Saturday, February 24, 2024

Pilgrims’ Progress, Wildlife Woes

The Court has asked a panel to look into environmental issues arising out of pilgrims visiting the core area of Sariska sanctuary. Other forests too have been bedevilled by this problem

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The Supreme Court recently set up a committee of experts to look into environmental issues arising from lakhs of pilgrims visiting Pandupol Hanuman Temple, located in the core zone of Sariska Tiger Sanctuary in Rajasthan and sought a report in six weeks. It is estimated that over eight lakh pilgrims visit this Temple annually and especially on Tuesdays, Saturdays and full moon days.

The Court directed a committee, comprising Additional Chief Secretary (Environment); Chief Wildlife Warden, Rajasthan; a joint secretary from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and a member from the National Tiger Conservation Authority and Wildlife Institute of India Dehradun, to find a lasting solution to this problem. The committee will also examine the feasibility of restricting two- and four-wheelers in the core zone and resettlement of 26 villages in the sanctuary.

A bench of Justices BR Gavai, JB Pardiwala and Sanjay Kumar observed that as lakhs of people visited the Temple every year, a team of experts needs to be constituted to find a solution. The bench stated that on perusal of an affidavit submitted by the deputy forest conservator and deputy field director of Sariska, it came to know that the state government was also attempting to find out a solution to this problem.

The bench was apprised by Amicus Curiae K Parameshwar that the ingress of pilgrims in the core areas of wildlife sanctuaries posed a grave problem in checking poaching. He said the primary problem was that two-wheelers were permitted inside the core area. Wildlife authorities were unable to use radio-tagging on two-wheelers, which had become one of the principal reasons for poaching. He said that lakhs of devotees visited the temples on some days, particularly during the month of Sawan. This happened during monsoons, which was the breeding season for many animals. He said that the problem persisted throughout the country as many places of religious worship were situated inside sanctuaries and national parks, which remained closed during this time.

As per the amicus curiae, the rule that a sanctuary or national park was to remain closed for monsoons did not apply in these cases, owing to government circulars to that effect. He mentioned a circular issued by the Rajasthan government, which permitted the pilgrims to enter the temples during the auspicious days of Sawan. Parameshwar further gave examples of Sabarimala, Tirupati and Srisailam.

Senior advocate Manish Singhvi, appearing for the Rajasthan government, informed the Court that the state government was exploring if only electric vehicles should be allowed to ferry pilgrims to the Temple and back. He also submitted that this Temple was very old and people had a strong belief in it. Further, a circular was in place that allowed them to visit the Temple even when the Sanctuary was closed.

However, pilgrims had also caused waste management and degradation problems in the core area, resulting in wild animals feeding on the waste. The Court also brought up the issue of relocating the 26 villages in the sanctuary and asked the state government to look into the matter.

The top court had in the past expressed concern over the unregulated visit of pilgrims to temples in core zones of sanctuaries. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Wildlife Institute of India in its Management Effectiveness Evaluation of Tiger Reserve in India – 2018 report said that increasing pilgrim footfalls was a serious challenge to the management of Amrabad Tiger Reserve in Telangana. NTCA also highlighted several flaws in the management of Kawal Tiger Reserve in Telangana.

The NTCA report said: “Saileshwaram, Uma Maheswaram, Maddimadugu, Akkamahadevi caves, Kadilivanam and Mallela Theertham are located in the core area of Amrabad Tiger Reserve. Around two to three lakh pilgrims from Karnataka and Maharashtra visit temples in the location during Mahashivaratri and Ugadi, creating a lot of pressure in the form of disturbance to the habitat and wild animals. Vehicular traffic, littering and forest fires have become major challenges for Amrabad Tiger Reserve despite measures taken to control pilgrimage tourism and garbage disposal.”

There are around 70 Chechnu tribal hamlets and two major villages having a population of 63,000 in Amrabad Tiger Reserve and a cattle population of 90,000. “Poaching attempts have also been reported. The invasive alien species Lantana, passage of national highway and proposal to widen roads are serious concerns,” the NTCA stated. Given the area of 23 base camps, the deployment of four strike forces and 141 protection watchers in the area is insufficient, the study said.

