Why Corbett tiger reserve needs immediate attention

The current crisis of Corbett Reserve is not a new one but the speed and volume with which these surreptitious illegal construction and tree felling have been pushed with impunity have threatened environmentalists including wildlife conservationists as well.

What comes from Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve is not news for anyone. It is a true narrative of the ignorance and casualness with which MOEFCC has been looking at forest and wildlife crimes notwithstanding chest beating at COP26 which has just ended with revived understanding about how these forests can be a gold mine of trade in carbon credits. The tiger reserves (TR) of India are increasing in numbers from 9 in 1973 to 52 today as Ramgarh Vishdhari Tiger Reserve (RVTR) in Bundi district of Rajasthan joins the list this year. A rising number of reserves do not adequately reflect upon ‘business as usual’ attitude of Central or State administration towards conservation of wild life and their habitat. Those grave management concerns including wildlife crimes which were expected to be seriously addressed, continue to pose immense threat to forest ecosystems. A defensive Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has avoided taking a tough position against real culprits and the ground based forest officials remain unsupported as they always were. All mafias with dilettante operations within reserves continue to be insulated from legal action. Despite the Supreme Court and the High Court issuing directives for survey and investigation of illegalities taking place inside Corbett reserve, its implementation is bogged down in technicalities expressed by the State government including questioning the very legitimacy of appointment of Sanjiv Chaturvedi as the investigation officer by the PCCF.

India has come a long way from an era when wild life crimes were taking place with impunity at the heart of Delhi including a power packed Chanakyapuri that provoked PM Indira Gandhi to take up this issue with special concern. The credit of looking towards these mauled reserves unquestionably goes to Indira Gandhi, who immediately after becoming the Prime Minister in 1966 kickstarted activities for environmental and wildlife conservation. The IUCN (International Conservation Union) was hosted in India for the first time before setting up a Task Force to Draft the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLA) and then getting Parliamentary clearance to the Act in 1972. With a base framework of management in place, nine Tiger reserves were constituted which were governed by Project Tiger Conservation Programme. The WLA was amended in 2006 to provide for the enforcement of Project Tiger through the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) which was established in December 2005 on recommendation of Tiger Task Force.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) was constituted under section 38 L (1) of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The NTCA is headed by the Environment Minister as its Chairperson and the Environment Minister of State (MoS) as Vice Chairperson under section 38 L(2). NTCA also has three members of Parliament, the Secretary of Environment Ministry and other members which are drawn from an expert professional domain and from departments of Law & Social Justice, Tribal Affairs, National Commission for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Panchayati Raj, Forest and Wildlife Conservation Departments. The NTCA’s inclusive and transdisciplinary constitution in itself is a reflection of maturity and partnerships aimed at appropriate enforcement of Rules in tiger conservation and management of Reserves on India. The authority derives its power from section 38 O (1) of WLPA, 1972 and functions under the guidance of Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson and other members.

Powers and functions of the NTCA are prescribed under section 38 O (1) and (2) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, as amended in 2006 but section 38 O(7) and 38 O(2) hold value regarding this controversy. The former section ensures that the tiger reserves and areas linking protected areas and tiger reserve are not diverted for ecologically unsustainable uses and the latter suggests that, the NTCA may, in the exercise of its powers and performance issue directions in writing to any person, officer or authority for the protection of tiger or tiger reserves and such person, officer or authority shall be bound to comply with the directions.

Such controversies as earlier stated have marred most reserves. Last year in Tamil Nadu’s Srivilliputhur-Megamalai Tiger Reserve an illegal road building and subsequent construction in the Core area of the reserve was undertaken. Roads cut through the circulatory system of reserves and gradually lead to its extinction. The Srivilliputhur-Megamalai Tiger Reserve maintained a vital forest contiguity between the Periyar Tiger reserve in Kerala and the Kanyakumari forests down below to the other southern rim. Reserves have a sacrosanct Core area that prohibits even a cosmetic entry of even a benign activity in it. The manner in which Stalin’s government has been stuck before the NTCA for deciding to proscribe and issue an injunction against illegal sanctions granted by the previous AIADMK government has put the government’s political position to a litmus test. Government that sanctioned crores for metal roads inside the reserve had blatantly ignored a crucial fact in managing reserves which lies in sustaining its contiguity for a spill-over buffer of wild populations with neighbourhood reserves and forests. On receiving the petition from environmentalists the Forest Department directed the Wildlife Warden to inspect the area. It is blatant violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 in which NTCA and Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee approvals were required by law. This concern also goes beyond wildlife concerns alone, as the dense evergreen forests which are destroyed through illegal constructions have also been sources of water channels of Vaigai river in Tamil Nadu and the Mullayar river in Kerala.

A similar controversy arose in the Balangir Reserve Forest in Odisha. In Jan 2019, more than a thousand trees were chopped off to make helipad for Prime Minister’s prospective visit. The Khurd-Balangir railway line was to be flagged off. Little did the forest department think how this activity would permanently damage the Reserve ecosystem. Also, permission to cut down trees was again not taken as reported by the Balangir Divisional Forest officer Sameer Satpathy.

