Palamau Tiger Reserve
Ranchi, Oct. 30: If you think that poachers or dwindling prey are the top threats to the six Palamau tigers, you can’t be more wrong.
Jharkhand’s bureaucratic bungling is more lethal than bullets. The legal sanctity of the 715.85sqkm buffer zone of Palamau Tiger Reserve — the turf that sustains the ecology of the core area where big cats inhabit —is under the scanner of Supreme Court and Centre, thanks to a juvenile mistake by officials that no one knows how to cover up.
State babus informed the Centre the buffer zone figure without consulting 80 per cent of village gram sabhas in blatant violation of norms with the outcome that they can’t furnish any document to support their claim, risking penalty as high as denotification.
Supreme Court wanted all Indian states with tiger reserves, including Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha, to declare the exact status of their core and buffer areas so that it could lay down dos and don’ts for each.
Tardy Jharkhand, after sitting on the directive for years, woke up when the apex court gave its last deadline extension of July 5. It submitted its buffer area details in a tearing hurry on July 20 without consulting gram sabhas of around 80 villages.
Jharkhand officials obtained consent from hardly 20 and the rest were done “through proxy”. Then, the state went ahead to notify the Centre that the Palamau reserve was spread over 1,129.93sqkm, with core and buffer areas of 414.08sqkm and 715.85sqkm.
According to Wildlife Protection Amendment Act, 2006 (Section 38V), reserve and state department of forests and environment (wildlife wing) officials are supposed to consult gram sabhas of all villages in the tiger habitat’s buffer — in this case, over 100 — before going ahead with notification.
As matters stand now, the state, which thought it had done its job in July, is now in a fix.
In October, the Union ministry of forests and environment wrote to its Jharkhand counterpart, asking for copies of the resolution of the gram sabhas and supporting documents, so that they could place the papers before Supreme Court.
Understandably, the forest department doesn’t have any document.
“What officials at the helm of wildlife wing did was unpardonable. Technically, if gram sabhas don’t give consent, the legal sanctity of buffer zones gets diluted. If now villagers don’t endorse what the officials sent to the Supreme Court in July, it will open a Pandora’s box of disputes and the buffer zone will get de-notified. Without a buffer zone, the tiger reserve will go under,” said a senior functionary of forest department secretariat.
Jharkhand officials’ college-prank attitude will have far-reaching national consequences, especially now, when the national spotlight is on the economic and ecological implications of tiger tourism, forest dweller rights and man-animal conflict.
A watertight core and buffer area demarcation avoids overlapping or discrepancies between wildlife protection rules and The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
When The Telegraph asked senior officials in the wildlife wing why the apex court was misled, they argued that a buffer zone in the Palamau reserve existed from the late 1970s. “We don’t necessarily need gram sabhas’ consent,” said one.
That defiance is groundless as Wildlife Protection Amendment Act, 2006 (Section 38V) clearly states the need to consult gram sabhas. Without this, the tiger reserve may miss out on funds, developmental schemes and its very identity as a protected habitat.
At the top echelons, there is no defiance, only sublime ignorance.
State forest secretary Alka Tiwari confirmed that they received the Centre’s letter. “But I am not aware of the entire issue as I am new to the department. I have asked the wildlife warden to explain so that we can do all that is required now,” she said.