Over the last few weeks with the Cabinet reshuffle, much has been said about former minister of State (independent charge) for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh and his two-year stint in the ministry, and what his successor Jayanthi Natarajan should or should not do.
Sadly, most of what has been discussed in the media concerns the old, tired debate of finding a balance between ‘environment and development’. What is shocking is that so little has been said about forests and wildlife, which is supposed to make up half the ministry. We, as a nation, have warped priorities. That is why forests and wildlife always take a backseat.
In order to prioritise it, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh instructed Ramesh 20 months ago in a meeting of the National Board of Wildlife to immediately create a new department of forest and wildlife under the umbrella of the ministry. A lot of work was done by Ramesh on its structure. But it’s still not seen the light of day, as it traverses through the corridors of the bureaucracy. This delay is coming at the cost of the natural world of this country that begs for priority.
Natarajan’s first job is to find out why no one follows the prime minister’s instructions. There were many more instructions from the prime minister’s office in 2005-2006, which have never been attended to — especially the initiatives that would have created better wildlife science and independent audits of our protected areas.
The new minister needs to review all this and also the functioning of her ministry. She also needs to fathom why when the finance minister sanctioned R50 crore in Parliament five years ago for the creation of a tiger protection force, nothing happened in that regard.
Two years ago, Ramesh talked of creating such a force for Corbett National Park. Again, nothing happened. Ramesh, as the chairman of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), wrote more then 50 letters to chief ministers about pending issues in states and their levels of poor governance. But little has changed. His letters were ignored most of the time. The NTCA itself has written hundreds of advisories in the last many years. But who’s listening?
We are all playing paper tigers and impacts in the field are minimal. Natarajan must realise that the weakest part of Ramesh’s tenure was in the field of forests and wildlife. There was a lot of endless talk, but little follow-up and action. This was mostly because he was powerless and depended on states that govern this area. So the ministry needs an overhaul.
The wildlife section needs urgent regeneration, and the offices of the director-general of forests and the special secretary require re-strengthening. It’s been completely diluted over the last two years. This has resulted in the demoralisation of all forest cadres.
The new minister must focus on a new vision of innovative partnerships with state governments to bring in revolutionary reforms to the process of governance. Without this, there is little hope for the future. Even more importantly, Natarajan needs to get talent from outside the government and enable that talent to take responsibility in the field for stipulated periods of time. This will repair the damage that has occurred after the early 1990s. Such decisions will require new partnerships with the states’ forest departments and outside experts — wildlife scientists, conservationists or people’s activists. And this is not by putting them in endless and boring committees but in the field across the length and breadth of India.
Natarajan must realise that well-governed and protected forest systems are prerequisites for any healthy environment. They alone will determine the future of the nation and its people. In this regard she may need to change the antiquated forest services and reshape them for the future. I believe that the services require urgent reform and a complete overhaul.
But there is also much to be learnt from African nations like Kenya, Botswana and even South Africa, which have benefited from tourism. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been generated for the locals over the last few decades in Africa, saving many species from the brink of extinction and benefitting local economies. With humility, we need to assess the scores of models that exist and enable people to protect wildlife better. We need to imbibe from the best practices across the world and create a new vision for India. We need peace between wildlife activists and people’s activists. They both have a vital role to play in shaping up a new future and their partnership will rekindle hope. If this happens, the nation will be the biggest beneficiary.
Natarajan must try and bring all divisive forces together and create new models of governance in the field — be it forests or protected areas. She also needs Ramesh in his new avatar as the rural development minister to partner in green development outside forest areas. We are in a moment of change. It is critical that we join hands in new partnerships.
There is just no other way.
Valmik Thapar is a wildlife and forest conservationist. He is the author of books that include The Secret Life of Tigers and An African Diary
The views expressed by the author are personal