ALL encroachments in the eco-sensitive zone around the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan will be removed following a court order. The encroachments include residences, hotels and other commercial establishments. It has directed forest officials to take the help of the police and local authorities to remove them.
A December 2002 order of the forest department of Rajasthan had banned “all construction activities in this (500 m from the park boundary) zone”. But within a few months the ban was relaxed to accommodate a few “very very special” cases because “immediate application of this order had inadvertently hit adversely some hotel projects”.These were “granted a special relaxation for taking up construction within 500 metres of the park.
According to records of the office of the conservator of forests and field director, Tiger Project, Ranthambore, 12 hotels are located within 500 metres of the forest boundary. Of these, three are located on the forest boundary and one within the forest area (see graphicUnnatural intrusions). Besides, many of the residences, hotels and other commercial establishments are owned by well-known conservationists (see ‘Got it’, December 15, 2005).
But the May 25 order has made it clear that irrespective of prior permissions or relaxations, or how powerful a person is, every structure in the area will have to be razed. “There should be no leniency, relaxation or protection of any encroachment by whosoever powerful person within the eco-sensitive zone. All constructions, even as per prior permission, be removed after due notice to the party and it is expected of the courts also not to pass ex parte injunction orders without notice to the authorities and verifying the facts,” the order delivered by a single-judge bench comprising Justice Ashok Parihar, said.
On relocation, the court ruled “It will be just and proper that after identifying rehabilitating area the villagers should be shifted only after sufficient infrastructure (including drinking water, electricity, roads and even construction of houses) has been developed.” In a clear indictment of past relocation efforts, the court says that “the compensation fixed by the government is inadequate”.
The court ruled that funds from the central government and other sources meant for conservation and protection of tigers at Ranthambore are “not fully released by the state government and, even if released, the same are not properly utilised for development of the park”. The Tiger Task Force report in 2005 had noted “Ranthambore was the first to introduce a cess which was levied on each ticket so that at least part of the gate receipts could be reinvested into the park. Over the last few years…a total of Rs 6 crore has been collected. But unfortunately, the state exchequer has taken the decision to consider this ‘ecological cess’ as part of the normal gate receipts, and so the money has gone to the state and not the park.”
The court has now ordered “It is, therefore, directed that a separate account be opened in the name of Ranthambore National Park and all funds received, from whatever sources, should be deposited in the same account at the disposal of the chief wildlife warden…Even the amount collected from the entry tickets and the Eco Development cess should be exclusively utilised for development of the park”.
The court has also ruled that responsibilities from the tourism department should be shifted back to the forest department. “There should be no interference of the tourism department in regard to issuing entry tickets or otherwise so far as national park area is concerned,” says the order. It has also emphasized on the need to promote eco-tourism and ruled that the park “should be closed for tourists at least twice a week”.
This aside, the court observed that pollution-free CNG(compressed natural gas) vehicles are ideal for the park and until a CNG station is set up, only petrol vehicles will be allowed into the park. The court has also directed the filling up of 450 vacancies for forest guards, rangers and officers, and said that preference in the lower cadre posts should be given to local people.