Battles Over Nature: Science and the Politics of Conservation Editors: Mahesh Rangarajan and Vasant Saberwal Publisher: Permanent Black Delhi Rs 695 411 pages
Who controls the business of wildlife conservation in India? It's a well-known triumvirate: scientists (mainly conservation biologists) and foresters (park directors, the forest bureauceacy), and non-governmental organisations. Add to this a loose bunch of well-meaning but effete 'wildlife experts', and you have a group as myriad as the wildlife they profess to keep alive and live off. They talk to each other, but never converse. Communication is lost in the wilderness these groups inhabit.
Many of these groups, individuals and agencies thrive on keeping the debate as segregated as they can, into two adjacent but insulated, soundproof rooms, one meant for the science, and the other for the politics, of conservation. No sound, not a single squeak, filters through from one to the other.
With Battles over Nature, Rangarajan and Saberwal manage to drill a hole through the common wall that separates these two rooms and try to get these conservation practitioners to whisper some sense to each other. Get a conversation going, strike a debate, so to speak.
So what is on offer? A wholesome meal, from the look of it. M D Madhusudan and Charudutt Mishra on large mammal ecology; Asad R Rahmani on why the Great Indian Bustard Project slipped; B M S Rathore on the heartburn Rajaji National Park continues to cause to all concerned; Sharachchandra Lele and Trichard B Norgaard on the morality of defining the much-used (and often abused) word "sustainable"; and others, 12 essays in all. Most of them are splendid narratives. Some talk directly of issues at the heart of conservation debates, some insinuate and almost all drop hints.
The editors have divided the essays into four sections. Biological Imperatives; the Nature of Ecological Sciences; Politics and Conservation; and Community Participation. Rangarajan and Saberwal themselves have contributed two essays in the Politics and Conservation section, woven deftly among the other pieces to give them a perspective and historical binding. Rangarajan, who is a historian (among other things), does well to help the reader avoid the academic pitfalls and ivory-tower discussions that usually hold centre stage. Saberwal looks at how conservation is run (to the ground?) by the state fiat. Both of them neatly assemble history and marshal comprehensive bibliographies to state their case, lucidly. But in the process, they also end up reflecting the limitations of the book.
The scientist speaks only as a scientist and the forester as just that: a forester. The scientist never tries to overreach his stated profession to dirty his hand in real time conservation: which is as much political as scientific. So we have Renee M Borges advocating the low-yield pragmatic road to calculate what is a sustainable harvest, but without explaining how it could affect communities' income levels and how it will be politically possible to sell that idea. Then there is Rahmani giving a detailed 12-point agenda to sustainably manage grasslands: "...free grazing should be strictly controlled in sanctuaries too. Goats should not be allowed inside reserve forests under any circumstances." But leave it to the foresters to ask him how they are to ensure that when the four per cent of the country's land called "protected" remains open to the vagaries of incompetent governance. And sum it leave the 14,000 forest-dependent villages to ask where they are to take their livestock.
To sum it up: while the essays demand of their authors to speak to each other through this hypothetical wall that separates them, nobody really wants to leave their seats in their respective rooms. If things are to change they will have to learn to play an overlapping role, change rooms, at least for a while. The editors could have done well to get the conservation biologists to soil their hands (and mind) in the everyday running of a protected area and a forester (like Rathore) to talk of implementing a scientific rationale in the muddle of Rajaji National Park. Admittedly, it's demanding a lot. But then, how many times do people try to crack the wall that divides the science and politics of conservation? A greater heave by the editors would have helped breach a bigger hole. But, that is only a desire. This is a splendid purchase, though a tad costly.
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