New Delhi: National Tiger Conservation Authority has issued specific instructions to all State Chief Wildlife Wardens to ensure strict compliance of the “Carrying Capacity” as per the NTCA guidelines when it comes to tourism in Tiger Reserves.
Dr Anup K Nayak, Additional Director General Forest (Project Tiger) and Member Secretary NTCA has written to all State Chief Wildlife Wardens instructing them to ensure the gap between two vehicles is maintained at a minimum distance of 500 meters.
Nayak has underscored that tourist vehicles inside the Tiger Reserves do not maintain the minimum 500 meter distance with other vehicles, often resulting in crowding of vehicles at one spot where animals are sighted and this is detrimental to wildlife. This defeats the very purpose for which carrying capacity is fixed.
NTCA, through its order of 12 February, has asked the State Wildlife chiefs to implement the carrying capacity guideline in letter and spirit.
Tourism carrying capacity in Tiger Reserves is calculated as maximum number of vehicles permitted per day under the NTCA (Normative Standards of Tourism Activities and Project Tiger) guidelines 2012.
The Madhya Pradesh Finance Department has blocked the use of Park Development Fund – the money generated from wildlife tourism in Tiger Reserves through entry gate, elephants, rest houses etc – which has touched a figure of approximately Rs. 27 crore every year. This despite the fact that there is a government order for the utilisation of this fund that does not go to the government exchequer.
There is a committee at the State level, presided by the State Principal Chief Conservator of Forest for utilisation of Park Development Fund. It comprises of a representative of the Finance department, Tourism department and also nominated members. Every Tiger Reserve, National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary comes before this committee with a proposal for the utilisation of the money earned by them through tourism. There are standing instructions that 33 per cent of the fund will go to the eco-development committees, besides the local communities, and 10 per cent to the Eco-Tourism Development Board. For the remaining 57 per cent of the Park Development Fund, the committee takes up proposals on a case-by-case basis and decides whether or not to take them up for implementation.
This procedure was being followed for the utilisation of the Park Development Fund continuously since 1993 but this year, June onward, the working of the Committee for Park Development Fund has been kept on hold by an order of the State Finance department. The gravity and seriousness of the problem can be gauged from the fact that midway when this committee was conducting its last meeting and proposals were being considered, the Principal Secretary Finance had shot a letter directing that the meeting be stopped. The message was loud and clear that this process cannot be allowed to continue. As a result, the contractual labour employed in Tiger Reserves and National Parks have been denied their wages for last many months as floating fund is not available with the park management to meet the wage related commitment. It should be noted that major innovative steps taken for translocation of Gaur from Kanha to Bandhavgarh or the endangered Barasingha from Kanha Tiger Reserve to Satpura and Van Vihar National Park was done with this fund that now stands blocked.
Further on the issue of Park Development Fund, it should be noted that Section 38X of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 provides for the establishment of Tiger Conservation Foundation and makes it mandatory for this Foundation to facilitate ecological, economic, social and cultural development in the tiger reserves; promote eco-tourism with the involvement of local stake-holder communities and provide support to safeguard the natural environment in the tiger reserves; facilitate the creation of, and or maintenance of, such assets as may be necessary for fulfilling the above said objectives; and to augment and mobilise financial resources, including recycling of entry and such other fees received in a tiger reserve, to foster stake-holder development and eco-tourism. Hence it beats imagination, how the State Finance Department could intervene and pass instructions to block the process for utilisation of Park Development Fund. Such a step amounts to defying the provisions of the Wild Life (Protection) Act.
There is also a budget-head created for Wildlife managment outside the protected areas. This money could be spent near places like Balaghat, Harda, Betul, Katni, Umaria and areas surrounding Bhopal, where there is a breeding tiger population. While the provision was significant earlier, the budgeted amount under this head has got reduced to just Rs. 10 crore in 2019-20. Forest and wildlife managers are a worried lot today. They are asking what will happen to efforts for building the capacity of the people or for creating infrastructure for the protection of wildlife. They are also drawing attention to the coordinated efforts made at all levels of the forest department in recent years to protect and conserve the tiger population, both inside the tiger reserves and outside. In this regard, they especially draw attention to the special budgetary allocation and role played by those involved in the relocation of about 80 villages that crucially required to be relocated for protection and conservation of habitat in Protected Areas. Pointing to the figure of 526 tigers, as per the fourth cycle of All India Tiger Estimation – 2018, which has helped Madhya Pradesh regain the “Tiger State” status, they are asking who shall be held accountable if there is a decline in tiger numbers in coming years.
