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State Election Halts Demolition Inside Corbett—For Now

We have to wait till the polls even for the value of trees illegally cut and sold from Corbett to be determined, which requires another probe according to activists.
State Election Halts Demolition Inside Corbett—For Now

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

The vigilance enquiry ordered by the Ministry of Forest, Environment and Climate Change into the illegal constructions in the premier Corbett Tiger Reserve has finally seen some action. Some of the buildings constructed inside the Morighatti areas of the reserve have been brought down, but illegal construction in the Pakhrau area of Kalagarh remains intact.

The government sent the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) members to Corbett to look into the illegal construction in September last year. They were horrified that while a tiger rescue facility had been approved, a massive tourist facility with 18 buildings and 60 bed-baths were being built instead.

This unapproved construction work included developing a water body that required felling many trees and widening a forest road to turn it into a highway. While the ministry had approved around Rs. 25 crore, the forest officials had reportedly spent over Rs. 157 crore on these constructions.

The constructions flagrantly violated the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and the Indian Forest Act, 1972. The Ministry of Forest, Environment and Climate Change has asked its Dehradun office to initiate legal action against the offenders under sections 3A and 3B of the Forest Conservation Act. A copy of the letter had also been sent to additional chief secretary Anand Bardhan and Uttarakhand’s Head of Forest Force Vinod Kumar for action. As a first step, the ministry had directed that Kishan Chand, the Kalagarh Divisional Forest Officer, be served a transfer notice.

The Corbett Reserve director, Rahul, served him notice, but it is reported that Chand has refused to relinquish charge.

It is an open secret that the District Forest Officer (DFO) is close to Uttarakhand Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat. The minister has told the media on several occasions that the construction activity in Corbett was part of a plan to launch a tiger safari in keeping with the wishes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But strictures by the Nainital High Court against the DFO have put the state government in a very tight bind. Not only is the court extremely critical of the illegal constructions and felling of trees within the reserve, but it has also demanded strong action against all the officers of the Forest Department responsible for violating the ecological sanctity of a reserve with the highest tiger density in the world.

On the visit of the NTCA officials, the court observed that the DFO had appraised the committee that ongoing constructions of buildings at Morighatti were staff quarters. However, examining the architectural drawings for the site revealed that they were “tourist cottages”. The same was the case with the constructions going on at Pakhrau. The court observed that the DFO had indulged in “forgery” to change the word “cottages” to “hut/quarters” in the documents.

What was worse, the court observed that the officer failed to provide any documents permitting the construction of a massive water hole for which, reportedly, over 10,000 mature trees were cut down. The court ordered the Forest Survey of India and the National Remote Sensing Centre to estimate just how many trees were chopped in this entire exercise. (The court took suo moto cognizance of this matter and responded to a PIL filed by environmentalist Anu Pant.)

Apparently, in 1998, Chand faced a vigilance enquiry when he was a sub-divisional officer under the Haridwar Forest Division.

The then director, vigilance, Ajay Kumar Singh (Uttar Pradesh), had in a letter dated 28 March 2000 communicated to the principal secretary based in Lucknow that a Rs. 48,950 penalty be imposed on him for illegal possession of trophies of wild animals in his home. He should also be punished for not conducting a proper post mortem on wild animals and getting any sensitive posting in the forest department under no circumstances.

But all this was overlooked once Uttarakhand was carved out as a new state. Chand got a plum posting at Corbett. Anu Pant, who is from the Ramgarh region and plans to contest in the upcoming state election as a candidate from the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (Democratic), believes the value of the trees cut and sold from the Corbett reserve runs into crores of rupees.

We have found out that each tree over a hundred years old is being sold for over Rs. 1 lakh. The number of ancient trees chopped down runs into several thousands. The government must conduct an audit to find out how much money has been pocketed by corrupt officials,” says Pant.

Under pressure, the Uttarakhand Additional Chief Secretary Anand Bardhan issued a show-cause notice on 27 December to the former Chief Wildlife Warden of Uttarkhand, JS Suhag. It demanded to know why he “did not use his authority to stop illegal constructions and felling of trees” in the park.

Not only was Suhag relieved of the additional charge of Chief Wildlife Warden in November 2021, but he has also been asked for a detailed statement of accounts on the funds under his charge as CEO of the compensatory afforestation program, CAMPA. Suhag was given a week to respond to this notice, but his response is still awaited. When contacted, he declined to comment.

It is not for the first time that the Uttarakhand High Court has intervened in matters relating to the Corbett Tiger Reserve. In September 2018, the court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to enquire into the large number of tiger deaths in Corbett.

Rajeev Mehta, a member of the Uttarkhand State Wildlife Advisory Board and Honorary Warden of the Rajaji National Park, had petitioned the High Court claiming that the Uttarakhand Police Special Task Force seized seven tiger skins between 2015-16. Of these, five skins (and 135 kilograms of bones of big cats) were seized on 13 March 2016. Another skin was seized in May the same year and one more in Nepal on 26 December 2015. All these confiscated skins were of tigers of Corbett, the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, had confirmed.

Mehta told the court that after the seizure of five skins on 13 March, the Deputy Director of Rajaji National Park—DFO Chand—had asked him to submit evidence.

With help from informers, Mehta managed to recover some bones, spears, and flesh from within the Corbett reserve. He handed them over to the then Chief Wildlife Warden, the field director of Corbett and head of the Anti-Poaching Cell in front of an upright forest officer, the DFO, Haridwar, HK Singh.

Since the Forest Department did not take action on the evidence, Mehta raised the issue with Forest Minister Rawat, who ordered an enquiry that indicted both Chief Wildlife Warden and Director of Corbett National Park.

The upcoming state Assembly election will put a hold on this enquiry and the one into the demolition of the illegal structures in Corbett Park. Matters will now proceed after the new government in Uttarakhand is sworn, sometime after mid-March.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

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