The Bombay High Court at Goa has ordered the state government to notify the Mhadei wildlife sanctuary and other areas in the plans prepared by the Goa Forest Department officials as a tiger reserve under Section 38-V (1) of the Wildlife Protection Act within three months and asked the State government to take all steps to prepare a tiger conservation plan and forward it to the NTCA within three months from notifying the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary and other areas as a tiger reserve.
The High Court, in its judgement, which was also cognizant of the locals living in and around the sanctuary ordered that the State determine and settle the rights and claims of the Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers following the law as expeditiously as possible and preferably within 12 months from today.
The order was welcomed by Opposition parties and environmentalists, but was met with derision by Forest Minister and local MLA Vishwajit Rane, who said he would explore avenues to try and vacate the order and was keeping the option of approaching the Supreme Court open.
In its ruling, the High Court bench of Justices M S Sonak and M S Jawalkar ruled that the repeated recommendations by National Tiger Conservation Authority under Section 38-V (1) of WLPA (Wildlife Protection Act) are mandatory. “The State Government was bound to notify Mhadei WLS and other areas as a tiger reserve, given the recommendations of the NTCA on this issue,” the High Court said.
“NTCA’s communications contain proper recommendations, not merely suggestions or advice regarding notifying the Mhadei WLS and other areas as a tiger reserve. Repeatedly the NTCA exhorted the State Government to notify the tiger reserve expeditiously to arrest further degradation of the tiger and tiger habitat. The NTCA expert committee went to the extent of saying that the delay in notifying might as well render the Goan sanctuaries a death trap for the tigers accessing the well-defined tiger corridor. These strong observations were made after the State Government virtually ignored repeated NTCA and the Central Government recommendations. This led to the unfortunate death of 4 tigers in Mhadei WLS in January 2020,” the High Court said.
The State government had opposed the petition claiming that while it was “not opposed to notifying the area as a tiger reserve… the time was not right to make such a declaration…and that further studies were necessary, and the rights of the forest dwellers also needed to be settled entirely before such steps could be taken.”
The State government also took a stance before the High Court that since the final notification under Section 26-A of the WLPA is yet to be issued in cases of Bhagwan Mahaveer, Mhadei WLS (partly), Netravali WLS (partly), proposing these areas as tiger reserves without settlement of rights and claims of the forest dwellers "may be a premature, and will adversely affect larger public interest and further aggravate man-tiger conflict.”
When it comes to determining and settling the rights and claims of the various dwellers, the High Court noted that as per the time schedule prescribed under the wildlife protection act (two years), the State has failed to determine and settle the rights of forest dwellers.
“As if this was insufficient, the State of Goa now puts forth its own lapses as an excuse for not notifying this area as a tiger reserve,” the High Court observed.
“Thus, the State of Goa wishes to take undue advantage of its wrongful acts of defying the statutory timelines and the express direction of the Supreme Court on this subject. Such an excuse can hardly be countenanced. Based upon such reason and by trying to take undue advantage of its lapse, the State is not justified in not notifying the said area as a tiger reserve or contending that it would notify the said area as a tiger reserve only after rights and claims of the forest dwellers in the area are,” the High Court said.
The High Court, while observing that there “appears to be some misimpression that the moment the area is notified as a tiger reserve, there would be large-scale displacements of populations and the rights of the forest dwellers would be drastically affected.”
“This needs to be corrected. The material on record shows that the Goa Forest Department officials have already excluded the high-habitation areas from the proposed tiger reserve when preparing the plan. Besides, several provisions in WLPA and the NTCA Guidelines of 2012 stress the co-existence of humans with wildlife. Therefore, the Goa Forest Department officials must initiate a campaign to assure the scheduled tribes or other forest dwellers that their interests will not be adversely affected and their concerns will be suitably addressed,” the High Court said while adding that the Act mandates that the notified “areas are required to be kept as inviolate for tiger conservation, ‘without affecting the rights of the Scheduled Tribes or such other forest dwellers’ and notified as such by the State Government in consultation with an expert committee constituted for the purpose.”
“The Forest Department of the State of Goa must make forest dwellers, including in particular the Scheduled Tribes, aware that every care would be taken to secure their rights instead of creating an impression that their rights would be adversely affected by notifying the Mhadei WLS and other areas as a tiger reserve. Further, while preparing the tiger conservation plan, the State Government must address the local persons' livelihood concerns as required under Section 38-V (b) of the WLPA,” the HC said.