Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Convenient Untruth

India must achieve 8-8.5 percent growth regardless of what happens in the world economy. This growth must be achieved whatever be the circumstances,” said prime minis­ter Manmohan Singh recently. The hurdles in the way, it was diagnosed, “were cumbersome (environment) processes in­volved in getting statutory clearances.”
Making environment, forest and wildlife laws the scapegoat for a sluggish economy (if you can call it that at 6 percent when the US and UK economies scrape 1.5-2 percent) has found favour with the media too, to the extent that environmental regulations are being labelled “green terror”.
The diagnosis could be called naive, if it weren’t for its ominous implications, given that it espouses growth at whatever cost, “whatever the circumstances”. But more on that later. First, doesn’t it stand to reason that a slow global economy and plunging financial markets will have an impact on the Indian economy? Besides, there is a multitude of factors that impact an economy. To pin the blame on environ­ment concerns is not just simplistic; it’s a false premise – a convenient untruth.
To bust the myth of ‘green impediments’ statistics have been highlighted before, but they merit repetition. It is also pertinent to understand the genesis of this flawed concept of ‘green imperialism’, the genesis of which, according to an editorial in a
 leading newsweekly, was in 2009, when Jairam Ramesh, both hailed and hated as a green messiah, took charge of the Parya­varan Bhawan. During his tenure between June 2009 and July 2011, well over 95 per ­cent of projects that came to the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) sailed through the green ‘hurdles’. We don’t have a similar figure for the period when the DMK held the environment portfolio, but suffice to say that it was during their stint that dilutions to the Environment Protec­tion Act were initiated, including weaken­ing the public consultation process. Rules were bent, and regulations such as those relating to the coastal regulation zones (CRZ) were amended to accommodate mega-projects of those who enjoyed prox­imity with the concerned minister.
What Ramesh did was to bring the ‘de­velopment vs. conservation’ debate to the centre-stage; but most projects that had been stalled eventually got the green flag, be it Lavasa, or Posco or the airport at Navi Mumbai. One of the very few that were denied was Vedanta’s alumina plant at Niyamgiri, and we know whom we owe that one to.
Coal mining is another contentious issue. Urged by the coal ministry, MoEF prepared a ‘go/no-go’ categorisation for mining in forest areas, defining biodiversity-rich for­ests as ‘no-go’ (though, legally speaking, all forests are ‘no-go’ according to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980). Eventually, after a series of dilutions due to “pressures from higher-ups”, the MoEF ceded over 80% of the so-called ‘no-go’ biodiversity-rich forests to mining. This included proposed elephant reserves in Hasdeo-Anand in Chhattisgarh, and Chiriya in Saranda – the world’s largest, finest sal forest and tracts in the tiger-rich central Indian landscape. In the one year since Natarajan took charge, the MoEF has cleared 1,126 propos­als involving diversion of 15,639 hectares of forest land.
Another oft-repeated accusation is that blocked forest clearances are the cause behind coal shortage and India’s energy crisis. Here’s a reality check: Between 1982 and 2012, the MoEF rejected only 18 of the 384 applications for coal blocks. It gave forest clearances to 215, while another 75 got an in-principle approval, which usually leads to full clearance. The rest are either pending with the state or central govern­ments or were withdrawn.
The clearance is also getting faster. An MoEF document shows that between 1982 and 1999, the average time was five years to give full clearance. During the BJP-led government between 2000 and 2004, this reduced to three years, and further to 17 months during the regime of UPA I. After 2009, this has declined to 11 months.
Let’s assess the 11th plan period till August 2011: the MoEF has granted envi­ronmental clearances to 181 coal mines with a combined capacity of 583 million tonnes per annum, and forest clearances to 113 mines, giving away 26,000 hectares of forest land for coal. These clearances are expected to double our coal capacity. The 11th and 12th five-year plans target 1,50,000 MW of additional thermal power capacity to be created and set up by 2017. Between 2006 and August 2011, clearances were granted for 2,10,000 MW of thermal power capacity: 40 percent in excess of our proposed requirement till 2017.
Fact is, in key sectors like power, coal, steel and cement, the clearances given exceed targets. Capacity in energy and coal lies under or unutlised, while project pro­ponents clamour for clearances for new projects, since these give them the owner­ship of valuable natural resources: land, water and minerals.
No wonder India Inc., backed by power­ful politicians, perpetuates this convenient untruth, terming environment norms the new ‘licence raj’, a green avtaar of the red tapeism that had ‘throttled’ the economy before liberalisation.
As is evident, it is not industry and infra­structure that is being short-changed, it is the environment. Why then is the MoEF being vilified for doing its job, which is protecting environment, forests and wild­life, which some would say is debatable given the extent of clearances?
Protecting environment is not, as I have pointed out before, about “saving a few sundry animals”, as dismissed infamously by a bureaucrat. Saving forests is critical not just for sustained growth but to protect the basic life support systems: water, clean air, soil fertility. Forests are a key influ­encer of the monsoons; they nourish and nurture our rivers and soils. Crucial, given that two out of every three Indians still depend on agriculture or related employ­ment. Monsoons are a key factor in pulling down the GDP, and some estimates suggest that if ecological-damage were consid­ered as lost capital, India’s GDP would be reduced by nearly six percent. If we are to take into account future climate projects, the situation gets graver: Lord Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank who authored the path-breaking report, The Economics of Climate Change, is quoted as saying that a business-as-usual scenario could shrink the world economy by at least five percent – and possibly as much as 20 percent. It is well established that biodiversity conservation is the basis of eco-system functioning. Mangroves, for example, are not only aquatic nurseries that sustain a healthy fish stock, but also serve as bio-shields, providing protection from devastating storms and tidal waves. A study (Das, S., 2007) investigating the impact of the Orissa super cyclone of Oc­tober 1999 established that coastal villages shielded by mangroves suffered much less damage compared to those that lacked mangrove protection. This was further established during the devastating tsunami of 2004 where fishing villages under direct physical coverage of the mangroves were protected from the fury of the tsunami.
The need of the hour clearly is to strengthen, not weaken, environment regulations. Instead, the onslaught to do away with green regulations is relentless, and it isn’t just the tiger and other critically endan­gered wildlife – for tiger forests have rich coal deposits – that are being trampled over as we hurtle toward ‘growth’; it is the democratic processes of public hear­ing and consultation that are in the dock. Consider this fact: the group of ministers (GoM) established to ‘rationalise’ coal min­ing in forests recommended scrapping ‘no-go’ areas and public hearings.
The cacophony is shrill, albeit hysteri­cal, with ‘solutions’ ranging from shutting down the MoEF to doing away with man­datory checks and balances, offering in­stead to punish violators – after the forest is razed, the river poisoned, the wetland bulldozed, the wildlife exterminated. Like, we are told helpfully, being fined for a traf­fic violation. This, in our country, where monitoring systems are non-existent, and punishment for environment crimes a cruel joke. Think Bhopal.
The latest salvo is the proposed national investment board (NIB), which, we are informed, “will boost investment by doing away with the ‘hated licence raj’ “. The NIB is envisaged to ensure that mega projects sail through, dismantling the regulatory systems for green clearances, without bothering about their environmental and social impacts. With no checks and bal­ances, no provisions for appeal, the NIB appears to be a law onto itself, though it’s unclear how the board’s powers will reconcile with the legal framework – the Environment Protection Act, 1986, Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and Wildlife Pro­tection Act, 1972 – which in its mandate also includes protection of wildlife and forest against various pressures, and com­peting uses on natural habitat including infrastructure development.
Equally importantly, how will the NIB function vis-a-vis the various directives of the Supreme Court, which ensure that economic imperatives are not the only consideration for big-ticket projects? These concerns are well-reflected in the feisty letter written to the prime minister, the in­tended chair of the NIB, by Natarajan who questions its hasty formation and purpose. She expresses grave concerns about its constitutional breach, the consequences to governance and responsibility to the legislature. If the NIB overrules the far-reaching decisions of the MoEF, who will be accountable? Are the law and finance ministries and the PMO, envisaged as the three members of NIB, competent to take nuanced decisions which have implica­tions on livelihoods and biodiversity, issues on which they have little knowledge? Can we afford to ignore environment costs in development concerns? The mining and industrial towns of Chandrapur, Vapi and Ludhiana are prime examples of environ­ment consequences being ignored, and are today living hell-holes, ravaged by diseases like lung and skin infections, TB and cancer.
Another point is, how will the NIB lure investors if hasty decisions taken without due diligence lead to dispute and unrest? Across India, one major cause for social unrest and uprising is land acquisition for infrastructure projects and development. At the 11th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 11 to CBD) held in October in Hyderabad was a group of protesting villagers from the sal forest in Mahan, demanding that their forests be protected from being pillaged for coal. The womenfolk of farmers and fisher­men from Konkan travelled to Bathinda in Punjab to understand the health impacts of thermal power plants, which are proposed along the coast. They do not want cancer in their backyard. Mangroves, which support a rich diversity, are the lifeline of fisherfolk, and along the Indian coastline, the fishing community is up in arms against the setting up of thermal power plants, ports and spe­cial economic zones (SEZs) which wipe out mangroves – and their livelihood.
The NIB offers little recourse to them – the farmer and the fisherman, the aam aadmi, whose cause our government claims to espouse. Large investors may appeal to the NIB if aggrieved by the deci­sion of the MoEF, but the NIB makes no mention of similar recourse for the ag­grieved communities. The NIB only serves the cause of the large investor, leaving no room for the concerns and grievances of ordinary citizens and stakeholders. How will this fulfil the criteria of ‘inclusive growth’, that is cited as the current govern­ment’s fundamental objective? Why is the world’s most vibrant democracy bending over backwards for large investors, sacri­ficing democratic tenets and key consider­ations like public health, environment and biodiversity? 