Pilgrimages don’t just take place in obscure forests, they occur in very prominent and highly protected areas, such as Ranthambore Tiger Reserve (RTR), Periyar Tiger Reserve and Gir National Park. Thousands of sites of worship and pilgrimage from different religions are found in forests across India, but there are two new disturbing trends.

The first is that a large proportion of visits to pilgrimage sites in protected areas today are not motivated by religious belief, but by recreational tourism. In the past, the remoteness and hardships incurred whilst treading difficult forest paths made religious sites in forests hard to access. These sites were small and visited by a few pilgrims, leaving a very small ecological footprint. Now, the number of pilgrims has steadily grown due to economic development and consequent access to better modes of transport. While many defend the rights of local people to make such visits, traditional pilgrimages have given way to a form of tourism, complete with new “festivals” that have no basis in religion or cultural practice, such as “January 1”.

A case study by a Ranthambore-based non-governmental organisation, Tiger Watch, measured these trends and found that the number of pilgrims in RTR had been steadily increasing. There were several large and small religious sites inside RTR, which was declared a tiger reserve in 1973. Before that, there were many villages within its boundaries, which were relocated. However, the religious sites in the villages remained inside the tiger reserve. This resulted in people coming back on pilgrimages.

The study identified a total of 352 religious sites within 615.49 sqkm (out of a total of 1,700 sqkm) of critical tiger habitat. All these sites were visited by 2.2 million pilgrims annually, out of which 1.2 million went to the famous Trinetra Ganesh temple in Ranthambore Fort, Rajasthan. The remaining one million pilgrims went to numerous smaller sites inside tiger reserves.

It was estimated that annually, 1,75,854 vehicles were going inside RTR during pilgrimages—1,10,300 vehicles went to Trinetra Ganesh Temple, while 65,554 vehicles accounted for the remaining sites. However, the vast majority of sites (208) were inaccessible by vehicles, causing pilgrims to traverse critical tiger habitat on foot. 

Pilgrimage sites have also seen a whopping growth in infrastructure recently: 16 sites were under construction, 18 have electricity, 10 have solar lighting, eight have borewells, 50 have handpumps, 36 are located near natural water bodies, 83 have loudspeakers and 186 sites have pilgrims cooking food for ritualistic offerings. The presence of non-biodegradable waste was found near all the pilgrimage sites.

Religious sites are usually found in prime habitat areas for wildlife. This is because they are normally located in the vicinity of natural water bodies like waterholes, waterfalls or springs. The locations of these sites mean that pilgrim activity has a direct impact on wildlife, especially when these areas are rapidly modified. This primarily disturbs wildlife because the water bodies fulfil the drinking water requirements of animals. But pilgrims also use them to bathe and immerse items of worship like flowers. All such activity makes these water bodies unsuitable for wild animals for significant periods of time.

When a large number of pilgrims visit any religious site, there are also possibilities of human-wildlife conflict. Traversing forested paths on foot has led to attacks on pilgrims by carnivores like tigers. In addition, the behaviour of wild species near religious sites has altered—they treat ritualistic food offerings as a food source. And some wild specimens living in the vicinity of such sites are visibly unhealthy upon observation.

This is a slow and more obscure manifestation of human-wildlife conflict. The cooking of food also ultimately leads to the destruction of vegetation and increases the risk of forest fires. Some of the pilgrims play music on loudspeakers and use musical instruments. This noise pollution dramatically increases during festivals, disturbing wildlife and forcing them to abandon all proximate areas.

It is, therefore, pertinent that pilgrimages should be planned in consultation with forest authorities so that those particular pathways can be monitored. Modes of transport to pilgrimage sites need to be restricted in order to control both pilgrim numbers and pollution. All infrastructural development on religious sites needs to be strictly regulated, not only to prevent an increase in size, but to halt the erection of facilities that will allow visitors to stay overnight in protected areas. 

—By Abhilash Kumar Singh and India Legal Bureau

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