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Why India needs a conservation act

WAY TO GO: A herd of elephants passing through a tea garden in Gohpur in Sonitpur district of Assam. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar  

I have just returned from an extended tour of our jungles where, as usual, much is being spoken; little is being done to conserve our wilderness. While camping near the Corbett National Park, our cook, also the village leader, was called in every night to help with the elephant menace in his hamlet. He narrated numerous stories of tigers killing humans. Most kills were recent. The so-called man-animal conflict was at its worst and even the forests where I work in southern India we were seeing a spate of escalating conflicts between local people and officials. This got me thinking. Was something seriously amiss with our wilderness policies? On further thought, the answer dawned on me. India does not have its own standalone conservation act. We have the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972; why did we choose not to have the Wildlife (Conservation) Act of 1972 instead?

The first thing that comes to mind is that in conservation one needs to be in constant dialogue with all the players, and certainly our forest officials want no such thing. Dialogue makes one answerable, vulnerable and transparent, actions alien if not loathsome to officials.

Conservation is solely achieved through building trust and respect with all parties concerned. Though transparent dialogue is a crucial part of that trust-building process, the people living near our protected forests are not in dialogue with the officials. This has led to a severe conflict.

‘Protection’ has a very minor but essential part in effective ‘Conservation’. ‘Conservation’ comes first, followed by ‘Protection’. Wherever conservation fails, protection is supposed to kick in. That’s the way it is the world over, except India. When the African countries can have their own conservation laws, why in heavens name doesn’t India have one which stands on its own two feet? Instead of a Wildlife Conservation Act, we have a National Tiger Conservation Authority tucked away, hidden deep in the recess of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. But it has only a handful of pages that make a veiled attempt to address the term ‘conservation’.

India is regarded as one of the most corrupt countries. Add to this the fact that our parks and sanctuaries have extensive boundaries, which, in most places remain porous. We have large sensitive forested regions of great value that cannot be effectively patrolled or protected. We have neither the funds nor the political will or the manpower to protect these expansive areas. These areas need to be conserved.

Further, protection is an exclusionary form of management that pushes people away. After more than six decades of Independence, it’s clear that we need to embrace the people living around our protected forests and convert them from being a liability to an asset. Only conservation can do that, not protection. Since 1947, officials and locals have drifted apart at an alarming rate and today a chasm exists between them. This has led to severe conflict. There being no effective dialogue between them, locals in general believe officials to be corrupt and officials on their part think most locals to be smugglers and poachers. This further escalates the conflict.

The officials have lived in denial of such conflicts and over time, instead of calling such a conflict the local man-authority conflict, have evolved a unique term for their failures and called it the man-animal conflict. How could they be answerable for the actions of animals, they would ask whenever the need arose.

It is clear that unless India rejects its protection philosophy and embraces conservation and bridges this gap between people living on the fringes of its forests and the officials and converts these people into assets by including them in the management of her sensitive regions, we can kiss our wilderness goodbye.

We have arrived at this alarming situation because it takes 10 to 15 years, if not a couple of generations, to start the dialogue process leading to effective conservation. Our officers hold their posts for but a couple of years, and fail to share the larger vision. Also because the process of dialogue and trust-building that feeds conservation at most times remains intangible, most funding towards wildlife management gets funnelled into protection. Efforts in any protection activity are tangible and can be measured for the disbursement of funds — examples are anti-poaching camps, vehicles, arms, fences, trenches, roads, fire lines, staff quarters and so on.

Conservation acts suffer because they cannot be measured thus. Conservation can best be described as the ‘human’s ethical pursuit of letting things be in nature’. This natural balance is difficult to maintain as man interferes with nature without truly understanding the consequences. Sadly, whenever man plays god he destroys without having the power to recreate. The writing is on the wall. Forest officials must stop hiding behind the so-called man-animal conflict and the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. If we are to conserve our wilderness, we need a hard-hitting yet sensitive conservation act that also addresses, as an integral part of conservation, the local people-authority conflict upfront.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2020 6:07:37 AM |

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