Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Jhurjhura tigress" dies revealing State's apathy

An NGO, “Udai”, led by Shehla Masood, a wildlife activist has been seeking action against those who were responsible for the death of a tigress in the famed Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh (MP). She handed over a memorandum to the chief minister on the International Tiger Day for action against those responsible for the death of the tigress. The memorandum had more than 36000 signatures on it. The tigress died on 19th may, 2010 after having been hit by a vehicle the night before when some so-far-unidentified important visitors entered the Reserve for an allegedly unauthorised and illegal night-drive. It died in the Jhurjhura area of the Reserve and, hence, has since come to be known as the “Jhurjhura tigress”.

The killing caused a furore in India and abroad. According to the member-secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), enough evidence was available to indicate that two vehicles were involved in the accident. The vehicles entered the Reserve after the closing time at 9.30 PM and, unofficial reports indicate, carried sons of two state ministers who are one-time princelings. Wielding their power and influence they squelched proper investigations. Vociferous demands, including even from the central Ministry of Forests & Environment (MOEF), for a Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) were ignored. The State’s Forest Department handed over the investigations to the provincial Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Keen observers of the ways of the State said that this was done only to effectively put a lid on the case. That is apparently true as the investigations have led nowhere even after five months and the culprits have remained anonymous.

The death of the “Jhurjhura tigress” has been dwelt upon in some detail only to indicate the attitude of utter indifference of the state government, especially its Forest Department, towards protection of tigers. These are the days of declining tiger numbers and every piece of news about them makes it to the media. Sighting of new-born cubs or deaths – natural or due to internecine fights – and even mating or refusal to do so, by relocated tigers, all make it to the media in fair amounts of detail. There are any number of non-governmental organisations that are running campaigns with a view to raising awareness about the need to save tigers. Clearly, there is visible desperation about the plummeting tiger numbers in the country. In the midst of all this almost universal concern the brazen apathy of the State that has given to itself the sobriquet of “The Tiger State” is insensitive, even jarring and bizarre.

This is more so because its recent record in tiger conservation is none too satisfactory. Only last year the Panna Tiger Reserve lost all its tigers. Despite a very early warning – in 2004-05 –by a long-time researcher of Panna tigers, RS Chudawat, and later repeated warnings by central teams of professional tiger-watchers from various tiger conservational organisations such as NTCA , the Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court, etc. were not paid heed to. The State’s forest bureaucracy obdurately ignored them and remained in denial mode.

The Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by the MOEF to enquire into disappearance of tigers from Panna severely indicted the State and its officials for failure in various areas of tiger conservation. Not to be outdone, the Forest Department set up its own investigative team under the chairmanship of a retired principal chief conservator of forests. Its report blamed the disappearance of tigers on emergence of a skewed sex-ratio with males outnumbering females that induced the latter to migrate out of the core area into the buffers only to be poached. The report did an excellent cover-up job and did not fix responsibility on anybody. In fact, none has so far been held accountable for the loss of Panna tigers. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), the most articulate and vehement in denying absence of tigers in the Reserve till the forest minister admitted in in the State Assembly, was only moved out for a while and was promptly brought back as soon as the State-level panel submitted its report.

The lackadaisical attitude of the State’s forest department was further evidenced by disappearance of tigers from the Sanjay National Park in Sidhi District which once hosted 30-odd tigers and now don’t seem to have any. A Panna-like revival is on the cards but would be successful only if proper care is taken. Even in Panna two cubs born of a recently relocated tigress went missing and are now presumed to be dead. Again, a sub-adult tiger was crushed in April 2009 in the Bandhavgarh Reserve under the wheels of a tourist vehicle that gained entry because of lax control-systems in the Reserve.

