Blocked wildlife corridors across the Kosi river. Now a rash of private properties inside the tiger reserve itself. Jay Mazoomdaar exposes a scandal that could ruin one of the country’s most precious forests
1. The Rush For Green Gold
Every bit of inhabitable land along the 17-km stretch of the Ramganga river from Dumunda to Marchula is up for sale. The mafia demands Rs 20-80 lakh/acre and buyers include India’s who’s who
2. Burnt Forests, Private Rivers
A 5-km road has been created inside the tiger reserve without any statutory clearance only to provide access to a private resort that is using a stretch of the Ramganga river as its private property
3. New Homes With Stolen Stones
Mushrooming resorts mine the adjacent riverbed for stone and sand for construction activities. The Kosi river has been long ravaged. Now it is the turn of Ramganga river inside the reserve
4. No Gate Pass For Thirsty Animals
17 km of the Ramganga river will no longer be available to animals. Walled resorts on Corbett’s eastern boundary have cut off animals’ access to the Kosi river and Ramnagar forests. Now fenced properties are coming up inside the reserve
5. The Park For Black Money
To potential buyers inside Corbett, the mafia is guaranteeing unregulated access to land through reserve forests, free natural resources, collusive forest staff and all-weather political backing. The whole offer runs on ready cash
WITH ABUNDANCE come consequences. Corbett tiger reserve (CTR) has the world’s highest density of tigers. The last all-India census in 2010 estimated 18 tigers per 100 sq km here. It also has the highest concentration of tourist resorts found anywhere around a forest.
Nobody keeps a count but there are at least 100 properties in business and new ones are coming up every season. Over the past decade, encroachment of peripheral forestland and blocking of wild animals’ access to water bodies and adjoining forests has become routine along the Ranikhet road on CTR’s eastern boundary. Now, the land mafia is buying vast tracts right inside the reserve. Almost every piece of land along the 17 km stretch of the Ramganga river — from Dumunda to Nagtaley near Marchula — in CTR’s Durgadevi zone has either been bought or is up for sale.
Emboldened by a lax and corrupt administration, the mafia, in collusion with a section of the state’s power elite, is forcing the villagers who long abandoned these islands of revenue villages inside the tiger reserve, to sell their land. While the land deals are legal on paper, every other rule is being bent to allow construction and bring business far inside CTR. New forest roads are cut inside the reserve without the Supreme Court’s permission. Stone and sand are quarried from the Ramganga river. Even long stretches of the river and forests are being used as private property to entertain tourists.
Villagers keen to set up their own ecotourism units in the same area are harassed and kept out, lest the monopoly of the big resorts gets compromised. While frustrated locals are selling off their land dirt cheap under pressure, the mafia is “cutting plots” with atrocious mark-ups of 400-1,600 percent for outsiders.
Multiple local sources claim that the buyers include India’s who’s who, among them a young royalty who is the son of a former BJP chief minister, a young turk in Parliament who lost his illustrious father in an accident, and a former husband of one of the country’s most controversial corporate lobbyists.
It was the Uttarakhand forest department that opened up the CTR’s Durgadevi zone for tourism in the name of conservation. In 2004, the forest department came up with the idea of allowing angling in the Ramganga river to generate revenue for the villagers and dissuade them from blast fishing, a destructive harvesting practice that threatened aquatic life.
The same year, Mukund Prasad, the Pilibhit-based owner of Leisure Hotels and an old Corbett hand, acquired land in Jamun village on the Ramganga river, 8 km inside the reserve. CTR records of 2004-05 show that then director DS Khati, in violation of the standing SC order, created a 4-km road between Jamun and the existing road to CTR’s Durgadevi gate. Prasad added another kilometre to that road across the river to complete access to his plot and to ferry construction material for the property that has since been marketed as Hideaway River Lodge where rooms go for Rs 15-Rs 20,000 per night.
