Paradigm Shift

Twenty-three days ago, I tried in vain to send my views to Mr. Jairam Ramesh through ‘Contact the Minister’ page on the MoEF’s website. Finally, emailed him on July 22, 2009. Of course, being an ordinary citizen of India I shouldn’t even hope for an acknowledgement of any kind.

Anyway, it is still early days but I am beginning to feel uneasy and recent developments make me wonder if my communication to the Honourable Minister was worth the trouble?  What perturbs me, are the proposals to re-introduce the “Cheetah in captivity and, sooner rather than later, into the wild as well” AND the re-introduction of the tiger in Gujarat!

All very exciting and gets the heart a-pumping and the blood coursing more rapidly. Can you imagine the magnificent tiger roaring again in Gujarat and the extraordinarily beautiful cheetah over grassland? What a fantastic picture is created and then, suddenly, reality strides in and trumpets loudly.

There are some real problems with the proposals – Man the Marauder, paucity of suitable areas and prey-base being on top.

Where in Gujarat will the tiger be re-introduced? The leopard is finding it difficult to hunt and stay alive; the wolves are being hunted out. There is hardly any breathing space left for the Asiatic Lion and the Gujarat Government’s asinine attitude of not allowing the ‘Pride of Gujarat’ to survive outside the State has more-or-less struck its death-knell with genetic inbreeding eventually taking its toll.

The ‘Let us get the cheetah back’ lobby must really contemplate what M. Krishnan had to say. Where are the luxuriant and lush grasslands for this cat to survive and hunt? How will we be able to bring to a halt man’s uncontrollable lust to over-populate and establish their colonies, communication links, industries etc? How are we going to solve the man-animal conflict that is on the rise even as I write this? We cannot save our grasslands by simply making them cheetah-friendly. Also, to the best of my knowledge, Iran is the only country in the world where the last of the Asiatic Cheetah still survives – in very less numbers and they are not giving away any. So, this lobby really is talking about a sub-species to be sourced from Namibia! What are we trying to prove? The MoEF and its ‘think tank’ ought to be utilizing their time; resources and finances (the tax payers money), towards saving whatever still continues to exist in our country.

Here is the letter sent to the Minister:

Mr. Jairam Ramesh,

Minister of State (Independent Charge)

Ministry of Environment and Forests

Government of India

Dear Mr. Jairam Ramesh,

Please accept my sincere congratulations for the Independent Charge that you hold now and of course, for spotting “a tigress and a half” – great moment indeed! I know the experience and believe me, the feeling remains the same whether it is the first time or there-after.

I feel that the country may have the right person to handle this post, but how ‘independent’ you allow it/will be allowed, is something I am concerned about. And, Jay Mazoomdar has a point http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Opinion/Editorial/TOP-ARTICLE–Its-A-False-Debate/articleshow/4649864.cms plus the agenda mentioned in Prerna Singh Bindra’s interview puts a lot on your shoulders especially the plugging back of tourism money. I don’t see why India has to be so dogmatic about taking hints from South Africa, Australia or even Nepal, for that matter. Annoying to constantly have ‘experts’ pompously declare that “this is India”! Of course it is, but wildlife and forests do not have nationality brands. They are Nature’s gifts to humanity in the universal sense and it is crucial that we make all attempts to put an end to the dreadful conditions that we are continuing to cause. The Indian situation is critical and for some species and areas – too late!

The key ministries – yours and tourism, will have to work together and not against each other and I don’t see that happening with big names involved in the ‘wildlife tourism’ and ‘conservation’ business buying land around Sanctuaries; with resorts mushrooming all over and blatantly flaunting their disregard for environment protection norms and rules, knowing well they can pull strings; that concerned authorities can be corrupted or transferred out. Most officials are kept busy and occupied with VIP movement anyway.

Also, my instinct about ‘right person’ could be wrong…like the time I really felt that I would be able to contribute more effectively to the cause by stepping-back into the mainstream and taking over as the Director of the Corbett Foundation. How wrong my instincts were – as it didn’t take much time before I was made to ‘re-learn’ that one has to be part of the ‘wildlife club’ to be allowed to work!

