The Gujarat High Court today ordered a stay on issuance of final notification by the Centre to declare the area around the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary as eco- sensitive zone. The high court was hearing a PIL challenging the state government's proposal to reduce the area of eco-sensitive zone, in the last abode for Asiatic lions. The division bench of Chief Justice R Subhash Reddy and V M Pancholi, while hearing a PIL challenging the state government's decision to reduce the area of eco-sensitive zone in its new proposal sent to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF-CC), ordered stay on issuance of final notification and issued notices to central and state governments returnable on May 3. Petitioner Biren Pandya in his PIL contended that in its preliminary notification on October 25, 2016, the MoEF-CC had included 3,32,881 hectare area surrounding the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park comprising 291 villages as eco- sensitive zone. In its new proposal based on which the final notification will be issued on buffer zone around the Asiatic lions sanctuary, the state government has reduced the area to 1,14,000 hectare area consisting of 191 villages, the PIL claimed. It said that at some areas in the new proposal, the eco-sensitive zone is as low as 500 metres from the boundary of the sanctuary and at no place it goes beyond 4 km, even though the Supreme Court's earlier order had said that 10 km areas around the wildlife sanctuary should be eco-sensitive zone. The Gujarat government was following the 10-km rules for eco-sensitive zone till date around the sanctuary, it said. "If the said action of the authorities is allowed, then it would be a catastrophic for the last surviving Asiatic lions in the area around the sanctuary," it said. It said that the reduction of area is violative of the guidelines issued by the MoEF-CC and Supreme Court order. The purpose of the eco-sensitive zone outside the sanctuary is to act as a buffer zone and some kind of shock absorber for protected areas, it said. The petition also said that the state government is acting under pressure from "tourism lobby" to reduce the area so as to facilitate activities like Safari Park near Shetrunji river on northern border of the Gir sanctuary. The reduction also exposes the environmentally delicate areas to mining and construction activities, and polluting industries may also come up near the sanctuary, it said. "The proposed action on the part of respondent authorities is malafide, unjust, improper, illegal, and contrary to the provisions of law," the petitioner said. It sought court's direction to MoEF not to issue final notification based on state government's proposal, and issue final notification based on its preliminary notification. Gir Sanctuary is home to 523 lions as per the latest census, out of which 168 lions live outside the protected area, it said, adding that 310 lions have died in last 5 years, out of which 25 lions died unnaturally.
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