Uttarakhand Plans to Revoke Protections for 5,400‑Sq Km Elephant Reserve to Make Way for Airport Expansion
Yesterday, the Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board officially proposed denotifying — that is, revoking protections for — the Shivalik Elephant Reserve, which spans almost 5,400 square kilometers, in order to carry out “development activities” in the region.
Reports suggest the “development activities” refer to the expansion of the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun. “The proposal is basically about expanding the existing runway strip of the airport,” Rajiv Dhiman, Dehradun divisional forest officer, had told The Wire.
Statements from state officials seem to bear out this interpretation of events.
“Today, it is in the name of an elephant reserve. Tomorrow, some butterfly reserve will come up. In this way, no work can be done in Uttarakhand,” said Jaber Singh Suhag, the state’s chief wildlife warden, as he defended the decision to denotify the reserve while denying that the board’s decision was connected to the expansion of the airport.
“Certain formalities of obtaining clearances for development work will get reduced after cancellation of the notification [that protected the elephant reserve],” another official told The Indian Express.
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The elephant reserve was established in 2002, but officials present at the meeting that approved the proposal to revoke the forest’s protections claim the elephant reserve has no legal sanctity, nor any provision for its existence in forest and wildlife legislations. “The then-state government’s notification did not had assent of either cabinet or assembly therefore wildlife board decided to denotify the same [sic],” Harak Singh Rawat, Uttarakhand Forest Minister, told the media.
However, legal experts don’t agree. “There may not be protection as an elephant reserve but as a reserve forest with wildlife importance, it is still protected under the Forest Conservation Act…. Reserve forests are areas with high diversity value and should be protected and not be diverted for such ‘developmental’ activities,” Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer, told The Wire.
In the meantime, Dutta opined that because the reserve is still an important wildlife area — regardless of whether it has official protection — any proposed development of the site will not only require an environmental impact assessment, but also approval from higher authorities like the National Board for Wildlife.
Reportedly, the formal order de-notifying the reserve will be issued by the state’s forest department. However, reports have also emerged that the forest department has already given a go-ahead for felling trees in the area.