There are quite a few fine people doing commendable work in trying to save our country’s wildlife and forest, but they can be counted on finger-tips. Most are of the belief that, for good governance to happen there has to be a non-hegemonic environment to nurture it. Are these voices and individuals being heard and listened to? There are other fine individuals too. Unfortunately they tend to be counter-productive by constantly disagreeing with the other, forgetting their common agenda. All concerned must learn to talk to each other not at each other!

Anyway, I am sure you are being bombarded by comments, suggestions and expectations galore by numerous experts and writers. As such, this communication may not have any impact or hold great importance for you, but I would, never-the-less, like to share some thoughts. I have been meaning to write for some time now and request you not to take it as accusatory – but concerned, serious musings and enquiries of an insider from the outside.


Tavleen Singh, in her ‘Fifth Column’ once commented that, “Something has gone very wrong with the way we are developing as a country…” and fairly recently she is found worrying about how “(the) new minister could be falling into the clutches of manipulative mandarins whose main expertise lies in clipping the wings of ministers who try to fly.” I admit that she is talking about a different minister in this particular column but the apprehension is just as applicable here. More so, as it’s not just the mandarins.

The problem is too deep rooted and unfortunately nobody has the courage to take firm corrective steps; accept that circumstances have been schemed to maintain a vested interests status quo and ruled by people whose money, power and influence grows as their bandwagon strengthens. They keep their club intact by becoming members of Boards. Most are conveniently placed in major policy making situations and barring a few, their superciliousness is intolerable. Some even have the conceit to openly mock the real crusaders, “Who will bell the cat!”

I was mildly amused by a statement made to me, in Delhi last year, when during a ‘wildlife conference’ break, one gentleman came over and said, “Welcome aboard!” The fact-of-the-matter is that he and the large gathering of people there knew that I have been aboard for over 30-years! How is it that I am aware of all the organisations, individuals, journalists and activists aflame about the conservation of our forests and wildlife – but most seemed to be unaware of the innumerable reports that I have constantly sent (to various forum/meetings/online communities), from the field? Is it because I refused to become part of a clique? Or that I may have in a Zen like movement finally mastered the art of stepping on toes and not allowing the monkey to sit on my shoulders? Or that I refuse to genuflect and will call a spade a spade and have no tolerance for hypocrisy? Strange, that none of these ‘distinguished’ individuals and investigators till today have shown interest, say, in the recording I have about poaching/hunting in the Bazpur area of Udham Singh Nagar. Again, many take a holier-than-thou attitude about the World Bank’s Tiger initiative but are “willing to accept funds from ABN-Amro which is very notorious for having funded major mining projects around the world under dubious environmental assessments.” Just google ‘ABN Amro Mining Disasters’ and consider the results or www.banktrack.org

The sanctimonious drivel from the Page 3 Wildlife Conservation Cartel is insufferable. The internal politicking and back-stabbing are not only vile but paint a very sorry picture.

Somewhere, I hopped off the train packed with environmentalists and experts and desperately tried to get their attention from the outside by pointing that the train was moving in a circle! Do we realize that we are utterly and entirely scrumptious morsels for the politicians? Has any politician ever sacrificed or donated in a sustained manner any amount for conservation – from their humongous salaries and unimaginable perks? And, yet we continue to invite them and plead?

Instead of having zero-tolerance to the apathy shown by the so-called leaders for conservation issues, we remain soft in our approaches to the mutual concerns and too busy clamouring amongst ourselves. Just what the politicians want. Occasionally they dangle a carrot that we cannot even touch – but gives us a false sense of great achievement and we all go back to our respective water-holes thinking that a break-through has been achieved. Even when we meet for conferences or what-ever, the invited politicians and those in babudom world know that there is no unity amongst us because we will eventually return to our own personal agendas, stories, deadlines and organisational priorities. The problem is with us! We are not really integrated and are successfully kept in this state.

Oh, yes! I am glad that there are school children and other young people, primarily from urban areas, getting involved in conservation concerns; environment education is a compulsory subject but, what are we training them for? To get into another train going around in circles?

Are we passing on messages of fashioning a larger begging bowl? Selling of bric-a-brac to collect some money? What happens when these young people move-on to their professional priorities? How many of them would really be allowed to put-in their inputs that would be implemented? How many of them would be given an opportunity to continue furthering their wildlife conservation passion after their 10th standard? What scope do they have, to professionally and financially pursue this fervour?

