India's National Board for Wildlife

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

The Indian Board for Wildlife has in the past had some of the most illustrious names serving on it. People like E. P. Gee, R.S. Dharmakumarsinhji, Anne Wright, M. Krishnan, Salim Ali and Kailash Sankhala helped write both the policy and strategy for wildlife in India. It is largely thanks to them, and scores of others we all know, that the protected area network and the ethic of wildlife conservation that we inherited was built. But today, on our watch, we are seeing all this dismantled. Those of us who are on the NBWL today bear the burden of a vital legacy that we must somehow uphold.

Today, however, the NBWL has been reduced to a mere formality. A rubber stamp for India's industrial ambitions. It is in advanced stages of decay. At the 22nd Standing Committee Meeting of the National Board for Wildlife, on April 25, 2011, the Forest and Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, attempted to hammer through approvals of 59 projects within in 2.5 hours. To a large extent he succeeded. He later made public the fact that such clearances were "under pressure". This should be regarded by all those who understand the umbilical connection between wildlife, ecosystems and human survival us as the last straw.

Irrespective of our minor differences, I believe that the public, past and present members of the NBWL and  the networks that support them are united in their resolve to protect India's wildlife against ALL threats. And if the primary threat has now become the Government of India itself, then we must find within us the unity, will, resolve and strategy to fight this. We have no option because failure would not merely mean the loss of Panthera tigris, or Elephas maximus, but the very backbone of the people of this subcontinent.

New and young National Wildlife Board members such as Kishor Rithe, Biswajit Mohanty and Prerna Bindra -- are doing what they can with dissent notes and private angst, but they do not yet have the requisite clout or experience to deal with the kind of sledgehammer tactics being brought to bear against our wildlife. I am in touch literally with lakhs of wildlife supporters on a regular basis through Sanctuary and Kids for Tigers. I know that never have more people (particularly young people who will reap the bitter harvest being sowed by out-of-touch-with-ecological-reality planners) been more keen to see India's wildlife safe. And yet, never has India's wildlife and our wildernesses been more threatened.

Perhaps it is time for those who care for wildlife to come together prior to the next World Environment Day, June 5, 2011 and prempt predictable government efforts to paper over the damage they are purposefully doing to the Indian subcontinent.

1. We should be able to inform the nation the truth about the status of our wildlife (not merely megafauna), that it is endangered as never before and that the endangerment is not merely a result of poaching, but of "ecosystem destruction by government policy." 

2. We should point out that the ecosystems being so carelessly destroyed are the very assets that this generation and the next needs to keep us out of harm's way from climate change and its handmaidens... floods, droughts, food shortages, disease and uncontrolled human migration. Towards this end a new set of voices -- new age economists who understand the connection between ecosystem destruction and economic failure -- must be enlisted to counter the flawed economic strategies being pushed by the Planning Commission and the Prime Minister's Office in the face of the failing ecological health and plummeting water security of our nation.

3. We must somehow unite to repair the breach caused by the false opposition engineered by the political system, that has effectively pitted wildlife people against forest rights people. The foundation of such rapproachment must be a regime that recognises the primacy of nature, followed by the inalienable right of forest people to be the first recipients of all ecosystem benefits. But and its a big but, NOT as conduits to supply forest biomass, to bottomless markets. Rather they must be rewarded as "ecosystem farmers" whose "produce" -- fresh water, soil fertility, climate control and food plant security -- must fetch fair compensation for their families to be well looked after with their traditions, dignity, food-clothing-housing-education security, ensured in perpetuity.

The tone of such communication should not be confrontationist, though the political system will surely see it as just that. Instead, we should highlight the rationale for ecosystem protection as national development, capable of ensuring employment, national integrity and strength, food, dignity and self-sufficiency. There can be no "leaders" here. It should be a collective. Powerful lobbies including the CII have found ways to form such bargaining collectives despite the dog-eat-dog competition they inflict on themselves on a daily basis. We must do better.