Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tourism in hotbed of militancy

The other day a photograph and a write up below it in a national newspaper rang a faint bell. It depicted children playing around in caves in what it called the “Kalaroos area” in North Kashmir. It also said that the Kashmir government is opening up newer areas in North Kashmir beyond Kupwara in the Kalaroos area and in and around Lolab Valley, hitherto the hotbed of militancy fostered by infiltrators from across the Line of Control (LoC) drawn after the 1971 war with Pakistan.

The bell rang rather weakly because of the weight of the years under which the memories of these two places lay buried. Way back in 1969 when I was posted in Kashmir I had had the occasion to visit both these places. Both of them are of exquisite natural beauty but Lolab Valley had a special distinction of hosting a secular Hindu clairvoyant in the midst of an overwhelming Muslim population.

The department of the Central Government that I worked for had a small establishment manned by a part-timer at Kalaroos. One cold March morning I received a telegram that the establishment had caught fire and everything in it, including a substantial amount of cash, had been lost. I had to go and, that too, in a jiffy. Next morning with a couple of inspectors I set out for Kalaroos. Proceeding via Sopore and Kupwara, we had our official vehicle parked at a place that was a kind of a pass between two ranges. The road to Kalaroos took off from that pass. Kalaroos was three miles up that road and the vehicle could not have made it as the road had a thick layer of snow on it.

Never have I had the occasion to negotiate such a torturous three miles as the one that I did with my junior colleagues that day. We had to climb a few hundred feet along the pretty wide road that was completely snowed under. Although it was a delightful day with bright sunshine and a bracing cold breeze blowing down the surrounding pine-covered mountains, the road was under ankle-deep of freshly-fallen snow. Walking on the snow is difficult but the effort gets more toilsome if one has to walk in ankle-deep soft and yielding snow with the feet sinking in with every step. Every time one has to pull one’s feet out to take a fresh step. It gets more laborious if one has to do so while walking uphill. For me it was nightmarish. The only thing that kept us going was the compelling beauty of the surroundings. Down below was the freshest and the whitest of snow-white snows with the mountain sides and the precipitous valleys dressed in bright green of the ever-green conifers and under the lapis lazuli blues of the sky were, again, snow-capped mountain tops gleaming in the bright March sun. It was ethereal – almost spiritual. Every bend of the road would open up a new vista – a panorama so arresting that one wouldn’t be human unless one stopped and beheld it.

We huffed and puffed our way up and eventually reached the village. It was located in a clearing and I noticed three chairs placed in the sun with a tray with about a couple of dozen shelled eggs. Dog-tired as I was I made a beeline for one of the chairs and literally collapsed into it. Recovering after a while as I took in the landscape I was amazed to notice an uncanny resemblance with the paintings I had come across of the Holy Land. The thatched rundown houses, the green pines in the background and the tall, extraordinarily fair, heavily bearded handsome men with pronounced Semitic facial features, draped in long ochre coloured clothes, it all appeared to me to be straight out of the Biblical times. The only distinguishing feature was the Islamic cap that some of the villagers had placed on their heads. The whole thing was stunning and picturesque and made the tiring trip memorable.

After finishing off the offiial work and consuming more than my normal quota of eggs to subdue my ravenous appetite I tore myself away from that incredible setting. Climbing down the mountain was not so difficult. As the afternoon sun was dipping down rapidly we decided to stop for the night at Chandigam in Lolab Valley. The place had a rest house which was said to have been built for the Late Indira Gandhi. It had hot and cold running water, a luxury not available in those days in most of the rest houses in Kashmir, and had a couple of extra bed rooms. It was situated at an elevation and hence commanded a panoramic view of the narrow valley in front, dominated by a lone poplar, and the thickly forested hills on its sides. It was a lush green little valley of indescribable beauty, mostly uncluttered by human interventions.