This article was first published in the November 15 issue of Governance Now

Prerna Singh Bindra is a member, National Board of Wildlife, Sr Consultant, WCS-India Program and Editor, TigerLink

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The tiger as scapegoat

Since the interim order of the Supreme Court, tiger aficionados and the section of the media that is on the tiger trail have been largely occupied by the business of the ‘ban’ on tourism in core tiger areas
Meanwhile, in the tiger’s world, other threats loom.
You could pin one of these to the world’s biggest grid failure, when much of India’s northern half was plunged into darkness and chaos in what is said to be the biggest power blackout in history, affecting almost half the country.  but...electricity and tigers? 
If you read the media reports, you would know that like most things that go wrong these days––from power shortages to slow economic growth––the blame is tossed at the door of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). In fact, a popular news weekly which took up the power crisis two weeks in a row  blamed the “activist friendly MoEF policies”, since "Clearances for projects are a problem". In the same weekly's next issue, it listed, among ways to tackle power situation, doing away with forest clearances. If only the media––and not just this particular newsmagazine––dug deeper to ferret out the real issues instead of repeating the rhetoric.
First, I will quote ad verbatim a clarification from the MoEF on some of the projects that are said to be blocked: “NTPC Bijapur, Karnataka, is said to have been stalled due to lack of environmental clearance (EC). The fact is EC was granted on 25 January 2012.  Essar, Madhya Pradesh, is said to have been stalled due to lack of EC, but EC was granted  on 20 April 2007. The same applies to Reliance Power Chitrangi, MP, where EC was granted on 28 May 2010.” The Essar plant is already in operation, although, do note––final Forest Clearance  for both these projects is still pending.
One could go into why the plants have started operations without mandatory clearances, thereby circumventing  the law of the land or the largesse of the MoEF in granting clearances but that is another debate and let’s not get distracted. Instead, I would focus on a study done by Centre for Science and Environment which should put to rest the contention about 'green hurdles' causing the power crisis. The study explains that the 11th and 12th  Five Year Plans target 1,50,000 MW of additional thermal power capacity to be created and set up by 2017. In the period of five years until August 2011, clearances were granted for 210,000 MW of thermal power capacity. Do your math––it’s 60,000 MW more than what has been proposed till 2017. The study  threw up another shocker––thermal power capacity built in the same period is 32,394 MW. So, why are new projects beating down the MoEF door, when cleared projects are not being built?
Let’s talk coal––we hear that its shortage has brought the economy to its knees. Hence, say the growth pundits: let’s cut the remaining forests down and dig for the coal beneath. I cite a recent article in a prominent English daily authored by a former bureaucrat: “We can’t let environmental precautionism be converted into environmental ‘talibanism’. India’s first priority must be taking care of the energy needs of its people, rather than taking care of sundry animals. Thus mining must be allowed and reforestation can be done, hand-in-hand, in other areas to make up for the lost cover.” I will not even bother to trash such ill-informed writing––with conservation being dismissed as 'taking care of sundry animals' and natural, old growth forests-eco-systems equated to planting of trees, lest I digress again. The BK Chaturvedi committee (August 2011) had recommended that coal mining projects should be given automatic clearance, with exceptions only for projects in “dense” forest areas.  But, will that solve the coal crisis? 
I borrow here from Sunita Narian’s editorial in Down to Earth, “Coal India Limited (CIL) produces over 90 per cent of India’s coal; it controls over 200,000 ha of mine leases, including 55,000 ha of forest area. The estimated coal reserves with CIL are 64 billion tonnes, and the company produces 500 million tonnes per annum. Who is then responsible for the shortage of coal in the country?” There is another factor. India loses no less than 40 per cent of its electricity to inefficient transmission and there is little scope of addressing this given the shortfall in investments in this sector. While there are enough investments or new projects––where one gains control over natural resources––there is a  shortfall of a staggering $75 billion or nearly Rs. four lakh crore, investment in the transmission and distribution segment according to a recent report which also states that for every dollar invested in the power generation in the country, only half a dollar is put in T&D.
A recent report by Greenpeace How Coal Mining is Trashing Tigerland says coal mining threatens over 1.1 million ha. of forests, particularly tiger and elephant habitat. This study was restricted to just 13 coalfields in Central India, so the larger picture may  be far  worse. The tiger’s most unfortunate truth is that the ground beneath its feet is rich with minerals. The battle will only intensify, given that the demand for coal is set to touch about 2,300 mt per annum by 2030, from the current 600 mt. 
So, next time you leave the lights on needlessly, think of the impact on the tiger you so want to save. The power in your home is at the cost of the tiger’s forests, and best spent prudently.
The ecological impacts of hydel power projects has been well-documented. Yet, the North-east, one of the most bio-diverse regions of the world and home to several indigenous communities, has been identified as India’s 'future powerhouse' with no less than 168 large hydroelectric projects proposed with a total installed capacity of 63,328 MW  (Central Electricity Authority, 2001), which will submerge forests, devastate ecology and have grave impacts on the cultures and livelihoods of indigenous people.  There are 600 dams of varying scale that are either operational, under construction or proposed on the holiest  of our rivers, Ganga threatening its very existence. The impacts on livelihood of communities, biodiversity,  the surrounding natural ecosystems will be devastating.
Use of  existing capacity, efficiency of distribution and transmission and conserving energy are the key to a more ‘powered’  future while ensuring ecological security. Meanwhile, safe, viable alternatives to hydrocarbon and hydel energy are options India must explore on priority if it seeks a sustainable future.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ref: The Tourism issue

This is regarding my weekly column in The Pioneer, dated 1st August 2012.

Here are some clarifications towards the points raised:

First, as far as the headline is concerned, I agree, it does not reflect the article and is sensational – but it is not given by me, the concerned editor controls that – and I have communicated my concerns to them.

Nowhere have I supported a complete ban on tourism from core areas. Nor do the guidelines say that, as they allow for a part of the core, largely the traditional routes of tourism to allow visitors subject to regulation. I believe –– and this is clearly stated in my article –– that tourism is an important conservation tool, as it plays an educational and inspirational role and is key to winning allies and public support for conservation. I also believe that tourism must be the economic mainstay of communities dwelling on PA fringes, so that they support the park.  
At the same time, tourism cannot continue to go on in the way that it had been going on until now. There is a need to regulate, restrict tourism, and ensure that it’s in sync with nature. We have to look at newer models of tourism – as I said in the column, the long term visionary solution is to expand tourism outwards where locals, farmers etc. who bear the brunt of conservations have a participatory stake in the process.
As far as issues with returning a small part the buffer to the wild are concerned: While it is true that some land in buffer zones of several tiger reserves is privately owned, a proportion in buffer is usually reserve forests or other such government status and if this is restored to the wilds, or protected, it will only make the area more secure, and give better protection against projects like mining etc., which have grave impacts on wild habitats. There is a reluctance on the part of states to declare buffers or Eco-sensitive zones to serve these interests. If there are site-specific issues of some parks, then let’s address them.
I do not quite agree that tigers are vanishing from everywhere but the prime tourism zones, including buffer zones. In the first place, these areas flourish because of years of conservation effort.  Yes, there are tigers in reserves where there are tourists, but there are tigers in other areas too. Paterpani in Corbett, where no tourists go – has an equal density of tigers than in non-tourism areas. Valmiki is stabilising – because of intense conservation efforts, even though their aren't tourists. The southern core of Similipal –– which has been completely off limits to tourism since the 1980s –– is the only part of Similipal where tigers are stable and breeding.

