Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Gauhati High Court directs Assam government to conduct survey, take steps to minimise human-elephant conflict

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In order to see that the human-elephant conflict is minimised and the forest area is maintained and the encroachment removed, the Gauhati High court has passed certain direction for the state government.

The Division Bench of Chief Justice R.M. Chhaya and Justice Soumitra Saikia disposed of a suo motu PIL regarding encroachment of forest land in Goalpara Forest Division.

The present is based upon a letter written by wildlife lover Pranab Jyoti Sarma to the Chief Justice of the High Court. It is indicated in the letter that the wild elephants of Goalpara Forest Division and their habitats are in danger. It is alleged that the miscreants killed wild elephants brutally and barbarously, snapping off their valuable tusks and flesh. It is also alleged that such miscreants killed deer and other animals. It is also alleged that in Goalpara Forest Division, miscreants are taking dangerous tactics to drive out elephants from forest areas by soaking Jute bags into liquid bitumen and applying fire thereon to throw on the roaming elephants which causes injuries to such elephants. It is also alleged that in order to kill wild elephants, tactics like high voltage electric wire, poison are being used.

The letter also indicates that wild elephant casualties are found on Railway tracks and as many as 200 tuskers have been killed in such cases in Assam alone. It is also alleged that the State has also declared many sensitive areas where the risk of jumbo-train collision is increased. It is also alleged that there have been widespread illegal encroachers since last about 25 years and destruction of forest areas has increased. It is also alleged that because of deforestation of some areas of reserve forest and establishment of tea and rubber gardens, the entry of wild elephants and other animals is restricted. It is also alleged that the Assam Government as well as the Central Government have decided to destroy the forest area including the elephants’ habitats. This Court examined such serious allegations and the letter was registered as Suo Moto PIL.

The author of the letter has also annexed some coloured photographs as well as newspaper cutting of vernacular newspaper and information derived by him through RTI to buttress his averments made in the letter which is treated as Suo Moto PIL.

In response to the notice issued by the High Court, the respondents filed an affidavit-in-opposition on 10.08.2022 through the Divisional Forest Officer (respondent No.3) , Goalpara Division. It is contended by the respondent No.3 that the statement made in the letter that 200 elephants have died at the hands of illegal encroachers and miscreants is incorrect and it is contended that majority of the elephants deaths occurred due to natural causes or veterinary diseases.

According to the respondents, on the contrary, 311 people have lost their lives due to wild animal attacks. It is also contended by the respondents that there is no permanent wild elephant reserve under the Goalpara Division and in reality most of the elephants migrate from the neighbouring State of Meghalaya in search of food and shelter just for few days and in some isolated incidents, such migratory elephants come in confrontation with human population. The respondents have declared before this Court that rapid action team vigilant for 24 hours is constituted for awareness campaigns, watch towers etc. and has relied upon the data in the form Annexure-C and D to the affidavit, which enlist the measures taken to reduce human-elephant conflict in the Goalpara division.

It is also averred that in order to avoid any death of elephants by electrocution at the hands of miscreants, the forest department in cooperation with the civil and police administration maintains round the clock vigil to contain such incidents and satisfactory results have been achieved. It is also contended that with the help of civil and police administration, eviction drives are being undertaken. However, it is expressed that the encroachment is on a large scale and hence eviction drives with the help of civil and police administration is to be taken. It is also contended by the respondent authorities that while carrying out the expansion of National Highway No.37 specially in some areas which form elephants corridor, it is suggested that flyovers may be constructed to stop any loss to wildlife and CCTV cameras, recovery and restore vehicles are also requested to be provided for protection and control of the elephants.

It is further contended that even for expansion of the National Highway No.37, the suggestions made in the report dated 07.02.2022 have been taken into consideration and the proposal is to be submitted with certain changes to lessen the degree of loss of forest cover and to protect the elephant population by maintaining the existing elephants corridors by construction of underpass, viaducts etc.

Another affidavit-in-opposition has been filed by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife), Assam (respondent No.2) wherein it is indicated that the steps are taken for curbing the human-elephants conflict.

It is also averred that 25.67% of forest area is under encroachment either in the form of habitation or agricultural activity for which eviction drives are resorted to from time to time in order to maintain free movement of elephants from one patch to another. The affidavit also indicates the photographs of the steps taken to eradicate and/or prevent human-elephant conflict and for maintenance of forest.

Considering both the affidavits-in-opposition filed by the respondent Nos.2 and 3, respectively, the High Court opined that the respondent State authorities are taking some steps, however, in order to see that the human-elephant conflict is minimised and the forest area is maintained and the encroachment is removed, following directions deserves to be given;

i) The State Government in the Environment & Forest Department shall adhere to the steps already initiated by it and shall continue the same in order to curb any mischief or loss of life of both wild elephants and human beings.

ii) The state government is further directed to constitute a special task force to be headed by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, which would include the Divisional Forest Officer as well as the Superintendent of Police and Deputy Commissioner of Goalpara district as members of such task force which shall monitor the steps permanently.

iii) The Development Commissioner of Goalpara district and Divisional Forest Officer, Goalpara shall conduct survey of encroachment made in the forest area within a period of 3 (three) months from the date of receipt of copy of this order and shall immediately initiate steps for eviction of such illegal encroachment in accordance with law. However, it is clarified that while conducting eviction drives, the authorities shall follow the due process of law.

iv) The respondent authorities shall create facilities of veterinary treatment for injured elephants at the Headquarter of district Goalpara,

v) It would be the responsibilities of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest & Head of Forests Force, Assam, respondent No.2 to carry out the aforesaid directions.

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