A foreign vocabulary

  • 29/06/2003

Why are we, as a nation, so non-serious about following through on actions? Is it the curse of a foreign language in which we act, but not think, that we pick up words and so believe the deed, too, is done? Take any major challenge that has confronted decision-making in the past and you will find this pattern: a vocabulary mastered; an intent not internalised. And policy never translated into effective practice.

Such translation is crucial in a country like India, where solutions are never easy or ready-made. It demands continuous negotiation between interest groups to meet competing objectives. This in turn demands an institutional capacity to work an idea and experiment with the many truths at hand.

Take the task of managing national parks and sanctuaries in India. In the 1970s, the wildlife community convinced policy-makers that wild animal habitats needed protection. The wildlife protection act was enacted. Learning the vocabulary and ways of 'wilderness' management, the establishment 'reserved' roughly three per cent of India's land as 'sanctuaries' and 'national parks'; the discourse of 'protected area management' came into existence.

This strategy was difficult to implement. Policy did not recognise - partly because it was imbued in foreign terminology - that in India, unlike in the West, wilderness areas were where millions of people actually lived. Policy flaunted the principle of exclusion; people inhabiting protected areas were discounted, displaced, their livelihoods destroyed. It never accounted for the fact that in a densely populated country like India, her biodiversity was not a pristine product of 'nature' but the result of millennia of human-nature interactions. Therefore, the challenge was to incorporate the conflicting demands of 'endangered' species and subsequently endangered humans.

By the 1980s, these desperately poor people could not be ignored. The increased pressure of the conservation lobby against the "biotic" pressure of people and their animals lead to many flashpoints. In the famous Bharatpur bird sanctuary police had to open fire, killing seven, as villagers protested against the closure of the park to grazing. In the Ranthambore tiger sanctuary, local anger made skirmishes a daily routine. The hills around Dehra Dun would crackle in tension every time the van gujjars - buffalo herders - returned to their winter pastures in the now protected Rajaji national park.

To evolve, policy needed to learn from the protests. Local communities had to be involved in managing protected areas, and - most crucially - to find livelihood options in the park itself. But this was not to be. By the mid-1990s, the World Bank and the government uncovered the well-funded ecodevelopment project - seven protected areas were chosen for a new style of park management. The vocabulary became fulsome and palliative: 'stakeholder participation', 'voluntary relocation', 'ecodevelopment'. The project had simple concepts: relocate - not displace - people to areas outside the parks. Give them economic options - poultry, pigs or bees - to occupy their attention elsewhere. Nagarhole, in the Western Ghats, was one such selected park. On a visit there, some five years after the project began, after crores of grant money spent on jeeps and paraphernalia, it is clear to me that little has changed.

Of the roughly 1500 families in the park boundary and over 3500 other claimant families displaced earlier, some 250 families have moved outside. Relocating is admittedly model, with pretty match-box row houses, yards and solar panels. Each family has 2.5 hectares of degraded forest land, which they have little economic ability to develop; they earn their living from labour and foraging in the forest. The rest continue to live within the park, in desperate conditions. The sops given to the villagers have remained imaginary. Tensions continue. Poaching is frequent. People are destitute. Little follow-through, lesser success. What will policy do now?

There are clearly competing demands on the forest. Conserving and protecting this rich biosphere is important. Equally important is the marginalised, poor human population. 'Relocation' is self-defeating. For one, the land needed to settle each family will be enormous. The forest land will have to be turned into marginal agricultural land - degraded land for poor people is not the best solution. Secondly, displacement leads to further marginalisation and exacerbation of poverty. It defeats the purpose of conservation; people have no alternative but to continue to use the forest for basic survival.

The answer lies in building economies out of forests, in this case protected areas. Economies out of park protection, nature tourism, out of using natural resources - grasses to honey - for local markets. But this will demand more than semantics. The key is in building vibrant relationships with local people as the custodians of parks. Many years ago the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, working with Rajaji's van gujjars, had prepared a community based plan to manage the park. A similar plan for Nagarhole was prepared by local tribal and non-governmental organisations. Our whitewashed bureaucracy discarded these plans as 'impossible' and 'dangerous' to 'conservation interests'.

Indian bureaucracy must learn that complex objectives demand complex solutions. The approach - to protect wildlife and build local livelihoods - is not easy. And if history is anything to go by, change will be illusionary. And policy vocabulary will remain as sterile as ever. Words. Only words.

- Sunita Narain

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