New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday lifted a temporary ban on tourism in so-called core areas of India’s tiger reserves, allowing tour operators to take visitors there after having been stopped from doing so in July. Such tourism will have to strictly follow certain guidelines, judges A.K. Patnaik and Swatanter Kumar said.
The guidelines suggested by National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) allow only up to 20% of the core areas of tiger habitats for regulated, low-impact tourism.
Core areas in India’s 41 tiger reserves that host sufficient prey animals, shelter and water for the big cats are critical for conservation of the tiger, which faces extinction in India.
Currently, only three of these parks exceed the 20% limit. These are Kanha National Park, which allows tourism in 37% of the core area, Pench National Park (36%) and Bandhavgarh National Park (31%). All three are in Madhya Pradesh.
The decision brought cheer to the tiger tourism industry—valued at more than Rs.1,000 crore by experts—which had lobbied vigorously against the ban.
The ban had affected hundreds of thousands of local livelihoods, and legitimate businesses, both directly and indirectly, Vishal Singh, India director of Travel Operators for Tigers, said in an emailed statement.
“It’s now time to get back to work, to ensure that revenues that flow through park fees back into conservation and communities start flowing again, that livelihoods are restored, and legitimate businesses are allowed to continue to show India’s very best natural heritage to its citizens,” said Singh.
Ajay Dubey, whose petition had led to the ban, was dissatisfied by the apex court’s order.
“Who is responsible for identifying this 20%? Tourism has been allowed without identifying which 20% of the core area can be open to tourism,” he said over phone from Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.
The interim ban was imposed on a special leave petition filed by Dubey to stop “inviolate activities”, including tourism, in the core areas of tiger reserves, in the Supreme Court in July 2011. He had approached the apex court after his demand to ban tourism in the core areas was rejected by the Madhya Pradesh high court in January 2011.
The apex court said it was up to the state governments to prepare tourism plans specific to each tiger reserve. “The state government is required to prepare a tiger conservation plan. We direct that state governments will prepare tiger conservation plan within six months from today and submit the same to NTCA,” the judges said.
The guidelines say that all tiger reserves in the country should have separate tourism plans. “The tourism plan shall, inter alia, include a monitoring mechanism, estimated carrying capacity, tourism zones, and demarcation of the area open to tourism on the basis of objective, scientific criteria,” the guidelines said. These plans will have to then be approved by NTCA.
The next hearing of the case will be on 27 November.
NTCA, an agency of the environment and forests ministry, had designed new guidelines for tourism in and around tiger reserves after the tourism lobby was opposed to the phasing out of tourism from the core areas in a span of five years under the old guidelines. The revised guidelines were notified on 15 October.
Ravi Chellam, a wildlife biologist and conservation scientist based in Bangalore, raised concerns in the way in which the new guidelines were notified.
“The NTCA and the environment ministry had submitted one set of guidelines to the court and soon after retracted and no one asked why,” he said, adding that due procedure had been followed for previous guidelines.
The judges on Tuesday said the guidelines could be challenged. “If any party is aggrieved by the notification, it will be open for them to challenge before an appropriate court,” they said.
Dubey said he would challenge the 20% clause in the Madhya Pradesh high court. “No commercial activity should be allowed in the core areas,” he said.
“I am glad the court has kept it open for legal review and challenge,” Chellam said.
Under the new guidelines, the stakeholders, including state governments and tourist facilities, are mandated with specific tasks. State governments have to charge a conservation fee from the tourism industry for eco-development and local community upliftment work. The suggested fee structure may range from Rs.500 to Rs.3,000 a room per month, the guidelines said.
“The rate of conservation fee and tourist facility strata shall be determined by the state government, and the funds thus collected should be earmarked to address local livelihood development, human-wildlife conflict management, and conservation through eco-development, and not go to the state exchequer,” according to the norms.
The guidelines also say such funds should be administered by tiger conservation foundations and that the tourism industry will have a say in “how and where this fund is to be utilized”.
The guidelines also propose phasing out government-run guest houses and other facilities inside core tiger habitats.
Besides this, “there should be no privately run facilities such as catering, etc., inside the core/critical tiger habitat where night stay is permitted”, the guidelines said. The time frame for phasing out these facilities will be decided by local advisory committees that have to be set up.
These committees will “regularly monitor (at least half-yearly) all tourist facilities in and around tiger reserves vis-à-vis environmental clearance, area of coverage, ownership, type of construction, number of employees, etc., for suggesting mitigation/retrofitting measures if needed,” the guidelines said.
The panels will have district collectors, panchayat or village council officials and conservationists as members, and will be headed by divisional commissioners.
The guidelines also propose a model mechanism to calculate the carrying capacity of a reserve, which is the maximum number of people that can be present without disturbing the ecosystem.
Moulishree Srivastava contributed to this story.