A landmark report is submitted to the Supreme Court on illegal encroachment in the Nilgiris, which if implemented could save elephant corridors in India
In a big relief to elephant activists, the Supreme Court-appointed Amicus Curiae ADN Rao on March 08, submitted his report and recommendations to the court which backed their demands for illegal resorts and buildings to be removed along the Sigur Elephant Corridor in the Nilgiris.
The Amicus Curiae’s recommendations were in line with those of the 2010 Gajah report of the Elephant Task Force, formed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Here are the key recommendations of the Amicus Curiae:
What began in 1996 and taken up almost like a relay by other activists a decade later, has now come full circle.
The original writ petition by A Rangarajan in 1996 and two PILs (Public Interest Litigation) filed by activist ‘Elephant’ Rajendran and NGO Nilgiris Wildlife Protection in 2007-08 are now before the Supreme Court after decades of court battle in the Madras High Court. All of these petitions are being heard together.
In 2011, the Madras High Court passed an order closing all resorts and illegal constructions in the Nilgiris elephant corridor. The state government issued an order to that effect too but resort owners went to the Supreme Court and obtained a stay.
In 2017, the apex court appointed an Amicus Curiae to study the issue and provide recommendations.
Petitioners and activists were understandably excited at the report. “The Amicus Curiae has made the same recommendations that we have prayed for,” petitioner ‘Elephant’ Rajendran told The Lede. “There is no point in simply sealing the illegal resorts. We expect that the court will order that the encroachments should be demolished since they are obstacles for wild elephants,” he said.
“This order will be a precedent for the whole of India if it is passed as per the Amicus Curiae’s recommendations. It will not be only for the Nilgiris,” he added.
Here is the break-up of the illegal constructions in the elephant corridor area of the Nilgiris as submitted in the report.
“According to the information provided by the Collector, 390 illegally constructed houses, 71 houses belong to affluent persons therefore these have to be sealed and demolished. There are 186 belonging to Scheduled Caste, Backward caste and most Backward Caste (56 + 123 + 7) which have to be rehabilitated,” noted the Amicus Curiae.
“There are 27 other common buildings / structures illegally constructed in the notified Elephant Corridor which includes schools run on commercial lines, one such school (G.R.G. English Medium School) occupies 64,615 sq. ft., health clubs, community centres public toilets, water tanks etc. There are number of places of worship which are indiscriminately using loudspeakers at wee hours of the morning and evening causing huge disturbance to the elephants and other wild animals. Since all of them have been constructed illegally on land notified as forest, they have to be sealed and demolished forthwith. They have to make way for the elephants whose home they have illegally encroached,” stated the Amicus Curiae in his report.
Tribal Settlements To Be Affected?
PT Varghese, an activist based in Wayanad, raised concerns about tribal settlements being affected if the court implements the Amicus Curiae’s recommendations in full. “We welcome the Amicus Curiae’s report but there are tribal settlements and homes included in the Collector’s report along with the resorts and other illegal encroachments,” he told The Lede.
“The tribals have for centuries lived with nature and they do not pose any harm to elephants or wildlife. The tribals’ settlements and homes should be excluded from any order to seal or demolish. If the government scientifically establishes that tribals are encroaching on forest land, then they may take necessary action,” he added.
Nilgiris District Collector Innocent Divya, whose report on the number of illegal constructions in the elephant corridor has been quoted in the Amicus Curiae’s report, says that the administration would ensure that tribals are not affected.
“We will ensure that the tribal settlements are not affected when we implement the court order,” she told The Lede. “We expect a good order from the court.”
As per the 2010 Gajah report, “over 40% of the Elephant Reserves is not under Protected Area or government forest.” The 32 existing and proposed elephant reserves in the report span an area of 65,000 square kilometres.
Other activists say that while the Amicus Curiae’s report is welcome, the onus is upon the state government to notify elephant corridors. Without notification, they say, illegal encroachment will continue and there will be no progress in conservation.
“99% of elephant corridors have been declared during the British times,” explained wildlife activist Mohan Raj to The Lede. “There are many corridors for elephants which have been proven scientifically but have not been notified as elephant corridors by the government. For example Kallaru elephant corridor – it is a meeting point for Nilgiris, Silent Valley and Sathyamangalam forests. This has not been notified as an elephant corridor despite it being scientifically proven as an elephant corridor. Even if the court order supports the Amicus Curiae’s findings, many elephant corridors need to be notified by the government,” he said.
The Lede attempted to reach the resort owners but could not succeed in connecting with them.
The Indian sub-continent has a population of about 27,000-29,000, which is about 50% of the Asian elephant population, according to the Gajah report.