CI recently received this very pertinent question (in our ‘Ask CI’ section) from Suraj Kumaar of Coimbatore: “I would like to know what kind of rights for worship are provided to tribals and forest dwellers (villagers) inside PAs? We have been recording the temple festivals inside Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary over the last two years and the situation is one of absolute mayhem. Between 70,000 to 1,50,000 visitors, over 700 buses, trucks visit two temples deep inside the sanctuary. One temple, Karuvannarayar, is 18 kms from the Forest Checkpost and the Masi Temple is close to 45 kms deep inside the Moyar valley. Liquor flows freely, animal sacrifice is rampant, plastics, tree felling, open air cooking in dry scrubland is causing enormous stress. The land otherwise is a haven for wildlife with the highest density of tigers reported here. The Forest Department is a mute spectator. Kindly advice.”
We requested Praveen Bhargav, Managing Trustee of Wildlife First, to field this question. Since many PAs are plagued by similar problems, we think that his answer has wide relevance. Here’s what he had to say: Unfortunately, there are no quick fix solutions to this sensitive issue, and, as such, its resolution may need some sustained and well strategised effort with help from senior forest/revenue/police officials and charismatic community/social leaders who may be favourably inclined. It may also be necessary to co-ordinate with like-minded conservation and other activist groups working in the area. In terms of the specific issues, here are some suggestions: There can be two different scenarios –
- That the place of worship may be un-authorized and/or there are no rights granted to any person(s) and hence all the festivals may be un-authorized activities (please see the SC Order on un-authorized places of worship); or
- That a limited number of people in identified villages/hamlets may have been granted some rights on some specified days (Eg. On Mahashivarathri or car festival day etc.)
In my preliminary view, option 2 may be the case with respect to Sathyamangalam, but over a period of time it may have grown out of control with people coming in from outside due to lack of regulation. As a first step to tackle this issue, I advise you to obtain certified copies of the following documents under RTI –
- The original Reserved Forest (RF) notification (which contains the name, area and boundary description of the RF including the accompanying ‘B’ Register (which lists the claims to lands, other rights and easements (width of right of way – footpath or cart track etc) along with the decision of the forest settlement officer) and ‘C’ Register (which records the area taken up for forest).
- The detailed map with outer boundaries and enclosures clearly marked.
This will provide the correct picture of the correct legal position on the rights allowed during the forest settlement process including temple enclosures as recorded in the notification. You can then analyze who has rights and what is permissible.
“Between 70,000 to 1,50,000 visitors, over 700 buses, trucks visit these two temples deep inside the sanctuary”.
Unregulated influx of pilgrims or tourists is a major challenge in many Protected Areas. Clearly, such large numbers of people and vehicles need to be regulated. There have been efforts at such regulation in many places including, Gomukh in Gangotri NP, Jyothirling Shiva temple in Bhimashankar Sanctuary, Sabarimala in Periyar Tiger Reserve etc. In fact the Kerala HC has passed a judgment to regulate the influx of pilgrims which you could look up on the web. Apart from what you may have documented through photos/videos etc, obtaining some official records from forest/muzrai depts or panchayats to support your allegations on such influx may be necessary to build up a strong case.
“One temple, Karuvannarayar, is 18 kms from the Forest Checkpost and the Masi Temple is close to 45 kms deep inside the Moyar valley. Liquor flows freely, animal sacrifice is rampant, plastics, tree felling, open air cooking in dry scrubland is causing enormous stress”.
While it may be impractical to seek complete stoppage, you could probably start with interventions to seek better regulation, stoppage of liquor, camping/cooking etc. The Chief Wildlife Warden is empowered under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA) – S 27- restriction on entry; S 30 – prohibition on kindling fire; S 33(b) & (c) – steps to ensure security of wild animals and measures in the interest of wildlife; S 34-A – power to remove encroachment; to control the kind of situation that you describe. He can even order that all pilgrims can enter only in designated mini-buses of the department/government in batches to visit the temple and exit thereafter. In Bandipur, such efforts yielded good results with a drastic drop in the number of pilgrims when uncontrolled entry, cooking, camping, loudspeakers etc during the annual fair was stopped. You could also petition the Chief Wildlife Warden to create facilities for parking, cooking, camping etc on the edge of the Sanctuary where an appropriate check post is established with sufficient staff. The immediate reaction of the Forest department may be negative and they may try to plead helplessness by citing reasons of staff shortage. This can be easily handled by mobilizing additional staff from other ranges or even neighbouring divisions on high traffic days. The Collector, if sensitised, can play a key role since he can order deployment of reserve police or even impose prohibitory orders if the situation demands. There are other wings of the Forest department like mobile or flying squads which can also be deployed on certain days. If your efforts with the administration does not yield results, you could generate media interest and stories or try two other legal interventions –
- You could issue a notice to the Chief Wildlife Warden under S 55(c) of the WLPA on the violations with supporting evidence and seek action. If no action is initiated within sixty days, you can file a complaint before the jurisdictional Judicial Magistrate First Class through a lawyer. The Magistrate, after a preliminary inquiry, will take cognizance of your complaint and initiate criminal proceedings for violation of law; Or
- You can file a well researched Writ Petition before the Madras High Court supported by proper evidence (photos, RTI documents, letters to authorities, media reports etc) and seek stoppage/regulation of activities detrimental to wildlife.
However, you must bear in mind the fact that this is a very sensitive issue. Each situation may be different and has to be handled very tactfully in order to find robust solutions that will eliminate or minimize pressure on wildlife habitats.