Prerna Singh Bindra speaks with Bittu Sahgal about his views on conservation, climate change, and India's future.
Is wildlife conservation an ‘elitist’ concern?
In my life I have never seen an elitist tiger. How can protecting wild nature on which the poorest depend the most be elitist? This is a false opposition.
How can tigers and tribals live in peace?
If forest communities living just outside our Protected Area Network are genuinely made the first beneficiaries of benefits that flow outward from forests, why should they be antagonistic towards nature. But there is a catch. Their livelihoods must enhance forests not deplete them.
Is this possible? How many people and how much land are we talking about?
Something like 1.6 lakh sq. kms in India is currently in a natural or semi-natural state. I believe that between 10 and 15 million people living just outside our 500 or so peninsular Protected Areas could help this 1.6 lakhs sq. km. expand to 3. lakh sq. kms. But for this to happen we must a) guarantee them economic and food security while preventing them from being used as conduits for urban markets whose demand for forest biomass is bottomless.
Lord Nicholas Stern said that India is going to be amongst the countries most affected by Climate Change, something that you have always drawn attention on. Can you elaborate the impacts, preferably with examples?
Cyclone Aila provided the first clue. Hundreds of sq. km. of fertile land and fresh water sources have become salinised. Over one lakh people have migrated away from the impact zone. This will happen with increasing frequency across coastal India. The number of climate refugees will dwarf what we saw during partition. That is just one impact. We will also see new diseases emerge. Severe drought and severe floods. A drop in power generation and irrigation capacity as reservoirs dry. The Titanic has hit the iceberg. India has not yet realised that.
Given the above impacts, what are our weapons to battle climate change. Possibly 25 per cent of all India's greenhouse gas emissions are a result of deforestation. Therefore, conserving our forests becomes our priority in our fight for climate change. How can we effectively achieve this? Has this been taken up with policy makers?
The Fifth Bengal Tiger Consultation that is taking place at Teen Murti Bhavan in Delhi on July 28-29, seeks to broad base the concerns about forest loss. We will show that protecting critical tiger habitats, for instance, is not a wildlife issue, but a matter of protecting India's water and food security. Ecologists, economists, politicians, bureaucrats, forest officers and scientists educationists will be discussing how to incorporate climate-sensitive developments into national policy.
As you say, the impacts of climate change will impact the very basis of our life—our river eco-systems, agriculture, coastal livelihoods. This of course, will have a devastating impact, and could slow/ nullify our economic growth..
All national ambitions of roti, kapada and makaan, embodied in the 10% GDP growth target, will be undermined by the increased intensity and frequency of weather related problems. The floods in Bihar were not just because of an engineering breach, it was because wetlands had been lost, forest and grassland cover that sponged the rain had vanished. This affected the capacity of the land to moderate the flow of water. Ask those affected by the Bihar floods, or the Orissa Supercylone, or those who lost lives in Kandla some years ago, or the victims of the Tsunami about economic growth and you will have your answer.
Shifting topics, you have always maintained that not protecting our forests and wildlife is destablising our internal security. Can you explain?
Veerappan and the LTTW were connected at the him through ivory and sandalwood. A combination of Bodo militants and poachers wiped out 100 rhinos from Manas. Maoists in North Telengana, working with poaching gangs, killed Forest Rangers, blew up offices and killed over 30 tigers. Dawood Ibrahim is believed to control the katha trade in India, which runs into hundreds of crores. This is financing his links with Al Quaida. Militants from Bangladesh use Karbi Anglong as a route to access and smuggle wildlife contraband to finance their violence. The U.S. State Department confirms that there is a revolving door between the arms, narcotics and wildlife trades. If we continue to leave our wildlife and forest areas unprotected, we can never hope to curb militancy, which has been tapping into this unending source of money unchallenged for decades.