court. It constituted a committee to convince the residents of Thengumarahada village in Kothagiri taluk of the Nilgiris district to relocate in the interest of wild animals. The judges came to know that the village was created in 1952 by leasing out 500 acres to a society on condition that its members should not alienate the land.
However, now the legal heirs of only a handful of original lessees were in occupation and all others were illegal occupants. Since the village was located in a crucial space interconnecting the Nilgiris biodiversity with the Eastern Ghat biodiversity and it was an important connecting corridor for most long-ranging wild animals, the judges have given time till March 25 for the government to enunciate its stand on relocation.
Plastic-free hill stations
The other most difficult task undertaken by the court for quite some time now is to keep the hill stations Kodaikanal and Udhagamandalam free of one-time-use plastics. It had been persistently passing a series of orders directing the Collectors of Dindigul, the Nilgiris and Coimbatore to strengthen the vigil at all points of entry to the two hill stations and seize the one-time-use plastic bottles and other products.
The Bench had also been summoning the Collectors of the three districts regularly through video call and taking stock of the steps taken by them to curb the entry of plastics into the hill stations and install water dispensers at prime locations for the tourists to fill their stainless-steel bottles. Advocate Chevanan Mohan, a native of the Nilgiris, has been assisting the court in this issue by highlighting the lapses.
Finally, the court has directed the State government to identify all forest officers who have been working in the same station for more than three years and transfer them out in order to prevent familiarization with local forest offenders. The Additional Advocate-General has informed the court of the government having begun to collect details of all forest officials and assured the court that transfer orders would be issued at the earliest.
Given that Justice Bharathidasan is due to retire on May 6, his Division Bench has been trying hard to accomplish as many things as possible before he passes on the baton to the next judge.