This is a letter I wrote as long as 15 years ago, on July 11, 1997, to Mr. I.K. Gujral, who was then India's Prime Minister and the Chairman of the Indian Board for Wildlife.
I could write almost the exact words today to Dr. Manmohan Singh and they would remain valid.
No action was taken then. Little has been learned since. Climate change is the visible sign that economists and politicians have put our children in harm's way. History will undoubtedly identify this lethal partnership as the cause for India's imminent descent into an ecological, social and climate hell. We still (barely) have time to escape this fate, but with every passing day the chances of our reaching an awful tipping point grow stronger.
Honorable Prime Minister:
Re: India's dismembered network of Sanctuaries and National Parks
While the threat to India's wildlife from poaching has received justifiable attention, a more insidious and potentially permanent threat remains virtually unrecognised. I refer to the dismemberment of contiguous forests by industrial and commercial projects that have the Government of India's tacit approval. These include mines, dams, canals, polluting industries, new highways, thermal plants and several other urban constructions including tourism projects, townships and resettlement sites. Added to this clutch of disturbances is the orgy of timber industries that continue their activities surreptitiously in the face of Supreme Court orders to the contrary. This is a direct result of a lack of vigilance and enforcement at the State Level, particularly in Madhya Pradesh where more than half the 10,000 saw mills in operation are illegal. The same is true for Tripura where just 40 per cent of the 86 saw mills are licensed.
Virtually all commercial use of forests is categorised by planners as
'development' . However, it is the mandate of the Indian Board for Wildlife to draw focus on the hidden, but exceedingly high, cost of such infrastructures of commerce. The enclosed map may give you
quick overview of the magnitude of the problem. The data contained therein is by no means complete. It represents only a tiny fraction of the actual damage inflicted each year.
In your capacity as Chairman of the IBWL it is imperative that you ask for a White Paper to be prepared on the true State of India's Environment, particularly its impending loss of wildlife species and habitats. Our permanent infrastructures of survival - rivers, wetlands, grasslands, forests, mountain slopes and coastlines - are
losing out to the short-lived infrastructures of commerce. If this trend continues unchecked, we will be forced to confront water famines and food crises of unthinkable dimensions. Planners currently treat the Sanctuaries and National Parks we wish to protect with scant respect. They believe these to be of little value to the nation other than to house exotic but 'useless' species of plants and animals. These are, in fact, our water banks and genetic vaults... all that stands between India's ecological food security and widespread famines of the kind so common in sub-Saharan Africa. Consider the scenario that confronts us today: The tiger, our national animal, is being killed at the rate of one a day at the hands of poachers working in tandem with international traders. At least one elephant and two leopards lose their lives to the same network every day. Rhinos, lions, lesser cats and birds such as the Great Indian Bustard and Bengal Florican are faring no better.
The actual extinction of India's endangered wildlife species, however, is more likely to come about thanks to the rapacity of developers, than the avarice of poachers. The enclosed map and its explanatory notes plot selected wildlife areas, highlighting those threatened by commercial projects. The visual is intended merely to underscore the dismemberment of India. The marked projects represent only those that have come to public notice. To obtain a full picture, it is necessary to instruct the Ministry of Environment and Forests to make the data in its files available to us.
May I suggest that a small team be appointed by you to undertake this task and report back to you within three months. At the end of this period, I would urge that you set up the necessary defence mechanisms to stem the rot that has been eating away at natural India at an alarming pace for several years now.
Bittu Sahgal Member, Indian Board for Wildlife & Editor, Sanctuary Magazine