PIL launched to ban tourism in Core Tiger areas in Indian Supreme Court
The latest PIL (Public Interest Litigation) has been filed in the Supreme Court of India requesting the court to order the State Government of Madhya Pradesh to prohibit all tourist activity inside the core area of tiger reserves. Prior to this, the petitioner, Mr. Dubey had filed a writ petition in the Madhya Pradesh High Court seeking the same relief in September 2010. On January 19, 2011 the Madhya Pradesh High Court, through an interim order on the petitioner's plea for the interim relief of banning all tourism inside core areas of tiger reserves, held that the word 'inviolate' did not per se entail the prohibition of tourism inside core areas. Accordingly, it rejected the petitioner's plea for interim relief on this point and also ordered that the Ministry of Tourism of the Government of India be enjoined as a necessary party to the case.
As per a newspaper report in the Times of India dated July 31, 2011, the petitioner Mr. Dubey has now moved to the Supreme Court in appeal against the Madhya Pradesh High Court interim order. The Supreme Court has allegedly issued notice to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (the "NTCA") and the Madhya Pradesh State Governments, giving them three week’s time to respond.
Legal Basis for Intervention:
The petitioner's entire case rests on the use of the term 'inviolate' in the explanation to Section 38V(4) of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 (the "Act"), and certain guidelines and administrative orders of the NTCA. In the interim order, the High Court relied upon the dictionary meaning of 'inviolate' to hold that Section 38V does not necessarily imply a ban on tourism inside the core areas. There are strong legal arguments to conclude that the Government cannot and should not ban all tourism inside the core areas of tiger reserves:
1) To begin with, Section 38O of the Act, which sets out the powers and functions of the NTCA, at clause (c) of Sub-section (1) reads "lay down normative standards for tourism activities and guidelines for project tiger from time to time for tiger conservation in the buffer and core area of tiger reserves and ensure their due compliance." Thus while the NTCA has the power to lay down guidelines to regulate tourism inside core areas, it doesn't have the power to ban it completely as it has sought to do in the Revised Guidelines for the on-going Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Project Tiger. In fact, it is clear that the Act itself contemplates regulated tourism inside the core areas of tiger reserves.
2) The second leg of the legal argument centre’s on the common man's right to view the national animal, and in fact a substantive chunk of India's terrestrial biodiversity, in the best parts of their natural environment. This is essentially the right to view and experience India's natural heritage. While this right may be significantly curtailed or regulated in the interests of protecting species, it cannot be completely struck down. The Indian citizen is after all contributing significant resources towards the protection of the tiger - a move such as this would significantly hamper the fostering of conservation ideals among wider society as the members of this society will have no chance to see or experience the benefits of tiger conservation. In fact the NTCA's website clearly states that the main objective of Project Tiger is "to ensure a viable population of tigers in India for. aesthetic values. and to preserve for all time areas of biological importance as a natural heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people."
3) Even if Section 38-O(1)(c) of the Act is read to empower the NTCA to ban tourism altogether, any such decision must be made with reasons. Since the NTCA is entrusted with the function of issuing norms and regulations for tourism in core areas, it must first make an attempt to regulate such tourism. Any resort to banning tourism from core areas must only be made if such regulations have failed, and it is proved that tourism continues to negatively affect tigers despite such regulations. The NTCA has never issued any such regulations (and is only now in the process of drafting guidelines for the same), but has instead straight away issued guidelines banning tourism from core areas. This amounts to an unreasonable exercise of power without a fair or rational basis.
The 2006 Evaluation Reports of Tiger Reserves showed that a number of tiger reserves (e.g. Kanha) were doing very well with well-managed tourism in the core areas. It also showed that in other tiger reserves tourism was badly regulated and caused disturbance to wildlife. Yet the NTCA did not issue any guidelines or directions seeking to address the problem. Instead, it tried to resort to banning tourism completely. On the other hand, the Management Effectiveness Evaluation of Tiger Reserves in India (2010-2011) recently released by the NTCA actually discusses increasing tourism in tiger reserves such as Dudhwa. Clearly one hand of the NTCA doesn't know what the other is doing. The NTCA is responsible for regulating tourism for the benefit of the species. It should not be allowed to turn around and ban tourism completely citing its own incompetence at fulfilling its mandate properly.
