Some recent amendments to the Wildlife Protection Act could infuse new life into a fusty act, but there are others that threaten to pull matters back

-- The Wildlife Protection Act, 1976, is under the scanner again. The mainstay of biodiversity protection in India, the act has undergone only one major amendment -- in January 2003 -- since it was promulgated. Some of the changes then were substantial and at least had the potential of infusing new life to a moribund wildlife protection regime. The time, it seems, has come for the act to undergo major changes for the second time. Some amendments have been tabled in parliament, and a few more are on the anvil.

The creation of a National Tiger Conservation Authority is the most significant change that the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) has sought. On the face of it another new authority, on the lines of the independent Central Zoo, might not seem a great innovation. But the fact that it comes with a slew of new ideas, devices and definitions for conservation, means it has a good chance to transform the business of tiger reserves -- to begin with, and in time conservation at large.

The amendment bill creating the Tiger Conservation Authority has been tabled in parliament and is under a select committee's scrutiny. The bill takes imto account the recommendations of the Tiger Task Force set up by the prime minister in the wake of disappearance of tigers from the Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan.

Teeth for the tiger
The five-member Tiger Task Force's report had made several recommendations to strengthen the institutional framework for protecting tigers in India. The most significant of them was to convert the Project Tiger directorate -- a two-member team based in Delhi -- into an authority with administrative autonomy. "Project Tiger is supposed to be a high-profile project of moef. B ut it has been beset with numerous roadblocks. Officers had to make several rounds of a ministry office to get a proposal vetted. Then state governments had to be pushed and cajoled into implementing the project's proposals," says one senior official in the main office of mo6 class='UCASE'>ef, Delhi .

T
hese anomalies could be corrected, if the amendment bill passes muster in its current form. The Project Tiger Office, in its new avatar , would be administratively autonomous and answerable to parliament.

But tiger conservation faces another stern test: finding support from politicians in states where this large cat is conspicuous. Several presentations before the Tiger Task Force had highlighted the seriousness of this problem. It was pointed out that the task of conservation had become more onerous in the last decade, with multi-party coalitions becoming the norm at the centre and states increasing their clout as a result. This is because the latter tend to see tiger conservation -- in fact conservation at large -- as an impediment to development projects.

The practice of creating strict nature reserves backed with guns and guards has compounded matters. At many places, local communities have been displaced; in others, their livelihood options have been taken away. In extreme cases, as in the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan, the consequences have been quite violent. State politicians, naturally more concerned about their constituencies have lost interest in tiger conservation.

Even balance
The bill, which sources claim, should be presented before parliament in the ongoing budget session, seems to walk the tightrope. Along with the powerful central tiger authority, it also provides for a greater and more active role for the states in tiger conservation.

States with tiger reserves will have a steering committee for such protected areas (pas). Chaired by respective chief ministers, the bodies would also comprise conservation scientists. The states would also be asked to create a tiger conservation foundation that would be at the vanguard of conservation projects and programmes for the development of people living in and around the reserves. Funding development projects for these people from the earnings of ecotourism is one of the mandates of this body.

So, while the bill seeks to give the political leadership in states a say in conservation-related decisions, it also tries to provide states the scope to spread the benefits and costs of conservation more evenly. Needless to say, such scope will be -- if and when the bill gets through parliament -- only legislative in character; real progress will hinge on the states' and the centre's implementation of the revised act.The Wildlife Protection Act, 1976, is under the scanner again. The mainstay of biodiversity protection in India, the act has undergone only one major amendment -- in January 2003 -- since it was promulgated. Some of the changes then were substantial and at least had the potential of infusing new life to a moribund wildlife protection regime. The time, it seems, has come for the act to undergo major changes for the second time. Some amendments have been tabled in parliament, and a few more are on the anvil.

The creation of a National Tiger Conservation Authority is the most significant change that the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) has sought. On the face of it another new authority, on the lines of the independent Central Zoo, might not seem a great innovation. But the fact that it comes with a slew of new ideas, devices and definitions for conservation, means it has a good chance to transform the business of tiger reserves -- to begin with, and in time conservation at large.

The amendment bill creating the Tiger Conservation Authority has been tabled in parliament and is under a select committee's scrutiny. The bill takes imto account the recommendations of the Tiger Task Force set up by the prime minister in the wake of disappearance of tigers from the Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan.

