India has been the proverbial land of snakes, elephants and tigers; and of maharajahs and their hunting entourage. So enigmatic is the picture that we are unable to wake up to reality and smell the coffee, so to speak. As history unfolded post Independence, India did a zombie march through legacies left behind by the haloed British. Seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt, the ‘parks sans filthy natives’ (read protected areas – PAs) were established to ‘conserve’ India’s dying wildlife. Thus laws were duly passed and PAs established with the Constitution mandating both the state and individuals to ‘protect and improve the environment’. In theory there are about 200 environmental protection laws that were created before and after Independence.
Now the question is, were India’s ‘filthy natives’ ruinous to its environment? Sacred groves, pockets of communally protected forest often associated with a reigning deity may be just one of those traditions that showed that conservation was nothing new to us. The plants and animals in these groves, however fragmented, are protected even today by social taboos, sanctions and religious beliefs of the community. The groves are characterised by their near virgin condition, and are a repository for rare and common species alike. Interestingly, references to these groves can be found as far back as in Kalidasa’s Vikramorvasiyam (c 300 AD). Apart from India, where they have been reported in the Aravalli and Khasi hills; and, all along the Western Ghats (Madhav Gadgil, 1976, ‘The sacred groves of Western Ghats in India’, Economic Botany), sacred groves are known to exist in Ghana, Nigeria, Syria and Turkey (ibid.).
The colonial history of forests
The British started ‘park creation’ in 1857 with plantations splayed along forested tracts to essentially satisfy the growing needs of infrastructure. Economically valuable species of teak, sal and sandalwood were awarded preference in order to sustain the expanding network of railways and for military use. Other species like wattle, rubber and eucalyptus were also promoted for industrial, and fuel wood needs (Krithi Karanth, 2010, ‘Conservation and management in human-dominated landscapes: Case studies from India’, Biological Conservation). Alongside, forests provided a favourite pastime for game hunting—a popular sport of the British from the 1850s-1920s, which led to the near extinction of several large mammals (ibid), treated as they were as vermin. By the 1920s, there were 6,36,912 sq km of forests under government control and 3,32,297 sq km under private ownership in native states, a significant rise from 51,800 sq km and 1,45,040 sq km, respectively, in 1889-1890. The system of PAs was established in 1935 originating from the government managed forests and hunting reserves (ibid). Without doubt, these changes were accompanied by massive disruptions in human habitations, attitudes and activities and development of plantations consequently resulted in shrinking forest areas. As stated by E P Flint’s 1998 paper, ‘Deforestation and land use in northern India with a focus on Sal (Shorea robusta) forests 1880-1980’ published in Nature and the Orient: The Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia—from 32 per cent of land under forests in 1880, legal forests fell by 12 points to occupy less than 20 per cent of India’s land in 1990.
Post Independence policy makers continue to abide by the Indian Forest Act 1927, one of the last surviving colonial statutes. Meant to ‘consolidate the law related to forest, the transit of forest produce, and the duty leviable on timber and other forest produce’ these laws are exclusive rather than inclusive in character. Although India consequently formulated several laws with the motive to safeguard the interest of the communities in forest lands, such as the Biodiversity Act, 2002; and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006; these ran into conflict with the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and its various amendments at ground zero.
While on one hand species protection ruled the roost, with Project Tiger (1973) and Project Elephant (1992), on the other conservation policies strove to build up a crescendo through policies such as National Conservation Strategy and Policy Statement on Environment and Development, 1992; National Environment Policy (NEP), 2006; and National Biodiversity Action Plan (NBAP), 2008 and more. Confusion reigned between ecosystem conservation on one side and species on the other.
In the midst of all this was added the National Forest Policy which aims to bring 33 per cent of the geographical area under forest cover (India State of Forest Report, 2011 enumerates 23.81 per cent of India’s land as forested); the National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) with the National Mission for a Green India to be executed from 2011 to 2022 to double India’s forest cover to 20 million hectares; and so forth.
