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50 years on indian independence

5 0 O Y E A R S O O F O I N D I A N O I N D E P E N D E N C E
  Himalayas facing ecological disaster
Depletion of natural resources alarming

by P.K. Khosla
THE Himalayas, the youngest, loftiest of all the mountain systems in the world and embracing seven out of the ten highest peaks, sprawl approximately 2,500 km from north-west to the south-east along with its extension in north-eastern India and has breadth from 250 to 400 km. It is the catchment area of the most gigantic rivers of the Indian sub-continent and their tributaries which sustains the valleys and plains below. Nine states of Indian Union namely, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and a part of Assam, along with eight districts of Uttar Pradesh and Darjeeling district of West Bengal, are located in the Himalayas.
Crop husbandry, constituting 71 per cent of the working population, is mainly at a subsistence level due to small size of land holdings, lack of irrigation facilities and low level of adoption of improved seeds and modern farming technology. However, in irrigated valleys, cultivation of fruits, vegetables and other high value cash crops as in Himachal Pradesh and elsewhere has ushered a new era of economic development. Although Himachal Pradesh is today cited as a model of hill development, the disproportionate development in different regions calls for a thorough introspection as to whether this growth is sustainable or not from the ecological view point.
Depletion of natural resources is the common feature of the entire Himalayan zone. Women, who are the traditional collector of fuel, fodder and other ancillary forest produce and water, are badly affected as the work hours for meeting these necessities have increased and, in many cases, extend over eight hours or more. The rapid degradation of the Himalayan ecosystem is also posing a threat to the granary of the country located in the Indo-Gangetic basin. It is causing sporadic floods in one place and drought, in other places. Conservation of the Himalayas means security of the food bowl of the country for meeting the target of 225 million tons of food in the next millennia.
Ecological problems in the mountains stem from the population increase whether it is the imbalancing of vegetational dynamics due to domestic or commercial needs or geo-disturbances accelerated by development activities. It is worthwhile to examine the factors responsible for the ecological disaster brewing in the Himalayas so that strategies can be framed to check it. It is for the people living in the plains to advocate the cause of mountain conservation or else their current prosperity and their future survival will only turn into chapters of history.
On the face of it, occurrence of 27 person /sq km in J&K and 92 persons/sq km in Himachal Pradesh or even 276 person/sq km in the Darjeeling hills appear to be scanty. But when these are linked with per capita cultivable land and availability of biomass for fodder, fuel and other domestic needs from the support/community lands then these signal an alarm for vast ecological devastation ahead. The buffer zones, marked for domestic needs between cultivated lands and natural forests, have been badly degraded and people are now frequently trespassing the reserve forests. State forest departments should not be complacent with the percentage of forest area under their control. We need two-third of green cover in mountains as per our National Forest Policy of 1988. Say, for example, in Himachal Pradesh, there are about 22 per cent forests as against 67 per cent forest area owned by it. Excepting Arunachal Pradesh the situation is not much different elsewhere in the Himalaya.
Extraction of fuel wood from forests is an age-old practice. In Himachal Pradesh alone, people are annually using 1.9 million cubic metres of fuel wood as against the prescribed yield of 0.7 million cubic metres. At this pace we are not only miles away from the sustainable forest management but heading for a biological erosion. The present demand for timber is 27 million cubic metres while the permissible limit is only about 12 million cubic metre. ‘TD’ rights are provided in Himachal Pradesh for meeting the domestic needs for construction of houses at nominal rates. These were fixed by the British at the end of 19th century, when the chargeable permit value was reasonably lower than the traded rate. Unfortunately, we are continuing with the same practice and plundering our wealth. This dole is not only a source of timber smuggling but is also dissuading the people from participating in social forestry programmes. The umbrella project on social forestry funded by the World Bank did not yield the desired results due to the lack of participatory approach in this state. In J&K, in the absence of these subsidies, the social forestry programme is today cited as a successful model. The cold desert region of Ladakh is even more green than the similar region of Himachal Pradesh irrespective of the fact that the latter state has dumped more money for plantation by government agencies. Who would like to plant trees for fuel wood when the government supplies it by importing fuel from neighbouring districts?