 I have not equated the Panna catastrophe with tourism –as you well know, I have documented the official apathy in Panna time and again.
However, it is also a fact that tourism being there did not have a policing impact, it cannot unless it is accompanied by effective protection – supported by strong NGOs, conservationists etc., who build pressure and work with authorities to bring about that effective protection.Yes, again as stated in the article, tourists-outsiders- a third eye -increases accountability.
Coming to the question of local livelihoods, a small percentage of the income from hotels and resorts trickles down to the communities. The tenets of ecotourism advocate that the income generated from ecotourism should be with the local communities and the park itself. Yet how many, what percentage of local communities are owners or partners in the business? In Ranthambhore, there was for years a wider programme which involved capacity building, providing alternate means of livelihood etc., which has helped build a model that is more equitable.
We know it is the local people who bear the brunt –in terms of livelihood, and conflict. Which is why we are losing support for the tiger and parks – and which is why it is important that we have ecologically sustainable models of tourism that are the mainstay of the local economy.
If the funds from tourism are being ploughed back into the park and local communities in MP, it is perhaps the only state that this is being done. Also, it is something we need to study, and adapt similar models if it is comprehensive and suitable.
 As regards South Africa, there is no one model in SA, there are various models; good ones (like the Rwanda model) but also canned hunting; though I know none of us, are not advocating that. Sure, there are some practices we can adapt, but to blindly advocate the SA model, when there are fundamental differences does not seem sensible. We have to evolve our own India-specific models.
Lastly, I would like to say that I have always stressed that the real threat to wildlife is not from tourism, but from mines, highways and other infrastructure that are tearing apart tiger habitats and landscapes by the day. This one is a very tough fight, given the various pressures--from the highest office. Unfortunately, these do not draw the kind of attention that the issue of tourism draws.   (and direct killing, the other big worry))
All of us here care for the tiger and wildlife and and I hope, and am sure that we reach common ground to continue to battle for its future.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

