Representative photo: Reuters
- A committee of the National Tiger Conservation Authority visited the various sites of a tiger safari project in September, finding evidence of illegal activities.
- Work on the safari inside Corbett reserve has destroyed more trees and land than the project proposal specified, based on documents that local officials couldn’t produce or had manipulated.
- The committee’s report, which The Wire Science has seen, calls these actions “an excellent example of both administrative and managerial failure”.
A string of violations of forest and wildlife laws – from forged documents to justifying illegal constructions to unsanctioned construction activities on the Kandi road in Corbett tiger reserve – have been red-flagged by a recent National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) committee report, which called the actions “an excellent example of both administrative and managerial failure in the highest-density tiger habitat of the world”.
The Wire Science has accessed the relevant NTCA committee report (dated October 22, 2021), which is critical of the role of the Kalagarh district forest officer (DFO) in the tiger reserve who allegedly forged documents and which the committee has said should be investigated by the Uttarakhand vigilance department.
The report is signed by Hemant Singh, designated as committee member and convener.
In this document, the NTCA panel recommends that the state government constitute a vigilance probe against the officers involved in the construction activities without the requisite approval, and that it verify the authenticity of the documents that the Kalagarh DFO produced. The committee also recommends that all illegally built structures in the Morghatti and Pakhro campuses be demolished and for local officials to make restorative efforts right away, at the local officers’ cost.
“The erring officer” – identified as one B.B. Sharma – “has been suspended and I have instructed the director of the reserve to initiate the combing operation to ascertain the exact number of trees felled … for the projects,” Uttarakhand’s head of the forest force Rajiv Bhartari told The Wire Science.
However, he said “repair work on the Kandi road goes on annually”.
Earlier this year, lawyer Gaurav Kumar had filed a petition with the Delhi high court alleging gross violation of forest and environment laws in the Corbett tiger reserve. The court subsequently directed the NTCA committee members to visit the reserve, which they did on September 22. They submitted their report on their observations and inquiries exactly a month later, to the additional director general of forests, and to the member secretary.
Bansal said that the NTCA committee report spotlights the ‘dark side’ of the Corbett park’s administration and its collusion with Uttarakhand forest officials to clear forest land for construction activities.
After scrutinising the documents on file for four ongoing construction projects, including those pertaining to the relevant permissions and designs, the committee uncovered several violations.
To develop a tiger safari, the Uttarakhand forest department had applied for and received forest clearance under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 – on the condition that it wouldn’t chop more than 163 trees.
“A conservative estimate of the committee, based on the ground situation, suggests that trees felled during the work execution so far is way more than 163 trees, which is a clear violation [of the condition] stipulated under the forest clearance,” the NTCA report said.
Work on the tiger safari is still underway in the Corbett tiger reserve, with more than 60% completed.
Similarly, committee members found that on the northern periphery of the proposed safari, a road had been constructed that linked to the Pakharu-Kotdwar main road at points. They realised that the forest area that would have had to be diverted for the safari as a result was more than the 0.4 hectare specified in the project proponent’s proposal.
Construction activities sans sanction
After going through the documents related to environment clearances, the NTCA committee report found that construction activities have been underway, and at a frantic pace, on the Kandi road – despite all being illegal. Members subsequently asked the DFO of Kalagarh about the financial and technical approvals for the work. He reportedly said no such sanctions had been okayed but that he had sought Rs 43.03 lakh from the director of the Corbett tiger reserve (letter no. 546/3-2, August 31, 2021).
However, the director’s office denied having received any such letter from the DFO’s office, and said that the DFO had okayed and protected the work on Kandi road without any approval from this office, in spite of repeated verbal and written communications.
The report indicates that committee members also spoke to field staff about the Kandi road work. “The frontline field staff were under tremendous pressure to allow the work and categorically … stated that the entire work is being directly supervised by the range officer [and the assistant conservator of forests] and the DFO of Kalagarh,” the report said.
According to the report, Kandi road has a uniform width and height, but that the latter increases to 5 feet just after the Kalagarh forest rest-house, towards Pakhro, for about 1.2 km. This has allegedly been done by excavating soil and boulders from the road’s sides, up to 100 metres away, in indiscriminate fashion, using earthmovers. This, the members wrote, has rendered extensive and irreversible damage to the neighbouring wildlife habitat as well as endangered the road itself. The committee report also says that the contractor has built five single-span bridges and culverts, each about 5 m wide, with similar consequences to the surrounding land.
Excavating earth in such large quantities from within a forested area is a violation under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, the Indian Forest Act 1927 and the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, warranting penal provisions.
Next, the NTCA report found that buildings in two places, Morghatti and Pakhro, were tourist cottages when in fact the builder had received clearances for staff quarters. The DFO of Kalagarh also reportedly told the committee that the buildings were staff quarters, but couldn’t explain why their designs neither resembled those in the proposal nor were in line with the state government’s requirements of staff quarters. The report also states that the documents describing the structural layout of structures currently under construction call them “cottages”.
The story repeated itself in the Pakhro Forest Rest House campus, where it appears the DFO of Kalagarh has submitted drawings that differ from those that are the basis for ongoing construction.
The committee writes that it’s important to consider both Morghatti and Pakhro to be part of the Corbett tiger reserve and that tourism-related facilities can be developed only after receiving clearances under the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972 and the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.
As it happens, the report also notes as a comment on the DFO’s brazenness that work on the illegal projects continued even as committee members inspected the site.
Water body near Pakhro
Finally, during a field inspection, the NTCA committee members found several trees had been felled to create a water body near Pakhro as well as that soil had been excavated in large quantities, quite like with the Kandi road earlier. This observation was contrary to the Kalagarh DFO’s statement that no trees had been cut and that the water body was an old one that had simply been desilted. However, he couldn’t produce any evidentiary documents.
But the committee members have noted that the water body appears to have been created with an intent to attract local wildlife, for tourists’ viewing pleasure, and not as a habitat or wildlife conservation measure.
In all, the work undertaken as part of the tiger safari project in Uttarakhand has ironically denigrated the ecological continuum of which tigers are part. The roads, the artificial ponds, the many lost trees and soil, and buildings to accommodate an enterprise alien to these areas will eventually affect the big cats themselves.
The project proponent’s and the Kalagarh DFO’s willingness to start work and secure approval for it afterwards is not new. In 2013, for example, Oil India, Ltd. had approached the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) seeking permission to lay a crude-oil pipeline through Assam’s Maguri Motapung beel, or wetland, whose health was crucial to the local ecology, wildlife and livelihoods. But when NBWL members visited the site, they were shocked to find that Oil India had finished laying most of the pipeline and had sought approval only as an afterthought.
Two of the board’s members at the time wrote recently for The Wire Science that such faux applications for approval only applied “undue and unfair pressure on regulatory committees”. This is because the committees would be forced to be lenient to prevent the offender from losing the many crores of rupees and years of work already sunk into the project.
The NTCA report itself concludes thus: “Moreover, … the present density of forest patch diverted for the safari … needs to be revised in order to rationalise the tree-felling and avoid this project … becoming a mere wasteful expenditure of public money amid controversy.”