Protect me and I'll show the way
Mar 24, 2011, 01.17am IST
Tags:Wildlife Training Institute Of India|Tiger|Orange City|Ambika Soni
Maharashtra is sitting on a T-bomb. It's slowly ticking away and also sending strong signals. Only when it goes off will we realize its worth. The state government simply fails to understand its importance. The 'T' here, of course, stands for Tiger. While other states have cashed in on the curiosity that prevails to see the tiger in the wild, Maharashtra has hardly reacted. An argument is that the state will now know what not to do. Well, for starters, what it, and the central government, can do is to name Nagpur as the Tiger Capital of the World. What's in a name, one may well ask. Nothing and everything. The nomenclature may just drive tourism and provide a leg-up for development in the region. However, for that, the state also needs to understand how to balance ecology and tourism. Ecotourism is the buzzword, really. Over the next 10 days from today, TOI debates on the merits and demerits of Nagpur as the Tiger Capital of the World
What will it mean for the city to be declared the Tiger Capital of the World? Would it remain just another misplaced moniker buzzword, or would it lead to something more concrete, like more protection for the tiger and consequently ecotourism and uplift of the local tribals?
TOI called a group of experts and tiger lovers to a group discussion on this topic.
Vidarbha Economic Development Council (VED) chief was given the chance to kick off the discussion as the body, along with Congress MP Vilas Muttemwar, has been quite vocal about Nagpur getting the tiger tag. Kale said initially they had started off with the sole intention of giving a boost to tourism in the region and encashing upon the economic opportunity presented by the unique ecosystem and landscape surrounding Nagpur.
He said, "I was driven by government's deliberate neglect of sites of tourist interest in Vidarbha, like the Lonar crater, the Markanda temple and the numerous tiger reserves in Nagpur's backyard. For the powers-that-be in Mumbai tourism starts and ends with Ajanta-Ellora in Aurangabad."
Narrating his experiences in Laos and Cambodia, both poor countries that have embraced tourism as a means of economic development, Kale said Vidarbha too can prosper by investing in non-agriculture jobs in tourism, while protecting and promoting its heritage and environment.
This idea had been presented to the then Union tourism minister Ambika Soni who was so impressed that she had even allotted Rs 50 crore exclusively for the development of tourism in Vidarbha. "Unfortunately, this money never came through, and nothing has moved in the bureaucracy in the last two years," said Kale.
After this experience, Kale said, he abandoned the mindset of waiting for the government to take the initiative. He realized that Vidarbha did not even get a mention in the 'Incredible India' campaign that was being promoted by the government. So, he took it upon himself to bring together like-minded people to think about the tiger capital plan and promote the idea.
Bureaucrat Amitabh Kant, a thinker and well wisher, pointed out to Kale that the availability of tigers and good forests should not be taken for granted for such a venture. He advised Kale to look beyond the present and first think of conserving these valuable resources that the region has.
"That was when we started thinking on the lines of ecotourism and a sustainable way of developing the potential of the region. We also realized that our goal would have to be conservation and preservation of the habitat which is ruled over the apex predator of the region, the tiger," said Kale.
Adding to Kale's description of the way the idea of 'Tiger Capital' has developed, adman Sanjay Arora said, "We started on this almost seven years back, with a brochure to promote tourism here. We did not want to wait for the city to grow into the brand of the 'Tiger Capital', which could take decades. We want to fast forward the process, while ensuring that we take all stakeholders along in a sustainable manner and put Nagpur on the global map for wildlife tourism."
After their run-in with the "hydra-headed" government, Kale and Arora decided to invite NGOs, common citizens and stakeholders like the villagers and resort owners to join them in the endeavour. Their aim is to build a mass movement around this objective, which will give them the momentum to force the government to act in a proactive manner.
Chief conservator of forests of Nagpur Wildlife circle, AK Saxena, first made it clear that he was present to play the devil's advocate. It was hardly a tongue-in-cheek comment. He said, "Nobody in the government denies that ecotourism is required. But the devil lies in the details and the implementation. If you ask a forester like me, I would say the tiger is reining deity of your region. You should first find out what he needs, what his wish list is, and work towards that to ensure your region retains its unique resource."
