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Wanted: Conservation of our biodiversity

 

 

 

The Tribune, New Delhi, 5th September, 2014

 

 

Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

http://www.tribuneindia.com/2014/20140905/edit.htm#6

 

There is a need to put in place a politico-administrative ideology to safeguard our wildlife, ecology and flora as well as fauna

 

India has been and remains unmindful, in fact, ignorant, of the country’s rich, ecological heritage LESS than a year prior to Narendra Modi being sworn in as India’s Prime Minister, the Supreme Court had handed down a historic judgment (Center for Environmental Law WWF – I v. Union of India and Others) which was applauded for its far-sighted, symbiotic wisdom, committing India and Indians to preserve in essence all of the country’s wilderness spaces (which altogether add up to less than 5 per cent of our terrestrial area) together with all the faunal and floral life forms that inhabit therein. Admittedly, this judicial pronouncement is not a jot different to what already lies enshrined within the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), read in conjunction with the Forest Rights Act (2006). But coming as a judicial intervention by the highest court of law, its decree was expected to be read diligently and complied with by the Executive, implicitly.

 

Diluting the spirit of the judgment

 

 However, even before the “ink dried” over that judgment, the Union Government has issued a Gazette Notification which, not merely, diminishes the spirit of that judgment but also significantly dilutes certain principal elements from the existing mechanism of checks-and-balances from the construct of the apex ecology “watch-dog”, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL); namely, as against five NGOs and 10 “expert” members mandated by the Wildlife Protection Act, the successor NBWL will have just three “non-official” members. Period. The Gazette then goes on to nominate these three worthies, admittedly with excellent credentials in nature conservation fields but when two of the three are retired government servants from Gujarat (the PM’s turf), the fair play element at once becomes suspect.

 

 Rich ecology

 

 It is un-flattering but true that by and large India has been and remains unmindful, in fact, ignorant, of the country’s rich ecological heritage and its attributes in keeping the country’s food-basket brimming all the time, providing natural Carbon-Sinks and absorbing noise pollution at zero cost and impacting positively upon the country’s micro climate. Perhaps it were these scientific revelations which, in 1882, had prompted Sir Charles Darwin and Sir Joseph Hooker to write a memorandum to the Secretary of State for India at Whitehall, for the need to document India's rich bio-diversity.

 

The recommendation was accepted and a series of publications were planned. By 1889, the first results of the undertaking became public when EW Oates and WT Blanford produced Fauna of British India: Birds in four volumes. This was perhaps the beginning of the development of a politico administrative ideology to preserve India's myriad biodiversity niches and wildlife forms inhabiting these wilderness-habitats.

 

From nine tiger reserves initially, the Project Tiger coverage has increased to 47 at present, spread out in 18 of our tiger-range states

 

 Curzon’s contribution

 

 In the long pantheon of Governor-Generals and Viceroys of India post that appeal, the one who truly had the love and understanding of India's wildernesses and provided lead by personal example, was Lord Curzon. It had become an annual ritual for the Viceroy of India to indulge in field-sport (hunting/shikar) during the Christmas week and India's princes vied with each other to host the Viceroy’s hunt in their state. So it was that the Nawab of Junagadh made overtures to the Viceroy to hunt the Asiatic lion in his principality in the Christmas week of 1903. That was also the time, when the only pride of the Asiatic lions surviving in the world was in Junagadh. But the lions numbered less than 20 animals in all and a lesser man would have jumped at the chance of acquiring such a priceless trophy at that “momentous” time but not Lord Curzon. Politely declining the invitation, the Viceroy instead invited the Nawab to start a movement for the preservation of the Asiatic lion for posterity. This was perhaps the first unambiguous policy directive to conserve nature in the country from the man who was the head of both the Executive and the Legislature in India.

 

 Nehruvian model

 

 The next proponent of India’s ecological security was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first Prime Minister. He was an outspoken and demonstrative champion of the nature conservation paradigm in totality and its implementation in the country. Presumably, the fact of extinction of the cheetah in India (November 1947) within months of the country becoming a sovereign nation was not lost on Nehru. A thought which may well have stared him in the face was that could he prevent the Asiatic lion from extinction? Well, he did lead by personal example, visiting the Gir Forests twice in the 1950s-1960s, exhorting all those involved in the setting up and management of what was to become the world famous Asiatic Lion Gir Sanctuary. The rest is history. The world owes a debt of gratitude to the Viceroy Curzon-Prime Minister Nehru duo that the Asiatic lion, in reasonably respectable numbers, did enter the 21st century.

 

 

In 1954, Pandit Nehru went on to give the nation "The Indian Board for Wildlife". It was a non-statutory body to be chaired ex-officio by the Prime Minister and membered by eminent naturalists, conservationists and environmentalists; men of impeccable stature such as M Krishnan, E. P. Gee, Salim Ali and so on. They were charged to evolve strategies for the preservation and development of forests and wildlife and to suggest implementation methodologies. Perhaps the finest strategy that emerged, the idea possibly sowed by Pandit Nehru himself, was to involve the people of India in the propagation of forests (niches of biodiversity and homes to wildlife) by launching vana mahotsava as an annual attempt to commit Indians to keep India green for ever.