Substantive Basis for Intervention:
As with any PIL, the Supreme Court will give weightage to substantive arguments. There are many substantive arguments as to why tourism should not be banned from the core areas of tiger reserves:
1) Tourism in tiger reserves provides a livelihood to thousands of people, many of them local to the area of the tiger reserves. Closing tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves will cause the number of people visiting these reserves to drop drastically since buffer zones of most tiger reserves have not even been officially notified (as the petitioner himself claimed in his original petition), let alone allowed to regenerate, and have very poor tiger presence in comparison to the core areas. If tourism were to be confined to buffer zones alone, the industry is likely to take a massive hit with consequent losses to the local people. If tourism is to be limited to the buffer areas alone, then this should be done only after these areas have been declared, have had the chance to regenerate, and after they demonstrate significant tiger presence, not the other way around.
2) There is evidence to show that well managed tourism can have a positive impact on tiger populations. Many areas in tiger reserves which are open to tourists display the best tiger concentrations including breeding tigresses, and there are instances of tiger presence having reduced in areas after they have been closed for tourism. There are also instances of tourism having a positive impact on other species targeted for conservation. Expert opinion and published literature to this effect can have a major impact on the way the Supreme Court views the matter.
3) Given the current scenario in many tiger reserves where there are huge vacancies in staff and ineffective protection for wildlife, and guides and tourists provide extra eyes and ears in the forests. Not only does this have the limited effect of deterring poachers, it also acts as a check on the Forest Department, and increases their accountability. One only needs to look as far as the Panna and Sariska debacles. In both cases, the Forest Department denied the disappearance of tigers - in the case of Sariska for at least six months after the last tiger disappeared (the last tiger was seen on 26 August 2004 and the fact was not admitted by the Dept. until 17 February 2005), and in the case of Panna they have never admitted that all the tigers disappeared. In both cases it was not the authorities that made the problem public. Even if tourists cannot prevent tigers from being killed, they can at least raise the alarm when tigers are missing, or when no tigers are being seen, as was happening in Panna. Another incident from the recent past is the death of a tigress in Bandavgarh after she was hit by a car. The Report by the Member Secretary of the NTCA on the event indicates that there is a strong possibility that the tigress was hit by car carrying officers of the forest department and the Zila Panchayat. The next day, the Forest Officers tried to pin the blame on regular tourists in the tiger reserve. If the core of the tiger reserve (where the incident happened) was not open for tourism, it is quite possible that incidents such as this would not even be reported, let alone investigated.
The fact is that well managed tourism is an important tool for conservation because it provides benefits to local communities, can have a positive impact on the species, and most importantly fosters a love of wildlife in common people. Banning tourism from the core areas of tiger reserves is an irresponsible and unnecessary move that will have many negative consequences. These are the substantive points that the intervention must make.
This is yet another pointless battle between advocates for tourism (the best use of wildlife tourism!) and the Government ultimately, who have held sway over the forests, and find it easier to battle tourism enterprises (all who operate outside National Parks) than the real threats to forests like animal poaching, illegal wood extraction, overgrazing, illegal mining, uncontrolled fires, lack of forest staff, lack of prey species, climate change, corruption and neglect.
There will come a point when everybody wakes up one day and says this system is not working – and change is needed – and then change must be about public, private and community partnership, collaboration and collective will – not the blame game or the soft targets – rather than the hard realities.
For years TOFT has been urging sensible and workable Ecotourism Guidelines form Government, which they have solely failed to deliver - infact we even advised on them – yet what was eventually published in early July 2011 was a wholly unreasonable, unworkable and one sided set of guidelines that could never have set out a ‘Road Map’ for the future of a more sustainable tourism industry – and better conservation. The Chairman of the Ecotourism Committee himself - dismissed the draft guidelines as unworkable!
Yet another unnecessary battle continues when more than anything we need unity, cooperation and understanding!