For almost two years, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had been insisting on banning tourism in core tiger areas. However, in the three weeks since the Supreme Court imposed an interim ban on tiger tourism, there has been a sudden change of heart. And not without reason.
Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan was inundated with letters and phone calls from people and organisations cutting across political and social lines, supported actively by the tourism lobby, asking her to make the NTCA review its guidelines.
The NTCA guideline submitted in the court was aimed at enforcing the 2007 amendment in the Wildlife Protection Act, which spoke on creating inviolate core and buffer areas.
Though the guidelines meant well, there were a few ground difficulties. Of the total tiger reserve area of 43,000 sq km, only 9,921 sq km comprises the buffer zone. And only 14 of the 39 tiger reserves have notified buffer zones, primarily because there is not enough vacant green area to make a demarcation. “The so-called buffer zones have farmland and infrastructure, which cannot be acquired in one go,” said Dr Raghu Chandawat, a wildlife biologist. Over 10,000 families residing in the tiger reserves would have to be relocated for creating inviolate core zones.
In the end, it was a letter sent by Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh to Natarajan — highlighting the adverse impact of the ban on tourism-dependant people and its possible electoral fall-out — that apparently pushed the ministry to change its stand. And by doing that, it earned the ire of the apex court.