BY PRAVEENA SHARMA
From the way the legal duel has played out till now, Goa will mostly likely have a tiger reserve. The question is; will this happen sooner, or later?
The possibility of a notified tiger habitat has been ripe since 2011, when the then Environment, Forest and Climate Change Minister Jairam Ramesh kicked off the process by shooting off a letter to the then Goa Chief Minister Digambar Kamat to submit a proposal to declare Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary and surrounding areas as tiger reserve.
What ensued after that was a battle of wits between the supporters of a tiger reserve and those who were hellbent on scuttling the project. Today, it has taken a legal turn – in July, the High Court of Bombay at Goa handed down a ruling directing the state government to notify the tiger reserve in three months (tomorrow, October 24, the deadline expires); on its part, the Goa government has appealed against the high court ruling in the Supreme Court (SC), which has refused to stay the HC order but has agreed to hear it.
The fate of its appeal in the SC has brought the state government to the edge of the cliff, forcing it turn back and knock on the HC’s window to extend the timeline for declaring a tiger reserve.
It’s looking to buy time to plan its next move; a delaying tactic that has been its favourite strategy in the game. Legally, the state government may not be able to stretch its time more than the original deadline period of three months or plead for indefinite extension.
At the moment, only the SC can reverse the HC judgement on the tiger reserve. The HC cannot modify its order as the case is now before the apex court. The SC has called on the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Goa Foundation, Goa Forest Department, Goa State Board for Wildlife and the Chief Wildlife Warden to give their views on the matter. Going by the predilection of most of these authorities in the HC, it is highly unlikely they would reverse their stand in SC. The next date of hearing is November 10.
The tiger reserve’s legal story began in 2020 after four tigers were found dead in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, prompting environmental NGO Goa Foundation to file a petition in the High Court. For the next three years, there was very little movement in the case except for the MoEFCC issuing a letter to the Goa government in 2022. Therefore, when it came up for hearing early this year, the NGO succeeded in establishing the urgency in the matter and was able to get a verdict in favour of notification of the tiger reserve. However, that was not the end of the road.
Close observers of the drama are puzzled by the fierce pushback from a powerful local political family to the project. This has perpetrated feudal culture that has taken root in the government system and slowed down democratic processes; on many instances even paralysed it.
What’s keeping environmental activists’ hopes up is the constitutional soundness of the statement that tiger reserve is inevitable in Goa. The tiger habitat project is not solely dependent on the state government.
The move to set up tiger reserves across the country by amending the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, to include allocation of funds for tiger conservation and making the prime minister NTCA chairman was a collective will of lawmakers in the parliament and cannot be overruled by any vested interest. The tiger enthusiasts’ only worry is that further delay in notification of tiger reserve should not take a toll on tiger life.