About 5.02 per cent of the total land area of India is designated as PA as of July 16, 2013 with 683 PAs spread over an area of 164980.75 sq km (ENVIS Centre on wildlife and protected area) (Fig 1). The PAs are under immense pressure due to grazing, forest produce collection, fragmentation, commercial mining, tourism and human-wildlife conflicts. Despite the pressure, amazingly the number of PAs have gone up in the country. Section 38 V (IV) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act requires that critical tiger habitats should be notified on a case by case scientific basis. But the government notification laid down in 2007 stated that the area of all critical tiger habitats should be atleast 800-1000 sq km containing no reference to any site specific objective/scientific studies of the area. As a result, all the tiger reserves became critical tiger habitats and rehabilitation of forest people ensued, to free land to accommodate the tigers.
India’s forests supposedly neutralise nearly 11 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions (www.cbd.int), hence their role is indispensable, even though greening urban rooftops could also perhaps produce similar number crunches—except that rooftop greening is not on the government’s priority list. And, of course there is no consensus among the authorities and academicians on a way to protect these areas whilst safeguarding the rights of the people that depend on them (Krithi Karanth, 2010), and at the same time create development initiatives on a commercial scale.
India presents a complex tapestry indeed. Conservation is understood in all different connotations from critical tiger reserve to critical ecosystem. With high densities of people alongside PAs placing intense pressure for conservation goals throughout the country (A Rodgers et al., 2003, ‘Community approaches to conservation – Some comparisons of Africa and India, Battles over nature’; Science and Politics of Conservation), protection became a forced rather than voluntary act as opposed to pre-Independance India and its groves of treasure. If experts are to be believed conservation is important because nearly 200 million people in India are dependent on forests for their livelihood (www.cbd.int).
In a backdrop of unhinged population growth, it seems criminal that the government still decides to keep aside more and more land for preservation, jeopardising the lives and livelihoods of fellow citizens. Conservation could perhaps be justified if it was done in its true spirit. But, here we have hundreds of affluent investors and users, who continue to rake in their safari thrills, clad in jaunty jodhpurs, scarves and khaki hats, by ousting the poor who once roamed the forests. If human presence is annoying to animals, then zero human tolerance is what should be mandated in these zones. And if at all these PAs are the last refuge for several species of carnivores, herbivores and primates and are critically important for maintaining their habitat as mentioned by K U Karanth et al., 2009, in his paper ‘Landscape-scale, ecology-based management of wild tiger populations’ presented at the Kathmandu GTI Workshop—then it should be protected in the real sense, not made a mockery of.
Then again species protection does not necessarily fit into the overarching frame of ecosystem conservation. A tiger reserve thinks in the
perspective of abundance of ‘prey’ species; elephant and rhino reserves think in terms of grazing areas replete with foliage; and although their convergence point may be the forest—the content of that very forest differs. Thus, despite an ecosystem hotspot, with the most delicate of life forms growing out of tree branches existing in the PA, if tiger conservation is the mission, officials would allow forests to be converted into grasslands with élan.
Once upon a time, we are told that India was criss-crossed by ribbons of green—corridors for animal movement that no longer exist in viable capacities. Movement of animals between different PAs is necessary to avoid inbreeding, to promote genetic diversity, to provide animals with food and habitat in case of disasters like fires, floods etc., so that juveniles can find new territories. The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) identified 88 corridors through the National Elephant Corridor Project. But, these areas are not contiguous and are now in fact receding and fragmented tracts of wilderness increasingly compromised by human settlements (www.wti.org.in). The 13th November 2013 incident of seven elephants been mowed down and ten more being critically injured in Jalpaiguri corridor, about 415 miles from Kolkata, due to a speeding train, brings to light the lack of coordination among state utilities when it comes to the ‘protection’ of our wildlife. The 5.02 per cent PAs (164980.75 sq km) of India exist today as small islands in the midst of hostile humans, and are being turned into nothing but virtual zoos, where animals have to be neutralised, transported, relocated, inseminated and so on, all at the expense of the exchequer, to maintain a ‘healthy’ population.
The way forward
Erstwhile villages of India bore with it a culture of communal care. The community well or the village commons, were all safeguarded under strict caste lines. But, the much-needed policies attempting to break caste lines, inadvertently broke the safeguard structure too with no control system to replace the erstwhile common property norms. Now villagers aspire for piped connections into individual homes. The village chowk is no longer dominated by a large tree surrounded by stone benches; there is just no need, as villagers prefer closed door meetings with the sarpanch. An all pervasive air of distrust and individualism has crept into the village social structure, making the task of aligning rural India to a conservation cause all the more difficult.
