New Delhi: The Assam government used a whopping Rs 1.1 crore from the tiger conservation fund of the Kaziranga National Park to pay for food, tents, carpets and mementos as it hosted former President Ram Nath Kovind and his wife at the national park for two nights in February 2022.
A Right to Information or RTI reply from the office of the field director of the national park has also shown that an additional Rs 51 lakh was allocated by the Office of the Principal Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden of the state, M.K. Yadava, from another wildlife fund of the national park to lay out the red carpet to the visiting dignitary. As per the state field director’s reply, a total of Rs 1,64,16,000 from the funds meant to protect wildlife in the national park were spent to ensure two nights of comfortable stay for the President and his entourage by the park authorities.
In July 2021, state chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma visited the Rashtrapati Bhawan to extend an invitation to President Kovind to visit Assam.
Today I called on Mahamahim Rashtrapati Sri Ramnath Kovind ji at President House. I am extremely proud to have received Hon President’s blessings & guidance.
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) July 2, 2021
The President’s office accepted the invitation to visit from February 25 to 27, 2022. The chief minister announced to local media that during the three-day visit, the President would attend a range of events including the convocation ceremony of the Tezpur Central University on February 22. After this, Sarma said, which President Kovind and his entourage were to go on a retreat to the Kaziranga National Park before returning to Delhi on February 27, 2022.
President Ram Nath Kovind inaugurated an exhibition on Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve, Assam. The President was briefed about wildlife-friendly-initiatives. He exhorted the Government and people of Assam to take forward their conservation efforts. pic.twitter.com/OlsX6LNmgI
— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) February 27, 2022
Chief minister Sarma grabbed considerable media attention then by suggesting that the fact that the President’s House had accepted his invitation to visit Assam was an accomplishment of his government. “We extended an invitation to the honourable President for the visit and he consented to our request,” he said.
However, a recent RTI reply from the office of the field director of the national park to local animal rights activist Rohit Choudhury has shown that the visit, particularly to the Kaziranga National Park, had led to money being taken from the tiger conservation fund. The state government also dipped into another corpus meant for spending only on wildlife conservation.
Speaking to The Wire, Choudhury said, “I filed the RTI on May 18, 2022, on hearing unofficially that the President of India was hosted by the National Park authorities by using funds meant for its wildlife. On failing to get a reply from the park authorities, in August 2022, I appealed twice to the state information commission under the RTI Act. Ultimately, the Commission issued a notice to the park authorities to supply me with the information which I got on November 30, 2022. So you can say that I had to wait for six months to get this information officially from park authorities.”
In the November 30 reply, the park authorities stated that an amount of Rs 1,12,60,397 was “sanctioned as per [the] provision of the Rule 25 (B)(2) of the Assam Tiger Conservation Rules 2010 from the fund of Kaziranga Tiger Conservation Foundation to the Divisional Forest Officer cum Deputy Director, Eastern Assam Wildlife Division, Kaziranga Tiger Reserve” to arrange for the visit of the President of India to the park on February 26 and 27, 2022 as “grant in aid”.
The Kaziranga Tiger Conservation Foundation is funded by the park’s earnings from the jeep and elephant safaris. The state has two other such Foundations at the Manas and Nameri reserves. These Foundations were set up under Section 38x of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
Team @kaziranga_ with Honourable President Shri Ram Nath Kovind ji who graced Kaziranga with his presence along with Honourable CM Shri @himantabiswa ji@rashtrapatibhvn @moefcc @ntca_india @assamforest @mygovassam pic.twitter.com/ANHhcQhmbZ
— Kaziranga National Park & Tiger Reserve (@kaziranga_) February 28, 2022
The Rule 25 (B) (2) that the park authorities used to justify the spending, says, “The 90 per cent of the funds generated through tourist entry fee and other charges etc. shall be utilized for the activities mentioned below and 10 per cent of the fund shall be kept in fixed deposit as society fund.”
A perusal of the rules, however, highlighted that the funds are meant to be used only to augment tiger conservation and also for eco-development initiatives through local people’s participation and for spreading of awareness among them about conservation.
None of those activities mentioned in the Rules included diverting funds from the Foundation to meet the costs of a visit by a dignitary.
Additionally, the chief wildlife warden Yadava sanctioned Rs 51,97,581.00 for the visit of which Rs 41,653.80 remained unspent, said the reply.
The broad break-up of expenditure mentioned in the annexes attached to the RTI reply showed some of the following purposes:
|Rs 1,94,650||To a contractor, Kailash Patwary, “to provide manpower for clearing a tourist road” in the Kohora area adjacent to the park.|
|Rs 2,43,768||For “providing breakfast, lunch and dinner on February 20, 2022” – in apparent in preparation for the dignitary’s visit – at JB’s Resort, Kohora.|
|Rs 97,940||For “purchase of air purifier” from one Dayananda Saikia.|
|Rs 2,88,300||For “providing lunch, breakfast on 22nd and 23rd February, 2022”.|
|Rs 3,58,000||For “providing lunch, breakfast on 26th, 27th and 28th February, 2022”.|
|Rs 49,560||To serve tea on February 26, 2022, at the IORA resort, Kohora.|
The last sanction is noteworthy as it notes an expense of almost Rs 50,000 for tea on one day.
A sizeable amount of money from the tiger conservation fund was also shown spent on renovation work of various inspection bungalows for the visit.
While the field director of the Tiger Reserve is the executive director of the Foundation, the president of its governing body is the minister in charge of wildlife and the vice president is the principal secretary/commissioner and secretary at the Department of Environment and Forests. The principal chief conservator of forests is its member, as are several others including the local MLA.
On being asked about the park authorities misusing the tiger conservation fund during Kovind’s visit, the state forest minister Chandra Mohan Patowary told Assamese media that he was unaware of it and would enquire into it.
“The Kaziranga National Park director cites (to local media) orders from powers above for incurring expenditure from the tiger conservation foundation’s funds for purposes not bonafide. When he says ‘powers above’, I hope he is not referring to divine sanction,” retorted Choudhury.
On February 22, Choudhury wrote to the state chief secretary requesting reimbursement of the funds used from the Kaziranga Tiger Conservation Foundation, a copy of which has also been sent to the chief minister. The activist said, “I have not received any response on that letter.”
The Kaziranga National Park is considered one of the rare wild breeding grounds for Royal Bengal tigers and leopards in India. In 2006, the park was declared a tiger reserve and is believed to have one of the highest densities of tigers in the world. As per 2022 census, the park has 124 tigers, an increase in population, from the 104 it had in 2017.