Feeble resolve to protect wildlife

If the tiger survives, there is hope that most of India’s wildlife and its habitats will enter the next century, says Lt Gen Baljit Singh

Thanks to conservation efforts, the Asiatic Lion has entered the 21st century
Thanks to conservation efforts, the Asiatic Lion has entered the 21st century

IN 1882, Charles Darwin and Sir Joseph Hooker wrote a memorandum to the Secretary of State for India at Whitehall, stressing the need to document India’s rich biodiversity. The recommendation was accepted and a series of publications were planned.

By 1889, the first results became public when E.W. Oates and W.T. Blendford produced "Fauna of British India: Birds" in four volumes. This was perhaps the beginning of the development of a politico-administrative ideology to preserve India’s myriad wildlife and diverse habitats.

Among the Governors-General and Viceroys of India who followed, there was none who cared for India’s wildlife. It had become an annual ritual for the Viceroy of India to indulge in field sport (hunting or shikar) during the Christmas week. India’s princes vied with one another to host the Viceroy’s hunting expedition in their states.

So it was that the Nawab of Junagadh made overtures to the Viceroy to hunt the Asiatic Lion in his Principality in the Christmas week of 1903. That was also the time when the only Asiatic Lions surviving in the world were in Junagadh. The lions numbered less than 20 in all. A lesser man would have jumped at the chance of acquiring such a priceless trophy, but not Lord Curzon.

The Viceroy politely declined the invitation and invited the Nawab instead to start a movement for the preservation of the Asiatic Lion for posterity. This was perhaps the first unambiguous policy directive to conserve Nature coming from a man who was the head of both the executive and the legislature in India.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister, was also a champion of the nature-conservation movement in the country. Presumably, the fact that the cheetah had become extinct in India within months of becoming a sovereign nation was not lost on him. Could he prevent the Asiatic Lion from extinction? He led by personal example when he visited the Gir Forests twice in the 1950s and 1960s, inspiring all those who were involved in setting up and managing what was to become the world famous Asiatic Lion Sanctuary. The rest is history. The world owes a debt to gratitude to Lord Curzon and Prime Minister Nehru for the fact that the Asiatic Lion, in reasonably respectable numbers, has entered the 21st century.

By 1954, Pandit Nehru had set up the Indian Board for Wildlife. It was a non-statutory body, chaired ex-officio by the Prime Minister, and had eminent naturalists, conservationists and environmentalists as members. Among them were M. Krishnan, E.P. Gee and Salim Ali. They were asked to evolve strategies for the preservation and development of forests and wildlife besides suggesting implementation methodologies.

Perhaps the finest strategy that emerged from this exercise was the idea, possibly sowed by Pandit Nehru himself, to involve the people of India in the propagation of forests by launching Van Mahotsav as an annual commitment. Unfortunately, however, no mechanism was put in place to ensure administrative commitment to its implementation. So the Van Mahotsav soon degenerated into a mere annual ritual.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi also provided decisive political direction through two measures. These measures had the potential of bringing long-term relief to India’s beleaguered wildlife and protecting vast tracts of our prime forests. The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, passed unanimously by Parliament and adopted by all states and Union Territories, became the country’s first legislation in this field. In hindsight, if there is one decision that provided a new lease of life to India’s wildlife and its habitat, it was this singular legislation. It went on to become a role model for several nations in Africa and South East Asia as well.

In the 1960s, there was a global anxiety that the tiger may not survive the 20th century. At that point, India had the largest surviving population of tigers in the world. It was, therefore, natural that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an international NGO, raised $ 1 million to launch the save tiger initiative in 1973. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the chief guest at the launch banquet in New Delhi. Guy Mountford, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the WWF, while presenting the cheque to Mrs Gandhi for launching Project Tiger, is said to have asked in passing whether India would respond to the challenge adequately?

Mrs Gandhi accepted the cheque graciously. And probably stung by Mountford’s barb, announced then and there double the amount into the Project Tiger seed fund. It was again the administrative mechanism that failed to implement a clear political direction in the long run.

The closing 20 years of the 20th century witnessed a steady erosion of India’s resolve to protect its wildlife and forests, so painstakingly strengthened in the preceding 40 years. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi created the National Wastelands Development Board and launched the River Ganga cleaning initiative besides restructuring the Forest Ministry as Ministry of Environment and Forests. But there was no Sam Pitroda to monitor the implementation.

The threats to the survival of wildlife and its habitats multiplied by the day. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, which had the casting vote on environment impact assessments of all development projects, chose to remain passive onlookers. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao created a record of sorts by not holding a single meeting of the Indian Board for Wildlife during his tenure.

The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, was comprehensively modified and passed unanimously by Parliament in 2002. As a result, an apex statuatory body, the National Board for Wildlife, was created but for want of direction from its ex-officio Chairman, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it remained dormant till the Supreme Court issued a directve following a PIL petition.

Besides ministers and bureaucrats, the board was to have 10 members from among eminent conservationists and environmentalists, etc. However, eight nominated members were retired IAS and IFS officers. Of the five NGOs to be nominated, four had a mediocre or no credible track record in this field. Prime Minister Vajpayee made an impressive inaugural speech and, at the meeting that followed, also approved the sale of some two acres of land to the Indian Oil Corporation in the heart of the core zone of the National Desert Park, Jaisalmer, for oil exploration. This was in total violation of laws governing the core zone of a national park, leave alone environmental norms.

The minister expected kudos for having earned about Rs 4 crore in revenue (one time) for the Ministry of Environment and Forests. This marked the extinction of the politico-administrative ideology for the conservation of nature and wildlife in the country.

While the first 40 years of Independence witnessed a firm political direction, though an indifferent administrative commitment, in the succeeding 20 years, the cause of India’s wildlife and forests was betrayed both by politicians and administrators. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has at last gone on record saying emphatically that his government will ensure the survival of the tiger. Let us support him whole-heartedly. By ensuring the survival of the tiger, the country will hopefully commit itself to the ideology of treating its wildlife and forests as a vital resource for attaining the regional mega power status.