HC stays de-notification of elephant reserve in Uttarakhand
Uttarakhand’s high court on Friday stayed approval given by the state wildlife advisory board for de-notification of the Shivalik elephant reserve to make way for the expansion of the Dehradun airport. The court sought replies from the state government, the Centre, state biodiversity Board and the state wildlife board on the matter.
A division bench of chief justice RS Chauhan and justice Lok Pal Singh issued these directions at the hearing of a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Dehradun-based activist Reenu Paul.
Abhijit Negi, counsel for the petitioner, said the PIL pointed out that the Supreme Court, “in a recent decision delivered by a three-judge bench led by the Chief Justice of India on October 14, 2020 had passed several guidelines for elephant conservation and the decision of the Uttarakhand state wildlife board was in the teeth of the said decision of the apex court.”
Negi said citing provisions of the Biological Diversity Act 2002 and the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, the petitioner argued that “it was not open to the state wildlife board to de-notify the Shivalik elephant reserve in such a summery manner without assessing the ecological catastrophe that it can push the state and the entire region into”.
The elephant reserve is spread over 5,405 square kilometres in eights districts of Uttarakhand.
When the decision was taken on November 24, Uttarakhand’s forest minister Harak Singh Rawat the state wildlife board had approved the de-notification of the Shivalik elephant reserve because “there is no law to define an elephant reserve.”
“In the late 90s and early 2000s, the state government had sent a proposal to the Centre seeking a clarification regarding the said area, after which it was notified as an elephant reserve in 2002. But as per the norms of the Central government, there is no law or Act yet under which the legal status of an elephant reserve is defined,” Rawat said.
In September last year, the state government had written to the union environment ministry for prior approval under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for non-forestry use of 87.0815 hectares of forest land for expansion of Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport.
This land falls within the Shivalik elephant reserve. Officials estimate that about 10,000 trees will be cut for the expansion.
In October, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) had written to the state government, saying the state government “may explore alternatives for the proposal such as acquiring area lying north of the existing runway.”
“...the entire proposed forest area for diversion falls within the Shivalik elephant reserve and elephant corridors within its 1 km radius. Moreover, the notified Kansaro-Barkot elephant corridor is located within a 5 km radius. The state government should consider avoiding these sensitive areas and explore alternative lands,” the ministry wrote.
In November, responding to MoEFCC’s letter, the state government said alternative land will not serve the purpose because the existing runway needs to be expanded. With alternative land, a completely new airport will have to be built, it argued.
Uttarakhand is home to over 2,000 elephants, according to an elephant census released in June last year. There are 2,026 elephants in the state currently, their number having increased from 1,559 in 2012.
“This decision by the high court is a happy decision as elephant corridors need to be protected. Even a few decades ago, elephants used to move from Rajaji landscape till Corbett using these corridors but over time, these corridors have been encroached upon. Now, the authorities should focus on studying the behaviour and psyche of elephants,” said Ajay Singh Rawat, an Uttarakhand-based environmentalist,