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TRAIL OF THE ASIAN LION
- Relocating some Gir lions would signal environment friendliness

The website of the chief minister of Gujarat claims that environmental sustainability is “an issue about which Shri Modi is extremely passionate. He has correctly written that conserving our environment and nature has been a part of our culture for ages. He has always called for living in harmony with Mother Nature without causing any harm to our surroundings.”

The facts on the ground suggest a more complicated picture. Travelling through Gujarat in 2009, seven years after Narendra Modi assumed office, the environmentalist, S. Faizi, concluded that Gujarat was “an ecological nightmare”. Hundreds of square kilometres of natural forest had been destroyed in recent years. Mining was encroaching on bird and wildlife sanctuaries. Soil salinity was on the increase. Modi’s government had done nothing to improve conditions in Alang, “the world’s dumpyard of dead ships”. As with mining, the desire to placate business interests had “pollute[d] the land, the beach and the sea and put the life of hundreds of migrant workers at risk”. Industrial pollution in Vadodara had “rendered the groundwater of a large area of the district unusable and turned once fertile farms into barren lands”. The pollution of rivers such as the Mini and the Mahi had put the future of the Indian soft shell turtle in peril.

Modi’s environmentalist claims have been further tested by two recent developments. Among the many industrialist friends of the Gujarat chief minister, perhaps Gautam Adani is more special than most. His Adani Group has prospered mightily in the past decade-and-a-half. Now an expert committee of the ministry of environment has found that a port built by the Adanis in Mundhra has circumvented statutory procedures and violated environmental safeguards. The destruction of mangrove forests and the pollution of the marine environment have led to the impoverishment of local fisherfolk. Deploring these violations, the expert committee has prescribed a fine of Rs 200 crore for the Adani Group.

The committee that investigated these illegalities was composed of qualified and fair-minded experts. I have no doubt that their findings are accurate; still, given the polarized state of Indian politics, one wonders whether a Central ministry wished to make an example of a Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state. For all along the west coast of India, corporate houses work in alliance with friendly politicians to push peasants and fisherfolk off the land and the waters, leading to social discontent as well as environmental degradation. It would make one feel better about the ministry of environment if it next constituted a committee to investigate such illegalities in Maharashtra, where politicians of both the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party have colluded massively in the destruction of the Konkan coast and the Western Ghats by industrial interests.

The verdict on the Adanis was indirectly a blow to the Gujarat chief minister. A more direct assault on Modi’s reputation (not to say his vanity) was the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of India, mandating a second home for the endangered Asiatic lion. This proposal originated with the leading wildlife experts of the country, who have consistently argued that being confined to a single location in the Gir Forest in Gujarat is inimical to the long-term survival of the species. The need to find a second home for the lion was flagged as a priority by the national wildlife action plan.For an epidemic, or a natural calamity such as an earthquake or a massive forest fire, could well wipe out the animals at Gir, making the Asiatic lion extinct forever. Indian scientists point to what happened in Serengeti in 1994, when a single virus killed more than a thousand lions.

The historians, Divyabhanusinh Chavda and Mahesh Rangarajan, have closely studied the past and present of the Asiatic lion. Their research demonstrates that the species was once found across large parts of central and northern India. However, over the centuries the colonization of grasslands by agriculture, and large-scale trophy hunting by maharajas and nawabs decimated the lion population. By the late 19th century the Asiatic lion was found only in the Gir Forest, then in the territory of the princely state of Junagadh. Here too its future was not secure, for a vast array of British colonial officials all wished to acquire a lion head for their personal collection. They were kept at bay by the nawab of Junagadh, who was assisted by Lord Curzon, a rare British viceroy who recognized the importance of nature conservation. When Curzon turned down an invitation for a lion shoot, the nawab could use this as a precedent to keep out other trophy hunters (who included rajas and maharajas as well as generals and governors).

The lion was saved in Gir thanks largely to a Muslim prince and a British imperialist. However, its future remained precarious. From the 1980s,scientists began looking for various suitable sites to relocate some eight or 10 lions from Gir, to enhance the prospects for the species’ survival. Experts at the Wildlife Institute of India identified the Kuno Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh as the most promising location. It had space and, most important, potential for a large enough population of ungulates for the lions to feed on. The proposal was approved by the Central ministry of environment, which then asked the Gujarat government to assist in the relocation. However, the Gujaratis were unwilling to cooperate, leading to a public interest litigation urging the Supreme Court to intervene.

While the court was hearing the case, Narendra Modi made a public promise to his constituency that “Gujarat’s lions will not leave the state”. A news report of February 2010 stated that “the Narendra Modi government will not make any compromise when it comes to Asiatic lions found only in Gujarat’s Gir reserve forest. Not even when it is a friendly and BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh government’s fervent request for relocating one or two prides of lions to Sheopur district.” In March 2012, when the Supreme Court hearings were reaching a climax, Modi took time off from the state assembly — then in session — to personally chair the meetings of the Gujarat state board of wildlife that prepared the counter to the Supreme Court.

In its submissions to the court, the Gujarat government first tried to pick holes in the scientific evidence for lion relocation. The judges were unpersuaded. For the overwhelming majority of scientists felt that (a) a single, confined home put the species at risk; (b) Kuno was a viable second location. Then the Gujarat government shifted ground, saying that the issue was “beyond scientific reasoning”. The lions were part of the family and community of Gujaratis; and when it came to family or community members one could not go by reason or logic alone.

In its judgment, issued on April 15, 2013, the court rejected the argument of the “State of Gujarat that the Asiatic lion is a family member and hence be not parted with”. Based on the evidence assembled by the country’s top wildlife scientists, it concluded that Kuno had a sufficient density of prey to sustain lions. It also noted that the state of Madhya Pradesh had made the necessary preparations on the ground. It therefore ordered the ministry of environment and forests “to take urgent steps for re-introduction of Asiatic lion[s] from Gir forests to Kuno”. The ministry was told to constitute a committee of experts, which would advise on the number of lions to be re-introduced, and the means by which this would be done. The court asked that their order “be carried out in its letter and spirit and within a period of 6 months from today”.

Modi’s opposition to the re-location of lions from Gir was in keeping with his customary invocation of regional pride. Gujarati asmita would not allow their beloved lions to go anywhere else in India. However, the passions he stoked may turn out to have a dangerous life of their own. Recently, one of the leading experts on the Asiatic lion, Ravi Chellam, was asked to leave the Gir area by the Gujarat forest department, to avoid confrontation with those agitating against the Supreme Court judgment. (Chellam was cited in the court judgment as being in favour of relocation.) Gujarati non-governmental organizations are mobilizing to stop any attempt at taking animals away from Gir. They should immediately be checked by the state government, which, now that the judgment is in, must permit the court’s sensible, logical, scientifically solid order to be enforced.