Incidents like last week’s leopard attack in Thane will become commonplace, says Valmik Thapar
The soon-to-be-introduced Tribal Bill will intensify the man-animal conflict by about 10,000 per cent. Humans will assert their rights on forests, national parks and sanctuaries which are home to leopards, tigers and lions, and some of these animals take a toll on humans by eating their livestock. We don’t know what the extent of other devastation will be due to cutting down forests and wiping out the habitats of millions of birds and migratory species.
Everyone says the tribals and forest-dwellers will live in harmony with wildlife, but let’s see what happens. I believe this will be the biggest disaster to hit the country. This is an Act without safeguards for wildlife. There is no way to make sure the conflict does not get out of hand. Parliament can make amendments, but these will take, at best, six months to a year to implement; and that only if Parliamentarians see a problem in this. All national parks will be invaded by people claiming the land as theirs to graze and live on. There will also be a lot of litigation, and courts will find themselves choked with paperwork.
We have 22 per cent of forest land in India, nearly one-fourth of the landmass of India. I’ve suggested, in my discussions with the ministries and the Prime Minister, that six per cent out this 22 per cent be kept inviolate. This is our primary source of water, the source of 600 rivers and streams. Although the draft Tribal Bill referred to only the scheduled tribes, the Joint Parliamentary Committee (which was overseeing the process) decided to include forest-dwellers as well. Instead of cutting back on the amount of land, national parks and sanctuaries were also included. It’s no longer only about preserving wildlife; these forests are vital for human life.
With the present Bill, we have opened up our forests to the public. We’re the first country in the world to do so; everbody else locks up their national parks because they understand the value of biodiversity and water, and their role in preventing drought. We’re opening up reserves that are more valuable than gold or foreign exchange; some people put the value of our forests at $1.5 trillion.
My fear is that besides genuine forest-dwellers, a lot of timber mafia, land mafia and others will turn up with fake documentation and claim forest land. We’ve opened a Pandora’s Box. It will be impossible to control the activities of, say, 50 million people.
The loss of India’s forests by opening up the area to the public at large can also have serious repercussions on global warming and climate change. The future of India’s forest and wildlife faces its biggest challenge ever in its history. Will it survive?
Valmik Thapar is a conservatio activist. He spoke to Geetanjali Jhala.