Sunday, September 24, 2006

India: Tigers and the blame game


We'll have to accept that development has its price instead of conveniently making others responsible for the environmental degradation.

A FEW days ago I wrote an article for an English newspaper on the discussions and debates surrounding what has come to be known as the tribal bill — proposed legislation that seeks to give rights over forest land to tribal communities and those defined as traditional forest dwellers. The debate on the issue had been and continues to be extremely acrimonious and heated.

The piece finally appeared with a headline that could only be considered eye-catching. "It needn't be tigers vs. tribals", it screamed from the centre of the editorial page. Admittedly, the title I had originally proposed, "Balance needed in the tribal bill discussion", was drab and dull in comparison.

Articulating a debate

It also, however, set me thinking. This is not how I had seen the issue — it had not been my intention to position the tiger and the tribal in a "vs." kind of situation. The tiger, in any case, had found only one passing mention in the entire piece of over 1,000 words. I wondered what it could be. Is it just the doing of a creative sub-editor? Phonetically speaking, tribal and tiger certainly sound nice when put together — the "t" and "r" in one going well when placed next to the other. Journalism perhaps demands a clearly and starkly polarised conflict to make it attractive and where better to put it, than in the title? Or is there something else? Is this then a statement, more, about those articulating the debate (this writer included) and less about the real situation on the ground? Do we do this because it helps to effectively push the issue into a domain that we are not part of, isolating and sanitising us from the responsibilities of what happens or doesn't happen?

The intention of this piece, then, is not to deal with the specific situation or the particular newspaper, but as a starting point to ponder about the larger processes and issues involved.

Every problem has its visible and proximate reasons — the obvious ones — the poor tribal killing a wild animal to feed his family, a farmer committing suicide because the crop failed, cities losing trees because there is not enough road width to carry the increasing number of cars. What we also know is that these are the mere symptoms. The malaise lies deep and some place else, the underlying causes, the root of the problems that are not visible but those that are the real drivers.

Is the tiger really posited so obviously against the tribal? Are they really threatening each other so squarely? Fundamental questions indeed.

Yes, the tiger was wiped out from Sariska; yes, this magnificent animal is threatened across the Indian subcontinent; yes, India's wildlife and wilderness area face a severe crisis — all this and much more of the doomsday predictions are true. But, and this should be an important but, is it the tribal that is responsible for all this?

Tribals make up less than 10 per cent of our population; it is that section of the country that continues to be the most vulnerable and marginalised, the section that the might of the State has mercilessly gunned down in places like Kashipur or Kalingnagar for opposing projects and a notion of development that they don't believe is theirs. In such a huge country with so many points of view and so many stakes on resources, it seems strange that all the problems of the tiger and forests are being laid at the door of the tribal and to the complete exclusion of everything else.

It was quite a coincidence that the day my piece was published, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram was quoted in another national business daily ("Dissent will be brushed aside if it impedes growth", The Hindu Business Line, 11/09/06) saying "he was willing to tolerate debate, and perhaps even dissent, as long as it does not come in the way of eight per cent growth... " Why the Finance Minister thought there would be dissent when the country was growing so rapidly (and presumably benefiting all) is best left for him to answer.

There can be no harm in speculating about the quarters from which he is expecting this dissent. There will certainly be the grandstanding of the political parties and the related ideological differences, perhaps from the opposition, certainly from within the ruling coalition. The FM is certainly in no position to "brush" these away; the contempt of brushing away can only be reserved for those less powerful than you.

There are, in my limited understanding, two other concerns that the FM, and the powers that be, have had to deal with in the recent past. These, they still perceive, perhaps, as continuing to be the major impediments in the nation's march to global super power status that need dealing with (brushing aside?) — concerns of social justice and those of environmental and ecological security.

Things brushed aside

Thousands of acres of productive land are being acquired to create Special Economic Zones at the cost of thousands of families and millions of existing livelihoods; traditional tribal lands (many which are thickly forested) are being mined and drowned with impunity across the length and breadth of the country; huge infrastructure projects are being created in some of the most sensitive ecological systems and dollar-earning tourism projects are being advocated in lands where traditional communities are being displaced in the name of wildlife conservation. There was an interesting report a couple of years ago of encroachment and tree felling by tribals deep inside the Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Orissa. Investigation revealed that these were people who had been recently displaced by huge mining projects in neighbouring Jharkhand. These, we have to realise, are human beings and cannot be expected to vanish into thin air. They have to go somewhere; they have to do something to ensure their survival and that of their families!

Still tiger vs. tribal?

It has also been argued that the tiger has no votes, the tribal is a huge vote bank and that is why vested interests with short-term political horizons are willing to sacrifice the forests and the tiger. That's true. The tiger has no votes, but incidentally, neither does the huge "capital" (increasingly foreign) that wants to mine the tiger and elephant-rich forests of Niyamgiri, construct a port at Dhamra right in midst of Olive Ridley turtle habitat (both in Orissa), rip apart critical wildlife migratory corridors for coal in the Jharkhand's North Karanpura Valley or ensure fast moving rail and road traffic that has claimed a number of wild elephants in forests across North Bengal. Gujarat Forest Department figures, for instance, reveal that nearly 150 wild animals, including leopards, hyena and neelgai were killed in road accidents between 1998 and 2004 in the Vadodara Forest Circle of the State alone. This is not an isolated case and is happening across the country. An animal killed by a tribal can at least be eaten. Of what use is one that is flattened within minutes between fast moving rubber and rock hard bitumen?

Let's accept the fact that development, speed and GDP growth will come with a price. Let's be honest about it. We've eaten the cake (certainly eating it at the present) and we are also crying that we are losing it. We, obviously, cannot have both things at the same time. What's worse, however, is we want to pass the responsibility of what is happening on to somebody else — the tribal, the tiger, the elephant... those that don't really have a voice, have never had a voice.

It never was the tiger vs. the tribal. It cannot be the tiger vs. the tribal. The brushing off is already happening and happening effectively.

Pankaj Sekhsaria edits Protected Area Update, a bi-monthly newsletter on wildlife and wildlife related issues. Email: stories/2006092400150200.htm

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