Saxena listed some major points that are needed to protect tigers in Vidarbha. He spoke of an undisturbed core forest of at least a 1,000 sq km, which would be enough to support 100 tigers, as per the norms set by experts. "The total area of reserves today is far short," he pointed out, adding that the "buffer areas in Vidarbha are a help, but there are many hindrances to good work".
Speaking very candidly, Saxena admitted that management issues are plaguing the forest department and its working. He spoke of pathetic the conditions of work for the lower level staff while the senior officers struggled to cope with the untimely and meagre outflow of funds from the government.
He pointed out that a timely release of just Rs 10-11 crores would help the forest department implement all the ecotourism schemes in all the villages that are part of the newly declared buffer zones around reserves. In the absence of this money, the forest department does not have any bargaining chip to turn the locals in favour of the tiger or its habitat and their conservation. The locals only ask, "Why should we protect the tiger?
The villagers have to be first won over with jobs or help with employment, Saxena said, "Before they can be taught about migration corridors and buffers, their importance to a growing population of tigers, and consequently to the local population itself when it depends on ecotourism to earn a good living."
Speaking about the pitfalls of a fast move towards ecotourism, Saxena pointed out the crass commercialization of tiger tourism in some reserves outside Maharashtra. Such development will not benefit the locals, they will remain small time employees while the profitable resorts will choke the tiger's corridors and areas. Saxena proposed a more sustainable mode of development, where locals provide homestays for tourists and allow them to profit out of the new traffic of tourists.
Veteran conservationist Gopal Thosar has not got his sagely look for anything. He is a former honorary wildlife warden of Nagpur district. Thosar was quick to point out that the locals are a problem because they have never been given a solution for their own problems. They have never seen development come their way. When a villager is losing his crops to wild animals, and not getting any compensation in return, why will he think of protecting the animals," asked Thosar.
He also pointed out that the revenue from tourism is not being put to use to provide the wild animals their two basic and only needs: water and protection. Thosar was also critical of the way the forest department has not capitalized on the increased inflow of tourists in their reserves.
"How many repeat tourists does the government know about? Has the forest department ever thought how it can use frequent visitors to help police the reserves and enforce their rules? It will only require a small database and a positive response to the observations given in by the tourists for the forest department to build a permanent relationship with the tourist," said Thosar.
Giri Venkatesan, who chucked a cushy job in Mumbai and is now executive director with the NGO Satpuda Foundation, agreed wholeheartedly with Thosar and said that tourism does have its advantages. However, he was sceptical about the forest department's ability to manage more tourists properly.
"Who will ensure drunkards do not make faces at animals or feed them? Even as I am strongly in favour of helping local people by involving them in economic activities related to tourism, the main focus should not waver from the protection and preservation of wildlife, which is what the 'reserves' and 'sanctuaries' are supposed to do in the first place," said Giri.
To support his observation, Giri pointed to the recent spate of decisions by some state governments which go so far as to impinge on the inviolate character of the core areas of reserves, despite the strong reservations of all experts in the field. "A case in point is the high court being required to rule on whether tourism can be allowed in the core and inviolate areas of reserves and sanctuaries," Giri said.
Trying to show how commercialization could also involve locals and winning then over, Amrut Dhanwatey, who runs a resort in the outskirts of Tadoba, said his resort has construction on only one acre out of the 11 acres land he has. He employs 25 locals at various jobs at the resort, right from cooking to driving vehicles to acting as guides for tourists. The surety of regular pay has given these villagers the confidence to listen to what Dhanwatey tells them about conserving forests.
"When these people realized that I was helping them earn a living, they started trusting me. Now they listen when I ask them not to cut trees or bamboo indiscriminately! However, I accept that all resorts owners will not follow these principles scrupulously. In the end, everyone wants to also make a profit," said Dhanwatey.
Saxena pointed out this out as an example of the dilemma of conservation: which questions what has priority, conservation or commerce?
Giri said that the only way to achieve both was to empower the local villagers with training and skills, which will enable them to make a living out of tourism. "Alternate livelihood will ensure they are not drawn to the lure of poaching or other irresponsible activities," he said.