The time to talk and meet and exchange notes and present statistics is over. If the real concerned IFS or other government officials have their hands and tongues tied because of bureaucratic nonsense, then the NGO’s should get together and come out on the streets of India. But, are the NGO’s united?

In this era of everybody going ga-ga over the Munnabhai factor, the Father of our Nation has become trendy – that’s all! How many really practise his philosophy in today’s scenario?

Wasn’t it Gandhi who demonstrated to us that there can be ‘a strength far greater than that of armaments and that a struggle can be fought, and indeed should be fought, without bitterness and hatred.’

Sometimes, I think Satyagrah is the only option left with us. Satyagrah of a kind and scale that will go down in history as the struggle to conserve our fast depleting forests and wildlife – a heritage that must be saved because it is the Right of every child in the country.

“The most troubling thing about most of these guardians of Indian wildlife is that they are accountable to no one. While they will spare no cheap publicity when it comes to taking credit for things that work (seldom), they are nowhere to be seen when it comes to taking the blame for failures. In fact, this is a general problem with any form of activism: If the strategy works, you take credit, if your strategy fails then you not only walk away, you get to brandish your moral superiority and sneer at those who ‘don’t care (as much as I do)’ about the environment.” http://www.indianexpress.com/news/central-team-slams-mp-for-missing-tigers-but-year-ago-it-sang-praises/482260/

There are some stark realities facing us now. Issues that we need to address. Realities that are linked with the survival of the tiger and other wildlife. Issues that environmentalists, policy makers and officials need to look at. Conservation cannot be done with just a single approach. Conservation cannot be done with just a few people talking about it… those involved in it for a long period must allow new impetus. Conservation has to be multiple featured and all encompassing.

There isn’t much hope of survival of the tiger, other wildlife or our environment until the sick stranglehold of the self-appointed custodians is busted, and some mechanism and accountability is incorporated in conservation. Let us do something before the “roar of the tiger, and the softly worded plaints of its protectors (forest guards); [become] mere cries in the wilderness.”

  • Have policies that are wildlife-centric NOT human-centric.
  • Creation, induction and functioning of a core/hub/watch-dog body/unit of individuals with select mentors is required. Let each state have its own specialised core unit that does not interfere with any other core unit.
  • Select neutral individuals with field experience on an extendable yearly post of ‘Officer-on-Special-Duty’. Pay them; give them authority and make them report only to you.
  • An immediate moratorium on all so-called developmental work that involves the cutting down and clearing of existing forests.
  • Make NGOs accountable about their work and transparent about their funding and let the genuine organisation/s enter the Parks to work and extend support.
  • Give new thoughts, strategies and young blood greater involvement and initiate a dignified but swift exit of those who seem to be hanging-on since time immemorial.
  • Remove or take strict punitive action against corrupt and non-productive government staff and officials.
  • Create specialised Fast Track Courts to tackle crime related to wildlife, environment and forests. Let all such offences be non-bailable.
  • Ensure that the Park Directors and their Deputy Directors spend (in rotation) at least 15-days per month in the field, actually visiting the various park ranges. Not only taking stock but also bolstering the field staff by visibly being with them.
  • Improve the over-all living conditions of field accommodation, in particular the range sub-offices, by providing better facilities with sustained maintenance work.
  • Instil a sense of pride and confidence in those who are willing to stand against the unwarranted and brazen wrath of the rich and politically powerful. Support them.
  • Value, appreciate, encourage and reward the field staff especially the Forest Guards – not just by giving a select few, the totally redundant and toadying ‘certificate-cum-cash’ incentive but increasing and regularizing their salaries and supplying good quality essential equipment. Ensuring that items meant for them do not get ‘misplaced’.
  • Equip, train and pay forest guards, especially the Tiger Protection Force (when I met them in February 2009, they had not been paid for seven months!). Immediately provide proper uniforms, walkie-talkies, sturdy boots, water bottles (not the Milton type), maglites with sufficient supply of batteries and firearm (not the ancient .303 or the .315) and give them permission to shoot the poachers at sight.
  • Apart from medical facilities and a doctor stationed within, there needs to be some kind of means for banking (for them to seek loans at low interest rates), a school for the children and lastly a sensible salary appraisal and guarantee that the next month’s salary will come in. Will the senior officials stay without salaries and perks? If we don’t take care of the people who contribute the most by living there, we are giving them a clear signal to accept ‘lucrative’ offers from outside. The park is their livelihood. The younger generation is in any case being lured away.
  • Let there be a qualified wildlife vet for each sanctuary.
  • Eradicate the nexus between the forest officials and resort operators/taxi operators/booking office operators.
  • No freebies for visiting/holidaying government officials and their families.
  • Restrict and limit entry of tourist vehicles-per-day.
  • Hike entry fees and accommodation charges with services and facilities justifying the increase. Make it mandatory, wherever applicable, that those tourists staying overnight inside a sanctuary have to undergo a short orientation programme before anything else. Train and pay the young adults from the families of field guards to conduct such programmes. Ensure that young women get equal opportunities too.
  • Pay heed to the findings of genuine researchers and the alarm bells that they sound.
  • Strict control of night traffic on roads that pass through or periphery of sanctuaries.

