CORBETT. NOW, ON SALE

Blocked wildlife cor­ri­dors across the Kosi river. Now a rash of pri­vate prop­er­ties in­side the tiger re­serve it­self. JAY MAZOOMDAAR ex­poses a scan­dal that could ruin one of the coun­try’s most pre­cious forests

Tehelka - - INVESTIGATION -

WITH ABUN­DANCE come con­se­quences. Corbett tiger re­serve ( CTR) has the world’s high­est den­sity of tigers. The last all-in­dia cen­sus in 2010 es­ti­mated 18 tigers per 100 sq km here. It also has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of tourist re­sorts found any­where around a for­est.

No­body keeps a count but there are at least 100 prop­er­ties in busi­ness and new ones are com­ing up ev­ery sea­son. Over the past decade, en­croach­ment of pe­riph­eral forest­land and block­ing of wild an­i­mals’ ac­cess to water bod­ies and ad­join­ing forests has be­come rou­tine along the Ranikhet road on CTR’S east­ern boundary. Now, the land mafia is buy­ing vast tracts right in­side the re­serve. Al­most ev­ery piece of land along the 17 km stretch of the Ram­ganga river — from Du­munda to Nag­ta­ley near Marchula — in CTR’S Dur­gadevi zone has ei­ther been bought or is up for sale.

Em­bold­ened by a lax and cor­rupt ad­min­is­tra­tion, the mafia, in col­lu­sion with a sec­tion of the state’s power elite, is forc­ing the vil­lagers who long aban­doned these is­lands of rev­enue vil­lages in­side the tiger re­serve, to sell their land. While the land deals are le­gal on pa­per, ev­ery other rule is be­ing bent to al­low con­struc­tion and bring busi­ness far in­side CTR. New for­est roads are cut in­side the re­serve with­out the Supreme Court’s per­mis­sion. Stone and sand are quar­ried from the Ram­ganga river. Even long stretches of the river and forests are be­ing used as pri­vate prop­erty to en­ter­tain tourists.

Vil­lagers keen to set up their own eco­tourism units in the same area are harassed and kept out, lest the mo­nop­oly of the big re­sorts gets com­pro­mised. While frus­trated lo­cals are sell­ing off their land dirt cheap un­der pres­sure, the mafia is “cut­ting plots” with atro­cious mark-ups of 400-1,600 per­cent for out­siders.

Mul­ti­ple lo­cal sources claim that the buy­ers in­clude In­dia’s who’s who, among them a young royalty who is the son of a for­mer BJP chief min­is­ter, a young turk in Par­lia­ment who lost his il­lus­tri­ous fa­ther in an ac­ci­dent, and a for­mer hus­band of one of the coun­try’s most con­tro­ver­sial cor­po­rate lob­by­ists.

THE IN­VI­TA­TION

It was the Ut­tarak­hand for­est depart­ment that opened up the CTR’S Dur­gadevi zone for tourism in the name of con­ser­va­tion. In 2004, the for­est depart­ment came up with the idea of al­low­ing an­gling in the Ram­ganga river to gen­er­ate rev­enue for the vil­lagers and dis­suade them from blast fish­ing, a de­struc­tive har­vest­ing prac­tice that threat­ened aquatic life.

The same year, Mukund Prasad, the Pilib­hit-based owner of Leisure Ho­tels and an old Corbett hand, ac­quired land in Ja­mun vil­lage on the Ram­ganga river, 8 km in­side the re­serve. CTR records of 200405 show that then di­rec­tor DS Khati, in vi­o­la­tion of the stand­ing SC or­der, cre­ated a 4-km road be­tween Ja­mun and the ex­ist­ing road to CTR’S Dur­gadevi gate. Prasad added an­other kilome­tre to that road across the river to com­plete ac­cess to his plot and to ferry con­struc­tion ma­te­rial for the prop­erty that has since been mar­keted as Hide­away River Lodge where rooms go for 15- 20,000 per night.

To al­low tourists ac­cess and overnight stay at Prasad’s prop­erty, the for­est depart­ment worked quickly on its plan to is­sue an­gling per­mits. Since Prasad had no an­gling cre­den­tials, GIG Mann of Dehradun­based Sport­ing Am­bi­tion was roped in as a proxy. No bids were called for but three other par­ties were also of­fered fish­ing rights to democra­tise the process.

In Novem­ber 2004, tri­par­tite Mous were signed among the for­est depart­ment, Van Vikas Nigam and re­spec­tive pri­vate par­ties, giv­ing them free rights to con­duct an­gling in 2-km stretches each along the Ram­ganga river for 30 years. Prasad got him­self the river stretch far­thest in­side the re­serve.

