English: A Bengal tiger in the wild in Rantham...

English: A Bengal tiger in the wild in Ranthambhore National Park, Rajasthan, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


On Wednesday, the Supreme Court gave the Environment Ministry four weeks’ more time on the guidelines for tourism in tiger reserves. The ongoing saga around “tiger tourism” has unleashed a great deal of media commentary, but most of this commentary is beside the point. The issue is not tourism alone. The key problem is that these reserves are not being managed in any rational, accountable or even legal way.  The system that controls our tiger reserves is basically broken, and it is so broken that it has resisted every effort to fix it – even those that are required by law. Some of the facts:


  • The boundaries of critical tiger habitats (‘core areas’) and buffer zones were decided unscientifically, arbitrarily and without public input, in direct violation of law. The government has not published any scientific parameters for this till date.
  • The way tiger reserves are administered is decided purely by the forest bureaucracy. There is little publicly available information on how this is done.
  • The same forest officials who permitted unregulated tourism have illegally prevented practically all recognition of forest rights in tiger reserves, with a few exceptions. Those who have no legal rights are permitted to do as they wish; those who do have legal rights are being exploited and harassed.
  • The same individuals speaking today for tourism had vehemently opposed any people’s rights in tiger reserves; in fact they had supported illegal and hasty conversion of entire existing tiger reserves into “core areas” in a futile attempt to stop people from having rights. This has been openly admitted by conservationist and tourism advocate Valmik Thapar in Tuesday’s Indian Express.


The tourism lobby is not the first to misuse this system; it will not be the last. Meanwhile, the underlying problem is not only being ignored – it’s being made worse.


Tiger reserves are administered in a remarkable fashion – as mini police states. While the forest bureaucracy may be understaffed, it is not lacking in powers, which are incredibly wide. The Wild Life Act makes it possible to detain people without bail, declare a person guilty until proven innocent if they are found with prohibited material (which is easy enough to plant), and gives these officials sweeping powers to prohibit all kinds of activities. Everything in tiger reserves today, whether it is the boundaries of the reserve, the handling of forest protection and management, and even evaluation of their own performance, is under the control of forest officials. In States such as Assam, forest officials have been empowered to kill people with the assurance that the government will protect them from any kind of investigation. The NTCA is exhorting other tiger states to set up armed commando forces for tiger protection and demanding that all State governments insulate them from prosecution for killings. They are seeking total immunity from punishment.


Naturally such a system cannot lend itself to either effectiveness or accountability. Whether it is unchecked high flying tourists, illegal miners and estate owners, or poachers and forest mafia, all usually operate with the connivance of the local forest bureaucracy. Both the forest dwellers and sincere forest officials are inconvenient factors; the former have to be got rid of while the latter have to be rendered moot spectators.


Forest dwellers are today under attack from both sides. When tigers are poached, it is far easier to pick up any random tribal youth, torture them and present them to the media than it is to find the actual poacher. Harassment and physical and sexual assault are commonplace. Meanwhile, resorts, tree plantations, and real estate developers steal their land and water; government “development” projects displace them; and mining companies destroy their lands and pollute their forests and streams. On top of it all, in tiger reserves they are forced to “relocate” to barren lands and tin sheds outside of the reserves (it was in one such tin shed that an adivasi died of exposure some years ago). After seeing their homes destroyed and being torn from their lands, they are offered a pittance of compensation, if at all, or, for a handful of the displaced, “employment” as daily wage workers.


When the sordid state of affairs was exposed, the government decided to take a few steps to remedy the situation. The Wild Life Act was amended in 2006. The new law gave tiger reserves a legal standing and tried to provide a rational and transparent basis for their administration. First, the new law mandated that both parts of a tiger reserve – the “critical tiger habitats” (or core areas) and the “buffer zones” – had to be demarcated based on scientific studies and in consultation with local communities. Secondly, the legal rights of people are not to be interfered with; in the buffer zones, coexistence between livelihoods and conservation has to be ensured; and relocation of people out of core areas should happen only voluntarily, on the basis of scientific evidence, and after ensuring them secure livelihoods. Thirdly, a “Tiger Conservation Plan” has to be prepared that provides for tiger protection, local livelihoods, and the interests of the local communities.


None of these steps has actually been carried out. In November 2007, as if the law’s provisions on scientific study and popular consultation did not exist, the NTCA asked States to declare “critical tiger habitats” in all tiger reserves within ten days. Today, Valmik Thapar has openly admitted that he and other conservationists supported this move in order to “insulate these areas from the Forest Rights Act”, but apparently not from tourism. On the one hand this is nonsense – the FRA applies as much to core areas as to any other forest – and on the other hand it is an open, brazen admission that he sought a criminal violation of law. Thapar then condemns these core areas as arbitrary, unscientific and including vast areas inhabited and used by people. In 2007, all this was dispensable, law and rights be damned. Today, it is suddenly a problem.


Naturally, as Thapar himself clearly states, most States simply converted the entire core and buffer areas of existing tiger reserves into “critical tiger habitats” – so much for science and transparency. This has now landed these States in trouble, since they now have no forest area to declare as “buffer zones” around these critical habitats, since much of the surrounding land is under agriculture, roads, towns, etc. Instead of being a science based democratic process, relocation turned into more of the same, with forest dwellers being threatened with harassment on the one hand and offered Rs. 10 lakh “compensation packages” on the other (no mention has been made about a livelihood, despite that being the legal requirement). Now, under the heat of the Supreme Court, States have started notifying buffer zones around all critical habitats – in the same hasty and arbitrary manner in which the initial core habitats were declared.


Is this the way forward for tiger conservation? The government, and the NTCA in particular, has succeeded in converting the tiger bearing areas across the nation into conflict zones of competing interests, livelihood versus profits. Both tigers and tribals are the fall guys, the victims of authoritarian decision making and disrespect of laws. It is time to deal with the fundamentals and ensure respect for rights, law and accountability in tiger reserves. Only when tiger reserves are managed in a democratic and accountable manner will wildlife, forests and people flourish. Tourism too can be run by and for local communities.


Meanwhile, one has a suggestion for Thapar and other advocates/owners of high end commercial tourism: take your own advice. When it came to people’s rights, these very individuals were happy to have them illegally thrown out of their homes; they claimed that giving them cash and hiring them as menial workers was “rehabilitation.” Perhaps now the government should offer Rs. 10 lakh to each resort owning family and then offer to hire them as forest guards, sweepers in guest houses and dancers to entertain visitors.


Campaign for Survival and Dignity


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