Forest conservation, wildlife protection and the “Biased Scholar”

Suhas Kumar

The other day, I was invited to a function in Bhopal where the world famous scholar Prof Madhav Gadgil was addressing a gathering comprising of retired and serving government servants, local NGOs, citizens concerned about ecology and a cross-section of others. He was explaining how the ecological issues have emerged overtime in the world and in India. But the focus of his attention was mainly the forest department. He did not care to mention other very important issues like population explosion, ecologically unsound urban expansion, large scale diversion of forests to developmental projects, rapid development of linear infrastructure without ecological safeguards resulting in fragmentation of habitats, absence of any land use policy at national and State level, usurpation and destruction of wetlands, river basins, and natural drainage, allocation of community lands (Charnois) to individuals for political gains, and about the hydra-headed market economy that is corrupting the simple nature loving ecosystem people and turning them into Biosphere people who exploit not only their local resources but resources from many other locations across the world.

Prof. Gadgil still credulously believes that the ecosystem people are untouched by the market forces and are as nature friendly as they used to be 100 years ago. He said that forestry is pseudoscience and all the talk about sustainable utilization through scientific management is an eyewash.

I have come to believe that some persons become slave to their theories and scholarly beliefs even if those have become redundant or incongruous in the fast changing world and Prof Gadgil appears to be trapped within his own fixed ideas. He fails to see that there is nothing wrong in the Working Plans but it is the pressure emanating from outside that is taking the toll on forests. The growing rural population in and around forests unsustainably harvest timber and firewood and graze their cattle in the forest free of charge. The number of unproductive free-ranging cattle has also grown rapidly. The Working Plan prescriptions therefore fail to cope up with this kind of pressure. Prof Gadgil conveniently forgot to mention the rapid loss of forests due to their diversion for non-forestry purposes. A report using government data claims that 1.52 million hectares of Forest land has been diverted since the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) for 27,144 projects.

According to the official data released by the NDA Government in Parliament in December 2018, a total of 20,314.12 hectares of forest land (almost the size of Kolkata) was diverted in three years 2015-2018 (till December 13, 2018). I would have been delighted if Prof Gadgil had suggested how India might reconcile the conservation needs with the developmental needs or include ecological and environmental concerns in the planning and implementation of development projects.

Prof Gadgil is a scholar in mathematical ecology, but he gave examples from Sweden without remembering that comparing two drastically unequal samples would give unreliable outcome. India and Sweden cannot be compared in any way and any attempt to do so would yield a totally biased result. By criticizing the Wildlife (Protection) Act of India for not permitting hunting, he has exposed his total lack of knowledge about the international poaching scenario. He perhaps has no idea that poaching is an extremely equipped international illegal trade, second only to drug trafficking and the well organized mafia exploits the locals to poach wild animals for money. The worst comment he did make was about his co-members who were on the Tiger Task Force with him, this committee was constituted by MoEF in 2005 following the Sariska crisis. He said that while other members were relaxing and enjoying themselves at the FRH, he alone went out to the forest to have a direct chat with the forest guards at Sariska and after that chat he came to the conclusion that the tiger number in Sariska were misreported by the senior officers and that all the tigers were poached with the direct connivance of forest staff. I am not contesting the reason why the tigers vanished in Sariska but I am shocked by the audacity in which the speaker used this localized information to tarnish the image of all forest personnel across India and belittled the other members of the Tiger Task Force. On this committee were H.S. Panwar, Sunita Narayan and Samar Singh, who are themselves persons of impeccable character, repute and scholarship.

Though I could have picked up a verbal duel with him then but considering the sentiments of the august gathering who had invited him as a guest of honour for the memorial lecture organized by NCHSE in the memory of our respected luminary and extraordinary administrator late M.N. Buch, I restrained myself and asked him only two polite questions.