THE COL­LU­SION

Prasad’s agree­ment, how­ever, re­ferred to Leisure Ho­tels, a com­mer­cial en­tity, as An­gler’s As­so­ci­a­tion but the sig­na­ture on be­half of Leisure Ho­tels was that of Mann. Be­tween 2005 and 2008, Khati’s suc­ces­sor, for­mer CTR di­rec­tor Ra­jiv Bhar­tari, raised sev­eral ob­jec­tions to the flawed agree­ment and its mis­use by Prasad. He pointed out how Leisure Ho­tels was us­ing a part of the tiger re­serve as its pri­vate prop­erty with free ac­cess to the riverbed and the for­est roads even dur­ing the night.

“I no­ticed the ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in the agree­ment only in 2006. The new road to Ja­mun was also not in or­der ei­ther. But I could not have al­tered de­ci­sions taken by my pre­de­ces­sor (Khati). Any­way, the chief wildlife war­den (SK Chandola) was in charge of the an­gling project. Then, I was

trans­ferred,” Bhar­tari told TEHELKA.

But Prasad was the cho­sen one of the for­est depart­ment. In July 2006, then for­est min­is­ter Nav Prab­hat, Chandola, Bhar­tari’s pre­de­ces­sor Khati, suc­ces­sor Vinod Sing­hal and lo­cal MLA SM Sing­hal vis­ited South Africa on an of­fi­cial study tour. Khati hand­picked Leisure Ho­tels as the tour man­ager with­out call­ing for ten­ders and Prasad ac­com­pa­nied the team.

“Khati took ₹20 lakh from the gov­ern­ment for the tour. Out of which ₹10 lakh was given to Leisure Ho­tels, which sub­se­quently sub­mit­ted bills for around ₹7 lakh only. Khati and Prasad have al­ways been close,” claims RD Pathak, a for­est of­fi­cer who ap­proached the Lokayukta against Khati this March with a bunch of charges.

“Not all for­est roads are in man­age­ment plans. We spent only ₹22,000 to re­pair an ex­ist­ing road be­cause I had to pro­vide ac­cess to an­glers. The (an­gling) agree­ment was cleared by the state gov­ern­ment. I only signed it as the Corbett di­rec­tor,” Khati says in his de­fence.

Then chief wildlife war­den Chandola, how­ever, ac­cepted that the road was not le­gal. “We closed down the road when the is­sue was brought to my no­tice. I can com­ment on the agree­ment only af­ter hav­ing a look at it,” he told TEHELKA.

DOU­BLE STAN­DARDS

In the name of clos­ing down the il­le­gal road, the for­est depart­ment dug it up only yards be­fore it reached the Ram­ganga river across Ja­mun. Leisure Ho­tels keeps elephants at its Hide­away River Lodge and rou­tinely fer­ries tourists from the riverbed to the re­sort. But the dug-up road cut vil­lagers’ ac­cess to Ja­mun.

“We can­not go to our plots on jeeps any-

The buy­ers in­clude a young royalty, a young turk in Par­lia­ment and the for­mer hus­band of a cor­po­rate lob­by­ist

more and we do not have the per­mis­sion or the money to keep elephants. The depart­ment has been ha­rass­ing me for five years be­cause I want to set up tourist camps in my land that is ad­ja­cent to Mukund Prasad’s re­sort. If he can do it as an out­sider, why not me, a lo­cal,” asks Ajay Bhadula, a small-time sa­fari op­er­a­tor at Ram­na­gar who be­longs to a fam­ily that owned most of the rev­enue land in­side CTR.

Re­cently, the for­est depart­ment barred Ma­he­shanand Ghansela of Paand vil­lage from build­ing a hut­ment on his land at Lo­hachaur, 4 km down­stream from Ja­mun. “The gov­ern­ment nei­ther al­lows us to de­velop our land nor of­fers us com­pen­sa­tion. So we are forced to sell our land for ₹10- ₹15,000 per nali (20 nalis make an acre) and the mafia, in turn, makes huge prof­its by sell­ing it to out­siders who have the clout to twist the law,” rues Bhadula.

Sens­ing the dan­ger of big pri­vate play­ers en­ter­ing the tiger re­serve, Bhar­tari wrote to the col­lec­tors of Pauri and Almora in 2007, re­quest­ing them not to al­low reg­istry of land sales in­side CTR as there was a pro-

posal be­fore the Cen­tre to ac­quire these is­lands of rev­enue land by com­pen­sat­ing the ab­sen­tee vil­lagers.