To allow tourists access and overnight stay at Prasad’s property, the forest department worked quickly on its plan to issue angling permits. Since Prasad had no angling credentials, GIG Mann of Dehradun-based Sporting Ambition was roped in as a proxy. No bids were called for but three other parties were also offered fishing rights to democratise the process.
In November 2004, tripartite MoUs were signed among the forest department, Van Vikas Nigam and respective private parties, giving them free rights to conduct angling in 2-km stretches each along the Ramganga river for 30 years. Prasad got himself the river stretch farthest inside the reserve.
Prasad’s agreement, however, referred to Leisure Hotels, a commercial entity, as Angler’s Association but the signature on behalf of Leisure Hotels was that of Mann. Between 2005 and 2008, Khati’s successor, former CTR director Rajiv Bhartari, raised several objections to the flawed agreement and its misuse by Prasad. He pointed out how Leisure Hotels was using a part of the tiger reserve as its private property with free access to the riverbed and the forest roads even during the night.
“I noticed the irregularities in the agreement only in 2006. The new road to Jamun was also not in order either. But I could not have altered decisions taken by my predecessor (Khati). Anyway, the chief wildlife warden (SK Chandola) was in charge of the angling project. Then, I was transferred,” Bhartari told TEHELKA.
But Prasad was the chosen one of the forest department. In July 2006, then forest minister Nav Prabhat, then director of Rajaji national park GS Pande, Bhartari’s predecessor Khati, successor Vinod Singhal and local MLA SM Singhal visited South Africa on an official study tour. Khati handpicked Leisure Hotels as the tour manager without calling for tenders and Prasad accompanied the team.
Spot The Difference Dhikuli Then And Now
“Khati took Rs 20 lakh from the government for the tour. Out of which Rs 10 lakh was given to Leisure Hotels, which subsequently submitted bills for around Rs 7 lakh only. Khati and Prasad have always been close,” claims RD Pathak, a forest officer who approached the Lokayukta against Khati this March with a bunch of charges.
“Not all forest roads are in management plans. We spent only Rs 22,000 to repair an existing road because I had to provide access to anglers. The (angling) agreement was cleared by the state government. I only signed it as the Corbett director,” Khati says in his defence.
Then chief wildlife warden Chandola, however, accepted that the road was not legal. “We closed down the road when the issue was brought to my notice. I can comment on the agreement only after having a look at it,” he told TEHELKA.
In the name of closing down the illegal road, the forest department dug it up only yards before it reached the Ramganga river across Jamun. Leisure Hotels keeps elephants at its Hideaway River Lodge and routinely ferries tourists from the riverbed to the resort. But the dug-up road cut villagers’ access to Jamun.
“We cannot go to our plots on jeeps anymore and we do not have the permission or the money to keep elephants. The department has been harassing me for five years because I want to set up tourist camps in my land that is adjacent to Mukund Prasad’s resort. If he can do it as an outsider, why not me, a local,” asks Ajay Bhadula, a small-time safari operator at Ramnagar who belongs to a family that owned most of the revenue land inside CTR.
Recently, the forest department barred Maheshanand Ghansela of Paand village from building a hutment on his land at Lohachaur, 4 km downstream from Jamun. “The government neither allows us to develop our land nor offers us compensation. So we are forced to sell our land for Rs 10-Rs 15,000 per nali (20 nalis make an acre) and the mafia, in turn, makes huge profits by selling it to outsiders who have the clout to twist the law,” rues Bhadula.
Sensing the danger of big private players entering the tiger reserve, Bhartari wrote to the collectors of Pauri and Almora in 2007, requesting them not to allow registry of land sales inside CTR as there was a proposal before the Centre to acquire these islands of revenue land by compensating the absentee villagers.
Current CTR director Ranjan Mishra sent the same proposal to Dehradun three months ago: “I have also asked for a review of the angling rights and requested the district officials not to register land sale in that area. Though in buffer, the quality of the forest and density of wildlife in Durgadevi is as rich as that of the national park. No resort is in the interest of Corbett. But there is only so much within my powers.”
