During the Covid-19 crisis, people have been thrilled by the manner in which “wildlife” has re-entered the living spaces we snatched from them. Deer have gone downtown, dolphins are frolicking in touristy waterfronts, and birds are being seen and heard as never before. But was this really such a good thing in the first place? Of course, once the lockdowns are eased and lifted, the animals and birds will retreat to their sanctuaries, so we will have simply flattered to deceive!
You could say the same thing about wildlife in our national parks and sanctuaries. Tigers in places like Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh must have heaved a sigh of relief at having their territories back to themselves. During the lockdown, they would not have been continually gheraoed by 50 Gypsies crammed with chattering, badly-behaved tourists, all wanting selfies with them. Even as lockdown rules are eased, this is one area in which lockdown norms are likely to continue for a while. Eventually, visitors would be allowed in — but not stuffed into fleets of Gypsies and Jeeps, all jostling each other for the best camera angle. Actually, it would be lovely if some of these prime predators learned to hang around with bats — especially those huge, ghoulish fruit bats! Maybe the protection staff can hang up mannequins of bats around waterholes! If mannequin cops can control Bangalore traffic why can’t mannequin bats make boorish tourists scarper?
But there’s a sinister side to lockdown in these protected areas. As visitors move out and patrolling staff decreases, poachers can move in unhindered. Oh, yes, they’ll maintain their social distance (from everyone!) and even wear masks but all it takes is one guy with a steel trap, a bag of pesticide or a gun to take down an elephant, rhino or tiger. We can only hope that patrolling in these protected areas has continued with, if anything, even more rigour. Otherwise, visitors might just return to these places to discover that their big five have disappeared.
Sadly, our wildlife and beautiful wild spaces have a much larger and more insidious cancer to deal with. Until recently, we had fairly decent and firm environmental laws and guidelines for any industry attempting to get a foothold in, say, a tropical forest and turn it into a massive open-cast mine or gigantic dam. A proper environmental impact assessment had to be done, the public had to be consulted, and, finally, approval obtained from the Environmental Clearance Gods sitting in New Delhi. An increasing number of ordinary people, especially those who would be directly affected by their homes being bulldozed and livelihoods destroyed, too, kept a hawk’s eye on the situation, ever ready to raise an alarm. Industry could move on with their project only if approved.
Alas, the Environmental Clearance Gods changed. The new bindaas Gods decided it’s so much better and quicker to let these mining companies and dam builders get on with their work, and, afterwards, check if they’ve done anything naughty (Like drown or destroy an entire rainforest). Even if they have, we will just wave them on, because, after all, it’s all in the national interest and fait accompli. The Environmental Clearance Gods have recently given the go-ahead to Oil India to dig for oil inside a national park in Assam. The company tells us they’ll bore their wells about a mile outside the park boundary and then tunnel horizontally under it. Had there been a place of worship inside, instead of a forest, would they have dared to do so? By the way, the Gods have also cleared open-cast coal mining (the filthiest kind) in an elephant reserve in the same state, clearly indicating where their sympathies lie. Of course, they tell us that for every tree (which has taken the last 100 years to reach its present magnificent state) cut, 10 will be planted, but no one says where. Simply because there is nowhere left.
With COVID-19 lurking around, it’s pretty much open season for the miners, dam builders and their ilk. Even if enough people did decide to raise a stink, they would be immediately dispersed if they tried to protest. Apparently, a whole bunch of such mining and industrial units are trying to sneak into untouched forests this way, hastily aided and abetted by the Environmental Clearance Gods. But what’s absolutely appalling is how we, and especially our Environmental Clearance Gods, mulishly refuse to learn the lessons Mother Nature is trying so hard to drill into our thick skulls: “Mess around with me, and see what I can unleash on you. Without breaking or destroying a single thing — like bombs do — a virus has brought you to your knees.” The writing’s on the wall.
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