Uttrakhand: Committee mobilizes officials for illegal construction in Corbett Tiger Reserve
A report from a committee appointed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) recently submitted to the Delhi High Court regarding illegal building and logging in the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) has revealed shocking details. The report exposed illegalities committed by forest agents of the CTR.
The committee recommended that the state government initiate a vigilance investigation against agents involved in construction activities without any approval required.
The committee also recommended verifying the authenticity of documents produced by Divisional Forestry Officer (DFO) Kalagarh, Kishen Chand, for falsifying government documents, which is a serious offense.
The committee advised the regional office of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to take action against the responsible officials in accordance with the provisions of the 1980 Forest Conservation Act (FCA) and ‘other competent authorities for violations of the Wildlife Act. (Protection) Act, 1972 (WPA) and Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA).
The NTCA had formed a committee on September 8 on the High Court’s directive to investigate the case. The court ordered the motion in brief filed by lawyer and environmentalist Gaurav Bansal who alleged irregularities. These irregularities were linked to the construction on the Kandi road, the construction of a building on the Morgahatti FRH campus and on the Pakhrau Forest Rest House (FRH) campus, the construction of a water body near Pakhrau FRH and tree felling during tiger safari project in Pakhrau – in CTR.
The committee visited the sites from September 26 for four days and submitted its report on October 22.
According to the report, the committee reviewed all available statutory documents with the Field Director, Rahul (who uses his first name only) and DFO Kalagarh. The report found no prior legal approval and sanctions were obtained for construction activities on the road to Kandi, Morghatti FRH, Pakhrau FRH and the water body near Pakhrau. The work was performed in violation of the WPA, FCA, IFA, which results in criminal provisions.
To minimize their negative impact, the committee recommended that all illegal constructions in Morghatti and Pakhrau be demolished and that eco-restoration be undertaken immediately. He also ordered that the cost involved for the same be recovered from the officers concerned.
“The set of construction activities underway in one of the most densely populated habitats of tigers without any competent sanction and in violation of various statutory provisions / court orders is a prime example of administrative and management failure. appropriate measures are needed against all forest officials responsible for such serious violations, ”the report said.
Only Pakhrau Tiger Safari in CTR had the necessary approvals. But even there, irregularities were observed in the felling of trees.
The committee recommended that an accurate estimate of cut trees be made using remote sensing data with the help of institutes such as the Forest Survey of India and the National Remote Sensing Center. The committee also suggested that this project be avoided if it becomes a mere waste of public money in the midst of the controversy.
The field director expressed his ignorance of the submission of the NTCA report and assured us that he would give his version in some time when NewsClick contacted him. But later he didn’t answer our phone calls or messages. Chief Wildlife Ranger (CWLW) JS Suhag and DFO Kalagarh also remained unresponsive.
Petitioner Bansal said he sent a legal opinion to the NTCA member secretary to draw his attention to the illegal construction of bridges and walls and illegal logging in the CTR.
He said all materials except cement required for the illegal constructions came from CTR, resulting in illegal exploitation of natural resources and causing irreparable and irreversible loss and damage to the rich biodiversity of the Corbett landscape. .
He alluded to the Supreme Court order in Navin M Raheja Vs Union of India and Others (1998), in which the Supreme Court suspended the construction of any road in the CTR and prohibited the cutting of trees by the state or whoever. He expressed his dismay that this order was openly flouted in CTR.
Corbett, home to 231 tigers, continues to have the highest density of big cats in the world with 14 tigers per 100 km².
The new illegal constructions inside CTR include a seven-foot wall on a five-km stretch from Saneh to Pakhro, a five-km road from Morghatti to Kalagarh, and 12 bridges illegally on a 17-km stretch between Kalagarh and Pakhro.
Construction of the Kandi road
The Kandi Road, which connects Ramnagar to Kotdwar, passing through the southern part of the TRC, is a forest road that has been reinforced in the past using RCC beams and cross beams. The uniform width of the road is about 3 meters.
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 the Kandi road is increased to 5 feet by filling in with material. earth (soil and rocks). Soil was brought indiscriminately from the adjacent forest area (within a radius of 50 to 100 meters) using heavy earth moving machinery, causing extensive and irreversible damage to pristine wildlife habitat.
