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Debating Conservation

Battles over Nature, Science and the Politics of Conservation edited by Vasant Saberwal and Mahesh Rangarajan; Permanent Black, Delhi, 2005; pp 412, paperback, Rs 395.

Debating Conservation

Battles over Nature, Science and the Politics of Conservation

edited by Vasant Saberwal and Mahesh Rangarajan; Permanent Black, Delhi, 2005; pp 412, paperback, Rs 395.


here may be around 8,00,000 wild ungulate herbivores in India ranging in size from the mouse deer to the elephant. Many of these animals live within India’s protected areas, which cover close to 5 per cent of the country’s area. A few national parks also sustain a large number of predators. With some 359 lions and 311 leopards within (or near) a 1,412 square kilometre area, the Sasan Gir national park and sanctuary in Gujarat may have the highest density of large cats anywhere in the world. However, in most other parks, the population of large predators and other key species is small or declining. Averaging less than 300 square kilometres, the protected areas are too fragmented and undersized, too poorly managed and too open to competing usage to sustain healthy populations of wildlife. Often the protected areas serve as “parking lots” for domestic livestock, rather than as sanctuaries for wild animals.

The rate of decline of wildlife quickened during British rule due to hunting and habitat destruction. Independence and democracy hit Indian wildlife with a vengeance, arming more people with guns, jeeps and spotlights. Only last-minute intervention by the India’s conservationminded elite put the brakes on destruction. Had it not been for these influential individuals and for the “most astonishing tolerance” (p 51) that many poor villagers show towards large mammals, “the Hindu rate of decline of wildlife” would have been even steeper. Today many animal and bird species hang on, precariously, by the skin of their teeth, but they are still there.

It is the declared and undeclared love for what is left of “Wild” India that seems to unite the authors of the articles in the book under review: The sky burning a spectacular red at sunset as only the Kanha meadows sky can burn… wild, grazed by over 10,000 chital (editors, p 14), and the boom of the bustard and the florican’s comical jump that go with healthy grassland (Rahmani, p 133). Biophilia apart, internal disagreements range conservationists against rural activists. The aim of the editors is to draw the battle lines as sharply as possible and, then, to seek the middle ground, which unites them. Part I of the book leaves the floor to biologists and ecologists to set out the “Biological Imperatives”. Part II turns the tables against “authoritarian” and “arrogant” biologists, whom Ramchandra Guha accuses of acting simplistically in the name of science. To make up for Guha’s harsh attack, the editors step out from the shadows in part III to present a more compassionate view of all and sundry, including the much-maligned forest department. In part IV one would expect a new synthesis to emerge, but instead the authors of part IV (Amita Baviskar, B M S Rathore, Alan Rodgers, Dawn Hartley, Sultana Bashir and

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006 K Sivaramakrishnan) choose to take a close look at the politics of contemporary efforts at community participation in eco-development by drawing on comparative material from the African continent as well as case studies within India. The article on Africa appears unduly long, the jacket features a motive from Europe rather than a more fitting illustration from India, and the book does not have an index. Otherwise it is a treat with the beautiful prose of virtually all the contributors putting to shame Jayati Ghosh’s apprehension that Indians have forgotten how to write English (‘The Loss of Language’, Frontline, February 10, 2006, pp 111-12).

Arguments in Academia

The question is whether the book succeeds in clearing a middle path broad enough to allow biologists to walk hand in hand with those who favour democratic politics and decentralised decision-making. Wildlife biologists are trained to evaluate an ecosystem in terms of how well species other than humans thrive and reproduce (p 223). In contrast, the meandering mind of social scientists will scavenge all available literature to reorder it in a humancentred antithesis. Positivist scientists and post-modern philosophers should cooperate, argue Sharachchandra Lélé and Richard B Norgaard (p 178), but shall the twain ever meet?

In the first four chapters, the biologists and ecologists (M D Madhusudan, Charudutt Mishra, Renee Borges, Beth Middleton and Asad Rahmani) lay bare the basic parameters of the interaction between humans, their livestock and crops, and the wild animals that feed on these. The reader learns why the domestication of animals and crops invariably sets humans and wildlife on a confrontational course: Biological imperatives diverge. All farmers close to the Velavadar national park in Gujarat cannot be expected to behave like the bishnois when blackbucks raid their fields. No matter how accommodating humans may be, holiday-makers in Diu cannot be expected to take kindly to lions sharing the beach. The solution, biologists often argue, is the creation of inviolate protected areas, plus fencing, culling and resettlement. When large cats attack livestock in protected areas, park management should remove the livestock gradually to enable the population of wild ungulates to increase sufficiently to serve as the preferential prey for the carnivores. When tigers, leopards, elephants or antelopes move out of the protected areas, the response is to cull the flocks, or to cull the few aggressive animals, typically sub-adult males, who endanger human life. On p 4, the editors urge us to “better understand the basic biology of how human-dominated systems function”. The truth that biologists tend to converge upon is that humans invariably exterminate large animals that compete with us. It does not matter whether the humans in question are poor “biomass people” or urban “omnivores”. When nature and human society are forced into putative “wedlock” by the creation of a protected area, nature ostensibly receives protection, but it is society that wields power. When society starts encroaching on nature, the former either suffers silently or strikes back with terror. To a biologist,


