Minister objects to eviction
Gujarat Forest and Environment Minister Kanjibhai Patel has taken a serious view of the move initiated by his own department to "forcibly" evict maldharis (cattle-breeders) and their cattle from the Gir lion sanctuary areas in Junagadh district. The minister has also warned forest officials against the "harassment and persecution" of these maldharis.
The minister's reaction came when a delegation of maldharis called on him here on Tuesday and complained about a spate of eviction notices being issued to the maldharis by the district forest officials. The delegation -- led by Ashok Shrimali of SETU, Karsan Chopda of Maldhari Sangharsh Samiti and Allarakha Sheikh of Saurashtra Paryavaran Sanrakshan Parishad -- submitted a memorandum to Patel, seeking early solution to the maldharis' long-pending demands.
Later, the minister told Express Newsline, "The government will protect the interests of the maldharis living in Gir for years and ensure that they are not being evacuated forcibly till the settlement process is over".
During the representation to the minister, Ashok Shrimali complained that of the total 184 families living in the Junagadh west Gir forest area, as many as 97 were declared "illegal" occupants and issued eviction notices early this month despite the fact that these maldhari families have been living there since birth. The process of issuing such notices to 42 other families (declared as non-permanent ones) was on, Shrimali said.
Shrimali wondered how the forest department could declare these maldhari families as "illegal" occupants when it was yet to complete the process of settlement rights of the cattle-breeders living in the Gir `neses'.
"Despite the Supreme court's directive to the government to complete this process by August 1998, the district authorities are yet to comply", he said.
In the memorandum, the delegation also complained about the inordinate delay on the part of the government in issuing certificates according the status of Scheduled Tribe to the maldharis. "This despite the Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel's assurance in September 1998 that this would be done in a month time", recalled the delegation.
Describing the issuance of eviction notices as a "blatant violation" of the World Bank guidelines, the maldharis' representatives said the bank's directive to the forest department was clear that "while implementing the WB-aided eco-development project in Gir, relocation of maldharis under the project will be voluntary and that no involuntary re-settlement for any people residing within the project areas will be allowed to be carried out without the bank's prior approval".
In fact, the contract signed between the WB and the Central Government on the eco-development project prohibits the State Government from evicting the maldharis from either the Gir National park or the Gir Lion Sanctuary against their wishes, argues the memorandum. It has also opposed the government's proposal to extend the Gir National Park area, contending that the move will deprive the maldharis of their livelihood.
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