Published: Sunday 30 November 1997

Arms and the man

The article on Veerappan ('Catch me a collossus,'Down To Earth, Vol 6, No 10; October 15, 1997) took up the factors responsible for the rise of Veerappan, instead of condemning him outright as a brigand and a criminal who goes on killing sprees.

The protection of locals by Veerappan may endear him to some, but does not in any way exonerate him of his crimes. He has killed nearly 2,000 tuskers, destroying the south Indian population of the Asian elephant. Did the elephants harm him or the villagers -- except, perhaps, for a few occasions of crop-raiding? Veerappan killed 119 people, most of them forest guards and police personnel. Does anyone ever think of the fate of their children and their families?

The article says: "Veerappan is a creation of the State which alienates them from the land's resources and penalises them if they cannot protect State property." We beg to differ. What would happen if most forest dwellers started thinking along these lines and took up the gun?

Laws are framed by legislators. They represent the people's wishes. Once a law is framed, it is the duty of every citizen to uphold it and abide by it, however morally repugnant or inconvenient it may be. Enough remedies are available through legal channels to bring about changes. If the law is inconvenient or undesirable, though it complies with the provisions of the Constitution, then the elected representatives are there to get it repealed. It is not as though we are living in a dictatorship and laws are sacrosanct once they are proclaimed.

The last paragraph in the article says that it is "only when people are involved will they stand by policies that affect their livelihood". This iterates the Centre for Science and Environment's view that force should not be used for wildlife and forest protection. But have the people ever had the courage and arms to face armed gangs of smugglers?

There have been more than 12 cases of armed assault by timber smugglers on forest staff in the past year in the relatively peaceful state of Orissa. In some cases, if the department people had not opened fire they would have been killed.

A forest official or a police officer is fully aware of the grave consequences of unjustified firing. A fire arm merely increases his confidence in facing armed gangs. In our opinion, equipping forest department officers with fire arms is absolutely necessary so that they can face smugglers who are increasingly resorting to violence when challenged in the field....

Rajat Banerji replies:

It is interesting to note that our readers agree with the view that people should not take up arms and that faulty policies should be corrected. The article did not address the issue from a law-and-order perspective, but what we consider to be a faulty forest policy. It pointed out the inability of the law-and-order agencies to bring the man to book. Nowhere did we condone Veerappan and his actions. There is no doubt that Veerappan is a criminal and should be treated as one.

When we said that Veerappan is a 'creation of the State' we were addressing the policy on sandalwood, not making excuses for criminal activities. If the policy had been more people-friendly, a man like Veerappan wouldn't have been able to exploit sandalwood, and prove to be a thorn in the flesh of the agencies of the State.

Which brings us to the question of arming forest guards to tackle timber smugglers and poachers. We had mentioned in the article that if the government opened up the sandalwood policy and gave the farmer the market value of sandalwood, the farmer would arm himself and defend his crop. But arming forest guards alone will not solve the problem, as the case of wildlife protection in the Northeast -- and even 'relatively peaceful' Orissa, cited above -- shows. The solution lies in giving the people a stake in forest resources....

Right approach

I was pleased to see Down To Earth's coverage of issues concerning livestock genetic resources ('Vanishing breeds,' Down To Earth, Vol 6, No 8; September 15, 1997). This is one of the most neglected aspect of biodiversity.

Apart from lack of interest, there is no consensus among scientists on how to go about 'saving' them. Most of them propagate technologically complicated and financially exorbitant ex situ conservation. As is reiterated so often in your magazine, the key to the conservation of domestic animal breeds will be the involvement of the local people in the effort, and to develop participatory approaches to in situ conservation.

One totally ignored and under-researched aspect is indigenous livestock genetic resource management. There is ample evidence that traditional societies manipulate animal genetic resources in a variety of ways -- consciously and otherwise. It is these strategies that have to be explored and reinforced if domestic animal diversity is to be maintained....

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