Tiger conservation and religion, the debate rages

October 11, 2012 12:00 am | Updated December 19, 2016 01:56 pm IST - Kozhikode

Panel counsel says States can prepare site-specific tourism plans considering ecological, social and religious issues

: The Supreme Court’s observation that guidelines for protection of tiger reserves will not hamper the movement of devotees to the Sabarimala temple comes after a point-blank submission in court by the Kerala government that any attempt to introduce curbs would primarily affect religion, not tourism.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has framed a set of comprehensive guidelines for Project Tiger and tourism in tiger reserves. The guidelines are proposed to be issued under Section 38-O (c) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Section 38-O of the Act deals with the Centre’s right to frame guidelines for conservation and tourism in tiger reserves around the country. After notification of the guidelines, the States can prepare site-specific tiger conservation plans on the basis of the guidelines. These plans would come to the NTCA for final approval.

The Kerala government’s reply came after the apex court, in an order on September 27, 2012, allowed all State governments to look into the draft guidelines and file their responses.

“Responding to the draft guidelines submitted by the National Tiger Conservation Authority in the Supreme Court, we just focussed on one main thing — that Sabarimala has to be treated separately.

“We told the apex court that this is not a question of tourism but religion, and there is no way we can restrict the number of pilgrims to the shrine,” Ramesh Babu M.R., the State government’s senior panel counsel in the Supreme Court, told The Hindu on Wednesday.

“The Bench was quick to assure us that the guidelines will not disturb the shrine,” he said.

Incidentally, Mr. Babu added that the government had already notified that the shrine was in the buffer zone and not in core reserve areas of the Periyar sanctuary. “Control is more in the core reserve areas,” he said.

The guidelines had hit the religious wall in Kerala after Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati on August 29, 2012 announced the framing of a “comprehensive” set of guidelines for tiger protection.

“The Attorney General appearing for the Union of India submitted that a comprehensive set of guidelines are being framed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority and Ministry of Environment & Forests with regard to fixation of core areas, buffer areas and tourism, including welfare and religious tourism as contemplated, amongst other laws in force, under Section 38-O(c) of the Wildlife Protection Act as well as with regard to the protection of the tigers in forest areas as well as non-forest areas,” the Supreme Court order of August 29 said.

But Mr. Babu said that many missed the point when the Attorney General had submitted that both NTCA and the Environment Ministry would “consider all aspects while formulating the guidelines after taking the views of expert bodies and after letting all stakeholders participate”.

“This means that once the guidelines are notified, it is up to the respective State governments to prepare ‘site-specific tourism plans’ taking into consideration the ecological, social, and religious issues of the particular area under question,” Mr. Babu clarified.

“We are not taking away the right of the State government to prepare tiger conservation plans factoring in local needs of the particular sites concerned. The States have been given a free hand, provided that these plans should be in broad consensus with our guidelines,” Advocate Haris Beeran, panel lawyer for the Ministry of Environment and Forests in the case, reasoned.

He said that the guidelines had provided a separate chapter for pilgrim centres in tiger reserves.

“This itself makes clear we do not equate pilgrimages with tourism,” Mr. Beeran said.

“Secondly, the guidelines say that any tourism infrastructure facilities in tiger reserves should be phased out in a time-bound manner. But in pilgrimage centres, we have not said any such thing. All we are saying in the guidelines is that measures should be taken to regulate devotees and not restrict them. Even the Sabarimala master plan notified by the State government in 2007 gives major emphasis to crowd management. We are saying the same thing in our guidelines,” Mr. Beeran said.

The court has given a week’s time for the Centre to notify the guidelines.

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