Wednesday, September 27, 2006

India: Protecting the tiger

The power sharing mechanism between the Centre and the states is of utmost importance for the success of this new venture - Rakesh Shukla

Hopefully, the new mechanism may bring happy tidings for tigers in the country. The constitution of the National Tiger Conservation Authority is probably the most momentous resolve after the launch of Project Tiger in India in the early Seventies. The Central government introduced a bill to this effect in the parliament last month, and consequently the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act 2006, envisaging a National Tiger Conservation Authority came into effect a few days back. The amended Act will lend Project Tiger, now a directorate under the Environment Ministry, a statutory status and its directive will have Constitutional authority. The Authority, as they say, will only supplement and not overwrite the existing laws, and will have powers to monitor all tiger conservation activities in the states.

The precursor to this decision was, if we strain our memory, several key recommendations of the tiger task force submitted to the Prime Minister last year. The members of the TTF observe in the report that the Centre does not have a major role in tiger conservation, and it has more or less become the responsibility of the states, and it should take an effective initiative in this direction. The constitution of this Authority under the amended Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, may also widen the scope for the Centre to intervene in tiger conservation in the states. Hopefully, the new mechanism will provide a long awaited opportunity for the central and state governments to work in close tandem for tiger conservation.

One of the most ambitious conservation schemes of its own kind in the world, Project Tiger initially recorded tremendous success with amazingly perceptible results in first stabilizing and later increasing the tiger populations in the Tiger Reserve areas. The general restoration of ecological damage, strengthening of protection, and improvement of infrastructures were commendably carried out in these wildlife ecosystems. The national and international community also heaved a sigh of relief that the tiger in this county was now back from a very critical brink and would ultimately reach a safer status, specially in the Tiger Reserve areas. There are now 28 Tiger Reserves in 17 states of the country, with a total area of 37,761, which is only around 1.14% of the total geographic area of India.

Amid this applause and complacence of the mid eighties, the bad news started trickling in that some of these tiger bastions were not so safe after all, and general forest areas, which harbored about 50% of the country's total population, with, of course, a lesser degree of protection and already overburdened staff, were also witnessing serious trouble. This new grave threat with multiple dimensions arose from a very complex socio-economic and demographic order prevalent in the country. And conservation in several Tiger Reserves was now interfaced with increased poaching, encroachment, illicit grazing, infrastructural weaknesses, and other flaws. Expectedly, managed forests also did not fare well. In a nutshell, the worried conservationists pressed the panic button for the tiger's plight, and since then tiger conservation has made a chequered history in India. More recently, these threats snowballed into several conservational fiascos, raising a vehement "foul" from the watchdogs.

Project Tiger started as a 'Central Sector Scheme' with the full assistance of Central Government till 1979-80. Later, from 1980-81, it became a 'Centrally Sponsored Scheme' with equal sharing of expenditure between the center and the states. So far, the Project Tiger directorate at New Delhi has been headed by several eminent wildlife conservationists of the country. The directorate, however, as the TTF report suggests, has been functioning more or less as a financing and advisory body to the state governments for the development of the Tiger Reserves, with managements responsible solely to their respective state governments. Besides, it has little say on matters deemed important to it. This very arrangement, however, had also once taken the project to new heights, and no serious concern was ever raised. But the tougher times now hint at the porosity and gray areas in the current mechanism where many issues of utmost importance need quick consensus of both the governments for formulating effective policies.

The functioning of the Authority may require the officials to delve deep into the legislative powers of the central and state governments. We already know that the Indian Constitution provides for the union list and as well as the state list. There is, of course, also the concurrent list. There are several important conservation issues that are either the union or the state subjects. Therefore, it takes a lot of time and appallingly long procedure for both the central and state governments to reach a consensus for any change or improvement in the existing acts and policies for tiger conservation. In this way, the constitution of the NTCA with several MPs, chief wildlife wardens, and senior officers from different ministries that are crucial to conservation along with NGIs and experienced wildlifers as members is a most welcome move. And so is the lending of a statutory and legal status to the PT Directorate. This mechanism will ensure that the PT directorate will more effectively coordinate with tiger range states and enforce the guidelines under an MOU or any such arrangement.

Besides, the directorate may also be empowered to extend its role to the managed forest areas of the country, and the states may also receive the much needed enhanced funding. The newly acquired dental formula will help it work much more efficiently! It is, however, too early to predict the shape of things to come.

The NTCA has a most unenviable task on hand. A lot of balancing act and tightrope walking!! First of all, the power sharing mechanism between the Centre and the states is of utmost importance for the success of this new venture. It is a very delicate issue and no party should feel that it is going to be overshadowed in this joint effort. Besides, there are many issues on which the Authority has to obtain the consensus of the central and state governments. For instance, there are still 273 villages with human populations of around a hundred thousand, a vast sea of humanity and cattle, in the core zones of the various tiger reserves. The buffer zones of the Tiger Reserves also harbor 1487 villages with around four hundred thousand humans. If the villages have to be relocated at all within a timeframe, or if they are to be allowed to remain inside and use the park resources, it would require a clear-cut sound policy that might vary from state to state given the socio-political situations. The nature of tiger poaching also varies from sporadic revengeful killings to well-organized crimes to even terrorism in several Tiger Reserve areas and managed forests. In this way, every tiger state may need a special protection strategy. Besides, illegal land use, controversial diversions, enhancement of the protected area network, creation of buffer zones, ecodevelopment, research and monitoring, wildlife tourism, staff development and a host of other issues require a fresh review and lateral thinking vis-à-vis the rapidly changing backdrop for their desired effect on tiger conservation.

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