The priority of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), however, is to relocate villages from core tiger habitats. “We do not have the money to compensate villagers in the buffer,” says member-secretary Dr Rajesh Gopal, admitting that the Durgadevi forests are among the finest tiger and elephant forests in the CTR. Yet, he would rather the state government took the initiative to secure it.
While everybody was busy passing the buck, UP politician Akbar Ahmad Dumpy emerged as the game changer.
LOSING THE PLOT
Upstream of Dumunda, the edge of the core area, villagers of Paand, Teria and Jharangu own land till Kalakhand. Barely a kilometre from Kalakhand is Jamun. Then there are land holdings along the river by villagers of Barasi, Barghat, Baluli, Jhamaria, Sankar, Marchula, Bandran and Nagtaley inside CTR.
While opportunistic brokers were auctioning any plot they could grab in this virgin stretch, Dumpy, who owns Riverside Resort, one of the earliest hotels in Ramnagar, decided to strike it big in 2009. In the name of Bhatia Developers and two proxies — aide Daroga Singh and local broker Shambhu Singh — Dumpy bought almost the entire village of Kalakhand by 2011. TEHELKA has land documents of Kalakhand showing holdings by both Daroga and Shambhu. In an inspection report on 18 October 2011, Dhumakot SDM Anil Singh also noted that Daroga was building a resort in Kalakhand with Dumpy and ex-MLA Ranjit Singh Rawat.
This reporter approached Dumpy, Daroga and Shambhu as a prospective buyer. Near Baluli village, the price was Rs 18 lakh an acre. It was a package deal: “You will get to use a chunk of community land with your revenue land. That’s a bonus. Then we will run a JCB to make an access road. For construction, just pick up sand and stone with a tractor from the riverbed.” What if the forest staff objected? “A few bottles (of whiskey) and a few (currency) notes will take care of them. If there is any hassle, ex-MLA Rawat will sort that out.”
At Jamun, land price climbed to Rs 21 lakh per acre. “I also have land in Kalakhand but I cannot sell any. Only Dumpy sir can decide,” explained Shambhu.
“You should talk to my person there,” said Dumpy, directing me to Daroga.
“Come over this Thursday, we all will be there,” Daroga summoned me to Kalakhand. “But it will be Rs 80 lakh an acre.”
The buyers include a young royalty, a young turk in Parliament and the former husband of a corporate lobbyist
The price dropped again downstream towards Dumunda. So what is special about Kalakhand? It is the VIP factor, explained Dumpy’s men. “Big people with black money can shell out any amount. They have enough clout to push for a road. Or maybe they will build a helipad.”
The confidence is not misplaced. In May 2011, BJP chief Nitin Gadkari used his party letterhead (copy with TEHELKA) to write to then CM Ramesh Pokhriyal to allow Daroga Singh access through forest roads for agricultural work in Kalakhand.
Contacted by TEHELKA, Dumpy initially did not respond and got Daroga to call up and claim that there was “nothing illegal about the land-holding”. Soon after, Dumpy decided to defend himself: “Daroga is capable of buying his own land like many others have purchased there. My land in Kalakhand is in the name of Bhatia Developers. We friends help one other while developing such properties. But I’m not selling any land. The forest department denied us road access so we use the riverbed to reach our plots on horseback.”
Earlier, Shambhu and Daroga told this reporter that Dumpy controlled at least 100 acres in Kalakhand: “We have not registered all the land in our name. Villagers have been paid advance money and we register plots directly in the buyers’ names as and when they come along. So far we sold more than 20 plots, 5-10 acres each.”
But no property is safe so far inside this forest without fortification. Already a few fenced plots have come up. Very soon, the reserve may end for its animals at the bank of Ramganga, hemmed in by high-tension wires and fences of luxury properties.
