Two elephants tussle at the Dhikala grassland, Uttarakhand, December 2016. Photo: Kaushik mailbox/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Jaipur: The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttarakhand, led by chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, has being drawing fire for neglecting forest conservation since it assumed power in the state in 2017.
The complaints grew louder after two especially controversial orders, one earlier this year to transfer a portion of the Rajaji National Park to prepare for the Kumbh Mela in 2021, and one in 2017 to transfer control of the heritage buildings belonging to the forest department to the administrative department, to house VIPs undertaking the Char Dham yatra (pilgrimage). And now, a third issue has joined this dubious list.
The Rawat government is proposing to repeal the legal protection enjoyed by the Shivalik Elephant Reserve to make way for the expansion of the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun. As it happens, even the Centre – also controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party – in the form of the Union environment ministry has directed the state to consider alternative tracts of land for the project.
The elephant corridors are under severe anthropogenic pressures. The State FD has relocated 31 families from the Chilla Motichur corridor, habitat improvement activities have been taken up, flyovers are under construction to allow unhindered passage of animals. pic.twitter.com/FyhLsOhQxR
— MoEF&CC (@moefcc) November 9, 2020
“The proposal is basically about expanding the existing runway strip of the airport,” Dehradun divisional forest officer Rajiv Dhiman told The Wire.
The government’s resolve follows on the Uttarakhand Board for Wildlife’s green signal earlier this year to hand over some 87 ha of forest land. Parts of this land overlap with parts of the ecologically sensitive Shivalik Elephant Reserve and the Kansaro-Barkot Elephant Corridor. The state has also announced plans to cut around 10,000 in the reserve, and prompted swift and widespread protests around Uttarakhand last month.
The Shivalik Elephant Reserve spans forest divisions in Dehradun, Haridwar, Lansdowne, Haldwani, Tanakpur and Ramnagar. It also includes part of the Corbett Tiger Reserve and the Rajaji National Park.
The Centre had notified the reserve in 2002 under Project Elephant, an initiative to protect elephants and their natural habitats as well as minimise human-elephant conflicts.
Uttarakhand’s head of forest forces Ranjana Kala confirmed to The Wire that the proposal to denotify the Shivalik Elephant Reserve has already been drawn up. It is expected to be presented to the Uttarakhand Board for Wildlife on November 24. However, she denied knowledge about whether it was related to the airport expansion.
The Times of India had reported in October 2020 that the Union environment ministry had written to Uttarakhand’s additional secretary (environment) to “explore” land to the airport’s north instead of in the east and south. The state government hadn’t replied then.
The letter from the environment ministry said: “The area proposed for diversion for the airport expansion falls under high conservation value area and it will cause fragmentation of the riverside forests, which is situated between the existing runway and the river, and therefore, the state government may explore alternatives for acquiring area lying north of the existing runway.”
On the other hand, Uttarakhand forest officials are of the view that the reserve doesn’t have any special legal protection to begin with. “It was just a part of a central scheme,” Jaber Singh Suhag, the state’s chief wildlife warden, told The Wire. “Today, it is in the name of an elephant reserve. Tomorrow, some butterfly reserve will come up. In this way, no work can be done in Uttarakhand.”
He also dismissed concerns about the presence of an elephant corridor, saying that “elephants can pass from anywhere” and their passage alone doesn’t suffice to designate an area as a ‘corridor’.
But environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta said Suhag & co. are wrong: “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. [And] it is very clearly mentioned that reserve forests are areas with high diversity value and should be protected and not be diverted for such ‘developmental’ activities.”
He also recalled that the proposed expansion of Jolly Grant Airport will require an environmental impact assessment because the proposed site of expansion is part of an important wildlife area, and that it will have to be approved under the Biological Diversity Act 2002 as well as by the National Board for Wildlife.
Last month, while hearing appeals filed by private landowners against Tamil Nadu’s notification of an elephant corridor, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Sharad Bobde said the state was duty-bound to protect “keystone species” like elephants.
In June this year, the Uttarakhand Board for Wildlife had constituted a standing committee to make decisions related to clearances for important projects involving the use of forest land. The committee is chaired by state forest minister Harak Singh Rawat.
Ironically, the eight other members include the CEO of the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board, other officers of the administrative department and only the chief wildlife warden from the forest department.