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Hospitality Association of India v/s In Defence of Environment and Animals: Case Analysis

India has the largest population of Wild Asian Elephants in the world. As of 2017, India is home to over 27 thousand Asian Elephants which are spread over approximately 66 thousand square kilometers of forest in 15 different states of India. While this statistic might seem like a lot, it is important to remember that elephants are large agrarian animals that weigh around 4000 kg. They need to consume at least 200 kg of fodder per day in order to survive.

As a result, they need large open spaces to graze in. They graze forest areas in rotation to avoid overgrazing and give the land sufficient time to fallow and regenerate. Therefore, the aforementioned land availability is a tight squeeze for the large population of elephants in India.

Additionally, as India's population has grown exponentially in the past few decades. This adversely affected the elephants since the need for land by humans has grown in tandem with the population.

Forests are encroached into and fragmented to clear out land for agriculture. Elephants now have to travel long distances in search of food and water owing to this repeated encroachment by humans into their habitat. Further, elephants as a species do not inbreed within their herd. So, they travel to other herds in different regions in search of mates for reproduction.

This is why elephant corridors are crucial for their survival. Elephant corridors are narrow patches of forest vegetation that act as pathways from one large forest area to another. Elephants use these corridors to travel in search of food, water and mates. The corridors ensure minimal human-animal conflict and allow them to move peacefully. In essence, they help in the long term survival of the elephant species.

Facts of the Case
In 2008, a writ petition was filed by an organization called 'In Defence of Environment and Animals' before the Madras High Court impleading the court to take cognizance of the multiple human encroachments into the elephant corridors in Tamil Nadu. In response, the Hospitality Association of Mudumalai filed an impleadment application in the same case alleging that the writ petition was arbitrary and the existence of resorts and guest houses in the area don't affect or harm the animals.

Therefore, an Expert Committee was appointed to identify the area of the elephant corridor in Tamil Nadu. Following the publication of the newly identified elephant corridor's map several Petitions and PILs were filed challenging it. Appellants contended that there was no provision for appointing Expert Committees and that an 'artificial corridor' which wasn't frequented by elephants was being created, both of which the court refuted.

Later, in 2011, the court issued an order directing resort and land owners without proper permission and documentation to vacate the elephant corridor area (not including traditional forest dwellers and scheduled tribes). Further, construction in that area and use of electric, solar or barbed wire fences was to be stopped with immediate effect. The District Collector was ordered to submit a report regarding the resorts and guest houses and those that are being constructed in the elephant corridor. Those without proper documentation were sealed and shut down by the court. The District Collector also removed all solar, electric and barbed wire fencing in the elephant corridor area.

The present case is a series of appeals that were made in the Madras High Court in response to the orders of the court asking for the decision to be reversed. They also contended that the actions of the State Government and the District Collector were unlawful.

Arguments Advanced by the Appellant
  1. The first contention of the appellants was that their lands don't fall within the territory of the elephant corridor. Further, the government issued map of the elephant corridor was not scientifically recognized and aims to cover area that isn't traversed by elephants. They stated that the government's method of appointing an Expert Committee and drawing out the map of the elephant corridor was arbitrary and erroneous
     
  2. The appellants argued that they run small guest houses and resorts in the forest region. These establishments are compatible with the environment and don't harm the animals in any manner. They help tourists in acquiring sensitivity towards the animals and the forests and without the resorts and guest houses, the damage to the forests would have been enormous.
     
  3. They alleged that the map issued by the government of the elephant corridor was not in tandem with the authoritative research and literature published regarding the elephant corridor in the Sigur Plateau since 1972.
     
  4. Additionally, there is a significant amount of variance in acreage between the recommendations of the court appointed expert committee and the impugned government issued map of the elephant corridor. They contended that the government unilaterally adding and deleting private lands from the elephant corridor was outside their jurisdiction.
     
  5. The appellants alleged that the government was attempting to create a new and artificial elephant corridor in the area which is unlawful.
     
  6. Another contention of the appellants was that the plan of action prepared by the District Collector was fallacious and the action taken under this plan of action is also unlawful. They stated that the district collector illegally removed fencing from their property which wasn't inside the notified elephant corridor.

Arguments Advanced by the Respondent
  1. The respondents submitted the records and data collected by the District Collector. This data sought to justify the plan of action undertaken by the District Collector.
  2. Further, the contended that if commercial activities were allowed to continue in the elephant corridor, then it would pose a serious threat to elephants and affect them adversely.
  3. They also drew attention to the fact that the Sigur plateau and its location are very crucial not just for the elephant species but for multiple other animals from other forests as well. This is because it connects the forests in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.

