NAGPUR: The Nagpur bench of Mumbai High Court on Wednesday lambasted forest officials on an issue of misuse of ‘VIP entries’ and excessive tourism in Tadoba. The High Court bench comprising Justice B P Dharmadhikari and Justice Z A Haq, expressed dissatisfaction over the affidavit filed by Mukul Trivedi, CCF Tadoba, in the PIL filed by activist Avinash Prabhune, and personally called PCCF A K Mishra with all official records and directed to file affidavit giving details of VIP entries in Tadoba Tiger Reserve.
Counsel for the petitioner Adv Tushar Mandlekar began hearing by submitting that the affidavit although was filed by CCF on an issue of challenge to excessive tourism, exorbitant tour fees and misuse of VIP entries, the authorities had failed to defend the ‘exorbitant increase in safari fees to Rs 8000 per vehicle’ by giving any justified reasons and also pointed out that the affidavit was silent on VIPs, who visited the Tadoba Tiger Reserve in last one year. CCF Mukul Trivedi admitted in his affidavit that there was a large scale black-marketing and fraud in existing online booking system of tourist entries in Tadoba.
The High Court was unsatisfied with the submissions and reasons of the Forest Department in continuing VIP entries without maintaining the proper record.
The illegalities in functioning of the Forest Department were completely exposed when counsel for the forest Adv Shishir Uikey admitted the ‘fraudulent practices and black-marketing in online booking of tickets of Jungle Safaries in Tadoba Tiger Reserve’ in the court. He also submitted that the Forest officials were required to permit the VIP entries even on letters and request of Mantralaya Officers and succumb to pressures of various government officials. Counsel for the forest also tried to justify the steep increase in booking tickets of Jungle Safari to Rs 8,000 per vehicle because there was a rampant black-marketing of tickets on such rates. He submitted that instead of tickets being sold at higher rates in black market, let the government generate revenue.
The court was shocked to hear such a submission and refused to buy such an argument from Forest officials. The High Court said that a common man cannot be allowed to suffer due to the ongoing black marketing of tickets. The High Court observed that there was no logic and rationale to increase the Jungle Safari rates to Rs 8,000 only on the basis of ‘black-marketing’ by some culprits.
The High Court also wanted to know all the names and details of the VIPs visited during last one year, as it was convinced that the ‘discretionary powers’ of CCF were being misused for obvious reasons.
The counsel for the petitioner Adv Tushar Mandlekar submitted that the ‘Entry Rules 2018’ must be immediately quashed and set aside as it does not have any rationale in charging exorbitant fees of Rs 8,000 per vehicle from a common man and these rules were violating Article 14 of the Constitution of India. He submitted that the VIP Quota / Management Quota must be immediately stopped for its complete misuse by the Forest officials.
The counsel for the Forest demanded two days’ time to furnish the entire details of VIP entries in Tadoba Tiger Reserve. The High Court has adjourned the case for further hearing and posted the PIL on next week.
It may be recalled that the PIL was filed by wildlife activist Avinash Prabhune challenging and exposing the illegal activities in forest in the name of VIP Entries, excessive tourism, exorbitant charges of Jungle Safari etc. The petitioner stated that officials of Forest Department were violating the guidelines issued by NTCA of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and were giving primacy to tourism than to the wildlife protection.
Adv Tushar Mandlekar assisted by Adv Rohan Maliviya appeared for the petitioner. Additional Government Pleader Adv Shishir Uikey argued for the PCCF and Forest Department. Adv Ulhas Aurangabadkar, Additional Solicitor General of India argued for NTCA.