Pr­erna Singh Bin­dra’s book is a poignant ac­count of the rav­aging of what re­mains of In­dia’s nat­u­ral wilds

India Today - - LEISURE - —Vandana Mo­hin­dra

On Au­gust 23, 2016, the Na­tional Board for Wildlife sanc­tioned the Ken-Betwa river link project, which will drown 58 square kilo­me­tres of crit­i­cal tiger habi­tat in the Panna Tiger Re­serve, along with its tigers. The irony is that Panna’s tigers owe their ex­is­tence to a ground­break­ing gov­ern­ment-sup­ported re­lo­ca­tion pro­gramme that brought tigers back to the park af­ter they had been de­clared ex­tinct here in 2005. Why, then, has the gov­ern­ment de­cided to drown its tigers?

Pr­erna Singh Bin­dra tells Panna’s story, and dozens like it, in her book The Van­ish­ing, which high­lights one of the pri­mary causes of In­dia’s wildlife cri­sis: the de­lib­er­ate de­struc­tion of nat­u­ral habi­tats, be­gin­ning with the Congress-led UPA’s poli­cies of the 1990s and con­tin­u­ing with re­newed vigour un­der the Modi-led NDA.

Of the many hats she has worn in her ca­reer— jour­nal­ist, teacher and au­thor—none seems more im­por­tant than Bin­dra’s role as a mem­ber of the Na­tional Board for Wildlife be­tween 2010-13. It is this role that gives The Van­ish­ing its rigour: the hard facts that come from an “in­sider’s ac­count” of the in­ner work­ings of our ministry for en­vi­ron­ment and forests.

The chap­ter on what she calls In­dia’s ‘No­tional Board for Wildlife’ is a par­tic­u­lar gem—a grip­ping tale of ma­nip­u­la­tion and de­cep­tion writ­ten with the dex­ter­ity of a spy novel. It re­veals how an ex-min­is­ter and en­vi­ron­men­tal hero fi­nally gave in to the in­tense pres­sure com­ing from the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice, forc­ing his hand to sign away pro­tected forests for coal mines, mega real es­tate and steel. It re­counts how the BJP dis­solved en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions to ac­com­mo­date its new mis­sion of “ease of do­ing busi­ness”, giv­ing away core tiger ar­eas to projects that could eas­ily be lo­cated else­where, in­clud­ing 20 hectares of Ra­jaji’s core for­est to the Shri Raghaven­dra Se­washram Samiti—to grow a herb gar­den!

Bin­dra dis­closes the heart of the mat­ter—In­dia has 20 per cent of its land un­der for­est cover (in­clud­ing pro­tected ar­eas that span just 5 per cent). This 20 per cent is “prac­ti­cally the only land avail­able in the coun­try and thus much cov­eted; most of the rest of the coun­try has al­ready been used—built upon, fal­lowed, in­hab­ited”. So even when vi­able al­ter­na­tives are avail­able out­side forests, pow­er­ful lob­bies clam­our for new for­est clear­ances in or­der to ac­quire “own­er­ship of valu­able nat­u­ral re­sources: land, wa­ter and min­er­als”.

But it’s not all cloak and dag­ger. Bin­dra also draws vivid por­traits of unsung he­roes, who risk ev­ery­thing to pro­tect their an­i­mal wards, im­ple­ment­ing as­tound­ing so­lu­tions that pro­vide blue­prints for gov­ern­ments to follow, if they had the will. One such group is Odisha’s Ath­garh Ele­phant-con­flict Mit­i­ga­tion Squad, “a rag-tag group of daily wa­gers” led by Pan­chanan Nayak, who steer 25 wild ele­phants across high­ways and fields sim­ply by talk­ing to them. Bin­dra also links the loss of species and wilder­ness to our own in­evitable demise. The end of tiger forests also means the end of aquifers, as the forests “sponge the short, sharp mon­soon, thus feed­ing the aquifers that, in turn, feed over 600 rivers and streams…. It is not about us sav­ing the tiger, it is about the tiger sav­ing us”.

The Van­ish­ing is a riv­et­ing ac­count of one of the greatest threats of our time—the de­lib­er­ate an­ni­hi­la­tion of our nat­u­ral world and with it our ac­cess to clean air, suf­fi­cient food and potable wa­ter.


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