Books

An ecocide in the making

TV Jayan | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on August 20, 2017

Title: The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis <br>Author: Prerna Singh Bindra <br>Publisher: Penguin Random House India <br>Pages: 326 <br>Price: ₹599<br>

A blinkered ‘development’ bias in the corridors of power has pushed India’s wildlife to the precipice, reveals a new book

Ecological destruction has always been a serious consequence of humankind’s push for development. Needless to say, the ecology versus development conundrum has been hotly debated.

In the post-liberalisation era, it is said India lost over 14,000 sq km of pristine forest to industrial and infrastructural projects. Some may say it is a small price to pay to be on the right side of development.

More often than not, proponents of development want us to believe that the cost-benefit calculation of environmental devastation is reckoned correctly before such a call is made. But this is seldom the case a new book tells us, with ample chilling anecdotes.

Arbitrary decisions

The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis by conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra exposes arbitrary decisions made in the labyrinths of power in Delhi and elsewhere in the country — mostly under pressure from unscrupulous politicians and greedy industrialists. More importantly, it narrates how meekly those who have been entrusted with the task of guarding our natural heritage have been surrendering themselves to these powers.

Citing her own personal experience, Bindra — who briefly served on the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) — says any resistance to this rampant destruction of the environment is often stubbed either by withholding information from those fighting for the cause or by feeding them half-baked information. “We were fed convenient untruths, while the inconvenient truths were avoided,” the author says.

India is uniquely placed in terms of wildlife diversity. It is considered to be a custodian of many species that are either extinct or found only in very low numbers elsewhere. Besides, having successfully implemented initiatives such as Project Tiger — the biggest such when launched in 1973 — India is looked upon as a global leader in conservation. India has one of the highest densities of carnivores — 58 to every sq km.

Transformation and erosion

The first part of the book touches briefly upon the changes that came about in laws governing the environment, particularly since the 1970s. While the 1970s and 1980s saw the enactment of many progressive pieces of legislation such as the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, the subsequent decades, particularly the 1990s, were a dampener for conservation efforts in the country.

The decade that witnessed a dramatic transformation in India’s political and economic situation, also saw an erosion in political support for the environment. During that period, many sanctuaries were dismembered to make way for industry and infrastructure.

As Bindra puts it: “After Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv’s stint, no government felt the compelling necessity to take an active interest in wildlife conservation.”

During the PV Narasimha Rao regime, the focus was completely on economic liberalisation. The ensuing climate of deregulation saw the loosening of environmental safeguards painstakingly built over the preceding two decades. During this period, laws concerning the environment were either manipulated or bypassed with quiescent, if not active political and bureaucratic support. The author points out how the Indian Board of Wildlife, which was later rechristened as the NBWL, did not meet even once for eight years, between 1989 and 1997.

A welcome change, however, came about six years after Rao demitted office. In 2002, through an order, the Supreme Court ruled that all major projects — industrial or infrastructural — should be placed before the standing committee of the NBWL, before clearance was given.

But on the ground, having such a checks and balances mechanism did nothing to improve environmental governance in the country. On the contrary, it became a convenient tool in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats in the ministry of environment and forests to issue environmental clearances with impunity. Whenever they faced a stumbling block, they unabashedly diluted the provisions of the law.

Scathing observations

In India, it is rather rare, as the author points out, that an industry or project has been turned down for possible environmental impact.

Citing official records, Bindra argues that the environment ministry turned down none of the 1,086 industrial and thermal power projects submitted between 2006 and 2008.

Bindra, however, is more scathing about the incumbent government. “While the earlier UPA government had been steadily weakening safeguards for India’s environment, forests and wildlife, the NDA carried forward this agenda in an even more aggressive and systematic manner,” she says. The MoEF shed its fig leaf of a protection agenda, and positioned itself as a ministry tasked with the Government’s mission of ‘ease of doing business’, and in a series of measures diluted and dissolved regulatory regimes, Bindra argues.

Nothing can be a better example of this collapsing environmental governance in the country than the 3,000 MW Dibang multipurpose project in Arunachal Pradesh. The dam, which is twice the size of the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river, was denied forest clearance twice in 2013. But a year later, it received the green signal not because the project was modified consequently but because the constitution of the Forest Advisory Committee was tweaked suitably.

The book also goes beyond lamenting over devious politicians and lame-duck forest and wildlife regulatory agencies. Digging deep into her firsthand knowledge of Indian megafauna — tigers, elephants and leopards — and their habitats, many of which she has scoured, Bindra spells out the adverse impact of short-sighted regulatory decisions.

“The tragedy is that such monumental decisions which lay to waste our natural heritage, and destroys lives and livelihoods, are based on shoddy Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs),” Bindra rues. The EIA of the much-talked about Ken-Betwa river linking project is a case in point. It is factually inaccurate, inept, mala fide and misleading,” she argues.

The dam of the Ken-Betwa link, powerhouse and a large part of the reservoir will submerge nearly 90 sq km of the Panna National Park, an important tiger reserve. Out of this, over 58 sq km is in the core critical tiger habitat, deemed inviolate and sacrosanct according to the wildlife protection laws in the country. Another highlight that clearly indicates that the EIA is a mockery of sorts is the count of trees that need to be felled for the project. The initial EIA said 32,900 trees would go, and when independent experts pointed out the incongruity, the number was revised to a shocking 13.96 lakh, of which over 11 lakh are within the national park.

The book takes a critical look at the crisis that is staring at wildlife in India. It makes a compelling case for revisiting wildlife protection policies, particularly those relating to preserving the natural habitat of wild animals, and more importantly for championing the cause of implementing them without being driven by vested interests.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Prerna Singh Bindra is a leading environmental journalist and travel writer. She has authored more than 1,500 articles on nature and wildlife in mainstream media. Some other books she’s written are ‘Voices in the Wilderness’, ‘The King and I: Travels in Tigerland’, and ‘When I Grow Up I Want To Be A Tiger’.

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Published on August 20, 2017
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