SAVE THE TIGER Saving the tiger, I am delighted to note, has caught the nation’s imagination.. Encouragingly, tiger conservation has even entered political consciousness at the national level, and today no political leader can afford to appear ‘unfriendly’ towards the tiger. Let’s hope that this level of societal support can help turn the tide against wildlife extermination in the country. But before we start celebrating, let’s pause, and consider where, the battle lines have gone awry, and the focus has blurred. We all want to save the tiger, but in our zeal and enthusiasm, we’ve forgotten what issues really ail the cat. One issue is tiger tourism. I won’t call it eco-tourism –– simply because there's little that’s ‘eco’ about it. The cacophony on both sides of this debate has been of little help and, even as we speak, new resorts are springing up, tightening the noose around tiger reserves, destroying their connectivity to other forests and choking crucial corridors. Without a doubt, the issues that surround tiger tourism need to tackled seriously, but it is simply hogging up disproportionate attention, at the cost of other key issues. among them, the alarming rate at which the tiger is losing its habitat due to other reasons. The figures speak for themselves. In the four years from the first All India Tiger Estimate in 2006 to the last one in 2010, the tiger lost no less than 12,000 sq km of its habitat , according to a report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Wildlife Institute of India. Expanding urbanisation and agriculture, mines, highways, railway lines, dams, industries and other developmental activities have pillaged, drowned and slashed tiger habitat. Let's take a look at a park very close to our heart. Many tiger aficionados can trace the lineage and just about everything else about Machli, Sundari, Zalim et al- the famous tigers from Ranthambhore. But how many of us are aware or have raised a voice about the fact that recently a canal bisected the only link between the Ranthambhore National Park and Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary, blocking the tiger’s path, within the boundaries of the reserve. Even though mandatory permission was not given, the foundation stone was laid by a former union minister (of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, no less). . The Central Indian Tiger landscape is one of the four most viable tiger habitats in the country. It is also unfortunately the ‘coal belt’ of India. It is being ripped apart, not only by a series of small and big mines, but also by a multitude of railway lines and highways, of which the cases of NH 6 and NH 7 have been well-documented. In its current form, the expansion of NH 7 will lead to the irrevocable breakage of the Kanha-Pench corridor, and isolate the two tiger populations from one another, with grave consequences. These are just two instances of ill-planned projects. . There is no let up, Indeed there is increasing pressure to sacrifice more tiger habitat, which, as it is, barely constitutes one per cent of India’s landscape. It’s simple: if tigers do not have a home -- undisturbed core critical habitats to breed, and corridors that keep alive genetic vitality, there is no long-term future for the species. Nor, of course, can the tiger survive without food. A 2004 study by tiger biologist, Ullas Karanth, and his colleagues determined that prey densities play a key factor in determining tiger densities. A healthy prey population, as for example in Nagarahole, with a prey density of about 40 hoofed animals per square kilometer supports 12-15 tigers per 100 sq km. In contrast, reserves in, say, Chhattisgarh, even with excellent habitat, can barely support a few tigers as local communities have pretty much exterminated the prey base, creating ‘empty forests’. But how seriously have we taken this threat? The availability of venison in bazaars around Protected Areas is the worst kept secret, but has yet to be seriously tackled,. Further, few of us consider the devastating impacts of local communities on tiger habitat, which bear the brunt of millions who depend on the forest for fuel wood, grazing cattle, and the extraction of minor forest produce such as bamboo, gooseberry, tendu (beedi) leaf, honey, and resins ––not for subsistence, but for commercial supply to national and international markets, degrading habitat, impacting prey populations and leading to human-wildlife conflict. Instead of developing a strategy to tackle this very complex and sensitive issue, laws that moderated these activities earlier are being weakened–– to serve vote bank politics. Just one example: bamboo (prime elephant food, and good cover for tigers and other wildlife) is now defined as a non-timber forest produce, allowing for easier cutting, collection and transport. That's damaging enough, but more worrying is the fact that there is a move to allow its transportation through trucks and lorries(currently it is headloads and cycles) , setting the stage for massive devastation of our forests. There are currently some 750 villages stranded deep inside our core/critical tiger habitats. These are people who desire––and are at present unable to access––facilities we take for granted: roads, hospitals, education, and employment opportunities. The answer provided by the PM-appointed Tiger Task Force was voluntary relocation by giving them an attractive compensation and rehabilitation package so that they could avail a better life outside our PAs. This 'relocation agenda' is on the priority list, but while there is some progress under an enhanced package by the Central government , sufficient money is not being released, even though people have petitioned and are waiting to move out. Funds (like the CAMPA ) are instead poured into ineffective afforestation schemes and spent on building useless infrastructure, even within Protected Areas, which are supposed to be ‘inviolate’. The threat of direct tiger poaching––the immediate cause of the sharp decline of tigers is well documented,. But emotional breast beating over each tiger death however distressing doesn’t serve any constructive purpose. Securing tigers, prey and their habitat does--and that’s what we need to collectively strive for. Wild habitats must be kept sacrosanct to the truest meaning of the word. Tiger reserves must get their funds on time, and money for relocation must be made available. Enabling and motivating our forest guards, holding the bureaucracy accountable, and posting committed officers to wildlife reserves, are the crucial must-do’s to save tigers.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The core of the tourism issue One has watched with increasing dismay the hysteria and mayhem (pretty muchlike ‘tiger tourism’ itself!), that has surrounded the interim order of the Supreme Court prohibiting tourism in legally notified core areas of tigerreserves for a four-week period — when a majority of reserves is closed fortourism anyway. Being sub judice, I will refrain from commenting on theorder, but focus and clarify matters on the ‘core’ issue. Enough has been said about the genesis of this debate — the nature of the beast aka ‘tiger tourism’ as it exists in India: Monstrous resorts blocking crucial wildlife corridors even inside core areas (these are government structures, largely forest department), and the obsession with tigers which usually involves chasing the elusive cat, or crowding it while tourists have a raucous dekho. At the first instance, the WildlifeProtection Act, as amended in 2006, calls for core critical tiger habitats as‘inviolate’, based on a concept advocated by the PM appointed Tiger Task Force. This is whythe Government has prioritised the voluntary relocation of villages from such areas. It’s important that villages move out, so that tigers have undisturbed habitats, free of anthropogenic pressures and marginalised communities stranded inside forests are given the opportunity to join mainstream society. But then, on what grounds do we allow tourists or tourism infrastructure on the same land vacated by villagers? The tenets of wildlife tourism are that the benefits should accrue to first the park itself and to the local communities who bear the brunt of conservation— whether it is in terms of human-wildlife conflict or impacts on livelihood as access to the ‘protected area’ is stymied. Wildlife tourism is a money spinner;some estimates indicate that in India the business rakes in over one billion dollars. But who takes the booty? Gate revenue from the reserves go to the State, while revenue generated from private resorts around the reserve benefits businessmen largely based in faraway cities and metros. A study by Krithi Karanth et al of Centre for Wildlife Studies found that the contribution of such tourism to local employment is marginal and seasonal. Plum positions in the wildlife-hotel industry are held by outsiders while the businesses greenwash themselves by employing a few locals as drivers,sweepers or gardeners. There are of course ethical practitioners who promote low-impact nature tourism inspired by their commitment to the wilderness, but these are unfortunately the exceptions rather than the rule. In fact, the few good people who chart the ethical path--struggle against those who offer an array of services--from air-conditioners and satellite television to swimming pools--and in some cases disc jockeys. Ecologically sustainable tourism must infact be the mainstay of economies around Protected Areas--since to protect the habitat heavy industries are restricted. Unfortunately--besides the few exceptions--the wildlife tourism sector has failed to regulate itself or contribute to conservation. Worryingly, the tourism debate is ill-informed. The Government’s stance is reflected in the guidelines that have been submitted to the apex court. While there are indeed some lacunae--one being the lack of incentive for good practices--at the heart of it, the guidelines give prime importance to the protection and welfare of wildlife and the local communities. The guidelines are detailed but the crux of it focuses on disallowing new tourist facilities from being set up on fores lands, regular monitoring, strict compliance of environment laws and a cess for resorts around ‘Protected Areas’, phasing out of tourism infrastructure within core areas and ensuring benefit for local communities. Significantly, this guideline applies not only to tiger reserves, but all Protected Areas, and also to pilgrim sites within PAs. An important recommendation, particular to tiger reserves, is that 15 to 20 per cent of the core areas may be permitted for regulated eco-tourism, subject to the condition that 20 to 30 per cent of the multiple-use buffer zones are restored to the same quality of habitat and wildlife protection as the core area within a five-year deadline. There can be no two opinions that 100-bed facilities, theaters and restaurants within the core, like Dhikala in Corbett, must go. And that gift shops, cafes and airport-style automated toilets have no place in the Kanha meadows. It is incomprehensible what can be objectionable about restoring degraded buffer areas and expanding wildlife habitats. If anything, this will push the States not just to notify buffer areas but give them tangible protection. Tiger reserves in India cover approximately 39,000 sq km, of which about20,000 sq km is relatively secure prime tiger habitat thanks largely to efforts of committed officials supported by good NGOs. This is where tourism is concentrated. The million dollar question is: Did the tourists come first, or did the tiger? Well, if it was the tourists, then they can rest easy — surely when they shift to the buffer, the protection they offer will lure the tiger there too? But one may well remember, that the most frequented reserves like Corbett, Kanha, Nagarhole and Ranthambhore flourish today because of strong foundations and consistent conservation efforts over the years, including the sacrifice of those villages who shifted out to give way to the wilds. Our last remaining wild habitats face tremendous pressures — from development projects such as mining, power plants, dams, highways, roads,canals to anthropogenic pressures from communities living within and around‘protected areas’. Ill-planned, unsustainable, intrusive tourism simply adds to this pile. Any genuine efforts to tackle tourism must take on the massive tourism infrastructure and private resorts — backed by powerful lobbies — that are is landing sanctuaries, and guzzling natural resources. States must declare Eco Sensitive Zones as required under Environment Protection Act, 1986, that restrict harmful activities that gravely impact wildlife habitats ie mining,power projects etc and strictly regulate land use and activities like tourism that impact endangered wildlife. The long term visionary solution is to expand tourism outwards — to buffer zones and privately owned lands outside ‘protected areas’ and good reserve forests, by restoring not just degraded forests but also partnering with farmers who may profit more by turning their farms fallow, and inviting wildlife, rather than farming on it and fighting crop raiding wild animals. One oft-repeated argument is doing things the ‘Africa way’. Well, India isnot Africa. Their parks are larger. Serengeti, for example, is over 14,000 sqkm, while our largest core critical habitat is around 800 sq km. Population density around ‘protected areas’ in India is about five times more, and our parks with their dense forests do not make for easy wildlife sightings unlike the African savannah. India must evolve its own models — there are many good examples like in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary or Rambak Valley in Ladakh where local communities have a stake in tourism, thus deriving economic benefits from conservation. Are tourists the eyes and ears of the forest? I have my reservations on that one, for the tigers of Panna and Sariska fell despite tourists, and tigers have been killed in tourism zones of Corbett, Nagarhole etc, on the other hand,there are tigers in non-tourism zones of both these and other parks.Undoubtedly, the presence of visitors in parks does increase accountability. One significant role that tourism plays is educational , to inspire and build powerful allies in the battle for conservation, and the door is not shut on them. Tourism, however, cannot continue in its current avatar.Viewing of wildlife must be strictly regulated; facilities around parks must stay spartan and in sync with nature, thereby attracting only those who want a genuine nature experience. For rain dances, there is always Mumbai, and if seeing a tiger sums up your safari success — visit that prison they call a zoo. Is crowding, chasing and boxing in a tiger, a 'nature' experience? Many of us are familiar with the sight of hordes of Gypsies --carting raucous crowding in on a tiger. We People get out from gypsies to attend to their 'personal business'-light a cigarette,enjoy their picnic, and take pictures of tigers and elephants --from their mobile. This can have disastrous consequences.. Unless we respect the tiger's home--and the fact that we are the guest's --we simply have no business being there. Tiger shows of the kind practised in Madhya Pradesh, 'locating tigers--and having waterholes adjacent to tourist routes--which makes the tigers very visible--and vulnerable are not acceptable. Tourism must move out of this tiger-obsession There is more to a forest than a tiger...if only we have the eyes, and the heart for it. Fact of the matter is: There cannot be business as usual, for in its current form tourism is consuming the very product it tries to market. (An edited version of this article first appeared in The Pioneer)

