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Forest Rest Houses will not be transferred to private entities to promote tourism: Supreme Court

Lalit Shastri

The Supreme Court today accepted the guidelines framed by the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) and ordered that the control of Forest Rest Houses located inside the forests, including their reservation, shall under all circumstances remain with the Forest Department.

The Supreme Court has accepted the guidelines framed by CEC for control and maintenance of Forest Rest Houses and Inspection Bungalows and made them the order of the Court.

Significantly, the apex Court has also ordered that Forest Rest Houses / Inspection Bungalows located within the forest area, including the Protected Areas, shall not be transferred to private and commercial entities in the name of public –private partnership or by whatever name such an arrangement is called, for promotion of any form of tourism including Ecotourism.

After due consultation between the Union of India and the applicant, guidelines were framed by the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) for the control of forest rest houses. These guidelines are acceptable to all concerned including the Union of India, the Supreme Court was told during the hearing in this matter.

The matter came up in the Supreme Court in response to applications filed by Bikram Singh, who brought to the Court’s notice that the Forest Rest Houses / Inspection Bungalows located inside the Forests were being misused for a variety of activities.

The Guidelines approved and passed as order by the Supreme Court

A. Forest officers are required to camp inside the forests where no alternate accommodation is available. Forest Rest Houses / Inspection Bungalows are facilities created for camping of forest officers primarily for discharge of their duties connected with conservation, protection and management of forests and wildlife. These Rest Houses have very limited number of rooms. Therefore the control of Forest Rest Houses, including their reservation, shall under all circumstances remain with the Forest Department.

B. The District Administration may, in special circumstances and for a limited period be granted priority reservation of rooms in the FRH/IB’s for specific purposes. At no circumstance the control of the FRH/IB’s located inside the forests be taken over by the District Administration / Government.

C. Forest Rest Houses / Inspection Bungalows located within the forest area including the Protected Areas shall not be transferred to private and commercial entities in the name of public –private partnership or by whatever name such an arrangement is called, for promotion of any form of tourism including Ecotourism.

D. The Forest Department should make every effort to retain the basic plan and elevation of old FRHs/IB’s many of which are heritage buildings, while making improvement / addition to these buildings.

The Supreme Court order, passed by a two Judge Bench of Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta, goes on to say that it is expected that these guidelines will prevent the misuse of Forest Rest Houses / Inspection Bungalows, particularly since they have the approval of the Union of India as well. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has been directed to circulate a copy of this order to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of all the States and ensure that they abide by these guidelines.

In May 2008,  the Madhya Pradesh Ecotourism Development Board had approved a proposal to develop forest rest houses and build up infrastructure to promote ecotourism in the State. It was decided at its general body meeting that year to develop the Daulatpur forest rest house under the Dewas forest circle as an ethnic ecotourism site. The Board had also selected ten forest rest houses for improvement for ecotourism activities in the forest area near the Samardha forest rest house falling under the Bhopal forest circle.

There was severe criticism from forest officers, who were unanimous in asserting that the initiative by State Ecotourism Development Board would be detrimental to ecology, biodiversity and the long-term objective of forest protection and wildlife conservation.

The Madhya Pradesh move to use forest rest houses to promote tourism was blasted in unequivocal terms with reasons at the initial stage by me in my regular news columns.

The opposition notwithstanding, the Madhya Pradesh Ecotourism Development Board went into the overdrive  mode to carry out its plan to promote ecotourism by using the forest rest houses. Due to the backing of the political executive that was being influenced obviously by vested interests, the Ecotourism Board even entered into an arrangement with the state forest department to offer boarding and lodging facilities in forest rest houses and organize conducted tours in inaccessible forest areas for tourists through advance bookings. In the past few years, this facility also has been available to the general tourists through online booking.

All this went on in Madhya Pradesh under BJP rule ignoring the fact that the forest rest houses were built to provide shelter and temporary resting space to the forest officers on inspection and study tours in the
interior areas. Some of these are more than hundred years old and have been maintained by the forest department to support forest management and conservation activities. The commercialization of these facilities has already left an adverse impact when it comes to meeting the forestry goals.

These rest houses are not proprietary rights of the Ecotourism Development Board and hence the decision by the Board to have access to these facilities for promoting tourism was not permissible as per the law of the land. Besides, its beyond comprehension how the control of forest rest houses was transferred into the hands of those managing ecotourism, especially since the forest property had been created to strengthen forest and wildlife management and not meant for recreation purpose. Diverting this facility to promote tourism was against the letter and spirit of the Forest Conservation Act. Even forest department was not allowed to sublet its property under this Act. As a consequence of the rickety initiative, subordinate service of the forest department and the range officers were finding it difficult to avail proper lodging facility while on duty inside forests and were being forced to spend more time towards managing these rest houses rather than on forest management activities.

Foresters took the stand that reckless tourism in forested areas would cause unnecessary exposure of local tribal communities to outside people. The resultant liaison has dangerous dimensions, they pointed out adding all this would lead to increase in poaching in and around Protected Areas as they could become an easy conduit to poachers. Forestry experts, when contacted, drew attention to the possibility of increase in occurrence of forest fires in the interior-most areas.A forest officer observed, the increased movement of people and logistic support to promote tourism would call for measures on priority to address issues like water supply, power generation, waste disposal and the increased demand for firewood. Please Click here for more

 

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