Green versus Red

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The future of conservation in some of India’s most resource-rich forests hinges on how battles shape up between rebels and the State

The first time I entered the Indravati National Park in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district, I had only a village youth who I met barely an hour ago for company. Lakshminath Nag, the lone beat guard manning the Farsegarh chowki on the park boundary, had refused to accompany me. To be fair, he did offer to take me on a “brief walk inside”, but would not venture into the park in my car. “I was beaten up very badly [by People’s War Group cadres] inside the park before I sought this posting. This chowki is not safe either and no forest staffer other than me will stay here overnight. I really don’t know why and how far you want to go inside,” reasoned Nag.

His words had an immediate effect on my driver. “Your men made me drive on cycle-tracks inside the forest [to avoid landmines on the road], and I did,” he said, “But I will not cross this boundary.” My men in question included the local contact I picked up from Jagdalpur and the ‘more local’ contacts he picked up along the way: a villager revered in the area for the quality of his homemade brew, and an electrician who was welcome to the Red Zone for his skills.

At this point, a local youth emerged with his motorbike who claimed he was no stranger to Maoists and agreed to give me a ride—after I had rehearsed my answers thoroughly for the imminent ‘interview’. Apparently, these Maoists would isolate us for a grilling session and unwise answers could result in my ‘punishment’.

The previous evening, I had met K Murugan, then field director of Indravati, at his Jagdalpur office 200 km from the tiger reserve. He had explained his predicament thus: “Our chowkis have been demolished. Naxalites don’t allow road maintenance, so the park is inaccessible by car. Our men try to go in on two-wheelers and foot. Villagers may not see us because we avoid them unless necessary.”

So were the forest and wildlife safe? Sub-divisional officer SG Parulkar took over from his boss: “Naxals have already banned hunting and tree-felling here. Even the month-long annual hunting festival of Tribals—paradh—is under check. We are happy that Naxals are doing our job. You can take the data from us.” His helpless smile did not explain how his men had conducted a tiger census of a 1,250 sq km area without vehicular access to it.

My young escort drove me on his motorbike for over an hour through fairly dense forests, whispering over his shoulder every now and then that we were being watched. But I was struck by a more sinister possibility. The undergrowth and canopies around us did not stir even once. Forget animals, I could spot only a few birds. Minus the engine, the silence and stillness was overbearing.

As we pulled up next to a wooden idol of a buffalo deity at a hamlet, a patriarchal figure surrounded by children approached us gingerly. He was the village teacher and happy to see us. The last time this hamlet had visitors was during the 2004 General Election, when armed choppers flew in a couple of poll officials with a ballot box, that too just for an hour or so. Soon we were joined by a handful of village women who made us tea. As shadows lengthened and we continued our conversations, I could not avoid asking the question. Did they hunt? The ladies looked away, but the old man threw up his hands: “What is left there to hunt?”

Before I could latch on to this lead, my cautious escort intervened to explain that Maoists did hunt occasionally for meat, that there were few wild animals left anyway when the PWG enforced its hunting ban, and that wild animals could still be seen deeper inside the reserve. So when did any of them last spot a tiger? There was no answer.

That was 2005. Not much has changed in the eight years since. Large stretches of forest along the Bihar-Andhra and Bengal-Maharashtra Red axis, and in the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir still remain inaccessible to the concerned state forest departments. Just how badly wildlife is affected depends on the extremist outfit in control, the extent of its ground control and the proximity of the area to an international border.  

Most guerilla outfits in India follow the uncomplicated modus operandi of Veerappan, the late brigand. He and his band of dacoits needed the forest cover to dodge or ambush security forces. So, barring sandalwood trees, the forests of Sathyamangalam were never more secure than while under Veerappan’s watch. But for ivory, his men butchered so many elephants that it triggered a genetic response. The average weight of tusks in the region dropped from 20 kg to 10 kg and the number of makhna (tuskless by birth) males shot up.

A look at Project Tiger’s census data reveals an obvious pattern. All six tiger reserves—Valmiki in Bihar, Palamau in Jharkhand, Indravati and Udanti-Sitanadi in Chhattisgarh, Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh and Simlipal in Orissa—that fall in the Red corridor record very poor tiger numbers. The fate of a few other reserves—such as Buxa in West Bengal, Manas in Assam and Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh—affected by other insurgent groups is similar.

What explains this? Have militants been poaching these prized animals?

It is not easy to smuggle out wildlife products from the Indian heartland while waging a war against the State. Veerappan was doing that through southern routes with the help of the LTTE, but he was not fighting for sovereignty or socialism alongside. Forests close to international borders, however, offer multiple opportunities because arms, narcotics and wildlife are trafficked through common routes.

For example, a prime source for Chinese weapons is Myanmar, where operators push consignments into Nagaland, usually under the supervision of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). Caches of arms also enter India via the eastern Indo-Bangladesh border, for which Chittagong is the smuggling hub. The third route is via Nepal, where local Maoists control the trade.

