Administrative and financial sanction for improvement and maintenance of a forest road not in use for decades in the core zone of Srivilliputhur – Megamalai Tiger Reserve (SMTR) has come as a shocker to the activists in the southern districts.
Some of them have petitioned the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to stop any improvement work on this "illegal" and "non-existent" road in the core habitat of the newly formed tiger reserve.
Activists said the sanction was accorded in the previous AIADMK rule earlier this February when ₹ 51.15 crore was allocated for improvement of existing forest roads to BT surface roads with cross drainage work.
Of this ₹ 1.2 crore has been sanctioned for improvement of road between Upper Manalar – camp shed / Upper Manalar – Old Vellimalai in Theni district for a distance of 2.2 km.
"The irony is that it is a dilapidated old coop road of 27 km used for protection, perambulation by the Forest department. Megamalai RF notification clearly states that there exists only a one metre right of way in this entire stretch of this coop road of 27 km near Oothakudisa, and that too for a length of just 666.8 metres. This clearly shows that the one metre right of way is Reserved Forest that has been notified as Tiger Reserve," according to the petition.
The fifth tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu, notified on February 8, was crucial in two aspects. It would maintain the vital forest contiguity between Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) in Kerala and Kanniyakumari forests in the extreme south. Also it would be an extremely important buffer for the spill over tigers of Periyar Tiger Reserve.
In the petition to NTCA, the activists have said that a high ridge that divides PTR and SMTR was the core zone of both the tiger reserves covered with dense, evergreen forests. Also, this high ridge gives birth to Vaigai river in Tamil Nadu and Mullayar in Kerala.
The Tamil Nadu side of the ridge has many estates, whose access was through this road about 25 years ago. So there was an ever persistent demand by the estate owners to open this road for commutation, they point out.
An illegal dirt track path of 3.5 km was made by the estate owners by cutting through pristine forests and a PIL was pending before the Madras High Court, Madurai branch. "This 3.5 km illegal dirt track can easily be connected to the proposed road of 2.2 km," said an activist.
Activists charge that this was a blatant violation of the Forest Conservation Act in a critical tiger habitat, that too within 20 days of Tiger Reserve notification. Any road inside the tiger reserve has to be approved by the NTCA and the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee, they said.
The financial sanction was solely with the intent of helping estate owners with no concern for conservation, they charged.
Activists also want the present (DMK) government to initiate an inquiry into the sanctioning of money for maintenance of this forest road during the previous AIADMK rule despite knowing the fact that it was a tiger reserve.
Senior forest officials said the Wildlife Warden of the Megamalai Wildlife Sanctuary has personally inspected the area after receiving the complaint and that due official process would be followed in the issue, without favouring anyone.
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