Till now, soil erosion was the major concern of the conservationists but with the advocation of GATT, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and patenting of biodiversity, any erosion in genetic wealth has to be taken seriously. The manner in which the new trade of herbal collection has swelled in recent
Topyears is another serious issue. Drug plants are collected in an unscientific manner and forest floors are being swept by unscrupulous agencies under the very nose of the state forest departments. On the one hand, it is depletion of revenue and, on the other, this mismanaged trade is endangering proper growth of herbs. Truck-loads of Ephedra from Kinnaur for Mumbai markets are not an uncommon sight. Many species have already reached the “red list” and many more are on the way. The setting up of a corporation of medicinal and aromatic plants seems to be the only plausible solution to meet this exigency as the present infrastructure in the state forest department is not adequate to retard this genetic erosion.
Uncontrolled grazing, forest fires and encroachments followed by illicit felling are some of the other factors responsible for the depletion of forest cover. According to a conservative estimate, in five to seven years time about 0.20 m ha of the forest area in the Himalayas gets degraded and becomes ineffective to discharge its ameliorative function. Fire control in forests is mainly at the mercy of Lord Indra. The havoc that it causes towards genetic erosion and regeneration of natural forests goes unrecorded.
A century ago, hill farming models were sustainable, but these lacked in cash flow. Each family had enough land and the cultivated area was confined to fertile sites, supported by a larger area of village forest/or community land. With the deterioration of the supporting natural resources and sub-division of land, the rising cash needs for meeting outside demands were bartered through human labour services. The breaking of the tree-livestock-crop chain interrupts the flow of organic matter to the cultivated fields. Thus, the hill people are no longer able to sustain themselves at the level of self-sufficiency due to increasing human and livestock numbers. People, who were once the masters of their surroundings, are now alleged to be trespassers in the forests and complete mistrust exists between people and forest managers.
A shift in land use pattern from traditional crops to horticulture crops is fast changing the scenario of hill agriculture. Let us take the example of the HP Himalayas where the total area under fruit farming was merely 792 hectare during 1950-51. It increased to 170 thousand hectare during 1992 and is continuously rising. Similarly, production of fruits increased from 1200 MT during 1950-51 to 532 thousand MT during 1992. It is alleged that illicit encroachments of forests have also contributed towards this expansion. Supply of wood for packaging (about 0.2 million cubic meter) falls in the recognised policy of the H.P. government. Now with the putting of moratorium on felling of forest trees in HP, the farmers are using packing material from neighbouring states. Considering the massive denudation of temperate forests in the upper reaches along with the failure of all attempts for their regeneration, the state government installed an imported carton manufacturing plant at Kotkhai, Shimla. But there is a need to plan and
Topsystematize the action plan to meet the demand for packing material. Similarly, plantation crops like tea, coffee, rubber etc. form ecological substitutes to jhum cultivation in the North East.
The rapid expansion of apple cultivation in Himachal Pradesh and tea cultivation in the east are cited as factors which have led to massive deforestation. This conflict between ecology and economy is undoubtedly a biotic manifestation in the otherwise fragile mountain ecosystem. The solution of these eco-economic issues is a pre-requisite for attaining ecological stability.
