human-elephant conflict, Jharkhand, forest dept, PCCF
Man-elephant conflict has claimed over 1,500 lives since the creation of Jharkhand in 2000, officials said | Representative photo: iStock

Locals, not forest dept, should manage biodiversity: Madhav Gadgil

In 2021, Anusaya Shamrao Mogarkar was attacked by a tiger while she was cutting grass near her home in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra. The 57-year-old woman succumbed to her injuries even as the villagers chased the animal away. In West Bengal, an elephant roaming the streets and creating panic among locals trampled to death an elderly farmer on March 21, 2021. A hyena attacked a man walking on a dirt road near Pune on September 8, 2021.

From the apple orchards of Himachal Pradesh to the coconut groves of Goa and Karnataka, farmers are struggling with monkey attacks. In Kerala, the farmers are having a tough time dealing with wild pigs. So why is the human-animal conflict on the rise? “This conflict has been precipitated by concentration of unlimited powers in the hands of the anti-people Forest Departments enjoying strong support of the equally anti-people urban nature conservationists,” said Prof Madhav Gadgil, renowned ecologist and head of the Western Ghats Ecology expert panel.

“The Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 in the hands of the Forest Department is a very defective, counter-productive management tool. It entails grave abuse of human rights to life and livelihood and is not constitutionally valid,” Gadgil said while speaking on ‘Pitting people against nature’ at a webinar organised by the Pazhassiraja Memorial Library, Mananthavady as part of the 4th EK Madhavan Memorial Lecture recently.

“Wild pigs regularly trespass on farmers’ properties and rob them of their produce. Yet the WLPA criminalises farmers resisting it and forces our protein-starved people to burn the corpse when they could happily eat the meat,” he said.

Animal populations will inevitably increase unless controlled by predation, disease, limitation of resources like food or accidental deaths as in floods and landslides. Gadgil said with 50 years of strict protection, the population of wild animals skyrocketed and are spilling out of protected areas. He says the animals have also lost all fear of people.

“A friend and former chief wildlife warden HS Pabla of Madhya Pradesh once told me that losses of crops and property destroyed by wild animals run into thousands of crores. This is a rough and ready estimate as all of the forest and wildlife data details are shrouded in a cloak of obfuscation. The only available information comes from reports of unreliable surveys in some protected areas. But a substantial number of wild animals engaged in conflicts with people live outside the protected areas,” said Gadgil.

‘Wildlife act pits humans against animals’

A recent study, conducted by Centre for Science and Environment, said Odisha can see the highest-ever human casualties due to human-elephant conflict (HEC) in 2021-2022 than the years before. “At least 97 people have been killed in HEC from March 2021 to January 18, 2022. There have been 96 injuries. There are still two months to go before 2021-2022 gets over,” it cautions.

What did the Wild Life (Protection) Act (WLPA), 1972 achieve? Gadgil said it extended the forest department’s stranglehold from forested areas to the entire country, firmly pitting people against nature. “It subjugated common people throughout India. One of the targets was the Chipko activists and Van Panchayats (village forest council),” he said.

It was the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) under ornithologist Salim Ali’s leadership that took the lead in framing the WLPA. Being India’s premier natural history organisation since 1883, it was dominated by British merchants, civil and police officers and tea and coffee planters till 1972. “Some of the British tea and coffee planters were enthusiastic hunters and naturalists. They wrote brilliant accounts of Indian natural history in the journal of BNHS. EP Gee, a tea planter of Assam, was one of them. He endorsed the forest department’s confiscatory role and formulated WLPA with strong support from Salim Ali,” said Gadgil.

Hunting is in human genes

In the defence of hunting, Gadgil said, it is in human DNA. “The human gut consists mainly of the small intestine, responsible for breakdown of proteins and absorption of nutrients, while the gut of apes primarily consists of the colon, indicating a vegetarian diet. Human teeth have a thin enamel coating indicating that historically they have always maintained a meat-heavy diet. Given the choice, most humans today continue to consume substantial amounts of sea-food, birds or mammals,” he said.

In olden times, humans (including Indians) have hunted and consumed meat of all species of birds and mammals on a large scale. Gadgil pointed to the prehistoric paintings on Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh that depict scenes of hunting with spears and bow and arrow of a range of animals. India is a pluralistic country with a diversity of cultures and ways of making livelihoods associated with a variety of food habits and food taboos.

“Our ancestors, as depicted in Bhimbetka, consumed every kind of meat. Today, some groups of Indians eat not only sheep and goat and chicken but also dogs and monkeys, parakeets and fruit bats and much more. No group has a right to impose its own food preferences on all other citizens of the country,” he said.

The British conquered India, which was an ocean of trees. Gadgil said the Bharatpur wetland was the Bharatpur Maharaja’s hunting preserve. The king’s guest Lord Linlithgow, a British viceroy, boasted of shooting 4,273 birds on a single day on November 12, 1938, a feat commemorated with a stone plaque nearby.

Looking beyond hegemony of forest department

Gadgil says Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of a republic of self-reliant villages was set aside by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who thought only of catching up with the West. He says, Nehru launched India on a path of development at all costs, which in practice meant development at the cost of the weak and poor, not putting the last first, but putting the last down. The Forest Policy of 1952 reaffirmed hegemony of the forest department. “The West Coast Paper Mills was supplied bamboo at ₹ 1.50/tonne, while the market rate was ₹1,500/tonne. Bamboo is rapidly exhausted through unregulated use by paper mills. The mill polluted air and water with impunity. This was ‘crony capitalism’ at full play. Squeeze nature and the poor to fatter the rich,” said Gadgil.

Gadgil said it is high time we stopped pitting people against nature. “The people with their traditions of taking good care of nature are rising to protect their environment. The Bishnois of Rajasthan called out Bollywood actor Salman Khan for hunting Chinkaras (black buck) and are doggedly pursuing a case that has been dragging on for years. The state is not playing its proper role in protecting wildlife in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. We must work with people at grass-roots to take charge of conserving biodiversity including wild birds and mammals, through positive incentives,” he said.

Australian sheep ranch owners shoot kangaroos as they see them as competitors to sheep. The government asks them for bids as to how much they expect to be paid in return for permitting a certain number of kangaroos to exist in their ranks, decides on acceptable bids and then pays based on a transparent system of verification. “This is an excellent model for decentralised decision-making. Let local self-government institutions make bids and be paid according to their conservation services,” said Gadgil, who had submitted the landmark Western Ghats Ecology expert panel’s report to the central government on August 31, 2011, designating the entire Western Ghat region as an Ecologically Sensitive Area.

“Let people decide on a decentralised fashion. If wild animals come out of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forests, people of those local bodies should have the right to either demand payment for tolerating them or cull these animals and use by-products as they wish,” he added.

Biodiversity, according to Gadgil, should not be managed by a forest department-dominated mechanism, but through a democratically constituted system. “Biodiversity management committees in each LSG should be made up of members selected entirely by local citizens. Their constituency should in turn elect members to the district-level biodiversity management committee from that to the state level and finally to the national biodiversity authority. This system should develop a rational pro-people mechanism for management of all biodiversity, including the animals currently listed under the wildlife schedule,” said Gadgil.

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