Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Tiger Summit and the "Tiger State"

With as few as 3200 tigers in the wilds of the world as many as thirteen tiger-range countries met in November 2010 in Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg in an effort to save the species. They committed around $300 million during the next five years towards doubling the current world population of the species by 2022. Hosted by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, governments concerned capped a year-long political process with new funding to support the plan, known as the Global Tiger Recovery Programme.

“Too often, conservation efforts languish for lack of political will,” said WWF Director General Jim Leape. “At the Forum here in St. Petersburg we have seen political will at the highest level - heads of government committing themselves to saving the tiger, and laying out concrete plans to turn those commitments into action on the ground... We have never before seen this kind of political support to save a single species,” Leape said. “We now have the strategy needed to double tiger numbers and real political momentum.” Putin in course of a conversation even quoted Mahatma Gandhi who, according to him, had said “A country which is good for the tiger is good for everybody”.

While concern for the tiger was perceptible the world over, the same was somewhat missing in India, the country that hosts almost 40% of the species. Not only the Indian delegation to the Summit was lightweight and even the political will that Leape talked about seemed to be wanting in India. For instance, the Prime Minister, who is the chairperson of the National Board of Wildlife, summoned its meeting in March 2010 after a lapse of almost two years. Likewise, barring the honourable exceptions of the chief ministers of Rajasthan and Gujarat (which has Asiatic lions), other chief ministers are as uncommitted towards conservation of wildlife. No wonder, a prominent conservationist, Belinda Wright, moaned that unless the chief ministers were on board it would be difficult to save the tiger. She was apparently, right as some, like the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh (MP), appear to be not quite friendly towards the campaign for saving the tiger.

This was exemplified by his recent alarming articulation. That he was not in favour of creating a buffer zone as mandated by the Central Wildlife Protection Act and as directed by the Prime Minister in his letter of April 2010, especially in the Panna Reserve, has been well known as some of his political cronies have mining interests within the proposed buffer area. A buffer zone, unlike the core area of a reserve, is not inviolate, is protected from major changes in land use and people living in it are provided alternative livelihood options. Mining operations, certainly cannot take place in it. What was alarming was that, siding with his political cronies, he asserted that he could not “sacrifice Panna for the sake of survival of the tigers” as humans were more important than tigers (even in a tiger reserve). The uproar that his statement caused made him back off. Nonetheless, his disinclination towards tiger conservation became evident by his reluctance to talk at some length to the movie icon Amitabh Bacchan during the recent finale of New Delhi Television’s “Save the tiger” campaign. No wonder, he has now opposed the centrally approved conversion of Ratapani Sanctuary into a tiger reserve.

Besides, his government is fighting tooth and nail the pending case filed in the MP High Court by “Prayatna”, an environmental advocacy group, regarding banning of tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Indian Tiger Conservation Authority. Soon after the petition was filed his Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wild Life) exhorted all the tourism players, hoteliers, tour operators, etc to oppose the case. This he did in defiance of the specific directions given by the Prime Minister in his letter to the chief minister referred to above. That unrestricted tourism has been a bane for the tiger reserves in the state has been acknowledged by many tiger experts. What the state promotes is a vicious kind of uncontrolled tourism with its infamous “tiger shows” that corral tigers with dozens of vehicles and elephants loaded with tourists who are hardly wildlife enthusiasts – something which is “irresponsible tourism”.

The state had a study conducted in 2003 for determining the carrying capacity of tourists in its tiger reserves. Mentioning excessive tourism pressure in the reserves, the report made detailed recommendations hardly any of which have been implemented. In its affidavit against the pending petition the government has mentioned that tourism, inter alia, effectively protects tigers and provides employment to locals. These are hypocritical statements as despite uncontrolled tourism in the Panna Reserve all its tigers were poached between 2005 and 2009. “The best model for wilderness is no visitors at all” and, if they must come, better to have “high price and low numbers” says the South African safari pioneer, Colin Bell. And, instead of being made stake holders, the locals are given only menial jobs, if at all. Their knowledge of the forests’ biodiversity is never made use of.

The state’s forest department is trying to relocate tigers to the same Panna Tiger Reserve from where all its tigers were poached between 2005 and 2009. Nothing much has changed since then to warrant an effort to repopulate the Tiger Reserve. Even post-2009 for want of adequate care by the foresters a couple of cubs (out of four) born to a relocated tigress went missing and were later presumed to be dead. A relocated male developed its homing instinct soon after relocation and moved out of the Reserve unnoticed by the foresters and travelled tens of kilometres over hills and valleys, across rivers, farms and urban habitation towards its home in Pench Tiger Reserve at great risk to itself.

Again, earlier this month the Department had to abandon its plans to relocate two tigresses from the Kanha Tiger Reserve which were brought up in an enclosure having been orphaned early in their life. Though they are said to be about six years old they are, perhaps, not yet mature enough. Initially they were kept in a small enclosure which was later expanded to comprise an area of about five hectares. Not nurtured under parental guidance, their ability to fend for themselves and hunt on their own in a strange habitat is, therefore, questionable. In the unchanged circumstances in the Reserve they would be sitting ducks for poachers. This is no way of perpetuating a species.

While the Government of India’s Ministry of Forests and Environment is trying to do its best to save the tigers but Madhya Pradesh, the Tiger State, is not quite on board. The state has been steadily losing its tigers. Tourism occupies centre stage but not enough is being done to protect the tigers – forgetting that once the tigers disappear tiger-tourism would simply collapse. The forest guards are far too few, far too old and are not fighting-fit to pose a challenge to those who stalk the tigers in the forests. The Tiger Protection Force, approved by the Prime Minister in 2007 is nowhere sight.

