Issue of conservation versus livelihood to the fore

The right of way and livelihood of priests and devotees visiting some 133 temples in the Girnar wildlife sanctuary, close to the lion safari park, has become a bone of contention with forest officials calling the Junagadh Collectorate’s directives that they be allowed free movement a violation of the Wildlife Protection Act.

Collector Manish Bhardwaj’s orders are in effect being interpreted that the priests and their workers, who stay on the premises of the temples along with devotees, many of whom spend the night there, could move in and out of the forest even after sunset.

Settlement agreement

The Girnar region that has 30-odd lions in a 180 sq.km- radius was declared a sanctuary area in 2008, preventing any human activity inside.

But the temple staff, besides local tribal settlers, has been residing in this area for generations. All was fine until the region, hitherto controlled under the Forest Act, was given sanctuary status.

Speaking to The Hindu, the Collector defended his orders, insisting that the local settlers and the temple trusts were given the rights of way, use of water and performance of pooja in 1955 by a settlement agreement.

“We have received complaints that priests and temple workers were being harassed by the Forest Department even before sunset while carrying their supplies through the gates installed at various places in the sanctuary. Most of these gates are not even manned,” Mr. Bhardwaj said.

“My order was not for free movement at night, nor was it to say the Wildlife Protection Act should be allowed to be violated.”

The Forest Department, on the other hand, maintained that it was only the Chief Wildlife Warden who had the authority to grant anyone entry or permission to stay in the sanctuary area. Aradhana Sahu, Deputy Conservator of Forests for the division, insisted that allowing access there to people at night was not in the interest of conservation. She said she had apprised her seniors of the situation.

“Never any complaint”

The dispute has once again brought to light the ticklish issue of conservation versus livelihood of forest settlers. The temple trusts, which control the 133 religious places inside the sanctuary, pointed out that the priests and their people had lived in the forests for ages and there was never any complaint of wildlife violations or poaching against them.

“It is not just the priests in the jungle but also the local settlers who co-exist with the wildlife. Brazenly declaring regions a sanctuary without taking a holistic view will only create more problems,” a veteran forest officer told The Hindu, requesting anonymity.