The solution then lies in what economists call developmental and integrative policy making and eventual implementation. If we are to expect any programme to work in favour of conservation of the tiger and its habitat, then we need to ensure that the people working for the project are suitably reimbursed for their efforts. All policy-makers are familiar with the problems of population explosion, environmental degradation, encroachments, poaching and the rest. But they also need to be aware of the fact, that, the basic crux of any policy that they frame has to be wildlife oriented. This is where the part of the problem lies. An environmental policy cannot be based on the interests of man only.

And what about Crisis Management and Damage Control?

A case in passing – Let us not forget the poaching of elephants that happened in Corbett. It made many a head to get up and take notice of how much is wrong in the way we manage our national parks and sanctuaries. And it takes any environmental work that has been done in this country a decade back…. to show we haven’t really achieved that much. And while top officials debated and argued about what the “environmentally politically correct” thing was to be quoted to the media – the fact of the matter is that allegedly five individuals did manage to get inside the park and systematically kill seven elephants, cut out their tusks and disappear into thin air.

Yes, forest officials made a blunder in trying to catch the five poachers. They failed to notify higher authorities of the very first incident that took place in December of that year and even the subsequent three killings were not treated with the seriousness that the situation warranted. As far as the last elephant was concerned, the authorities could have laid a trap for the poachers, who would have come back to take the tusks and could have been caught. But would they (forest officials) have been able to do that. I doubt it. Who would have taken the immediate executive decision on such an operation? If anything went wrong, whose responsibility would it have been? In all that humdrum, humming and hawing they (as in the forest officials) went ahead and made a hash of it and lost the only chance of catching criminals whose crime warranted incarceration for life if not the lopping-off of their heads! But it is not about ‘what ifs’. It’s about clear thinking and well formulated plans going immediately into action as soon as such an incident occurs… that such an incident occurred in the first place itself should be a serious cause of worry. But in case of a breach, there has to be a contingency plan that will, to use a cliché, roll into place like a well-oiled machine that does immediate damage control. This would perhaps result in individuals being caught and brought to justice. But that seems like too much to ask for. And there is no such plan, is there? That’s why the floundering and that’s why a month later, no one had anything concrete to say about who was responsible. Of course, it was convenient to say that the division of the State was to blame! Pass the buck.

I was there with my small group of six people when all this was happening. We even had a qualified veterinary surgeon with experience of working with elephants. Am not saying that she would saved all…but at least she could have made some attempt; given some advise; done something for the last elephant whose tusks had not been hacked out! I had pleaded with the authorities – in Ramnagar, outside Amdanda and Dhangari Gates. But no! We had no bureaucratic clearance; no political clout; not part of a clique – not worth it!

What I’m asking is WHERE and WHEN does this concern get translated into concretised action. Why, for sake of our wildlife, do we have to get bureaucratic about issues like that? I fail to understand how people at the top, who have the resources to do so much, squander that power.

We, sit in our homes, watch the news, cynically shake our heads and acknowledge that nothing will ultimately get done. Very easy and extremely sad. It’s a malaise of the media as well. Each crew, reporter in tow, will hound the issue till it is heated. And then it loses its news worthiness or perhaps other issues rightly take precedence. But once the pressure is off that’s the end of it – literally. The main issue of the poaching will die a fast death. The other issues like breach of park security, lack of equipment, lack of trained personnel, lack of warm clothes, torches, arms and ammunition and such will die an even faster death. But this is not just a criticism of the media but also of the times we live in. We can’t afford to ease the pressure!