The two busiest wildlife trafficking routes from India are to Tibet via Ladakh and Nepal, and to Myanmar via Manipur and Nagaland. Kashmiri militants have been using the Ladakh channel to trade narcotics and wildlife contraband such as shahtoosh. A drastic dip in tiger numbers in forests close to Nepal such as Valmiki and Buxa make experts suspect that poaching syndicates here have bought protection from outfits such as the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation.

While there is no evidence that Maoists in the Red Belt of central India are engaged in commercial poaching—except perhaps in the Srisailam and Nallamalai forests of Andhra Pradesh during the 1990s—sources claim that militant hideouts are frequently used by poachers for the safekeeping of skins and tusks for a fee. Maoists also back local tribes to continue with traditional hunting festivals in many areas, such as Odisha’s Simlipal, where the CPI (Maoist) is still fighting for a firm foothold.

Given their sway over vast tracts of forests from Navegaon in Maharashtra to Jangalmahal in West Bengal, it is, however, unclear if Maoists have been tempted to actively enter the trade themselves since they developed contacts with arms suppliers in Thailand, Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam—all prime markets for wildlife products.

Other than its distance from international smuggling routes, what may have discouraged Maoists from poaching in central India is the absence of the most lucrative species in the region. “To generate the kind of revenues that would interest militant groups, huge volumes of tiger and elephant derivatives have to be smuggled out, which is very challenging logistically,” says an undercover anti-traffic agent, “Per unit of weight or volume, tiger skin and bone, or ivory, is much cheaper than rhino horn.”

Rhinos are easier to kill and a carton of horns fetches as much as a carload of tiger derivatives or tusks would. This had lured insurgents groups of the Northeast to opt for ‘cashless arms deals’. Operators in Myanmar have been more than happy to barter weapons for rhino horns.

In the process, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) wiped out the entire rhino population of the Burachapori forests, even as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland emptied Manas. Ironically, the ULFA in 1989 killed a prominent rhino horn trader and had a stated policy against harming ‘the pride of Assam’ till its cadres joined the loot. While Manas has recovered significantly since the Bodoland Accord, a number of former militants, along with members of the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers and Kuki People’s Army are now targeting the Kaziranga populations.

Local and Bangladeshi Islamist groups such as the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam, Harkat-Ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) and Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh have also joined the rhino trade. The ULFA had a change of heart again, but its recent warnings to rhino poachers did not prevent the killing of at least three dozen animals in and around Kaziranga since last year.

It was also provincial pride that moved underground groups in Manipur to ban the killing of Sangai, the brow-antlered deer endemic to Loktak Lake, and even chop off a poacher’s arm a few years ago.

In Kashmir, the decade-long unrest nearly exterminated the Markhor (spiral-horned mountain goat) populations in the hilly forests along the LoC. The mighty goats have made a comeback since the Indo-Pak ceasefire of 2003, though. A threat to the Markhor’s future today is the new Mughal Road that connects Srinagar to Rajouri. Seven years ago, the project refused to make a minor change in its alignment to avoid cutting through the Hirpora sanctuary. Such infrastructure projects were never easy to implement during the peak years of militancy.

In 2009, FICCI published a report on National Security and Terrorism. Terming Naxalism Indian economy’s biggest party-pooper, it said: ‘The growing Maoist insurgency over large swathes of the mineral-rich countryside could soon hurt some industrial investment plans. Just when India needs to ramp up its industrial machine to lock in growth and just when foreign companies are joining the party—Naxalites are clashing with the mining and steel companies essential to India’s long-term success.’ Added the report: ‘Anxious to revive their moribund economies, the poor but resource-rich states of eastern India have given mining and land rights to Indian and multinational companies. Yet these deposits lie mostly in territory where the Naxals operate.’

The same year, a committee appointed by India’s Ministry of Rural Development submitted its draft report on land reforms and equity. Long before the Supreme Court banned the Salwa Judum, this report noted that the ‘open declared war [between Maoists and the Judum] will go down as the biggest land grab ever… being scripted by Tata Steel and Essar Steel who wanted 7 villages or thereabouts, each to mine the richest lode of iron ore available in India’. On what it called ‘massive transfers of agricultural and forest land for industrial, mining and development projects’, the report went on to note: ‘Though constituting only 9% of the country’s population the tribal communities have contributed more than 40% to the total land acquired till so far…due to connivance of the Government machinery… [and] a political economy growing around the tribal lands.’

Depending on which side of the growth-versus-green debate one stands, the Maoist insurgency can be viewed as the biggest obstacle to India’s economic growth or the most effective deterrent to the ‘connivance’ of State power with big money that seeks to destroy the last of India’s great forests still in Tribal custody.

In 2007, the ninth Unity Congress of the CPI (Maoist) identified ‘projects like Posco, Kalinganagar, bauxite mines etc in Orissa, Chargaon and Raoghat in Chhattisgarh, bauxite mines and Polavaram project in AP, massive iron mines, and uranium projects in Jharkhand’ and called on ‘all forest dwellers to resist till the end the massive displacement taking place and protect their land and forests from the robbers and looters’. This April, the Maoist party urged supporters to ‘fight unitedly for the withdrawal of the proposed [Land Acquisition] Bill and… for their inalienable right over Jal, Jungle, Zameen’.