Fourth Winter Course on Forced Migration

Applications are invited for a 15-day orientation course on Forced Migration to be held in Kolkata, India, from 1 December15 December 2006. The short-term winter course, organised each year by the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, is intended for younger academics, refugee activists and others working in the field of human rights and humanitarian assistance for victims of forced displacement. The course will be preceded by a two and a half month long programme of distance education. The curriculum will deal with themes of nationalism, ethnicity, partition, and partition-refugees, national regimes and the international regime of protection, political issues relating to regional trends in migration in South Asia, internal displacement, the gendered nature of forced migration and protection framework, resource politics, environmental degradation, and several other issues related to the forced displacement of people. The course will have emphasis on the experiences of displacement, creative writings on refugee life, critical legal and policy analysis, and analysis of relevant notions such as vulnerability, care, risk, protection, return and settlement. The course will have fieldwork and other exercises.

Applicants must have (a) 3 years experience in the work of protection of the victims of forced displacement, or hold post-graduate degree in Social Sciences and (b) proficiency in English. Besides giving all necessary particulars, application must be accompanied by an appropriate recommendation letter and a 500-1000 word write-up on how the programme is relevant to the applicant’s work and may benefit the applicant. Selected candidates from South Asia will have to pay INR 3000/ each as registration fee (from outside South Asia US $ 300). CRG will bear accommodation and other course expenses for all participants and the selected participants will have to bear their own travel costs unless they qualify for a travel grant for which they have to apply separately. Applications, addressed to the Course Coordinator, can be sent by e-mail ( or ) or by post, and must reach the following address by 31 May 2006. Address – Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, FE-390, Ground Floor, Sector-III, Salt Lake City, Kolkata - 700106, West Bengal, India. For details visit our web site Inquiries relating to application procedure are welcome.

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006

the way out of this dilemma is to micromanage the relationship, or, if need be, to effect a separation. To rural activists, the answer is “coexistence”, even under duress.

The Poaching Threat

Several chapters in the book were written in the 1990s. Since then, the middle ground has shifted towards the scienceside of the science-politics equation, but without obliterating the activist position. The appointment of Sunita Narain from the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) to head the Tiger Task Force shows how far the process of interaction between conservationists and advocacy organisations has come. The task force confirms that coexistence is possible, but it also acknowledges that resettlement of whole villages outside protected areas is legitimate, provided it is done humanely and efficiently. This shows that the ecological viewpoint is gaining ground, much as the book under review has foreshadowed. But humane relocations and generous ecodevelopment at the local level will not prevent poachers from penetrating the forests if the black market looks favourable and the risk of punishment is negligible. What the book does not quite foresee is the emerging consensus that India should intensify its efforts to curb poaching, which continues blatantly in response to the demand in China, Tibet and south-east Asia.

The difference between Sariska national park where the tigers have apparently been killed and Sasan Gir where such carnivores still thrive may not be biological imperatives, or the degree to which ecodevelopment has benefited people in or near those parks. The difference is that the high-Himalayan and trans-Himalayan demand for Sariska’s tigers is greater than the demand for the lions of Sasan Gir. Cultural preferences and criminal intent make the difference.

Sunita Narain’s declared intention to gear up the enforcement system to deal with organised poaching should be aimed at major poachers such as Sansar Chand and other kingpins of the trade. Hardcore conservationist such as Valmik Thapar would also like to see the creation of a Central Forest and Wildlife Protection Force. This raises the question of how far one should go in empowering the state. Is the prosecution of poachers to ensure protection of wildlife, what the struggle against radical fundamentalism is to protection of humankind?

Increased power to the state or not, the debate on wildlife is also a debate on development in general, because modernisation itself changes nature. India is “shining”, but it is also shrinking. The country is undergoing a great ecological transition from which it may well emerge sanitised with clean villages and clean cities and fragrant with phenyle, but also with a severely impoverished flora and fauna. How much of India’s wildlife will be left by the time the country has affected its ecological, demographic and economic transition? Naturalists demand that nature be given its due. In 1980, M Krishnan pressed home this point by positing conservation as a primary patriotic duty: “If I have only conveyed the impression so far that it is of national importance to conserve our wildlife and wildlife habitats, I have failed fundamentally in my arguments. This is no matter of mere importance, but a primary patriotic duty, quite essential for the survival of the identity of this ancient country” (Krishnan quoted by K Sivaramakrishnan, p 394). Here and elsewhere, the book allows us to see how science, self, and society intertwine. However, the main plus point of the book is that it takes the science part of this triad seriously enough to allot biologists space enough to explain themselves to those not yet convinced of the enduring value of the natural sciences.



Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006

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