Request minister’s intervention on eve of hearing in Supreme Court
Two members of the panel set up by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to frame the new set of eco-tourism guidelines have written to environment minister Jayanthi Natrajan, saying the new guidelines presented to the Supreme Court by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) are incomplete and misleading. The members have complained that the new guidelines will adversely affect the rights of the forest dwellers. The letter was sent to the minister on October 1, two days before the new guidelines are to be examined by the court.
The guidelines were submitted to the Supreme Court on September 26, despite concerns raised by some of the members of the panel. The members objected to some of the provisions that favoured industry and the fact that the guidelines did not take into account rights of local communities. Last month, the ministry withdrew its previous eco-tourism guidelines that called for phasing tourism out of core tiger habitats and imposing tax on hotels and resorts for eco-development. The new guidelines have diluted those provisions .
In the letter, two non-official members of the panel have informed the minister that they had objected to the final guidelines prepared by the panel and requested NTCA to present their note of objection to the court along with guidelines. NTCA, however, neither responded to the objections of the members nor has it submitted the note of dissent in the court.
Charges against NTCA
When the committee was formed on September 12, the terms of reference of the committee, as decided by MoEF, said the committee will prepare a comprehensive set of guidelines for tiger conservation and tourism which will also cover fixing core and buffer areas. However, in the affidavit presented in the court, NTCA has said that the new panel “unanimously decided” that it would limit itself “to formulate tourism guidelines only since tiger protection and notification of core and buffer zones fall under NTCA's domain.” The members have contradicted this in the letter. They say the committee had suggested that a separate process of consultation with all the stakeholders including community groups should be initiated and sufficient time be allotted to arrive at the guidelines for fixing core and buffer areas of reserves.
The tribal rights groups have been demanding that the notification of core and buffer areas in the tiger reserves should be reviewed, alleging that due process of law was not followed in their demarcation, leading to harassment of forest dwellers. The members say that the new guidelines assume that the notification of core and buffer zones is legitimate and final despite no certification of whether the due process of recognition of rights of forest dwellers has been followed or not. The NTCA has also presented the documents of previous programmes of project tiger to the court as part of the comprehensive guidelines on tiger conservation. The members say this is an endorsement of illegal actions carried out by the government in the past that led to illegitimate eviction of forest dwellers.
They say they had strongly objected to the NTCA’s suggestion to attach its previous documents on project tiger to the tourism guidelines to be presented in the court. Despite that NTCA has included the project tiger documents as part of the new guidelines without discussing them in the committee.
The members say they had also objected to a few provisions of the new guidelines. For example, they said the tourism industry should not have a say in where and how the fund collected from conservation tax should be utilised, as mentioned in the new guidelines. The guidelines say every tiger reserve should have a tiger conservation plan which should include identification of corridor connectivity and important wildlife habitats and mechanisms to secure them. The members had expressed fears that the absence of clear guidelines for identifying corridors would lead to harassment of local communities as has been happening in the wake of notification of buffer zones.
In the letter, the members have requested Natarajan to direct the NTCA to include their objections on the new guidelines in its representation in the court. The court will hear the matter on October 3.
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