Unique opportunity for Kamal Nath

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

ALL OVER the country, there are tensions around national parks and sanctuaries. People living in and around these forests see them as the last remaining sources of biomass and depend on them heavily to meet their fuel and fodder needs. Grazing and other regulations imposed by wildlife managers have cut these people off from their biomass resources and this has led to numerous conflicts. Corruption is also rampant, which does not lead to good management of the nature parks and does not help the people living around them.

Though there have been numerous experiments to involve people in the management and regeneration of degraded forest lands, there has been little attempt to develop participatory management systems for nature conservation areas. Therefore, this is an area where considerable experimentation and novel ideas are needed. But forest officials have not shown either imagination or initiative. And, because it is the bureaucracy that manages national parks, this has also discouraged experimentation by NGOs.

Because it's near Delhi, the conflict between foresters managing the proposed Rajaji National Park and the Gujjars who have been using these forests for a long time, has been reported extensively in the national media (Down To Earth, November 30, 1992). This conflict can become a blessing in disguise as it offers the Union ministry of environment and forests its first opportunity to set up the country's first people's national park.

Speaking with extraordinary clarity, a Gujjar leader, Mastuk Lodha, told a meeting held in Delhi by the Centre for Science and Environment that his community knew the forests like the back of their hands. He argued cogently and persuasively that it was not right to blame the Gujjars for the destruction of the forests, especially as they knew full well who was actually behind their destruction. And, he indicated the Gujjars were quite prepared to take over management of the proposed national park.

Asked what they would do to manage their own population and that of their animals so both remain within the park's carrying capacity, Gujjar leaders were quite clear they would take all the steps needed to restrict the size of the population dependent on the park's biomass resources, provided they were given control of it.

What Lodha had to say ought to be listened to with respect and concern. It is not surprising that the Gujjars know a lot about the park. Nomads and tribals usually know more about their environment than even the experts. In fact, nomad and tribal lore is responsible for greatly enriching the world's botanical knowledge. But rarely has the world given them the credit for this. Once the Gujjars have a vested interest in the park, they will surely do their best to manage it well. They could be helped to do this by voluntary agencies interested in people's development and conservation. And, the government can monitor their achievements.

All those who talk of the need to conserve the world's biological diversity must understand the importance of protecting the world's cultural diversity. Mastuk Lodha argued proudly that his community was not merely ordinary Gujjars (shepherds), they were what he called "van Gujjars" -- graziers who live in forests with their buffaloes. They are Muslims, but they are vegetarians and they have never been known to harm animals.

India's biological diversity has indeed given rise to a rich cultural diversity. Numerous cultures have emerged in the country, making use of special ecological niches. It is not right for conservationists to argue that if these Gujjars are settled outside the proposed national park, they will be set on the path of education and development, which will bring them out of their current backwardness.

It must be remembered that the history of resettlement in this country is one of broken promises and so surely the Gujjars cannot be blamed if they do not have any confidence in the government's promises or in those of conservationists. Already they have been cheated -- having been allotted houses with cardboard instead of slate roofs. Has the government prosecuted even a single officer for this fraud? And, how are the Gujjars to get fodder in the densely inhabited area in which the forest department wants to resettle them?

Another point to remember is that resettlement will destroy the present culture and lifestyle of the Gujjars. This raises the important question of what constitutes backwardness and development? Who is going to define these terms? The bureaucracy, the middle class, the conservationists or the Gujjars themselves? We are sure that an India that cannot maintain its cultural diversity will be an India that is poor, backward and underdeveloped.

There is no reason to believe the park cannot be managed while also protecting the Gujjars' culture. Indeed, this is the challenge for India's conservationists -- of both the official and non-official variety.

MEF minister Kamal Nath should seize this opportunity to create a people's park, similar to the many conservation areas in Europe that are managed by non-governmental organisations. By doing so, he would not only be initiating a great experiment, but he would also be cutting conservation costs because the Gujjars would definitely manage the proposed national park at a fraction of the cost it would take for foresters.

The present conservation strategy not only promises more and more conflicts, it will also inevitably force India to go bowl in hand to the World Bank or the Global Environment Facility to seek alms to protect its remaining natural areas. None of this is necessary, if we would only trust the people as much as we trust the bureaucracy.

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