Ahmedabad: There seems to be a big gap between the reality and the claims of the state government regarding efforts made for conservation of Asiatic Lions in Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and its surrounding areas.
Last week, the Gujarat high court ordered the forest department to take back from owners other than Maldharis, those plots in Gir Sanctuary which were originally allotted to Maldharis for relocation.
This landmark order by Justice PB Majmudar and Justice Mohinder Pal clearly exposes an unholy nexus between influential people formed to corner vital tracts of forest land comprising core lion habitat, for non-forest purpose.
The nexus involves officials of the revenue department, forest department and scores of influential people of the state including IAS and IPS officers, MPs, MLAs and senior lawyers, who had purchased the land from Maldharis over the years.
Agencies of the state government have aided in the transfer of this land. Besides exposing greed, it also lays bare a serious turf war between the revenue and the forest departments over the ownership of land surrounding the Gir Sanctuary with both staking claim to it.
The background of the case is this. In 1982, in a bid to relocate Maldharis (cattle-rearers) away from their traditional habitat in the forests called ‘ness’, the state government had allotted 588 plots to them. The allocation was done on the condition that they will not sell the land.
However, over time, 292 Maldharis did sell this land to private entities on payment of premium and deletion, by the Collector’s office, of the condition that the land should not be transferred. This would allow cultivation and construction, among other activities. One Anil Chudasama bought a plot in Najapur (Chatariya) village along with 11 others in the area. He was actually the third purchaser of the plot but was prevented from undertaking agricultural activity on his plot by the forest department which claimed that it was reserve forest area.
Chudasama moved the high court against the forest department’s objection, saying that it was revenue land as its ownership was transferred by the Collectorate at that time. In a petition filed in 2009, he revealed that several other such plots allotted by the forest department to Maldharis had been sold off to the rich and mighty.
Chudasama further revealed that non-forest activities were going on in full steam on these plots but he was the only one being discriminated against. This drew the high court’s attention to the big scam in land at the Asiatic lion’s abode. Justice MR Shah appointed advocate Amit Panchal as the amicus curiae in the case and asked him to visit the region and give a report on the situation.
In his report, the amicus curiae stated that out of the 11 plots in Najapur village, 9 plots had been sold off by the Maldharis who had returned to the sanctuary. The court finally ordered that the forest department should take possession of the said plots “immediately”, and said that the land belongs to the forest department and all non-forest activity should be stopped at the earliest. Chudasama’s plot is not covered by this order for now.