I asked him if he considers that ecosystem people still exist all over the country and manage their natural resources judiciously and sustainably then why is that the community managed forests of North East India are getting degraded and facing serious loss of biodiversity. He replied that studies done by some of his colleagues in Manipur reveal that it is a myth that the forest of NE are degrading. It seems, Professor Sahab has stopped reading research reports published by scholars who were not trained by him. Please go through the excerpt culled out of research report from North-east :
“The North east registered a decrease of 244 square kilometers of forest area during the period 1997 to 1999. In addition to areas being cleared of forest, a substantial area of forest is experiencing ongoing degradation through hacking, fires, and grazing. The region’s forests are experiencing an extensive process of fragmentation, degradation, and outright deforestation and forest conversion. The management of the forest has suffered in the recent past due to pressure on land, the decreasing cycle of shifting cultivation, exploitation of forest for timber, and lack of a scientific management strategy. Shifting cultivation has been an important factor responsible for much of the forest being classified as “open forest” (see table 3), especially in the states of Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland, where much of the land designated as unclassified forest is part of the jhum or swidden pool. As such, these lands are cleared and burned for cultivation every 5 to 15 years, and forest regeneration is typically halted during the young secondary forest phase, changing the 8 landscape extensively. About 450,000 families in the Northeastern Region annually cultivate 10,000 square kilometers of forests, and the total area affected by jhumming (shifting cultivation) is believed to be 44,000 square kilometers (Singh 1990). Degraded secondary forests, bamboo thickets and weeds, or simply barren land dominate today’s “jhum scapes” (Toky and Ramakrishnan 1981; Roy and Joshi 2002). Further, as hill farmers shift to such cash crops as ginger, pineapple, and broom grass, lands once allowed to regenerate as forests are now permanently converted to agriculture, reducing total forest cover.” (source -COMMUNITIES AND FOREST MANAGEMENT IN NORTHEAST INDIA BY MARK POFFENBERGER DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY FORESTRY INTERNATIONAL, U.S.A. WITH S. K. BARIK (NEHU), DHRUPAD CHOUDHURY (ICIMOD), VINCENT DARLONG (IFAD), VISHAL GUPTA (MOEF), S. PALIT (IFS RET.), IVAN ROY (IFS RET.), IBOBI SINGH (FD MANIPUR), B. K. TIWARI (NEHU), SANJAY UPADHYAY (ELDF) This paper was commissioned as an input to the study “Development and Growth in Northeast India: The Natural Resources, Water, and Environment Nexus).

The second question I asked him was –“Do you believe that in a country were the respect for the law of the land is scant, would the hunting permit system like the one used in Sweden work in India?” He said it is the forest staff that indulges in hunting not the local people. What can I say about such naivete? God bless him.

The author, Suhas Kumar, is a former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Madhya Pradesh Government. He is a wildlife expert and is a member of the Madhya Pradesh State Wildlife Board and Chhattisgarh State Wildlife Board.

Comments on this piece as they have appeared on social media:

First of all does any body realize that today the forest exists in the country due to hard and dedicated work of foresters. Does anybody consider why common land shrunk over the years? Can the forests of North-East bear the burden of increasing population by their conventional way of maintaining livelihood? Everything said and done there is need for growing trees wherever land is available based on perspective plan for at least two decades for sustainable living. There is need for adjustment of country’s economic growth keeping in view agriculture and industry etc.We need an ideal system that has to be integrated with the ecosystem, so the adjustment is necessary. Only forest having limited land area cannot meet all the expectations.There is no use blaming and counter blaming, we need go forward with the challenge learning from the past. – Asesh Lahiri

Gadgil did not come to Sariska when Task Force visited it in 2005. I conducted them as Chief Wild Life Warden. – RN Mehrotra

A refreshing critique fired from the shoulder. I agree hundred percent with what has been observed about the stilted (a mild term) ‘scholarship’ of the professor. He has a bee in his bonnet (not much of a bonnet though) concerning the forest department and forest officers. He has abiding love and respect for the ecosystem people who according to him can do nothing wrong. My good friend Rauf Ali, who passed on to the ages some years back could have written a tome on the great man–the funny and amazing stuff that is. I stay in the same city remember! I avoid all roads leading to the professor’s abode. My enduring regret has been that while he had visited the Wildlife Institute of India during the early 1980s I had invited the professor to my house. I had a dozen or so Alfonso mangoes those had been acquired with some difficulty, and when I offered him one he ate three. Rauf was with him on a task at that time and of course he also had been invited to my home. While departing Rauf had whispered ‘you will regret it’. I did not understand the meaning of his comment then but later–too late–I understood. The precious mangoes of course have been a part of that regret. – Vishwas Sawarkar

Sir, excellent assessment of the major concerns for an ecologically fragile democratic country!! The forest dept. have not come at par with police & Army & have always been treated in a step-motherly manner by the system, as they are seen as the biggest barrier in any kind of development. An ecological crisis in the country is necessary for the people to understand the role of the forests & the dept which is responsible for their protection. We haven’t learned the lessons from the disastrous Kerala floods where Prof Madhav Gadgil had himself pointed out deforestation as the reason.

It is the way the guardians of our lungs are treated because of the abstract value of the resources, which they protect. The role of the Police & Army can be quantified while the role of the forest dept has still not been quantified. I think it is high time that the forest dept resorts to the economics of bio-diversity conservation!! – Imran Khan

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