The Gujarat High Court has asked the state government to reflect on a report that recommends that rail tracks be shifted out of the Gir forest and stone quarries shut, among actions to be taken to address the human-animal conflict in the area.
In an oral order given on Thursday, on the basis of a report on the rising deaths of Asiatic lions in the world’s only sanctuary for the species in the state, a division bench of Justices S R Brahmbhatt and A P Thaker asked the state government to file its reply, and posted the matter for further hearing on July 11.
The report was submitted on Thursday by amicus curiae and senior advocate Hemang Shah, who was appointed by the court after it admitted a public interest litigation (PIL) petition on the issue last year.
The court also said that the remedial actions “must” be carried out, “…in respect of the tremendous disturbance to wildlife on account of quarrying activities.” It added that it may consider making quarry owners respondents in the case “at an appropriate stage.”
Why the Shah report is significant
The Gujarat high court had sent notices to the centre and state on reports of lion deaths since 2016. This year the Gujarat assembly was once again informed that as 200 lions had died in since 2017, 27 of them due to “unnatural causes”. The Gujarat government had attributed the unnatural deaths to road and rail accidents, wells without parapets, and electric fences around fields, in its response to the HC, last year. What’s more, last December, three young lions were mowed down by a goods train in Amreli, and several cases of illegal ‘lion shows’ staged for tourists have been reported. Efforts to radio-collar the lions to track them and keep them away from danger have yet to take off. Meanwhile, Gujarat, which has 523 lions (2015 census), has been resisting a move to shift some of them to Madhya Pradesh.
The Shah report says the main areas of concern that must be addressed to ensure the safety of the lions were open wells, electric fencing, railway tracks and roads, mining and excavation, and the staging of lion shows for tourists. It also said that the ecological balance, especially food chain and water supply, must be maintained.
Regarding wells in the area that do not have a parapet around it, the report recommends that a notice be issued to well owners to construct one within 15 days, failing which the government or an appropriate authority should take up the task and retrieve the cost and penalty from the land owners.
As for railway tracks, Shah sought a progress report on a June 2018 affidavit filed in court that said nearly six kilometres of railway track would be fenced within six months. The amicus curiae also pointed out that the Railway Ministry had issued instructions to limit the speed of trains passing through the area to 60 km/hr, but the speed limit was being violated.
Rejecting an earlier proposal for an elevated rail track, the report said the construction of such a structure would create noise and air pollution and eventually “drive the lions out of the forest”. The report instead suggested shifting the track out of the forest area and beyond a 10-kilometre zone. It was also suggested that lions be fitted with GPS trackers, so that officials can take appropriate action if a lion is near the tracks, but the report added that although the government had taken steps to radio-collar the lions, “its effectiveness is seldom seen”.
Shah also advocated for a “complete stop of movement of trains between sundown and sunrise,” as lions hunt at night and are at risk of being mowed down on the tracks.
The report also suggested a ban on electric fencing and recommended that informants be rewarded for alerting officials of violations. As penalty, power supply to such properties should be disconnected for “at least three months to six months”, and if any attempt to use generators is made, they should be confiscated, and criminal proceedings initiated, the report said.
Noting the presence of at least seven stone-quarrying sites in close proximity to Mitiyala Wildlife Sanctuary, the report questioned how these sites “managed” to secure approval, given the threat they posed to wildlife, and suggested cancellation of the approvals with immediate effect. The report has also sought that the state government put on record all the details of such sites.
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