But for such Maoist threats, major chunks of Chhattisgarh’s remaining forests would have been axed because they stand on one-fourth of India’s iron ore deposits and a lucrative bed of coal.

For the same reason, few MoUs have actually borne results in Jharkhand. The flare-up in West Bengal’s Lalgarh stymied the JSW Steel’s $7-billion project to set up a 10-million tonne steel plant at Salboni. In Odisha, officials see a Maoist hand in every mass movement, from Dhinkia to Niyamgiri, against displacement of locals for big projects.

But corruption among Maoist ranks has also let a number of mines and factories buy peace for hefty sums. For many years, illicit katha-khair traders were the main source of funds for the militant Left, particularly in Jharkhand. Many paper mills and timber merchants got unhindered access to bamboo and teak after paying off Maoists, who have also supported mass encroachment of forestland by local communities in several districts.

To enforce any ban on tree felling, Maoists need to be in firm control of a forest area. But the power equation in a few pockets resembles that of Sathyamangalam under Veerappan or Abujhmaad (Indravati) under the PWG. In many areas, desperate to gain ground support, local-area Maoists have backed attempts by the local population to break forest and wildlife laws. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, local communities have encroached vast tracts of forestland in Adilabad, Warangal and Khammam districts, but the poorest of the poor in the region remain landless. Tiger reserves such as Valmiki, Simlipal and Palamu have suffered similarly. In West Bengal’s Jangalmahal, villagers backed by Maoists started felling trees to block roads. It did not take long for the timber mafia to step in. The upshot: long stretches of forests disappeared.

In Assam, since the beginning of the Bodo insurgency in the late 1980s, the leadership encouraged its people from all over the state to shift to the proposed Bodoland areas to ensure a Bodo majority. In the process, all 81 sq km of the Naduar reserve forest and two-thirds of Biswanath and Charduar reserve forests were wiped out. Balipara, Sonai-Rupai and Behali forests also came under the axe. But the wilderness along the state borders with Arunachal is fiercely protected by militants who are against felling so that they retain the operational advantage of sneaking in and out of Assam under dense forest cover.

The presence of militants in forests legitimises the deployment of security forces in large numbers. But, unlike local militias, jawans of the central forces are mostly outsiders with little understanding of these forests. “In hostile conditions, they easily open fire and kill wildlife. They also collect huge volumes of firewood to keep their camps going,” says a forest officer who served in Jharkhand’s Palamu where forest guards were barred from entering the reserve by the forces.

A few years ago, the commander of an SSB camp in Bihar’s Valmiki defended—off-record—his men for “hunting occasionally” to compensate for their “limited rations” while posted in forests. In Simlipal, where four CRPF battalions are camping, it is difficult to ignore the telltale absence of wildlife near forest roads that the forces use for patrolling. In Assam, Army units have even encroached upon elephant forests and set up shooting ranges. “It is not easy to stand up to the security forces because our field staff depend on them for protection. Anyway, [Army] officers try to brush aside our objections,” rues a former divisional forest officer in charge of Assam’s Sonai-Rupai sanctuary. “Nobody bothers about conservation in the time of conflict.”

Maoists are no exception. While their resistance to State agencies may have delayed large-scale loss of forest cover to mega development in some areas, this apparent gain for conservation is perhaps incidental—because the Maoist agenda seems to have nothing substantial on the sustainable use of ‘Jal, Jungle aur Zameen’—water, forests and land, the three principal natural resources.

In fact, as a former sympathiser of the PWG wonders, India’s militant Left is probably indifferent—even hostile at times—to conservation. Unlike Marx, who in Das Kapital described human societies as earth’s ‘usufructuaries’ who ‘like boni patres familias… must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition’, Mao emphasised the need to conquer nature, put into practice through a series of disastrous adventures in China.

“It’s important to resist top-down big development,” argues a veteran rights activist and conservationist, “but that can’t legitimise the politics of violence. The solution lies in decentralisation of growth, in small-scale efforts to promote crafts, sustainable agriculture and enterprise based on minor forest produce. Unless we have thousands like Mendha-Lekha [the first village to have the right to harvest forest bamboo in Maharashtra], both people and conservation will continue to suffer.”

Be it minerals, timber, wildlife or just real estate, the last remaining forests are India’s biggest assets. As long as guns blaze in this wilderness, as a forest officer laments in Chhattisgarh’s Kanger Valley, conservation will be the ultimate casualty. “When Maovaadis gain ground, villagers clear the forests like there is no tomorrow,” he says, “When the sarkar takes control, it opens up every little patch for miners.”

In the final analysis, India’s tragedy is this: a fair settlement of forest rights and an ecologically sound land-use policy do not seem to suit either Maoists or the State.