An increase in population would naturally lead to rapid urbanization. According to an estimate, the construction of roads alone lead to displacing of 2650 million cubic meters of debris by landslides and rock falls in the Himalayan region. About 44,000 km of roads constructed annually are accelerating hill slope instability, deforestation, soil erosion and pollution of water and air. Mining is another traditional factor which is eroding hill slopes. It also destroys leaf mould — a valuable organic fertilizer, besides causing pollution of streams and reduction in agricultural production. A study undertaken around the Rajban Cement Factory, Paonta, showed that the agro production was reduced by 60 per cent. Digging of sand from hills, common in Solan district, should be banned. It should also be obligatory on the part of mining contractors to rehabilitate the extracted sites. Time and again the issue of installation of cement factories in mountainous regions has been debated. Instead, revenue is a pre-requisite for any administrative unit but from the ecological point of view the fragile mountain ecosystem should not be disturbed. This is where the Central government should come forward to meet the financial obligations of the mountainous regions if a check on cement extraction is to be imposed.
The writer is Vice-Chancellor, Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University, Palampur.
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50 years on indian independence
Ludhiana heading for a Bhopal-like tragedy
Punjab rivers are now heavily polluted

by A. S. Prashar
PUNJAB is much better placed than most other states as regards environmental pollution. But this is largely due to the fact that the border state has no major large and medium scale industrial units. This fact has otherwise been a sore point with the state government and its people for a long time.
Thermal plants, sugar manufacturing units and paper projects (as also a large number of small industrial units in the state) have been prevailed upon by the Punjab State Pollution Control Board to adopt pollution control measures.
The rising population, increasing traffic volume, haphazard growth of cities, perpetual shortage of funds, discharge of untreated solid wastes into the rivers and nullahs of Punjab are accentuating the pollution problem in Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Amritsar, Bathinda and other smaller urban settlements. Ludhiana, the industrial and commercial hub of Punjab, offers the worst example on the environment front. All indicators point towards an environmental disaster-in-the-making that is likely to be bigger than the Bhopal gas tragedy. Ludhiana city seems to be sitting on a “garbage bomb” ticking away to an almost certain explosion, with unimaginable
Ludhiana is now a life-threatening menace not only for its own citizens but also for most other parts of Punjab. The megacity has no sewage treatment plant. Untreated domestic and industrial sewerage of the city is emptied into Buddha Nullah. The nullah, in turn, empties into the mighty Sutlej flowing nearby. Hundreds of tonnes of raw sewage from Ludhiana flows into the Sutlej every day and is distributed all over the state through irrigation canals. This polluted water is in turn used for growing food crops, vegetables and fruits and is a known carrier of diseases.
Buddha Nullah used to be a fresh water channel with about 56 types of fish species prior to 1964. Now it has no fish because of the high level toxicity in the water. Water of hand pumps, on either side of the nullah, up to 1000 ft is polluted. Up to a depth of 90 feet it is unfit for human consumption. Underground water up to a depth of 100 feet in large pockets of Ludhiana has been contaminated by the pollutants discharged indiscriminately by the industries within the city and is thus unfit for human consumption.
Monitoring of Buddha Nullah reveals an increasing daily load of pollution. It is now an open sewer rather than a stream. Once an asset to the city, the Nullah is now a source of public nuisance and poses a serious health hazard. Banks of the nullah are utilised as public latrines and the same water used for ablutions is used for washing of raw vegetables. Washermen are seen using its water for washing clothes and there are chances that disease producing organism may travel from the contaminated water to the human beings through clothes and raw vegetables. Stink from raw sewage flowing in Buddha Nullah has made life of inhabitants living close by a virtual hell.
The water from Sutlej into which the Buddha Nullah empties out is used as a source of raw water for water supply schemes for villages and towns downstream of Ludhiana city. Though the water supply schemes are designed to treat raw water from rivers, they are ill-equipped to deal with the pollution introduced by the raw sewage discharged through Buddha Nullah. The Department of Fisheries has complained about how the pollution of Buddha Nullah has led to the drastic reduction in the fish yield in river Sutlej. The type of fish remaining in the river is of poor quality.
Sewerage water routinely floods the residential localities. Industrial units brazenly discharge toxic industrial wastes and effluents into streets and roads with little concern for the hapless residents of nearby colonies. Protests from citizens to the authorities rarely produce results. More often than not they are fobbed off with promises of “looking into the matter”.
