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Okhla Bird Sanctuary gets a breather

By Kanchi Kohli

Following an application to the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court, the threats to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary in northern India are being addressed

Life in a city is tough and one is often in a situation where it is survival of the most powerful. This is especially the case when it comes to the amount of space one occupies, or the amount of water one consumes. It's not new for anyone living in a city to see our green spaces being built over, or nesting grounds for birds being converted into dumping sites. Those in power deem it necessary; others, most often, are silent spectators.

But sometimes things work out a little differently. And that's what gives us all hope.

The Okhla Bird Sanctuary is an internationally recognised 'important bird area'. It is situated at the point where the Yamuna river enters the state of Uttar Pradesh, leaving the territory of Delhi. This portion of the barrage is under the control of the Uttar Pradesh irrigation department. Around 3.5 sq km of the sanctuary fall in Gautam Budh Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh and have been protected since 1990, under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.

The fact that the area was protected, however, did not automatically ensure the health of the sanctuary or the hundreds of birds that make this their home. The sanctuary faced a number of threats, including:

  • Construction of a crematorium within the sanctuary.
  • Tarring of a road on the Okhla weir bund, and widening of the left afflux bund road on the sanctuary's border.
  • Heavy traffic was allowed to run on the left afflux bund road when four main roads exist barely 100 metres away.
  • Permits were issued for fishing within the sanctuary by the zilla (district) panchayat.
  • Construction of towers for high voltage lines by the Power Grid Corporation along the sanctuary's boundary.
  • Human encroachment within the sanctuary, including the dumping of garbage and defecation

Not only do such activities disturb the sensitive ecological balance within the sanctuary and impact the survival of the birds for which the sanctuary was declared, they are also clear violations of the law.

Widening and tarring of a road inside a wildlife sanctuary is a violation of Section 29 of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. This section clearly states: "No person shall destroy, exploit or remove any wild life including forest produce from a sanctuary or destroy or damage or divert the habitat of any wild animal by any act whatsoever or divert, stop or enhance the flow of water into or outside the sanctuary, except under and in accordance with a permit granted by the Chief Wild Life Warden..."

Such activities are also completely against the orders of the Supreme Court, in T N Godavarman Thirumulpad v/s Union of India, an ongoing case. An order dated February 14, 2000, issued in this case, restrains the removal of dead, diseased, dying or wind-fallen trees, driftwood and grass, etc, from any national park, game sanctuary or forest in the country.

These facts were brought out in an application filed before the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court. The application points to an interesting dimension of the issue. It highlights the fact that part of the sanctuary, though notified by the Uttar Pradesh government, actually falls within the limits of the Delhi government. Ironically, the Delhi government is yet to notify the area that falls within its territorial jurisdiction, under the provisions of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972. This impacts the management of the sanctuary and, in the past, has led to several illegal activities being allowed or going on unnoticed by the concerned authorities.

With this in mind, the applicant Faiyaz A Khudsar and lawyers Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Chaudhry presented an additional submission to the CEC. Besides highlighting the sanctuary's rich bird and plant diversity and water quality, the submission made certain recommendations. These included:

  • Shifting management of the sanctuary from the irrigation department to the forest department.
  • Utilising allocated funds that have been grossly under-used in the last few years.
  • Conducting a scientific study of the causes behind animal deaths.
  • De-silting, planting tree and grass species along bunds, prohibiting agriculture within the sanctuary, etc.

The CEC conducted a site visit to the sanctuary on March 9, 2006. Apart from the applicant, his lawyers and members of the CEC, active members of the Delhi Bird Club and Wildlife Trust of India were also present. As were officials from the forest department, including the chief wildlife warden, divisional forest officer, National Chambal Sanctuary Project, district magistrate, additional CEO of the NOIDA authority and representatives from the irrigation department.

According to Ritwick Dutta, lawyer for the applicant: "The district administration admitted to the violation and assured the CEC that immediate action would be taken to bring the road to its original condition. They further assured that all the violations would be taken care of according to the Supreme Court directives. The CEC said that it (the sanctuary) is one of the unique eco-sensitive areas in a humanised landscape which needs to be brought back to its pristine glory and serve as a 'model' protected area in an urban setup."

The CEC recently put together its report on the matter. Whilst noting that the road constructed within the sanctuary had already been dismantled, the following directives were issued in the report:

  • In the course of a month, two gates will be constructed by the NOIDA authorities to regulate the movement of people inside the sanctuary.
  • No fishing will be permitted within the sanctuary, as it is against the Supreme Court's February 14, 2000, order.
  • All encroachments within the sanctuary, including debris from demolished structures, must be removed.
  • Action towards the settlement of rights of people within the sanctuary must be expedited. The chief wildlife warden must pursue the matter with the concerned authorities.
  • A 10-year action plan for the integrated development of the sanctuary, with a Rs 9 crore budget, as prepared by the chief wildlife warden, must be examined.
  • A boundary wall must be constructed on a priority basis on the Delhi side of the sanctuary.
Although it has taken around two years from the time the application was filed, for the issue to be resolved, the fact that the CEC has agreed to monitor the sanctuary on a regular basis offers some hope that the future of the Okhla Bird Sanctuary will be brighter.

(Kanchi Kohli is with the Kalpavriksh environmental action group. This article was written as part of an information dissemination service on forest and wildlife cases in the Supreme Court. For more information on this service, write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Also visit www.forestcaseindia.org)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2006