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Jairam saga: Roaring in China, sleeping in India

By Shehla Masood
May 12, 2010 19:10 IST
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While the tiger will most likely not go extinct in the next half-century, its current trajectory is catastrophic. A combination of poor governance, bureaucratic sloth and lack of leadership is leading us towards an ecological disaster, argues wildlife activist Shehla Masood.

Union Minster for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh roared in Beijing to support Chinese companies like Huawei. I wish he had shown even a hundredth of that zeal to save tigers back home. Ramesh should have addressed the issue; he is given the responsibility to do so by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He loved to do everything else except this.

I got the shock of my life what I recently went to his ministry as a wildlife activist working for tiger conservation through public awareness and collecting information through the Right to Information Act.

I always thought India would be proud of this minister and the prime minister -- both above board, sincere and cool. And what else can be the test except the attitude leaders shows towards those who can't speak or send applications to South Block yet suffer immeasurably at the hands of humans.

The sense of fairness we find so dearest when it comes to humans should be extended to all living creatures. The prime minister showed interest to help animals and committed himself to help tiger conservation vigorously. We were happy. Till we got to the bottom of the truth. His men and office have done nothing and will hardly do anything except showing extraordinary interest in Huawei or the Indian Premier League.

The story of our struggle and the prime minister's lethargic attitude coupled with a strange work culture in Ramesh's office has disillusioned hundreds of workers like us.

When I refer to the animals I mean those who are tortured and poached by humans. There is a national-level committee, a high-powered body, to take care of this aspect and it was considered so important and Constitutionally significant that the government thought it befitting to have it headed by the country's chief executive officer -- the prime minister.

It is called the National Board for Wildlife. The prime minister is the chairman. It has 45 members, including Ramesh. There are 15 non-official members. Four of the non-official members are also part of the NBWL's 12-member standing committee. It is an apex policy making and monitoring board which has statutory status.

Its mandate to ensure the safety and protection of India's wildlife and to effect changes. Since it is headed by the one who is responsible to lead the country's governance, it is but natural to expect that this kind of a government agency would be working brilliantly under the eyes and supervision of the paraphernalia the country's public provides to the prime minister making its decisions effective and precise. But that has not happened.

The paradigm of conservation has drastically changed from pre-Independence to date. The reasons for tiger deaths in the country are beginning to show. Their presence is something majestic and powerful, but who cares?

Concerned over the increasing incidents of unnatural deaths of tigers in various reserves in the country, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to personally take up the matter with the concerned state governments. He chaired the NBWL's 5th meeting on March 18.

A proposal for a separate lion conservation project and the idea of a separate cadre for wildlife veterinary officers, among other topics, were discussed. Among others, Indian Council for Cultural Relations President Karan Singh and T K A Nair, the principal secretary to the prime minister, attended the meeting. The meeting discussed population control of spotted deer, delisting of corals from schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and the accidental deaths of wild elephants when they are hit by trains passing through national parks and sanctuaries.

The meeting was also due to consider convening of a park managers' congress, instituting awards for the best managed protected areas and restriction of central funding to protected areas directly under the wildlife wing and managed by trained officers.

It is shockingly sad to know, the information I received through RTI that in the last seven years the NBWL has met only five times. It is more shocking that till now no records -- minutes they call it -- of the deliberations held in all such meetings have been properly prepared and authenticated.

That means so far whatever was deliberated at the last five meetings has not been even put in the files as approved and done. The follow-up can begin only when the records of the last meetings have been approved. Nothing has been done so far. The board has 15 independent members who say that a sub-committee formed to look into the issue of tiger conservation has not actually been formed.

The NBWL is failing the nation as the minutes of meetings are being erroneously recorded awaiting official approval. This is confirmed by the principal information officer in his response to my letter. The prime minister has agreed to lend weight of his office for monitoring state governments, but to what avail and effectiveness?

What we are seeing is a species slipping through our fingers because of insensitiveness and carelessness of our bureaucrats. Their attitude is appalling and tragic.

India only has 1,000 tigers left, despite strenuous efforts to protect an animal that in the country is a symbol of national pride. More than 100,000 tigers prowled India's forests 100 years ago, but decades of hunting and habitat encroachment meant that by the 1970s the number had been drastically reduced.

India has failed miserably in protecting tigers in the wild. The animal that is a symbol for many cultures and religions is on the verge of extinction.

When I wanted to inspect the files pertaining the last meetings, the government officers refused and put me under great stress. It was after a lot of hurdles that I could come to see the officers at the ministry of environment in New Delhi. It is not as easy for the common citizen who lives at a distance from the national capital to come to the political centre of the nation and find his or her way to the great jungle of babudom. When I reached Paryavaran Bhawan, where the ministry is situated, many interesting experiences awaited me.

I found staff in the central ministry haywire, some gossiping, some sleeping on their tables, right in the middle of the office, with legs stretched. Some were smoking in the office.

I waited for 40 minutes as the principal information officer (deputy inspector general, wildlife) was not reachable. His phone kept ringing as the number dialed by the receptionist was not updated. The information on the public information officers was not mentioned/written as directed under the RTI Act.

When I finally traced and met the DIG, I requested him for more details. He was shocked at my disclosures about his staff, felt hesitant to share information, but at my unrelenting reference to the RTI Act he gave up and promised to allow me inspection of files containing NBWL deliberations meetings at a later appointment. But this too, which should have been a smooth procedure, could happen after I gave him a short lesson on the RTI and urged sincerity towards his job.

There are 37 project tiger reserves in the country and 663 protected areas. But what purpose are they serving?

Despite 20 years of international conservation efforts, the ground has been lost to save the tiger because of the government's inattentive attitude. All sub-species of tigers are declared critically endangered species by wildlife organisations and the United Nations.

Of the eight original sub-species of tigers, three have become extinct in the last 60 years, an average of one every 20 years. The Bali tiger became extinct in the 1930s. The Caspian tiger was forced into extinction in the 1970s. And the Javan tiger followed in the 1980s.

The number of tigers in the 1900s -- over 100,000 -- dropped to 4,000 in the 1970s. Today, they are a critically endangered species with the total of all the wild populations of the five remaining subspecies (Bengal tigers, Indo-Chinese tigers, Siberian tigers, South China tigers, and Sumatran tigers) to be roughly estimated anything between 4,600 and 7,700.

The statistics are fudged, the information is falsely recorded, inquiries are withheld and culprit officers are promoted (the Panna reservation case -- out of 40 tigers six years before, we have none today).

Just a lot of rhetoric and no action. With this kind of governance, which extends to all parties and shades, can we hope to conserve even the last of the tigers?

According to the Wildlife Protection Act, the maximum sentence for poaching is seven years imprisonment along with a fine. I have not come across any case where the accused has been given the maximum sentence. We have a miserable system. There is no governance to speak of. Bureaucratic indifference is the norm.

Poachers have emptied two of India's 37 protected tiger reserves. In India, isolated populations now occupy just seven per cent of the territory they enjoyed a century ago as a result of inadequately implementing conservation policies and mismanaging funds. While the tiger as a wild species will most likely not go extinct within the next half-century, its current trajectory is catastrophic.

If this trend continues, the current range will shrink even further, and wild populations will disappear from many more places, or dwindle to the point of ecological extinction. None other than due to a combination of increased poaching, habitat destruction, the attitude of the babus and poor conservation efforts by governments.

I will make sure Madhya Pradesh remains a tiger state.

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Shehla Masood
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