Blow Hot Blow Cold: How Modi promoted tourism to Gir's Asiatic lions in a recklessly peacemeal manner

By RK Misra*
This June, the heat in Gujarat was such, that sweat soaked clothes faster than you could take them off. And when there was nothing left to shed, you still wanted to take off the flesh to sit in bare bones. A respite seemed in order. And I took off like a hare being chased by a dozen hounds.
So, from smouldering Gujarat to the cooler climes of Himalaya ringed Uttarakhand was a journey from the frying pan into an ice-pit. It was nature’s air conditioner, complete with climate control at work and the aroma and atmospherics of the mountains thrown in for good measure.
The world of news is an eternal, dizzying merry-go-round, more addictive than marijuana and as dangerously exciting as riding a tiger. Frying news and baking analyses gives the kicks but you can end up as supper yourself trying to get off, as so many of my ilk will testify. Forty plus years in the news pit, sick of political muckraking and suffering from acute print paranoia, one was game, nevertheless.
With Sabyasachi Sharma, the forest chief of the Himalayan state set to retire June end, one caught up with his long pending offer in the nick of time. Ofcourse, not without pre-conditions. Cut off from the world, and one with nature the search was for a place where the media(television, newspapers even the mobile)was rendered dysfunctional and ideally even electricity could be left behind . Sabyasachi was obliging.
Kilbury, just 12 kms above Nainital, proved just such a place. But getting there was a different story. It was a tale ringed with urban apathy, criminal abuse and sinister rape of a pristine environment.
Come summer and the last railhead, Kathgodam, unloads all manner of humans by the hordes everyday. These are matched in size by an assortment of vehicles, packed sardine-like by their two legged cargo in a veritable race from all over the country, more so, neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan ,Punjab and not to be left behind, the ubiquitous Delhiite. Most are bound for Nainital.
The race to rape the hills is on. Though plastic carrybags are banned in Uttarakhand and the locals take great care, the urban, money-loaded tourist is a smoke spewing, reckless pollutant who leaves a sickly trail of his garrulous spendings.
Grunting humans and groaning vehicles ‘ensure that the road to Nainital is liberally littered with all manner of body fluids, eat-wrappers, plastic bottles and the environs heavy with smoke emissions. The car-jam on the main road in Nainital is worse than in Chandni Chowk of Delhi or Manekchowk of Ahmedabad. It takes over two hours to get in and out of town for the road to Kilbury is paved with human traffic to the ‘tals’.
And there are very many of them.But once out of the body mass, heaven and god are just a finger touch away.
Off the beaten track, Kilbury is a small ‘dak bungalow’ set up by the British in 1890 and renovated again in 1920. No electricity saves for little over two hours from nature’s powerhouse(sun) so no television and no mobiles. So it’s just you, god and the clouds. Books make for great companions as long as the sun lasts.
Lovelorn mist and romance-laden clouds walk in and out of the rooms sharing space and beckoning you to passionately embrace nature.You do, as the urban secretions of a cloistered lifestyle are drained out of your being and replaced by the freshness of the mountainous regimen.
Since there are no distractions to keep you awake late into the night so early to bed and early to rise. The hill hardened attendant mocks at the bottled water. Try our spring water, it is distilled by the roots of the Himalayan flora, he says.
I do, hesitatingly and am hooked instantaneously. The body system undergoes a thorough cleansing and appetite soars. I injest and eject with equal aplomb. At the end of an extended stay one moves on reluctantly to Kausani, Dina Pani and Binsar, choosing always to hole up in places far from the madding crowd, in the lap of nature.
Having partaken of nature’s nectar in generous doses, one moves out just in the nick of time as ferocious rains lash the Himalayan region. But questions linger and find echoes in my home state, Gujarat.
Tourism, both religious and otherwise, is highly developed and constitutes the mainstay of the Uttarakhand economy, but the state is also paying a very heavy price for it. The floods that wrecked havoc in June 2013 remains etched in Indian memory as a disaster of epic proportions with a rash of tourism related structures contributing in no small measure to it. Gujarat, which is pushing tourism in a recklessly peacemeal manner, needs to sit up and take lessons.
It was Narendra Modi, who during his over 12 year rule as Gujarat chief minister, forcefully pushed tourism. The high voltage advertisement campaign with filmstar Amitabh Bachchan enticing tourists with the tagline "kucch din to guzaro Gujarat mein” (at least spend some time in Gujarat) had them descending on the state in hordes with no infrastructure to match.
The lone abode of the Asiatic lion in the world, Sasan Gir in Saurashtra region of Gujarat is a case in point. Promoted by Bachchan, tourists landed up in huge numbers. With no infrastructure to hold them, illegal hotels and resorts came up overnight in the vicinity, conducting a variety of clandestine activity in the forests alongside.
To encourage tourism, the Modi government chose to look the other way. Hounded by such illegal establishments through clandestine lion safaris, the forest department found itself hamstrung by the lack of political will to come down with an iron hand.
It ultimately fell to the lot of the Gujarat High Court to move in to stem the rot.Taking note of an anonymous letter it, forced the government to act after it ordered sealing of 66 illegal structures operating on the periphery of the sanctuary besides ten eateries.
Similarly 67 clandestine mining units operating in the area have been ordered shut under court orders. The lion safaris, which had soared to 90, are now down to less than half, thanks to the judicial policing.
In his written reply, in the Gujarat Assembly, state forest minister Mangubhai Patel has conceded that 124 lions and 135 leopards have died during the last two years, adding that 63 lions had died between February 1,2013 to January 31, 2014 while 61 died during 2014-15.
Out of the 135 leopards, 69 died during 2013-14 while 66 died during 2014-15.This figure does not include the ten lions which died during the flash floods in June this year.
It is not surprising, at the way the majestic animal is being hounded in his human activity pounded habitat. There is still time to make amends and it is good to learn from other’s mistakes. As they say, there is enough for everybody’s need but not for everyone’s greed!

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