Unfair balance

 
By Ashish Kothari, Ritwick Dutta
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Unfair balance

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The Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Bill 2002 (the Bill) has come 30 years after the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972. Have these three decades been used to integrate the critical lessons learnt from wildlife management across India and the world?

Yes and no. The Bill has several undoubtedly progressive provisions. It increases protection of wildlife habitats from the onslaught of developmental and commercial forces, e.g. by prohibiting new commercial tourism infrastructure, or changes of protected area boundaries without clearance from a national wildlife board. It provides coverage to all kinds of animals (the previous Act missed out fish, invertebrates, and most marine creatures). The Bill also increases the scope for people's participation in conservation, e.g. by setting up sanctuary advisory committees and by creating two new forms of protected areas, conservation reserves and community reserves.

Unfortunately, these gains are clouded by a number of regressive provisions, as also the neglect of measures activists have sought for years. Given that the greatest threat wildlife habitats face is from commercial and developmental processes, the Bill misses the one concrete opportunity to counter these.

The expert committee, set up by the ministry of environment and forests to draft the Bill in the mid-1990s, had recommended that in a five-kilometre (km) belt around all protected areas, 'developmental' or commercial activities be severely restricted. The Bill has dropped this recommendation. Worse, a major lacuna of the original Act conservationists had pointed out remains unplugged: the need to protect threatened species all over the country not only by stopping their hunting, but also by protecting their critical habitats. Most natural or semi-natural habitat of such species (even of the tiger) is outside the protected area network (since this covers only five per cent of India), and huge chunks of this area are being eaten up by mining, expressways, dams, urbanisation, industries and so on. The Bill will do almost nothing to stop this.

It is equally worrisome that the Bill retains an essentially centralised, bureaucratic model of conservation. For several decades, the single biggest problem faced by official conservation initiatives (other than the onslaught of commercial forces) is the growing hostility of local rural communities. Their rights, practices and knowledge sidelined and needs ignored, such populations now consider 'wildlife' and 'protected areas' dirty words. Steps like membership on advisory committees and the largesse of protected area managers in providing forest produce for 'bona fide' needs are welcome, but nowhere near enough.

If there is a single critical lesson learnt from faltering top-down conservation strategies across the world, it is that communities need a long-term stake, through unambiguous rights and responsibilities and an equal decision-making share in management. Dozens of countries have moved towards co-management and community-based management systems with clear benefits and decision-making powers to local people; many countries (South Africa, Australia, Canada, Brazil) have even successfully attempted restitution of lands and resources once taken away from communities by colonial regimes. Both conservation and livelihoods have benefited. The drafters of the Bill would have done well to learn these lessons.

Even the two new categories of protected areas are unlikely to reach anywhere near their potential of landscape level, community-based conservation. Existing national parks or sanctuaries cannot be converted to these new categories, even though there are dozens of protected areas where such conversion would aid conservation. Community reserves cannot be declared on government land at all, which means that the wonderful initiatives at protecting forests and wetlands and coastal stretches in Jardhargaon and Nahin Kalan (Uttaranchal), Mendha Lekha (Maharashtra), Bhaonta-Kolyala (Rajasthan), Morjim (Goa), and thousands of other such community conserved areas -- or for that matter the huge number of sacred groves that today find themselves legally classified as government land -- can never be community reserves. Equally serious, a uniform institutional structure is advocated in the Bill for all areas that could undermine the wonderful diversity of effective institutions, which communities have evolved.

The Bill needs wider discussion to strengthen provisions against destructive forces and commercial wildlife trade, and to modify provisions relating to community participation and livelihood security. Since the Bill is now before Parliament, a joint parliamentary committee could undertake such consultation amongst different sectors.

Ashish Kothari is founder-member, Kalpavriksh, a voluntary group working on environmental education, research and campaigns

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