The conservation establishment in India periodically finds itself caught in a cleft stick—between the developmental onslaught on biodiversity and local resistance to conservation projects that threaten human livelihood. Conservation as a necessary agenda requires a new vision that transcends the inherent limitations of the current practice.
Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a liv-ing?” Visitors to the northwestern United States routinely encounter this query on bumper stickers. The region, popularly called the Pacific Northwest, is renowned for both its beautifully forested landscapes and its prolific timber output. The slogan captures the response of the local population to the celebrated controversy that pitted the logging industry in the region against the Spotted Owl, emblem of the US environmental movement, whose last habitat the logging industry was said to be destroying. Through the 1980s, environmentalists lobbied hard to put a stop to logging activities in the Pacific Northwest. Local people dependent on logging for their livelihoods, on the other hand, contested this fiercely.
This conflict, between conservation and livelihood, between larger and local interests, and, obliquely, between science and politics, seems to characterise modernising civilisations worldwide. In one of the many re-enactments of the Spotted Owl drama, the endangered Western Tragopan, a brilliantly coloured pheasant endemic to the western Himalaya, has been pitted against the grazing and plant collection activities of local populations in the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) in Himachal Pradesh. The preservation of the Western Tragopan, by removing human pressure on its habitat, undermines local livelihoods that are almost entirely dependent on the same resources.
The Western Tragopan and its protectors had another enemy as well—the development lobby. In 1999 it was decided that a part of the park, jeeva Nallah, would be set aside for the construction of the runof-river Parvati hydroelectric project. This required the construction of diversion weirs and underground tunnels in precisely the area that is frequented by the Western Tragopan. With a part of the park now reserved for the power project, the rest of it was officially closed off. Local communities, in order to survive, had now to use clandestine methods to gain access to the park and its resources of food and fodder. They also resorted to local political processes to retrieve their age-old rights. Through a combination of electoral clout, everyday defiance and moral argument, the populace persuaded their leaders to bring pressure to bear on the park authorities, essentially to wink at their clandestine activities. By late 2000, the conservationists’ nightmare had come true. One part of GHNP was taken over by Parvati Project while the rest was taken over by the villagers. The Western Tragopan was out of the picture.
Conservationists of all hues of red and green were unanimous in castigating the use of park land for power generation. But their unanimity broke down on the question of how best to deal with local humans and their usufruct claims within the park. Many officials of the forest department and a majority of the conservationists and scientists associated with the park maintained that the exclusion of all human activity is imperative for the effective conservation of GHNP’s biological diversity. Villagers, on the other hand, argued that such exclusion is neither politically feasible, given the electoral dynamics of the region, nor ecologically necessary, given the nature of resource use. However, almost all of them overlooked one significant factor: if the area has such a wide representation of western Himalayan biodiversity, could this not, in some measure, be attributed to prevalent customs and traditions of resource-use? And if so, then could the ends of conservation be achieved by a complete exclusion of people?
The drama of the Parvati and the Tragopan, played out over the last two decades of the 20th century, symbolises the ongoing war of attrition among conservation, development and livelihoods across India. The GHNP has become an ideological and intellectual battlefield. Science, politics, and the law intermingle, underlined by a rhetoric that refers to conservation values on the one extreme, and the need for development on the other, said to be in the “national interest”. In this conflict, conservation’s failure stands out, both to realise its agendas and to address the reality within which it functions. The predicament of conservation stems from its one-sided emphasis on insulating itself from politics, in the process failing to take into account the realities on the ground. A viable as vision of conservation needs to consider the dynamics of decision-making and implementation, the biases of the science on which the current conservationist perspective is predicated, the malleability in the enforcement of the law, as well as the capacity of local populations to integrate conservation into livelihood practices.
Conservation and negotiation
Conservation is an inherently political process. Conservation decisions and practices are necessarily a result of negotiations that take place between numerous players— biologists, bureaucrats, politicians, activists and locals. These negotiations are not always conducted in the public domain. They are almost never fair, and, as currently practised, rarely satisfying for the various claimers seated around the negotiating table.
