Uttarakhand defies SC order on road through tiger corridor, contempt plea filed
The contempt petition filed by Supreme Court lawyer Gaurav Kumar Bansal stated that the order passed in July 2019 is still relevant as the state is yet to obtain forest clearance
A contempt petition has been filed in the Supreme Court against the Uttarakhand government for resuming construction of a road project in Rajaji National Park that was stalled by the top court in 2019 for want of statutory forest and wildlife clearances.
As the 11.5 kilometre-road cuts through an ecologically sensitive wildlife corridor serving as a crucial link for tigers and elephants to cross between Rajaji National Park and Corbett National Park, the Supreme Court had on July 29, 2019 held, “No road activity shall be undertaking without obtaining statutory approvals under Section 38 of the Wildlife Protection Act.” Section 38 requires approval of NBWL for any project undertaken in a wildlife sanctuary or national park. An expert committee assisting the Supreme Court had opined that the project lacks clearance under the Forest Conservation Act as well.
The contempt petition filed by Supreme Court lawyer Gaurav Kumar Bansal stated that the order passed in July 2019 is still relevant as the state is yet to obtain forest clearance. Even the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) has laid down certain Mitigation Measures to which the State Forest Department is not agreeable.
The petition said, “Construction of the Laldhang Chillarkhal road by state of Uttarakhand, in absence of the decision by Standing Committee of the NBWL is not only illegal but also amounts to Contempt of order dated July 29, 2019 issued by this Court…Hence the present contempt petition.”
Bansal referred to certain news reports to show how the state has resumed work on the road project by giving orders under the Uttarakhand Disaster Management Act. In March 2019 the state government began construction on this stretch to provide a shorter route connecting Haridwar with Kotdwar.
The road cuts through the buffer zone of Rajaji National Park, home to tigers, elephants, cheetahs and bears. The petition annexed recent photographs to show tiger pug marks and elephant tracks on the stretch where construction is going on.
As per a joint inspection report of the site in question by the Wildlife Institute of India and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) , the project cuts through “crucial tiger movement corridor” between Rajaji and Corbett, and the best mitigation measure proposed is avoidance of the project, followed by the next best method to elevate the entire stretch of road alignment.
According to the two expert bodies, “Mortality of wild animals would certainly increase in the area once the road is black topped as it would allow larger number of vehicles to ply over with higher speed thereby creating a barrier to animal movement.” Once the road is ready, traffic of Kumaon area and other cities in central eastern and eastern parts of the state would be diverted to this road due to shorter distance and to avoid taxes levied in Uttar Pradesh, the report stated.
Both the NTCA and NBWL have conveyed to the state forest department that forest clearance for the project is inevitable.They have also proposed keeping the underpass at an 8 metre height to allow smooth passage for elephants in the central road stretch of 4.7 kilometres between Chamaria and Siggadi Sot. Additional proposed mitigation measures include speed breakers at regular intervals of 250 to 300 metres in the forested stretches of the road and no traffic movement between sunset and sunrise.
The petition stated that Uttarakhand’s chief wildlife warden is not agreeable to the mitigation measures and seeks exemption from forest clearances, he has also suggested that the underpass be made with of 5 metres instead of the proposed 8 metres.
On May 28, 2021, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change wrote to the Uttarakhand government asking the state forest department to obtain forest clearance for the road project. Even NTCA wrote to the government on May 31 seeking a factual report on the road project. The NBWL is set to meet on June 11 to decide on the mitigation measures to be complied by Uttarakhand Forest department.