Corbett tiger safari: No sanction as state pushes work, cost up six times

Corbett tiger safari: No sanction as state pushes work, cost up six times

India News

THE UTTARAKHAND government started work on a tiger safari facility in Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) months before it received forest clearance in September from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, and strikingly much beyond the scope of the Rs 24.60 crore project that was approved.

Documents reviewed by The Indian Express show the state embarked on a construction spree worth at least Rs 157 crore — six times the approved project cost of Rs 24.60 crore — without any legal, administrative, or financial sanction.

The project was initially envisaged as an animal rescue facility with open-to-air enclosures and an interpretation centre for tourists. But the state went ahead with unapproved works such as construction of 18 buildings with at least 60 rooms with attached bath at four locations around the tiger safari, creation of a water body requiring felling of trees to attract wildlife for tourists, and reinforcement of a forest road with provisions to widen it as a highway.

Following a writ petition in Delhi High Court and two field inspections by Central agencies, the illegal work was finally put on hold in November and Uttarakhand transferred as many as 30 forest officials, including the state’s Head of Forest Force (HoFF) and Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW), to ensure a “transparent vigilance” probe.

It has been over a month since, but Kishan Chand, the forest officer entrusted with the extensive construction work is yet to relinquish charge as Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Kalagarh, the western division of CTR. On Thursday, the Corbett staff “locked down” all office premises of this division to protest the “dual command” as Kishan Chand’s replacement took “one-sided charge” on December 11.

When contacted, CTR Director Rahul said the safari work did commence without the final FC. “We had Stage-1 FC, other approvals and began constructing the interpretation centre this February. The work with no approval started in July and I asked the DFO to stop it,” he said. DFO (Kalagarh) Kishan Chand did not respond to multiple phone calls and messages.

Vinod Kumar, who took charge as HoFF after the reshuffle, said the “question of work done without sanction” would be answered only after the completion of a vigilance probe ordered in November. “The police team has collected all the documents,” he said.

Uttarakhand Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat is optimistic the tiger safari will now be ready for tourists in January. “The interpretation centre and one of the three tiger enclosures are almost ready. There is no irregularity. Uttarakhand has so much forest and wildlife thanks to its people who must also benefit from tourism activities,” he said.

Asked why approvals were not taken for additional construction inside the CTR, Rawat said, “Who gives these approvals? The government only, no? Modi-ji announced the tiger safari. The state and the Centre are working on it together. Maybe there are certain technical issues due to internal differences among some officials but ultimately tourism will benefit our people whose support is important for conservation.” It was Rawat who had in December 2020 said that the “150-crore project would be ready for tourists by November 2021”.

Rawat also said he planned to utilise funds from the CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) coffer built on compensation collected in lieu of forest land diverted for developmental purposes. Told that CAMPA money is meant for conservation work and cannot be used for building tourism infrastructure, he said, “We will have to look into those policies. Anyway, these are residential quarters for forest staff.”

But several buildings under construction — and a few hurriedly demolished since — have been identified as tourism facilities by the two Central agencies.

After conservation activist and advocate Gaurav Bansal moved Delhi HC in August against illegal tree-felling and construction inside CTR, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the MoEF’s regional office at Dehradun conducted two separate site inspections in September and October.

The findings were scathing:

* The extensive construction activity “appeared to be for the purpose of tourism which is a non-forestry” activity. For any of these, no legal, administrative, or financial approval could be produced by the DFO (Kalagarh) who “continued with the construction work at least till a day before” the inspection.

* The ongoing “construction activities in one of the highest density tiger habitats of the world without any competent sanctions and by violating the various statutory provisions/court orders is an excellent example of both administrative and managerial failure” and “criminal liability needs to be fixed against the officers responsible for undertaking such construction.”

Official communications of the forest department show that out of the total budget demand of Rs 157.89 crore for construction work related to the tiger safari, a proposal for Rs 102.11 crore was recommended on September 15 by then chief wildlife warden JS Suhag who also headed the Uttarakhand CAMPA. This was, however, turned down at a meeting chaired by then HoFF Rajiv Bhartari, pending clarification as to how the cost of the tiger safari “escalated from 26.81 crores to 102.11 crores”.

When contacted, Bhartari said: “Except one component of around Rs 5.5 crore for the tiger safari’s approved electricity works, the proposal was returned.” While Suhag, who continues to head the state CAMPA, refused to comment on his recommendation, Rahul described the inflated financial proposal as an “afterthought to meet the demands” of his deputy Kishan Chand.

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