Wildlife & Biodiversity

Project Lion could displace Maldharis within Gir to create ‘inviolate space’

The proposal seeks to relocate 2,500 families of the community from the Gir protected area within 10 years

By Ishan Kukreti
Published: Wednesday 28 October 2020
Project Lion could displace Maldharis within Gir to create ‘leonine Eden’

Maldharis, a traditional pastoral people found in and around the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, might end up being uprooted from their homes, if the Project Lion proposal takes shape, a Down To Earth (DTE) investigation has shown.

The proposal, created by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the Gujarat forest department, talks of creating ‘an inviolate space of 1,000 square kilometres’ (sq km).   

Inviolate spaces are areas free from anthropomorphic pressures. Resource extraction of forest produce like fuel wood, fodder and minor forest produce as well as human habitation are not allowed in such places.

Project Lion was launched by Narendra Modi August 15, 2020. DTE has accessed the proposal document.

Enlarging Gir

Lions are found in Gujarat across an area of 30,000 sq km called the Asiatic Lion Landscape (ALL). But only 250 sq km of the Gir National Park is the exclusive space for lions while the rest is shared with people, according to the Project Lion proposal.

These people are the Maldharis, who have resided in the area for several generations. They live in settlements called ness and make their living by selling milk from their water buffaloes.

The proposal reads:

It is important that Project Lion restores sufficient exclusive lion habitat of about 1,000 sq km through incentivised voluntary relocation of forest villages and Maldhari (local pastoral communities) settlements from within the Gir Conservation Areas so that the only surviving Asiatic lion population gets the space it requires for performing its ecological role.

The proposal draws from the practices adopted by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the national body in charge for steering the government’s flagship tiger conservation programme, Project Tiger.

An inviolate space of 800-1,000 sq km is required as ‘core area’ for a tiger reserve and with a buffer of another 800-1,000 sq km, according to the NTCA’s rules for tiger conservation.

Is coexistence impossible?

The importance of the human-lion relationship in Gir as well as ALL has been explained in scientific studies some of which have been done by members of WII themselves.

This is what a study titled, Living with Lions: The Economics of Coexistence in the Gir Forests, India published in the Plos One journal January 16, 2013, had to say:

“Presently Maldhari and lions coexist in a win-win state where lions get a considerable part of their food from Maldhari livestock and Maldharis profit substantially by free access to forest resources.”

The study even found that the absence of Maldharis and their livestock would negatively impact the lion population in Gir.

When the researchers considered a hypothetical situation where there were no Maldhari settlements in the study area and therefore no availability of livestock biomass for lions, the predicted lion carrying capacity went down to 12 lions per 100 sq km.  

“In the case of lions, it has been clearly established that they are able to thrive and co-exist with people. About 50 per cent of the current lion population is living in human-dominated habitats,” Ravi Chellam, a wildlife expert and an authority on Gir lions, said. Chellam is the chief executive of Metastring Foundation, Bengaluru.

The Project Lion proposal acknowledges that the Maldharis who stay within the Gir protected area, make a 75 per cent higher profit compared to those living outside it due to free access to grazing, sale of manure with topsoil and compensation for predated livestock.

“Therefore, an appropriately lucrative rehabilitation package for incentivised relocation would need to be worked out and offered to all forest dwellers within the core zone to relocate outside with hand holding and additional perks which may be available from the Gujarat State Government,” the proposal says.

The budgetary outlay proposed for the relocation of 2,500 Maldhari families has been kept at Rs 500 crore over the next 10 years, with each family eligible for a compensatory sum of Rs 20 lakh.

Rights under FRA

The proposal for the relocation of Maldharis is also in contravention of the provisions of the Schedule Tribe and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, (FRA) 2006.

Under the provisions of the Act, forest dwellers cannot be displaced unless the rights settlement process has been completed.

“In the Gir region, which is a non-Schedule area, the process of rights recognition under FRA has not started at all. Only forest rights committees have been formed, but nothing has moved beyond that,” Trupti Mehta from the Gujarat-based non-profit, Action Research in Community Health and Development (ARCH), said.

Moreover, the Act has a special provision for setting up ‘Critical Wildlife Habitats’ (CWH), for the conservation of the species. However, for the CWH notification process to start, some conditions mentioned in FRA have to be met.

These conditions are the completion of the rights recognition process, establishment of the fact that the activities of people are causing irreparable damage to the species and that coexistence is not a possibility and free and informed consent of the Gram Sabhas.  

“Planning wildlife conservation in 2020 devoid of people is wrong in so many ways. International thinking, practice and science have clearly established that there are robust ways to conserve, especially large mammals which are able to co-exist with people, without having to relocate local communities,” Chellam said.

He added that the ideal of pristine nature and inviolate space was essentially chasing a myth.

“Especially in a country like India where almost the entire land has had human presence and influence over the centuries and current human densities are very high with millions of people depending on natural habitats for their sustenance, to then push for securing inviolate space is just wrong in so many ways,” he said.  

The idea of creating inviolate spaces was first mooted in the First Tiger Task Force report submitted to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in August 1972.

The task force was created for the preservation of tigers, a species whose numbers had declined considerable by the start of the second half of the 20th century due to hunting and habitat loss.  

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