Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

IT IS time we re­de­fined what we mean by con­ser­va­tion and what con­sti­tutes gen­der is­sues. I am in Almora, where a group of an­guished women are telling me how their al­ready hard life has be­come harsher be­cause of ma­raud­ing mon­keys and wild boar. Their sto­ries are heart-rend­ing. One wo­man tells me how her young daugh­ter was at­tacked. An­other one talks of how she was mauled. She shows me her scars. All talk about how their crops are be­ing dev­as­tated. “We get one-third (yield) or even less now.” Noth­ing is left, an­other says. “We can’t sleep at night … wild boars plun­der our crops.”

This comes af­ter back-break­ing work to get the food. In the Hi­malayas, women (there are no men to speak of in agri­cul­ture in this re­gion) col­lect large loads of green fod­der, carry them on their back up and down pre­cip­i­tous slopes, all to feed the live­stock, not for milk but for ma­nure. The steep moun­tain ter­races are poor in fer­til­ity and this is the only way to im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity. Now even this is threat­ened.

Their pain is pal­pa­ble. Their liveli­hood is be­ing de­stroyed. One wo­man tells me with ob­vi­ous con­tempt: “The govern­ment says it will give us grain un­der the Food Se­cu­rity Act. We tell them, ‘Keep it. Your grain is sub­stan­dard and poor in nutri­tion. Pro­tect our land and we will give you dou­ble the grain.’ Our man­dua is nu­tri­tious and healthy.”

I ask them why they are rais­ing this is­sue now. Af­ter all, they have al­ways lived in this forested re­gion where an­i­mal at­tacks are com­mon. The older women re­ply, quickly and stren­u­ously, “We have never seen any­thing like this. The num­bers have mul­ti­plied many times.” I then say that this is clearly be­cause we have de­stroyed habi­tats of mon­keys and other wild an­i­mals. Forests are be­ing de­stroyed and so an­i­mals are turn­ing to hu­man set­tle­ments to find food. It is our fault, I say. “We have not en­croached on the forests. It is the city that has grown and taken over for­est habi­tats,” they point out. What sur­prises me is the next re­sponse: “These are not our mon­keys. These are ag­gres­sive and vi­o­lent.” I probe more. The for­est de­part­ment, it seems, was bring­ing drugged mon­keys from other places and leav­ing them in the forested vil­lages. All this was be­ing done at night and peo­ple had no in­for­ma­tion.

This does not sur­prise me. Even in Delhi where the rich and fa­mous live, when mon­keys be­came a big me­nace they were “re­lo­cated” to forested re­gions on the out­skirts of the city. Now peo­ple like me can be wildlife en­thu­si­asts with­out hav­ing to deal with an­i­mals in their back­yard. But it does make me re­alise just how cal­lous (in- deed crim­i­nal) our con­ser­va­tion poli­cies are.

I sum­mon courage to ask what they want. Af­ter all, mon­keys are wor­shipped as de­scen­dants of Hanu­man. Will they al­low killing? First there is si­lence. I can feel the ten­sion. Then one wo­man bursts out, “Yes. These mon­keys are not Hanu­man but Bali—the evil one.” The rest join in. “We want govern­ment to act.” This would mean that the Uttarakhand govern­ment would have to de­clare mon­key ver­min and then un­der­take culling.

Cur­rently, govern­ments strug­gling to deal with the me­nace are re­lo­cat­ing and ster­il­is­ing mon­keys. This mea­sure is clearly fail­ing. Ster­il­i­sa­tion re­quires cap­tur­ing the an­i­mal and hold­ing it for three days be­fore ster­il­is­ing and free­ing it. The pro­gramme is de­signed to fail. There are too many an­i­mals, cap­tur­ing is dif­fi­cult and it is im­pos­si­ble to know which an­i­mal has been ster­ilised. Worse, there is no clear idea of the op­ti­mum num­ber that needs to be ster­ilised, so breed­ing con­tin­ues. Pri­ma­tol­o­gists say at least one-third of the pop­u­la­tion needs to be ster­ilised to sta­bilise (not re­duce) growth. This is im­pos­si­ble to achieve.

What then is the so­lu­tion? It is dif­fi­cult to say. The Uttarakhand govern­ment has re­cently de­clared wild boar ver­min, but who will kill the an­i­mal? In neigh­bour­ing Hi­machal Pradesh, the mon­key has been in­cluded in the cat­e­gory. But where are the guns? The for­est de­part­ment is least both­ered to help vil­lagers. These vil­lages are run by women; the men have mi­grated or are look­ing for jobs out­side agri­cul­ture. In one case, the women de­scribed how they ganged up and took out sticks to beat the an­i­mal that was ma­raud­ing their field. “It turned on us and we had to take cover.”

The prob­lem is ur­gent, real and caus­ing huge dam­age and pain. It can­not be shrugged off. It needs res­o­lu­tion.

This is where it gets com­pli­cated. One, the is­sue con­cerns largely women. But who will take up this “gen­der” is­sue? It is women who farm the moun­tain slopes. We have no time for them. Two, the is­sue con­cerns how we prac­tise con­ser­va­tion. We want the plea­sure of see­ing an­i­mals in the wild, but with­out pay­ing the real price of that pro­tec­tion. This is not ac­cept­able. Should not be.

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