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To save India’s forests, we need a change in our mindset and skill set

The Bandipur fire shows that activists with wildlife and human rights skills have to work with state governments

analysis Updated: Feb 26, 2019 20:06 IST
Valmik Thapar
Valmik Thapar
Thousands of hectares of some of the best tiger habitat have been burnt down and, with it, hundreds of birds, smaller mammals and the young of both tigers, leopards and so many other animals have either been displaced or burnt to cinders(PTI)

The tiger is our national animal and a symbol of our forests and the life forms that reside inside these priceless areas. The raging fire inside the Bandipur tiger reserve shows us the enormity of the crisis we face. Thousands of hectares of some of the best tiger habitat have been burnt down and, with it, hundreds of birds, smaller mammals and the young of both tigers, leopards and so many other animals have either been displaced or burnt to cinders.

Forest fires are usually man made anywhere in the world. They occur either by accident or intent. This is the reason we create inviolate areas like national parks, sanctuaries and reserves so that the natural world can be safe from human intrusion. However, we have allowed lack of knowledge on the part of civil society, politicians and bureaucrats to slowly destroy our natural wealth. If we make laws to safeguard and protect forests, we also make laws to destroy them. The 20% of forest land in India has been misused for decades. If Indira Gandhi had the wisdom to create the Wildlife Protection Act, Manmohan Singh was pushed into creating the Forest Rights Act. If the former provides for inviolate areas, the latter encourages the rights of people in the forest. The two laws battle each other and the result is complete chaos.

I was deeply involved in the preliminary dialogues just before the Forest Rights Act was created. They took place with the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but came to naught. The endless bickering among all the parties led to one of the poorest pieces of legislation known as the Forests Rights Act. The forests of India are a treasure house and everyone wants a slice of the pie. There is massive illegal felling, mining and encroachment all of which have endlessly degraded its core. Even when the Supreme Court orders that encroachers and non-genuine forest dwellers must be evicted, political parties vow to file review petitions.

What do we really want to do? Create a Forest Destruction Act. If we want to give rights to genuine forest dwellers,then we must have effective mechanisms to ensure that those who get rights are really genuine. This can only happen if the bureaucracy is kept away but I do not believe that will ever happen. The vested interests in plundering our forests are enormous and millions of people who are not forest dwellers will march in to destroy even more than they have done today. There will be review petitions with no understanding of the real issues. Nobody really cares. We are masters of finding band aid solutions. We have must have a vision for the future. Only genuine human rights activists and wildlife conservationists can find solutions. But instead a battle royal ensued between the two.

The more we interfere with the natural world, the more we participate in its destruction. The Bandipur Tiger Reserve on the Karnataka border contains some of our richest wildlife areas spilling over into Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It is the finest tiger habitat in the world. This massive fire reveals our inept management systems and inability to deal with such a crisis. For decades, some of us have campaigned for an overhaul of the systems of forest protection across India. Sadly, nobody is listening. Bandipur is a physical fire but there are many more intrusions across our natural world. Who is going to deal with these? Not the prime minister, not the federal authorities, be it the ministry of environment, forests and climate change, not the National Tiger Conservation Authority or the National Board For Wildlife, which has not met for years. Our only way forward is to educate the chief ministers of our states to create empowered cells made up of genuine activists with wildlife and human rights skills who can take decisions jointly with the chief minister. This requires lateral inductions into decision-making bodies. No more committees, please. We need a change in mindset and skill set. The political will to save our natural world is sadly missing and, therefore, nothing may happen.

And worst, no one really seems to care. I have served the forests and wildlife of this nation for 43 years and lost many battles. But we cannot afford to lose any more; we owe this to the future.

Valmik Thapar has worked for 43 years with wild tigers. He has also written 30 books on India’s tigers and wildlife
The views expressed are personal

First Published: Feb 26, 2019 20:04 IST