“Acted like law unto themselves”: SC comes down heavily on U'khand Minister, DFO for illicit felling of trees in Corbett National park

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The top court bench has said it was amazed at the audacity of Rawat, who was the forest minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in 2021, later expelled and is now with the Congress

The Supreme Court on Wednesday came down heavily upon then Uttarakhand Minister Harak Singh Rawat and DFO Kishan Chand for acting as "law unto themselves" by allowing illicit felling of trees in the name of establishing Tiger reserve at Pakhrau on a mass-scale on the pretext of promotion of tourism in Jim Corbett National park.

The Court has called it “a classic case of politicians and bureaucrats throwing public trust doctrine into dustbin”.

"We are amazed at the audacity of the then Forest Minister and Kishan Chand, DFO in giving a total go-bye to the statutory provisions," a bench of Justices B R Gavai, Prashant Kumar Mishra and Sandeep Mehta said

It was only after the then Forest Minister demitted office, that Kishan Chand, DFO could be put under suspension, the bench noted, while allowing the CBI to continue investigation into the matter as directed by the Uttarakhand High Court.

"This is a case that shows how a nexus between a politician and a Forest Officer has resulted in causing heavy damage to the environment for some political and commercial gain. Even the recommendation of the Senior Officers of the Forest Department, the Vigilance Department, and the Police Department which objected to his posting at a sensitive post have been totally ignored," the bench said.

The court directed for taking steps to prevent events like illegal constructions and illicit felling of trees on a rampant scale like the one that happened in the Corbett National Park. 

"It is well known that the presence of a Tiger in the forest is an indicator of the well-being of the ecosystem. Unless steps are taken for the protection of the Tigers, the ecosystem revolving around Tigers cannot be protected. The figures which are placed before us to show that there has been a substantial reduction in tiger poaching and an increase in the tigers’ strength throughout the country. However, that should not be enough. The ground realities cannot be denied. The events like illegal constructions and illicit felling of trees on a rampant scale like the one that happened in the Corbett National Park cannot be ignored. Steps are required to prevent this," the bench said.

The court relied upon the principle of ecological restitution, to tell States to take immediate steps for restoration of the damage already done; undertake an exercise for determining the valuation of the damage done and recover it from the persons found responsible for causing such a damage. 

The court also expressed concern over a mushrooming growth of resorts around various Tiger Reserves throughout the country which are now being used as marriage destinations, where music is played at a very loud volume which causes disturbance to the habitat of the forests. "Undisputedly, mushrooming growth of resorts within the close proximity of the protected areas and uncontrolled activities therein, including sound pollution are capable of causing great harm to the ecosystem," the court said.

The bench directed for formation of an experts panel to examine among others the type of activities that should be permitted and prohibited in the buffer zone and fringe areas of the Tiger Reserve. 

"While doing so, if tourism is to be promoted, it has to be eco-tourism. The type of construction that should be permissible in such resorts would be in tune with the natural environment. The number and type of resorts that should be permitted within the close proximity of the protected areas. What restriction to be imposed on such resorts so that they are managed in tune with the object of protecting and maintaining the ecosystem rather than causing obstruction in the same," the bench said.

The court had asked Chandra Prakash Goyal, former Director General of Forest, Shri Anup Malik, IFS, PCCF (HoFF), Uttarakhand, and Dr Samir Sinha, IFS, PCCF (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden, Uttarakhand to give their suggestion for more effective management of the “Tiger Reserves” in India. 

After going through their suggestions, the bench said the Safaris which are already existing and the one under construction at Pakhrau will not be disturbed. The court directed the State of Uttarakhand to relocate or establish a rescue centre in the vicinity of the ‘Tiger Safari'.

It also directed the MoWF&CC to appoint a committee of experts to recommend the measures within three months for restoration of the damages, in the local in situ environment to its original state before the damage was caused; assess the environmental damage caused in the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) and quantify the costs for restoration; identify the persons/officials responsible for such a damage. 

"Needless to state that the State shall recover the cost so quantified from the persons/delinquent officers found responsible for the same. The cost so recovered shall be exclusively used for the purpose of restoration of the damage caused to the environment," it said.

The court also asked the panel to specify how the funds so collected be utilized for active restoration of ecological damage.

The bench also asked the panel to consider a question as to whether Tiger Safaris shall be permitted in the buffer area or fringe area and the guidelines for establishing such safaris.

"The Committee shall take into consideration the following factors: a) the approach must be of ecocentrism and not of anthropocentrism; b) the precautionary principle must be applied to ensure that the least amount of environmental damage is caused; c) the animals sourced shall not be from outside the Tiger Reserve. Only injured, conflicted, or orphaned tigers may be exhibited as per the 2016 Guidelines. To that extent the contrary provisions in the 2019 Guidelines stand quashed," the bench ordered.

The bench directed the CBI to continue its investigation in the matter file a status report within three months.

"The State of Uttarakhand is directed to complete the disciplinary proceedings against the delinquent officers as expeditiously as possible and in any case, within a period of six months from today. The status report in this regard shall be submitted to this Court within a period of three months from today," the court ordered.

In its judgment on an application filed by advocate Gaurav Kumar Ansal, the bench said, "We prima facie find no infirmity in the guidelines issued by the NTCA, i.e., the 2012 Guidelines and the 2016 Guidelines for establishing the ‘Tiger Safaris’ in the buffer and fringe areas of the ‘Tiger Reserve’."

"In our view, the said Guidelines emphasizes on the rehabilitation of injured tigers (after suitable treatment), conflict tigers, and orphaned tiger cubs which are unfit for rewilding and release into the wild. However, the 2019 Guidelines, departing from the aforesaid purpose, provide for sourcing of animals from zoos in the Tiger Safaris. In our view, this would be totally contrary to the purpose of the Tiger Conservation," the bench added.

Similarly, the court said the vesting of final authority in the CZA (Central Zoo Authority) and not in the NTCA, is not in tune with the emphasis on tiger conservation. 

"We are also of the view that since undertaking of establishment of such a ‘Tiger Safari’ would be basically for the ‘in-situ’ conservation and protection of the tiger, it is the NTCA that shall have the final authority. No doubt that the CZA can be taken on board so that it can render its expertise in the management of such ‘Safaris’," the bench said.

The court also approved the establishment of the ‘Tiger Safari’ at Pakhrau. 

"However, we find when it was provided for the establishment of a Rescue Centre-cum-Tiger Safari at a nearby place, there appears to be no logic for establishing a rescue centre at another place. We therefore find that it will be appropriate that the State of Uttarakhand is directed to also relocate the rescue centre nearby the ‘Tiger Safari’," the bench said.