Decoding the judgement on Jim Corbett

GS Paper III

News excerpt:

In its ruling in March, the Supreme Court brought to light the unholy nexus of politicians, forest officials, and local contractors responsible for the felling of 6,000 trees in the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. 

More about the case:

  • The Supreme Court condemned the illegal felling of over 6,000 trees to construct buildings, ostensibly for “eco-tourism” at the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand
  • The court held the case as a “classic case” of nexus between politicians and officials working to ransack the environment for short-term commercial ends.
  • The court also directed the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to form a specialised committee to study and recommend whether tiger safaris should be permitted in the buffer or fringe areas of a tiger reserve.
  • The judgement initiated a CBI probe into the case and directed the Central agency to submit a report of its investigation in the next three months.

Committee to assess damage:

  • The proposed specialised committee of the Ministry would comprise representatives of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Wildlife Institute of India, Central Empowered Committee and a Joint Secretary from the Ministry. 
  • It would assess the extent of damage done to the Corbett reserve’s green cover, quantify the cost of restoration and identify the “delinquent” persons and officials responsible for the damage.
    • The cost for restoration would be recovered from these errant individuals and officials. The money would be used exclusively for forest restoration.

Court’s ruling on Ecotourism and Tiger Safaris:

  • The Supreme Court said that instead of treating ecotourism as a panacea for conservation and revenue generation, that the approach must be of ecocentrism and not anthropocentrism. 
  • The court directed the banning of tiger safaris in core areas and the constitution of a committee to explore the feasibility of permitting tiger safaris in peripheral areas of Tiger Reserves.
  • The guidelines would be applicable in all tiger reserves across India.
  • SC also disagreed with the 2019 guidelines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority permitting a tiger safari on the lines of a zoo in a national park. 
  • The court stressed that tigers should be sourced from the same landscape as where the safari is being conducted and not outside the tiger reserve.

Precautionary Principle for Environmental Conservation:

  • According to the Precautionary Principle it says “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent such environmental degradation.”
  • In order to ensure that there is least damage to the environment the Court invoked this principle while banning Tiger Safaris in core areas.
  • According to British environmentalist Norman Myers, the precautionary principle is becoming an established principle for policymakers tackling environmental problems.
    • Myers had said, “In salient respects, the principle applies to biodiversity more than any other environmental problem. This is because the mass extinction gathering force will, if it proceeds unchecked, not only eliminate half or more species but will leave the biosphere impoverished for at least 5 million years.”
      • Out of 1,212 animal species on the IUCN red list in India, 12% are endangered.
      • According to a report of the Centre for Science and Environment in 2021, India has lost 90% of the area under its four biodiversity hotspots. 
    • The precautionary principle therefore applies not only in the case of tigers, but also other species, especially endangered ones.

Gaps in Court’s judgement:

  • The Court’s decision to assess the damage done to the green cover of Jim Corbett and recover the same appears to be a mirage in the absence of a well-defined methodology.
  • Restoring costs doesn't fully compensate for the environment's lost ability to provide goods and services.

Methodologies used in India to recover compensation for loss of forest:

  • In India, the framework of valuation which predated the T.N. Godavarman case (1996) was aimed at replacing lost natural forest with compensatory plantations. 
  • The two choices which are supported legally and institutionally and serve as the background for the valuation of forest land in India are now compensatory afforestation levy and net present value (NPV)
  • Compensatory Afforestation Levy:
    • Compensatory Afforestation Levy was introduced in 2016 through the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016.
    • The Act provides the legal framework for compensating the loss of forest and ecosystem services due to diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes as per provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. 
    • The CAMPA funds including Net Present Value (NPV) are received from various user agencies as compensatory levies in lieu of diversion of forest land and are project specific. 
    • The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Rules, 2018 (CAF Rules) provide the manner in which NPV funds are to be utilised by various State/Union Territory (UT) Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). 
  • Net Present Value (NPV):
    • Net Present Value (NPV) is the value of ecosystem goods and services of forests lost due to diverted lands.
    • It is a mandatory one-time payment  for diverting forestland for non-forest use, under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
    • The levy is essentially a form of replacement cost, designed to replace the forest land which was lost as a result of diversion of forest towards non-forestry use. 
    • Since the Levy is found to be insufficient in terms of making good the loss, the Court introduced the NPV in 2002 as an additional payment obligation.
  • But both these methodologies do not rightly account for the correlation between the removal of trees and the harm caused to other environmental goods and services.

Way Forward:

  • In the context of the growing degradation of biodiversity hotspots and the support to revenue-generating eco-tourism, a valuation method which is based on ecosystem services (food, water, and services regulating the climate and floods, etc.) is a must. 
    • The system refers to the benefits people obtain from natural ecosystems in contrast with man-made structures. 
  • The Court could have set a precedent by saying that ecosystem services are more important and generate more revenue than eco-tourism or raised the need of putting in place a precise law and policy relating to ecosystem services. 
  • The reasoning provided by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in Costa Rica v. Nicaragua (2018) could have been used to understand the methodologies in evaluating damage to the environment.
  • The ICJ asserted that damage to the environment, and the consequent loss of the ability of the environment to provide goods and services, is compensable.

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