"RANTHAMBORE is like a leper's pock mark on this district," says a senior citizen of Sawai Madhopur, the town near which this important national park is located. The comment sums up the disdain in which many Sawai Madhopur residents hold the park. It also puts into doubt the government's nature conservation strategy.
Until recently, Ranthambore used to be a park where tourists could hope to see a tiger even on a quick visit. But now, sighting a tiger is a rarity. One tour operator has even filed a court case against the park authorities on this count. The safety of the tigers in the park, as in many others, is in question because of a suspected spurt in poaching, partly spurred by the Chinese market for tiger bones.
At the same time, the park authorities have totally alienated the numerous villages situated in and around the park. Villagers have been resettled with inadequate rehabilitation measures. Several villages still remain inside the park and these are now extremely hostile to resettlement measures. Others who depend on the park to meet their fuel and fodder needs find their way full of obstacles, which can be got around only by repeated greasing of the official palm. Some groups have resorted to using their traditional skills to poach.
In sum, Ranthambore faces a total revolt against the conservation laws of the country. The villagers no longer hesitate to indulge in violence against the upholders of these laws which, according to them, have turned them into outlaws in their own habitat. Caught in this fight between the law and the people's anger are the forest guards, who invariably end up as victims of violence, especially as they have never been prepared to deal with such retaliation.
The government has two strategies in mind. One is more guards and guns. The other is sops in the form of an ecodevelopment programme, which will try to increase fuel and fodder supply to the people through better management of the areas surrounding the park. But, it is unlikely any of these strategies will succeed.
The only way national parks can be a success in India is if people are made to feel they belong to them, that they are a part of their heritage. But the government's imported nature conservation strategy begins by treating people as outcasts. In park after park, therefore, resentment is building up.
From the standpoint of the villagers living around Ranthambore, what has the park brought them? Nothing at all. Even the tourist revenue has mostly gone to the town's middle class or to opulent hoteliers from Bombay's rich industrial houses. Why were these people allowed in at all? Why weren't local villagers, through appropriate loans, helped to set up bed-and-breakfast facilities as in, say, villages in the Alps? Indeed, why can't the villagers be involved in the management of the park and get a large share of the revenue and employment?
Manmohan Singh has realised that stakeholder management is much better than its bureaucratic counterpart, now it's high time Kamal Nath learnt a lesson from Singh's book. Unless the villagers have a stake in the forests and their wildlife, the existing tensions will continue. The easy money now available from West-sponsored funds, such as the Global Environment Facility, may give a new lease of life to the currently in vogue law and order approach to wildlife management, but in the long run, that too will backfire.
If bad development can be oppressive, Ranthambore clearly tells us that bad environmental management.
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