There, of course, need be no table to begin with. Negotiations need not take place face-to-face. They can take place through an intermediary, such as when villagers approach a minister in the government and he overrides a restraining order issued by the forest department. Negotiations take place when villagers defy the law and enter a park, either on the sly or in open defiance of the forest department. The terms of negotiation are sometimes set unilaterally, as when the forest department clamps down on villager entry into a park. Coercion, of course, is not dialogue, but sets the terms of the contest between conflicting interest and forms the background for further actions and interactions, as when a part of the national park is ‘de-notified’ for a hydel power project.
The pertinent point is that direct negotiations, as opposed to unilateral actions, can take place without the consent of the parties involved. Where a decision by one party affects the interests of another party, then some form of negotiation is taking place. This may not appear to be negotiation only because it is not taking place between equals, and because some interests at the negotiating table may feel badly done by. Even so, an exchange does take place, with specific, identifiable outcomes.
Some of these negotiations take place within the ambit of the law whereas others violate it. When Jeeva Nallah was given over to the power project, the government, though tarnishing its conservationist credentials, is acting within the laws that it makes. But when the Member of Parliament from Mandi responds to pressure from residents of his electoral constituency, and orders the director of GHNP to allow villagers to enter the park, he is asking the director to break the law.
The two issues are really two sides of the same political coin. The de-notification of the Jeeva Nallah reflects the lack of political opposition to the power project. Equally, the pressure exerted on the director of the park by a local politician reflects the lack of political support for the establishment of a protected area. Conservationists refer to the de-notification as lack of political will; they refer to the MP’s directive as political interference.
Conservationists criticise this ‘politicisation’ of the environmental terrain which pays little heed to their carefully conducted science. It has been established that the GHNP is one of only two areas in the world that protect the Western Tragopan, and that less than 1600 of these birds survive in the wild today. Therefore, they argue, all steps must be taken to preserve the species. Equally, scientific research demonstrates that the Himalayan Tahr population in the park is amongst the most important populations of the species in the Himalaya. The park, therefore, needs to be protected from those factors that pose a threat to the species. Human disturbance has been shown to be inimical to wildlife populations in the Park. The solution is to keep people out of the conservation areas, and the thrust of the argument is that the Indian Wildlife Act prohibits all human consumptive use of resources within national parks, hence politicians and bureaucrats should be forced to uphold the law. This is the essence of the conservationist view.
In 1996, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature took this argument to the Indian Supreme Court, seeking enforcement of the Indian Wildlife Act. The court’s interim order directed all state governments to initiate proceedings, and to settle within a year, all human consumptive rights within Indian Protected Areas. Settlement proceedings were initiated in a number of states. Under existing law, this effectively meant termination of all usufruct rights and ongoing use of resources by villagers with the protected areas.
At the time, conservationists hailed the court’s verdict as a victory for the conservation movement. But in a number of states—Himachal, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh—problems began to surface. Given the number of people whose livelihoods depend on access to these resources, there was a great deal of resistance to the settlement process, and people approached politicians to remove the protected area status given to forests in the vicinity of their habitations.
Such de-notification, of course, potentially opens the floodgates to activities far more destructive to the area, such as open-pit mining, large-scale development projects, the building of national highways and so on. Since corrupt government officials and politicians stand to benefit financially from any activity that involves the provision of a permit to a contractor or mine-owner, frustrated conservationists blame the conservation failure on a weak and corrupt government. What they miss in their reading of myriad negotiations that lead up to all such decisions is the fact that political intervention works both ways. When a minister responds to the demands of the members of his constituency, it can be seen as the government’s inability to uphold the law. Or, it can be seen as democracy at work.
On the rare occasions when middle-class urbanites get together to fight for a cause, and force the government to initiate a change in waste disposal, stop police brutality, or demand the provision of water and electricity, and the government is forced to respond, there is renewed belief in democracy. Why is not the same yardstick applied when rural India manages to force a government, through the power of its electoral franchise, to orient policy in its favour?