Explain this to me, how is it even remotely helpful to send out someone who tends to the forest rest house as personnel on a combing operation in the night. He doesn’t know the forest, doesn’t have a clue what to do in the event he’s faced with wild beings – animal or man. I can well understand his plight when he said that all he could think of in the forest was impending death, the thought of catching the poachers never crossed his mind. It boils down to what I have said in many of my reports; why should personnel who are not taken care of, not given proper training to protect the environment, not paid and who remain on the ‘kacha/temporary’ list for years – feel obliged to do their duty? What are they getting out of it? If any one of them dies in the combing operation, even compensation will take years to come.

It’s shameful that a nation would consider protecting its environment a luxury. That we would consider it as stray incidences and leave it at that and make no attempt to solve the larger problems vis a vis the management of our environment. It should after all be obvious to all those involved – be it in the hallowed halls of the environment ministry or the drawing rooms of concerned volunteers that the number of wildlife are dwindling rapidly. Take a look at all the incidents that have taken place in 2008 till now. Need I point out, that something is seriously wrong somewhere.

While I offer these comments as a criticism I also wish to put forward a viable solution to the problem. It makes sense to me that there are various organisations on the outside that do some good work. If given a chance to enter the parks on a regular basis perhaps they will be able to suggest solutions towards the welfare of the people involved in protecting parks. Funds can be collected through corporate houses and world bodies…like NGO’s do, and diverted towards the training of forest guards. This could be a joint government and NGO venture. At least grass root level work will get done.

Our work, that year, suffered because of the circumstances. In terms of what we had planned and what we actually did, there was a difference. Still the initiatives were the same. We did hold the medical camp that got a fifty percent response, and we did distribute clothes. But the core issues still remain. Lower end personnel still don’t receive salaries in time; health issues still need to be addressed, family planning, education and the transportation issue all need to be addressed.

There is also the question of State Wildlife Boards not taking proper decisions and agreeing to schemes that ought to quelled at the very beginning, e.g., the Gujarat Wildlife Board planning to send a proposal to the Centre requesting it to allow some industrial houses as-well-as government agencies (Adani Power Ltd., Usha Breco Ltd., Power Grid Corporation, Vodafone Gujarat Ltd., Reliance Communication Gujarat Ltd., State Road Development Corporation and BSNL), to use forestland for non-forest purposes in the four protected sanctuaries in the state.

Would love to meet if you are ever this side and have the time. Please feel free to let me know if you would want this non-cliquish voice to help in your endeavours in any way. I would feel more of a sense of achievement if I could continue to be involved and contribute towards saving our forests and the wildlife. The regions I would be able to assist are Uttarakhand and Kutch.

In the words of Yevgeny Yevtushenko:

Telling lies to the young is wrong.

Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.

Telling them God’s in his heaven

And, all’s well with the world, is wrong.

The young know what you mean. The young are people.

Tell them the difficulties can’t be counted,

And let them see not only what will be

But see with clarity these present times.

Say obstacles exist they must encounter

Sorrow happens, hardship happens.

To hell with it. Who never knew

The price of happiness will not be happy.

Forgive no error you recognize,

It will repeat itself, increase,

And afterwards our pupils

Will not forgive in us what we forgave.

Thanking you for your time!


2 Responses to “Paradigm Shift”

  1. 1 Mahesh
    August 12, 2009 at 1:21 am


    I read this with keen interest, and I can sense the magnitude of the challenge we have ahead of us in this effort.

    Your sentiments apply to conservation efforts, but also are symptomatic of the larger issues the country needs to confront as it ‘develops’. Commercial pressure, political pull and economic imperatives always override concerns about our environment and majestic images like the tiger are now reduced to nothing more than symbols of what can be.

    If the existing infrastructure cannot adequately protect and help the current species within Indian forests flourish, it takes a perverse form of love to introduce new/long gone species such as cheetahs and see them starve/suffer or worse, be poached.

    I sincerely hope you and other individuals who share these thoughts, objectives and opinions are able to band together and work towards a solution.

    Good luck!

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