"The Beatles come back to life in a corner of Uttarakhand", reads a recent feel-good story on the inauguration of the newly renovated Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram in the state.

State forest minister Dinesh Aggarwal, speaking at the December 8 launch of the Chaurasikutiya Ashram, as it is also known, spoke of plans on the anvil to add a yoga learning centre and meditation classes, besides a café.

There is only one problem: The "corner" falls well within the boundaries of Rajaji National Park, which in April 2015 was officially notified as India’s 48th, and latest, tiger reserve.

The ashram is located in the Gohri range of the Rajaji reserve, which is part of the core/critical habitat and as such “required to be kept inviolate for the purpose of tiger conservation”, as per the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The act expressly forbids commercial activities of the kind that, ironically, the minister announced with such fanfare.

Ongoing research by the Wildlife Institute of India indicates a significant presence of tigers in the Gohri range,besides other endangered species such as the elephant, leopard, king cobra, black bear and the great hornbill. Minister Aggarwal in his inaugural speech said Gohri has seven tigers; the number goes up to 21 if you include the adjoining Chilla range. Gohri and Chilla constitute the eastern part of the Rajaji reserve.

Any non-forest activity within a National Park is prohibited by law, and can be undertaken only after due permission by the State Board for Wildlife, the National Board for Wildlife, the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Supreme Court.

Approvals can wait

The standing committee of the NBWL had given conditional approval for the project in its January 24, 2011 meeting, but stipulated that “Only after the suggestions are fully implemented to the satisfaction of the National Board for Wildlife, permission to develop Ayush Gram (as the project was called at the time) may be given.”

Uttarakhand forest ministry officials are evasive when asked whether the NBWL recommendations have been implemented. Their silence is understandable, since many of the conditions such as voluntary relocation of the Gujjars from the Gohri range region, and actions to minimise anthropogenic pressures, are yet to be met.

Thousands of buffaloes belonging to the Gujjars graze within the Gohri range. Heavy felling of trees continues to degrade the forest to the detriment of its wildlife. Worryingly,it also makes the tiger vulnerable to retaliatory killing when they prey on buffaloes. For instance, in January 2013, a male tiger in its prime was found poisoned in Gohri, not far from Chaurasikutia.

The state has also not halted vehicular traffic in the forest stretch on the Haridwar-Chilla- Kunaun-Lakshmanjhulla road close to the ashram, as the NWBL had required. The road falls within the area used by tigers and elephants to cross over to their traditional watering areas along the Ganges.

Uttarakhand forest officials have been quoted as saying saying they have obtained all necessary permissions. NTCA officials however told this reporter that “they don’t recall giving permissions for constructing or opening the ashram, and strongly advise against any unnecessary disturbance within the core of a tiger reserve.”

The launch of the refurbished ashram violates the spirit of the Supreme Court-endorsed NTCA guidelines on tourism in and around tiger reserves, which recommend the phasing out of permanent tourist facilities located inside core/critical tiger habitats.

A forest official from Uttarakhand told this reporter that the ashram abuts the border of the Rajaji reserve, which is highly populated and therefore already degraded.

“Our intent is purely to promote this as nature tourism, and we are offering nature trails, and bird watching activities. It is hoped to create awareness about Rajaji,” he said, adding that the ashram in its earlier dilapidated state had become the haunt of "unsavoury elements", and that “forest department presence here will regulate that.”

Why, however, does the the forest department need a tourism initiative in order to stop illegal entry within a tiger reserve?

Riding roughshod over law

Some forest officials argue that the ashram is the least of Rajaji’s troubles. They have a point, given the many problems within the 820 sq km park.

Work is currently ongoing on the expansion of the Delhi-Dehradun highway, which cuts through the park. Hundreds of trees have been cut down, and the constant drone of excavators and the influx of labour has played havoc with local wildlife. Apropos, the Supreme Court had in a February 2000 order expressly prohibited the removal of even dead or decaying trees, grasses etc from any area within a designated National Park.

The Rajaji reserve also has within its boundaries an army ammunition dump, a village, a canal and a railway track. The Kaudiya-Khimsar road, which passes through prime tiger habitats in the Chilla Range, is being upgraded. The consequent fragmentation has splintered the Rajaji reserve, and all but broken the connectivity between its eastern and western ranges.

Writing in Mint, environmental journalist Bahar Dutt reports that a 60km wall, which will disrupt free movement of elephants within the reserve, is being constructed inside the reserve “in blatant violation of every single wildlife law in the country.” The matter is currently being heard by the National Green Tribunal.

Against the background of these large scale violations, the forest officials who argue that the ashram is a relatively minor issue have a point. However, the refurbished ashram and the consequent increase in traffic and human presence inside a reserve where both are expressly forbidden could be the final straw that breaks the back of India’s newest reserve.

Tiger reserves constitute just about 1% of India’s acreage, and if this small area cannot be kept inviolate, then all talk of Project Tiger and the protection of India’s national animal becomes just that – talk.

Prerna Singh Bindra is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife and Uttarakhand’s State Board for Wildlife