TRAMPLED DESTINIES

  • 14/03/2000

TRAMPLED DESTINIES "this is more easily said than done," says Daniels of mssrf . Whether it is the Korkus in the Melghat Tiger Reserve, the Maldharis in Gir National Park or the Van Gujjars in the proposed Rajaji National Park, most of these communities are under tremendous pressure to give up their traditional ways of living. The Maldhari people, who were resettled from Gir in Gujarat and given land outside the protected area for agriculture, had trouble adjusting to a new lifestyle as they are non-agriculturists. Eventually, they returned.

"The Amendment Act of 1991 plays the role of an alienating agent for the people who are dispossessed of their natural resource base," states the State of Orissa's Environment , a publication of the Bhubaneshwar-based ngo Council of Professional Social Workers."Besides the formation of np s and sanctuaries, two other developments have further strengthened the process of alienation of the local people and these are the creation of biosphere reserves and the Project Tiger," it mentions. "The purpose was to integrate people with parks. In India, the very concept of biosphere reserves seems to have been misunderstood," says Daniels. Raghu Chundawat, a wildlife scientist at wii , sums it up: "Mostly, the Wildlife (Protection) Act is abused in India."

A prime example of lack of science in wildlife management affecting a local community is from the Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, the winter habitat of the endangered Siberian Crane. Following a ban on grazing buffaloes in the marshes of Bharatpur in 1982, a bloody conflict ensued between the forest department and the local graziers, resulting in a shoot-out that claimed seven human lives. Later, some of the buffaloes came back to save the park. Says Sharma, "Scientists recommended a ban on grazing. We listened to them. Ten years later, they say grazing is good. We cannot listen to them all the time when their research gives contradictory results" (see box: Bird-brained decisions).

A similar story is from the Binsar wildlife sanctuary in Almora district of Uttar Pradesh. The 58-sq km sanctuary has been gutted by fire thrice in 1999. In March-April 1999, Laxman Ramaria, a forest guard, told a Down To Earth reporter who had gone to cover the forest fires that nothing was left: "The whole pine forest has been gutted. Only the oak forest in the core area of the sanctuary is left. Not a single villager came to help the forest department to fight the fires." Binsar was declared a sanctuary in 1988, much to the resentment of the 60,000 people living in the 160 surrounding villages, whose rights to the forest resources was restricted.

The villagers say they would not save Binsar. They do not want a sanctuary there. "The people have been cheated in the name of conservation. They do not want any conservation. They want their forests back. There is great hatred among the people for the terms 'environment' and 'conservation'," said Mahesh Joshi, a resident of the nearby Risal village. How long can the forest department claim to manage India's forests on its own?

It is time we started asking ourselves whether we really need more np s when we see frequent failures in the management of the existing ones? "We certainly do not need more," feels Daniels. There are too many examples of unscientific management practices, not the least of them coming from the proposed Rajaji National Park.

Unwilling martyrs to conservation
Countless thesis and research papers have been written and Ph D degrees have been conferred. Talks and papers have been presented and accepted in international seminars. However, the subject of the controversy, the Van Gujjar community - nomadic pastoralists of Hardwar, Dehradun, Saharanpur and Pauri Garhwal districts of Uttar Pradesh and Sirmour in Himachal Pradesh - has not benefited from this 'knowledge' it has helped create.

As fate would have it, the Uttar Pradesh government proposed in 1983 to amalgamate three adjoining wildlife sanctuaries - Rajaji, Motichur and Chilla, comprising 82,000 hectares - into the Rajaji National Park. The mef decided to declare it a np in 1985. This meant the eviction of 5,000-odd Van Gujjars and their 12,300 buffaloes from the proposed park. It also meant that they relinquish their age-old traditions and nomadic lifestyle.

Heated debates followed. Consequently, the forest department shelved its intentions, but not for long.A rehabilitation policy was prepared and 512 families were to be resettled in the Pathri region of Hardwar; permits for grazing 4,300 cattle were also issued. So far, 115 families have been resettled. According to the policy, each family is to be given two acres (0.8 hectares) of land with financial assistance of Rs 10,000 for transporting building material. "The Van Gujjars should have been consulted and given a good rehabilitation package," says Johnsingh.

In his complaint to the National Human Rights Commission ( nhrc ), Avdhash Kaushal, chairperson of the Dehradun-based ngo Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra ( rlek ), stated that the 512 families have now increased to 1,390, and the "land available at Pathri is not sufficient to accommodate all these families". The nhrc ordered the number of grazing permits to be increased from 4,300 to 11,000. However, in their letter to the nhrc , the Van Gujjars have complained, "The park authorities refuse to issue permits for the grazing of our cows and goats and they even take them away by force. They insist that we keep only our buffaloes."

