Uttarakhand high court on Friday stayed the approval given by the State Wildlife Advisory Board on November 24, 2020, for de-notification of Shivalik Elephant Reserve. The board had taken the decision to pave the way for the expansion of Dehradun airport project. The high court has sought reply from the state government, Centre, State Biodiversity Board and State Wildlife Board in the matter.
A division bench of chief justice RS Chauhan and Justice Lok Pal Singh issued these directions while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Dehradun-based activist Reenu Paul.
Abhijay Negi, counsel of the petitioner, said the PIL pointed out to HC that “Supreme Court in a recent decision delivered by a three-judge bench led by the Chief Justice of India on October 14, 2020, had passed several guidelines for elephant conservation and the decision of the Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board was in the teeth of the said decision of the apex court.”
Citing provisions of the Biological Diversity Act 2002 and the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, the petitioner argued that “it was not open to the State Wildlife Board to denotify the Shivalik Elephant Reserve in such a summery manner without assessing the ecological catastrophe that it can push the state and the entire region into”.
In September last year, the state government had written to the Union environment ministry for obtaining prior approval under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for non-forestry use of 87.0815 hectares of forest land for “Expansion of the Jolly Grant Airport.” This land falls within the Shivalik Elephant Reserve. Officials estimate that about 10,000 trees will be felled for the expansion.
In October, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change wrote to the state government that it “may explore alternatives for the proposal such as acquiring area lying north of the existing runway…the entire proposed forest area for diversion falls within the Shivalik Elephant Reserve and elephant corridors within its 1km radius. Moreover, the notified Kansaro-Barkot Elephant Corridor is located within 5km radius. The state government should consider avoiding these sensitive areas and explore alternative lands.”
In November, responding to ministry’s letter, the state government said an alternative land will not serve the purpose as the existing runway needs to be expanded and with alternative land, a completely new airport will have to be established.
Following the board’s decision on de-notification in November, state forest minister Harak Singh Rawat had said, “The State Wildlife Board, during its 16th meeting, approved the de-notification of Shivalik Elephant Reserve as there is no law to define an elephant reserve. In the late 90s and early 2000s, the state government had sent a proposal to the Centre seeking a clarification regarding the said area, after which it was notified as an elephant reserve in 2002. But as per the norms of the Central government, there is no law or Act yet under which the legal status of an elephant reserve is defined.”
Uttarakhand has over 2,000 elephants at present, according to the elephant census released in June last year.