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Heavy Vehicles Allegedly Plying In Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve: Madras HC Seeks State's Response, Suggests To Install CCTVs

Sebin James
24 Feb 2022 1:48 PM GMT
Heavy Vehicles Allegedly Plying In Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve: Madras HC Seeks States Response, Suggests To Install CCTVs
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In the matter pertaining to the night traffic ban in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, Madras High Court has asked the Additional Advocate General to file an affidavit detailing the possibility of CCTV installation at the entry and exit points as well as at every 5 kms in the 27 km Bannari-Karapallam stretch.For the time being, the first bench of Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and Justice...

In the matter pertaining to the night traffic ban in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, Madras High Court has asked the Additional Advocate General to file an affidavit detailing the possibility of CCTV installation at the entry and exit points as well as at every 5 kms in the 27 km Bannari-Karapallam stretch.

For the time being, the first bench of Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and Justice D. Bharatha Chakravarthy has directed the immediate installation of temporary CCTV Cameras at entry and exit points to ascertain the type of vehicles plying in the stretch.

Previously, in a public interest litigation filed for effective implementation of a 2019 notification issued by the Erode District Collector banning traffic movement in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, the Madras High Court had directed that the restriction should come into force from February 10, 2022.

According to the Erode District Collector's order, plying of commercial vehicles on the stretch of National Highway between Bannari and Karapallam within the tiger reserve from 6 pm- 6 am was banned. Similarly, the Collector's order also restrained private vehicles, light commercial vehicles and other four-wheelers from plying on this stretch between 9 pm - 6 am with effect from February 10.

While passing the order today, the court slammed officials responsible for the unfiltered plying of heavy vehicles in the region, disregarding the rules.

"The difficulty is in the system. This, in turn, creates difficulties for people who are residing in the region...The type of chaos created by your officers, we cannot trust them", Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari orally observed.

The court has also asked AAG J. Ravindran to ascertain if any area in the region is used for commercial purposes and not just agriculture. The AAG will also submit details on the alternative routes that can be utilised for the movement of traffic. After giving directions about the details that must be included in the affidavit, the court also made a warning: "If a false affidavit is filed, we know how to handle the officers."

Today, the court also wanted the affidavit filed by the Additional Advocate General J. Ravindran to contain details about whether the electricity supply in the area would allow the installation of CCTV cameras every 5 km. The court also wants to know how and under what circumstances did the trolleys weighing over 60 tons were allowed to ply in the region despite the clear signboard at the entry point prohibiting the same.

In today's order, the court has made a modification to its erstwhile order that imposed a complete night-time ban by permitting the movement of vehicles intended for emergency medical requirements at all times through the stretch.

The court took note of the blatant violations when the counsel for P.L Sundaram, N.G.R Prasad produced photographs of the stretch while contending that the night travel ban must be lifted.

The court also wants details about the functionality of the weighbridge installed in the area for preventing vehicles carrying heavy loads from plying in the region.

The court has also made it clear that if any trolleys exceeding 60 tons is found to be traversing the ghat road that has only 24 feet width in the hills and 30 feet in the plain areas, the defaulting officer would be made responsible.

"In a road that has just the width of 24 feet, if two trolleys are passing through, imagine how difficult it would be especially at a high altitude. What will the villagers do in an emergency if there is a traffic block on the road?", the court asked the counsels.

The court also made it clear that this is just an interim order and the final order will be passed after the receipt of the respondent state's affidavit and once the legal arguments of all the counsels are heard. The bench has posted the matter for further hearing on 28th February, 2022.

Arguments Raised

When the matter was taken up today, Senior Counsel A R L Sundaresan appeared for S. Kannaiyan argued that the 2019 notification was issued by the District Collector unlawfully when only the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) can decide on restrictions that can be imposed in National Highways. The District Collector passed the order in 2019 without consulting with NHAI, he submitted.

Senior Counsel Mr. Sundaresan also went on to argue that there is no alternative route for traffic movement at night time if the traffic ban is strictly imposed in the region. By virtue of this ban, over 80,000 people living in the area has been adversely affected, he added.

At this juncture, the court posed two questions to the counsels concerned: i) What is the law regarding the authority competent to impose restrictions in National Tiger Reserves, and ii) If 80,000 people have been residing in the said area, why was it declared as a tiger reserve.

The court clubbed the two petitions challenging the District Collector's notification long with S.P Chockalingam's petition for effective implementation of Collector's order and heard the parties in the afternoon session.

Sundaresan once again iterated that transportation of farm produces and other perishables have been severely affected by the ban. Advocate N.G.R Prasad submitted that he has filed 103 affidavits from villagers detailing the difficulties posed by such extreme restrictions. He also added that the District Collector passed the order without public consultation in 2019.

Regarding the movement of vehicles in the forest region, he also referred to the Supreme Court order pertaining to the core area of Bandipur National Park in the State of Kerala Transport Department v. L. Srinivasa Babu & Ors. (2019).

According to the counsel, in the said case, Supreme Court asked for the strengthening of an alternative route while giving directions to uphold the status quo i.e. the ban on night traffic on the stretch between 9.00 p.m. and 6.00 a.m. It is pertinent to note that the Karnataka High Court judgment in P K Fravesh v. The State Of Karnataka (2010) that formed the contentious matter before the Supreme Court suggested using a stretch in Sathyamangalam as an alternative route.

"In respect of the other National highway bearing NH-67 leading to Ooty, an alternate route through NH-209 passing through Chamarajnagar and Satyamangala is said to be available which no doubt has a longer distance by 70 Kms, but there is no grievance with regard to the condition of this road", the high court had noted in the 2010 order.

Referring to the above case, counsel Mr. Prasad submitted that there are no alternative routes that the people of the Sathyamnagalam region can resort to.

He also referred to Section 38 (V) of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 to establish that the law envisages co-existence between wildlife and human activity with due recognition of the livelihood, developmental, social and cultural rights of the local people in buffer zones and peripheral areas where a lesser degree of habitat protection is required.\

He also added that the Act also underscores the protection of the rights of local people, particularly the Scheduled Tribes.

"My point is that Supreme Court was justified in upholding the night traffic ban in Bandipur Reserve on the ground that there is an alternative route. however, there is no alternative route in the case at hand", he submitted before the court.

He also added that the movement and livelihood of people residing inside 144 hamlets in the region that spreads over 24,000 hectares with lots of agricultural lands is currently facing difficulties due to the ban. He added that children are walking to attend the schools due to the traffic ban.

The court responded that they were initially only implementing the Collector's Order. Chief Justice also acknowledged that there was chaos to an extent when the ban was imposed upon the population all of a sudden due to lack of preparations; however, the same is not the situation right now after the lapse of two weeks, he observed.

The bench also clarified that there is an alternative route that the trolleys don't opt for due to the longer distance that must be covered. Another reason for avoiding the said route is the reduction in toll charges through the ghat road.

"If we lift traffic ban for villagers alone, it will be misused by others", the court orally noted its apprehension.

The court also added that there are 27 hairpins on the stretch which is difficult for large lorries to maneuver. When they attempt to do the same, it creates traffic jams posing more difficulties for the local population, the court observed.

When the matter was about to be concluded for the day, the Field Director of Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve also appeared before the court through video conferencing and requested to waive off the entry fees paid by local vehicles.

The court noted that all the matters will be addressed in the final order and adjourned the writ petitions to next Monday.

Case Title: S.P Chockalingam v. Principal Chief Conservator of Forests & Ors. & Connected Matters.

Case No: WP 1830/ 2022 (PIL) & Others

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