Just Eight Years Ago

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

Parliament’s Wild Heart: I wrote the piece reproduced below just over 8 years ago, when, for one brief shining moment, it seemed like politics and conservation might just make peace.

Subsequently, hawkish economists, ruthless politicians and hungry investors from within India and overseas, combined to destabilise the ecological foundations upon which the fate of millions of Indians still hinges. The climate crisis that threatens to overwhelm us all is the bastard child of this disregard for what is natural, which has been over-ridden by the 'gold rush' to convert every available natural resource to cash. Subsequent to this piece being written, Mr. Baalu disbanded the tough, uncompromising Indian Board for Wildlife, replacing it with members who were, let us say, less experienced and less certainly more pliable.

A slew of industrial and commercial clearances predictably followed, including roads in fragile habitats, oil exploration in the Desert National Park, high dams such as Subansiri in Arunachal Pradesh and uranium mines in the Nagarjunasagar Tiger Reserve. Mr. Baalu was followed by Mr. Raja, also from the DMK. The automatic environmental clearance machine clattered on unimpeded by such 'trivial' concerns as wildlife protection, protection from toxics and protection of coasts and corals.

Read on to find out how we lived in hope: What follows was published in the New Year, 2003. Back then it did not seem like wishful thinking (which is what it sounds like to me today).

January 1, 2003: I was pleasantly surprised to see the unanimity of support for wildlife in political circles. I presumed politicians were largely antagonistic towards protecting nature (given the lack of funds allocated, the way in which project are pushed at the cost of rainforests, coasts, rivers and mountains). I was proved wrong on December 19, 2002 when the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Bill 2002 (as passed by Rajya Sabha) was presented to our Parliament by Mr. T.R. Baalu, Minister of Environment and Forests Presenting the Bill to MPs, Mr. Baalu said: “India has been and continues to be one of the most important nations in terms of species riches and contributes eight per cent of the global biological diversity…. Conservation of forests and wilderness areas holds the key for water and food security to millions of Indians in future. More than 600 million people and their livestock depend on forests, wetlands, grasslands and coastal areas for food and other requirements.” And then the bill was tabled.

Instead of the flurry of objections we had anticipated, what were presented with were debates that revealed arguments overwhelmingly in favour of wildlife. • Ramesh Chenninthala supported the Bill and said that to ensure the ecological and environment security, legislation was vital and that indigenous people, who are the real guardians of wildlife, should also be protected.

•Maneka Gandhi, pointed out that loopholes allowed traders to slaughter peacocks and that “zoos were the largest killers of wild animals.” She asked for Home Ministry help to protect wildlife and for a network of wildlife corridors to be created from the mountains to the plains to enable animals like elephants to migrate freely according to their will.  

Mahboob Zahedi asked if sufficient budgetary provisions were made to protect our wildlife.  

Dr. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh bemoaned the fact that the original 1972 Act was not being implemented properly.

Anant Gudhe highlighted the fact that penalties in the original act were not stringent enough and that our Project Tiger Reserves needed more support.

Bijoy Handique emphasized the need for people’s involvement in protection of wildlife

Bikram Keshari Deo asked that a Wildlife Crime Intelligence Cell be set up.

Raghunath Jha welcomed the Bill and asked for tigher implementation and pointed to forest depletion as a reason for elephant-human conflicts.  

K.P. Singh Deo drew attention to the fact that protecting natural forests is a way to counter the impact of climate change.

Jas Kaur Meena pointed out that on the one side human population is increasing and on the other, wildlife populations are declining, with tigers threatened with extinction. She wanted more awareness among people living in the vicinity of Tiger Reserves about wildlife conservation

But this was Mr. T.R. Baalu’s day. He was, to put it mildly, magnificent. He informed the House that the National Board of Wildlife had already been reconstituted with statutory status. No one opposed the Bill. In gratitude, we have just gifted every single MP in both houses of Parliament with a copy of Sanctuary Asia and Sanctuary Cub.

We are now going to engage the sensitive ones to impart perspectives and take them and their families to our wildernesses from time to time. Like the rest of us, clearly politicians too have hearts that beat for nature.

Postscript: January 31, 2010 

In the years that followed, the Ministry of Environment and Forests was invaded by industrial hawks. Not one out of over 900 industrial applications for environmental clearance was rejected.  Dilutions of India's protective environmental laws became the virtual purpose of politicians and businessmen, who had been chafing at the idea that a few 'do gooders' were preventing them from capitalising on 'wasted' assets such as oil, coal, bauxite and uranium. That sea and air ports, highways and chemical complexes were being prevented from coming up in 'so-called' ecologically sensitive areas (such as coastal Orissa (Dhamra and Niyamgiri), the Western Ghats (Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve), Arunachal Pradesh (Subansiri), Gulf of Mannar ((Setusamudram Project), the Sundarbans (international steamer channel and the Sahara tourism project). Then, in a move that had everything to do with politics and nothing to do with ecological reality, the Forest Rights Act was passed. Over three million applications for the allocation of forest lands for agriculture have been registered. Such farming will probably usher in a new wave of forest destruction that will put up millions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere and will do little to boost either the food, or economic security of the 'beneficiaries'. But the die is cast. This is the legacy that Jairam Ramesh, Minister Environment and Forests inherited. We are a long way from judging whether he does well by India, or whether he too will be pushed aside by the politics of expediency. But this we know... he has kick-started India's long slog back towards some kind of ecological and climate security.  Sanctuary will monitor his progress. And we promise to keep our readers and supporters informed.