The hill that separated Kupwara from Lolab Valley was thickly forested with walnut trees. In the midst of this forest of walnuts was a resident clairvoyant who was popularly known as Baba. A religious recluse and a Hindu, he was known for being able to look into the future of whoever cared to go and ask him to do so. Having nothing much to do in the evening, we trooped into his lair. A fire was raging in a pit and around half a dozen devotees, all Muslims, were sitting closest to the entrance facing the Baba on the other side of the fire. As we entered the simple and austere enclosure Baba noticed us and asked us to be seated next to the fire. After some small talk about the Baba and his fame in the surrounding areas, one of the devotees told us the story of a Pakistani Lt. Colonel who had stumbled into Baba’s presence.

Lolab Valley was overrun by the Pakistani Army during the 1965 war. The Pakistani Army had also captured the hill where Baba was in residence. They used the top of the hill to fire at the garrison at Kupwara. Keen to clear the hill of all enemies, a Lt. Col. of Pakistani Army came to the Baba’s lair. As soon as Baba saw the officer he told him to get back home as his daughter was seriously sick. Even before he could recover from the shock a messenger arrived to tell the Lt. Col. to report to his headquarters. The officer left, organising a detachment to maintain a guard on the recluse. He did not return for a few days. After a week or so the guards were withdrawn and the Baba was told the daughter of the Lt. Col. had died.

One does not know whether the recluse is alive or not but I have had occasion to hear some local army officers in Bhopal who had had similar encounters with the Baba. Apparently, he was a kind of an institution; his was a much-visited lair by all those who happened to visit Chandigam.

It was only four years after the 1965 war with Pakistan yet I had visited Kupwara and Chandigam several times all by myself travelling in my own car. Never was there an unpleasant incident. Later, during the twenty-odd years of militancy, however, these two areas became popular with infiltrators from across the LoC. Now, it seems, the things have quietened down and the Kashmir Government is thinking of opening them up for tourism. One can only wish it Godspeed. Let the tourists enjoy the nature’s bounty in North Kashmir. After all, there is more to Kashmir than just Gulmarg and Pahalgam.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Madhya Pradesh loses its tigers and sobriquet

That Madhya Pradesh lost the sobriquet of “Tiger State” after the last national tiger census conducted in 2010-11 is now history. Having had the largest number of tigers during the preceding censuses it was widely known as the “Tiger State”. Whether the sobriquet was given or assumed is not quite known. It is a pity that the state, despite the massive financial assistance and expertise lent by the Centre and availability of its own enormous human and other resources could not retain the sobriquet. Ironically, despite the rise in tiger numbers in the country from 1411 in 2006 to 1706 in 2011 it is Madhya Pradesh which lost the largest number of them – the number came down from 300 to 257. The only other ‘tiger region’ that lost tigers during the period was Andhra Pradesh – it lost 23 of them.

For its bull-headed and lackadaisical ways the forest department has been engulfed in controversies for some years now. The biggest of them all was relating to the Panna Tiger Reserve which lost all its tigers by the close of 2008. Despite the early warnings from several sources, including the nation’s tiger conservation agencies, the department refused to pay any heed to them. Its Principal Chief Conservator (PCCF-Wildlife), HS Pabla, mulishly kept claiming that the Reserve had 20-odd tigers when everyone else reported that they were disappearing fast, mostly because of rampant poaching. Instead of taking steps to check the veracity of the statements, especially of the central tiger conservation agencies, the forest department, sticking to its guns and displaying an adversarial attitude, joined issue with them.

This is not all. After the tigers were all gone, when an inquiry conducted by the Central Special Investigation Team (SIT) came to the conclusion that they were mostly poached the state government set up its own enquiry committee, as is evident now, to put a lid on the whole thing and to protect its PCCF. The state level inquiry came to the conclusion that gender imbalance in the tiger population caused by declining number of females made the males go looking for them outside the Reserve only to be poached or just get killed. No mention was made of the reasons for occurrence of the gender imbalance. Likewise, no mention was made of the failure of the Reserve staff or visiting forest officers to notice the progressive gender imbalance over the years. Needless to say, no effort was made to fix responsibility for the total disappearance of the tigers from the Reserve.

