Uttrakhand: Committee Hauls up Officials for Illegal Constructions in Corbett Tiger Reserve
A report of a National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) appointed committee recently submitted to Delhi High Court concerning illegal constructions and felling of trees in Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) has revealed shocking details. The report has exposed illegalities committed by the forest officials of CTR.
The committee recommended that the state government constitute a vigilance inquiry against the officers involved in the construction activities without any requisite approval.
The committee also recommended verifying the authenticity of the documents produced by the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Kalagarh, Kishen Chand, for forging government documents, which is a severe offence.
The committee opined the regional office of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change to initiate action against the responsible officers as per the provisions given in the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (FCA) and other competent authorities for the violations of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WPA), and Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA).
The NTCA had constituted a committee on September 8 on the high court's directive to investigate the matter. The court ordered on the writ petition filed by advocate and conservationist Gaurav Bansal who had alleged irregularities. These irregularities were related to the construction on Kandi road, construction of building at Morgahatti FRH campus and Pakhrau Forest Rest house (FRH) campus, construction of waterbody near Pakhrau FRH and felling of trees at a proposed tiger safari in Pakhrau- in CTR.
The committee visited the sites from September 26 for four days and submitted their report on October 22.
According to the report, the committee reviewed all statutory documents available with the field director, Rahul (who uses his first name only), and DFO Kalagarh. The report found no statutory prior approval and sanctions were obtained for the construction activities on Kandi road, Morghatti FRH, Pakhrau FRH and the water body near Pakhrau. The work was executed by violating the WPA, FCA, IFA, which attract penal provisions.
To minimize their detrimental impact, the committee recommended that all the illegal constructions in Morghatti and Pakhrau be demolished and eco-restoration be undertaken immediately. It also directed that the cost involved for the same be recovered from the concerned officers.
"The entire ongoing construction activities in one of the highest tiger density habitats without any competent sanctions and by violating the various statutory provisions/court orders is an excellent example of both administrative and managerial failure. Appropriate actions are required against all the forest officers responsible for such grave violations," the report says.
Only Pakhrau Tiger Safari in CTR had the necessary approvals. But even there, irregularities have been observed in the felling of trees.
The committee recommended that accurate estimation of trees axed be done through remote sensing data with the help of institutes like the Forest Survey of India and the National Remote Sensing Centre. The committee also suggested that this project be avoided if it becomes a mere wasteful expenditure of public money amid controversy.
The field director expressed ignorance about the submission of the NTCA report and assured us that he would give his version in some time when NewsClick contacted him. But later on, he didn't respond to our phone calls or messages. Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) JS Suhag and DFO Kalagarh also remained unresponsive.
Petitioner Bansal said that he sent a legal notice to member secretary NTCA to draw his attention towards illegal construction of bridges and walls and illegal felling of trees within CTR.
He said all the materials, except cement, required for the illegal constructions are being sourced from CTR, resulting in illegal mining of the natural resources and causing irreparable and irreversible loss and damage to the rich biological diversity of the Corbett landscape.
He alluded to the Supreme Court order in Navin M Raheja Vs Union of India and Others (1998), wherein the apex court had stayed the construction of any road within CTR and directed for no tree felling by the state or anyone else. He expressed dismay that this order has been openly flouted in CTR.
Corbett, which is home to 231 tigers, continues to have the highest big cat density in the world at 14 tigers per 100 sq km.
The new illegal constructions inside CTR include a seven-foot wall on a five-km stretch from Saneh to Pakhro, a five-km route from Morghatti to Kalagarh, and 12-bridges illegally on a 17-km stretch between Kalagarh and Pakhro.
Construction of Kandi Road
Kandi road, which connects Ramnagar to Kotdwar, passing through the southern part of CTR, is a forest road that was strengthened using RCC beam and cross beam structures in the past. The uniform width of the road is about 3 metres.
During the site visit, the NTCA committee observed that just after Kalagarh FRH towards Pakhrau, for a distance of about 1.2 km, the height of Kandi road is raised to 5 feet by filling of earth material (soil and boulders). The soil was brought from adjoining forest area (within 50-100 meters) in an indiscriminate manner using heavy earthmovers, which had caused extensive and irreversible damage to the pristine wildlife habitat.
Excavation of such a large scale to extract earth material from the forest and inside a tiger reserve is a clear violation of the WPA, IFA and FCA. A screenshot of Google Earth image shows a Kandi road where its height has been raised by stacking a large amount of earth material by damaging the tiger habitat.