Attending to public complaints and enforcement of rules and regulations has by itself become a money-spinning operation for unscrupulous among the officials. Repair of roads, construction of pavements, location of garbage bins, collection of refuse, cleaning and dusting of public places, location of public conveniences, checking of pollution, supply of clean, potable water etc are doled out by them after a great deal of nakhras and are accepted gratefully by the citizens as great favours.
Officials have become experts, perhaps not without reason, in ducking questions, advancing excuses, dodging people and passing the buck on to someone else when things go wrong, which is a daily affair. “No funds”, “staff shortage”. “Proposal under consideration”, “plan is ready”, “government approval is awaited”, “government is alive to the problem”. “We are seriously concerned” — these are some of the most commonly heard phrases in the offices of bureaucrats and technocrats of Ludhiana.
A great thick cloud of smog permanently hangs over Ludhiana. “As you drive into the city”, says one motorist who commutes to Ludhiana daily from a nearby suburb, “you feel as if you are entering a long dark tunnel full of toxic fumes...” Medical experts here say that nearly half of the city’s population is suffering from respiratory problems which are the result of increasing levels of air pollution in the megacity.
“It won’t be long before Ludhiana will be called the “killer city”. The air we breathe is full of toxic gases and carcinogenic agents which are effluents of motor vehicles and industries...”, says a medical expert. Poisonous gases, chemicals and heavy metals present in atmosphere interfere with normal breathing, get absorbed in the blood stream with disastrous results in the long run.
Ludhiana is one of the most industrialised cities of India. It is well-known for the concentration of biggest cycle and hosiery industrial units in Asia. Spread over an area of 134.67 sq km, it has a population estimated at about 25 lakh plus another five lakh of floating population. There has been an exponential increase in urban population due to rural and urban migration. The trend of rural and urban migration is expected to continue because of the rapid increase in industrial and agricultural activities. The city is crowded and has expanded unplanned on all sides.
At Ludhiana, disposal of municipal solid waste (MSW) has posed a serious problem because of the fact that there is no proper system to meet the specified standards required for ideal solid waste management. The
TopSupreme Court of India is monitoring regularly the steps taken by the Punjab government with regard to disposal of solid waste. The Chief Secretary to the Punjab government has given an affidavit on behalf of the Department of Local Government that effective steps would be taken to tackle the situation. Against this background, the Department of Local Government of Punjab through Punjab Water Supply and Sewerage Board has engaged RITES to carry out a pre-feasibility study of solid waste management in the three cities of Punjab — Amritsar, Jalandhar and Ludhiana.
About 1,000 metric tonnes of MSW is generated every day in Ludhiana. Only 63 per cent of MSW is transported to the final disposal site. The rest lies in heaps at different places in the city. A number of waste collection centres exist in the various parts of the city and solid waste is transported through municipal trucks into a dumping place outside the city in an unscientific and unplanned manner. This creates an unhealthy environment. The disposal of city garbage is by land-fill only.
According to different studies conducted by the Punjab Pollution Control Board, Ludhiana is partially covered with underground sewerage system leaving the rest in insanitary conditions. The balance population use either household septic tanks or dry conservancy system. Waste water from such areas flows through open channels and ultimately finds entry into Buddha Nullah.
As a result of commercial and industrial activities in the city, the number of automobiles has gone up tremendously, resulting in an increase in exhaust emissions into the atmosphere and noisy conditions everywhere.
The major water pollution in Ludhiana city arises from the domestic sewage for which there is no satisfactory arrangement of treatment and final disposal thereafter. There are many pockets in the city which have no sewerage system at all. Waste from households in such areas remains stagnant in low lying pockets which act as places for breeding of mosquitoes. Unsatisfactory disposal of sewage has adversely affected the underground water on which is based the drinking water supply of the city.
