Sanctuary Cover Story October 2010: The future of India's wildlife has never been grimmer. People around the country - wildlifers, lawyers, young activists, journalists - have written to us citing how forested India is being ripped apart by a mix of infrastructure projects and violence that destroys all that is sacred and special. A mesh of highways, dams, mines and other 'development' projects has spread like mange across India's green life support systems. Adding insult to injury is the burgeoning demand for wildlife products catered to by a well-oiled poacher's network in cahoots with a thimble-full of villagers living near forests. From the Himalaya to the lush forests of southern India and from the Thar desert to the rainforests of the Northeast, our wilderness areas are being attacked - fuelled by the misguided notion that profit today at the cost of tomorrow amounts to development.
HOW DO WE CHANGE A PRIME MINISTER'S VIEW?
Several people have written to Sanctuary asking why an apparently intelligent and cultured individual such as Dr. Manmohan Singh cannot see the ecological writing on the wall. Time and again he articulates his conviction that India's environmental regulations are too tight, too binding on industry. He goes even further by equating environmental protection with the 'license-permit raj' and poverty. At best this is delusional thinking. At worst, a dutiful following of World Bank prescriptions of development for a few at the cost of the life-support systems of many. The Prime Minister's Office continues to actively canvas clearances from the Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) for projects as diverse as Arunachal Pradesh's Lower Subansiri Dam, the Navi Mumbai airport, national highways that cut through sanctuaries and national parks, ports that damage the fragile ecology of coastal India, and illegal mines including Vedanta's Lanjigarh misadventure.
As Sanctuary was preparing to go to press, news came in that a cabinet reshuffle was imminent and that the incumbent Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh might be moved to a 'less sensitive' ministry. This never happened, but clearly the Prime Minister would be perfectly within his rights to reallocate portfolios, just as we are perfectly within our rights to demand that the policies and the reform being injected into the once-defunct MoEF be strengthened, not weakened.
Sanctuary readers are more aware than most of the pressures on the MoEF. An in-principal approval has been given to a 500 m. earthen dam on the Brutanga river, a tributary of the Mahanadi in central Orissa, which will submerge 1,500 ha. of forest next to the Baissipalli Wildlife Sanctuary, a part of the Mahanadi Elephant Reserve and Satkosia Tiger Reserve. These narrow forests are a vital corridor for elephants that migrate every summer into south Orissa. Blocked corridors cause human-animal conflict to escalate. Is this the way to protect a national heritage animal and its home, which everyone knows is critical to our battle against climate change? On his www.sanctuaryasia.com blog Anup comments: “The MoEF's in-principal approval is baffling. Maybe the political pressure of opposing many projects has stifled their resolve a bit.”
The President of the Indian National Congress Party, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi seems to have her heart in the right place, but she must intervene to redefine development itself if she wishes to prevent short-term profit seekers from destabilising India. In her words: “We definitely need to generate more power from different sources to meet the growing demands from our farmers, our factories and our people. Economic growth is built on greater electricity production and consumption. At the same time, we must protect the environment to ensure sustainable development. In whatever we do, we must not forget that our lush forests and mountains, majestic rivers and all other water sources, and clean air have sustained and nurtured us for millennia. We have a responsibility to preserve them for the coming generations.”
THE WAR WITHIN
India is ranked 123 out of 163 countries in a Columbia-Yale University Environmental Performance Index (http://bit.ly/IndiaEPIrank). And why should we not be this low on the list? After all the Prime Minister himself seems ready to destroy 400 acres of mangroves - Mumbai's last defense against rising seas and intensifying storms to build an airport. Clearly our Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process is seriously flawed. Journalist Praful Bidwai's caustic article (Daily Star, September 20, 2010) states: “As a former member of a MoEF Expert Committee on River Valley Projects, I can vouch that most EIA reports are fraudulent or doctored by unscrupulous consultants who merely change the project name. Yet, the MoEF approves incomplete applications, without wildlife and hydrological clearances. The MoEF approves 92 per cent of all project applications. In recent months, it was clearing four to five applications a day - clearly without much scrutiny!”
The Commonwealth Games scandals are nothing compared to the corruption unfolding daily at the hands of coal, bauxite, lignite and uranium miners and their agents in government. Sanctuary readers from virtually every corner of India are sending pained messages about elephant and tiger habitats being destroyed, mangroves and marine ecosystems being pillaged. Worse, scientists who should be telling us the truth, are window dressing satellite data to hide real forest loss, 'expert' committee members send reports that hide inconvenient truths and some forest officers display more loyalty to coal miners and industrialists than to tigers or to India. The list is long. Sanctuary is aware of some wildlife field biologists who refuse to state even the most obvious truths - dams and mines do harm wildlife, poisons do harm coastlines and rivers, highways do harm tiger reserves. We also work with several whistle blowers, but more recently threats to these brave hearts have risen. Amit Jethwa whose life was dedicated to protecting Gir's lions from limestone miners and was shot dead was one such brave heart.
IS THERE NO END IN SIGHT?
The twisted logic behind claims that tearing India apart amounts to development continues to find respectability in political and corporate corridors - despite mounting evidence that this merely adds to the problems of the poor.
