Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi flew into a leonine rage on Thursday, a day after Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh refused to clear a 2.5 km long ropeway to the famous Ambaji temple in the middle of the Gir forest, the last habitat of the endangered Asiatic lion — an important poll promise made by Modi.
At a meeting of the Planning Commission in Delhi, Modi reportedly singled out Ramesh for vitriol, and accused him of blocking Gujarat’s development and of not doing anything to save the lion. He was the only UPA minister Modi attacked by name.
Ramesh has, however, denied the charges. “There are wildlife issues with Gujarat, which are being sorted out through dialogue. We are not pursuing any policy against the Gujarat government,” he said.
“Lions are the pride of Gujarat,” said Modi. “All other state have received money for wildlife conservation; we haven’t received a penny for lions. (Despite this), we have been able to save the lion from poachers, unlike other states where tigers are regularly hunted down illegally.”
The real reason for Modi’s anger, ministry’s officials felt, is the environment ministry’s refusal to clear the construction and expansion of seven ports along Gujarat’s coast.
The lion, which has, for a while now, been at the centre of a tug-of-war between the Centre and the state, is merely the alibi.
Modi has been resisting moves to translocate a few lions from Gir, 315 km south west of Ahmedabad, to the Kuno-Palpur Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.
“We will not give our lions to anyone,” Modi said recently, while seeking Rs 61 crore from the environment ministry to conserve state’s lion population, estimated at 359 in 2005 (when figures were last collated).
The ostensible reason is that they would be poached, just like the tiger and other endangered animals are, in other states.
Here, too, officials suspect, “Gujarati asmita (pride)” is just a ruse. Modi doesn’t want Gir to lose its status — and its draw as a tourist destination — as the last natural habitat of the Asiatic lion.
In July, Ramesh had even offered Modi tigers in exchange of lions. “We want Gujarat to have tigers, but we will not give our lions,” the chief minister had said in response to Ramesh’s proposal.
But Modi may have flown off the handle a trifle too quickly. The environment ministry has not rejected either the port project, or the proposed ropeway over Gir forest.
“The minister (Ramesh) was told about it (the possible ecological hazards) and he has decided to inspect the site himself,” said Divyabhanusinh Chavda, a member of the Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife, which decides on clearances for projects affecting wildlife.
“No effort has been made to look at alternatives to avoid the wildlife sanctuary. The environment ministry’s terms of reference for getting forest clearance have been ignored,” said Bharat Jeetva, a scientist at the Gujarat Ecological & Education Research Foundation, an autonomous body supported by the state’s forest and environment department in a letter to the ministry.
Notwithstanding the claims of ecologists, the ropeway project has huge support among the local population, who feel it will give eco-tourism in the region a massive leg up. Over 5 million pilgrims visit Ambaji temple every year, and a ropeway over Gir forest, they feel, will boost this number further.
Caught in this tug of war between Modi and Ramesh, “it will be some time before the ropeway is approved”, a senior ministry official said on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.