The Supreme Court has upheld the 2004 report of its Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to return the encroached New Kalagarh irrigation colony to the Corbett Tiger Reserve. TEHELKA investigated the brazen encroachment of national park land by a state agency in its report A Township Thrives Inside A Tiger Reserve (22 December 2012) by Jay Mazoomdaar. In a landmark judgment on 2 December, the SC has set a six-month deadline for the state government to ensure compliance and report to the court.
In the report, TEHELKA pointed out: ‘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.”
In its judgment, the SC has also rejected the separate application filed by the government to retain the academy inside Corbett, asking for any land pending with the Uttar Pradesh Government to be handed over to the Uttarakhand.
“This is a great victory for tigers, elephants and other wildlife of Corbett,” said Ashok Kumar, vice-chairman, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), who had first moved the Allahbad High Court on the case in 1999. Reacting quickly, the Lucknow Bench set a deadline of 15 December 1999 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. For four years, there was no move to implement the HC judgment.
In 2003, the CEC of the Supreme Court heard a petition filed by Pradip Gupta. “By then,” the TEHELKA report revealed, “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.”
Even though the CEC sought removal of all encroachment within three months and shifting of all non-essential facilities out of the reserve within six months to ensure unhindered animal movement, the case was stalled by the subsequent death of the petitioner till Ashok Kumar took his place. While the Uttar Pradesh government avoided coming clean before the court, the then chief minister of Uttarakhand BC Khanduri held a meeting of top forest officials in late 2007 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 till this year.