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Gift of the Tiger

I visited the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve this February, and was fortunate enough to witness the spectacular sight of a tiger stalking elephants. That marked the beginning of my Nagarahole tiger story. To say the experience was special, magical, is inadequate, but much as I cherish the encounters, greater is my feeling of gratitude...for all those who have made it possible, for tigers to thrive here... 3.30 pm-5.20pm , February 19, 2012, Nagarahole National Park Some might call it time ‘wasted’ …sitting, waiting, watching at Mavina Halla Watch Tower, in Nagarahole Tiger Reserve. Doing nothing. No animals that might save the day, ensuring that the time being spent is not all futile. No tiger...the ‘Star’ that will make it all worthwhile, that one can brag about back home. No leopard, the next best trophy. Not even (Asiatic) elephants, of which this landscape has the highest population in the world, and which are pretty much ‘guaranteed’. No guars, either, that magnificent wild oxen--but, which in the scheme of wildlife sightings would 'only' serve as a consolation prize. But I wasn’t a 'typical' tourist. And it wasn’t a ‘waste’ of time. Forget the wildlife I didn’t see. Imagine time spent sitting in a watchtower in one of the last wild places on Planet Earth…where lives the tiger. No distractions, no deadlines, no watch, no email, no Blackberry. Amidst pristine forest and the promise of great expectation. Cheetal graze, placidly. One among the lot, lost in the crowd is lame, dragging its bad leg, as he tries to match pace with the herd. Poor guy, I think, pretty much a guaranteed tiger meal. A Malabar Giant Squirrel looking dapper in its rust suit, jumps branches above us, while another scrambles across the path below, unusual for this arboreal creature. Directly across, perched on a Terminalia tree, are a pair of imperial green pigeons--huge, stunning creatures unlike their drab grey cousins back home. Still, even with all this action...I find something missing. Perhaps, it is to do with the fact of my missed trip last month, where my colleagues, able to get away from the tyranny of the desk watched, from this same machan, a tigress with two cubs for no less than three hours. Finer feelings do tend to take a backseat at the perceived unfairness of life. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I am here with Dr Ullas Karanth--a name synonymous with Nagarahole..and tigers. It was here that Ullas started his path breaking research on tigers, and that India's first big cat got radio-collared...revealing much about the secret world of tigers (Did you know for instance, that to survive a tiger needs around 500 hoofed animals, of which it will consume about 50 at weekly intervals?) It was here that the longest tiger monitoring programme in the world was established, which has been ongoing for over two decades. This work has yielded crucial information about tiger behaviour and ecology, including the fact that the key to stable tiger populations is a good prey base. Here, in Nagarahole. the tiger's dietary needs are well provided for, with an array of hoofed animals on its menu, and no less than 40 of them packed into every square kilometer of forest. Somehow, with this remarkable history, you would expect that the tiger, who has inspired this body of work would be part of Nagarahole experience. That with Ullas around, the tiger was bound to put in an appearance.... 5.20 pm: 5:40 pm Quelling the twinge of disappointment, we descend from the machan, and into the SUV for the drive back to the forest rest house, taking the circuitous route, giving chance--for meeting tigers and other animals--the best opportunity. Our first sighting is wild pigs, scurrying across the path, young in tow. We spot sambar, a doe with her fawn. She flicks her huge cauliflower ears and eyes us curiously, before crashing into the bushes, tail uptight in the air. Next, on our rapidly growing list, is the even bulkier tiger meat-gaur. It's a humongous male--weighing not less than a ton--a mass of muscle tapering down to prim white schoolboy socks. Ullas peers through his binocs, and while I--foolishly-- wonder why he needs them to view such a huge target, he points at a wound on its massive shoulders. It's an old injury, healed now, but the claw marks tell a story. A tiger had attacked the gaur--the largest wild bovid in the world-- who lived to tell the tale. It's nearing six , when the gates of the parks close to visitors, and we are on our way back to our destination the forest rest house, dusk, on Nagaraja road, when ahead of us, a grey haze takes shape..then another..till a mass of massive, grey creatures emerge out of the shadows. Elephants. We stop, with the herd about 40 metres feet on our right. 5.40-5:49 pm We count eleven --babies, calves, mothers, aunts. They are preoccupied; carefully scooping out with their trunks, tufts of grass, thrashed and dusted off, before popping it into their mouths. Some chew on the salty chunks of earth. Through the mass of trunk-like legs, I spy a small frame, no bigger than my labrador, neatly fitted under her mother. The baby, a month old, if that , stumbles forth, her tiny head endearingly topped with a shock of gollywog hair. She runs amok, playing 'chase' with a tusker. He is young, brash, and clearly a bully--and the kid goes squeaking back to mum. I smile, my heart squeezing at the sight..this was it. This is what we work for. All the struggles, the heartbreaks, that must accompany conservation battles...are worth it. So that the wilds flourish... Ullas squeezes my arm, breaking my quiet reverie, and I look up, beyond the elephants; Perfectly camouflaged in the tall, golden grasses is a...tiger. A tiger. Sitting on its haunches, observing the elephants as intensely as us--but obviously with different, and not so altruistic--intentions. He is still, ears straight, alert, his gaze, unwavering--and clearly fixated on the tiniest pachyderm. But the elephants, they are blissfully unaware of the danger that close. I can see-feel-their contentment as they calmly go about their business, munching on the grass, occasionally extending their trunks, to softly, delicately, rub it against a mate. It's the calm before the storm. Has to be. It's surreal, this moment, the drama of it! I am besides myself, cannot think--or is it that my mind is a jumble of thoughts? Tiger..and elephants. in the same frame, a few feet from each other, the air is tense, waiting for the tipping point, an explosion. How can the elephants not know? The wind changes direction, and I know the microsecond when it hits them. TIGER, I can hear them think, and in a flash the sky is rendered by shrill screams as the elephants run amok...or so I think. Even in their panic, the escape is planned, the babies have been herded and pushed ahead firsts...and the landscape is emptied of the elephants. The tiger shifts stance, turns toward us, gives a brief, disinterested, glare, as though acknowledging our presence, before he ambles off too...a blaze of fire vanishing into his forest. What can I say? I breathe again, break into a sweat, laughter, tears. This was from 5:40 to 5:49 pm, nine--incredible --minutes of my life. But not really, this is another life, in another realm, for when you are here, in the forests, in wilderness, you are one of them. Primitive man, or in my case, woman. I thought post this event, anything, everything would be an anti-climax, but Nagarahole apparently, had decided to pull all stops for me, and put up a grand show. 7.00 pm-midnight As we that evening on the rest house verandah, relaxing, reliving those magical moments...came that unmistakable rumble in the jungle..a sound that pierces right through the soul aauungh, aauungh...the call of the tiger. The excitement, nay, the euphoria does not allow me to sleep, and as I lay awake, restless, letting the events of the day sink in, a cry breaks the stillness of the night. It is the forest eagle owl, called the Alu koogina hakki, the bird that wails like a man. The soft mournful cry is oddly soothing, and next I know, is being jolted awaked the raucous local morning alarm, the grey jungle fowl. 6 am, February 20, 2012 In the morning, on the drive up the Nagaraja Road, we have another big cat encounter. A tiger, a large male, very impressive, very regal, very beautiful..striding softly, across the dusty road. He is on the edge of the path, about to be lost to the bushes--and us, when he halts. Looks us over, his intense golden gaze holding my pensive brown one, then, as though we passed scrutiny, he settles down, resting his massive head in his front paws. It's a simple act, nothing to get all teary and sentimental about, but I am all mush. so grateful that we met the tiger, that he accepts us enough to ignore our presence, that he trusts us enough to roll over..and fall asleep. We watch him, for a few minutes..eternity...till the arrival of another jeep with noisy photographs disturb him, and in a flash, he disappears, swallowed by the forest. 11 pm to Noon, Murkal, Shetthalli I am on my way back, accompanied by Ullas's colleague Muthanna P M . We chat, there is much common ground, both of us were journalists before being smitten-and bitten--by the wildlife bug. Muthanna is part of an organsation called Living Inspiration for Tribals, and with the support of the wildlife Conservation Society, has played a key role in the voluntary relocation of villagers from the park, carried out by the state forest department, with financial support from the centre. Relocation of villages is vital to tiger conservation. The PM appointed Tiger Task Force prioritised the voluntary relocation of villages from core critical tiger habitats, recognising the fact that tigers need inviolate areas to live and breed. For villagers living in remote forests, in the heart of reserves, it's a new life—of mobile phones, roads, employment opportunities––away from the fear of elephants and trampled crops. I see the truth of it, here, in the old Murkal settlement in the heart of Nagarahole....What meets the eye is an expanse of grassland, instead of the shanties, garbage and bald meadow that existed here, merely an year ago. We should have been here yesterday, so say the forest staff with whom we have stopped to chat. A courting pair of tigers was around--it was a rather unfortunate tracker who stumbled upon them, or rather, the other way around, when he had gone for, err, some urgent personal business. Years of being in the field, taught him to hold his ground, sit firm, as the pair walked by..."but I ran as I was, soon as the pair turned away, screaming straight into my friends who were rushing to see what the commotion was all about..tigers here, who would have thought, " They laugh, guards, trackers, watchers--our 'tiger army', teasing him, and he joins them, in the hilarity... I stand bemused, indeed, who would have thought, tigers, here....with the forest lost, disturbed, degraded by the presence of humans? They are gone now, the people, to lead better lives, to a more secure future. From landless labour, depending on sporadic, seasonal employment––they now own land. I spoke to them later in the Shetthalli relocation center. We went around the fields first, which yielded a bumper maize crop last year, worth over a whopping 45 lakhs. They tell me about their new life. There were teething problems, but largely life is better. Their children go to regular school, the hospital is accessible, and they have TV! Telling, given that in their old home they did not even have electricity. "It is," they say, "the gift of the tiger..."

