(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
March 23, 2008
THE “TIGER CRISIS”
Need For A Democratic Solution
Allocating a one time grant of Rs 50 crore to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) the finance minister said in his budget speech: ‘The number 1411 should ring the alarm bells. That is the number of tigers in India. The tiger is under grave threat. In order to redouble our effort to protect the tiger, I propose to make a one time grant of Rs 50 crore to the National Tiger Conservation Authority. The bulk of the grant will be used to raise, arm and deploy a special Tiger Protection Force.’ While the additional budgetary allocation for the conservation of tiger habitats is a welcome step, it is obvious that the finance minister was responding to the conventional tiger lobby’s demand that the “tiger crisis” could be solved through a more efficient policing system dedicated to the tiger. This knee jerk reaction to the rapidly depleting population within the project tiger areas ignores the basic problem inflicting the Indian forest and wildlife conservation system.
Reports of tiger estimation carried out by NTCA and the Wildlife Institute of India in the last three years has showed that the root of the crisis lay in the habitat degradation in the tiger breeding ‘core’ areas in particular, and the forest corridors affecting the movement of tigers in general. Thus the reports have underscored the need to restore the habitat conditions for the regeneration of tiger populations. Though this analysis is largely accepted by all sides to a large extent, there is a difference of opinion between policy makers and activists on causes and solutions of the problems. The so-called tiger lobby represented by the conventional wildlife activists (such as the Wildlife Society of India and Bombay Natural History Society) have blamed human pressures and local poaching networks for the crisis. It is assumed that better policing of the forests and removal of humans through the relocation of people from the tiger habitats will improve the situation. These strategies are seen as crucial to the survival of the tiger. A large part of the wildlife and forest establishment, especially within the states, still agrees with this age old perspective and believes that the new Forest Rights Act has only made the task of saving the tiger more difficult.
However, the establishment of Report of the Tiger Task Force under the chairmanship Sunita Narain was a turning point in the thinking of the tiger conservation establishment. In a realistic assessment of the human use and habitation within all wildlife reserves in general and tiger reserves in particular it stressed that tigers could not be saved without the active participation of local institutions and people in the management of tiger reserves. It was recognised that decades of centralised and non-transparent forest management had only harmed the cause of the tigers. Further tigers could not be saved if the needs of human beings were not met, than saving the tigers would become impossible. These welcome changes in the official mindset were brought about by the long and protracted struggles of the democratic forces and were reflected in the enactment of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act (2006) and Tribal Rights Act (2007). The first of these legislations created the NTCA which is meant to be a multi-faceted apex body for formulating policies and guidelines for tiger reserves. With some political will it could also provide a window of opportunity to democratise wildlife management. At a different level, the Tribal Rights Act has provided the much needed relief by stipulating a procedure by which rights are to be recognised in the wildlife reserves. The act also aims to silence its critics by laying down a democratic and transparent procedure for delineating inviolate areas within wildlife reserves and the conditions under which relocation could take place. This would ensure that local people had an interest in maintaining the integrity of the tiger reserves, and their livelihood security would help them to resist manipulations by international poaching networks.
It follows from this that the logical step for the government would be to implement the provisions of the recently enacted legislations to enlist the support of the local people and their institutions in combating the tiger crisis. Instead, the last year and half in the life of the NTCA has shown a lack of political will in putting the spirit of the Tribal Rights and Wildlife (Amendment) Acts into place. This is evident from the rapidity with which the ministry of environment and forest (MoEF) moved to formulate guidelines for the demarcation of ‘critical tiger habitats’ and relocation of people from tiger reserves. The guidelines on the reserves were released even before the Tribal Rights Act was notified and the directions for relocation have followed soon after. In both cases the MoEF has consulted only the wildlife wardens of the state governments and the field directors of the tiger reserves. But the MoEF has made little attempt to either seek the participation of the members of the NTCA or start the process of involving the people as laid down by the legislations. Thus we find that most of the critical tiger habitats have been identified and notified and a package for relocation announced even before the Tribal Act has begun to be implemented. Similarly the list of relocated villages is in the process of being prepared without any democratic or participatory procedure being put into place. This clearly highlights the violation of the spirit of the Acts that the government is committed to implementing.
The problem of the sharp decline in tiger numbers and degradation of tiger habitats cannot be resolved by policing alone. It needs to be tackled through the democratisation of forest and wildlife management itself. The constitution of the NTCA was meant to provide a platform for the balancing the needs of the local people with the needs of the tiger and its habitat. Its broad-based composition was meant to ensure this and it has been considered an important step to show the way for reforming the structure of wildlife management. But the recent events have shown that the government lacks the political will to make use of this opportunity. It has consistently bypassed the independent expert members of NTCA even while using its name to pass crucial orders. In this event the NTCA risks becoming just another committee legitimising all actions of a centralised wildlife bureaucracy resisting change and acting on the behest of the conventional “tiger lobby”. The NTCA experiment is therefore likely to fail if the struggle to democratise its functioning is ignored by those who seek the effective implementation of the Tribal Rights and Wildlife (Amendment) Acts.