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Besides tiger deaths, Corbett plagued by land sharks, politics

July 18, 2013 10:09 IST

Besides tiger deaths, Corbett plagued by land sharks, politics

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Powerful lobbies are waging a turf war in Corbett, and tigers could be the collateral damage

If tiger deaths were the only trouble plaguing Corbett Tiger Reserve, government policies and managerial skills of the forest officials could have been blamed. But the reserve’s problems go much beyond the deaths.

Corbett is one of the most high- profile tiger reserves in India. It was the first national park to be established in the country; Project Tiger was first launched here. As tiger became the biggest tourist attraction of recent times, Corbett, with the highest density of tigers, became one of the most sought-after destinations.

This has led to a massive investment in the tourism industry by land sharks. Conservationists, non-profits and several politicians have stakes in the industry. In fact, a massive land grab has happened in and around Corbett in the past one decade, with resorts mushrooming on every patch of saleable land.

However, a year ago these activities were abruptly interrupted. After the Supreme Court asked the Centre to regulate tourism in tiger reserves, a few attempts were made to rein in the unregulated growth of tourism in Corbett.

For instance, the forest department terminated the private contracts to run the canteens inside the reserve, while the Uttarakhand government banned the sale and purchase of land and change of land-use within two kilometres of the reserve. This has threatened big business interests.

The resentment and desperation to protect businesses have resulted in a turf war between the forest department, “conservationists”, “non-profits”, land sharks and the people living in the area.

It is so intense that even a small issue of canteen contracts became an excuse for endless politicking. Corbett is one of the few tiger reserves in India that allows night stay for tourists. Four canteens in Corbett serve the tourists.

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Image: A Royal Bengal Tiger
Photographs: Reuters

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Five elephants were poached one after another in the reserve

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A couple of years ago during the Bharatiya Janata Party rule in Uttarakhand, the contracts to run three of the canteens were given to Madan Joshi and Narendra Sharma, local BJP leaders, and their associates. Last year, after the environment ministry notified eco-tourism guidelines for tiger reserves the forest department in Corbett terminated private contracts for the canteens; it plans to set up a non-profit, Tiger Foundation, to run them.

Since then, Joshi and Sharma, along with their accomplices, are alleged to have been at loggerheads with the forest department. People involved in this fight are connected to the two most powerful families in the country.

The idea of terminating the private contracts was mooted by Brijendra Singh, the honorary wildlife warden of Corbett. Considered to be close to United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Singh has been holding the reward post in Corbett for the past 30 years.

He is also a member of the National Board of Wildlife headed by the prime minister and the National Tiger Conservation Authority. Joshi and Sharma, who held the canteen contracts, are members of People for Animals, an animal rights group run by Maneka Gandhi.

In December last year, after the contracts were terminated, Gauri Maulekhi, member secretary of PFA’s Uttarakhand chapter, recorded a video and put it up on YouTube, showing how the forest staff was running the canteen and not the foundation, and that Brijendra Singh was allowed to park his private vehicle inside the reserve.

Maulekhi, who is also designated special officer of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, has filed a petition against Singh in April this year in the Nainital high court regarding his alleged role in the 2000-01 elephant poaching cases and questioning his eligibility as the honorary wildlife warden of Corbett.

Five elephants were poached one after another in the reserve that year, for which the then director P C Joshi was held accountable and transferred. Joshi had accused Singh of misguiding the forest staff in the elephant poaching cases and of interfering in the investigation.

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Photographs: Photo credit: Anup Sah/Corbettnationalpark.in

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The poaching cases have been termed as a conspiracy

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In a letter written to the chief wildlife warden of the Uttarakhand on June 8, 2001, the copy of which is with Down To Earth, Joshi termed the poaching cases a conspiracy against him and hinted at Singh’s involvement in it.

In her petition, Maulekhi pleads for action against the honorary wildlife warden, stating that “Brijendra Singh was accused of being involved in the killing of 5 male elephants”. She also submits that his “being a permanent resident of New Delhi and a decidedly tainted record as far as wildlife crime goes” disqualifies him from holding the post.

