We are in such a mess in this country that to create a path to secure the future of wild tigers will be an enormous undertaking. This country is so deeply fractured, divided and unstable that good governance is turning into an impossible dream.
We seem to have sunk into a quagmire of chaos and corruption and little appears on the horizon to pull us out of it. In this political and bureaucratic nightmare, very few care about wild tigers. I do, since I have spent 38 years of my life serving them. Wild tigers are symbolic of the amazing forests of India that occupy 20% of the land mass. By keeping them alive we keep all the natural resources alive — be it the air we breathe or the water we drink. The following blueprint is necessary to save wild tigers. There are no short cuts.
We do not just have a plethora of confusing laws that are working at cross purposes, we have law makers and enforcers who abuse these laws. The illegal mining of natural resources has scarred our landscapes forever. We inherited the Indian Forest Act from the British which was created in the 19th century to exploit and plunder the natural resources of the country. It fed the British with vast supplies of timber and natural wealth and continued to feed the Republic of India, exploiting both wood and wildlife.
To control this rampant exploitation Indira Gandhi created the Wildlife Protection Act in the early 1970s and the Forest Conservation Act in the mid 1980s. This was soon followed by the Environment (Protection) Act. For the first time, based on Indira Gandhi’s vision, the Act countered the exploitative nature of the British laws that we had ignorantly followed.
We stumbled into the 21st century carrying this package of laws and as 2007 dawned we created yet another Act — the Forest Rights Act and this in essence was to serve the people who lived in and around the forests. Badly drafted, it fractured groups of people, turning them against each other and has in the end served no one. This Act fights all that Indira Gandhi created.
Now, we have a surfeit of laws that are working against each other and creating a legal logjam. It’s time we drafted a single law that protected forests and wildlife and served people at the same time. This needs to be drafted by ‘right-thinking’ people, whether in the government or outside. Wild tigers must have their inviolate space and people staying near the forest area must also benefit. This one law has to be piloted through Parliament and the other laws that clutter our statute books today need to be repealed.
Forests and tigers are managed by another British creation — the Indian Forest Service (IFS). In the late 1970s Indira Gandhi came very close to bifurcating this service and creating an Indian wildlife service but sadly the bureaucrats who rule the roost had their way and she was stopped. Today the IFS has run out of ideas and needs serious reform both in the mechanisms of recruitment, and the process of training and specialisation.
The IFS needs to be bifurcated or disbanded before it takes a toll on our forests. We need to reconstitute the IFS with a complementary wildlife service. We desperately need to engage non-governmental experts, especially wildlife scientists, to work alongside wildlife managers and share their expertise in the process of decision-making.
They must be empowered to be part of the team like in other services. Many secretaries to the Government of India have been appointed from outside the Indian Administrative Service and there have been many ambassadors who were not career diplomats.
In 45 tiger reserves, we need to engage at least 1,000 outside experts on short- and long-term contracts. Tigers need this fresh input now and from those who understand their needs.
We need to encourage innovative wildlife tourism models. We need to learn from the plethora of models in play in Africa. We have no models in India and wildlife tourism, managed by the government, is in dire straits and needs to be outsourced and forest managers need to stick to their job of protection and enforcement. They are not trained to assess the harmful impacts of tourism on wildlife.
We must create genuine partners with local communities and tourism experts. We must create new partnerships so that the millions of rupees that pour in from tourism reach locals who feel the tangible benefits of sensible tourism. Creating and managing a good tourism plan for each site-specific area is not rocket science.
We have enough talent in this country to do this without any government department getting involved. Innovative policies will help tigers by converting degraded farmlands on the edges of forests into wildlife havens with locals (and wildlife) benefiting like never before.
We need a single law that is easy to understand, implement and enforce and not six. We need new forest and wildlife services to manage the wilderness and in tandem with their non-governmental partners. We need an innovative policy to attract tourists and use the revenue generated to benefit locals.
Today one of the critical reasons for the mess in this country is the endless baggage of our archaic laws and civil services that we inherited from the British and never reformed or repealed. The future of wild tigers depends on us. Let’s change course before it is too late.
Valmik Thapar is the author of Tiger Fire, 500 Years Of The Tiger In India
The views expressed by the author are personal