25 August 2012
Padmaparna Ghosh: Mobile phones were on vibrate mode and buzzing with activity. Open-top jeeps idled under the diaphanous early-morning light streaming through the canopy in the deep jungle. The air was tense and tight with expectation. Cameras were on the ready with itchy fingers on triggers.
It was the core area of the Corbett National Park, the sanctum sanctorum of the tiger habitat. Finally, the awaited phone call came. A tiger had been sighted crossing the river. Within minutes, jeeps growled to life, shot out of camouflaged locations and darted in the same direction much like heat-seeking missiles that had located the target. This was tourism in the core area.
The recent Supreme Court order temporarily banning tourists in such core areas of tiger parks, which wildlife biologists consider invaluable for breeding and maintaining a healthy population, has caused a lot of heartburn, mostly in the ancillary tourism industry and to tiger lovers. A flurry of letters protesting against the initial stand by the MOEF, which has flip-flopped since, have been sent to the minister. But mostly, the public outcry in the media has been focussed on how the order will affect the exploding tourism industry and deprive tourists of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of sighting a tiger in the wild.
The flipside of the move - the fallout on traditional forest dwellers and tribal communities who have lived in these forests for decades - has been considerably muted. It all started with the Wild Life Protection Amendment Act, 2006 (WLPA), which mandated that all tiger reserves be notified with a "core" or a Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) and a buffer area. Unlike their Western counterparts, Indian protected areas have never been and are not free of human habitation, and therein lies the biggest conflict conservation in India faces. In 2008, the landmark Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, which assures livelihood, land and community rights within forests and protected areas, came into effect. In 2007, the government asked all states to notify the core and buffer areas of tiger parks before the Act came into effect, to sideline community consultations and settling of rights which were required before any such notification.
Most CTHs were notifed (30, 466 sq km) but not most buffer zones. This, however, contravened the WLPA, which specifically asks for scientific and objective criteria to determine a tiger reserve, consultation with local inhabitants, settling of rights within the areas and ensuring co-existence in the buffer areas. Till date, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has not publicly notified the scientific criteria for recognising tiger habitats.
Shankar Gopalakrishnan, secretary for the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, an activist group, says the move has been illegal and arbitrary. "The law is vague on this, what land use will be allowed, what will apply, no one knows. Even if they were to consult gram sabhas in the process, consultation has no meaning without knowing what it means, " he says.
The SC, in various orders since April, has been ordering states to notify buffer zones (10-km fringe area around core zones). While some states did, other dilly-dallied for reasons of human habitations and development projects in buffer areas. The SC in its recent order asked the government about its plan on tiger protection. The hurry with which states have had to notify the areas has resulted in them not following due process or the provisions of the WLPA 2006, which would have had a scientific basis and public consultations (the MP government, for instance, was forced to notify the Panna buffer zone within days).
"None of these four things have been looked at. Coexistence has been turned upside down, so either you are bribing people or bullying them. This will produce a backlash of anger. The whole point of WLPA 2006 was to be stable, accountable and transparent. Based on all of this, the government would have guidelines to protect tigers. So, now you are effectively back to the 1972 situation (pre-Project Tiger), " says Gopalakrishnan.
Tourism also will be affected but a few of the arguments used to further tourism's cause are classic half-truths. The first is the industry employing thousands of locals that benefits the local economy. Research says, not true. A 2010 paper by Krithi K Karanth and Ruth DeFries, published in the journal "Conservation Letters", says, "We find tourism related employment providing direct income benefts to a few, employing less than 0. 001 per cent of population living within 10 km of these PAs. " Even though the Tiger Task Force report, 2005 recommended that ecotourism benefits be shared with locals, "tourism revenue has rarely been directed towards improving conservation or supporting locals. "
Swathi Seshadri, coordinator, Equations, an eco-tourism advocacy group, says, "The employment is seasonal. Parks in the northern part of the country are closed four months. And at what cost? Commercial tourism involves change from agricultural land to commercial. It is a change of livelihood, without the dignity. A guard is not the same as bonafide farmer (which employs many more people). We forget the dignity. "
A study by the MP government also shows that 62 per cent of the people involved in tourism activity at Tala, Bandhavgarh National Park, are local. "However, they are all largely involved in the unorganised sector of drivers, cooks, labour, guide and general business. All the managerial level work is conducted by outsiders. "
Lastly, one of the least tenable arguments is of tourists serving as the eyes and ears against poaching. Tourists are not replacement guards in PAs. Poachers usually operate at night, when tourists are not allowed. Further, Seshadri says, on an average only one-fourth of the parks have marked tourism zones. In the case of Bandhavgarh and Kanha, which have healthy tiger numbers, only some of them use the tourism zone. The majority of them choose to inhabit the interiors. Over time, the tiger reserves have been emptied by the forest department of all local inhabitants and tribal communities, who, for years, have been the actual eyes and ears and can obviously tell who is a poacher.
Seshadri adds, "It is they who have protected the forests, legitimising their right to the resources. How can a random person from Delhi /Bombay know it at all? The only thing they can do is call out a wounded tiger. " The SC order is detrimental to communities and tourism but definitely not for the tiger.