Major industrial sources of air pollution in Ludhiana include arc furnaces, cupula furnaces, induction furnaces, textile industry including dyeing, wool, finishing, waste oil extraction, refining, lead extraction. A majority of these industries use steam as the heat transfer medium. The predominant fuel utilised is coal, fuel and high-speed diesel. As many as 10,027 industries have been identified as highly polluting in Punjab. Of these, small industries account for 9,423 units.
(With input from Jangveer Singh, Patiala)
The writer is
The Tribune’s Special Correspondent based in Ludhiana
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50 years on indian independence
Biodiversity holocaust on the cards
Nation stands to lose water security

by Bittu Sahgal
I sat and watched in wonder as giant squirrels leapt from branch to branch, often causing exquisite leaf birds to scatter from their quiet green havens. The call of the squirrels and birdsong accompanied me throughout the day in the fabled forest of Bori in Madhya Pradesh, where neolithic cave paintings spoke of the appreciation of things natural by communities that lived here thousands of years ago.  I wish that those in charge of our wounded nation had a fragment of the respect for nature that our ancestors shared.  Between Bori and Panchmari, for instance, a World Bank-sponsored road was already tearing at the fabric of the forest.  And businessmen from Bhopal conspired to build casinos and hotels in the heart of forests we wished to set aside for tigers.
It sometimes amazes me that our country so consistently puts the worst people in charge of the most critical jobs.  Our food supply and production, for instance, has been left to populist politicians and pliable agronomists in the control of aggressive corporations selling pesticides and fertilisers.  Our surface transport ministry is now largely controlled by contractors and land sharks who, in the name of infrastructure, are living off large parcels of land that are being commercially developed. Our forests, sadly, are in the hands of bureaucrats and forest officers whose indoctrination by the World Bank is now so complete that forest management virtually means commercialisation.  The unfortunate victims of this frightful farce include the tiger, elephant, houbara bustard... and the many human communities whose cultures evolved in consonance with the wilderness. The nation, of course, stands to lose its natural heritage and its water security.
What a far cry from the 1970s when Project Tiger helped save the dying tiger with support from the late Indira Gandhi.  Today, for all the above reasons and more, the tiger is once again faced with imminent extinction. Because our current politicians lack vision and our businessmen cannot see beyond profit, all our past wildlife gains are being lost.
To make matters worse, habitat destruction is being compounded by a resurgence of poaching. By some estimates, we are losing one tiger a day at the hands of poachers working in tandem with international traders.  At least one elephant and two leopards lose their lives to the same network every day.  Rhinos, lions, lesser cats and birds such as the Great Indian Bustard and Bengal Florican are faring no better. Turtles are dying at Gahirmata, chinkaras and houbara bustards are being wiped out by cement factories in Kutch and poachers have infiltrated the highest echelons of political power. Guns are not the only means used by poachers, they often dig pits with sharp stakes in them and cause rhinos and other animals to fall to their deaths as the animal follow predictable paths every day.  Poisoning waterholes and using steel traps are other methods that these harbingers of death employ.  Unfortunately, the state governments usually extend very little support to the forest departments , sometimes not even paying guards their salaries or equipping them with shoes or uniforms. 
In Assam, there are around 600 confiscated horns locked away in forest safe-houses and conservationists are asking that they be burned to send a message to the trade that their nefarious business has no future.  Others suggest that the horns be sold and the money used to buy more guns and equipment, but this is only likely to fuel the illegal trade in rhino horn.  Similar arguments though CITES resulted in the downlisting of elephants, allowing trade in stockpiled ivory by Zimbabwe and other African countries.  This had an immediate effect with elephant poaching incidents going up in India. The same fate could befall rhinos if the rhino horns are not burnt.
For too long now, our nation has been paralysed into inaction on the issue of tackling the wildlife trade.  Officials and bureaucrats keep coming up with one reason after another why this plan, or that proposal, cannot be implemented.  Meanwhile, the poachers and traders have begun to employ sophisticated communications tools, weapons and transportation to conduct their bloody trade.  Some of the best known businessmen, politicians and their relatives are said to be involved.