Prasad is not worried. “I have my PPP agreement with the government for angling. But nobody else can buy land here because there is no legal access. Dumpy is using his bull force but I doubt how many buyers will take the risk. Anyway, I am purchasing as much land at Jamun as possible to protect the area,” he assures.
He should know. So should Dumpy. Their Corbett Hideaway and Riverside Resort are two neighbouring mega properties on the Ranikhet road. The road few wild animals dare cross.
Along Corbett’s eastern boundary and across the Kosi river, the lush forests of Ramnagar division have richer plant diversity than the CTR and a tiger density (15 per 100 sq km) almost as high. It is vital that the CTR’s animals have access to Kosi and the forests beyond for water security, regular dispersal and genetic health.
But in the 21 km eastern boundary of CTR between Ramnagar and Mohan, only two narrow passages are available to wildlife for approaching the Kosi river, thanks to a timber depot at Ringora, proliferation of walled resorts in Dhikuli and two large settlements at Sunderkhal and Chukam. As a result, man-animal conflict is on the rise with a spate of human and tiger deaths reported in the past few years.
Power Hub Of Kalakhand
Thanks to Akbar Ahmad Dumpy’s aggressive and selective sales pitches, the land price at Kalakhand village is at least four times that of the nearest village Jamun. For commercial activities, there is no legal access to Kalakhand deep inside Corbett’s Durgadevi range. Yet, Dumpy’s men have already sold at least 20 plots here
Loot Inside The Reserve
Quarrying of rivers in the night for construction material has been a tradition around the Corbett. Emboldened and with nobody to watch over, now labourers collect bolder during daytime from the Ramganga river adjacent to Jamun village for construction of private properties in Durgadevi range deep inside the tiger reserve
Burning Down Forests
Land mafia is not only buying abandoned revenue land dirt cheap from absentee villagers inside the tiger reserve but also encroaching on surrounding village panchayat land by clearing and burning down forests. For each legal acre purchased inside forest, say local brokers, an extra acre comes free in most land deals here
Exploiting a dubious pact with the forest department for angling rights, Mukund Prasad’s Leisure Hotel has taken total control over a few kilometres of the Ramganga and the surrounding forests for entertaining tourists. The management protects his monopoly by barring local villagers from setting up even tents to host tourists
Outside the forest department’s jurisdiction, the district administration has allowed this mindless construction boom in the 1-km-wide strip between two prime forest blocs and Kosi, the lifeline of both CTR and Ramnagar, is being ravaged for its stone and sand.
The mushrooming resorts have little to do with wildlife tourism, though. In peak seasons, CTR offers 1,028 safari seats a day. If even 30 percent of tourists go on both morning and evening safaris, 685 unique tourists can enter the reserve daily. If 20 percent of these tourists are day visitors, CTR’s resorts can expect around 550 safari tourists as guests.
At an average of 25 double-bed rooms per property, about 100 small and big hotels around CTR can accommodate 5,000 tourists daily. Average high-season occupancy of 30 percent translates to 1,500 tourists a day — almost three times the number that can enter the reserve.
Clearly, lakhs of tourists, who do not even bother to visit the reserve, occupy CTR’s resorts. Some come for corporate sessions, others for rowdy weddings. They raise levels of sound and light pollution, drain resources such as water and leave behind mounds of garbage.
The same model now threatens to ruin the Ramganga and Durgadevi forests. “Corbett is too precious to be frittered away. We did whatever possible to control the damage. Strict action is required to rein in the land mafia,” says Anil Baluni, who resigned as the vice-chairman of the state Forest and Environment Advisory Committee earlier this year.
By purchasing village lands in the buffer area, the outsiders can demand right to access and water. But the Centre and the state willing, there are enough legal provisions to restrict land use and unsustainable commercial activities that pollute the forest and water systems inside the reserve.
Otherwise, consider this report a call for investment. If the authorities have willingly surrendered Corbett’s future to private hands, the remaining 450-odd sq km reserve forest of the CTR buffer should also be up for sale soon.
Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.