Thursday, October 30, 2008

Vanishing tigresses of Panna

That the tiger in the Indian wild is critically threatened is a well-known fact. At the beginning of 20th Century 40,000 of these striped animals used to roam the jungles of the country. Wanton killings, rising human population, economic development followed by shrinking habitat brought their numbers to a perilous low of around 2000 towards the end of 1960s. That is when the country woke up to the need for protection of this magnificent beast.

It was at the initiative of the more pro-active of politicians, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that the Project Tiger was launched in 1973. Its objective was to, “ensure a viable population of tiger in India for scientific, economic, aesthetic, cultural and ecological values…” Succeeding for a short while, the Project helped in boosting up the numbers to around 3500 in the course of a couple of decades. However, lackadaisical approach to its protection coupled with a raging demand for its body-parts in East Asian countries saw their numbers plummet again. The last census, organised on a more scientific basis earlier this Century, pegged their numbers at around 1400 – a number which is in no way viable for fulfilling the Project objectives.

It is in this context that the reports circulating for sometime of vanishing tigresses in the Panna Tiger Reserve in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh (MP) are disconcerting. Sariska, a popular tiger-reserve near Delhi, located in the touristy north-western province of Rajasthan, lost all its tigers to pachers in 2005 and two tigers – a male and a female have had to be introduced in it recently. And, now the same catastrophe seems to have befallen Panna.

Created in 1981, Panna National Park was elevated in 1994 to the status of a Tiger Reserve under the Project Tiger. Situated in the picturesque Vindhyan ranges, close to the World Heritage Site of Khajuraho, the Park is known for tiger habitat that is considered about the finest in the country.

All, apparently, was fine with the Reserve until around 2003 when the slide seems to have commenced. With declining tiger-sightings, the figures dished out of its tiger-population in 2004 were so hotly contested that a re-census had to be ordered. Although the fresh census revealed the presence of 35 tigers, the controversy about absence of tigresses in the Park never really died down. Even the Central Empowered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court, comprising inter alia the well-known Indian “tiger scientist” Valmik Thapar, had commented in 2005 on its mismanagement, predicting that the Park was headed the Sariska way.

The year 2007 saw fresh reports about the vanishing tigresses of Panna. Raghu Chundawat, the famous tiger-researcher of Panna, came out into the open in a national English language news-channel speaking about the absence of tigresses in the Park – an observation that, he claimed, was shared by Park officials. Clearly, poachers were active, as was soon proved by press reports.
The current year, too, witnessed no let up in the incidence of adverse reports. In fact, the prestigious Sanctuary Asia magazine published in its June 2008 issue vehement denials by a senior MP Forest Department official of the Park’s plummeting numbers of female tigers. Asserting that it had not become a “bachelor Park”, he maintained, it had a healthy population of 30-odd tigers.

The same issue of the periodical, however, carried a “Counterpoint” by Raghu Chundawat who, drawing from his technical knowledge acquired during his extended researches on Panna tigers, claimed that “breeding territories” – generally stable and constant in a secure (tiger) population – have appreciably declined in numbers. According to him, loss of seven such “territories” has been documented, suggesting disappearance of 80 to 100 % of Panna’s breeding tigresses.

Whatever might be the official projections, Chundawat’s contentions received support from the fact that in September 2008 the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), finding an unviable male-female ratio, advised the MP Forest Department to introduce more tigresses into the Park.
Quite obviously, lessons have not been learnt from the Sariska debacle where persistent wrong reporting of tiger numbers resulted in the animal’s disappearance from that popular Reserve. Repeating the same mistakes in Panna in an apparent effort to protect skidding reputation(s) well-meant inputs from experts were being ignored, even rubbished, overlooking the larger interests of the country and significance of tiger’s survival to it. Tiger, after all, is not just a feature in our jungles; it is much more than that – “a metaphor for our ecological foundation”, as Bittu Sehgal, a prominent Indian naturalist, has opined. It also happens to be a “metaphor” for the country’s water, food and economic security besides being its vehicle to fight climate-change with.

The need of the hour, therefore, is to set at rest all the controversies of the past and quickly initiate action to organise relocation of a few tigresses in the Park as advised by the NTCA. The best time to undertake relocation of animals, experts say, is winter, which is just round the corner and should be taken advantage of.

Unfortunately, Panna National Park has, of late, made news for all the wrong reasons. The only good news that came in about it was the recent rejection by the National Board for Wildlife of a proposal to further fragment the Park by laying a railway-line through it. Now that the proposed railroad is out of the way, the Central and the MP governments will do well to implement the stalled proposal of the Park’s extension over the, reportedly, “ideal” tiger country. Utmost care will, of course, have to be taken to ensure protection of the carnivore and its prey-base in the extended Park.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

123 Agreement - of nuclear wastes and other risks

The controversial Indo-US Nuclear Deal has finally been signed. It was inked the other day by Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State and Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian Foreign Minister. Hugely controversial, it had a chequered progression to its eventual sealing after three long years.

During the protracted debate on the Deal whether in India or abroad nuclear power was touted as a clean source of energy though the West does not seem to reckon it as such any longer. In the US nuclear power plants have not been built for decades. France, too, has reduced the contribution of nuclear energy in its total power output. Yet, curiously, never for once was a mention made of the hazardous radioactive wastes that the nuclear power reactors generate. True, these do no emit greenhouse gases, but the wastes generated by them unless safely consigned can imperil life and the environment. Curiously, this was never touched upon even as the US and others are up against the unsolved problem of permanent interment and isolation of nuclear wastes.