Cur­rent CTR di­rec­tor Ran­jan Mishra sent the same pro­posal to Dehradun three months ago: “I have also asked for a re­view of the an­gling rights and re­quested the dis­trict of­fi­cials not to reg­is­ter land sale in that area. Though in buf­fer, the qual­ity of the for­est and den­sity of wildlife in Dur­gadevi is as rich as that of the na­tional park. No re­sort is in the in­ter­est of Corbett. But there is only so much within my pow­ers.”

The pri­or­ity of the Na­tional Tiger Con­ser­va­tion Au­thor­ity ( NTCA), how­ever, is to re­lo­cate vil­lages from core tiger habi­tats. “We do not have the money to com­pen­sate vil­lagers in the buf­fer,” says mem­ber-sec­re­tary Dr Ra­jesh Gopal, ad­mit­ting that the Dur­gadevi forests are among the finest tiger and elephant forests in the CTR. Yet, he would rather the state gov­ern­ment took the ini­tia­tive to se­cure it.

While ev­ery­body was busy pass­ing the buck, UP politi­cian Ak­bar Ah­mad Dumpy emerged as the game changer.

LOS­ING THE PLOT

Up­stream of Du­munda, the edge of the core area, vil­lagers of Paand, Teria and Jha­rangu own land till Kalak­hand. Barely a kilome­tre from Kalak­hand is Ja­mun. Then there are land hold­ings along the river by vil­lagers of Barasi, Barghat, Baluli, Jhamaria, Sankar, Marchula, Ban­dran and Nag­ta­ley in­side CTR.

While op­por­tunis­tic bro­kers were auc­tion­ing any plot they could grab in this vir­gin stretch, Dumpy, who owns River­side Re­sort, one of the ear­li­est ho­tels in Ram­na­gar, de­cided to strike it big in 2009. In the name of Bha­tia De­vel­op­ers and two prox­ies — aide Daroga Singh and lo­cal bro­ker Shambhu Singh — Dumpy bought al­most the en­tire vil­lage of Kalak­hand by 2011. TEHELKA has land doc­u­ments of Kalak­hand show­ing hold­ings by both Daroga and Shambhu. In an in­spec­tion re­port on 18 Oc­to­ber 2011, Dhu­makot SDM Anil Singh also noted that Daroga was build­ing a re­sort in Kalak­hand with Dumpy and ex- MLA Ran­jit Singh Rawat.

This re­porter ap­proached Dumpy, Daroga and Shambhu as a prospec­tive buyer. Near Baluli vil­lage, the price was 18 lakh an acre. It was a pack­age deal: “You will get to use a chunk of com­mu­nity land with your rev­enue land. That’s a bonus. Then we will run a JCB to make an ac­cess road. For con­struc­tion, just pick up sand and stone with a trac­tor from the riverbed.” What if the for­est staff ob­jected? “A few bot­tles (of whiskey) and a few (cur­rency) notes will take care of them. If there is any has­sle, ex- MLA Rawat will sort that out.”

At Ja­mun, land price climbed to 21 lakh per acre. “I also have land in Kalak­hand but I can­not sell any. Only Dumpy sir can de­cide,” ex­plained Shambhu.

“You should talk to my per­son there,” said Dumpy, di­rect­ing me to Daroga.

“Come over this Thurs­day, we all will be there,” Daroga sum­moned me to Kalak­hand. “But it will be 80 lakh an acre.”

The price dropped again down­stream to­wards Du­munda. So what is spe­cial about Kalak­hand? It is the VIP fac­tor, ex­plained Dumpy’s men. “Big peo­ple with black money can shell out any amount. They have enough clout to push for a road. Or maybe they will build a he­li­pad.”

The con­fi­dence is not mis­placed. In May 2011, BJP chief Nitin Gad­kari used his party let­ter­head (copy with TEHELKA) to write to then CM Ramesh Pokhriyal to al­low Daroga Singh ac­cess through for­est roads for agri­cul­tural work in Kalak­hand.

Con­tacted by TEHELKA, Dumpy ini­tially did not respond and got Daroga to call up and claim that there was “noth­ing il­le­gal about the land-hold­ing”. Soon af­ter, Dumpy de­cided to de­fend him­self: “Daroga is ca­pa­ble of buy­ing his own land like many oth­ers have pur­chased there. My land in Kalak­hand is in the name of Bha­tia De­vel­op­ers. We friends help one other while de­vel­op­ing such prop­er­ties. But I’m not sell­ing any land. The for­est depart­ment de­nied us road ac­cess so we use the riverbed to reach our plots on horse­back.”

