The Karnataka and Kerala governments entered appearance before the Madras High Court on Thursday following the notices issued to them for appointment of nodal officers who could assist a court-constituted Special Investigation Team (SIT) in probing 19 elephant deaths in Tamil Nadu between 2014 and 2018.
A Special Division Bench of Justices N. Sathish Kumar and D. Bharatha Chakravarthy took note of the appearance of Additional Government Advocate Shweta Krishnappa representing Karnataka and Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer Prakriti Srivastava representing the Kerala government and directed them to obtain instructions by December 22.
When both Ms. Krishnappa and Ms. Srivastava reported to the court that incidents of elephant poaching were close to zero in their States, the senior judge on the Bench told them that offenders from those States were poaching in Tamil Nadu and therefore the SIT required assistance from the two State governments in nabbing them.
The Bench directed the government law officer and the IFS officer to obtain necessary instructions from their governments on appointment of nodal officers and file individual reports by next month.
Subsequently, while hearing another case related to the death of elephants due to train hits on the two tracks between Palakkad in Kerala and Podanur in Coimbatore district, the judges restrained Southern Railway from operating the trains beyond 30 kmph on the stretch at night.
Though P.T. Ramkumar, standing counsel for Southern Railway, pleaded with the court that it would not be technically feasible to restrict the speed to 30 kmph owing to the gradient, the judges refused to budge and said the life of animals, too, were as important as human lives.
The judges said Southern Railway, being a mammoth organisation with a great amount of technical expertise, should find ways to restrict the speed on the stretch or the court would have no option but to ban the night traffic altogether in the interest of the elephants.
They took a serious note of the fact that in the elephant death that occurred on October 14, the train was running at a speed of 43 kmph and it took 60 seconds for the train to come to a halt after travelling a distance of 100 metres even after the loco pilot applied the brakes in full.
When there was an alternative route to operate the trains between Palakkad and Podanur, the judges said, it was unfair to let the elephants die on these tracks. However, Mr. Ramkumar told the court that the alternative route was a single line and it would take a long time to travel between the two places.
After hearing him out, the judges called for a report of an expert committee constituted by the Southern Railway General Manager on October 20 to study the ways and means of avoiding elephant deaths on the stretch and ordered that till then, the trains should be operated only within 30kmph during night hours.
The third case before the Bench was related to restrictions put in place to prevent the entry of single use plastic water bottles and other banned plastic products into the Nilgiris district and Kodaikanal in Dindigul district. The judges directed the Collectors of the two districts, as well as that of Coimbatore, to intensify the checks at the entry points to the hill stations.
When the Nilgiris Collector reported that the government buses were not stopping at the plastic collection kiosks on the way to the hill station and he himself had to intervene and fine two bus drivers, the Bench suo motu impleaded the Transport Secretary and the Transport Commissioner as respondents.
The judges also directed the Collectors, in their capacity as Regional Transport Authority, to issue instructions to the transport corporations and make sure that the passengers were warned against carrying banned plastics to the hill stations at the boarding points itself and that the vehicles were stopped for checking at the plastic collection kiosks.
Passing interim orders on a few other cases, the judges ordered strict action against all illegal brick kilns in Coimbatore district, directed the State government to spell out its stand on identifying elephant corridors, apart from those that had already been identified, and speed up the process of uprooting the harmful ‘Seemai Karuvelam’ ( Prosopis juliflora) trees across the State.
The judges also issued directions with respect to eradication of exotic species such as Senna Spectabilis, Wattle and Blue Gum from the Nilgiris and replacing them with the native species.