In set back to BJP-led Uttarakhand govt, High Court stays de-notification of Shivalik Elephant Reserve
Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board approved the de-notification of the reserve for expansion of Jolly Grant airport at a meeting chaired by CM Trivendra Singh Rawat on November 24, 2020
In a setback to the BJP-led Uttarakhand government, a division bench of the Uttarakhand High Court has stayed the controversial de-notification of the Shivalik Elephant Reserve near Rajaji National Park, the only elephant reserve in the state, which the state government wanted to use for extension of Dehradun's Jolly Grant airport.
Chief Justice R.S. Chauhan and Justice Lok Pal Singh stayed the de-notification on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Reenu Paul, an environmental activist. It was the first day of work for Chief Justice R.S.Chauhan, who was recently transferred to Uttarakhand High court as Chief Justice.
Paul had contended that a three judge bench led by the Chief Justice of India had in a decision delivered on 14.10.2020 passed several guidelines for elephant conservation and the decision of the Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board was in the teeth of the said decision.
Pointing out that the Asiatic elephant is at its western most habitat in Uttarakhand, the petition had requested the High Court to stay the said decision.
The PIL was argued by advocate Abhijay Negi, founder of Dehradun-based student activist group ‘Making A Difference By Being the Difference (MAD)’. MAD has been campaigning for the past few months against various environmentally-destructive policies of the state government that also included de-notification of Shivalik elephant reserve.
Negi said that the court had issued notices to the Central government, state government, Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board, State Bio-Diversity Board and others returnable in four weeks.
The Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board had approved the de-notification of the Shivalik Elephant Reserve for expansion of the Jolly Grant airport at a meeting chaired by Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat on November 24, 2020. The state government had argued that being a border state, the expansion of the airport was required for “national security interests.”
The Shivalik Elephant reserve, spread over 5,000 sq km, was notified in the 2002 under 'Project Elephant', which was launched by the Government of India in the 1992, as a Centrally Sponsored Scheme.
The decision of the state government had led to an uproar amongst wild life enthusiasts, environmentalist and common people. The local people along with wildlife lovers and environmentalists had demonstrated in front of the Jolly Grant airport as the move would have led to cutting down of more than ten thousand trees and threatened the habitat of Asiatic elephants.
Uttarakhand government had sought the approval of the National Wildlife Board for transfer of 243 acres of forest land to the Airport Authority of India (AAI) in the Thano range for expansion of Jolly Grant Airport. This was necessary as the area falling under the proposed expansion fell within a 10 km radius of Rajaji National Park Eco-Sensitive Zone.
The runway at Jolly Grant airport is 2,140 meters long. The AAI proposed that the length of the runway be extended to 2,765 meters and setting up of a new terminal by October 2021. The upgradation, which is being done at a cost of Rs 353 crore is expected to increase the Dehradun airport's capacity manifold.
Interestingly, a group of 80 concerned lawyers from New Delhi had also written to the Nainital High Court against the de-notification of Shivalik Elephant Reserve. They had asserted that the decision to de-notify the Reserve for expansion of Jolly Grant Airport is "hasty", "short sighted" and taken without due consideration for the natural environment and wildlife conservation, despite the ongoing reality of climate change and rapidly rising pollution.
They had insisted that animals have a "distinct persona with corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person," as held by the Uttarakhand High Court in the landmark case titled ‘Narayan Dutt Bhat v. Union of India & Ors’.
"The proposed expansion will threaten hundreds of species of fauna in Thano (near Rajaji National Park) and the elephant corridor nearby, and increase human-animal conflict. The proposed expansion and developmental activities require felling of at least 10,000 trees and countless other varieties of flora. Further, the adverse impact of this denotification shall not remain limited to only elephants but many other wild species of flora and fauna dwelling in the region,” the lawyers had pointed out.
Meanwhile, MAD has welcomed the court’s decision. On November 8, 2020, a day before 20th foundation day of Uttarakhand, MAD had taken out a biodiversity parade to highlight anti-environment acts of the government and had requested the citizens of Dehradun and Uttarakhand to stand against these policies.
It is noteworthy that MAD had raised their objections and highlighted the impact of such disastrous decisions on the biodiversity of the region in meetings with the State Biodiversity Board and Forest Department. Citing provisions of the Biological Diversity Act 2002 and the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, it had argued that it was not open to the State Wildlife Board to de-notify the Shivalik Elephant Reserve in such a summary manner without assessing the ecological catastrophe that it can push the state of Uttarakhand and the entire region into.