Heritage animal faces elephantine problem

We have declared elephants as our ‘National Heritage Animal’. And left them to fight for their survival against odds In October 2010, with much fanfare, India declared the elephant as its National Heritage Animal. While it’s good that the state officially acknowledged the deep cultural links that our people have with Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, it was pretty much the only substantive recommendation of the Elephant Task Force — appointed to propose measures to strengthen elephant conservation — which it paid heed to. The ETF report, ‘Gajah’, had a host of other recommendations, key among which was an amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, to create an autonomous authority along the lines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. While the then Union Minister for Environment and Forests lent his weight to the appointment of a National Elephant Conservation Authority, the proposal was promptly shot down by the Prime Minister’s office even before it could reach the Cabinet. The reasons are obvious and linked with the failure to implement other recommendations crucial to the conservation of the Elephas maximus. These include the declaration of elephant landscapes, inclusion of critical elephant corridors into the ‘protected areas’ network, making it mandatory for diversion of forest land in elephant corridors to be approved by the Forest Advisory Committee at the Centre instead of by the regional offices of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (notorious for their vulnerability to ‘influences’) and notifying elephant reserves as Ecologically Sensitive Areas under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. It is easy to see why these have been glossed over, given the serious implications. Elephant conservation is all about securing elephant habitats and halting their fragmentation. This calls for serious protection measures, implying that these forests must be restricted — that their destruction from mining, thermal power plants and other major industries be regulated by law. But none of this is palatable, not when we are hurtling down the double-digit growth path, trampling over crucial ecological concerns. In the current scenario, when there is frenetic attempt to grab land and intense pressure to denotify wildlife habitats, any move to protect animal habitats is anathema to the state, which is bent upon giving away forest and community lands to industry at any cost. The vulnerability of the PMO to the industry lobby’s pressure was apparent, when in February, the Environment Ministry agreed to divert an additional 25 per cent of forest land earlier categorised as ‘no-go’ for projects concerning power, roads and coal. Media reports said this was after the PMO stepped in and pressured the Ministry to fast-track project clearances. The trigger, reportedly, was a meeting the Government held with industry bigwigs on the economic slowdown. It is equally apparent that in this battle, the elephant is losing ground. In the past 50 years, the elephant’s geographic range has shrunk by over 70 per cent; all that remain are fragmented pockets of forest. Conflict is rooted in habitat loss and fragmentation: Shrinking, patchwork forests push elephants into human-dominated landscapes, and deadly confrontation becomes inevitable. Elephants are nomadic creatures dictated by ancient instincts that lead them to sources of food and water, especially in times of scarcity. But their forests and migratory paths are swallowed by dams, devastated by mines, taken over by agriculture and ripped apart by the highways and the railways. Disoriented, homeless and starved, elephants raid crops, destroy houses and occasionally kill helpless people protecting their homes and crop. In retaliation, people poison, electrocute and even blow up elephants by placing crude bombs in jackfruits or bananas that the unsuspecting pachyderms eat. Human-elephant conflict is thus increasing. On an average, about 300 people and 100 elephants lose their lives annually. Crop damage by elephants is estimated to impact about one million hectares. Yet, apart from doling out compensation — erratically and unsystematically — the Government has no sound policy or any long-term strategy to tackle the conflict. Poaching is another issue usually brushed aside by wildlife managers as ‘not a problem’. How, then, does one explain forests where the male-female elephant ratio is as skewed as 1:100? Or the fact that the population of tuskers in Orissa has plunged to an estimated 200 now against the previous count of 363 in 2002? No less than three out of 10 elephant deaths are unnatural: Attributed to train accidents, electrocution, poaching and poisoning. Clearly, the Gajah is in trouble. Granting the elephant a grand title or running Haathi Mere Saathi campaigns is mere symbolism. Unless they are backed by effective implementation of law, sound policies and hard conservation action, such campaigns are not going to achieve anything. Even the Environment Ministry, mandated for the elephant’s protection, has been complacent. Forget a dedicated, autonomous authority, even the existing Project Elephant has been headless — and clueless — for nearly 18 months now. The budget allocation for the project this year was a mere `19.58 crore for 32 elephant reserves across the country. Significantly, about a third of the budget is spent on conflict. It is another matter that elephant reserves have little sanctity and are largely sanctuaries on paper. Elephant corridors are also steadily being eroded as they give way to coal mines, oil refineries, highways, railway lines, stadiums, golf courses and tourism infrastructure. The Uttarakhand Government looked on as an oil depot created a physical barrier across the Gola river corridor that links the Corbett Tiger Reserve and Nandhour landscape — home to about 1,000 elephants, and in fact handed away part of the corridor for a para-military camp. Chhattisgarh refused to notify two elephant reserves, due to coal interests, as did Orissa. What the Government is taking refuge in is in numbers — there are believed to be 25,000 to 27,000 elephants in the country, and ‘increasing’. This sounds like an echo of the Great Indian Tiger Saga: While in the forests, the tigers were dying, successive Governments insisted that “all is well”, steadily increasing the tiger numbers on paper. Habitats of both elephants and tigers overlap in most parts of the country. Elephants face the same threats as the tiger: Poaching, conflict, habitat loss and fragmentation. So, how is it that elephant numbers are rising? It is important that we establish robust and better systems of estimation of elephant populations. Elephants are running out of space and time. India has about 60 per cent of the world’s wild Asian elephants. We owe this not just to legal protection, but to the reverence for elephants that has been intrinsic in Indian culture. Lord Ganesh is the god of wisdom and fortune, but his own fortune is fraying. Clearly, we have failed the gods we love. The writer is member of National Board of Wildlife. Published in The Pioneer on april 25, 2012

Monday, March 19, 2012

Save the house sparrow

i wrote this two years back..but it holds true today too...

Prerna Singh Bindra

Boisterous, perky, pesky house sparrows, once a common sight, are now rapidly disappearing, not only in India but worldwide. Rapid urbanisation has contributed to the decline in the house sparrow’s population. But the trend can be reversed if we are more caring

Most of us would remember a time when sparrows were part of our everyday life — there were so many of them that their presence bordered on being irksome. They chattered incessantly; they made our homes theirs — hunting for nooks and corners where they could set up house. Determined little creatures they were too, for once they made up their mind to take up residence nothing could dissuade them.

An upside-down lamp shade in our dining room was a particular favourite, as was the crevice behind a painting. They were up before dawn and no sooner had we thrown the door open, they would rush in,indignant at being denied right of passage and in a major hurry to begin the day’s work.

Their energy was tiresome to behold. As the day wore on, the busy little pair did not let up, flying to and fro carrying straw, grass and such other necessities that go into making the prefect sparrow home. Their beaks would be overloaded — one could have fed a horse and kept him happy on the amount they carried — and most of it would tumble out and mess the floor.

We made half-hearted attempts to get rid of the nests, but we could never quite do it. Their distress calls, when they saw their home had been swept clean, would melt our hearts, as did their fierce determination. For no sooner had we removed the nest, they would be back at it again with renewed energy.

The problem was the heat. If the birds were in, the ceiling fan was out. Ceiling fans are murderous predators and can cruelly cut the flight of these diminutive birds. It happened once when a noisy creature, flying exuberantly across the room to meet his equally voluble mate, was brutally chopped in two. It was a grisly sight with blood spattered on the floor and the wall. Worse, his bewildered 'wife' circled over the still body, chirping plaintively.

That was it.

After this tragedy, a new law prevailed at our home: Fans were not to be switched on under any circumstances, whatever the provocation, no matter how high the mercury shot up. Defeated, we suffered the heat and the sparrows were given the right of way, albeit amid much grumbling.

I do not know when they disappeared, but suddenly the fans ran from spring through summer, the floor sparkled unlittered with bits of grass and other more messy, icky stuff, and the air was devoid of cheery bird calls.

We missed them.

Later, much later, I was to realise that the ‘common’ house sparrow hadn’t done the vanishing act just at our home, it was a worldwide phenomenon. Studies in the UK have shown that the house sparrow population has declined by more than 65 per cent, and the same trend has been observed in India. In fact, an ornithological survey conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research has confirmed that the sparrow population in Andhra Pradesh has dropped by 80 per cent; in Gujarat and Rajasthan, it has declined by 20 per cent. The loss in many coastal areas is also estimated to be about 70 per cent.