Inquiries have revealed that even earlier the Nursery Management Fund sanctioned for the first time in 1997, which acted as a revolving fund, was similarly blocked by a bureaucrat heading the forest department. He took the plea that the Finance Department had not been consulted in this matter and forwarded the concerned file to the Finance department.
Another burning issue relates to the tourism lobby that has got into the overdrive mode and is using every trick up its sleeve to build inroads and have its sway over the management of Tiger Reserves in Madhya Pradesh. In a related development, Valmik Thapar, one of the founders of Ranthambore Foundation, who has been nominated earlier this month as a member of the reconstituted State Wildlife Board [which is in the midst of a huge controversy as the matter relating to “violation of Section 6 of the Wild Life (Protection), Act 1972 in appointment of non-official members of the Board” is now pending before the Jabalpur High Court for adjudication] sent a proposal to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath recently advising him that an empowered committee be set up to promote tourism in Tiger Reserves and that a former chief minister be appointed as its chairman. He has also volunteered to play the role of vice-chairman in the proposed committee. It is learnt that the Wildlife Wing of the State Forest Department has turned down this proposal with the remark that there is no provision under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 to allow any such committee. Already there is provision for State Wildlife Board and also the provision for a Steering Committee headed by the Chief Minister under Section 38U of WPA. Then there is Section38O (1) (c), which provides for laying down normative standards for tourism activities and guidelines for project tiger from time to time for tiger conservation in the buffer and core area of tiger reserves and ensure their due compliance. An eminent conservationist, when contacted, said with regard to the ongoing State Wildlife Board controversy that it is an entirely a different matter, that those in knowledgeable circles have started referring to the State Wildlife Board, which has lost its credibility, as “State Wildlife Project Clearance Board”.
When it comes to the bureaucrats belonging to the elite IAS, it has been observed that they lose no opportunity to assert their position even in matters that require expertise and experience in terms of wildlife management. A retired Indian Forest Service Officer, revealed how the Narmada Valley Development Authority Vice Chairman, an IAS officer, had moved a note-sheet once with the proposal that the Vice Chairman of NVDA should also be given the powers of the Chief Wildlife Warden. The proposal was mooted when NVDA was required to shell out Rs 34 crore for the proper conservation of forests, wildlife and fisheries in the Narmada Valley. This proposal had met its fate when the Wildlife Wing of the Forest Department cited Section 4 (1)(a) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 under which the State Government may, for the purpose of the Act or enforcement of the Act, appoint a Chief Wild Life Warden and it was categorically pointed out to the NVDA Vice Chairman that the Act only allows the appointment of “a” CWW.
Forest and wildlife managers, more particularly the committed Field Directors and staff, have reason to rejoice over the latest tiger population figures. Surely, they deserve credit. What also should be noted at this juncture is the leading role played by organisations like Sanctuary Asia, Wildlife Protection Society of India and CREW (Crusade for Revival of Environment and Wildlife) as well as stalwarts like Bittu Sahgal, Belinda Wright, and Valmik Thapar in keeping the tiger in sharp focus and maintaining pressure on the concerned enforcement authorities and managers of forests to ensure they worked concertedly keeping the larger objectives of conservation in view. It is due to the whole dynamics that we stand where we are today.
Anti-poaching measures, conservation and protection initiatives for retaining and reviving forest corridors and the relocation and resettlement of villagers from the Tiger Reserves has delivered good results. The euphoria over the tiger numbers should not lead to complacency. Tiger numbers, though important, are not the end all. People should know that more than numbers, it is important that the tiger that sits at the apex of the biotic pyramid should be able to thrive and regenerate in their natural habitat besides the tiger reserves. Only if that happens, we will know that the forest is a living forest and it’s a healthy ecosystem. Only the gullible and those blind to the ground situation would say all is well (with our forests). Whereas in real terms, we are on a rapid downward slide when it comes to the factors threatening the forest ecosystem and the survival of countless species. The status of our forests remains a matter of serious concern.