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Monday, June 18, 2012

Sigur corridor caught in crossfire

MONDAY, 18 JUNE 2012 00:09 MOUSHUMI BASU | NEW DELHI The notifying of an elephant corridor connecting the Bandipur-Mudumalai landscape with rich bio-diverse Sigur plateau in Tamil Nadu has brought Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) face to face with National Board For Wildlife (NBWL). The issue that has figured in the last two standing committee meetings of the Board, is pending in the Supreme Court. Based on an expert committee report on the importance of Sigur, the Madras High Court had earlier upheld the issue of notifying of the elephant corridor. But the High Court order was challenged by a local group of high-end resort owners in the Supreme Court, which also includes a prominent Bollywood star. While ordering a stay on dispossession and demolition of the buildings of the petitioners till further orders, the SC stated “it is open to the NBWL to offer their comments on the report submitted by the committee set up by the High Court” and directed the MoEF to submit its report within a given timeframe. As per the directives of the court, NBWL members expressed their opinion on December 13 meeting and wrote a letter to the Environment Minister endorsing the HC panel report. But for reasons not known and much to the surprise of the members, the Ministry tried to set up a new committee to study the ground realities all over again. The High Court had, however, turned down the Ministry’s proposal to form a new panel. A further shock was in store for NBWL members, when the MoEF submitted its affidavit to the SC without including their opinion on the issue as directed by the apex court. Further, in the last meeting of the standing committee of NBWL, Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan pointed to the need for implementation of Forest Rights Act in the area, adding that she would submit any supplementary affidavit with views of members of the board. The affidavit, according to Praveen Bhargav, wildlife expert from Karnataka, raises doubts on the intentions of the MoEF. “Why was the written opinion of the non-official experts on the Standing Committee concurs with the recommendations of the High Court Expert Committee not filed before the Supreme Court,” he said. He further questioned on the necessity of constituting another committee ignoring the clear opinion of the non-official members of the Standing Committee when the Supreme Court had only sought the comments of the NBWL. Bhargav also asked when the land in the identified corridor belonged to the State, which is willing and fully competent to notify the protected areas, why were the Ministry officials raising extraneous issues like Forest Rights Act which will only benefit powerful tourist resorts in this area. As per the report of the expert committee, the importance of the Sigur plateau lies in the fact that it connects the contiguous ranges of Nagarhole, Bandipur, Wayanad and Mudumalai national parks, besides the Satyamangalam wildlife sanctuaries in the Eastern Ghats. These national parks and contiguous reserve forests in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, have the richest habitat and support nearly 8,000 Asiatic elephants besides tigers and other endangered species. Despite being the vital link to so many protected areas, Sigur corridor is largely unprotected. It is being regularly crossed by the elephants, tiger and other wildlife. The report notes that during the last two decades elephant habitats have been fragmented because of increased human activities including presence of 44 resorts within the proposed corridor. A number of them have solar electric fences obstructing the animal movement, it says. This has largely escalated the man-elephant conflict in the region, resulting in human deaths. Former NBWL member and wildlife filmmaker Shekhar Dattatri pointed out that “consolidation of the Sigur corridor is an extremely important conservation priority since it will ensure connectivity between some of the best habitats for the Asiatic elephant and the tiger. “Any attempt to derail the implementation of the landmark judgement of the Madras High Court will greatly benefit the many commercial resorts that have choked this extremely important elephant corridor,” he said. Sources in the MoEF, however, said that the local villagers are angry with the proposed corridor. It will affect five hamlets of Bokkapuram and parts of Masinagudi, Kadanadu and Hullathi panchayats. The conflict had originated with the order of the State Government in August 2010 to acquire 2,822 hectares (ha) for the proposed corridor. Of this, 1,710 ha is private land. However, the wildlife conservationists argue that the areas fall under the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forest Act. This prohibits sale, purchase, lease and mortgage of land including change in land use without the permission of the State Government.

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