A Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Deepak Gupta ordered Friday that further construction of the Kandi road inside Uttarakhand’s Rajaji tiger reserve be stopped forthwith and issued notice to the state government.
The stay comes two days after an interim report was submitted to the court on June 19 by the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) that advises the apex court on forest matters.
The CEC filed its interim report on an application by environment activist Rohit Choudhury, after obtaining the views of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). In its response to the CEC on June 18, the NTCA held that the Kandi road was within the tiger reserve and cut through a wildlife corridor between Rajaji and Corbett, and that “due process as per law. has been overlooked by the state concerned”.
The NTCA also stated that “the said matter was first brought to the notice of this Authority on May 14, 2019 vide media article in The Indian Express…which highlighted that statutory clearances had not been taken… to upgrade road passing through Rajaji tiger reserve” and that the Authority sought factual information from Uttarakhand on the same day but was yet to receive a response from the state despite two reminders in April and May.
Meanwhile, lawyer-activist Gaurav Bansal took the issue to the National Green Tribunal which on May 3, sought a “factual and action taken report” by a joint committee of the Environment Ministry, NTCA and the state government within three months. The report is yet to be submitted.
Instead, on May 31, Uttarakhand’s principal chief conservator of forests wrote to the state’s principal secretary (forest and environment) that “the matter was examined at high level” and that no wildlife clearance was required for the “completely sustainable” road work.
In a letter to the Uttarakhand Chief Secretary on June 10, the NTCA described the state PCCF’s assertions as “grossly incorrect” and requested the state to follow the mandatory provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act. The state is yet to respond.
Considering the urgency of the matter as major construction work was “going on at a feverish pace”, the CEC placed its interim report before the apex court and sought an immediate stay on the road work. Noting that “there appears to be several violations”, the SC Friday ordered the suspension of construction and issued notice to the state government to reply in three weeks.
An unpaved stretch of the old Kandi road that once connected Haridwar and Ramnagar runs through Rajaji tiger reserve. 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.
In December 2018, Uttarakhand Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat laid the foundation stone for the 11-km Laldhang-Chillarkhal stretch after forest land from Rajaji tiger reserve buffer was transferred to the state public works department without seeking statutory wildlife clearance.