New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the Madras High Court order directing resort owners and other private land owners in Tamil Nadu's Mudumalai to vacate and hand over possession of land falling within the notified elephant corridor to the District Collector, Nilgiris.
Terming it the duty of every citizen to protect and improve the environment including forests and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures, a bench of Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and Justices S. Abdul Nazeer and Sanjiv Khanna said: "We have no hesitation in holding that in order to protect the elephant population in the Sigur Plateau region, it was necessary and appropriate for the state government (Tamil Nadu) to limit commercial activity in the areas falling within the elephant corridor."
The bench said despite being a figure of traditional cultural reverence, today the elephant species is severely threatened in India.
"The crux of the problem is one that affects all wildlife in the country: land. As India's human population has grown exponentially in the past several decades, so has its demand for resources," it noted.
The top court's order came on the appeal of the Hospitality Association of Mudumalai challenging the Madras High Court's April 2011 order.
The association's submissions comprised of questions about the scientific accuracy of the expert committee's report and contentions that the dimensions as well as the location of the single corridor identified therein are at odds with authoritative scientific publications.
They argued that their resorts and other establishments do not fall within the historic corridors identified in these publications.
The top court, however, ruled that these assertions were dealt by the High Court which held that there was material on record to show presence of elephants as well as a past incident of human-elephant conflict, which resulted in the death of a French tourist, in the region where the appellants' resorts are located.
"The ever-growing need for land, infrastructure and energy requirements of our large population have slowly fragmented the elephant's natural spaces which are now surrounded by human habitation, agriculture, mining, roads and railways," the court said.
The High Court had also held that any absence of elephants from the areas surrounding the resorts was, in fact, due to the construction activities of the appellants, whereby access of the elephants has been restricted through erection of electric fencing.
On this, the apex court said: "We see no reason to interfere with the above factual findings of the High Court and also do not find fault in the state government's adoption of the recommendations of the High Court-appointed Expert Committee, through the impugned GO (government order)."
The association had also contended that there has been substantial variance between the acreage recommended for acquisition by the Expert Committee Report and the acreage in the GO.
The top court also appointed a three-member committee, headed by a former High Court judge, to inquire into the issues involved in illegal constructions.
The committee comprises Justice K. Venkatraman, former judge of the Madras High Court (Chairman); Ajay Desai, Consultant to World Wide Fund for Nature-India and Member of the Technical Committee to come up with a National Elephant Action Plan (NEAP); and Praveen Bhargava, Trustee of Wildlife First and former member of National Board for Wildlife.
This committee shall decide the individual objections of the resort owners' and any other persons claiming to be aggrieved by the actions of the District Collector, Nilgiris, pursuant to the GO.
The top court also junked the association's contentions that there is no statutory power for creating or recognition of new corridors by the state government.
"It is undeniable that the state government is empowered to take measures to protect forests and wildlife falling within its territory in light of Entries 17A 'Forest' and 17B 'Protection of wild animals and birds' in the concurrent list and the power of the state government under the Wildlife Act to notify Sanctuaries and other protected areas," said the top court.