On the other hand, academicians world over have espoused the cause of inclusive development, where forest people are included in ‘safeguardship’. Indeed, the future of conservation may well depend on the ability to experiment successfully with a range of institutional forms, including those that permit human use (L Persha et al., 2010, Biodiversity conservation and livelihoods in human-dominated landscapes: forest commons in South Asia, Biological Conservation). But policies lead us elsewhere, a top-down, cookie cutter approach by the rich, who believe that forest ‘parasites’ are easier eliminated than befriended. It is a management exercise, nothing more.
We need to emerge with a new ‘safeguardship’ model wherein the community can use existing infrastructure and technology to aid conservation. Here the villages that surround PAs and the corridors would turn their keepers. As per the revised guidelines of Project Tiger (National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy, 2007) Rs 10 lakhs are to be given to any family that is relocated from within forest lands. Most of these forest villages are not very large—ranging between 50 and 150 families. Thus a village as a group could have access to several crores. This could then become the village fund and be deposited in the bank. The monthly interest accrued, would provide the ‘salary’ component of each household (around Rs 8000 per month considering that the interest rate of the bank is 10 per cent for a village with 50 households), who would then become part of your conservation army. In lieu of the ‘salary’ the family would have rights and duties. The immediate needs of forest people are fuel wood and, as most of them are grazing communities, pasture land. If these two components are taken care of, the forest people would reduce their extractive practices that academicians note, are detrimental to forest systems. (Priya Davidar, 2010, ‘Assessing the extent and causes of forest degradation in India: where do we stand’, Biological Conservation).
The community may be ensured LPG connections and fodder which they can purchase with their ‘salary’ apart from establishing off-grid solar photo voltaic systems in each village which can ensure energy security. The village community thus enabled will be emboldened to stop outsiders from sharing their forest, effectively bringing down poaching and other pilferage that are presently done with their tacit understanding. Technology can add the requisite flavour, with unobtrusive checks and balances inbuilt into the system. Surveillance systems, radio/GPS tagging, GPS fencing and more, maintained by the community as part of the duties can ensure the protection of the equipment.
The planned allocation by the Indian government for environment and ecology has gone up from 37860 million INR in the XI Five year plan to 80750 million INR in the XII Five year plan (2012-17); and, for forests and wildlife— from 62140 million to Rs 97990 million INR between the same plan period. Thus MoEF may spend a whopping sum of Rs 178740 million INR during 5 years’ period which works out to Rs 35750 million INR per annum. A minutest fraction of this allocated to forest communities can turn reserves into havens of refuge for man and animal.
Providing a salary to the forest communities is not a new concept. Kerela has recently created 700 posts for forest tribes, while Uttar Pradesh has also floated wage policies for tendu collection in the forest areas, (The Hindu, May 24, 2013; and, Times of India February 2, 2013). However, using the existing system and its inherent schemes inventively, at a village level, has not been experimented as yet.
For the purpose of this debate, tourism is considered a deterrent. The seduction and glitter of tourism, with hotels, eateries, curio shops and so on springing up overnight, is too much for barely literate villagers to handle. Conservation is serious business and falls in the academic domain. Also, apart from a few exceptions, most forest people are not involved in any tourism related activities. Tourism thus undermines the very cause of conservation. If, however, policy makers are seeking a sustainable model for funding conservation, sponsors and funders can provide a suitable alternative as opposed to tourism in these forested realms.
The moot point is that the forest people have to be centric to the conservation policies. The PAs do not have to be recreation parks for the rich, nor do they have to echo with the cries of those who were rendered homeless—they can serve as the last bastions of India’s heritage, in the true sense of preservation. The decline in animal and biodiversity wealth is palpable (The Hindu, October 16, 2013, ‘KSBB mulls project for protection, conservation of plants in Western Ghats’) and it is important that India should opt for one unified conservation policy encompassing all entities of forests, wildlife and forest people, even those living along wildlife movement corridors. Inclusive development would thus ensure that PAs are turned into the ‘Pandora’ in real.