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OTHER ARTICLES

Problems of identification of camera-trapped tigers
Indian Wildlife - challenges in the new millennium
The greying of India
On the road to extinction
A Tribute to Rumbha - the elephant  
State development project threatens state bird - Sarus
Shahtoosh ban gains momentum worldwide
The road to disaster
Killing nilgais in the name of crop protection
Warring NGO's may spell doom for the tiger
Where have all the sparrows gone?
Cuckoos that fly out of crows' nests
Corbett park woes continue to mount
A question on post mortem examinations in the wild
Is it time to 'cry wolf' again?
Lifting of US sanctions may boost wildlife conservation
Migratory waterfowl may be hit by war in Afghanistan
UP wetlands to provide improved habitat to waterfowl
Anthrax as a potent wildlife killer
Man-elephant conflict takes heavy toll
Demoiselle cranes fly to safety in India
How long lasting are conservation victories
Fake tiger skins : a knotty disguise
Who cares for the wild here anyway?
A tribute to Charger - the long living tiger
Draining of wetlands threatening wildlife
Wildlife management needs rapid response units
Dudhwa loses another tiger
Indian Wildlife Board meets after five years
 
 
The Greying of India
by
Bittu Sahgal

It is ironic that living forests that supply us with billions of tonnes of fertile soil, oxygen and water can only cause the Gross National Product to rise if they are destroyed and their timber, minerals and lands are sold. This fatal flaw in the calculators of economists is at the root of India's descent into the pit of ecological despair. 

In the 50th year of India's Independence, I took the opportunity to investigate 50 serious threats to the survival of our nation's natural heritage. While we march on towards some imagined development Nirvana, perhaps these might provide food for thought. The study was conducted with help from Sanctuary magazine's readers and also with the aid of various documents, which were made available to me in my capacity as a member on the Ministry of Environment, and Forest's various expert committees. 

I could summarize my findings by stating that, with official sanction, our government is pushing the tiger towards sure extinction. In the process, it is also destabilizing the self-sufficiency of the nation through the planned destruction of our water sources. All this is being done because those who lead the nation have lost contact with the earth. They seem to have become wrapped in ambitions of the personal kind, which manifest themselves in political and financial scams almost all of which are undertaken at the cost of public health and cost. 

The forest is the mother of the river. Ancient Indians knew this. Our present clutch of politicians does not. What is more they seem ignorant of that small sentence printed on page 18 of our Constitution. Article 51A, (g) reads thus: It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures. 

The people of the Indian subcontinent were once blessed by some of the most profuse natural gifts: verdant forests, water-stocked Himalayan ranges, a coastline jumping with fish, productive estuaries, grassy pastures, rich soils and a bountiful river system. Abundant rain and fertile soils added to this plenty. Years of mismanagement have, however, caused our forests to be degraded, our coastline to be wounded and our aquifers to be poisoned by industrial and agricultural effluents. Equally worrisome is the fact that more than half the flood-irrigated soils of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh have begun to show diminishing agricultural yields. 

And, as anyone living in urban India will confirm, the air in our cities is heavy with toxins and tap water contains faecal matter. This we are being told by our leaders and planners is 'development'. In this scenario, few people quite realise just how large a debt the nation owes to the tiger. Had the late Mrs. Indira Gandhi, for instance, not been moved by the plight of the tiger, most of India's current environmental legislation may never have seen the light of day for at least another decade. By which time of course, the domino effect of ecosystem destruction might have been too acute to reverse. 

To know just how much ground the environmental movement has lost today, it is necessary to look back 30 years to the time that the campaign to save the tiger was launched. Three decades ago the era of large dams, large mines and large development projects was at its apogee. Following policies laid down by Jawaharlal Nehru Indian planners decimated our natural heritage even more effectively than the British had been able to. At this point, in order to save the tiger and other wildlife the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 was passed through Parliament. Shikar was banned and ministers and advisors of the government of the day were categorically prohibited from commercializing tiger habitats and notified ecologically fragile areas. 

A forest officer called Kailash Sankhala, supported by Dr. Karan Singh, helped set up Project Tiger. A team of dedicated officers was welded together and they received the political support they needed. Inside of a decade, tigers were back from the brink. Streams and rivers that used to dry up by January now ran full and sweet all the way through to June. Buoyed by this success, conservationists of the day were able to convince a government now basking in international acclaim that protecting forests was in India's best interests. This laid the ground for the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which was added to the arsenal of protective legislation. 

