Piloting disaster

  • 30/03/1996

Piloting disaster I WOULD like to strongly denounce the message sent by Rajesh Pilot to this august assembly to discuss people's management of the Riljaji National Park by the Van Gujjars. It appears from his message that he has completely missed the purpose of this gathering. The minister is trying to push discredited ideas like 'ecodevelopment' of national parks because the World Bank (WB) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) is likely to dump Rs 200 crore on India to protect these habitats as "global good".

To start with, the minister is factually incorrect in stating that the amount of land under national parks (NP) and pro- tected areas (PA) is one percent of India's geographical area. By 1993, there were some 14 million hectares (ha), or as much as 4.3 per cent of India's total land area under NPS and PAs. The minister does not have to tell a group of committed envi- ronmentalists present in this gathering the i~portance of sav- ing habitats and species from extinction. Our disagreement is over the strategy that his government is pursuing to achieve those objectives.

I am delighted that the minister has admitted that the country's anti-people wildlife protection strategy demands that local communities must make sacrifices. But if the rich are not forced to make bigger sacrifices, why should the poor sacrifice to benefit their environmental needs (like tourism in pristine natural areas, or protecting plant species that will provide medicines mainly foithe rich) or even amorphous groups like global humanity?

The minister believes that community involvement should come only through ecodevelopment programmes. But these programmes demand that the communities must first be displaced from their habitat, give up their current lifestyles and culture and then adopt a new lifestyle outside the protected areas, where they will be given some sops to stay away from their original homes -most probably broken houses, as the Van Gujjars have already learnt once, much to their dismay.

All this would have still been worth debating if we could assume that the minister's strategy, based on management powers given to the bul;eaucracy , which has proven to be one of India's'worst destroyers of environment, gives us enough confidence that it would protect nature. But I am sure that these anti- people policies will lead to such a backlash that the government will never be able to deal with it. Moreover, has anyone looked at the cost-effectiveness of this policy? The WB and GEF are providing ecodevelopment funds for only eight protected areas. But India has nearly 500 protected areas. Can India find so much money 10 throw people out of their habitats and still keep them happy through dole. This is the most suicidal act one can think of.

Local communities have a greater vested interest i~ protecting, regenerating and managing the envi- ronment. Definitely far greater than those of the bureau- cracy's or the NGOS'. It is this vested interesf that needs to be harnessed and promoted through appropriate governance systems. Moreover, scientifically speaking, today it would be hard to prove that there is much habitat left in India that has not been modified by human beings, and which does not necessarily mean an erosion of biodiversity. This is a wrong assumption that conservationists and bureau- crats rush to make. Well managed people-nature inter- actions can 1ead to excellent habitats for various forms of biodiversity.

It is clear from. the minister's statement that he has not cared to understand the issue properly and independently by taking into account the various positions in the debate. He has merely passed on to this august gathering a draft prepared by his bureaucrats. A politician who can~ot take time to understand a national, people-oriented agenda and is only prepared to push bureaucratic agendas cannot be respected much as a political leader.

I personally feel sad that a young political leader like Pilot, who has a major career in front of him, has taken these matters so lightly. Pilot has twice been my 'student' in lectures that I gave to him and his political colleagues in 1986, to explain ~e environmental challenge before India, at the request of the then Prime Minister"the late Rajiv Gandhi.It is obvious that I failed miserably. And it is also obvious that Mahatma Gandhi's views and values have been forgotten in his own party. It would have been nice if Pilot had at least read the anecdote related to the Mahatma that the late Indira Gandhi narrated at the Stockholm Conference on environment {1972). He is reported to have said, "I am less worried about decreasing wildlife in the jungles and more worried about the increasing wild life in the towns." Essentially, the country's wildlife policy, if allowed to be implemented, will end up browbeating a proud and powerful comm- unity like the Van Gujjars into becoming destitute wildlife of the cities. We surely cannot let that happen.

My own message to this conference is that the Van Gujjars must go ahead and make their own plans to preserve their culture and their ecological habitat and one day they will prQve that the country's democratic set up, which elects our political leaders, is meaningless unless there is local democracy also. We will definitely get over the lingering colonial mind-set one day. Simply because it {democracy? politics? poli- ticians?) takes on a green cloak, it must not fool us into recognising it as something that is good for our future generations. Whose future, may I ask? Not that of the Van Gujjars', surely!

Note: Anil Agarwal was in Washington, when he received a copy of Rajesh Pilot's message. This write-up is in response to that

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