Worse, the government nonchalantly gave approval to the widening of a highway connecting Nagpur with Seoni that cuts across the corridor that the tigers and other wildlife use to commute between the Kanha and Pench tiger reserves. The road, in any case, had fragmented their habitat, and yet the government gave the approval unmindful of the impact it would have on the tigers and other wildlife. The government’s apathy is also reflected in its apparent lack of enthusiasm to protect and nurse the tigers that have recently been discovered in Madhav National park in Shivpuri and in the jungles around Dewas. Apparently some tigers still survive outside the protected areas which need to be nursed and nurtured and a hawk-like watch needs to be kept over them.

It’s not that the government and its foresters do not know what needs to be done. They know it all having been in the profession for decades. Only they have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and shun one-upmanship vis-a-vis their counterparts in various central tiger organisations and institutions towards whom they have adopted an adversarial attitude. After all, in so far as tigers are concerned the objectives of both are the same.

The Forest Department will also have to shed its obsession with tourism. That unrestricted tourism is a bane for the tourist sites, especially the national parks, is being increasingly appreciated. The infamous tiger-shows that virtually corral tigers and the department’s new initiatives of monsoon and eco-tourism with forest patrols may fetch revenue but are not conducive to conservation. Animals also need to be left to themselves, at least, for some time.

The need for escalated efforts to protect wildlife cannot be overemphasised. While higher posts are promptly filled up those in subaltern levels have remained unfilled. Recent regularisation of part-timers has not helped as most are above 45 years in age. The need is of revised recruitment policies for induction of young and energetic guards, properly equipped and armed to enable them to actively participate in the fight to save tigers, a fight which, as commented by an official of Wildlife Trust of India, is increasingly being “fought only with the generals but no soldiers”.

Above all, what is required for saving the tigers is political will as that will bring in its wake a change in attitude of the bureaucracy, including the foresters. This was exemplified by Indira Gandhi whose initiative in launching the Project Tiger brought in a remarkable attitudinal change among the officials. As wildlife conservationist Belinda Wright says, “If CMs (chief ministers) are on board there will still be some hope”. Unfortunately in MP, the CM is not yet “on board” and at the bureaucratic helm are those who (over)saw the disappearance of tigers from Panna. Clearly, tiger is under threat in the “Tiger State”.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Second Mumbai international airport - another view

Recently the members of parliament (MPs) representing all hues from Mumbai displayed rare unity when, together, they met the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. At stake was the clearance of the proposal for the second international airport for the metropolis held up at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) of the Indian government. The Ministry has raised several environmental issues suitable replies to which have not yet been provided. The intention of the MPs was to pressurise the MOEF for expediting the environmental clearances. None dared skipping the meet as this was a proposal, howsoever controversial, that would boost further economic growth of the metropolis even if it happens to be suicidal. They smelt nothing but votes once the second airport came through.

Economic growth is the new deity in India at the altar of which everything has to be sacrificed – whether it is natural resources, the natural world, the environment or whatever. The word connotes development and progress which, in our context, is seemingly limitless and endless.

The proposal for establishment of Mumbai’s second airport has for some time been a subject of public discourse and inter-ministerial squabbles. It is proposed to be located in Navi (New) Mumbai about 35 kilometres away from the existing Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA). Its proponent, City Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) of Mumbai, contends that enhancement of aviation facilities for Mumbai has become absolutely essential as the existing airport is fast reaching saturation level. Besides, a second airport is needed for retaining the leadership of Maharashtra in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), thereby “creating a place of pride for itself and add to the prosperity of its people”.

According to the CIDCO website, the new airport, to be built under public-private partnership, is expected to “absorb” the future growth in business and commercial activity of the region. CIDCO also thinks that availability of physical and social infrastructure coupled with “environmental friendly site” makes the Navi Mumbai airport viable in every respect. Further, the growth in resident population in Navi Mumbai, rapid development of its Central Business District, along with economic activities in the Special Economic Zone, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, Thane-Belapur and Taloja industrial areas and the huge catchment area ranging from Pune to South Mumbai would assure a steady growth in traffic. It is expected to cater to 20 million passengers by 2020, 30 million in 2025 and ultimately 40 million by 2030. It is going to be one of the world’s few “greenfield”, state-of-the-art airports offering world class facilities to passengers, cargo and airlines. Needless to mention, the Maharashtra government had given prompt approval to the proposal.

