The terminal of the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun. Photo: Trinidade/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Jaipur: The Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board – under the chairmanship of Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat – on Tuesday approved the proposal put before it: to denotify the Shivalik Elephant Reserve to make way for the expansion of Dehradun’s Jolly Grant airport.
The move comes amid protests from environmentalists – and also contravenes a direction of the Union environment ministry to consider alternate tracts land for the airport.
Shivalik Elephant Reserve encompasses the forest divisions of Dehradun, Haridwar, Lansdowne, Haldwani, Tanakpur and Ramnagar. It also includes part of the Corbett Tiger Reserve and the Rajaji National Park.
In 2002, the Centre notified the reserve under its Project Elephant, in order to protect the elephants in the area, their natural habitats and to reduce human-elephant conflict.
Earlier this year, the Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board had already cleared the use of around 87 ha of forest-land for the same airport expansion project.
The proposed bit of land falls in a sensitive zone of Shivalik Elephant Reserve, and is only some three kilometres from the crucial Kansaro-Barkot elephant corridor.
Uttarakhand chief wildlife warden Jaber Singh Suhag confirmed to The Wire Science that the board had approved the proposal to denotify the elephant reserve. He had previously told The Wire Science that an elephant reserve could not be allowed to hamper “development” in the state.
“Today, it is in the name of elephant reserve, tomorrow, some butterfly reserve will come up. In this way, no work could be done in Uttarakhand. Elephants can pass from anywhere, that doesn’t mean it will be declared as a corridor,” he had said.
Environmentalists this correspondent spoke to said that while an elephant reserve might not have been specifically mentioned in the Forest Conservation Act 1980, it’s logical that the Act’s protections extend to the land in question.
“There may not be protection as an elephant reserve but as a reserve forest with wildlife importance, it is still protected under the Forest Conservation Act,” environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta had told The Wire Science at the time. “It is very clearly mentioned that reserved forests are areas with high diversity value and should be protected and not be diverted for such ‘developmental’ activities.”
In any case, Dutta also said now that the board’s proceedings – during which its members voted to denotify a portion of the reserve – are “illegal”. According to him, the State Board for Wildlife is a statutory board constituted under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, and its role is “limited to what is prescribed in the statute”.
Section 8 of the Act states that the board’s duties are:
(a) selection and management of areas to be declared as protected areas (“protected area” means a National Park, a sanctuary, a conservation reserve or a community reserve),
(b) formulating policy for protection and conservation of the wildlife and specified plants,
(c) amendment of any Schedule taking measures for harmonising the needs of the tribals and other forest dwellers with the protection and conservation of wildlife,
(d) other matters relating to protection of wildlife, referred by the State Government.
“It has no power,” Dutta said of the board, “with respect to any elephant reserve, national park or sanctuary if [an issue] doesn’t relate to protection and conservation of wildlife – and the expansion of an airport in a forest area cannot be considered conservation or protection of wildlife.”
By extension, it’s also the case that the state-level board doesn’t have the power to modify an order issued by the Centre, he added.
The airport expansion also requires the felling of 10,000 trees.
Dutta had added that state officials would have to undertaken an environmental impact assessment – because the proposed area forms part of an important wildlife area, and will need to be approved under the Biological Diversity Act 2002 as well as by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).
Apart from approving the denotification, the board has resolved to build four trek routes – Nadung-Janaktal (10 km), Jaspur-Brahmikhal (14 km), Dumku-Chorgad (18 km) and Jhala-Avan (10 km). All of them lie in the Nelang valley, within the ambit of the Gangotri National Park, and with them the state government hopes to expand tourism. The board also increased the existing limit of five vehicles and 30 people per day in an area at the park to 20 vehicles and 100 people.