A township thrives inside a tiger reserve

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FOR MILLIONS of tourists, Ramnagar is the gateway to Corbett tiger reserve. Most hotels and resorts are clustered around this town. It is the national park headquarters that issues permits. All major entries to Corbett — from Amdanda to Durgadevi — are on the Ranikhet road off Ramnagar.

Not much has changed in this stretch of Corbett in the past seven months since TEHELKA’s investigation (Corbett Now on Sale, 12 May). The animal corridors across the Kosi river are still blocked and construction of mega, walled properties continues. But conversion of agricultural land is difficult now. Angling has been stopped along the Ramganga river and private roads through the forest are closed.

But Corbett’s woes are bigger than the tourism mess in its eastern half. Merely 20 km west of Ramnagar is the Kalagarh town on the southern boundary of the reserve. Adjacent to it are the colonies of new Kalagarh, a mini township of 2,600-odd houses, a school, a college and an irrigation engineering academy. It has been thriving illegally for more than three decades on national park land.

These staff colonies, spread over roughly 150 hectares of Corbett, were set up during the 1970s and ’80s by the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department, which has not vacated the land despite a high court order in 1999. Curiously, the Uttarakhand government and the Corbett management seem to be in no hurry to break the status quo.

In August 1966, the Forest Department of undivided Uttar Pradesh handed over around 9,000 hectares of Corbett National Park to the Irrigation Department for the Ramganga hydel project on the condition that the “land to be transferred will remain reserved forest and revert to the Forest Department when no more required by the Irrigation Department, without any compensation”.

The Ramganga dam and reservoir drowned more than 81 sq km of the park. The Irrigation Department retained 358 hectares for operational purposes and returned 151 hectares to Corbett. But it also had another 346 hectares for housing its construction and other staff. After completion of the project, it claimed that 148 hectares would still be required for housing and started returning the remaining 198 hectares in phases.

But why does the Irrigation Department still require 1,560 houses spread over 1.5 sq km to house its staff? A site inspection commissioned by the Supreme Court in 2003 concluded that the project required only 187 staff in all. Factoring in the back-up staff, the number may add up to 300-400 or about 20-25 percent of the families residing in the colonies inside the national park. The rest are retired staff, encroachers or those who illegally bought the houses from irrigation staff when they left the site.

The Irrigation Department also built an engineering academy with hostels in 1982, much after the dam and the hydel project were completed, without obtaining any statutory clearances. Ironically, the department owns 36 hectares at Kalagarh outside the national park boundary and is losing much of it to encroachers. “There is no reason why they shouldn’t shift the few remaining staff and the academy to 60-odd acres lying vacant with them outside the forest and return the national park land,” argues Ashok Kumar of Wildlife Trust of India.

IN 1999, Ashok Kumar, who was then with the Wildlife Protection Society of India, moved the Allahabad High Court. Reacting quickly, the Lucknow Bench set a deadline of 15 December for removal of all encroachment, asking the Irrigation Department not to create third-party rights on forestland and retain only what was essential. Before the deadline expired, Uttar Pradesh was bifurcated and Corbett went to the new state of Uttarakhand.

The presence of domestic livestock spreads disease and has resulted in inter-breeding with wild species

The Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department still controlled the Ramganga project but the case files were apparently lost in the chaos of setting up a new high court at Nainital. In 2003, the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court heard a petition filed by Pradip Gupta. By then, the subdivisional magistrate of Kotdwar passed orders in 177 cases of encroachment under the Uttar Pradesh Public Premises Act, but no eviction took place because the district magistrate and the superintendent of police failed to show up with the forces on the stipulated days.

The SC asked the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to conduct a site inspection in 2003 and the CEC in April 2004 submitted its recommendations based on the BNHS report. It sought

• Removal of all encroachment within three months
• Shifting of all non-essential facilities such as the Engineers’ Academy, its hostel and buildings, workshops and other structures out of the reserve within six months
• Relocation of all non-essential operational staff to the irrigation colony outside the Corbett National Park within six months
• Demolition of all walls, fencing, garden furniture, etc, for unhindered animal movement

The case was stalled by the subsequent death of the petitioner till Ashok Kumar took his place. The Uttar Pradesh government has refused to state its stand before the court since. In late 2007, the then chief minister BC Khanduri held a meeting of top Uttarakhand forest officials and asked them to facilitate implementing the CEC recommendations. In 2008, the state filed an affidavit before the court, but no real progress was made on the ground.

While it is bizarre why a department of the government will refuse to vacate national park land, it is not only about reinstating 1.5 sq km of forest. The presence of this mini township inside Corbett and the unhindered movement of vehicles create law and order problems such as illicit entry, removal of biomass and even crimes against wildlife. The presence of domestic livestock spreads disease and has resulted in inter-breeding with wild species, particularly boars, while loudspeakers and firecrackers scare away the animals.

But the biggest worry for conservationists has been the blockage of elephant corridors. The Ramganga dam and reservoir, the 2003 BNHS report pointed out, have virtually divided the tiger reserve into two halves. As a result, the east-west movement of the elephants has been greatly affected and the herds have to either go north of the reservoir and climb the hills or move south below the Ramganga dam and the powerhouse to cross the river. The new Kalagarh colonies block this southern passageway.

While officials of Corbett National Park and the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department refused to comment on a “sub-judice issue”, Paramjit Singh, chief conservator of Kumaon, agreed that the “area is absolutely vital for wildlife and should be reclaimed for the national park as soon as possible”. But the 4,000-odd residents of Kalagarh are not worried.

“My parents moved in with many others in these empty quarters because they did not have the money to buy those big bungalows on the main road,” says a man in his 20s, who was born and brought up in a backlane of new Kalagarh. “Officials demolished some dilapidated houses nearby, but our homes are secure. It’s a lot of land. So many big people have stakes here.”

Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist.
jaymazoomdaar@gmail.com

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