Who would have ever thought that the tribe of the boisterous, perky, pesky house sparrow, once a common sight, is now on the decline? How come we never noticed? Or cared? How could we let this bird, so much a part of our lives, vanish forever?

There are many reasons attributed to the decline: Sprawling bungalows with their nooks and crannies have given way to high rises and malls; instead of hedges--a good dining spot and ideal for roosting--we now have wrought iron or barbed wire fences; there are no messy shrubs and bushes in gardens, just manicured lawns with exotic plants sprayed and covered with poisonous pesticide that does neither the bird or anyone else any good. Once, women would gather together for a good gossip as they cleaned grains in the courtyard--dropping some inevitably for a hungry bird. Now, grains come clean and plastic-wrapped from the nearest Big Bazaar. Other theories indicate that electromagnetic contamination from cellphone towers can be lethal for sparrows while unleaded petrol and pesticide kill insects on which baby sparrows are raised.

Help to the once ubiquitous bird now comes from one Nasik-based Mohammed Dilawar, who has taken up the sparrow’s cause rather than wait for the Government to wake up from its slumber. “The sparrow,” says Dilawar, “is to urban ecosystems what the canary was to mines.That it is dying out means our cities are in trouble”. He has decided to help this hardy little creature, besides studying the sparrow, increasing awareness, working with builders to provide for more bird-friendly colonies. He has been making and selling wooden nest boxes on a nonprofit basis. There are other organisations that make and distribute bird nests, or you could just break an earthen pot and fix it on your wall in the garden/balcony,leaving the mouth as an 'entry' for the birds.

As for my home, the birds are back again. With a little help of course. We have provided for a good dining table with birdseed, rice (i find they prefer the boiled variety), etc, and water for a bird bath. There are provisions for a sauna too; a mud bath where an entire flock wallows in the dust and generally brings the house down with the din.

The best part is the fans run too. Thanks to the nest boxes, lined with some straw, the birds have changed address. That awful cranny behind the painting was pokey; they prefer their swanky new living quarters where board and lodging are free.

On Saturday, March 20, World House Sparrow Day, take the plunge and help save the sparrow from vanishing from our world.

In The Pioneer on March 19, 2010

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

a tribute to Fatji

i couldn't do it...write a tribute to Fatji...this is a feeble attempt to try and explain this wonderful, delightful, committed to tigers. A friend, mentor, guide, guru.

Those who say, ‘what difference can I make, I am only one person’, haven’t had the good fortune to know Fateh Singh Rathore: who created Ranthambhore, put it and its tigers on the world map, gave the tigers space, and the star status they enjoy today… and most importantly inspired and nurtured an army of tiger aficionados who fight for its cause today.

Fateh Singh Rathore embodied the Power of One. He changed the world of the tiger... if the tiger lives today, in Ranthambhore, and in our hearts, we owe it to him.

It is a task impossible to encapsulate a man’s life in limited wordage… how do you quantify his contribution, or capture his joie de vivre, his work, his commitment, his passion?

Let’s get the basics first: TigerMan Fateh was a man of modest education and feudal upbringing and went through a series of jobs—all ending in a bit of disaster (“I was the disaster”, he would chortle) before he was appointed as a ranger in the forest department. In the early days, it wasn’t the forests or its denizens that held his interest, it was his Royal Enfield motorbike, and he recalls the time when he scampered—trembling—up a tree when a tiger, curious about the roar of the bike, came investigating!

That changed. And the fear… turned to love.

Perhaps, the first indication of Fateh’s change of heart was his growing resentment of shikar (those were pre-protection days). When he spotted yet another pair of shkar's tying a machan he decided to act. As the hunters waited at night, ght, bait in place, rifles in hand for the ‘doomed’ tiger, Fateh spoiled the party, leading a loud procession beating drums, singing bhajans. The Americans went, disgruntled, and the tiger, was spared. This was vintage Fateh, always game for a gag, and fiercely protective of his tigers, and Ranthambhore… a passion and commitment that continued to his dying day. It never wavered-even when he was beaten up, almost to death, in 1981 when trying to protect the forest from grazing; or when, post retirement, he was barred from entering his beloved park by the state, for speaking out the truth that Ranthambhore, and its tigers were dying.

'Mr Ranthambhore'devoted his life to the park: he walked the forest with his band of men, laid out the network of dirt roads to facilitate protection, took on poachers, bureaucrats and politicians, patiently won the trust of villagers, persuading and coaxing them to relocate from the park. He cried with the people, sharing their grief as they walked away from their ancestral home. Months later, he brought in the headman, who delighted in seeing the tiger walk across what was once their village. The tiger..had come home.

Under his vigilant, caring eye, the tigers flourished, and shed their fear of man… opening their world, sharing their secrets giving the park the fame and stature it enjoys today. Ranthambhore today is a hub around the tiger—with NGOs, a school, a multi-specialty hospital, a thriving tourism industry, the famous Ranthambhore school of Art that has trained local artists, a hostel for the poachers' children to educate them, owing largely to the vision of one man.

But for Fateh it was not what he did for the tiger, but what the tiger did for him. "I owe the tiger everything", he would say, “they made me world-famous.”

Fateh loved tigers, he had an instinct--almost a spiritual connection. He could feel their presence. ‘Tigers,’ he announced on my first visit to the park with him, as I peered at a landscape devoid of cat... and sure enough within minutes, our Gypsy was surrounded by four tigers. A mother, and three sub-adults, who arranged themselves around the vehicle, effectively blocking our path for over an hour. No, I did not know fear. I had another tiger in the Gypsy with me!

Fatji–as many of us knew him, was larger than life, full of exuberance, warm, childlike, generous to a fault and took to heart all who loved his forest.

On March 1, 'Mr Ranthambhore' left us, losing the battle to cancer. The tigers knew they had lost their friend-and champion. At 4 am the next day, hours before the funeral, a tiger appeared behind his house, roaring thrice-maybe in final farewell, maybe to pay his last respects but I like to think, to reassure that the spirit of the tiger rested within him, forever.

There cannot be Ranthambhore without Fatji, but there must, for it is there that he lives on. There will always be a Ranthambhore flush with tigers, it is the only way we can serve the memory of the man who lived for it.

Published in The Sunday Guardian, March 13, 2011

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Unprepared for the Cheetah's arrival

Author: Prerna Singh Bindra

Inviting this big cat to stay is a project that needs long-term commitment. We're ill-equipped for that

So, the stage is set for the return of the cheetah in India, though it is unclear if it can be called a ‘reintroduction’ as it is being touted, given that we are bringing in an exotic species from Namibia. Actually, the Asiatic cheetah, of which barely about 100 survive in Iran, is a distinct subspecies from the north-east Africa cheetah (Carruau, P et al,. ‘Phytogeography, genetic structure and population divergence time of cheetah in Africa and Asia: Evidence for long-term geographic isolates’, 2011. Molecular Ecology). This is a worry, and one wonders how this grand move has circumvented the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, but there is a graver concern, primarily: Are we really committed to giving the cheetah a secure home, and a future?

One appreciates the genuine distress at having lost this magnificent cat, the ‘only large mammal to go extinct in India in the past century’, that prompted this proposal; and the sincere-if foolish-belief that getting the cheetah back will act as a catalyst to save its habitat, India’s fast disappearing grasslands. But let not emotion rule the fray. Let’s clinically examine the issue, before we pour tax-payers’ money into this grand venture.

Since the last cheetahs were shot in 1947, India’s population has exploded from 350 million to over 1.2 billion. Lakhs of acres of forests have been gutted to accommodate the growing need for food and other resources. India’s growth ambitions with its consequent need for coal, power, industry, roads are destroying and fragmenting its wilderness. The discerning reader is aware of the bitter battle to protect every last inch of India’s tigerland from mines, highways and industry. It’s a losing battle, and if we cannot take the concerns of the national animal on board, what hope is there for an exotic cat flown in from foreign shores?

The idea that the cheetah will ‘save’ grasslands by serving as its flagship species is utopian. Consider the plight of the Great Indian Bustard, the ambassador of grasslands. With barely 300 remaining, they may well be the next species to slip into oblivion, unless drastic measures are taken. Now, significantly, one of the habitats considered as a potential area for the cheetah was the Desert National Park in Rajasthan. The then Union Minister of Environment and Forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh, explained that this had to be ruled out because the State was not interested in protecting grasslands but oil interests in the region. And even as this is being written, the process to denotify a large chunk of the park is underway. Why?

