New Delhi: India’s ministry of tribal affairs has dealt itself a hand in the legal battle over the sanctity of tiger reserves, and interestingly, it has taken the side of the tourism lobby.

The Supreme Court has temporarily banned tourism in so-called core areas of tiger reserves till the final hearing of a case that begins on Wednesday. The ministry of tribal affairs is expected to implead itself in the case on the basis that banning tourism will hit tribals residing in the vicinity of such reserves.

“During Wednesday’s hearing, we will be impleading as a party to the case keeping the interest of tribals in mind," a top ministry of tribals official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The core zone is an area required to be kept inviolate for tiger conservation. For instance, the Corbett tiger reserve’s total area is 1,318.54 sq. km, of which the core area is 520 sq. km.

A file photo of a tiger at Ranthambore national park in Rajasthan. A tiger task force formed in 2005 said tourism activities should not be allowed in the core area of national parks and tiger reserves. Photo: Aditya Singh

Now, around 40 lawyers are fighting the case on behalf of both the sides, Dubey said. The tribal affairs ministry wants to become a party to the case because it thinks that demarcating core areas in tiger reserves will affect “livelihood, sources of income and daily existence of tribals in the affected area (core area of the tiger reserve)", the ministry official added. The official admitted that Wednesday’s attempt by the ministry to become a party will be “a desperate intervention" since it is supposed to be the final hearing on the matter. “If we don’t say what we want to say now, then when will we say it?," he said.

He added that the ministry would challenge the court’s order on notification of core and buffer areas in tiger reserves in the country once it becomes a party in the case. “We are hoping that the final ruling will not come tomorrow," he said.

The buffer zone is a protected area on all sides of the reserve that ensures no industrial or other project comes up in the vicinity of the sanctuary, and enables local people to coexist with the protected wildlife, while keeping their livelihood and cultural rights intact.

“Tourism in these areas is beneficial for big and wealthy people," said Roma, organizing secretary of the National Forum of Forests People and Forest Workers, who goes by only one name. “Tribals mostly have small shops. I don’t think this will affect tribals’ livelihood as livelihood for them is guaranteed under the Forests Rights Act. We have seen it in Rajaji and Dudhwa national parks that tourism doesn’t affect tribals."

India has 41 tiger reserves. A tiger task force constituted in 2005 to review the management of tiger reserves recommended that “tourism activities should not be allowed in the core area of national parks and tiger reserves," and that wildlife tourism needs to be regulated.

“Tourism in tiger reserves needs to be extremely well managed to ensure that the direct impact on the habitats due to tourism is mitigated. The chain of command as well as the management of tourism in tiger reserves has suffered from multiple governing institutions as well as confusion in policy and regulations so far," the task force said in its report, adding, “Done badly, it (tourism) can lead to further stress on the tiger’s habitat."

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