We are told, “The two situations are not comparable.” In the first instance, and purely on moral grounds, it is the government’s duty to provide clean drinking water, regular electricity and a cleaner environment to its citizens. At the same time, conservation of biodiversity in protected areas is something that will serve generations to come, in both rural and urban India. The villagers do not recognise it, it is said, but conserving that biological diversity is in their own long-term interests. Secondly, the urban population is merely applying pressure on the government to enforce its own laws regarding the provision of essential services, for example, while villagers’ actions in the latter context are actively aimed at circumventing the law.
Perhaps. The question of who benefits from biodiversity conservation, and at whose cost, has been much debated. It is not at all clear whether the inhabitants of rural India have any interest in conserving much of this diversity, particularly when it comes at a great cost to them. Certainly, where tiger and elephant conservation is concerned, there is occasionally lukewarm interest at the best of times, and often open hostility to measures aimed at increasing the numbers of these potentially dangerous animals. But there are other situations in which rural India does recognise the importance of conserving biological diversity. It is just that the people most affected have been allowed to play no role in framing the laws governing the means by which this diversity is to be identified and conserved.
Inflexible models, flexible laws
Unlike the urban situation, where there is widespread agreement amongst the affected populace, about the desirability of providing clean drinking water and regular electricity, there is no such agreement in the rural situation. The laws that operate to determine how best to conserve Indian biodiversity have been crafted by bureaucrats and biologists with no personal livelihood whatsoever at stake. Their models of conservation have tended to be imported from the American experiment with wildlife conservation— which of course is a vastly different terrain. Even if there are some instances of conflict between livelihoods and conservation in the United States, there are vast expanses of forest and grassland that are virtually uninhabited and unused. This is not true of the Indian context. The Spotted Owl and the Western Tragopan, they do inhabit different environments, in this sense.
The “science” that underpins the imported model also belongs to another cultural context. At the core of this science is the argument that humans need to be separated from wilderness areas if these are to survive. This view is shaped by a cultural bias. Empty spaces devoid of human activity are valued in the West as areas to which people can escape from the noise and bustle of urban chaos.
This science is also informed by the notion of a balance in nature, a bias that can be traced to Christi mythology and its account of God’s creation of tail’ world. This notion of a balance in nature no longer holds the sway it did amongst natural scientists, yet the model of conservation that it spawned, and much of the rhetoric surrounding this model, remain largely intact. By replicating this model, we lose the opportunity to think of wilderness conservation of a kind that may be more suited to the conditions that exist in India (and the rest of the Subcontinent).
Fortunately, there are alternatives supported by scientific research on the impact of human activities on the landscape, as well as by research in the social sciences on the optimal arrangements for managing protected areas. These options facilitate adaptive rather than prescriptive management models, and allow space for strategies suited to local conditions. It is just that these options are not even considered, owing largely to a bureaucracy that is sitting pretty and a conservationist lobby that is loathe to part with either power or a model of conservation they have staked their professional reputations on.
So, when village communities undermine the functioning of the law that is meant to enforce what is a culturally narrow definition of nature, conservationists decry the ineffectiveness of the state, the lack of political will, the political interference in conservation and so on. Arguments about “the effective functioning of democracy” are of little consequence to scientists trying to conserve Indian wildlife. What the flailing, foot-stomping conservationists have failed to do over the years is to build partnerships with local communities. They have actively failed to create common cause with the people most affected by, and therefore, most in touch with, the resources they wish to conserve. Instead, they have pursued science and the law with a vigour that assumes that the mere assertion of the importance of biological resources, combined with the repetition of appropriate legalese, should suffice to protect natural resources. But things do not always work out this way.
Things do not work out this way because of the flexibility in the implementation of the law. Such flexibility exists in every part of the world, but it is spectacularly present in most parts of the developing world and South Asia. After all, this is a region where greasing a lineman’s palm just to ensure the functioning of so basic a convenience as telephone is a regular experience. Here, the conservationist counter-argument is that it is the lineman’s job to keep the lines in working condition, but that corruption in the system enables him to force us to pay him to do his job. True, but then think back to the time you jumped a red light, and then paid off the crooked cop to avoid the heavy fine he threatened you with. There is a flexibility in our interactions with the law that most of us recognise in our daily dealing with the state, but which we seem to forget in our judgement of the politician casually ordering the park director to bend the law.
