The Hon’ble Supreme Court, on 14th October 2020, in the matter of Hospitality Association of Mudumalai v. In Defence of Environment and Animals and Ors. Etc. held that the Precautionary Principle makes it mandatory for the State Government to anticipate, prevent and attack the causes of environmental degradation.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that:
(Para 34) Wildlife Trust of India terms elephants as a “keystone species” because their nomadic behavior is immensely important to the environment. Herds of roaming elephants play several important roles in the ecosystem:
(i) Landscape architects: Elephants create clearings in the forest as they move about, preventing the overgrowth of certain plant species and allowing space for the regeneration of others, which in turn provide sustenance to other herbivorous animals. (ii) Seed dispersal: Elephants eat plants, fruits and seeds, releasing the seeds when they defecate in other places as they travel. This allows for the distribution of various plant species, which benefits biodiversity.
(iii) Nutrition: Elephant dung provides nourishment to plants and animals and acts as a breeding ground for insects.
(iv) Food chain: Apex predators like tigers will sometimes hunt young elephants. Further, elephant carcasses provide food for other animals.
(v) The umbrella effect: By preserving a large area for elephants to roam freely, one provides a suitable habitat for many other animal and plant species of an ecosystem.
Elephant corridors allow elephants to continue their nomadic mode of survival, despite shrinking forest cover, by facilitating travel between distinct forest habitats. Corridors are narrow and linear patches of forest which establish and facilitate connectivity across habitats. In the context of today’s world, where habitat fragmentation has become increasingly common, these corridors play a crucial role in sustaining wildlife by reducing the impact of habitat isolations. In their absence, elephants would be unable to move freely, which would in turn affect many other animal species and the ecosystem balance of several wild habitats would be unalterably upset. It would also eventually lead to the local extinction of elephants, a species which is widely revered in our country and across the world. To secure wild elephants’ future, it is essential that we ensure their uninterrupted movement between different forest habitats. For this, elephant corridors must be protected.
Legal intervention in preservation of these corridors has been necessitated because wildlife corridors are threatened by various social, economic and anthropogenic factors, as noted above. Commercial activities such as running of private resorts and construction of new buildings with barbed and electric fences within elephant corridors pose a serious threat of fragmentation and destruction of habitats. The long-term survival of the species depends on maintaining viable habitats and connecting corridors which maintain variance in the species’ gene pool and avoid other risks associated with habitat fragmentation and isolation of species. (Para 35)
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. (Para 39)
The State Government has statutory power for creating/recognition of new corridors. (This inference has been drawn on the basis of Para 39)
Articles 21, 47, 48A and 51A(g) of the Constitution of India give a clear mandate to the State to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wild life of the country. It is the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests and wild life and to have compassion for living creatures. The Precautionary Principle makes it mandatory for the State Government to anticipate, prevent and attack the causes of environmental degradation. (Para 40)
Copy of judgment:Judgement_14-Oct-2020
-Adv. Tushar Kaushik