Drawing from the above cases, Corbett controversy is in line with the state of Reserves in India. The Uttarakhand Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat’s rejection of Investigating Officer on grounds of his appointment by PCCF Rajiv Bhartari instead of Chief Wildlife Warden J.S.Suhag has derailed appropriate investigations demanded by the Court. The complaint filed by Gaurav Bansal before the National Tiger Conservation Authority demanded the NTCA and the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) to verify the felling of ten thousand trees when permission was given only for 163 trees by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in its meeting held on 21st September 2020. (Seeking permission under Section 2 of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for non-forestry use of forest land is a prior condition for any activity inside Reserves). The DIG of CZA and the Director Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) issued notices to the PCCF and to the Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) of the State on allegations of tree felling in the Kalagarh division of the CTR for the PM’s Gujjar Sot , Pakhrau Tiger Safari. The petitioners clearly established that the activities permitted inside the CTR was contempt of the Supreme Court order in a Writ Petition (Civil) No. 47 of 1998 of Navin M Raheja Vs. Union of India and Others wherein it was observed that ‘no tree whatsoever shall be felled in the Corbett Tiger Reserve by the State or anyone else’. Technically two major issues needed investigation, first; felling of ten thousand trees and second; illegal constructions inside the reserve. While it may appear to be a case of tiger conservation but it involves a host of questions to be raised in a forest ecosystem conservation.The NTCA had conducted a field visit of the Pakhro and Morghatti zones of Kalagarh forest division which falls in the buffer zone of the tiger reserve and found in its Report of 22nd Oct. that illegal construction of buildings, bridges and water bodies had been carried out there without the prior sanction of authorities or financial sanctions and many “illegal” construction of buildings without statutory approvals or sanctions were found on Kandi road, Morghatti road, Pakhrau forest rest house and also near water body near Pakhrau forest rest house. The Survey also referred to the possibility that forest officers may have forged government records to allow such illegal constructions and therefore recommended immediate demolition of illegal constructions followed by ascertaining an accurate number of trees felled through remote sensing at the National Remote Sensing Centre.

In February this year even the Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian had come heavily on the State authorities and issued notices to the MOEFCC, State Ministry of Environment, NTCA, National Board of Wildlife (NBW) and officials of CTR for their violations of Section 38 (O) of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which provides that Tiger Reserves shall not be diverted for ecologically unsustainable uses, and in case it is required, than it is mandatory for the State to take prior approval from NBW and NTCA. The Uttarakhand High Court ordered the MoEFCC and also the state’s top forest and wildlife officials to inspect the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) and submit its action-taken report by November 9 on complaints about illegal constructions and felling of trees in the tiger reserve. The order found that these works were in violation of Indian Forest Act 1927, Wildlife (Protection) Act 1971, and Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.

Now looking into the controversy which erupts on Sanjiv Chaturvedi’s appointment by the PCCF and not Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) as the latter being legally authorized to appoint Investigation Officer. Chaturvedi is the Chief Conservator of Forest (research) based in Haldwani, a Magsaysay awardee with a spotless reputation of honesty and impartiality but that doesn’t seem to be of much importance before Rawat who suggests that the IO should be selected by the CWW. Lets do a status check on whois authorized by law?

In State government the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) is the Head of Forest Force in the Apex Scale of Pay Level 17.There is another PCCF who is not the Head of Forest Force and falls in the HAG+ Scale of Pay Level 16. The position of Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) comes only below the Additional PCCF which is at HAG Pay level 15. So legally and administratively the PCCF is the right authority to appoint an IO for any forest area within the state. Mr. Rawat’s objection may appear obvious on segmented reading of the Wild Life Conservation Rules that, ‘The Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) is the statutory authority, under the Wildlife Protection Act, who heads the Wildlife Wing of the department and exercises complete administrative control over Protected Areas (PAs) within a state’ but prior to this the Rules clearly establish that, ‘The State Forest Department is vested with the task of administration and management of forests, including wildlife reserves. State Forest Departments are headed by Principal Chief Conservators of Forests (PCCF) who are officers of the Indian Forest Service (IFS)’. These Rules further say that, “The Forest Department is charged with the tasks of protection and law enforcement within forest areas through the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of all forest and wildlife offences.  Officers over a certain rank are also vested with quasi-judicial powers to deal with cases of encroachment, seizures of illegal wildlife produce, and other notified forest offences.” This section should leave no one in doubt that there is no discrepancy in the appointment of IO by the PCCF as PCCF is the right authority with quasi-judicial powers to deal with investigations on encroachments, wildlife crimes or tree felling inside Reserves.

The current crisis of Corbett Reserve is not a new one but the speed and volume in which these surreptitious illegal construction and tree felling has been pushed with impunity has threatened environmentalists which includes wildlife conservationists as well. Forest is an ecosystem intertwined with varieties of identifiable and not so identifiable lives which inhabit the terrain. Depends who is seeing it. Judiciary is expected to take a firm stand on any illegality inside forest habitats and help change administrative attitudes of ‘business as usual’ so that the government could honestly progress on its commitment to COP26 made in Glasgow recently.

The author is president, NDRG, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.