Teeth for the tiger
The five-member Tiger Task Force's report had made several recommendations to strengthen the institutional framework for protecting tigers in India. The most significant of them was to convert the Project Tiger directorate -- a two-member team based in Delhi -- into an authority with administrative autonomy. "Project Tiger is supposed to be a high-profile project of moef. B ut it has been beset with numerous roadblocks. Officers had to make several rounds of a ministry office to get a proposal vetted. Then state governments had to be pushed and cajoled into implementing the project's proposals," says one senior official in the main office of mo6 class='UCASE'>ef, Delhi .

T
hese anomalies could be corrected, if the amendment bill passes muster in its current form. The Project Tiger Office, in its new avatar, would be administratively autonomous and answerable to parliament.

But tiger conservation faces another stern test: finding support from politicians in states where this large cat is conspicuous. Several presentations before the Tiger Task Force had highlighted the seriousness of this problem. It was pointed out that the task of conservation had become more onerous in the last decade, with multi-party coalitions becoming the norm at the centre and states increasing their clout as a result. This is because the latter tend to see tiger conservation -- in fact conservation at large -- as an impediment to development projects.

The practice of creating strict nature reserves backed with guns and guards has compounded matters. At many places, local communities have been displaced; in others, their livelihood options have been taken away. In extreme cases, as in the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan, the consequences have been quite violent. State politicians, naturally more concerned about their constituencies have lost interest in tiger conservation.

Even balance
The bill, which sources claim, should be presented before parliament in the ongoing budget session, seems to walk the tightrope. Along with the powerful central tiger authority, it also provides for a greater and more active role for the states in tiger conservation.

States with tiger reserves will have a steering committee for such protected areas (pas). Chaired by respective chief ministers, the bodies would also comprise conservation scientists. The states would also be asked to create a tiger conservation foundation that would be at the vanguard of conservation projects and programmes for the development of people living in and around the reserves. Funding development projects for these people from the earnings of ecotourism is one of the mandates of this body.

So, while the bill seeks to give the political leadership in states a say in conservation-related decisions, it also tries to provide states the scope to spread the benefits and costs of conservation more evenly. Needless to say, such scope will be -- if and when the bill gets through parliament -- only legislative in character; real progress will hinge on the states' and the centre's implementation of the revised act.

But the boldest provision in the amendment bill could give legal teeth to a phrase commonly used in conservation: tiger-bearing forest areas. Till date, tiger conservation has been confined within boundaries of the 28 tiger reserves (sanctuaries and national parks) created under the Wildlife Protection Act. But more than half of India's estimated tiger population is actually found outside these pas, in forests contiguous with these reserves, where they share space with humans (see table: Inside and outside ). This fact is quite well known, but not acknowledged in actual conservation. A legally tenable meaning to the phrase 'tiger-bearing forest areas would remedy matters.

But how?
Currently tiger-bearing areas outside the pa network are managed under separate management plans executed by territorial forestry divisions of states --not their wildlife division. If the bill gets through parliament, the tiger conservation authority would have powers to manage tiger habitats as one unit: tiger-bearing forests. The proposed legislation states: "The Tiger Conservation Authority may, in the exercise of its powers and performance of its functions...issue directions in writing to any person, officer or authority for the protection of tiger in tiger reserves and tiger bearing forests." But the bill also emphasises that the agricultural, livelihood, developmental and other interests of people living inside forests or in tiger-bearing forests and around them shall be taken care of while devising management and land-use plans.

Residual matters?
In what seems like a follow-up on the Tiger Task Force report, the ministry has set up a committee to review the enforcement and penal provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act. The committee with the deputy inspector general (wildlife) as member secretary will review the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act that relate to criminal offences; it will also consider recommendations of the Tiger Task Force as well as those of the Central Bureau of Investigation -- which had investigated the Sariska fiasco.

But the committee in its six-month tenure would also have powers to take up other 'residual' matters. The term has been deliberately kept vague to include almost anything, though moef officials maintain that these "residual matters" would not be of great significance. One can, however, treat their comments with a pinch of salt, particularly when the committee has also been asked to probe how well India's Wildlife Protection Act complies with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (cites) -- an international binding treaty that India is signatory to. In fact, moef is bringing in another amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act to incorporate a chapter on cites.

