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Supreme Court’s Verdict: Balancing Tiger Conservation and Tourism Interests.

 

T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India & Ors.

Case No.: I.A. NO.20650 OF 2023.

Date: March 06, 2024.

Court: Supreme Court of India.

Quorum: Hon’ble J. B.R. Gavai, J. Prashant Kumar Mishra, J. Sandeep Mehta.

 

Facts of the case:

The case pertains to allegations of illegal construction activities and felling of trees within the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand. It stems from allegations raised by Mr. Gaurav Kumar Bansal about illegal construction activities like bridges, walls, waterbodies etc. being carried out within the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand. He claimed that these activities involved felling of trees and were being done without necessary approvals, causing damage to the biodiversity, ecology and wildlife of the reserve.

Based on Bansal’s petitions, the Delhi High Court in 2021 directed authorities to look into the issues. Subsequently, the Uttarakhand High Court took suo motu cognizance after a media report noted the illegal constructions by unknown persons inside the reserve in violation of forest and wildlife laws. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) committee that visited the site also found illegal constructions, felling of trees and even a road being built in the core tiger habitat area. Despite the committee recommending demolition and eco-restoration, the state authorities did not take concrete action. Bansal then approached the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) appointed by the Supreme Court.

Based on the CEC’s adverse reports in 2022-23, the Supreme Court restrained any further illegal constructions in tiger reserves and national parks, while allowing essential management works with strict compliance to guidelines. The Uttarakhand High Court in September 2023 referred the matter for investigation by the CBI after finding prima facie evidence of illegalities.

Legal issues:

  1. Are Tiger Safaris and Zoos considered equivalent under environmental and wildlife conservation laws?
  2. Is the establishment of a Tiger Safari at Pakhrau within the Corbett Tiger Reserve legal?
  3. Were there illegal constructions and tree felling within the Corbett Tiger Reserve without necessary approvals, causing ecological damage?
  4. Are state authorities fulfilling their responsibilities under the Public Trust Doctrine to protect and preserve the Corbett Tiger Reserve?
  5. What are the specific concerns raised by the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) regarding activities within the Corbett Tiger Reserve?
  6. What measures are required under the Principle of Ecological Restitution to address and remedy the environmental damage in the Corbett Tiger Reserve?

Legal provisions:

  1. Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
  • Section 2(1) – Definition of “animal”
  • Section 2(5) – Definition of “captive animal”
  • Section 2(20A) – Definition of “National Board”
  • Section 2(21) – Definition of “National Park”
  • Section 2(24A) – Definition of “protected area”
  • Section 2(26) – Definition of “sanctuary”
  • Section 2(36) – Definition of “wild animal”
  • Section 2(39) – Definition of “zoo”
  • Section 18 – Declaration of sanctuary
  • Section 33 – Control of sanctuaries
  • Section 35 – Declaration of National Parks
  • Section 36A – Declaration and management of a conservation reserve
  • Section 36C – Declaration and management of community reserve
  • Section 38-I – Acquisition of animals by a zoo
  • Section 38-O – Powers and Functions of Tiger Conservation Authority
  • Section 38V – Tiger Conservation Plan
  • Section 38W – Alteration and de-notification of tiger reserves
  • Section 38XA – Provisions of Chapter to be in addition to provisions relating to sanctuaries and National Parks
  • Section 19 to 26A – Investigation, determination of claims, extinguishment of rights
  • Section 27 to 33A – Provisions applicable once intention to declare National Park is notified.

Contentions of petitioner:

The learned counsel of the petitioner argued that the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) committee that visited the Corbett Tiger Reserve found serious violations and illegalities occurring within the reserve, including illegal construction of bridges and buildings, felling of trees, violations of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, Forest Conservation Act 1980, and Indian Forest Act 1927, construction of a single lane road in the core or the critical tiger habitat area

Despite the NTCA committee recommending demolition of the illegal constructions at Morghatti and Pakhrau FRH campuses and undertaking eco-restoration work immediately, the respondents have not taken any concrete steps in this regard. The NTCA committee also recommended that the Ministry of Environment should initiate action against the responsible officers as per the Forest Conservation Act 1980, but even initial steps have not been taken by the Ministry.

The petitioner highlighted the findings and inactions by the authorities regarding the illegal activities occurring within the Corbett Tiger Reserve that are damaging and threatening this precious wildlife habitat and violating environmental laws. The petitioner wants accountability from the respondents and strict compliance with the NTCA committee’s recommendations to demolish illegal constructions, restore the ecology, and act against the officers responsible for these violations within the tiger reserve.

The petitioner uses the findings and recommendations of the NTCA committee visit as key evidence to argue against the illegal activities and violations happening in the Corbett reserve and to seek judicial intervention to protect this vital tiger habitat.

