The Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) is a subspecies of the lion which survives today only in India where it is also known as the Indian lion. They once ranged from the Mediterranean to India, covering most of Southwest Asia, and hence it is also known as the Persian lion.
No sooner did the news about the Supreme Court verdict to relocate the Asiatic lions from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh came, that rejoicing in the mainstream media began. Yet another ‘Blow to Modi’ series of headlines found its way to news streams across media outlets. This is fully understandable, considering the fact that in this day and age, Modi has come to mean TRPs for TV channels, as was rightly pointed out by Shailaja Bajpai in the Indian Express. Sadly though, much of the reportage reflects an abject ignorance of facts and a poverty of coherent arguments. Pettiness has come to define most of the news analysis and reporting on every issue related to Gujarat. A perfect example of that was a report in the Times of India, which took the battle over the Asiatic Lion to the Den of another Gujarati lion sitting in Gandhinagar, Narendra Modi.
My problem with the article is not that it takes a stand that is against any particular person. Everyone is free to take any stand as he or she feels. The problem is that the article is built entirely on false premises! While the article claims otherwise, one must look towards the commendable legal action the Gujarat Government took, backed by a solid effort in conserving the lion since the last decade. At the same time, it is indeed unfortunate that the courts have interfered in an area such as this. It would have been appropriate if things were left to the local Government in the spirit of federalism. The Court evidently did not think this to be important and the media did not attach importance to the efforts of the State Government to keep the lion in its original home.
The fight by Gujarat Government to keep the lion in its original home
If the ToI article and large sections of the media are to be believed, the legal fight that the Gujarat Government put up was weak! Nothing can be more ridiculous than this. Can anyone consider engaging Harish Salve, Shyam Diwan and Mukul Rohatgi as ‘weak’? Salve and Rohatgi are already well-known faces. And for those who do not know, Shyam Diwan is an expert in the field who has even authored a book titledEnvironmental Law and Policy in India. Lawyer friends in the Capital also say that the matter was dealt with full conviction and commitment by Gujarat’s legal team.
A weak leadership, political will and bureaucracy… or not?
The other reason attributed is a lack of interest among the political leadership and the bureaucracy. This news can make anyone fall off their couch with laughter! In fact, the Times of India news item on the matter itself is self-contradictory. It says in a different paragraph that this case was being monitored by the Chief Minister’s Office directly. Hence, the statement that Modi’s leadership uprooted the lions is not only totally incorrect, but also smells of ulterior motives. The news reports have clearly not been able to explain how the political leadership lacks interest. To defend the case, as many as seven affidavits have been filed in the matter by the State Government. Five affidavits have been filed by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Gujarat State. The remaining two have been filed by the Deputy Secretary, Forests & Environment, Government of Gujarat. The affidavits have been discussed and examined at various levels before filing, they have handled various technical and managerial issues very meticulously. In fact, as chronicled in the judgment (15-04-2013) of the Supreme Court itself, the matter has been twice referred back to the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) due to representation by the Government of Gujarat. Further, the matter has also been referred to the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) due to representation by Gujarat itself. It is pointed out that the various affidavits made by Gujarat deal with the issue very comprehensively covering legal, technical, scientific and socio-cultural aspects. The arguments were adequately supported with facts, figures, data and scientific papers. It is also pointed out that every hearing in the Court, every briefing and every meeting (with Standing Committee of NBWL etc.) has been attended by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) personally. Some meetings were, in fact, attended by the Principal Secretary, Forests & Environment Department, Government of Gujarat! If this is not proactive engagement by the Gujarat Government, I wonder what is.
Poaching where there is no game
The article also says that the presence of poachers was not strongly argued by the Gujarat team. Now, the article uses the opinion of a certain Mr GA Patel who said that “the point was not strongly argued that the lion was being shifted to an alien territory which is infested with guns, tigers and poachers, has extreme climate and low prey base.” This, again is not correct. Patel, whoever he is, has in all probability, not seen the affidavits and is not aware of the comprehensive and deep arguments that were put forward by the State while defending its stand. In fact, the judgment of the Supreme Court dated April 15, 2013 has clearly observed the issues raised by Gujarat as the presence of poachers (Para-57), tigers (Para-9a), extreme climate (Para-9b) and low prey base (Para-9c) in the proposed area of Madhya Pradesh. The fact that they are mentioned in the judgement itself clearly indicated that they were strongly argued.
