New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttarakhand is alleged to have not only bypassed the Modi government and a Supreme Court verdict in denotifying the Shivalik Elephant Reserve but also to have contravened an order of the Nainital High Court in doing so.
On January 11, the Nainital High Court issued an interim stay on the elephant reserve’s denotification on the ground that Uttarakhand had no clearance for the purpose from the central government. As per Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the High Court said, no state government has the power to de-reserve any notified reserve area without obtaining prior permission of the central government.
“However, in the present case, no such permission [from the central government] has been sought, and no such permission has been granted by the Central Government. And yet, on 08.01.2021, the Government has de-notified the reserve area,” said a High Court division bench on January 11 while imposing the interim stay.
The division bench comprised Chief Justice Raghvendra Singh Chauhan and Justice Manoj Kumar Tiwari.
The Shivalik Elephant Reserve has been denotified by the Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat’s government in order to expand infrastructure for Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport. But Modi government had asked Uttarakhand to seek alternative land to expand the airport instead of exploiting the ecologically sensitive area of the elephant reserve.
Residents and activists allege the state government, instead of acquiring private land to the north of the existing airport, went ahead to summarily denotify the elephant reserve that falls to its south. “Instead of going into the hassle of acquiring land from private persons, the state invariably found it more convenient to destroy an important wildlife habitat of high conservative value,” said Uttarakhand-based lawyer Abhijay Negi, who argued the matter before the Nainital High Court.
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Emails were sent on behalf of NewsClick to Trivendra Singh Rawat as well as Uttarakhand’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests asking, amongst other queries, as to why the elephant reserve was denotified bypassing the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 as well as without exploring alternative land. There have been no responses to the queries yet. This article will be updated as and when responses are received.
However, when contacted by NewsClick, Uttarakhand’s Forest and Wildlife Minister Dr Harak Singh Rawat said land acquired to the north of the airport would have resulted in displacement of local population.
“If we had acquired land to the north of the airport, it would have led to massive displacement of people. Those who are already displaced from the Tehri region of the state are at present residing in the area towards the north of the airport. Land acquisition and resettlement of twice-displaced people would have proven expensive for the state government. A study had been conducted for the proposal to develop Jolly Grant Airport as an international airport. As per this study, the expansion has also to be towards the north of the airport. So, displacement of people living there is imminent in future. But it will be undertaken only after proper resettlement and compensation,” Dr Rawat told NewsClick.
The central government is yet to notify a legal framework for elephant reserves across the country despite an order by the National Green Tribunal in the year 2017 in a case pertaining to industrial activities within the Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam.
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“Shivalik reserve occupies a large part of Uttarakhand. It is difficult to exclude such a large part of the state from the development process. We denotified the reserve on our own because it enjoys no legal status and finds no mention in any of the Acts of central or state government. The High Court order is being examined by the state’s law department to chart our further course of action,” added Rawat.
A proposal had been sent by Uttarakhand Government to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) seeking its approval to denotify the elephant reserve. On October 9, 2020, however, the MoEF&CC wrote back to the Uttarakhand Government raising certain concerns and seeking certain clarifications before accepting the proposal and granting permission.
“The area proposed for diversion falls under High Conservation Value area and also that will cause fragmentation of the riverside forests which is situated between the existing runway [of the Jolly Grant Airport] and the river. Out of the 87.0185 ha proposed area to be diverted 47.0 ha area falls under MDF. Therefore the State Govt, may explore alternatives for the proposal such as acquiring area lying north of the existing runway,” the Union Environment Ministry had shot back in its letter.
The MoEF&CC further mentioned in its letter: “As per DSS analysis, the entire proposed forest area for diversion falls within the Shivalik Elephant Reserve and elephant corridors within its 1 km radius. Moreover, the notified Kansaro-Barkot Elephant Corridor is located within 5km radius. The State Government should consider avoiding these sensitive areas and explore alternative lands.”
Further, details of compensatory afforestation scheme and remarks of the Chief Wildlife Warden and National Tiger Conservation Authority were also sought from Uttarakhand. Nevertheless, on November 24, 2020, the Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board, chaired by none other than Chief Minister Rawat, gave its nod to denotify the reserve notwithstanding the MoEF&CC recommendations.
On January 8, 2021, a separate high court bench, comprising Chief Justice Raghvendra Singh Chauhan and Justice Lok Pal Singh, stayed the wildlife board’s nod on the basis of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) about numerous pachyderm deaths in Uttarakhand and how denotification of the reserve would result in further damage to ecology and decline in population of elephants besides increasing man-animal conflict. But, on the same day, that is, on January 8, Uttarakhand government also issued an order formally denotifying the reserve with ‘immediate effect’.
Before the PIL was filed, around 80 people, most lawyers, had also written to the Chief Justice of Nainital High Court urging him to scrap the denotification on ecological and environmental grounds.
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The denotification order is also incongruous to a verdict issued by the Supreme Court last year in which several important observations pertaining to the conservation of pachyderms and their habitat were outlined. The verdict issued on October 14, 2020, by a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde, upheld an earlier order of the Tamil Nadu High Court for eviction of as many as 39 resort owners, including Bollywood actor Mithun Chakraborty, from an area in the Nilgiris which has been notified as an elephant corridor by the Tamil Nadu government.
The Tamil Nadu government had on January 1, 2010, identified elephant corridors in the Sigur Plateau, connecting the Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats, which sustain elephant populations and their genetic biodiversity.
“It is the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests and wild life and to have compassion for living creatures. The Precautionary Principle makes it mandatory for the State Government to anticipate, prevent and attack the causes of environmental degradation. In this light, we have no hesitation in holding that in order to protect the elephant population in the Sigur Plateau region, it was necessary and appropriate for the State Government to limit commercial activity in the areas falling within the elephant corridor,” CJI Bobde’s bench stated in its order.
The Shivalik Elephant Reserve, which was notified in October 2002 by the erstwhile BJP-led National Democratic Alliance central government headed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, is spread over an area of 5,405.07 square kilometres. It occupies a little more than one-tenth of the total area of the state which is approximately 53,483 square kilometres. The notified Kansaro-Barkot Elephant Corridor is located within a 5-km radius of the proposed area where additional infrastructure for the airport will be built. The core area of the elephant reserve includes the Rajaji National Park and the Corbett National Park.
Besides, in January 2015, the governments of India and Nepal had joined hands to secure the Boom-Brahmadev Corridor connecting the Haldwani Forest Division in Uttarakhand with the Kanchapur Forest Division in Nepal which has been a significant passage for wildlife including elephants and tigers from times immemorial.