By declaring some animals vermin that allows them to be culled, the environment ministry has taken a short cut out of a festering problem that is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
The decision offers a quick fix to growing discontent over human-animal conflict, saving the government from going down the difficult, and possibly time consuming, path of scientific management of forests and wildlife.
It also appeases the farming community, a sizable voting bank. Animals don’t have voting rights nor can they organise themselves to raise voice against the unethical order that declares them “unwanted” -- ready to be killed.
“It is Jallianwala Bagh happening again, with the government acting as General (Reginald Edward Harry) Dyer,” said Gauri Maulekhi of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
It is indeed a matter of concern. With the sole exception of women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi, who has accused environment minister Prakash Javadekar of having “lust to kill animals”, the ruling class seems to have rallied against animals.
Killing animals for “development” is a given, almost a matter of right though it is humans who have encroached green spaces, eating into animal habitat.
In normal course, encroachers face action but when it comes to the man-animal conflict, the dice is loaded against animals.
By classifying them as vermin, the ministry has condemned blue bulls (nilgai), monkeys and wild boars – pronouncing them guilty without a trial.
In Himachal Pradesh, where monkeys are vermin, apple growers have encroached thousands of acres of forest land. Successive governments -- both of the BJP and Congress -- have been extremely slow in evicting the trespassers -- they are influential and a precious vote bank.
Similarly, wild boars can be hunted down in Uttarakhand though it is their territory that has been invaded in the name of tourism and progress.
Forest survey of India reports offer a glimpse into the country’s green cover and also the reasons for the present sad state of affairs.
Since early 1990s, when India started moving towards an open market, around one-third of the dense forest cover has been lost. Half of the traditional wildlife corridors, which allow free movement of animals from one habitat to another, have disappeared.
As a result, 60% of India’s tigers, the face of the country’s conservation effort, are now “caged” – living in a protected territory, or the core area, that can span a few hundred to thousand square kilometres. The remaining big cats live in the outskirts called buffer of protected areas and are in direct conflict with humans.
Elephants fare no better. Half the population, 14,000, are caught in this cross-fire, especially in states such as West Bengal and Assam.
India does not have data on population and spread of other wildlife such as boars, blue bulls and red bulls. But, the government has declared them vermin without a scientific study warranted under the wildlife protection act that was enacted in 1972 after a call to ban hunting was signed by more than 50 heads of state.
The vermin provision was included as an exception to be used in rarest of rare circumstances and that, too, after all options have been exhausted.
Thirty-two years later, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, which has positioned itself as the protector of cows, thinks nothing of killing the nilgai. Invoked the clause for the first time, the Centre asked the states to seek its permission to kill unwanted animals by declaring them vermin.
The decision was based on the recommendations of a committee headed by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian. The government has been selective, as many progressive suggestions of the panel such as making green regulation independent of the government have remained on paper.
And, that is not all.
States are required to back their demand for culling with a proper study, but the Centre seems to have ignored the stipulation. Bihar was allowed to kill the nilgai on the basis of a three-page request letter.
None of the states considered relocating the animals. Most cited huge financial costs -- compensation for the losses caused by animals – as the ground for culling, an unjustified and unscientific argument.
“Wildlife habitats are being destroyed in the name of development and there is no one to speak for these silent creatures. Rules are being twisted to suit the cause of the entire political class,” Maulekhi said.
She is right as two of the three states where culling has been allowed are ruled by the Congress. But, the story is that of the colossal failure of the entire political class to conserve India’s rich wildlife and forest heritage in pursuit of high economic growth.