The contents of the chapter are not in public domain as yet, but government sources assert that its provisions are only designed to assuage the international community, upset after the Sariska fiasco. The cites chapter would have no bearings on the other amendments, they say. But, even while moef officials wax eloquent on an international agreement, the ministry has, in recent months warmed up to the uk and the us' s overtures on bilateral wildlife conservation agreements (See: 'Tiger-tourism is critical to local communities,' Down To Earth, February 28, 2006). President George Bush's recent visit hogged headlines for the nuclear deals, but beyond the mainstream media's gaze, the us president also got India to join a "coalition against wildlife trafficking. India and the us have agreed to 'cooperate' in combating illicit wildlife trade, in matters related to pa management, on ecotourism, and for a better understanding of human-animal conflict. uk has been pushing for similar bilateral agreements. This, while both countries have done precious little to bring the major consumers of wildlife products, like China, to book.

Moreover, such bilateral agreements are not without peril. Observers of international environmental negotiations point out that signing such agreements is a standard us tactic to undermine international forums -- it has done that most conspicuously on climate change negotiations. The us administration also regularly cites such agreements to tom-tom its leadership on environmental issues. India is the latest to fall under its sway. Ominously, by joining the coalition the country has opened itself up to parties whose interests at times run inimical to its priorities. Private players and international conservation ngos have been officially recognised , though it's well known that these international agencies have a far 'stricter conservation' agenda than suited for a country where biodiversity and people's interests are interlinked and constantly contest for space.

More committees
Yet another committee has been set up to report on the infrastructural needs of what is called the 'priority protected areas'. Official sources say that in the early 1990s the World Bank had funded, and the wwf had co-authored, a study to prioritise pas on the basis of their biodiversity value and the risks they face. The committee on infrastructure will use the same report, though with some updating.

Another committee will look at the animal and plant species that get varying levels of protection under different schedules of the Wildlife Protection Act. There has been much discussion over the years over how such lists hamper or assist actual conservation work. Listing on schedules, which guarantee higher levels of protection, for example, make procurement of research permits painfully bureaucratic and sometimes render innovative methods of ex-situ conservation, virtually inapplicable. Authorities, however, cite another reason for tinkering with these lists: to make them tally with similar lists developed by the World Conservation Union. This when, wildlife researchers have often criticised these lists for inhibiting research (see: 'The holy book and the sacred list', Down To Earth , December 31, 2005)

The litany of committees doesn't end here. Another body with secretary, moef, as its head will look into the rationalisation of pa boundaries. A section of conservationists often criticise many sanctuaries and national parks for not conforming to the needs of conservation. Many see the current move (read: addition or deletion of land to pas) as an answer to their criticisms. But, it's also true that various business and industry interests, like the mining sector, have constantly lobbied for de-reserving land in pas for 'development'. The transparency with which this committee works will decide the fate of India's pa network. As of now, moef has not even shared with the public, any information on its creation.

Research and analysis
Research permits in forest and pas remains a vexed issue. It was cause for much acrimony between wildlife research institutions and moef, some months ago . T he researchers complained of the harassment they have to undergo in the absence of a clear policy on research permits, while the ministry claimed that much of their research was inconsequential for conservation (see: 'Hunted', Down To Earth , April 30, 2005). The standing committee of the National Wildlife Board did take up the issue in its meeting on January 20, 2006 and draft guidelines to resolve the problem were submitted by the Wildlife Institute of India, New Delhi. These have now been referred to a committee comprising eminent scientists such as Raman Sukumar and Asad Rehmani, for further review. Meanwhile, some states have more regressive measures on their anvil. Tamil Nadu's chief wildlife warden (ccw), for example, has demanded that in future all published research on forests in the state should credit forest officers as co-authors -- even if they have done no research work. When contacted by Down To Earth, this ccw refused to answer questions, and instead accused wildlife researchers "of unnecessarily speaking to the media".

In the same vein, Karnataka's forest department has enunciated a strange rule that allows some research groups to work in 'tourism zones', but not in other portions of a few pas. The state's cww has justified it as a one-off case, while moef in Delhi has shrugged off responsibility for the state's actions.

Much of the confusion on this -- and many other forest-related issues -- stems from moef's reluctance to share information. There is little in the public domain on what the ministry envisages on issues such as private participation in pas or even relatively insignificant moves like the setting up of half a dozen of committees.

So, while a section of the moef works to bring out an innovative tiger protection authority bill, another brings in a cites chapter that no one knows of, yet another section of the same ministry signs bilateral agreements that undermine moef's own programmes. moef has not even evaluated how other large policy documents like the Forest Commission Report -- to be released by March 31, 2006 -- or the New Environment Policy -- which shall soon be put before the cabinet -- tallies with the ongoing amendments and the numerous committees.

