Saturday, July 6, 2013

From Kerala to Uttarakhand, trampling on nature

There are two States that have constantly opposed wildlife and environment protection laws —Uttarakhand and Kerala. These States also rely heavily on nature tourism that brings in the much-needed economic support for them as well as to the people who depend on this industry.

Though they face the wrath of nature quite often — floods in Uttarakhand and sea erosion in Kerala are becoming a common feature — they generally look at the natural world with very different priorities. They determinedly and effectively market their natural world but their strategic views are at odds with nature conservation. They regularly bring in plebiscite, heavily opposing any move towards the protection of nature, be it the implementation of existing laws such as identification and notification of eco-sensitive zones or accepting the opinions of experts who have toiled for ages in the field of environment conservation.

Political reasons
What makes these two States heavily opposed to save nature and wildlife despite accruing direct economic benefits from nature? One of the political reasons for poor implementation of conservation laws was the fractured election results which bring in different ruling players at the Centre and the State making implementation of certain regulations that are on the concurrent list of the Constitution difficult.

However, the examples of these two States give a different picture as both are ruled by the same political party that holds power in New Delhi. Key conservation laws in the country including the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 and Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 are all contributions of the Nehru family, the principal icon of the Congress party. Surprisingly, their own parties oppose implementation of these laws.

Let us take for instance, stoppage of vehicular traffic at night through the core of Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka in affirmation of the Wildlife Protection Act. This has been challenged by the Kerala Government at three different platforms — the High Court, the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal. Though an alternative exists and the government of Karnataka has even provided funding to the tune of Rs.48 crore to improve the alternative road, the neighbours are not content. Similarly, all forest conservation laws have been severely violated to facilitate boulder mining and building power projects in Uttarakhand.

If States show disrespect and neglect towards laws, are we proceeding in the right direction in this federal system? Now, States even question the scientific basis of nature conservation. Till date, nature preservation was largely based on aesthetics, and to a less extent on ethical values that resulted in conservation success stories. In future, battling for nature based on these values will be challenged. This highlights a basic lacuna in wildlife science.

On management
Wildlife science rarely addresses questions that are relevant to management or to elected representatives. These are: How to reduce human-wildlife conflict? What is the value of ecosystem services of a wildlife habitat? What is the scientific basis of habitat management that is the pretext of developing fodder and water for wildlife?

Unfortunately, we have no quantitative evidence in the Indian context to answer these questions that are very important for managing wildlife habitats or that have been causes of erosion of public support for wildlife conservation.

Though we boast of high quality wildlife science that has been carried out for decades, we have failed to provide answers to problems that are pertinent to real world conservation. Increasingly, scientists hide behind court orders or disasters such as the recent elephant conflict near Bangalore, that claimed five lives in a short span of three days, to claim that science is being used for management. They fail to actively market their research findings. If wildlife science continues to pursue subjects that is based only on individual’s interests, it will have less and less value for nature preservation. Nor will it be of any use for the betterment of society that is one of the key selling points of nature conservation.

I can expect an eloquent response to this article about the responsibility of science culminating with publications, but the real world aspects of conservation in a country like India are often beyond the ambit of peer-reviewed science.

If wildlife science continues to show apathy towards real-world conservation problems like the States do towards conservation laws, there could soon be an end to the support of those who have been key to preserve our ecologically important areas. There could be a day when they will learn their lessons through costly mistakes.