Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | The right policy mix for conservation efforts

The killing of the tigress Avni raises complex questions to which India has failed to find answers thus far

The Avni affair will outlive her. This has become clear over the past few days. The post-mortem witness report casts doubt on the official version of events that led to the shooting of the man-eating tigress—officially known as T1—in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district earlier this month. A National Tiger Conservation Authority team has begun a probe. Political parties, from the Shiv Sena to the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party, are putting the boot in. Lost in the noise is the other side of the equation: Avni’s 13 human victims. Their death, and hers, highlight India’s conservation dilemma.

The Avni incident is far from unique or new. Human-wildlife conflict is endemic in India. It is usually portrayed as a negative externality of development activity and the degradation of natural habitats. There is some truth to this—but it is not the entire truth. That is more complicated. Humans are often the victims—economic and otherwise—of conservation efforts guided by poorly designed policy.

According to the Union ministry of environment and forests, over 300 million people were directly or indirectly dependent on the forest ecosystem as of 2009. This includes a large chunk of the country’s most socioeconomically vulnerable population, such as a tribal population of 67.7 million. Their dependence is multi-faceted—from needing forest produce such as fuel wood and non-timber forest products to grazing livestock on the fringes of forests.

The primary means of protecting India’s forests and biodiversity—the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) 1972—has failed to take this into account adequately. As Neema Pathak Broome, Meenal Tatpati and Nitin D. Rai have pointed out in “Biodiversity Conservation and Forest Rights Act", Economic & Political Weekly: “The model of conservation enshrined in the WLPA is premised on creating human-free zones for the protection of rare species based on the erroneous notion that local people are the prime drivers of wildlife decline." This approach has been successful in protecting certain species, certainly. But such an exclusionary approach is better suited to countries that are less densely populated and have a more developed non-rural economy.

In India, it has led to compromising the economic rights of those least able to defend them via forced relocations from areas around buffer zones and the like. This can—and often does—rebound to the detriment of conservation efforts. As the Narendra Modi government’s draft wildlife action plan—meant to guide wildlife conservation in the 2017-2031 period—acknowledges, local populations’ support for conservation is essential for its success. An exclusionary approach to conservation undermines the possibility of such support. In its absence, local populations can often be at odds with state conservation efforts. For instance, two weeks ago in the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve area of Uttar Pradesh, villagers rode down a tigress with a tractor after she reportedly attacked a local and fatally wounded him.

The Forest Rights Act, 2006 was a pushback against the exclusionary approach. By explicitly recognizing the rights of locals, it incentivizes them to manage and conserve natural resources. This has positive spillover effects. Consider the more conventional development versus environment debate. Environmental extremism can lead to impossibly strong safeguards when it comes to development activity. But India’s current environmental protection framework goes too far in the other direction; the thoroughly broken Environmental Impact Assessment process is little more than a rubber stamp. Given this, the FRA can be a useful check, making the consent of local inhabitants and affected gram sabhas mandatory for diverting forest land for non-forestry purposes.

Ironically, the FRA is under attack from both sides. For many conservationists, it empowers forest dwellers at the cost of forest and wildlife conservation efforts. On the other hand, Central and state governments have actively undermined the Act in several instances because it is too much of an inconvenience when it comes to planning and implementing projects.

This is a pity. Granted, the FRA has its shortcomings. But when it has worked, it has worked well. For instance, in the Orissa Mining Corporation v Ministry of Environment and Forest and Ors case in 2013, the Supreme Court upheld the FRA and ruled that if forests were to be diverted for mining, the consent of the gram sabhas of the local Dongria Kondh community would be needed.

There have been similar successes in preventing forest diversion in a number of instances across north and central India in recent years.

In his landmark 1991 Union budget speech, then-finance minister Manmohan Singh said, “We cannot deforest our way to prosperity and we cannot pollute our way to prosperity". He was correct. But coming up on three decades since, India has yet to find the right policy and regulatory mix to reflect that realization.

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