New Delhi: A little more time to roam free.
That is what the tigers of one of India’s most prominent tiger reserves got from the Supreme Court when it refused to approve a major irrigation project, bordering the Tadoba-Andhari tiger park in Maharashtra, on environmental grounds, in what some describe as a significant judicial precedent.
“In the past, hardly has any major or minor project been struck down by the Supreme Court on environmental grounds and for felling of a large number of trees. This irrigation project would have blocked the only tiger corridor, which links this park to even as far as Madhya Pradesh,” said Ritwick Dutta, the counsel for the petitioner, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
The irrigation project was intended to benefit 160 villages with the potential to irrigate 46,000ha, a clash of interests symbolic of conservation versus development conflicts across India. “What do you do? This is the basic livelihood of the tribal villagers. Should they not get the water, which would bring more land under cultivation?” asks an official in the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corp. (VIDC), who didn’t want to be named.
The corridor in question links the eastern border of the reserve to another swathe of forestland, the Brahmapuri range in the east. Conservationists and wildlife biologists agree that such corridors are critical for wildlife conservation as it encourages dispersal of a species and affects the genetic viability of species.
“The continuity of forest areas is of utmost importance and such corridors should be notified as such,” said Kishore Rithe, who has worked extensively on wildlife conservation in the area and is president, Satpura Foundation, which works on conservation in central India.
The project was approved by the Maharashtra government in 1983 and received the mandatory forest clearance 11 years later in February 2004, followed by an environmental clearance in April 2004. In the same year, a petition against the project was filed in the Supreme Court by BNHS, stalling the project.
A project investigation report, which was submitted by the Wildlife Institute of India to the ministry of environment and forests in 2003, supported the project. This report, which noted the corridor’s presence, gave the green light to the project with the caveat that avoiding an impact through a different design was best though it might not be possible under technological constraints and limited financial resources for ecological mitigation.
“In our replies to the court, we have suggested measures like canal crossings for tigers and also, the whole submergence area is not under water all the time. For the time it’s not, tigers can use the corridor,” said the VIDC official.
Activists also claim that the project is against prescribed government policy on eco-sensitive areas. The National Wildlife Action Plan issued by the ministry in 2002 states that areas within 10km of protected areas and wildlife corridors should be notified as eco-sensitive areas. Once notified, any project in these areas, which will change land use, will need an additional clearance from the centrally appointed body. Maharashtra has not notified any such area.
VIDC officials said that they would file a reply with the court in July, requesting for approval of the project.