Raza Kazmi, the 19-year-old son of S.E.H. Kazmi, one of India's bravest forest officers, wrote to Sanctuary about the Palamau Tiger Reserve. Raza remembers how his father put his life on the line several times in undercover operations and also to fight the violence of Naxals who wanted to pillage wildlife areas. An engineering student, who wants to join the Indian Forest Service, Raza has walked through tiger forests since he was four and writes: “Since 1998, insurgency has spiralled out of the control in the reserve and it is now the headquarters of Naxals in Jharkhand. In 2009, when I visited Betla, the core of the Palamau tiger Reserve and other parts of the reserve, I found it to be in absolute shambles with authorities having no control over roughly 60 per cent of the tiger reserve. Trackers and forest staff go to the partially-controlled parts only if forced to. The majority of the ungulate population now survives primarily in a few compartments of Betla. Dholes have completely disappeared. Bison will soon be extinct as well. The Kujuram Range, one of the most wildlife-rich zones, has been completely destroyed. It is inaccessible and the dilapidated roads are laid with landmines. The status of wolves is unknown in the Mahuadanr Wolf Sanctuary (part of PTR) as it has probably not been visited for a decade. Naxals are in control. Yet, I did see the pugmark of a male tiger in Betla and have reason to hope that the entire reserve may still hold 8 or 10 individuals.”
Ironically, while the government blames Pakistan for most of India's woes, its faulty policies, which adversely affect both wildlife and forest-dwelling human communities, continue to fan terror and encourage Naxalism within the country. News came in on September 15, 2010 of an extremist onslaught in the Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary in the Nupara District of Orissa where Maoists blew up several Forest Department buildings triggering a wave of panic and fear. Sunabeda-Khariar is part of the Indravati landscape, a region identified by the Wildlife Institute of India as integral to tiger conservation and connected to Tadoba, Kanha and tiger-occupied forests in northern Andhra Pradesh and the Sitanadi and Udanti forests of Chattisgarh. Why? To weaken the already ill-equipped and demoralised Forest Department, which was fighting against the rampant, illegal ganja trade that funds the extremists. This dark aspect of wildlife conservation is not one that makes it to the meeting rooms of government committees. But the time is fast approaching when the Home Ministry will waken to the fact that without equipping, training and protecting State Forest Department staff, India has no hope of ever getting on top of the brand of extremism that Naxals have been encouraged to adopt.
Nine months into 2010 and India has lost 39 tigers and 242 leopards. In June 2010, a consignment of animal parts worth Rs. 10.66 million was seized at the Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport in Guwahati and on September 15, 2010, the Uttarakhand Forest Department, assisted by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), seized two common leopard skins, a leopard cat skin and a Himalayan black bear gall bladder from Chakrata, Uttarakhand. Pangolins, exotic birds, sea cucumbers, tiger bones, rare orchids, shahtoosh wool from Tibetan antelopes and any number of live wild animals captured for the pet trade - the deadly litany, rises with every passing day.
NATIONAL WILDLIFE WEEK 2010: A LAUNDRY LIST OF ACTIONS
Reinstate the role of forests in moderating climate to ensure India's food and water security.
Declare national parks, tiger reserves, sanctuaries, their buffer areas and connecting corridors sacrosanct and desist from foisting destructive development on such ecologically fragile areas.
Strengthen the Forest Department by filling vacancies, equipping and training guards and raising their authority to the level of the police and the armed forces.
Crackdown on the wildlife trade, speed up the process of convictions for poachers to ensure that justice is timely and proportionate to the magnitude of crimes committed. A cross-border approach with Nepal, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh will be beneficial in tackling international syndicates that take advantage of porous borders.
Win the hearts and minds of forest communities living around our most precious forested areas by enlisting them in conservation works geared to restore health to ecosystems and by ensuring that they become the first beneficiaries of all economic gains that flow from such restored lands.
THE WAY FORWARD
The truth is actually simple. India needs to protect her forests and wildlife without which neither the rich nor the poor have any real future. If the Prime Minister of India and his fundamentalist developers who have unprecedented access to his office, refuse to accept this truth then the dream of 10 per cent GDP growth will be the first victim of such myopia. More frequent and more intensive floods and droughts, triggered by climate change, will put paid to pipe dreams of economic growth. Those who imagine that turning forests to farms can guarantee the poor food, will be just as taken aback as the Prime Minister when soil sterility, crop-destroying pests and unpredictable weather combine to thwart naïve notions of what the land can and should produce.
Protecting forests is the simplest, most strategic development option available to feed and care for the one billion people who inhabit the Indian subcontinent. All that nature asks of us is to give it the time and space to heal itself. This is best done by leaving wildernesses alone so that the real maintenance engineers of our planet, the small and large creatures that are the Gardeners of our troubled Eden, can come into their own. They will bring life back to the land and sea, rebuild broken connections and restore forest India to its once pristine state.
But without reform and systemic change, none of this will be possible. And the first signs of an ecological collapse will be the disappearance of obscure species, followed closely by the local extinction of animals such as the tiger, leopard and elephant. These 'vanishings' must be recognised as the equivalent of the blinking lights that warn of a malfunction on an aircraft. We ignore them at our own peril. This is a thought that wildlifers might wish to bring to the notice of editors, planners, businessmen and politicians in early October, during National Wildlife Week 2010.