That Mumbai is already bursting at its seams is, apparently, of no concern to the promoter. It is already the most populous city in India and the second most populous city in the world with 14 million people huddled within its seven islands. According to Wikipedia, along with the neighbouring urban areas of Navi Mumbai, Thane, etc. it is one of the most populous urban regions in the world.

As regards the quality of life Mumbai offers to its citizens, a telling report of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation recently appeared in the print media. The Corporation’s Environment Status Report for 2009-2010, released on September 3, 2010, reveals that the presence of the highly carcinogenic chemical, benzo(a)pyrene, has increased eight-fold. Benzo(a)pyrene is a component of chemicals called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and is emitted from automobile exhaust, tar, combustion of organic materials such as wood and coal. The report also reveals a jump in the presence of other PAHs that, all taken together, are potent air pollutants and have been identified as, both “carcinogenic and mutagenic”. The BMC attributes the rise in these carcinogenic pollutants to, inter alia, increased construction and rapid industrialisation. And, yet CIDCO would like more construction and further industrial growth.

The CIDCO in its website has said that new airport has been proposed at an “environment-friendly site”. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The MOEF, under the new vigorous leadership of Jairam Ramesh, has taken objection to the proposal on several counts. For the new airport about 400 acres of mangrove forests are proposed to be displaced. These protect Mumbai’s fragile coastline against flash floods, serve as hatching grounds for fish and also act as natural purifier of air. It seems, already massive destruction of mangroves has taken place near the suburb of Dahisar. Besides, no lessons seem to have been learnt from the yearly floods, especially that of 2005, largely caused by the diversion of Mithi River to facilitate building of the existing airport 50 years ago. Overlooking history, CIDCO has proposed diversion of not one but two rivers to accommodate the airport. The building of the proposed airport would also require levelling of an 80 metre high hill that, environmentalists say, raises “significant coastal zone management issues”. Environmentalists also feel that the new airport, unless artificially raised by 7 or 8 metres, would be vulnerable to high tides.

The existing CSI Airport of Mumbai was rated only this year by the Airports Council International as the best in the country among those that handle 15 million or more passengers. Globally also it has improved its rating from 87 to 23. Reports have also indicated that there are slots, though inconvenient, even now available which have been rejected by some foreign airlines. Besides, the Civil Aviation Ministry is considering a crack-down on delayed flights to decongest the Mumbai and Delhi airports. Besides, to forestall choking of the airport the nearby international airports of Goa, Ahmedabad and Pune could be modernised and expanded. Pune, in fact, has been cited to be in the catchment of the proposed Navi Mumbai Airport and, yet, there is no proposal for the expansion of its airport.

As is evident, the proposal for the second airport for the metropolis is entirely driven by “growth” – of passenger and cargo traffic, of industry, international trade and commerce, FDI and, above all, for “pride” and “prosperity” of the locals. The airport is expected to propel growth in passenger traffic to 40 million by 2030. Once that is achieved, will CIDCO propose a third international airport for the metropolis to decongest the proposed one? Can one go on adding airports in a city to provide for ever-rising traffic? One gets the feeling that, Mumbai feels a little jealous of Delhi as the latter has since got an upgraded airport that is supposedly “world class”.

From all evidences, the time seems to have come when authorities in Mumbai must cry a halt to all growth, be satisfied with what it has and strive to improve upon it. The new airport will in no way improve the quality of life of the people. And, barring a few low-level jobs the poor will get nothing out of it. Economic growth in India has a strong relationship with enrichment of the rich and rise in the levels of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Besides, bigger a city becomes, greater is the deprivation of its poor. Despite being the richest city in the country with the highest GDP, more than 50% of Mumbai’s population currently lives in slums in conditions that are sub-human.

The proposal for the second international airport for Mumbai would, therefore, seem to be untenable from many points of view, especially those of its environment and well-being of its citizens.