However, the cat is now out of the bag. Ajay Dubey of “Prayatna”, an environmental action group, has ferreted out information that the forest department recently handed over details of nearly two dozen cases of tiger deaths in Panna to the home department asking for CBI inquiry into them. After examination, the latter picked up three cases which, according to it, seemed worthy of independent investigations. Prayatna’s efforts indicate that the forest department had received several reports of poaching of tigers, yet it failed to take the needed steps either at the field level or in the headquarters. This corroborates the contention of the SIT which after evaluation of all the relevant factors concluded that there were no ecological reasons for the tigers to become extinct in Panna. According to it, a steady decline in the numbers of females was noticeable since 2003, the maximum decline taking place between 2003 and 2005, and then continuing on until 2007-08. Poachers brought down more females as they have smaller home ranges and hence they became extinct before male tigers.

Seemingly, obsessed with tourism, the department kept dismissing every report appearing in the media as “media hype”. The local MPs and MLAs had expressed concern and some cases were filed in the Apex Court too. During the same period letters were also written to Chief Secretary and Principal Secretary Forests by the Chairman and Member Secretary, respectively, of the Central Empowered Committee after its two visits to the Reserve. Developing a peculiar imperviousness, the department ignored them all. When it was virtually curtains for the tigers in Panna in June 2008, Pabla was still waxing eloquent about their presence therein in the prestigious Sanctuary Asia magazine.

After Prayatna's expose even the forest minister’s comments was ostrich-like – that his department was prevented from doing the needful by a dacoit gang that was camping in the Reserve. The SIT has categorically stated in its report that the outlaws were in the Reserve between 2006 and 2008, whereas poaching, a fact never given due credence to by the state, had been continuing since 2001.

Clearly the fall in tiger numbers in the state is a natural consequence of the dedicated efforts made and “due diligence” displayed by the Madhya Pradesh government and its forest department. Beginning with the chief minister, who put humans before the tigers in a tiger reserve and consistently opposed creation of a scientific buffer and succeeded in having a moth-eaten buffer delineated for the Reserve, all have contributed their bit. According to the SIT, “Without a good buffer….. survival of small tiger population, even under moderate poaching pressure, is difficult”. And Panna has acute poaching pressure, surrounded as it is with settlements of tribes that are traditional poacher, poaching tigers not only in Panna but all over the country.

When the death of the “Jhurjhura tigress” indicated involvement of sons of two prominent politicians who illegally entered the Bandhavgarh Reserve inquiry was handed over to CB CID just to kill it. Despite the lapse of 16 months, the CID is yet to come out with its investigation report and the case remains buried in its dark recesses.

Again, when on the lines of the advice tendered by the National Tiger Conservation Authority “Prayatna” filed a writ in the state high court to ban tourism in core areas, the department opposed it tooth and nail, the PCCF even advising hoteliers and tour operators to have themselves impleaded for the specious reason that tourism prevents poaching. He forgot that tourism, with its infamous tiger-shows, was very much prevalent in Panna and yet the Reserve lost all its tigers – most having been poached. According to the SIT report, during 2002-2005 “The management shifted focus towards tourism and during this period even the forest department in their document have accepted maximum number of poaching…”

Tiger-tourism seems to have remained a priority with the forest department but it has failed to protect the very resource (and its habitat) it was exploiting. Apart from Panna, the Kanha Reserve, the supposedly best-managed, lost as many as 29 tigers at the last count. It even lost nearly 3000 sq. Kms. of tiger-habitat that has led to frequent internecine fights for territory – many ending in tiger fatalities.

Besides, the department has achieved the distinction of clocking the third highest number of vacancies in “frontline positions” in the country – the very staff that are responsible for protecting forests and wildlife. There has, however, been proliferation in the higher echelons of the department. Quite bizarrely, even the Tiger Strike Force created by the state has had successes in catching poachers of only wild boars and stray ungulates. It has so far failed to catch a single poacher of tigers.

Now that Karnataka is the new “Tiger State” and Nagpur may become the “Tiger Capital” the question that nags one is whether the once-upon-a-time “Tiger State” will be able to save its tigers. Given the present dispensation, it seems unlikely. The dice are heavily loaded against the tigers. The top brass of the government do not seem to have a perspective for the tiger in the natural order of things. And likewise, the top brass of the forest department do not want to see reason and face facts. The days of “Shere Khan” in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, therefore, appear to be numbered.