Classified into three categories – low level, intermediate level and high level wastes (HLW) – disposal of nuclear wastes has to be managed with great care for protecting people and the environment from their lethal radiation. Around 95% of wastes generated by nuclear power plants are HLW which include uranium, plutonium and other highly radioactive elements. They are low in volume but high in their lethality, if allowed to escape into the environment. Some of these have thousands of years of “half life”, i.e. they take thousands of years to decay to half of their potency. Hence after being stored for around 40-odd years in leak-proof sealed cooling casks, these have to be permanently buried in deep underground geologically suitable repositories – by far an expensive proposition.

The nuclear wastes of the power plants of the US, having been stored above ground for around 40-odd years, are now due for permanent burial. A site in Yucca Mountains in Nevada has been selected for the purpose but the Nevadans are somewhat worried. After all, none can guarantee that the wastes will never leak out. The Yucca Mountains facility is likely to be ready by 2010. But, one doesn’t really know whether the site will ever be used for the intended purpose.

In India Waste Immobilisation Plants have been operating in Tarapur, Trombay and Kalpakkam. Vitrification, a complex technology possessed by only a few nations, has been successfully developed in the country and vitrified wastes are, reportedly, stored in a specially designed Solid Storage Surveillance Facility (SSSF) for about 30 years prior to their disposal in deep geological formations. No one knows whether any such geological formation has so far been identified. Speculations are, however, rife that scientists may eventually pitch in for a site in the deserts of the province of Rajasthan in north-west of the country.

Now that the Nuclear Deal has been sealed numerous nuclear reactors worth billions of dollars are going to be imported from the US, France, Russia and sundry others by an energy-hungry India. It, indeed, has big plans. Currently contributing only 3% of the electricity produced in the country, the government of Dr Manmohan Singh intends to take the share of nuclear power to 33% by 2020. There will naturally be corresponding increase in the waste generated, for permanent interment of which the country will have to find appropriate site(s).

Besides, although so far there have been no accidents like those of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, for which Indian scientists deserve all credit, yet chances of one occurring cannot be discounted with the rise in general sloppiness in every sphere of activity in the country. Proliferation generally breeds all round compromise in quality and that may well happen with the proliferating nuclear power industry. Besides, numerousness of atomic power complexes will act like magnates for the disaffected and the hostile elements in the neighbouring countries. If infiltration and exfiltration continue with such ease as at present, the country will never be short of prowling bombers.

The government, therefore, needs to prepare in earnest for handling various implications of the expected inrush of nuclear power plants over the next decade or so. Apart from looking for appropriate safe geological sites, the government will , inter alia, have to take care of at least two more serious implications: one is, of course, to ensure zero-tolerance of slapdash way of functioning and the other is about virtual sealing of the Eastern, Northern and Western borders to prevent their facile penetration by terrorists.

Since harnessing nuclear power in a big way for civilian use is a high-risk venture the country and its people would seem to need to pull themselves up by the boot-straps.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A "neta" thrashed

One wouldn’t be way off the mark if one were to say that politicians have increasingly proved to be bane for this country. It is they who are largely responsible for most of the ills that the country suffers from. Whether it is corruption, non-governance, lawlessness or whatever – all can be traced mostly to acts of omission and commission of the politicians.

One, therefore, does not find oneself harbouring any sympathy for the Member of Parliament (MP) from Madhya Pradesh who the other day happened to be at the receiving end of a sound bit of thrashing at the hands of the Government Railway Police and the Railway Protection Force near the Bina Railway Station.

Quite clearly, he had no business to collect a crowd around him in a bid to obstruct the Railway Administration from removing the encroachers from the Railway lands. As a member of the nation’s Parliament he, surely, is aware of the massive problem of illegal occupation of hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime Railway lands by unscrupulous people. The Railways now need these pieces of land for various purposes, including those of further development and generation of revenues. The encroachers had been given sufficient notice to vacate the lands, and yet they did not do so. Instead, presumably at their instance, the MP decided to jump into the fray along with his supporters and came in the way of the authorities who were implementing the government’s directions. As generally happens on such occasions, violence ensued and the MP got beaten up when the police resorted to use of force to restore order.

Objectively speaking, he had no reason to interfere in execution of a government decision which, from all evidences, was taken in public interest. But, this is precisely what our netas (politicians) are wont to do. Self-aggrandisement is what they believe in, regardless of its ill-effects on the general quality of governance in the country. They indulge almost regularly in such acts of indiscretion in pursuit of votes unmindful of the larger interests, fostering pervasive lawlessness. No wonder, laws and rules are seldom enforced, so much so that even the apex court has on occasions given vent to its ire in this regard. The administrative and law enforcement machineries have been rendered effete and powerless – all because of the constant interference of our netas, petty or big.

As the ugly situation was entirely of the MP’s own making, one dares say that it would be travesty of justice if the policemen concerned are brought to book for no fault of theirs. If that were to happen it would further encourage the unruly to breach the laws, demoralise the law-enforcement machinery, prevent development and economic progress and result in undeserved glorification of our self-serving netas.

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...