The Tiger Task Force report may have brought focus to the work in the wildlife divisions of the moef, but the ministry still does not seem to have evolved a larger vision.

Inside and outside
Tiger population over the years

1972 1979 1984 1989 1993 1995 1997 2001-02
In tiger reserves 268 711 1,121 1,327 1,366 1,333 1,498 1,576
Outside reserves 1,559 2,304 2,884 3,007 2,384 2,010 2,066

Total

1,827 3,015 4,005 4,334 3,750 1,333 3,508 3,642
Source: Project Tiger directorate
Down to Earth

Committees galore

• Rationalisation of Protected Areas
• Transboundary Protected Areas
• Guidelines on Policy for Scientific Research
• Animal and Plant Schedules under the
• Wildlife Protection Act Committees
• Revision of Wildlife Protection Act
• Infrastructure for Priority Protected Areas
• Guidelines for Endangered, Endemic and
• Threatened Species
• Databases
• Guidelines for collaborative research projects involving foreign researchers and institutions.
The committee on infrastructure will use the same report, though with some updating.

Another committee will look at the animal and plant species that get varying levels of protection under different schedules of the Wildlife Protection Act. There has been much discussion over the years over how such lists hamper or assist actual conservation work. Listing on schedules, which guarantee higher levels of protection, for example, make procurement of research permits painfully bureaucratic and sometimes render innovative methods of ex-situ conservation, virtually inapplicable. Authorities, however, cite another reason for tinkering with these lists: to make them tally with similar lists developed by the World Conservation Union. This when, wildlife researchers have often criticised these lists for inhibiting research (see: 'The holy book and the sacred list', Down To Earth , December 31, 2005)

The litany of committees doesn't end here. Another body with secretary, moef, as its head will look into the rationalisation of pa boundaries. A section of conservationists often criticise many sanctuaries and national parks for not conforming to the needs of conservation. Many see the current move (read: addition or deletion of land to pas) as an answer to their criticisms. But, it's also true that various business and industry interests, like the mining sector, have constantly lobbied for de-reserving land in pas for 'development'. The transparency with which this committee works will decide the fate of India's pa network. As of now, moef has not even shared with the public, any information on its creation.

Research and analysis
Research permits in forest and pas remains a vexed issue. It was cause for much acrimony between wildlife research institutions and moef, some months ago . T he researchers complained of the harassment they have to undergo in the absence of a clear policy on research permits, while the ministry claimed that much of their research was inconsequential for conservation (see: 'Hunted', Down To Earth , April 30, 2005). The standing committee of the National Wildlife Board did take up the issue in its meeting on January 20, 2006 and draft guidelines to resolve the problem were submitted by the Wildlife Institute of India, New Delhi. These have now been referred to a committee comprising eminent scientists such as Raman Sukumar and Asad Rehmani, for further review. Meanwhile, some states have more regressive measures on their anvil. Tamil Nadu's chief wildlife warden (ccw), for example, has demanded that in future all published research on forests in the state should credit forest officers as co-authors -- even if they have done no research work. When contacted by Down To Earth, this ccw refused to answer questions, and instead accused wildlife researchers "of unnecessarily speaking to the media".

In the same vein, Karnataka's forest department has enunciated a strange rule that allows some research groups to work in 'tourism zones', but not in other portions of a few pas. The state's cww has justified it as a one-off case, while moef in Delhi has shrugged off responsibility for the state's actions.

Much of the confusion on this -- and many other forest-related issues -- stems from moef's reluctance to share information. There is little in the public domain on what the ministry envisages on issues such as private participation in pas or even relatively insignificant moves like the setting up of half a dozen of committees.

So, while a section of the moef works to bring out an innovative tiger protection authority bill, another brings in a cites chapter that no one knows of, yet another section of the same ministry signs bilateral agreements that undermine moef's own programmes. moef has not even evaluated how other large policy documents like the Forest Commission Report -- to be released by March 31, 2006 -- or the New Environment Policy -- which shall soon be put before the cabinet -- tallies with the ongoing amendments and the numerous committees.

The Tiger Task Force report may have brought focus to the work in the wildlife divisions of the moef, but the ministry still does not seem to have evolved a larger vision.

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