If I look back at the last few years and the state of wildlife and tiger conservation in India, it is as if all innovative thinking on this issue is in the deep freeze. The Centre is neither interested nor involved in dialogue or innovation. After Machli’s death, I have been provoked into writing about the sorry state of conservation affairs.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is chairman of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). But he has not held even one meeting of the body. Has he asked for even one presentation on new ideas to deal with forest and wildlife management? Does he not believe that the natural treasures of this nation deserve as much respect and time as any other issue? After all this is where irreplaceable reservoirs of water, mineral wealth and biodiversity exist that will determine the future course of the nation. So no one can neglect or ignore it.
Committees and advisory boards have changed and new people have been inducted, including several retired government servants. But where are all those experts whose experiences are valuable in understanding of the challenges we face? Why is there no dialogue with them? Is it because they worked for the previous governments? Why don’t political leaders realise that most conservationists serve the natural world and have no masters? Their job is to advise and get the best from all politicians.
We now have a new environment minister. But what has changed? The mechanisms of the Centre are rusty and getting redundant. The bureaucrats rule the roost and with little consultation. It is what I call time pass. And while time passes, the natural world agonises over its neglect.
I have never understood why people like doing nothing. Why do we play politics and divide and rule? Will this serve our natural world? In the last two years, NGOs have barely talked to each other and so much dialogue has ended that it appears frozen in time.
Everyone is now an expert and instead of unity of purpose, the Centre appears to be in a slumber. Who can melt the ice? Only the PM can and as chairman of the NBWL, he must ask for a detailed presentation by credible independent experts on the state of the nation’s natural treasures and possible future interventions. There is no other choice.
While he gets conservation out of the deep freeze, we must have a wider understanding of best practices that are being followed in the states. After all forests and wildlife is a state subject and the Centre advises and funds and should be in constructive dialogue with them.
The Centre must understand the initiatives undertaken by chief ministers like Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan and Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra for protecting new areas and innovating with tourism models in order to strengthen conservation. The Centre needs to be in the role of a learner and institutions such as Niti Aayog must call for discussion on serious issues that can impact our future. Do we not need to boost our GDP by sensible wildlife tourism? Do we not need to engage local communities and provide skills with employment?
Tourism has been a plank for PM, so why have we ignored wildlife tourism? In Tanzania, 17% of its GDP comes from wildlife tourism. Other CMs must follow suit as best practices in one state can be emulated by another. I am sure Navin Patnaik in Orissa would love to enrich the wildlife of his state by following the best practices of Maharashtra. As I said, this is above politics.
I have worked for 40 years in this field and this is the first time I am seeing my friends and colleagues in and out of government frozen in time. Our young scientists and wildlifers are despondent. They do not know what the next day will bring and a huge wall has been created between the government and ‘activists’. No one is listening to anyone. They can’t hear each other and so they are giving up. Most have lost the courage for constructive criticism.
Many experts have decided to take semi-retirement. This can’t go on. We have enormous talent in this country. It must not be allowed to rot. The time has come to melt the ice like never before. Outsourcing interventions, engaging in public-private partnerships, developing sensible wildlife tourism are just a few steps we can take to start with.
The best in government need to partner the best outside government and solve problems. Both need to be empowered to take decisions and start a new chapter in conservation without bureaucratic hurdles. The mindset needs to change. It is a moment for action. Our younger generation of conservationists deserve that. No more public relations, paper tigers, endless committees and huge conferences.
Let’s get to work with a unity of purpose and rise above politics. The PM and chief ministers must start the meltdown. We do not have the luxury of time. Machli’s life is a lesson for all of us and a wake-up call. Let’s get to work.
Valmik Thapar is an author and naturalist