The nhrc stated that "they should not be subjected to any difficulty or harassment by the forest authorities in the enjoyment of their legitimate rights and be allowed to lead their normal lives as before". Kaushal complains that some Van Gujjar families were either forced out or tricked into moving out. Van Gujjars claim that forest authorities have prevented them from lopping leaves for fodder, threatening them with "violence and heavy fines" if they did. They even claim that the hand-pumps are "systematically destroyed by the authorities." In March 1998, the nhrc ordered that a retired judge undertake the task of ascertaining the willingness of the families to move to the new camp. But the people complain that nothing has come out of it. They point out that even ambulances for medical assistance are not given permission to enter the area in blatant disregard of the nhrc order. "The approach may be wrong. But rehabilitation is often necessary," says Daniels.

For those who claim that such problems are only to be expected on the path of 'conservation', they ought to do their homework. One aspect that has caused a heated debate is lopping of leaves. In winter, Van Gujjars lop leaves from particular species of trees to feed their buffaloes. These trees are lopped in sequence every year, starting with the one that shed its leaves first, then with those that keep their foliage till late in spring. With each tree being lopped only once a season, there is ample time for them to regenerate. Moreover, the Gujjars claim that in the lopped region, buffaloes help disperse seeds and enrich the soil with nutrients and that careful lopping allows sunlight to penetrate the dense canopy to the forest floor. "We lop carefully. We do not destroy trees, but bring them up so that we can have more fodder," says Ghulam-ud-din, a Van Gujjar from the Mohand range of the proposed park. A wii study by Advait Edgaonkar found more fodder tree saplings in the lopped areas, meaning that lopping might actually benefit the regeneration of the fodder species.

That Van Gujjars live in harmony with nature and manage their land in a sustainable way was ascertained in a study by Pernille Gooche, a sociologist from the University of Lund in Sweden. Ashwini Chattre, a Himachal Pradesh-based social scientist who has conducted extensive studies on np s and wildlife sanctuaries, including on the Van Gujjar lifestyle, agrees: "Traditional lifestyles develop according to prevalent situations. The consumption style thus developed is in harmony with nature, but when external forces intervention alters the context, it ceases to be sustainable." So, what prevents foresters from incorporating the results of these studies into their management strategy? Ranjitsinh does not believe in such studies. "Whatever the Swedish researcher may say, I am entitled to my opinion. Every tree that can be lopped in that area has been lopped. It is a free lunch for the Van Gujjars, and there is no such thing as free lunch in ecology," he says. Counters Anju Sharma, a researcher at cse who has worked on wildlife conservation issues, "This is just the problem. It is their 'opinion' versus objective science."

White elephants and blind people
One example of the lack of scientific research in wildlife management comes from the Andaman Islands. Interview Island Sanctuary, the biggest in the Andaman, is facing a huge threat from elephants that are destroying several tree species in the region. It is believed that around 40 elephants were abandoned by timber merchants in the Chinpur forest in the northern part of the Andaman in 1962 and they have travelled to the sanctuary and the neighbouring Dilgipur forest division. According to a January 1993 study by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History ( sacon ) in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, there are 70 elephants in the sanctuary and eight in the Dilgipur forest division. The growth in the number of elephants poses a great risk to the bird, mammal and reptile species.

According to scientists at sacon , the reason for this impact is the "absence of predators in the insular ecosystem, and the consequent increase of the exotics to densities to which they seriously alter the native ecosystems. " The study revealed that trees of 11 species were uprooted by the elephants in the sanctuary: six tree species were found to be proportionately fewer in number, while five major food trees have also declined rapidly. This destruction was the cause of large openings and gaps in the canopy of the evergreen forest, making the "native evergreen closed canopy vegetation into a more open secondary vegetation which is preferred by elephants".

The growth rate of the elephant population is increasing at rates similar to or higher than those anywhere else in Asia and Africa, the study points out. At this rate, "debarking and uprooting can be expected to increase thereby causing greater mortality of the rare species," states the study.

"Yet, the most outrageous part of the episode is the recommendation of sacon ," says Anju Sharma. The study suggests: "The feral elephants in the sanctuary present us with an unique opportunity to study the long-term impacts and dynamics of the introduction of a large herbivore into an island ecosystem in which tropical moist forest is a major habitat." Asks Anju Sharma: "Are we to sacrifice so many species of plants and animals so that our scientists can study the destruction in detail? Is wildlife conservation an academic affair?"

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