‘Anti-national’ BBC promoted poachers’ cause in Kaziranga: Assam govt to Centre | india-news | Hindustan Times
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‘Anti-national’ BBC promoted poachers’ cause in Kaziranga: Assam govt to Centre

An RTI reply revealed that the Assam government complained after NTCA issued show-cause notice to BBC journalist Justin Rowlatt for the documentary.BBC has termed the government action unfortunate.

india Updated: Apr 02, 2017 12:34 IST
Chetan Chauhan
A one-horn rhino crosses a road inside the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
A one-horn rhino crosses a road inside the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.(PTI FILE PHOTO)

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had issued a show-cause notice to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for their “twisted” documentary on Kaziranga National Park before the Assam government had lodged a formal complaint, a Right to Information (RTI) reply has revealed.

The BBC has been banned by the NTCA from shooting inside 47 tiger reserves for a period of five years after the documentary titled “Kaziranga: The Park shoots people to protect rhinos” was shown on its world channel on February 10 and 11.

Read | NGO calls for tourist boycott of Kaziranga based on BBC film, Assam unperturbed

It was for the first time that an organisation has been banned for alleged violation of the permission, the NTCA said in a reply to an RTI application filed by this correspondent, on the ground that the BBC violated the condition of not getting the documentary vetted by a government nominee before broadcast.

The NTCA also accused BBC correspondent Justin Rowlatt of giving a false synopsis with “surreptitious mal-intent” for obtaining permission and using “spasmodic” events to gauge conservation efforts with “scant understanding of the laws in place”.

In an email response, a BBC spokesperson said, “We approached the relevant government authorities to ensure their position was fully reflected, but they declined to take part.”

The broadcaster termed the “authorities’ reaction to the documentary as extremely disappointing”.

“The programme was balanced, impartial and accurately reported on what we found on arrival. It covered both the successes achieved through India’s conservation policies, and the challenges, which include the impact on communities living next to the parks.”

The NTCA has asked the external affairs ministry to revoke Rowlatt’s visa. The MEA has not decided on the request so far.

Britain’s Princess Kate feeds a rhino calf at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) at Panbari reserve forest in Kaziranga in Assam during a visit with her husband and Prince William in April last year. (AFP FILE PHOTO)

BONE OF CONTENTION

The trigger for the NTCA’s action is the 2010 directive of the Assam government providing immunity to forest officials under section 197 of the code of criminal procedure in case they kill a person while discharging their duties.

“In every case, there is casualty of poachers in the cross-fire/counter fire/ambush attack. The magistrate having jurisdiction over the area is informed and all action is taken as per law,” Assam forest department said in a complaint against the BBC to the Centre on February 27, two weeks after NTCA issued a notice to Rowlatt.

Accusing BBC of promoting anti-national sentiments, the department has taken strong objection to the use of words “kill the unwanted” inside the park and “putting this uncompromising doctrine into practice” in the documentary.

The BBC quoted official data to say that while 50 poachers were killed, only two forest guards died in cross-firing, and questioned the park authorities’ conservation strategy. The department had retorted saying 206 poachers were arrested and 50 were killed between 2014 and 2016.

“If the park authorities were on a killing spree, the number of poachers died should have been more than 200, which is not the case, and it shows that the park does not have any shoot to kill policy,” the department said, accusing BBC of following London-based tribal rights advocacy group, Survival International’s false propaganda on “shoot to kill” policy.

Survival International spokesperson asked why the casualty of poachers was so high if the guards were shooting in self-defence, as just two guards were killed since 1968, when Kaziranga was declared a sanctuary.

“The people around Kaziranga have made many sacrifices in the name of conservation—many have already been evicted from their ancestral lands at least once and face eviction again due to the expansion of the park. They report to us that they have also faced violence at the hands of park guards, including shootings and torture. Even a seven-year-old boy has been shot and maimed for life,” NGO spokesperson Lewis Evans said.

Rowlatt had spoken to the boy, Akash Orang, and his family to show the “disquiet” among people living around Kaziranga, following the killing of the so-called poachers.

There is an interview in which a slain local’s father says that his hands were chopped off by the guard, a claim denied by the forest department. His son Goanburah was shot dead by the guards when he was allegedly leading a gang of poachers in December 2013.

The documentary uses such narratives to portray how the “shoot to kill” policy had created fear among locals while describing the conservation strategy as “anti-people”.

The Kaziranga park has about 2,400 single horn rhinos, up from a few hundred in the 1970s, and the effort to control poaching here has been lauded across the world. Survival International, however, said that allowing the killing of people was wrong as it would lead to more bloodshed in other tiger reserves of India.

Environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta said the park authorities had not issued any “shoot to kill” policy and added the 2010 notification of the Assam government does not provide “complete immunity but only for initial immunity”.

“This (shoot to kill policy) belief has gained currency since nobody has bothered to find out the facts,” Dutta said, while agreeing with the BBC that Kaziranga was one of the worst maintained wildlife areas in the country.

A forest guard keeps vigil at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam state during the floods last year. (AP FILE PHOTO)

THE DIVIDE

The confrontation between the BBC and the NTCA shows the divide that ails wildlife conservation in India where locals are in conflict with animals, a reason for the rise in human-animal conflicts in around 660 notified homes for wildlife in the country.

NGOs like Survival International say the present conservation strategy adopted in tiger reserves is “fundamentally anti-people” as it restricts people’s access to their livelihood source—the forest and it’s produce—while organizations like World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature and Bombay History Natural Society (BNHS) supports arming forest guards to protect wildlife.

“The forest guard needs support. He or she needs guns, but also institutional mechanism that will empower her more than a token arm,” wrote Neha Sinha of BNHS in an article in support of the Assam forest department.

But, Tushar Dash, a tribal rights activist, found the approach wrong, saying arming guards was alienating locals leading to increase in confrontation, as in Kaziranga. “We need to democratise conservation process in tiger reserves, making locals an integral part of conservation. The forest departments cannot hunt them by branding them as poachers,” he told HT.

An effort to strike a balance between people and wildlife in tiger reserves was made in 2006 when the government amended the Wildlife Protection Act to synchronise it with the Forest Rights Act that provided for the recognition of rights of tribals and forest-dwellers across India.

But, it has remained on paper only because the environment and tribal affairs ministries have failed to reach an agreement on the new conservation model.

A forest official shows shell casings that were recovered from a site where a rhinoceros was killed by poachers with an AK-47 rifle at Kaziranga, a day after Britain's Prince William and his wife Kate spent a day at the Park on April 13, 2016. (AP FILE PHOTO)

While the environment ministry insists that core areas of tiger reserves should be inviolate—free from any human interference—the tribal affairs ministry wants forest dwellers to have the right to collect minor forest produce to “sustain” their livelihood.

The RTI reply shows that Kaziranga has become an epitome of this conflict with 18 rhinos poached in 2016 and many locals falling prey to firing by the forest guards even though the government has sanctioned Rs 24 crore for development of villages around the world heritage site.

IMPACT

While the BBC said that it “reported what it saw on ground”, the NTCA is not willing to buy the argument and termed the documentary as “breach of trust”. And now the government wants to prevent anything similar in future.

Official sources said the government would introduce more stringent norms for filming inside tiger reserves by allowing local forest officials to review the content and ensure that the producer follows the script submitted to government. The government is also looking at the possibility of imposing a penalty under the Wildlife Protection Act.