Clearly, the attitude of state government and its forest officials is out of sync with the worldwide concern for the depleting numbers of this ecologically vital species. From what is happening in the state, it looks like the prognosis of the Tiger Summit that tigers were likely to become extinct by 2022 may well come true, at least, in Madhya Pradesh, if not elsewhere.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Of malls, hypermarkets and consumerism

The other day our entire family visited Hyper City, the new hyper-market in the premises of the mall known as DB City. Promoted by a big vernacular media group, the Mall is situated close to the biggest business district of the central Indian city of Bhopal. Built on the pattern of any other mall, it is gradually filling up with shops, chain-stores, eateries and even a bowling alley, currently a curiosity in the town.

The shops in the Mall are, mostly, purveying branded garments, shoes, perfumes, cosmetics cell phones and suchlike. The Hyper City, however, is a different kettle of fish. In one massive hall there is virtually everything that one may happen to need. From fresh to packaged and processed food, grocery, furniture, wellness and sports equipment, crockery, glassware, quality kitchenware to the latest in electronics, you name it – and it’s all there and at a scale that has never been seen before in this town. The place is packed with stuff and one cannot fail to wonder the scale in which all this stuff is being manufactured or some even being imported, curiously like in America, mostly from China. Obviously, there is a lot of money and people are happily throwing it around.

As my brother remarked, it is a quantum jump for Bhopal. From shopping in the claustrophobic narrow streets of the Chowk of Old Bhopal 50-odd years ago to a swanky hyper market is quite a transition. The townsfolk are exposed for the first time to numerous escalators, automated ramps and modern lifts that are not closed and claustrophobic, but have transparent walls. Naturally, there are crowds of people –old and young, mostly the latter – from all sections of society. I even espied a few who were from the hinterland and some others who appeared to be from some shanty-town of the city. They had all come to gawk at things, features and fixtures that are strange and new to them.

The current generation is lucky as it is exposed to all that the new Century materialism has to offer. Whatever is available in the advanced countries of the East and the West are all available here and, what’s more, almost simultaneously as they come out of the assembly lines of sorts. Opening up of the economy in the early ‘90s of the last century has made all this possible giving a huge heave to the consumerist-culture that has now well and truly set in and is on the upswing.

This was not so in our times. We grew up and lived most of our life in a closed economy – an economy that pretended to be socialistic in character but was far from it. It was such a closed economy that even as late as in the early 1980s we had not seen many of the mechanical and electronic equipment that were freely in use elsewhere in the world, including in the neighbouring South East Asian countries, some of which later came to be known as “The Asian Tigers” for their rapid economic progress. For instance, TVs were a rarity and we had never seen, leave alone use, a simple thing like a calculator. In the offices, photocopiers were unavailable whereas, we later saw, these were in regular use in most offices in S-E Asia. We were still in the ‘stencils age’.

I recall, when, in the course of a professional programme on public administration conducted in 1981 by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, my colleagues and I were taken to South-East Asia I came across escalators for the first time in my life in our hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Later, in Singapore, I saw for the first time a mall. I still remember its name – CK Tang – which was recommended to the entire group by the Indian High Commissioner. The place was stuffed with the goods that were seldom available in the shops in New Delhi. From perfumes to shoes, to branded luggage and apparels, Japanese cameras and electronic items, all were available in great profusion. We hardly were able to buy any of that stuff, anyway, availability of foreign exchange under the socialist economy being so limited.

A year later, in 1982 when I happened to visit Japan I could not help feeling how far behind, materially speaking, we were. But, of course, Japan was an advanced, industrialised country. In the area called Akihabara in Tokyo VCRs, invisible then in Delhi shops, were stacked up on shelves from floor to the ceiling. Food processors, still to make their advent in India, were available in profusion. In Shinjuku, again in Tokyo, as soon as one entered the famous shop by the name Yudobashi one would hear a racket – the salesmen of various famous Japanese brands of cameras calling out to all-comers to sample their stuff, like the meat-sellers used to do years ago in the meat market in my hometown, Gwalior. And, Shinkasen, the Bullet Train that we travelled in to Osaka, was out of this world.

Forget the malls or the chain-stores of Mitsukoshi, basketfuls of calculators or 35mm colour-film rolls would be placed outside small stores. One just had to pick up according to one’s need and pay up. On virtually every street one would find an outfit that processed colour films in a matter of hours on automatic processing machines. In our case, even in New Delhi one had to hand over exposed colour rolls at the Kodak outlet on Janpath which would send them for processing to Bombay. The processed stuff would come back only after three weeks or so.

Things are far different now and the country has travelled a long way since the early ‘80s. The GDP has risen spectacularly and India has become the target of all big producers because of its billion people and is considered the biggest market after China. All the international big names of various industries have, therefore, set up shop in the country, fostering consumption and encouraging consumerism.

That, however, is what is worrying. The malls, hyper-markets and suchlike have a flip side. While the burgeoning middle classes are having a great time, the aspirations of the lower classes are being spurred on. After all, today’s lower classes are tomorrow’s middle classes, who, in course of time, will fall prey to the same consumer culture. Can India really afford such a culture encouraged by the glitz, glitter and the glamour of malls and hyper markets?

One shudders to imagine what our Planet Earth will be like if hundreds of millions of Indians ape the consumerism of the West. About seventy years ago Gandhi-ji had said that we would need the resources of two planets if Indians were to acquire the living standards of the British. We were only three hundred million then – when the country was still undivided. Now we are a billion and more and, despite widespread poverty with abysmally low levels of consumption, ecologically we are already in the red.