Trees in Corbett fell prey to greedy nexus, says Supreme Court

‘Amazed at the audacity’ of ex-Minister, officials involved in felling of 6,000 trees in reserve, says Bench; court wants panel to study if tiger safaris should be allowed in buffer zones of reserves

March 06, 2024 12:48 pm | Updated March 07, 2024 02:00 am IST - NEW DELHI

A Supreme Court Bench said Uttarakhand could not ‘run away’ from its responsibility to restore the forest to the last tree.

A Supreme Court Bench said Uttarakhand could not ‘run away’ from its responsibility to restore the forest to the last tree. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Supreme Court on Wednesday condemned the illegal felling of over 6,000 trees to construct buildings, ostensibly for “eco-tourism” at the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, as a “classic case” of nexus between politicians and officials working to ransack the environment for short-term commercial ends.

“The present case depicts a sorry state of affairs of human greed devastating one of the most celebrated abodes of tigers i.e. the Corbett Tiger Reserve,” a three-judge Bench headed by Justice B.R. Gavai observed.

The court also directed the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to form a specialised committee to study and recommend whether tiger safaris should be permitted in the buffer or fringe areas of a tiger reserve.

On the “huge devastation” caused by the illegal felling, the court said it was “amazed at the audacity” of former Uttarakhand Forest Minister and Congress leader Harak Singh Rawat and ex-Divisional Forest Officer Kishan Chand for giving the forest and wildlife conservation laws a complete go-by and throwing the public trust doctrine “into the dustbin”.

The court hinted that there may be others also involved. The judgment approved the Central Bureau of Investigation probe initiated into the case and directed the Central agency to submit a report of its investigation in the next three months.

The Bench said Uttarakhand could not “run away” from its responsibility to restore the forest to the last tree.

Justice Gavai said the tigers needed the forest as much as the forest depended on the tigers.

“The presence of tigers in the forests is an indicator of the well-being of the ecosystem. Unless steps are taken for the protection of tigers, the ecosystem which revolves around tigers cannot be protected… Events like illegal construction and illicit felling of trees like the one in Corbett cannot be ignored,” Justice Gavai observed in the judgment.

The court said the proposed specialised committee of the Ministry would comprise representatives of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Wildlife Institute of India, Central Empowered Committee and a Joint Secretary from the Ministry.

Panel to access damage

The panel would assess the extent of damage done to the Corbett reserve’s green cover, quantify the cost of restoration and identify the “delinquent” persons and officials responsible for the damage.

The court said the cost for restoration would be recovered from these errant individuals and officials. The money would be used exclusively for forest restoration.

Guidelines for safaris

The Bench said in case the committee’s recommendations were in favour of having tiger safaris in peripheral areas of tiger reserves, it should recommend guidelines for their operation. The guidelines would be applied on a pan-India basis.

The approach to tiger safaris must be eco-centric and not human centric.

The court disagreed with the 2019 NTCA guidelines of bringing tigers exhibited in zoos for these safaris. Justice Gavai referred to Section 9 of the 2016 NTCA guidelines which said only injured tigers after suitable treatment, conflict tigers or orphaned tiger cubs “unfit for re-wilding and release into the wild” ought to be put in the safari. The tigers should be sourced from the same landscape as where the safari was established.

“The approach must be of eco-centrism and not of anthropocentrism. The precautionary principle must be applied to ensure that the least amount of environmental damage is caused. The animals sourced shall not be from outside the tiger reserve,” the court directed.  

The court objected to provisions in the 2019 guidelines which said the selection of animals to be put in the safaris would be done with the approval of the Central Zoo Authority (CZA).

The court dismissed the idea of the CZA formulating in the future a “Master Plan” for the management of tiger safaris.

Further, the judgment stressed that tiger safaris should be established keeping in mind the precautionary principle of causing least damage to the environment. Resorts, if any, should be built in tune with the natural environment. Noise levels should be restricted. Safaris should be proximate to animal rescue centres.

The committee has to file its report in three months.

The court said safaris already existing, like the one in Pakhro zone at Corbett, need not be disturbed. It however directed the Uttarakhand government to establish an animal rescue centre in the vicinity of the safari.

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