The National Green Tribunal has directed the West Bengal government to close all hotels and restaurants or camping stations inside the Buxa Tiger Reserve in the northern part of the state within two months, stating that the conversion of forest villages to revenue ones cannot be allowed to permit commercial activities in such areas.
The NGT’s eastern bench also directed that a facility run by the state tourism department be closed down and turned into an interpretation center, which if not done within two months will have to be demolished.
In its order on May 30, the tribunal mentioned that the stand of the state government is hotels, restaurants/camping stations are not permissible in the forest area. The NGT directed that establishments operated by private persons ”may accordingly be closed within two months following due process, which will be the responsibility of the state PCB (Pollution Control Board), field director, Buxa Tiger Reserve, and district magistrate”.
The state informed the tribunal that establishments run by it have been closed while proceedings have been initiated against the facilities operated by private players. The tribunal had noted that there are 69 establishments under private ownership in Buxa Tiger Reserve and 20 facilities are owned by the state, of which some are in the core area of the sanctuary and some on the banks of river Jayanti. The forest department had earlier informed the NGT that the activities of these lodges are confined to areas that were once ‘forest villages’ and designated as ‘revenue villages’ in 2014.
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It also said all the 69 tourist lodges, hotels, and restaurants operated by private owners are ”confined to enclave revenue villages which were earlier forest villages”.
The department stated that there are 37 such revenue villages inside the forest areas of Buxa Tiger Reserve. An affidavit filed by the state in February this year had mentioned that conversion of the forest villages to revenue ones was made in terms of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which ”does not require approval of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980”.
The eastern bench of the NGT said in its order that while protection of forest rights under the law of 2006 may not require the following of procedure under the conservation Act of 1980, ”the same cannot be held to permit commercial activity in such area”. The NGT directed that an establishment run by the tourism department in Buxa be handed over to the forest department and used as an interpretation-cum-training center for nature conservation and management. ”If the establishment is not transferred to the forest department within two months, the same will be demolished which will be the responsibility of the district magistrate, Alipurduar,” it directed.
The directions by the NGT came on a review prayer by the state tourism department on its order on July 27, 2017, which had mentioned that the establishment operated by it be demolished. The tourism department claimed that it is a camping station on the outskirts of Jayanti village and there is no permanent structure. Applicant Subhas Dutta had moved the NGT, mentioning the existence of private and government tourist lodges and restaurants in the Buxa Tiger Reserve area.
Dutta, an environmentalist, alleged that at present hundreds of new establishments have come up in the name of tourism leading to ”extreme tourism” in Buxa.
Holding that operation of a stone crusher unit within 100 feet from the edge of the river Laity cannot be allowed since the Central Pollution Control Board guidelines require at least 200-meter distance from a river, canal, or lake for any such activity, the NGT also directed the state PCB and the district magistrate of Alipurduar to take action within two months from the date of the order.