Nainital, May 26 (ILNS) The Uttarakhand High Court has flayed the district administration of Uttarkashi for violating the fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of Van Gujjars, observing that the families of Van Gujjars were forced to live in open tents in an open field, under the open sky.
The Division Bench of Chief Justice Raghvendra Singh Chauhan and Justice Alok Kumar Verma yesterday directed the District Magistrate of Uttarkashi and the Deputy Director of Govind Pashu Vihar National Park, Uttarkashi, to ensure proper food and shelter for the forest dwellers, while also conducting their COVID-19 tests.
The Bench passed this order on a PIL filed by Think Act Rise Foundation through Arjun Kasana. According to Mr Kasana, “‘Van Gujjars’ are the largest forest dwelling community in Uttarakhand. They have been residing in the forest areas for the last more than hundred years. During this part of the year, they come down to lower areas of the state. A few of the families of Van Gujjars had migrated to Govind Pashu Vihar National Park, Uttarkashi.
The petition said, “Since these families are valid permit holders of the Park, they should be permitted to enter the premises to eke out their living in the forest itself. However, ever since they have reached the place, Deputy Director of the Park, Komal Singh, is not letting them in.
“These families are forced to live in open tents under the sky. Moreover, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and due to the lockdown, these families cannot sell their milk to the neighbouring villages.
“They are reduced to hand-to-mouth existence. In fact, their lives have been reduced to ‘below animal existence,’ for they have neither any shelter to live in, nor any economic means to survive,” it added.
The petitioner prayed that immediate arrangements should be made for these families by the District Magistrate, and by the Deputy Director of the Park.
Advocate General SN Babulkar informed the Court that migration of these persons may endanger the wildlife within the Park. For, Novel Coronavirus may spread from human beings to animals. Hence, until and unless the families are declared COVID-negative, they cannot be permitted to enter the Park.
In rejoinder, Mr Kasana submitted that it is the duty of the Government to test these persons, and if they are found to be negative, then they should be permitted to enter the Park. Till they are tested, a reasonable arrangement should be made to save their lives.
Mr Kasana said that under Article 21 of the Constitution, these persons have as much right to live as any other citizen.
The Court said that a bare perusal of the photographs submitted with the Supplementary Affidavit clearly reveal that families are forced to live in open tents, in open field, under the open sky. The photographs also show small children and newborn babies, being wrapped in blankets, and sleeping on the ground. The photographs also reveal that some cattle are tied next to the tent, and some cattle have died.
The Court held, “It is, indeed, trite to state that Article 21 of the Constitution forbids the state from reducing the lives of its people below the animal existence. Every citizen not only has a right to live, but also has a right to live with dignity.
“However, it seems that the callous attitude of the Deputy Director of the Park, and of the Civil Administration has forced these families to survive in conditions, which are below the animal existence.
“Prima facie, the fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution is being violated by the respondents. Therefore, the Court directs the Collector, District-Uttarkashi, and the Deputy Director of the Park to ensure that these families are comfortably accommodated in ‘Pacca houses’.
“They shall be provided with food, water, and medicines. They shall also be provided with fodder for their cattle. It is further directed that all the families shall be tested for COVID-19. In case, they are found to be negative, and if they are valid permit holders, arrangements shall be made to permit them to enter the Park for the duration allowed by law”.
“The District Magistrate, District Uttarkashi, and the Deputy Director of the Park are directed to submitted their reports with regard to the substantial steps taken by them to implement the directions issued by the Court. The said reports shall be submitted on or before June 15, 2021”, the Court ordered, while fixing June 16 as the next date of hearing. ILNS/AP/RJ