Excavating on such a large scale to extract soil from the forest and inside a tiger reserve is a blatant violation of the WPA, IFA and FCA. A screenshot of the Google Earth image shows a road from Kandi where its height has been increased by piling up a large amount of land material damaging the tiger’s habitat.
DFO Kalagarh, who accompanied the committee, estimated that work had been undertaken to make the road passable throughout the year for patrol purposes. However, the committee observed that such a major repair, damaging wildlife habitat, was undesirable and appeared to have been done in order to facilitate the improvement of the road to a metal / tar road. The committee reported that it was in violation of the Supreme Court’s order of April 9, 2001, in Naveen Raheja v / s Union of India.
The committee felt that frontline field staff were under tremendous pressure to allow the work. They categorically stated that the Range Officer and DFO Kalagarh directly oversee all of the work.
The committee inquired with DFO Kalagarh about financial and technical penalties for the work in progress, for which it said no penalties had been issued so far. However, he had requested a financial penalty of Rs 43.03 lakh from the field director, CTR, by a letter dated August 31, 2021. But the field director denied having received such a letter from DFO Kalagarh and said that ongoing constructions were in progress. on the road to Kandi without seeking approval from his office. Despite verbal and written communications to stop the work, DFO Kalagarh continued to carry out the work.
Construction of buildings on the Morgahatti FRH and Pakhrau FRH campuses
Committee members observed the construction of four independent building units within Morgahatti FRH, as well as an extension of an old building. A similar type of construction was also observed within the campus of the Pakhrau FRH campus.
Surprisingly, DFO Kalagarh submitted to the committee various drawings of these similar constructions, which appeared to be forged documents. The word “Cottage” has been changed to hut / headquarters. In accordance with the rules, all tourism-related activities can only be carried out in a tiger reserve after obtaining the necessary legal permissions in accordance with the provisions of the WPA and FCA. The management of CTR did not obtain such authorizations. Therefore, criminal liability must be set against the officers responsible for undertaking such construction.
Members in their report point out that illegal work was ongoing even during the committee’s inspection.
Construction of a water body near Pakhrau FRH
The committee noted that large-scale excavation work had been undertaken to develop a body of water in front of Pakhrau FRH. However, DFO Kalagarh informed that no trees were cut for this work, but the existing surroundings suggest that trees were felled.
In addition, the location of the body of water indicates that it was developed to attract wildlife for tourism promotion purposes and not as part of habitat or wildlife management interventions.
Illegal logging of trees during a tiger safari project
The committee visited the proposed site for the tiger safari, where 10,000 trees were reportedly chopped down with axes. The Uttarakhand Forest Department has obtained prior clearance for the safari on condition that no more than 163 trees are cut down.
During the visit, the committee observed that on the northern outskirts of the proposed safari, a road had been constructed which is interconnected with the main Pakhrau-Kotdwar road at three locations. DFO Kalagarh explained that the road built on the northern part was originally a line of fire and the three interconnected roads from said line of fire to the main Pakhrau-Kotdwar road are transaction lines.
Sadly, politicians and bureaucrats are determined to interfere, disrupt and damage this prestigious landscape for their personal interests.
Politicians and bureaucrats exploiting wildlife habitat
In February of this year, the Supreme Court had to suspend a bus service running on the Pakhro-Morghatti-Kalagarh-Ramnagar road, known as Kandi Road, stretching through the main CTR breeding area and its buffer.
Uttarakhand Forestry Minister Harak Singh Rawat to appease voters in his Kotdwar constituency started this bus service to reduce travel time and distance between Kumaon and Garhwal divisions of Hill State . He had previously attempted to have a road built on the same route, which had also been blocked by the Supreme Court.
A few months ago, the NTCA requested a factual report on the issue of bus service. Even then, petitioner Bansal had appealed to the Supreme Court, citing a violation of wildlife laws, which said there should be no interference in core areas to ensure tiger conservation.
As the then deputy director of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, Chand also shone the spotlight in 2016 on illegal constructions in this tiger reserve.
DVS Khati, who was CWLW at the time, denied authorizing the illegal work.
Cemented roads have been built inside the Haridwar and Beriwara range in several places. Multiple concrete boundaries have been built around guesthouses in the Rajaji Tiger Reserve against FCA and WPA standards by siphoning off funds released by the NTCA. A temple, Sureshwari Devi, was also lavishly enlarged inside the Rajaji, violating standards.
The writer is a Chandigarh-based freelance journalist who tweets @seema_env