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No Risk Advice

No Risk Advice

Photography by Vishal Bansod.

Be wary of the man who urges an action in which he himself incurs no risk – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

When you cross a city road, you run the risk of being struck by a speeding vehicle. When a villager walks in his or her own backyard next to a wildlife sanctuary or national park populated by wild species, the risk involves getting bitten, mauled, or worse.

If you catch sight of the goriest imaginable road accident, it would shock you, but not prevent you from stepping on that very street, taking the very same risk the unfortunate victim had taken. Similarly, when a villager sees someone mauled or worse, he or she accepts that walking that very path is inevitable. The human psyche is programmed to believe that death and disaster will somehow spare us. If this were not so, we would become dysfunctional.

But is life really this simple? Let’s take the analogy a touch further.

Say you lived on a quiet street and your 12-year-old’s school was across the road. You would probably teach him or her how to cross over and trust that the instinct of self-preservation would bring your precious little one safely home each day. Then, suddenly, the quiet street is widened and fast moving traffic begins to hurtle up and down at terrifying speed. Now what? The street is no longer safe to cross, yet your child must go to school, but at a grossly enhanced risk to life and limb. The quality of your life plummets from the sheer agony of fear.

Transport the analogy closer to the village and forest. Let’s presume a peaceful forest suddenly has a significant chunk destroyed by a mine, or dam, or a four-lane highway. One way or another, part of the forest becomes unavailable to humans or animals. This would naturally force man and beast into closer contact, as each tries to derive sustenance from a reduced geography. Like your child, both man and beast would be placed at magnified risk of conflict with each other.

The above are not imaginary cases. When habitats are degraded, animals do react unpredictably. Aggressively. This is real and unfolding, reducing the quality of life of millions by the moment.

Those who profit from forest destruction have ready responses for those who oppose them, usually quoting the “greater common good” or that other tired justification, “national interest”.

All too often, there is little purpose in fighting the impossible. In neither of the two circumstances described above can we expect cars to slow down for children, or tigers, leopards and bears from posing an increased threat to defenseless villagers. Faced with such circumstances, most pragmatic people would probably want to shift to less dangerous precincts. It would not be easy. But what if an easy way DID present itself and as you prepared to grab the opportunity someone powerful and influential began to pressure you NOT to shift; to continue risking life and limb day in and day out?

This generally does not happen in the city. But it does happen to communities living in biodiversity-rich areas. Here, large numbers of people are petitioning to be moved away from forests, closer to urban centres, partly to avoid the hard life of the forest, and partly to live away from the fear of animal attack. This, some social activists see as a setback to their dogged campaign against wildlife parks. And therein lies the rub. I have personally fought against forced displacement almost all my life. But when people demand to be relocated to avoid a threat to personal life and limb, it is unconscionable that pressure be applied by anyone on them because it threatens a larger political or social ideology.

And while urban activists argue the finer points of voluntary as against induced displacement, someone would need to explain to this unfortunate man, from Devada village next to the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, who was mauled to within an inch of his life by a sloth bear, why he and his family should continue to risk animal attacks. Or give up the opportunity to obtain new arable land and sufficient money in compensation for the land he voluntarily chooses to leave behind. Most importantly, why should he let go of the chance to ensure the safety of his progeny? Nero’s bête noire, Seneca, would surely have had some choice words for those whose no-risk-to-themselves advice deters such innocents from choosing a life away from what they believe is harm’s way.

by Bittu Sahgal, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 5, October 2012

 
 
 

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