While the threat to India's wildlife from poaching has received justifiable attention, a more insidious and potentially permanent threat remains virtually unrecognised.  This is the dismemberment of contiguous forests by industrial and commercial projects that have the Government of India's tacit approval.  These include mines, dams, canals, polluting industries, new highways, thermal plants and several other urban constructions including tourism projects, townships and resettlement sites.  Added to this clutch of disturbances is the orgy of timber industries that continue their activities surreptitiously in the face of Supreme Court orders to the contrary.  This is a direct result of a lack of vigilance and enforcement at the state level,
Topparticularly in Madhya Pradesh where more than half the 10,000 saw mills in operation are illegal.  The same is true for Tripura where just 40 per cent of the 86 saw mills are licensed.  Strangely, virtually all commercial use of forests is categorised by planners as `development'.  However, the hidden, but exceedingly high, costs of such infrastructures of commerce are never taken into account. Few places in India more deeply reflect the drift from protection to exploitation more starkly than the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  Here years of timber felling, coupled with indiscriminate road building through Jarawa lands and the resettlement of refugees on rain forest soils has taken a vicious toll on the island ecosystem.  Instead of seeking to reverse this trend, a destructive project to lay a railroad line from Port Blair to Diglipur in the North Andamans has been put forward.  Railroads and highways mean more tree felling — which is why more timber is planned to be extracted from these fragile rainforests forests today, than ever before in their history. Deep-water wharfs and breakwaters at Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar Island and Rangat Bay in Middle Andaman further threaten some of India's most precious marine biodiversity zones. Top
Other problems caused by commercial projects include plans to introduce exotic fish species and red oil palm plantations, which have already leached toxic pesticides on to the coral reefs. As if all this were not bad enough, plans are now afoot to build a dam to feed the anticipated water demands of such inappropriate development projects.  The dam will merely add to the ecological destruction and by the time the Island Administration and its ecologically-illiterate advisors on the mainland realise that their plans were wrong, forest soils, species and cultures will have taken a fatal body blow.
If the problem of eco-illiteracy were restricted to one part of India, there might even be some hope of fighting back.  But if you look at what is taking place in the Gir National Park in Gujarat, the seriousness of the problem becomes even more acute.  Everyone knows that the last 300 lions are fighting for survival with their backs to the wall.  Yet, the state government virtually encourages encroachments and illegal mining in an effort to win cheap popularity for two-bit politicians. Five-star tourism is being encouraged in the Gir forest and a major temple complex is attempting to grab a large parcel of land in the heart of the forest. 
For several years now we have been asking that the railway link running through Gir be shifted to an alignment outside the forest.  The proposal to shift the line, however, keeps getting shifted from ministry to ministry.  Meanwhile, lions and other wildlife continue to die on the tracks.  Pressure on these fragile forests has caused lions to wander miles outside, often with tragic consequences. The forests surrounding nearby Girnar, for instance, now support around fifteen lions, but they are fast losing their tree cover.  Rather than protect the forests, the tourism department has proposed a new ropeway project to take people to a temple on the top of the Girnar hill.
All this is being done because those who lead the nation have lost contact with the earth.  They seem to have become wrapped in ambitions of the personal kind which manifest themselves in political and financial scams almost all of which are undertaken at the expense of public health and cost.
If the nation is to prevent a biodiversity holocaust from taking place, it is imperative that a White Paper be prepared on the true State of India's Environment, particularly its impending loss of wildlife species and habitats.  The unfortunate truth is that our permanent infrastructures of survival — rivers, wetlands, grasslands, forests, mountain slopes and coastlines — are losing out to the short-lived infrastructures of commerce.  If this trend continues unchecked, we will be forced to confront water famines and food crises of unthinkable dimensions.  Planners currently treat the sanctuaries and national parks we wish to protect with scant respect. They believe these to be of little value to the nation other than to house exotic but 'useless' species of plants and animals.  These are, in fact, our water banks and genetic vaults... all that stands between India's ecological food security and widespread famines of the kind so common in sub-Saharan Africa.
