WITHOUT SEEKING approval from statutory authorities, the Uttarakhand government has diverted land belonging to Rajaji Tiger Reserve for widening and blacktopping a forest path as part of constructing a highway along the old Kandi road that will cut travelling distance between Garhwal and Kumaon.
On Monday, the National Green Tribunal barred construction of the Ramnagar-Kalagarh stretch of the proposed highway through Corbett Tiger Reserve. However, work on the Haridwar-Kotdwar stretch through Rajaji Tiger Reserve has already begun without statutory clearances.
Under the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act 2006, tiger reserve land and forests linking tiger reserves cannot be diverted “except in public interest and with the approval of the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) and on the advice of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA)”.
A high-priority wildlife corridor, the Laldhang-Chillarkhal stretch forms part of the link between the Rajaji and the Corbett tiger landscapes. In 2015, when the Rajaji Tiger Reserve was notified, this stretch was secured as part of the tiger reserve’s buffer zone.
An unpaved forest stretch of the old Kandi road that once connected Haridwar and Ramnagar, runs between Laldhang and Chillarkhal. Construction of a highway along the entire Laldhang-Kotdwar-Kalagarh alignment has been an emotive issue in Uttarakhand as this will cut travelling distances and also skip detours through Uttar Pradesh. It was a major plank for the BJP in the 2017 Assembly polls.
On December 16, 2018, Uttarakhand Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat unveiled the foundation stone for the 11-km Laldhang-Chillarkhal segment, claiming his government achieved what no other government could in many decades. The breakthrough was the transfer of a 3-km stretch through Rawasan forest compartment 4b and Sigaddi forest compartment 5 and 6 to the state public works department (PWD) on December 7.
What Rawat failed to mention was that the state PWD under Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat in its application filed in July 2018 did not state that the land belonged to Rajaji Tiger Reserve. Rawat’s forest department, records show, identified the land as part of the tiger reserve buffer but did not refer the matter for mandatory wildlife clearance.
The forest land was handed over to the PWD, ironically, within a fortnight of a NTCA letter on November 28 reminding the states “to follow the statutory provisions in letter and spirit”, underlining that every project “falling within a notified tiger reserve, be it core or buffer, irrespective of area involved,” required wildlife clearance.
On December 17, 2018, the day after minister Rawat’s event, the state PWD applied for another 3.3 km of the Laldhang-Chillarkhal forest road. Again, it did not mention that the stretch runs through Sigaddi compartment 20 and forest block Papidanda Kham, both notified as part of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve. This stretch was also handed over to the PWD in January 2019.
Sanatan, Director of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, said he was unaware of any transfer of tiger reserve land. “For various reasons, the administrative control of these buffer forest blocks are still with the Lansdowne forest division and not the tiger reserve management,” he said.
“We are working in two stretches, totalling about 6 km of the 11 km road, for which clearances were issued in December and January. These are reserve forests and we do not need wildlife clearance,” said executive engineer (Dugadda) Nirbhay Singh, the applicant on behalf of the PWD.
Asked how tiger reserve land was transferred without obtaining a wildlife clearance, Uttarakhand Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Jai Raj referred to Divisional Forest Officer (Lansdowne) Vaibhav Kumar Singh. Singh annexed a 2014 order of the MoEF to claim that “wildlife clearance is exempted for this road as the project was regarding strengthening of a pre-existing road”.
The 2014 MoEF order, however, exempts resurfacing and strengthening of only existing highways, and not unpaved forest roads, within Protected Areas from wildlife clearance.
Siddhanta Das, Director General (forests) in the Environment Ministry, and NTCA member-secretary Anup Nayak said the ministry and the authority would “look into the matter”.