Decoding the judgment on Jim Corbett

The Court’s decision to assess the damage done to the green cover of Jim Corbett so as to identify the cost of restoration and recover the same appears to be a mirage in the absence of a well-defined methodology

April 15, 2024 02:38 am | Updated 08:23 am IST

The Bengal tiger in the Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand.

The Bengal tiger in the Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In its ruling in March, the Supreme Court brought to light the unholy nexus of politicians, forest officials, and local contractors responsible for the felling of 6,000 trees in the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. This state of affairs underlines one fact clearly: despite conservation goals receiving priority through policies and laws including the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, Project Tiger, and the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the state’s main interest remains increasing revenue. The illegal destruction of trees in Jim Corbett can be seen in contravention of the Supreme Court judgment in Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra vs. State of Uttar Pradesh, which said that “economic growth cannot be achieved at the cost of environmental destruction and people’s right to healthy environment.”

The judgment

National and State forest authorities have leaned on ecotourism to simultaneously attain conservation goals, enhance revenue, and improve the livelihoods of local people. In its recent judgment, instead of treating eco-tourism as a panacea for conservation and revenue generation, the Supreme Court said that the approach must be of eco-centrism and not anthropocentrism. The court directed the banning of tiger safaris in core areas and the constitution of a committee to explore the feasibility of permitting tiger safaris in peripheral areas in not just Jim Corbett, but across India. It also disagreed with the 2019 guidelines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority permitting a tiger safari on the lines of a zoo in a national park. The court stressed that tigers should be sourced from the same landscape as where the safari is being conducted and not outside the tiger reserve.

Editorial | A slippery slope: On the Jim Corbett National Park case, tourism and conservation

According to British environmentalist Norman Myers, the precautionary principle is becoming an established principle for policymakers tackling environmental problems. The principle says “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent such environmental degradation.” On banning safaris in core areas, the Court invoked this principle to ensure that there is least damage to the environment. Myers had said, “In salient respects, the principle applies to biodiversity more than any other environmental problem. This is because the mass extinction gathering force will, if it proceeds unchecked, not only eliminate half or more species but will leave the biosphere impoverished for at least 5 million years.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species monitors 1,212 animal species in India. In 2021, it found that 12% of them are endangered. According to a report of the Centre for Science and Environment in 2021, India has lost 90% of the area under its four biodiversity hotspots. The precautionary principle therefore applies not only in the case of tigers, but also other species, especially endangered ones.

What the court missed

However, the Court’s decision to assess the damage done to the green cover of Jim Corbett so as to identify the cost of restoration and recover the same from the errant individuals and officers appears to be a mirage in the absence of a well-defined methodology. Recovering the cost of restoration does not amount to necessarily recovering the loss of the ability of the environment to provide goods and services. As per the European Liability Directive 2004, conservation status of natural habitat means the “sum of influences acting on a natural habitat and its typical species that may affect its long-term natural distribution, structure, and functions as well as the long-term survival of its typical species.” In India, the framework of valuation which predated the T.N. Godavarman case (1996) was aimed at replacing lost natural forest with compensatory plantations. The two choices which are supported legally and institutionally and serve as the background for the valuation of forest land in India are now compensatory afforestation levy and net present value (NPV). The levy is essentially a form of replacement cost, designed to replace the forest land which was lost as a result of diversion of forest towards non-forestry use. Since the levy is found to be insufficient in terms of making good the loss, the Court introduced the NPV in 2002 as an additional payment obligation. But both these methodologies do not rightly account for the correlation between the removal of trees and the harm caused to other environmental goods and services.

In the context of the growing degradation of biodiversity hotspots and the support to revenue-generating eco-tourism, a valuation method which is based on ecosystem services (food, water, and services regulating the climate and floods, etc.) is a must. The system refers to the benefits people obtain from natural ecosystems in contrast with man-made structures. The Court could have set a precedent by saying that ecosystem services are more important and generate more revenue than eco-tourism or raised the need of putting in place a precise law and policy relating to ecosystem services. The reasoning provided by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in Costa Rica v. Nicaragua (2018) could have been used to understand the methodologies in evaluating damage to the environment. The ICJ asserted that damage to the environment, and the consequent loss of the ability of the environment to provide goods and services, is compensable.

Anwar Sadat teaches international law, with a specialisation in environmental law, at the Indian Society of International Law. Email: sadatshazia@

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