The writer is Editor, Sanctuary magazine, and a well-known conservationist.Top
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50 years on indian independence
West’s value system affecting our attitudes
‘Nature worship’ no longer on Indians’ agenda

By Valmik Thapar
Somehow, despite the public opinion, despite the warnings, despite the valiant battles being put up by a handful of people, the tiger is slipping steadfastly towards extinction. Could it be because we in India have distanced ourselves totally from the cult of nature worship which guided almost all our mores and customs for centuries? Could it also be because we have blindly followed the economic and value systems of the North which has a history of waging war on carnivores? Where are the wolves and large cats which once roamed most of North America, Europe and the U.K? Does a similar fate await the tiger in India?
It is the mixture of awe for the power of the tiger and the symbolic magic with which it is invested that determines the relationship between man and tiger in many parts of India. The earliest images of the tiger in India appear on the famous Harappan seals, which survive from the Indus Valley civilisation and date from about 2500 BC. These images are sometimes
Top figures of which the front half is a woman and the hind half a tiger. Tiger images and legends occur throughout Hindu-dominated areas. In one part of northern Bengal, the tiger god was worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims. Scroll paintings depicted the Muslim holy man astride a tiger, carrying a string of prayer beads and a staff and attacking all that was evil. In addition, the tiger’s role as an agent of fertility was paramount in societies where the produce of the earth and the labour of men and women determined survival more or less on a one-to-one basis. Probably the most widespread belief of all about the tiger concerns its role as Durga’s vehicle, a concept that is another relic of the ancient Indus Valley civilization. Durga relies on the tiger to guide her through the million obstacles on the battlefield of her perpetual fight against evil. In addition, the tiger himself has the strength to attack demons around him. Both goddess and tiger derive their strength from the earth mother and in combination are the most powerful possible force against evil. Without one or the other, the battle might be lost. The tiger, as a manifestation of Mother Earth, is the only possible vehicle for Durga. Even today, the image of Durga riding her tiger is plastered across every corner of India.
Another story, one of a compassionate prince giving his body to save a starving tigress and her cubs, is told with variations in several Buddhist texts. According to one version, the young prince Mahasattva was walking over the hills with his brothers when they saw, near the foot of a precipice, a tigress with two cubs. The tigress was little more than a skeleton, and so mad with hunger that she was about to eat her young. Seeing this, Prince Mahasattva left his brothers and, desirous of saving the animals’ lives, threw himself down the precipice and lay still, waiting for the tigress to eat him. But she was too weak and exhausted even to bite. So he pricked himself with a sharp thorn to draw blood. By licking the blood, the tigress gained enough strength to devour the prince, leaving only his bones. When his parents found these, they had them buried and raised a mound above the grave. Prince Mahasattva was then revealed to be the Buddha as a bodhisattva — one of the numerous preparatory stages of existence through which he passed before emerging as ‘the Enlightened One’. It is significant that the story is treated as fact rather than legend in the Buddhist texts: the spot where it is said to have happened is revered and commemorated by a stupa or shrine.