When Mrs. Gandhi died politicians from her own party began to undermine environmental protection laws by diluting them through amendments. The Forest Conservation Act was the first to suffer as >Madhya Pradesh politicians began denotifying forest land in exchange for votes. The CRZ Rules soon followed suit with words such as "if deemed necessary" being inserted to create loopholes in well-drafted laws. After the mid-eighties, however, nature conservation seems to have gone steadily downhill. In 1998 I can think of virtually no victories I might consider celebrating. One tiger dies each day at the hands of poachers and to World Bank-financed forest destruction. 

Today, with legislators at the forefront of the assault on India's natural heritage, more than ever before we are in need of stalwarts such as Dr. Salim Ali, Kailash Sankhala, Dharmakumarsinhji and S. P. Shahi. Two decades ago such people now sadly departed had the courage to stand up to the politicians of the day and defend their positions on wildlife conservation and environmental protection. In this capacity as the President of the Bombay Natural History Society Dr. Salim Ali, for instance, helped save the rainforests of Silent Valley and their most famous denizens the Lion-tailed Macaques. 

Dharmakumarsinhji helped save the Asiatic lion. S.P. Shahi managed to convince the Bihar government to save wolves. All these farsighted individuals shared a common belief that if the habitat of such animals was not protected, the species would become extinct. They also managed to convince leaders of the day that the water contribution of such wild habitats for human societies was reason enough to justify protection... even if the wildlife species themselves meant little to politicians. 

Even some of our most precious scientific institutions such as the National of Oceanography, Goa and the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun, began to be pressured by politicians to "sign on the dotted line" to produce reports whose logic could be faulted even by school children. In one classic example, for instance, the Director of the NIO stated that dredging a hundred thousand cubic meters of silt every year in a harbour rich with dolphins and other marine life would have minimal and temporary impacts. The WII took to endorsing industrial projects, often after very cursory site visits. This erosion of scientific support has also been a very major blow to the defense of natural India. 

While the threat to India's wildlife from poaching has received justifiable attention, a more insidious and potentially permanent threat remains virtually unrecognized. This is the dismemberment of contiguous forests by industrial and commercial projects that have the Government of India's tacit approval. These include mines, dams, canals, polluting industries, new highways, thermal plants and several other urban constructions including tourism projects, townships and resettlement sites. Added to this clutch of disturbances is the orgy of timber industries that continue their activities surreptitiously in the face of Supreme Court orders to the contrary. This is a direct result of a lack of vigilance and enforcement at the State Level, particularly in Madhya Pradesh where more than half the 10,000 saw mills in operation are illegal. The same is true for Tripura where just 40 per cent of the 86 saw mills are licensed. 

Strangely, virtually all commercial use of forests is categorized by planners as `development'. However, the hidden, but exceedingly high, costs of such infrastructures of commerce are never taken into account. If the nation is to prevent a biodiversity holocaust from taking place, it is imperative that a White Paper be prepared on the true State of India's Environment, particularly its impending loss of wildlife species and habitats. The unfortunately truth is that our permanent infrastructures of survival - rivers, wetlands, grasslands, forests, mountain slopes and coastlines - are losing out to the short-lived infrastructures of commerce. If this trend continues unchecked, we will be forced to confront water famines and food crises of unthinkable dimensions. Planners currently treat the Sanctuaries and National Parks we wish to protect with scant respect. They believe these to be of little value to the nation other than to house exotic but 'useless' species of plants and animals. These are, in fact, our water banks and genetic vaults... all that stands between India's ecological food security and widespread famines of the kind so common in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Consider the scenario that confronts us today: The tiger, our national animal, is being killed at the rate of one a day at the hands of poachers working in tandem with international traders. At least one elephant and two leopards lose their lives to the same network every day. Rhinos, lions, lesser cats and birds such as the Great Indian Bustard and Bengal Florican are faring no better. The actual extinction of India's endangered wildlife species, however, is more likely to come about thanks to the rapacity of developers, than the avarice of poachers. It might be useful to point out that the projects mentioned represents the mere tip of the iceberg. To obtain a full picture, it would be necessary for us to receive information from hundreds of sources around India. These involve toxic dumping, mining, road building in ecologically sensitive areas, foisting five-star hotels on unwilling communities and dumping of huge quantities of fly ash from thermal plants into pristine rivers. To get a true picture of the sheer scale on which India, in its 50th year of Independence and beyond, is being disastered, it is imperative that the information lying in the dusty files of the Ministry of Environment and Forests be made public. 

I have seen some of this information and it scares me. Under such circumstance, one need not look far to establish why India's ecological security is on the brink. At this point in our history, we do have options and alternatives but in Baba Amte's words "The silent majority will have to speak or it become the silenced majority." 

(Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Magazine)