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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A weird, wild ministry

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) makes policy by creating special committees on which vast amounts of money are spent and then...

Written by Valmik Thapar |
February 8, 2005

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) makes policy by creating special committees on which vast amounts of money are spent and then a report is created for implementation. I know that in the late 1980s a committee on wildlife tourism gave a detailed report on what to do in different regions, but the report sat in one of the MoEF’s dusty rooms and never saw the light of day. The same fate has met more than a dozen policy-making committees.

Two years ago one such committee created the Wildlife Action Plan. No one in the MoEF is even bothered about the recommendations of this plan. And the same is true of Project Tiger, under the umbrella of which the Ranthambhore National Park lives. The Steering Committee meant to guide Project Tiger has not even met for two years—ad hoc decisions are taken by Delhi and with dangerous repercussions. Today wildlife tourism in places like Ranthambhore, Bandhavgarh, Periyar etc has become like an anarchic monster and we as Indians should be ashamed that we have not been able to create a model example of the best kind of wildlife tourism for this world to see. Tourism in Ranthambhore is in a sorry state because of the sheer stupidity of those who create the rules that govern a Park and then those who enforce the same.

What else does the ‘no-policy MoEF’ do? It gives funds based on annual operations to national parks. Project Tiger’s primary purpose is to provide funds to places like Ranthambhore. Some funds are 100 per cent centrally sponsored, some are matched by the state 50:50. The tragedy is that the funds of the state decline, and when it is unable to match the Centre’s grants in full, large amounts remain unutilised—a Park like Ranthambhore can have more than Rs 20 lakh unutilised! It can be three times that figure.

Ranthambhore is the best place in the world to see wild tigers—it is much more than a World Heritage Site. But in the last financial year the state government cut money spent on road repair by Rs 4 lakh and vehicle maintenance by Rs 8 lakh. The result is that 150 kilometres of patrolling roads cannot be used in the Park for patrolling and at least three ‘troop’ carriers are garage bound, awaiting repairs. Shocking! The premier National Park of India is in a total mess. The vehicles, the men and the protection infrastructure are unable to reach trouble spots in time. So what happens? Grass cutters and wood cutters intrude—the cutting begins. While going around the Park in these last few days I encountered two such groups. And then the poachers follow them. Just in the last few days an armed poacher on a motorcycle has been caught with parts of a sambar deer immediately adjacent to the Park. If roads are not repaired and vehicles are out of order, it is a field day for poachers of grass, wood and animals. Look at the recent case of Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh, where five armed poachers were caught in the middle of the National Park. As more and more wood gets cut, illegal saw mills open to welcome it, and even illegal mining starts since the management is demoralised, unmotivated, with no one to inspire it.

Ministers snatch the power to transfer forest guards, making the functioning of forest officers impotent. At the height of the woodcutting season 30 forest staff were transferred out of the National Park. Today there are 45 vacancies. Does it make any sense? The forest officials lose interest; the Park bleeds. Who is responsible? The state government and the federal structure that fund it. It is their subject and they must prioritise effective governance. It is not just Ranthambhore or its tigers that are suffering. All our protected areas are crying out for help. Ridiculous decisions by the state governments and the mute watchers in the MoEF have created the seeds of disaster. At least 50 national parks in India have the same severe problems.

Look what happened to the World Heritage Site of Bharatpur National Park. Ridiculous decision-making created a dam on the river that supplied water to this wetland—the river dried up, so did the best wetland in the world. The state fears opening the dam today because of people agitating and the law and order problems that will follow. So Bharatpur dies, turning from wetland to desert. This is the government of the state killing a National Park by not releasing water. Can it be held liable under the laws of the land? Bharatpur is also governed by international treaties like the Ramsar Convention and India could be violating many international treaties by its failure to save Bharatpur. And the same with Sariska, played out by inept decision-making, a lack of funds (let’s not forget the role of finance departments that choke the system of functioning). So the famous Sariska Tiger Reserve may not have any tigers left—sheer horror of horrors! This newspaper reported the loss of tigers. Only then did federal and state functionaries rush down to the field and, as I hear it, are on all fours desperately searching for tiger pugmarks. God help them! They need to do the same in Namdapha, Dampha, Indrawati, Palamau, Srisailam and many others. Again, in the last few days, a gang of poachers has been caught in Sariska and there is information to suggest that some tigers and leopards have been killed. And all this while chief functionaries of our parks are coining phrases like ‘‘gone to the mountains’’, ‘‘migrated’’. Where to? Jaipur or the Himalayas? There are hardly any tigers left in 25 per cent of our most important tiger reserves.

The story of Rajasthan is the story of India. Wake up chief ministers, forest ministers, bureaucrats; wake up Prime Minister—this is the worst wildlife crisis since Independence. You chair the prestigious National Board of Wildlife that has not been convened for 17 months. Convene an emergency meeting without delay. Reform the finance departments. Reform your own political leaders. Reform the Forest Service (it is time to create an arm of this service only for our National Parks and permit transfers across states from one National Park to another). The present system stinks—while the crisis boomerangs, Project Tiger and the MoEF are busy organising an international symposium in March to celebrate Project Tiger’s 32 years! A disaster awaits to envelop the finest forests of our land.

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