 

Rituals vs ground reality

 

 No one could fault the political direction but unfortunately no mechanism was put in place to audit the administrative commitment towards its implementation. So the vana mahotsava soon degenerated into a mere annual ritual. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi also provided decisive political direction through two measures with the potential of long term relief to India's beleaguered wildlife and protection to vast tracts of our prime forests. The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, passed unanimously by the Parliament and adopted by all States and UTs of the Union became the country's first legislation in this field. In hindsight if there is any one action which provided for biodiversity niches and a new lease of life to India's wildlife and their habitat, it was this singular legislation. It went on to become a role model for a few newly emerged Nations in Africa and South East Asia as well.

 

 Project Tiger

 

 In the 1960s, there was the global anxiety that the tiger may not survive the 20th century. At that point in time, India had the largest surviving population of tigers in the world. It was therefore natural that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international NGO, raised $ 1 million to launch the tiger initiative. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the chief guest at the launch in New Delhi. Guy Mountford, CEO of WWF-International, while presenting the cheque to Mrs Gandhi for the launch of Project Tiger is said to have stated in passing that he hoped “India would respond to the challenge adequately”? Mrs Gandhi accepted the cheque graciously but probably stung by Guy Mountford's barb, she summoned her matchless poise and announced there and then, double the amount of cash into the Project Tiger seed-fund. Again, it was the administrative mechanisms which failed in the implementation of a clear political direction, in the long run.

 

 The closing 20 years of the 20th century were to witness the steady erosion of India's resolve to protect its wildlife and forests so painstakingly enforced in the preceding forty years. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi did create the National Wastelands Development Board, did launch the River Ganga cleaning initiative and also restructured the Forest Ministry as MOEF but there was no Sam Pitroda to audit the implementation. It was natural that in such a politico-administrative vacuum, threats to biodiversity and survival of wildlife and its habitats multiplied by the day.

 

 Passive bystanders

 

 The MOEF, who were provided the casting vote on environment impact assessments of all development projects, chose to remain passive by-standers. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao created a record of sorts by not holding a single meeting of the Indian Board for Wildlife in his seven-year tenure! When the elder Mr Patnaik was urged by conservationists the world over, to help protect the annual egg laying by the Olive Ridgley turtles on Orissa’s beeches, his terse response was “tell the turtles to go elsewhere”. Period.

 

 Based on the experience of the past 30 years, The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 was comprehensively modified and reenacted unanimously by Parliament in 2002. As a result, an apex statutory body, the National Board for Wildlife was created but for want of direction from its ex officio Chairman, Prime Minister Vajpayee, it remained dormant till jolted by a Supreme Court direction following a PIL. Besides ministers and bureaucrats, the Board was to have 10 members from eminent conservationists and environmentalists etc. Believe it or not, the eight members nominated were from retired IAS and IFS officers, with or without exposure or expertise in biodiversity or wildlife! Of the five NGOs to be nominated, four had had mediocre or no credible track record in this field. Mr Vajpayee made an impressive inaugural speech yet in the meeting that followed, he also approved the sale to the IOC of some two acres land in the heart of the core-zone of the National Desert Park, Jaisalmer, for oil exploration in total violation of laws governing the core-zone of a National Park, leave alone environmental norms! The Prime Minister expected kudos for having earned about Rs 4 crore in revenue (one time) for the MOEF. In a manner of speaking this decision marked the death of whatever may have been the politico-administrative ideology for the conservation of nature and wildlife in the country.

 

 Betrayed by politicians & administrators

 

 If the first 40 years of Independence witnessed firm political direction though indifferent administrative commitment, but in the succeeding 20 years, India's wildlife and forests were betrayed totally both by the politician and the administrators. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh aroused by the criminal killings of all tigers in the Sariska Tiger Reserve, at last galvanised to declare emphatically that his government will ensure revival of tigers in Sariska as also the survival of the Tiger in the country. And Indians goaded and supported him whole heartedly because they realised that if the tiger survives, there is every hope that most of India's biodiversity and wildlife and their wilderness refuges will also enter the 22nd century. And in so doing, the country will have hopefully committed itself to the ideology of treating its ecological biodiversity, wildlife and forests as a vital resource for attaining the overall regional, mega-power status.

 

 Is the Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi listening? Would he revisit the flaws riddled, subject Gazette Notification, please.

 

— The writer is a former trustee, WWF-India and member, advisory committee, Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai

 

 Wild-goose chase

 

 India's wilderness spaces altogether add up to less than 5 per cent of our terrestrial area.

 

It was due to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's efforts that world famous Asiatic Lion Gir Sanctuary was set up. The world owes a debt of gratitude to the Viceroy Curzon-Prime Minister Nehru duo that the Asiatic lion, in reasonably respectable numbers, did enter the 21st century.

 

If the first 40 years of Independence witnessed firm political direction though indifferent administrative commitment, but in the succeeding 20 years, India's wildlife and forests were betrayed totally both by the politician and the administrators.

 

If the tiger survives, there is every hope that most of India's biodiversity and wildlife and their wilderness refuges will also enter the 22nd century.