A Frenchman travelling in Bengal during the eighteenth century wrote a vivid description of an area steeped in tiger worship. Some of the Bengal tigers were as large as oxen, ‘so eager and ferocious in pursuit of their prey that they have been known to throw themselves into the water and swim to attack boats on the river’. Notwithstanding the superiority which these creatures possess over human beings by their strength, ferocity and the
Toparms with which nature has supplied them, a certain instinct seems to tell them that men by their intellectual faculties are still more formidable than they; hence they avoid inhabited and cultivated places; or if they sometimes visit them it is only when compelled by hunger. ‘But between this place and the Clive Islands they are so numerous that they are sometimes seen in troops on the banks; these islands have been lately brought into a state of improvement for the cultivation of sugar. The clearing of the ground was attended with the loss of a great number of Indians, who were destroyed by these ferocious animals; for, in cutting down the wood with which the face of the country was covered, they were disturbed in their retreats and consequently rushed upon the labourers. What will appear extraordinary, these men never attempted to defend themselves, though their number sometimes amounted to 500.” This is one of the most vivid records of the beginnings of large-scale agriculture and the destruction of the forests. But how could ‘these men’ defend themselves when they were forced to destroy the home of their god and, in turn, the god himself? Since the local communities believed that the tiger was the guardian of the forest, who had control over every tree, they also accepted that the felling of forests provoked the tiger into a raging fury and simply sacrificed themselves to him. Who could deny the tiger’s right to protect his forest?
During British rule, innumerable tigers, mostly yellow but also a few white and a few black, were sought out and killed, very largely for sport. It is tempting to speculate on what might have happened if the British had not shot tigers or their guns against the forest. Would there have been less man-eating? How many tigers roamed the forests with searing bullet injuries, driven to acts of unprovoked aggression through pain and desperation? But whatever might have happened, the fact remains that with the departure of the British, Indian politicians accelerated the process of slaughtering the tiger and destroying the forests with policies of exploitation on a scale that took no account of other needs. It was as if they had decided this was the way to grow rich overnight.
How the forests of India must have trembled and quaked in agony as they were bled and destroyed. Over the last few centuries, killing a tiger has been seen as a symbol of manhood for some of those who ruled India, and countless important people have roamed the forests trying to prove themselves. I have been through records which show that at least 20,000 tigers were shot between 1860 and 1960. In post-independence India, the forest communities underwent rapid changes as ‘modern policy measures’ were imposed on their integrated lives. New generations grew up with distorted, confused and anarchic values as the pressures of the developed world disrupted earlier systems of knowledge and belief.
In an endless race for riches, little thought was spared for the repercussions. In 1970, the tigers of India were a lost species. By the time a ban on hunting was imposed, there were perhaps 1,800 tigers left - at the turn of the century there had been 40-50,000. In the meantime, the forests had dwindled and the human population increased astronomically; the rich grew richer and the poor poorer.
For the people who lived under the umbrella of the forest, the tiger was the most important, most powerful representation of nature that walked the earth. Nature was the giver of life and the tiger seemed to symbolise the force that could provide life, defeat evil and act as an ‘ elder brother’ to man, defending crops and driving out unhealthy spirits. It was the protector, the guardian, the intermediary between heaven and earth.
The tiger evokes myriad images: tigers who carried princesses on their backs; who grew wings in order to travel great distances to cure and heal; who turned white and became part of the Milky Way, keeping a protective eye on the earth and its inhabitants; tigers and dragons who fought to create rain; tigers who guarded their forests against thoughtless woodcutters; who changed into men and back again; tigers who carried people into the next world; who fought evil so that mankind could love and reproduce; tigers linked to man in so many ways, but with a primary purpose of preventing disaster, regenerating life and providing balance, peace and fertility. All this is irrespective of the fact that tigers sometimes killed people, long before the arrival of the professional hunter.
Forest communities accepted the tiger’s right to intervene in their lives - that which gave life also had the right to take it away. This is even more true nowadays when the tiger’s home has been ravaged and destroyed.
There are frighteningly few tigers left in the world. Belief in their powers lives on, though as the animal itself dies, the beliefs will gradually suffer the same fate. As new technology has turned forest into agricultural land virtually overnight, the traditional cultures of peoples so closely linked with both tiger and forest have been quietly eroded or deliberately smashed.
The tiger has always been the guardian and protector of the people around him; it remains to be seen whether the people can continue to be effective guardians of the tiger. There are no easy answers. The tiger’s future is inextricably entangled with that of the people who inhabit its land. The tiger’s destiny is their destiny.
The writer is a well-known conservationist
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