DFO Kalagarh, who was accompanying the committee, appraised that the work has been undertaken to make road motorable throughout the year for patrolling purposes. However, the committee observed that such extensive repairing, by damaging the wildlife habitat, was undesirable and seemed to have been done with a motive to facilitate the up-gradation of the road to a metal/tar road. The committee reported that it is in contravention to the Supreme Court's order dated April 9, 2001, in Naveen Raheja v/s Union of India.
The committee felt that the frontline field staff was under tremendous pressure to allow the work. Categorically, they stated that the Range Officer and DFO Kalagarh are directly supervising the entire work.
The committee enquired from DFO Kalagarh about the financial and technical sanctions of the ongoing work, for which he said no sanctions had been issued so far. Still, he had asked for a financial sanction of Rs 43.03 lakh from the field director, CTR, through a letter dated August 31, 2021. But the field director denied having received any such letter from DFO Kalagarh and said that ongoing constructions are being done on Kandi road without seeking approval from his office. Despite verbal and written communications to stop the work, DFO Kalagarh continued the execution of work.
Construction of Buildings at Morgahatti FRH Campus and Pakhrau FRH Campus
The committee members observed the construction of four units of independent buildings within Morgahatti FRH, along with an extension of an old building. A similar type of construction was also observed within the campus of Pakhrau FRH campus.
Surprisingly, DFO Kalagarh submitted different drawings of these similar constructions to the committee, which appeared to be forged documents. The word "Cottage" was replaced by hut/headquarter. As per rules, any tourism-related activities can be carried out in a tiger reserve only after having necessary statutory permissions as per the provisions of WPA and FCA. The management of CTR has obtained no such permissions. Hence criminal liability has to be fixed against the officers responsible for undertaking such construction.
The members in their report point out the illegal work was in progress even during the committee's inspection.
Construction of Waterbody Near Pakhrau FRH
The committee observed that excavation work at a large scale had been undertaken to develop a water body in front of Pakhrau FRH. However, DFO Kalagarh informed that no trees had been axed for this work, but the existing surroundings suggest that trees have been removed.
Moreover, the location of the water body indicates that it has been developed to attract wildlife for tourism promotion and not as a part of habitat or wildlife management intervention.
Illegal Felling of Trees at Proposed Tiger Safari
The committee visited the proposed tiger safari spot, where 10,000 trees had been allegedly axed. Uttarakhand forest department obtained prior permission for the safari with the condition that not more than 163 trees would be axed.
During the visit, the committee observed that on the northern periphery of the proposed safari, a road had been constructed that is inter-connected with Pakhrau-Kotdwar main road at three places. DFO Kalagarh explained that the road built on the Northern part was originally a fire line, and the inter-connecting three roads from the said fire line to Pakhrau-Kotdwar main road are transacting lines.
Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats are hell-bent upon interfering, disturbing and damaging this prestigious landscape for their vested interests.
Politicians and Bureaucrats Exploiting the Wildlife Habitat
In February this year, Supreme Court had to stay a bus service plying on the Pakhro-Morghatti-Kalagarh-Ramnagar route, known as Kandi Road, stretching through the core breeding area of CTR and its buffer zone.
Uttarakhand forest minister Harak Singh Rawat, to appease voters of his constituency Kotdwar, started this bus service to cut travelling time and the distance between the Kumaon and Garhwal divisions of the hill state. He had earlier tried to get a road built on the same route, which too was stayed by the apex court.
A couple of months ago, the NTCA had sought a factual report on the bus service matter. Even then, petitioner Bansal had moved the Supreme Court, citing violation of wildlife laws, which says that there should be no interference in the core areas to ensure tiger conservation.
As the then deputy director of Rajaji Tiger Reserve, Chand had also hogged the spotlight in 2016 for illegal constructions in that tiger reserve.
DVS Khati, who was CWLW at the time, had denied permitting these illegal works.
Cemented roads were built inside the Haridwar and Beriwara range at several places. Multiple concrete boundaries were constructed around the guest houses of the reserve of Rajaji Tiger Reserve against the norms of the FCA and WPA by siphoning off the fund released by the NTCA. A temple, Sureshwari Devi, too was being lavishly extended inside the Rajaji, violating the norms.
The writer is a Chandigarh based freelance journalist who tweets @seema_env
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