Divide And Rule

  • 30/10/1998

State regulations are extremely important to protect various elements of the ecosphere like air and water against pollution, and from over exploitation. But corruption, lack of public awareness of the importance of natural resources for daily survival, and policies that exclude the participation of the people can render the laws ineffective.

The Wildlife Protection Act and the Water Pollution Control Act were enacted in 1972 and in 1974 respectively. This was followed by the Air Pollution Control Act in 1991. And in 1990, the Centre created the department of environment which was later upgraded to the status of a full-fledged ministry. However, these Acts and institutional infrastructure have done very little to protect the environment. The Supreme Court's effort to curb pollution in Delhi has also faced problems posed by people with vested interests (see box: Judicial drive). And wildlife trade, which provides handsome perks to both officials and poachers, goes on unchecked.

"No worthwhile campaign to fight crime against wildlife can succeed without the cooperation of the people inhabiting protected areas and buffer zones," says a government report. However, wildlife protection laws are doing exactly the opposite - turning the people into outlaws in their own habitat. The result: forest-dwellers view the forest and wildlife as a "leper's sore". They become an easy prey to the designs of poachers who exploit their knowledge of the forests. The government's strategy has mainly been to induct more guards. But it is clear that unless local communities are made stakeholders in the forest, and given tangible and real control, bringing about a change will be difficult.

Various provisions of the Forest Act give forest functionaries wide powers. Tribal activist M D Mistry of Gujarat cites Section 69 of the Act which presumes that forest produce belongs to the government unless proved contrary. Similarly, Section 64 empowers officials to arrest a person without a warrant which gives functionaries wide powers. The Act also requires a "transit pass" to shift any produce through the forests. Thus for the forest communities there are just two options - either break the laws or pay a price to allow it to be broken.

The Gujjars, nomadic herdspeople, were faced with a peculiar problem in the autumn of 1992. The forest guards who normally "granted" them entry into the state-owned forests (their winter abode in the foothills of the Himalaya) presented them with a new demand. The "entry fee" had gone up. They were told that the prime minister had gone to a foreign land called Rio where it was agreed that human beings would not be allowed into the forests. Now the guards could allow the Gujjars in, but at a personal risk. Thus, instead of the usual rate of one kg of ghee per milking animal each month and one kg of milk per day for each animal, they needed to double the bribe. And for the ghaas salami (literally meaning salute for the grass) instead of Rs 30 per animal, they now needed Rs 80 per animal. The "Rio payment", as this came to be known, is paid till date. Such payments arc not unusual. Poor forest-dwellers and villagers regularly pay them for their survival (see box: Birds of burden).

As a result, forest communities have no stake in conservation programmes. And poachers and smugglers have a field day while local forest functionaries mull over the provisions of the Act for their personal gains.

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