We tend to see such activities of politicians as somehow illegitimate and unfair. We do not see them as merely responding to pressures that are originating within their constituency. We certainly do not see villager entry into the park as a natural outcome of democratic processes, where voters enforce an outcome favourable to themselves. Rather than blaming conservation failures on an ineffective, unresponsive state, conservation must assimilate itself into the political process. For, the hydra-headed state, across its vertical and horizontal divisions, is responding to pressures from below. Such phenomena need to be understood if we are to make any progress in the way we approach conservation in India. These are the negotiations that are taking place all the time, unseen, maligned by an apolitical conservation community rooted in the urban middle-class. And these negotiations take place in the spaces that exist within the law—the spaces that may not be apparent in the letter of the law, but which open up in its actual implementation.
The only way out is in!
Such “ineffective working” of the state has been condemned in the past, but that’s neither here nor there. Instead, we need to understand it—for, it will continue to happen, again and again, irrespective of how much evidence can be compiled of such wrongdoing, or how volubly the cause can be trumpeted. It is a natural outcome of statecraft which allows interest groups with the greatest financial or electoral power to manipulate outcomes to suit their own interests.
The crux of the problem, therefore, is interest groups. What is the support base for biological conservation in the country? What is the subscription profile of the magazine Sanctuary, put out from Bombay? Is it the urban middle-class? Maybe not even that—an urban upper-middle class. Let us qualify that. An apolitical urban upper middle class. What is the size of Sanctuary Magazine’s subscription? Four or five thousand? How many of them vote? How many of them, more pointedly, are voters in the Kullu constituency from which Maheshwar Singh stands for election every few years?
To some extent public opinion in the metropolis does influence conservation policy. It influences the way the Supreme Court may make decisions that have far reaching legal and social consequences. And to that extent, it is important that information be made available to a public so that an informed opinion can be formed. But once policy has been formulated, the weight of various interest groups determines the ways and means by which this policy is implemented. For too long, Indian conservationists have focused their efforts on the crafting of public policy and the shaping of public opinion within urban India. Too little effort has gone into understanding the negotiated and fiercely contested process by which such policy is implemented.
An alternative perspective that has emerged in recent years places local communities at the centre, rather than on the periphery, of the entire exercise. The crux of this argument is that the environment needs to become a part of electoral politics within rural India. The objective, then, is to turn electoral power around, such that pressure from below works in the service of, rather than against, conservation.
Popular support for conservation can only come when local communities play a greater role in the decision-making concerning protected areas which affect them. Such support comes from a sense of control over a resource and a negotiating process in which the community perceives itself to be an equal partner with outsiders who also stake a claim to managing the area. Conservation partnerships with local interests are not easy to forge since these imply a loosening of state control over people and resources. Such collaborations also pose an intellectual threat to scientists accustomed to having it their way.
The Great Himalayan National Park of Himachal provides a unique opportunity to test the waters of community participation. There is mounting empirical evidence supporting the view that security of tenure is the most compelling incentive for participatory conservation. GHNP is probably the only protected area in India, which affords us the luxury of indulging all the stakeholders without compromising on basic scientific and social principles. Where else in India would you find 1100 square kilometres of area with only 15,000 people, that too populating only its southwestern periphery?
There are even now large areas inside the park that have fallen into disuse. It is possible to devise a scale of graded protection to different areas inside the park, ranging from totally closed areas to fully open spaces near villages. The villages are characterised by strong community institutions, which could be harnessed in a new conservation paradigm. But for that to happen, community representatives, politicians, conservationists and biologists ought to agree to negotiate and make the necessary compromises. This could signal the end of exclusionary conservation choices forced by urban middle-class India upon its fellow citizens who rely on the forest, and the institutionalisation of a more adaptive system of managing biological heritage.