The manifestation of man’s faith and wildlife conservation is at a crossroads of sorts in Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary. A major controversy has emerged over the Junagadh Collector allowing pilgrims entry in the sanctuary area even during night, which is strictly not allowed anywhere in the country under the Wildlife Protection Act.
The Collector passed this order following complaints by religious activists and temple priests against forest department officials for indiscriminately stopping them from entering the sanctuary and “harassing” them, especially after sunset.
This order has brought to fore a latent issue of forest and wildlife conservation while respecting the religiosity of pilgrims, especially in Girnar mountain forest that houses over 135 temples and about 24 Asiatic lions. The temples and its priests were given settlement rights when Girnar reserve forest was declared a sanctuary in 2008 and a few pre-identified priests and caretakers are allowed to stay inside the sanctuary at all times.
But the Collector’s latest order, which allows any number of visiting priests and pilgrims to visit the temple any time of the day and night, has sparked the debate whether the roads leading upto the temples are revenue land or forest.
Forest officials and naturalists believe the indiscriminate allowing of people inside the sanctuary can be dangerous for forest and wildlife; as criminals, including lion poachers can enter the forest in the dark and it is impossible to monitor the movement of every unidentified entrant in the dark.
Forest officials and local activists have written to the state government terming this order illegal, as only the chief wildlife warden can pass such an order.
“We have written to chief wildlife warden in Gandhinagar. Allowing people in the night can be harmful to the forest and wildlife, especially the threatened Asiatic lions. The allegations made by the complainants are absolutely false,” deputy conservator of forest, Junagadh division, Aradhana Sahu told DNA.
Bharadwaj, however, claims his order is not illegal as the settlement rights allow people access to the temples in the sanctuary and there is no threat to wildlife as the priests have lived inside the forest for a very long time and there has never been any case of wildlife violation registered against any of them.
Principal chief conservator of forest, SK Goyal said, the issue has been brought to his notice and will be resolved soon. “It is the wildlife warden’s prerogative to pass such an order, if there is any need for it. We are all a part of Gujarat government, the issue will soon be resolved amicably,” Goyal said.
Dinesh Goswami of a local NGO, Prakruti Nature Club, has also written to the Union minister of environment and forest, Jayanti Natarajan, about the controversy. “Our main concern is that anybody can enter the sanctuary claiming to be a faithful. From poachers to criminals of all kinds and from fires inside the forest to poaching, any criminal activity can take place,” Goswami said.
One of the complainants, a local social and religious activist Anil Vaghela said he along with the priests of the temples decided to complain when a few people were illegally detained during a night aarti (prayer) at a Hanuman temple in second week of January. “Forest officials harass the pilgrims and priests whenever they want to enter the sanctuary, even during the day. Nobody is there to man the gates; there have been times when even medical aid for the saints in the temple has been stopped. There are many temples in the Girnar sanctuary, but a few are being targeted by the forest officials,” he said.
On a collision course
- The collector passed this order following complaints by religious activists and temple priests against forest department officials for indiscriminately stopping them from entering the sanctuary after sunset
- Forest officials and naturalists believe the indiscriminate allowing of people inside the sanctuary can be dangerous