By Harshal Deshpande
Bhandara-Gondia: A shocking incident of illegal Murum sand excavation with alleged involvement and complicity of Forest officials in the Nawegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve (NNTR) forest area has come to fore again with Environment and wildlife activist calling for an impartial investigation into the matter and immediate suspension of the officials involved in carrying out the illegal excavation inside the Reserved forest area. Wildlife activists have also alleged foul play in the forest department of Navegaon-Nagzira range.
The matter of illegal Murum sand excavation and deforestation was reported by ANI in its June 5 report and was successfully covered by several regional newspapers.
The ANI report states that a total of 400-500 trees were completely uprooted in the core zone of NNTR with a purpose of excavating Murum sand. The report states that the excavation and deforestation of trees was done illegally in violation of Indian Forest Act 1927 and Wildlife Protection Act 1972 (Amended again in 2006).
Its importance in conservation of Tigers.
Nawegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve (NNTR) was notified as 46th tiger reserve of India on 12th December, 2013. It is 5th Tiger reserve of Maharashtra situated in Gondia and Bhandara Districts in the North-Eastern corner of the state. Gondia district shares common boundaries with the states of Madhya Pradesh & Chhattisgarh on North and Eastern side respectively. Strategically the Tiger Reserve is located in the heart of central Indian Tiger landscape which contributes almost 1/6 of the total tiger population of the country. This area is an excellent abode to almost all major floral and faunal species found in central India. NNTR comprises of the notified area of Nawegaon National Park, Nawegaon Wildlife Sanctuary, Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary, New Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary and Koka Wildlife Sanctuary. Except 17.6 ha. land in Nagzira sanctuary, (Nagzira tourism complex) and 251.46 ha of PF in Koka sanctuary, rest has been notified as the Critical Tiger habitat as per Sec. 38 (v) of the WLP (Amendment) Act 2006.
NNTR has connectivity with the major tiger reserves in Central India like Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, Pench & Tadoba-Andhari TR in Maharashtra, Indravati tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh and indirectly with the Kawal & Nagarjunsagar Tiger Reserve in Telangana & Andhra Pradesh and Achanakmar TR in Chhattisgarh. It is also connected to important tiger bearing areas like Umred-Karhandala sanctuary and Bramhapuri division.
What happened in NNTR?
Activists have alleged that on 20th March 2020, machineries including JCB and 3 tractors were allowed to enter NNTR from Pongezara gate. Some machineries were allowed entry from Mangezari gate. As per various sources, the machineries were facilitated entry for excavation of Murum sand from core zone and the excavation was conducted for almost a month. Activist Sachin Rangari from ‘People for Animal (PFA)’- an organisation working for protection of Animals and conservation of wildlife, wrote to National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Chief Minister of Maharashtra on June 1st with regard to it and asked for action against the Forest officials involved in facilitating illegal deforestation and excavation.
“From March 20th, the machineries were allowed to enter in the NNTR region from Pongezara gate. Some machineries were allowed entry from Mangezari gate on 12th May with an intention to conduct excavation activity in various compartments in core areas. The excavation continued for more than a month leading to large scale deforestation. On March 24th, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nationwide lockdown to control COVID 19 spread but this did not stop the excavation activity that took place in NNTR. As per certain information that I tried to uncover and investigate, it was found that the excavation activity and deforestation had no permission whatsoever from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate change.”, said Rangari.
In a letter to NTCA, PFA had asked for immediate action against the violators of laws that prohibit excavation and deforestation of trees in Tiger Reserves without sanction and permission from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF).
The letter dated 1st June 2020 mentioned-
“Murum Excavation took place in Compartment No. 96, 98, 109, 120, 121, 125 & 126. These compartments are also part of core zone. Tree cutting took place in these compartments of core zone of the Tiger Reserve. About 400 trees were cut down in Compartment No. 125 & 126. The tigers path runs along Compartment No. 125 & 126.”
The letter also mentioned that in Compartment No. 97, 55 to 60 trees (aged 25to 60 years) were uprooted with the help of JCB machine and ploughing was done on the cleared field. Compartment No. 97 is a part of core zone and tigers namely T-9, T-4, T-8 and their cubs reside in this Compartment along with 700-800 Deers and Sambhars. The trees that were cut down belonged to Lendi, Tendu, Sihna, Surya, Zudpi, Kudwa species.