She has sought action against other senior forest officers as well for various reasons, among them former director of the reserve Ranjan Mishra for “attempting to cover up at least one confirmed case of tiger poaching” in May last year.

It is dirty politics. While Singh denied the allegation made in Joshi’s letter, Maulekhi is using Joshi’s letter to drag Singh’s name in the recent tiger deaths. “The sudden upsurge in tiger killings may also be political in nature. Political killings of five elephants took place in 2001 when a certain individual was accused in a lengthy report of the then Director Joshi.

The objective of getting the elephants killed, as per the report, was to revolt against an inconvenient field director. The similarity in the modus operandi is striking and the involvement of the same individual cannot be ruled out,” said Maulekhi in an email to S S Sharma, chief wildlife warden of Uttarakhand on June 3, two days after the third tiger carcass was found.

Singh finds himself being linked to tiger deaths ridiculous. “How funny can that be?” he laughs. “The government is not foolish to have me at the position of honorary warden. It is because of my contribution that I am there. When tigers increase in number they often stray into villages and kill cattle. Villagers at times kill tigers in resentment. That is what is happening. How can they even think of something as stupid as this,” Singh told Down To Earth.

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Photographs: Photo credit: Anup Sah/Corbettnationalpark.in

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A check was necessary, given the explosive growth

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About Joshi’s allegation of misguiding investigation in elephant poaching, Singh said it was he who had pointed out the cases to Joshi. According to Singh, the state government had formed a committee of senior officials and wildlife experts, including him, to look into the elephant deaths.

The committee held Joshi accountable for the poaching cases. Joshi wrote the letter in resentment and many things in it were not true, he alleged. “The main problem is her people here have lost the canteen contracts. These people were selling food items at an escalated rate. As per the new guidelines, we decided that a non-profit, Tiger Foundation, should be formed which will run the canteen and the revenue will go to the welfare of forest personnel and wildlife conservation. Since I mooted the idea, these people resent me,” Singh says.

Senior wildlife officers in the environment ministry as well as in the state and conservationists express disgust over the allegations against Singh. “It is too petty a thing to say about a person of Bijendra Singh’s stature. People are trying to malign him for personal reasons,” says a senior forest official in Delhi. “I know his heart bleeds for Corbett. The allegations are baseless,” says a member of the standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife.

Singh also seems to be under fire from the tourism industry. Tourist guides and hotel operators this correspondent spoke to complained about his undue influence on the reserve’s administration.

Singh says he is being maligned because he was a member of the fact-finding team appointed by the Union environment ministry that recommended the ban on the sale and purchase of land and land-use change in and around Corbett.

Given the explosive growth of tourism in Corbett a check was necessary.

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Photographs: Photo credit: Anup Sah/Corbettnationalpark.in

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Land shark's paradise

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There are 150-200 resorts near Corbett, while many more are planned. The highest concentration of the resorts is along the KosiRiver near the south-eastern boundary of the reserve. While the Kosi was ravaged for sand and boulders for constructing resorts, the fenced properties blocked the crucial wildlife corridor between the tiger reserve and the Ramnagar forest.

The land sharks next set their eyes on revenue land in the Kalagarh forest division inside the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Along the RamgangaRiver are some 46 village chaks that people abandoned a long ago because there was no access to the outside world.

As the forest department opened Durgadevi road in Kalagarh for tourists, the hoteliers saw business opportunity. Mukund Prasad, one of the biggest players in the tourism market of Corbett, bought land in Jamun village inside the forest at a dirt cheap rate and built Hideaway River Resort in 2004-05.

Prasad got a special permission from the forest department to use the park road to carry construction material, other requirements of the resort and even the guests. He also got the department to construct a 4.5 km road (see bill details) from the main Durgadevi road to the resort in the name of mahaseer conservation project.

A tripartite agreement was signed between the then director of the reserve D S Khati, Prasad’s company Leisure Hotels Ltd and the Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation for conducting angling sports in the Ramganga river for 30 years. Prasad also used a wide stretch of the Ramganga for recreation of his guests.


Image: A resort constructed on revenue land in Kalagarh forest division
Photographs: Photo courtesy: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava

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