Contentions of respondents:

Mr. Rakesh Thapliyal, the learned Assistant Solicitor General representing the Union of India, received the notice on behalf of respondent. He contended that the project for establishing the ‘Tiger Safari’ in Corbett Tiger Reserve was not initiated by the State of Uttarakhand alone. It was the NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority) that wrote to various tiger reserves in 2014 calling for proposals to establish Tiger Safaris in the buffer areas. The Tiger Safari project in Pakhrau area of Corbett has been almost completed (80%) after investing huge amounts of public money. The area allocated for the Tiger Safari (106.16 hectares) is small – only 0.082% of Corbett’s total area and 0.22% of the buffer zone. It is situated at the edge of the buffer zone, adjacent to village farmlands. Therefore, the contention that the Safari would shrink available tiger habitat and obstruct movement corridors is without substance, according to the respondents.

The Additional Solicitor General (ASG) submitted that the 2016 guidelines considered injured/conflict tigers and orphaned cubs, while the 2019 guidelines aimed to align with Section 38I of the Wildlife Protection Act. He stated that in Uttarakhand’s Tiger Conservation Plan, a Safari was proposed in Karnashram area, and there are about 20 such Safaris operating in national parks since the 1970s. He justified the concept of Tiger Safaris based on the guidelines and existing practice.

The respondents argued that proper procedures were followed, including obtaining consent from tribals/forest dwellers and consulting independent experts before setting up the Safari. The respondents are defending the Tiger Safari project by stating it followed due process, has NTCA’s approval, occupies a small area, will not impact tiger movement, aligns with guidelines/laws, and is an established practice. They are trying to justify it as a legitimate wildlife tourism/management activity.

Analysis of judgement:

The Supreme Court of India in this judgement was inclined to approve the establishment of the ‘Tiger Safari’ at Pakhrau but directs that the rescue centre should also be relocated nearby the safari site. It acknowledged the concerns expressed by Central Empowered Committee (CEC) that locating tiger safaris inside tiger reserves by sourcing tigers from zoos could endanger the wild tiger population. Therefore, it invoked the ‘Principle of Ecological Restitution’ to remedy the environmental damage caused in the reserve.

The court directed:

  • Existing and Pakhrau safaris will not be disturbed for now.
  • Appointed a committee to recommend measures for restoring damage, quantifying costs, identifying responsible persons, and guidelines for establishing such safaris.
  • The committee to consider if safaris can be permitted in buffer/fringe areas, activities allowed, construction norms, noise restrictions etc.
  • CBI to investigate the matter as per Uttarakhand HC’s order.
  • Uttarakhand to complete disciplinary proceedings against errant officers within 6 months.
  • The matter to be monitored by the Supreme Court.

Hence, while allowing the Pakhrau safari for now, the court has directed a comprehensive review of the environmental impacts, guidelines and a restoration plan before deciding on the way forward for such tiger safaris in forest areas.

The Supreme Court extensively relied on previous judgments to reinforce the significance of the public trust doctrine, the principle of sustainable development, and the need for an eco-centric approach in environmental matters.

The Court discussed the public trust doctrine, which imposes a duty on the State to protect natural resources, including forests, water bodies, and ecosystems, for the benefit of the present and future generations. The Court relied on the landmark judgment in M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath (1997), which established the public trust doctrine as a part of Indian law. It emphasized that the executive cannot abdicate natural resources for commercial or private purposes unless it is necessary for public good and in public interest. Building upon the principles laid down in T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India (2012), the Court advocated for an eco-centric approach, where humans are considered a part of nature, and non-humans have intrinsic value and rejected the anthropocentric approach, which prioritizes human interests over ecological concerns.

The Court reiterated the importance of sustainable development, which aims to balance economic growth with environmental protection and conservation of natural resources. It referred to the landmark judgments in Vellore Citizens’ Welfare Forum v. Union of India (1996) and Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India (1996), which emphasized the need for sustainable development and the State’s obligation to protect the environment.

The Court discussed the principle of restoration of damaged ecosystems, drawing from international jurisprudence, including the Chorzow Factory Case (1928) and Costa Rica v. Nicaragua (2018). It highlighted the State’s responsibility to undertake active restoration measures to return the environment to its pre-damaged condition, as far as possible, and to compensate for the loss of environmental goods and services. The Court relied on its previous judgments, such as Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India (1996) and S. Jagannath v. Union of India (1997), which affirmed the polluter pays principle and the State’s power to recover the cost of remedial measures from offenders for environmental damage.

Conclusion

The judgement highlights the importance of tigers in maintaining the ecosystem of forests, drawing a parallel from the Mahabharat. The Court’s analysis of these precedents and principles reflects a comprehensive understanding of the legal framework governing environmental protection and conservation. It reinforces the State’s duty as a trustee of natural resources, the need for an eco-centric approach, the significance of sustainable development, and the obligation to restore damaged ecosystems.

 Judgement reviewed by Maria Therese Syriac.

Click here to read the full Judgement.

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