The habitat earmarked for the cheetah is now Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh where ecologists fear that grassy patches are diminishing gradually with the growth of woodlands. This succession does not bode well for the cheetah or its prey. Incidentally, Kuno has fragmented connectivity to the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, the only protected area where transient or ‘spill over’ tigers from the Reserve can take sanctuary. Since the tigers were unaware of the grand plan, two of them have taken up residence in Kuno.

Also waiting in line for admission into Kuno are the world’s last Asiatic lions, which Gujarat is refusing to part with. It is critical that the lions get a second home given that it’s a classic case of putting all of one’s eggs in one basket with the risks attendant with that strategy. This will give Gujarat yet another ready excuse to not part with their pride, but if they do come to Kuno, as they must, it will be quite a cat party, with lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs rubbing shoulders with one another. The ecological consequences of this are something that must be very carefully considered.

The prime concern is how committed are we — the Government and the people of India — to protect the cheetah in perpetuity after the hoopla is over, and the realities of conservation kick in, after Governments and Ministers have changed?

Have we shown a commitment, in word and in deed, to other big cats, and to our indigenous wildlife? Despite the focus on Project Tiger, is it not true that we are struggling to protect every inch of tiger habitat, and in fact have lost no less than 12,000 sq km in the short span of four years? What is the status of the leopard today? Battered, beaten, burnt to death in conflict situations and poached heavily.

When we are desperately grappling to protect habitats for species like the tiger, the elephant and the leopard, why then are we planning to bring in this fragile cat without first securing habitats? We are planning to buy the cheetahs — apparently at some Rs 2 crore each — and have set aside Rs 300 crore for the project, when we grant a mere Rs 80 crore (apart from the Project Tiger budget) annually for our 600-odd Protected Areas and critically endangered indigenous species like the bustard, Gangetic Dolphin, Great One-Horned Rhinocerous. Shouldn’t the funds, and the focus, go into their protection?

Another very important aspect is voluntary relocation of tribals and communities living within sanctuaries and tiger reserves. Many of these people are eager to move out, to enter mainstream society and avail of the opportunities of education, employment, healthcare, denied to them living in remote regions and in Protected Areas. Shouldn’t the priority be to give them the choice of opportunity and a better life and also thus create inviolate areas for wildlife?

Is it wise to introduce a predator, when the issue of man-animal conflict gets graver by the day? With natural prey being scarce, won’t the cheetah take to livestock, leading to a face-off with local communities? Are we ready to face this backlash?

Inviting a big cat to stay is a project that requires long-term commitment, financial investment, political will, support of the people, and local communities. In the current scenario, do we have this? Frankly, no.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Operation Cheetah: A self-serving excercise

So we will buy the Cheetah, and introduce it in India. The big cat will be flown to india anytime, no doubt accompanied by a media blitz and lot of fanfare.
Did someone pause to think: are we doing it for the good of the cheetah? Or simply because we want to say, feel good, we got the dead back to life? And bask in the excitement and thrill that it will initially provide, before the crisis of conservation and all that it entails hits here too?
Because it appears to be a conservation success to have this large cat back, after we hunted and drove it to extinction?
We invite it here, even as we, the people, refuse to give sanctuary to other wild cats. If you don’t know what I mean, just think about the leopard, and how we beat, bludgeon and burn it to death.
What home are we going to give our guest, the cheetah? Do we have the grasslands to sustain him?
Will we, the government and people of India commit to its protection...not for three months or an year or till the current government lasts, or till we like this flight of fancy, but for perpetuity?
And give this a thought too: our indigenous wildlife, critically endangered species like the rhino, hangul, elephant, dolphins, bustards have a budget of Rs 80 crore (am not including the budget of Project Tiger) --while we budget Rs 300 crore for the cheetah?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Unsung heroes of our Green Army

Meet Budh Singh. Cowherd from the Ahir community. Fire watcher. Climate Warrior. But first let’s hear how and where this writer met him, perched on a flimsy platform some 50 feet above the ground, on a very tall tree in Madhya Pradesh’s famous Kanha Tiger Reserve. This is where he stays 10-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week through the dry, scorching summer to keep vigil at one of India’s best tiger habitats and alert park authorities in the event of a fire. His job is vital. An uncontrolled fire can reduce Kanha — home to the tiger, the endemic hardground barasingha, and many other rare species — to ashes and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Budh Singh is a daily wager. For his pains he is paid Rs100 a day. He gets no meal allowance, subsidised rations, transport, pension, gratuity, medical benefits, or leave with pay. All that has been granted to him are a thin sheet to protect himself from the blazing sun, a precarious platform fashioned from bamboo to keep from plummeting to the ground, a simple meal that he carries from home and water. With this, he maintains a lonely vigil to prevent the forest from going up in smoke. With this he guards the tiger, and its home. On him, and scores of others like him, rests the tigers’ future.

During years of traversing through remote forests, one has met many such remarkable men who take extraordinary risks against the worst of odds to protect our forests. One such person is Ranjit Mondol, van shramik at Sundarbans, ranked as an ‘expert’ in handling tigers (and crocodiles, for that matter) in conflict situations, in a landscape where man-tiger conflict is rife.

When tigers venture into villages in the delta, Mondol helps in controlling the crowd, manoeuvring the animals into cages, carrying them to a boat and releasing them in the forest. Mondol narrated an incident that highlights the risks people like him take in the course of their work. He had been involved in a particularly stressful conflict situation. He had just succeeded in manoeuvring a captured tiger into the cage when the door slammed shut and Mondol found himself on the wrong side of the bars. It was his presence of mind — and courage — that saved him: “I held the tiger tight in a hug,” he said, leaving little room for the tiger to move or attack.

There are thousands of such Budh Singhs and Mondols. Their compatriots — forest guards, watchers, trackers, mahouts, foresters — spend a lifetime in remote jungles, living a lonely life far away from their homes and families, battling against timber smugglers, poachers and Maoists to protect our natural heritage. They constantly struggle to adjust to their dual, and sometimes conflicting, role as ‘policemen’ to control hunting and illegal grazing, and ‘arbitrators’ in conflict situations. They also try to garner community support for conservation. They are India’s unsung Green Army, the men on the front to whom we owe the tiger — and other rare wildlife — as well as the forests and the rivers that flow through them.

Most of the force — if you can call it that, given that we have failed to empower its members — are daily wagers, working on a contractual basis for years and decades with no job security or the promise of a permanent job. Forest watchers form the bulk of the protection force but are grossly underpaid. Worse, they are rarely paid on time, with wages often delayed for months. They are untrained and under-equipped, and live in chowkis that sometimes lack basic facilities, with no clean water, medical aid, protective rain and winter gear. They don’t have fixed working hours. If they go to buy provisions or collect their wages, or if they are on leave, there’s no back-up. Their beat, or patch of forest, remains unguarded.

Their lives are not insured although their task is risky. Many have been injured, or killed on duty. Even this sacrifice goes unsung. While we rightly honour our soldiers who protect our borders, there is simply no recognition for those who lay down their lives to safeguard our eco-system.

One particular worry is that when forest staff take on poachers and smugglers, they do so at their own risk and personal liability. For example, if they fire during an encounter with timber smugglers — a hardened, powerful mafia — the Government doesn’t take their side in the event of an offender getting injured or dying in the encounter. There are many forest personnel caught in the legal quagmire of court cases and up against a powerful opposition that thrives on the illegal market for timber and wildlife contraband.

At Rajaji National Park, three forest staff are facing the charge of murder under Section 302 for accidentally killing a person when they fired in self-defence against a gang of armed intruders at night. Similarly, at Similipal Tiger Reserve a range officer who fired in desperation when timber smugglers had gheraoed forest staff and were assaulting them, has been fighting — in his personal capacity — a case of murder filed against him.

Why should an officer and his family face such humiliation and harassment for carrying out his duty? Is it any surprise that few are willing to risk their life and limb to implement protection laws? How can we then expect them to save the tiger? How can we demand accountability unless we enable those on the front? If we are to protect our wildlife, we must ensure that their guardians are enabled, equipped, motivated and backed by the country they serve.

It is imperative that we motivate foresters and instil a sense of pride in their task. However, before that we have to learn to take pride in our natural assets. Forests, wetlands, mountains and rivers form the foundation on which our ecological and economic security and development rest.