turf war

Or Try This for Corruption

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While the great Indian middle class obsesses with cricket and corruption, an epic three-way battle is unfolding in forests across the country. It is time to take notice, and a stand. Because, more than anything else, the outcome of this tussle will decide India’s future

As the forces of tribal rights, conservation and big money lock horns across India’s forest map, who would you put your money on?

As the forces of tribal rights, conservation and big money lock horns across India’s forest map, who would you put your money on?

You pass? Not your fault.

For all our love of cricket, we don’t fill up stands during Test matches. Full of righteous indignation we may be, but to express itself, our outrage needs to latch on to figures such as Rs 1,76,000 crore. Give us a T20 encounter or a dozen-digit scam, and we will swarm any stadium or Jantar Mantar any day.
This triangular contest does not fit the TV slots. It has been unfolding over decades in far corners of the country. Nobody can put a figure to what is at stake in this tussle. It is impossible to monetise the cost of ecological damage and social unrest.

But since we love numbers, it is time to add up how many tribals and farmers have been shot dead by the police or the forest department over the past decade; how many cops, forest personnel and conservation activists have lost their lives; how many government and MNC properties have been vandalised and officials injured during protests. Last weekend alone recorded four casualties: two policemen, a farmer (Noida) and a wetland conservationist (Kolkata).

It is also time, as law-abiding citizens, to record how frequently different authorities, from district administrations to the Prime Minister’s Office, have violated various Acts and guidelines to clear (willy-nilly) development projects across India. Start by considering the blatant Posco bailout in Orissa.

Since we so hate corruption, it is time to take stock of the great loot of our natural resources, from minerals to timber, by different government agencies in collusion with private mafia. Since we take pride in our democracy, it is time to measure how many thousand hectares of India’s forest land is under community encroachment, mostly cleared to the last tree. Start from Assam’s Sonitpur district, which has no control over 90 per cent of its “forests”.
As the three forces collide, it is time to take stock of the massive social and ecological churning across the country. Let us not lose sight of ancient forest-dwelling communities, such as the Soligas in Karnataka. As impoverished, forested districts of India continue to be hotbeds of insurgency, it is time we try to understand the desperation of the marginalised millions, from Bengal to Maharashtra.

The only silver lining to this three-way tug-of-war is a government increasingly candid about what it wants. And don’t we love transparency? So after warning that green laws should not bring back the dreaded licence-permit raj, the Prime Minister has struck down a proposal for an Elephant Conservation Authority that would have hampered development activity across vast landscapes.

More recently, Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh admitted how he buckled under pressure and cleared projects that violated green norms from time to time. But, then, Ramesh exhibits the rare skill of routinely playing martyr without ever having to resign. He also has the unique distinction of taking every side in this three-way tussle equally eloquently.

However, even for Ramesh, walking this tightrope is getting increasingly difficult. For the record, the now stark alignment of the three forces began to take shape about six years ago. That was the time when a number of mega projects, such as the Navi Mumbai airport in Maharashtra and the Posco plant in Orissa, were proposed. In 2005, a national tiger task force was set up to strengthen India’s conservation efforts. The next year, after a bitter tug-of-war between rights activists and conservationists, Parliament cleared the Forest Rights Act (FRA). It was notified in 2007 and promised millions of forest dwellers land and other rights. Around the same time, the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) was amended and more than 50,000 families were offered Rs 10 lakh each to vacate India’s tiger reserves.

Unfortunately, barring a few exceptions, the mandate and money meant to free the country’s finest forests of human settlement is going waste (Relocation Rumpus, May 2010) in the absence of practical, transparent and sensitive groundwork. Implementation of the FRA has been equally haphazard and the fate of most forest communities still depends on the efficiency and commitment of the state government concerned.

The contention is simple. Conservationists claim that forests and wildlife do well when protected from people. Rights activists argue that communities are the best defenders of our wilderness when they are offered incentives to do so. While both lobbies are busy fighting each other’s prescription to protect biodiversity, the mighty forces of power and money are silently making inroads. In the past two years, 99 per cent of development projects requiring forest clearance have been okayed. Only one, Vedanta’s mega plans at Niyamgiri, has been stopped under the FRA.

Now with Posco, and a slew of other projects, cleared under duress—and the minister being casually frank about such compromises—it is evident which side enjoys a decisive edge in this triangular contest. Will it be a walkover soon? Or will the tribal and conservation lobbies get real and join hands to measure up to their mighty adversary?

Either way, if we fail to take notice when, in fact, it is time to take sides, the great Indian middle class may well end up as collateral damage.