The letter mentions number plate of the JCB (MH 35 G 5921) that entered NNTR core zone from Pongezara gate on 20th March and exited on 23rd April from the same gate. The JCB again entered the core zone from another gate- Mangezari Gate, on 12th May. It urged the NTCA to take strict action against the authorities who allowed and facilitated the illegal excavation of Murum sand and deforestation in NNTR core zone that resulted in disturbance to the natural habitat of tigers and other animals.
Citing the letter, Mr. Sachin Rangari said that the activities are in violation to the Provisions of Indian Forest Act 1927, Forest Conservation Act 1972 (Amended in 2006). “We demanded immediate suspension of the official involved in enabling these activities. We also demanded formation of investigation committee with one member from PFA Bhandara.”, said Mr. Rangari.
ANI in its report had quoted the JCB driver and few other labourers saying that the JCB and tractors were used for digging and excavation of Murum sand. They told ANI reporters that trees and bushes were cleared in order to dig pits and excavating Murum sand for constructing roads.
PFA wrote to Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Chief Minister of Maharashtra, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Principal Conservator of Forest of Maharashtra state demanding immediate investigation in this case.
Action taken by authorities
Upon the Complaint by PFA, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra intervened and an enquiry was launched by the Office of Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), Maharashtra State. Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) East, Nagpur, was deputed for that purpose. A report of enquiry was submitted to PCCF in this regard.
The enquiry report denied any incident of illegality in the excavation and deforestation. The felling of trees was attributed to torrential rain of 31st May. The report further stated that the JCB and tractors were used for the purpose of road repairing as the road used by the forest officials for regular patrolling in that area was rough. It denied all the allegations related to felling of trees in Compartment No. 97, 96, 98, 125, 126, 109, 121.
This report was approved by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCFF) on 10th June 2020 and a copy of it was sent to NTCA, Maharashtra Government and MoEF.
Response to the report
In another letter to Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), People for Animals (PFA) responded by pointing out several flaws and problematic claims in the enquiry report that was filed. Environment activist Mr. Sachin Rangari termed it as ‘bogus’ and an ‘attempt to cover-up’ the illegal activities of excavation in the core zone of NNTR.
The letter highlighted that the excavation even for road construction in the core zone without any approval of the MoEF was in violation of Forest Conservation Act 1980 and Guidelines for road repair in Protected areas.
It also pointed out that the reason mentioned in the report for felling of trees was not true as the actual deforestation and felling of trees in the compartments mentioned happened in the month of April and not on 31st May. PFA has photographic evidences dating a period from April to May 20th.
The letter alleged that the Regional Field Director Poonam Pate had talked about the ‘illegality’ of the excavation in core zone on the Whatsapp group ‘Nagzira Sanctuary’. “This in itself is a proof that the excavation activity was illegal and the official in the forest department of NNTR were aware about its illegality. The whole report they have presented before the PCCF is filled with false claims.”, said Mr. Rangari.
The Enquiry report accepts that the excavation was done to repair the roads. But as per Guidelines for road repair in Protected Areas, excavation inside a tiger reserve, which itself is a Protected Area, is not permitted. The materials required for road repair should be brought from outside while repairing work is carried out. In addition to that, cutting and felling of trees with an intention of widening the roads is also not permitted.
People For Animals (PFA) has alleged that the officials like Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (APCCF) have played a major role in cover-up of the involvement of Conservator of Forest, Regional Forest Officer, Field Director and Deputy Field Director in the illegal excavation and deforestation activities.
PFA has demanded strict action against the officials involved in illegal excavation and deforestation in NNTR core zone.
When Conservator of Forest, NNTR, Mr. R M Ramanujam was contacted, he told us that activist Sachin Rangari was making baseless allegations. “I have personally visited the spots and found that there has been no deforestation.”, said Mr. Ramanujam. When asked about the Murum Excavation, he said that the forest department had the power to conduct excavation in the forest area for the purpose of maintenance of the roads in the area or de-siltation of the lakes within the core zones.
We also contacted the PCCF Mr. Nitin Kakodkar. He told us that a committee has been constituted by the Government of Maharashtra after taking cognisance of the complaint filed by PFA.
Mr. Sachin Rangari later on updated us that an investigation team has been constituted and one member from PFA will be a part of the team.
Story by- Harshal Deshpande