Dhanwatey intervened to say that he supports strict enforcement of rules to ensure conservation is not affected by tourism. However, he questioned whether the government has any such policies in place.
Kale too said the government has to take a more proactive role in managing such areas. He pointed out that the resorts are sanctioned by the revenue department, while the forest department is supposed to police the tourists that come to these resorts. "Multiplicity of agencies only leads to more problems in wildlife management," he said.
Saxena informed the group that the government has only recently realized this problem. "Now the forest department has some say in the approval given to start new resorts near wildlife areas," he said.
Taking the view that organized tourism always has a negative impact on local economy, Bandu Dhotre, founder of NGO Ecopro and working for tiger conservation in Chandrapur district, said that employing a few people in the resorts does not actually empower the village since the profits are taken away from the area by the owners of the resorts. Instead, he laid more emphasis on development of home-stays and alternative employment.
"Such employment ensures that all the money that a family earns is again spent in the village itself, thus boosting the economy of the entire village, and not only those people employed at the resorts. As long as this does not happen, there will always remain some disgruntled elements in the villages who can harm wildlife," said Dhotre.
Kale, however, differed with Dhotre, "Internationally, at least 20 skills have been identified that can be taught to locals to make them more employable in the same village or its vicinity. However, managing and marketing a homestay is a difficult proposition altogether, which requires a lot of investment and the ability to deal with an international audience. An international tourist must have a hygienic toilet and clean drinking water, which not many homestays will be able to provide."
Dhanwatey also agreed with Kale on this point and said the experience at his resort too has been that even the most enthusiastic tourist will prefer to have a comfortable living space, even though he understands that seeing the jungle will involve some roughing it out.
Dhotre got support from Praful Bhambhurkar, a manager with the Wildlife Training Institute of India. He said that the villagers have a genuine problem with protecting the tiger if it kills their cattle. "You should ensure he gets the compensation he is entitled to immediately," said Bhamburkar. He suggested that the entire region should be declared a heritage zone so that the focus shifts from only the tiger to the entire habitat surrounding the animal.
This suggestion turned the discussion towards the names and phrases that are being used to describe the effort. Some of the participants objected to the word 'ecotourism' itself, claiming that any sort of tourism is bound to extract some cost from the surroundings.
The topic of enforcement of rules and regulations brought in some revealing comments by superintendent of police Nagpur Rural and chairman of district tiger cell, CH Wakde. He said, "The police department always endeavours to work with the forest department. However, we are also hamstrung by the same problems that they face. Frankly, I accept that I have not seen any policeman filing a case regarding a forest related crime. The same awareness that we said is required among the tribal population is also required among the policemen. It's only when they have a stake in it that they will protect wildlife."
Arora also spoke of the importance of training tourists so that they are better informed and better behaved inside the reserves, and cause less interference with wildlife. He highlighted that, like in the US, attending a short nature interpretation capsule before tourists enter wildlife areas, should be made mandatory in India too.
Amid this discussion, the common point that everyone agreed to was the lack of action on the part of the government regarding funding and formulation of policies that would make the way ahead clear for all. While Saxena and Wakde spoke of the unsure nature of funds and their arrival, they also highlighted the government policies that would lead to fragmentation of migration corridors due to new highways and dams.
Arora also spoke about the complete lack of proactive political leadership in the region, which should ideally have activists, NGOs and businessmen demanding a better performance from the government and bureaucracy.
Dhanwatey though said that the only way forward in such a situation was to create a mass movement which will get noticed in the higher echelons of power.
Eminent advocate CS Kaptan, who has filed a petition before the high court on some forest issues, said the laws of the land are adequate to protect and conserve the forests and the wildlife. However, he admitted that the infrastructure to implement the laws is lacking in India. He spoke of the necessity to train forest staff in proper investigations and understanding of the law, before they can be expected to lend a hand in implementing the law.
Bhamburkar had the last word on the discussion. "There are no oranges available in Orange City and I hope that by calling Nagpur the Tiger Capital of the World, we will not be driving away the wildcats."