Questions of Law Involved in the Case
In line with the aforementioned facts and arguments, the followed questions of law were raised for consideration before the Supreme Court of India:
  1. The first issue of the case was whether State Governments have the authority to create or amend elephant corridors.
  2. The second issue was whether State Governments can evict individuals from forest areas within its territory for the protection of flora and fauna.
Judgment
  1. The court started out by emphasizing upon the fact that elephants have been identified as a 'keystone species' by the Wildlife Trust of India. Hence, if the elephants are adversely affected, then it would have a butterfly effect on the rest of the animal and plant kingdom.
     
  2. Elephant corridors are crucial in protecting elephants. They ensure elephants can move freely in search of food and mates for reproduction. Hence, it is imperative these corridors are protected by the government.
     
  3. Legal intervention for the protection of these corridors has become the need of the hour. Humans have already encroached into these corridors and fragmented them for various social and economic factors. Continuing to permit commercial activities like running of resorts with barbed fences and excessive human interaction with animals will injure the elephants in their own habitat. Hence, isolation of the species from humans is necessary for its long term survival.
     
  4. The Sigur plateau of Tamil Nadu connects the Western and Eastern Ghats and sustains elephant populations in India and their genetic diversity. Every monsoon season, elephants have to migrate to other forests and for migration they need to pass the Sigur plateau. This corridor also connects the forests in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
     
  5. The State Government was asked to choose an elephant corridor and it picked the one presented by the Expert Committee because unlike the other alternative, the Expert Committee prepared a uniform map comprising of all the elephant corridors in the Sigur plateau.
     
  6. The contention of the appellants that the actions of the government were outside its jurisdiction was refuted by the court. As per 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, the actions of the State Government were legal and binding.
     
  7. The land that the appellants occupy had been notified as a private forest as per Tamil Nadu Preservation of Forests Act, 1949. Hence, the appellants' argument that their land does not fall within the elephant corridor is not maintainable.
     
  8. In T.N. Godavaraman Thirumulkpad v Union of India, it was held that felling of trees was prohibited in all forests within Tamil Nadu immaterial of whether the land is private or not. On those grounds, any construction in the elephant corridor was illegal and the actions of the government were justified
     
  9. On 13 December, 2019, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued a notification declaring that the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and its adjoining areas was an eco-sensitive zone. Regulation of commercial activities and private lands by the State Government is permitted in eco-sensitive zones. On those grounds the court held that the argument by the appellants was baseless.
     
  10. In M.C. Mehta v The Union of India, the court accepted and adopted the 'precautionary principle' as part of Indian law. Additionally, Articles 21, 47, 48A and 51A (g) of the Indian Constitution mandate the states to strive to protect the environment, forests and wildlife of the nation. This precautionary principle means that the state has t mandatorily anticipate and prevent those causes of environmental damage. Hence, the court held that the action taken by the State Government was necessary and correct to protect the forests and the elephants.
     
  11. The High Court of Madras held that the contention that the appellants lands don't fall under the territory of elephant corridor was factually wrong. There are records of elephants' presence near these establishments. If the elephants don't frequent any of these resorts, it is only because measures like electric, solar and barbed wire fences have prevented them from doing so. The court also presented the research undertaken by the Expert Committee to prove that its findings were scientific and accurate.
     
  12. As for the appellants stating that the District Collector's plan of action was arbitrary and outside the scope of the court's order, the court stated that a just and fair enquiry would be conducted into the matter to establish the truth.
     
  13. On those grounds, the court dismissed the appeals and upheld the government orders for the protection of the elephant corridor.

Ratio Decidendi

Through this judgment the court upheld that the State Government is empowered to take measures to protect the forest and wildlife falling within its territory. These measures can include evicting individuals from a particular area in order to protect an animal species. It is well within the jurisdiction of the State Government to undertake such measures. Further, when a State Government has to choose between protection of the environment and commercial activities, the former is of more importance.

Conclusion
This case upheld the rights of animals to their habitat and took strict action against those encroaching into the elephant corridors. It is a judgment that will age well with time in the age of globalization with corporate giants disregarding the environment completely. With the advent of multiple animal extinctions, this is a laudable ruling by the apex court of India.

Bibliography:
  1. Godavarman Thirumulkpad v. Union of India & Ors, 1997 2 SCC 267
  2. Hospitaity Association of Mudumalai v. In Defence of Environment and Animals, 2020 SCC 10 589
  3. MC Mehta v. Union of India, AIR 1987 965
  4. WTI, Right of Passage: National Elephant Corridors Project [Wildlife Trust of India 2005]https://www.wti.org.in/projects/right-of-passage/accessed on 9 July, 2021

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