The science of not seeing any…
The other myth that was appalling was that rigorous and scientific arguments were not made in the court. Again, the author of the news item tries turning into a complainant, prosecutor and judge and quotes Dr Bharat Jethva as opining that rigorous scientific arguments were not made in the court. This opinion is also unfounded, misleading and not true. Firstly, this matter was heard by the Supreme Court from 2007 to 2012 i.e. for five years over several detailed hearings. During this period, the Supreme Court referred the matters twice to the National Board for Wildlife due to technical and legal issues represented by Gujarat. In its first affidavit of 7-11-2007 itself, the Gujarat Government submitted to the Court Rigorous, scientific arguments along with a scientific paper indicating that there was no genetic depression among the Asiatic Lions of Gir. Further, in its affidavit dated 08-02-2010, three scientific papers were submitted indicating that Gir lions are not genetically weak. In fact, the State Government has consistently submitted research-based arguments, scientific papers and observed facts in support of its argument for not shifting the Asiatic Lion out of the Gir. Dr Bharat Jethva has obviously not seen the affidavits of the Gujarat State and the judgment of the Supreme Court.
Who failed to protect whom?
And the biggest joke of all — that the Gujarat Government failed to protect the lions! Congress leaders, known for giving a spin to matters are at it again. It is ironical that the Court judgement is wrongly quoted by Manish Doshi as reported by ToI dated 17-04-2013 (Page-4). The Court judgement nowhere says that the State of Gujarat failed to protect the Asiatic lions. In fact, the said judgement of the Court has quoted the observation of the Technical Committee which met on 22-12-2009 (Para 3.6 of Page 20) that the Government of Gujarat has dealt with poaching quite well. The Supreme Court has in fact observed under Para 49 of Page 50 that “the State of Gujarat can be justifiably proud of the fact that it has preserved an endangered species becoming extinct”. It is pointed out that the conservation of the Asiatic lions by Gujarat is a globally-acclaimed conservation success story. It is validated by the simple fact that the number of the wild Asiatic lions in the State has consistently increased from 177 in 1968 to 411 in 2010, an increase by 132 per cent during this period. This is remarkable in the backdrop of the fact that the tiger population in the country, particularly in Madhya Pradesh, is unfortunately dwindling. The great conservation effort by the Gujarat is also indicated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) which recently lowered the Threat Category of the Asiatic Lion from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Endangered’. In view of the above, the observation that the State has failed to protect the Asiatic Lions is totally misleading and treacherous.
Regarding the observation that 92 Asiatic lions have died in the last two years. Out of this, 83 (90 per cent) are natural deaths, which keep on happening in the wild as a part of nature’s process and the remaining are accidental. The breeding potential of wild Asiatic lion is adequately high to recruit young ones to the population compensating such natural mortality. The average lifespan of the Asiatic lion in the wild is about 13 to 15 years. Therefore, such natural mortality is normal and does not adversely impact its population. Therefore, the opinion aired is also wrong and made to score political brownie points.
According to an article, senior wildlife expert Pradeep Khanna, who has just retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), said that the sick or injured lions are being treated at three hospitals exclusively set up for the sanctuary as a part of the modernisation of the Asia’s only habitat of lions at Sasan with trained doctors round the clock. The wildlife department has arranged for electronic gadgets to monitor the movements of lions in vast stretches of the sanctuary area. In case of any sickness or injury to the lions, the medical staff promptly detects the victim, and a team of rushes to the site and attends to the injured lion and if need be, brings it to the hospitals where emergency surgeries are conducted. Khanna said that during the year, more than 50 such emergency cases are reported from the sanctuary and the sick or the injured lions are taken care of by the trained staff.
In a bid to check the incidences of poaching, the wildlife department has deployed 100 more guards in the sanctuary to see that the lions are not harassed or injured by such nefarious elements. The Central Government had provided a package of over Rs 40 crore for the protection of the wild animals in the sanctuary, while the State Government has also doubled its budget amounting to Rs 20 crore for the sanctuary.
Thus, it is amply clear that that Gujarat Government led by Narendra Modi has made every effort to ensure the well-being of the lions in the forest as well as in the court. The Supreme Court verdict has been sad for Gujaratis given their pride in their lions. But isn’t it sadder still that even after making all attempts to prevent such a loss, Narendra Modi is unfairly blamed?
Or is it an indication to the lion of Gujarat that like the lions from Gir, it is time for him to move out of Gujarat as well?