Ear­lier, Shambhu and Daroga told this re­porter that Dumpy con­trolled at least 100 acres in Kalak­hand: “We have not reg­is­tered all the land in our name. Vil­lagers have been paid ad­vance money and we reg­is­ter plots di­rectly in the buy­ers’ names as and when they come along. So far we sold more than 20 plots, 5-10 acres each.”

But no prop­erty is safe so far in­side this for­est with­out for­ti­fi­ca­tion. Al­ready a few fenced plots have come up. Very soon, the re­serve may end for its an­i­mals at the bank of Ram­ganga, hemmed in by high-ten­sion wires and fences of lux­ury prop­er­ties.

Prasad is not wor­ried. “I have my PPP agree­ment with the gov­ern­ment for an­gling. But no­body else can buy land here be­cause there is no le­gal ac­cess. Dumpy is us­ing his bull force but I doubt how many buy­ers will take the risk. Any­way, I am pur­chas­ing as much land at Ja­mun as pos­si­ble to pro­tect the area,” he as­sures.

He should know. So should Dumpy. Their Corbett Hide­away and River­side Re­sort are two neigh­bour­ing mega prop­er­ties on the Ranikhet road. The road few wild an­i­mals dare cross.

TOURISM MESS

Along Corbett’s east­ern boundary and across the Kosi river, the lush forests of Ram­na­gar di­vi­sion have richer plant di­ver­sity than the CTR and a tiger den­sity (15 per 100 sq km) al­most as high. It is vi­tal that the CTR’S an­i­mals have ac­cess to Kosi and the forests be­yond for water se­cu­rity, reg­u­lar dis­per­sal and ge­netic health.

But in the 21 km east­ern boundary of CTR be­tween Ram­na­gar and Mo­han, only two nar­row pas­sages are avail­able to wildlife for ap­proach­ing the Kosi river, thanks to a tim­ber de­pot at Rin­gora, pro­lif­er­a­tion of walled re­sorts in Dhikuli and

two large set­tle­ments at Sun­derkhal and Chukam. As a re­sult, man-an­i­mal con­flict is on the rise with a spate of hu­man and tiger deaths re­ported in the past few years.

Out­side the for­est depart­ment’s ju­ris­dic­tion, the dis­trict ad­min­is­tra­tion has al­lowed this mind­less con­struc­tion boom in the 1-km-wide strip be­tween two prime for­est blocs and Kosi, the life­line of both CTR and Ram­na­gar, is be­ing rav­aged for its stone and sand.

The mush­room­ing re­sorts have lit­tle to do with wildlife tourism, though. In peak sea­sons, CTR of­fers 1,028 sa­fari seats a day. If even 30 per­cent of tourists go on both morn­ing and evening sa­faris, 685 unique tourists can en­ter the re­serve daily. If 20 per­cent of these tourists are day vis­i­tors, CTR’S re­sorts can ex­pect around 550 sa­fari tourists as guests.

At an av­er­age of 25 dou­ble-bed rooms per prop­erty, about 100 small and big ho­tels around CTR can ac­com­mo­date 5,000 tourists daily. Av­er­age high-sea­son oc­cu­pancy of 30 per­cent trans­lates to 1,500 tourists a day — al­most three times the num­ber that can en­ter the re­serve.

Clearly, lakhs of tourists, who do not even bother to visit the re­serve, oc­cupy CTR’S re­sorts. Some come for cor­po­rate ses­sions, oth­ers for rowdy wed­dings. They raise lev­els of sound and light pol­lu­tion, drain re­sources such as water and leave be­hind mounds of garbage.

The same model now threat­ens to ruin the Ram­ganga and Dur­gadevi forests. “Corbett is too pre­cious to be frit­tered away. We did what­ever pos­si­ble to con­trol the dam­age. Strict ac­tion is re­quired to rein in the land mafia,” says Anil Baluni, who re­signed as the vice-chair­man of the state For­est and En­vi­ron­ment Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee ear­lier this year.

By pur­chas­ing vil­lage lands in the buf­fer area, the out­siders can de­mand right to ac­cess and water. But the Cen­tre and the state will­ing, there are enough le­gal pro­vi­sions to re­strict land use and un­sus­tain­able com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties that pol­lute the for­est and water sys­tems in­side the re­serve.

Oth­er­wise, con­sider this re­port a call for in­vest­ment. If the au­thor­i­ties have will­ingly sur­ren­dered Corbett’s fu­ture to pri­vate hands, the re­main­ing 450-odd sq km re­serve for­est of the CTR buf­fer should also be up for sale soon.

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