India Today - - CONTENTS - By Rahul Noronha

A pro­posal to set up a com­mit­tee to boost tiger tourism in Mad­hya Pradesh has di­vided con­ser­va­tion­ists

The chief wildlife war­den says the com­mit­tee is un­nec­es­sary, be­cause there are al­ready two such bod­ies that re­port to the CM

Aplan to set up an ‘em­pow­ered wildlife ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee’ in Mad­hya Pradesh has been caught up in the con­ser­va­tion ver­sus tourism de­bate and is fac­ing stiff re­sis­tance from the state’s for­est de­part­ment. A pro­posal to cre­ate such a body was re­cently sent to the state gov­ern­ment by Delhi-based con­ser­va­tion­ist Valmik Tha­par (who was also re­cently ap­pointed to the state’s wildlife ad­vi­sory board). The pro­posal has been re­jected by the state’s chief wildlife war­den, U. Prakasham, who says that such a com­mit­tee is not needed. A sec­tion of con­ser­va­tion­ists had also op­posed the pro­posal—they ar­gue that such a com­mit­tee would favour tourism over con­ser­va­tion. Tourism has emerged as a ma­jor fo­cus for the Ka­mal Nath-led state gov­ern­ment, which hopes the sec­tor can pro­vide sub­stan­tial em­ploy­ment and rev­enue. In his pro­posal, Tha­par wrote that he was sug­gest­ing such a com­mit­tee—aimed at re­struc­tur­ing wildlife poli­cies gov­ern­ing the use of for­est ar­eas—af­ter a dis­cus­sion with the chief min­is­ter, and that he would be will­ing to ac­cept an as­sign­ment as vice-chair­per­son of the said com­mit­tee. For­mer chief min­is­ter Digvi­jaya Singh has been sug­gested for the post of chair­per­son, with other mem­bers drawn from the ranks of tourism ex­perts, for­est de­part­ment of­fi­cials (in­clud­ing the chief wildlife war­den) and em­i­nent wildlife sci­en­tists, such as Raghu Chun­dawat. The com­mit­tee was to sub­mit its first re­port in Oc­to­ber. The com­mit­tee, which would re­port di­rectly to the CM, would over­see all is­sues re­lat­ing to wildlife pro­tec­tion. It would also be re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing tourism ini­tia­tives in­side pro­tected ar­eas, tar­get­ing an­nual rev­enues of Rs 100 crore, as well as the im­ple­men­ta­tion of mod­els that en­gage lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing in buf­fer ar­eas sur­round­ing tiger re­serves, tar­get­ing an­nual rev­enues of Rs 2,000 crore. The com­mit­tee’s other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties would in­clude de­vel­op­ing mea­sures to re­duce man-an­i­mal con­flict and en­cour­ag­ing pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships for wildlife ini­tia­tives. When this plan was for­warded by the chief min­is­ter’s of­fice to the for­est de­part­ment for com­ments, it ran into im­me­di­ate re­sis­tance. Sources say the chief wildlife war­den be­lieves this com­mit­tee to be un­nec­es­sary for sev­eral rea­sons, in­clud­ing the fact that there are al­ready two statu­tory bod­ies—the state wildlife board and the tiger steer­ing com­mit­tee—both es­tab­lished un­der the Wildlife Pro­tec­tion Act, 1972 and both chaired by the chief min­is­ter, that look into th­ese and other is­sues. The for­est de­part­ment’s note on the pro­posal elab­o­rates on th­ese points—for in­stance, high­light­ing the fact that Tha­par is al­ready a mem­ber of the state wildlife board and could of­fer sug­ges­tions at that fo­rum, and that sub­ject mat­ter ex­perts could eas­ily be nom­i­nated to the tiger steer­ing com­mit­tee. It also notes that the state al­ready has an eco­tourism devel­op­ment board, which reg­u­larly im­ple­ments tourism ini­tia­tives. “There are al­ready other com­mit­tees that have the same man­date,” says Prakasham. “More­over, there is no pro­vi­sion in the Wildlife Pro­tec­tion Act, 1972, for set­ting up such a com­mit­tee.” The pri­mary rea­son for the op­po­si­tion, ac­cord­ing to sources, was the de­part­ment’s re­sis­tance to a tourism-cen­tric pol­icy for wildlife con­ser­va­tion, even though the chief wildlife war­den’s note on the pro­posal does not high­light tourism as the main grounds for op­po­si­tion. This is some­what un­der­stand­able, given the chief min­is­ter’s fo­cus on the sec­tor. De­fend­ing the pro­posal, Tha­par told in­dia to­day: “Other states have stand­ing com­mit­tees on wildlife be­cause the [state] wildlife ad­vi­sory boards do not meet very of­ten,” adding, “[the pro­posal to set up such a com­mit­tee] was not my sug­ges­tion—it came from the state gov­ern­ment.” He also noted that Ra­jasthan had a sim­i­lar com­mit­tee up till 2019.

When asked about the com­mit­tee, ex-chief min­is­ter Digvi­jaya Singh in­voked a ‘mid­dle path’ ap­proach vis-à-vis tourism and con­ser­va­tion. “I feel that Mad­hya Pradesh should not do what Ra­jasthan did in pro­mot­ing wildlife tourism at the cost of con­ser­va­tion, but at the same time, it’s not that the state should not [be al­lowed] to cap­i­talise on its her­itage,” he said.

The note of dis­sent from the state chief wildlife war­den’s of­fice is cur­rently be­ing ex­am­ined by for­est min­is­ter Umang Sing­har. How­ever, prob­lems loom: Sing­har and for­mer chief min­is­ter Singh have, at best, a rocky equa­tion. Sing­har re­cently ac­cused Singh of try­ing to in­flu­ence state pol­icy, with the ac­ri­mony ris­ing to the point that chief min­is­ter Nath had to ask him to re­strain him­self and not speak to the me­dia. Given this strained back­ground, it is un­likely that the for­est min­is­ter would have a pos­i­tive view on a com­mit­tee pro­posed to be headed by the for­mer chief min­is­ter.

Re­sis­tance to the com­mit­tee not­with­stand­ing, the state has much to cheer about when it comes to tigers. In the re­cently an­nounced wildlife cen­sus, Mad­hya Pradesh re­claimed its ‘home of the tiger’ tag, which it had lost to Karnataka in 2011. With 526 tigers, the state cur­rently has the high­est num­ber of tigers in the coun­try. It is also home to some of the best man­aged and best known na­tional parks, in­clud­ing Kanha, Pench and Band­hav­garh, which at­tract tourists from all over the world.

Mad­hya Pradesh has a to­tal for­est cover of about 90,000 sq. km, of which a lit­tle more than 10,000 sq. km (about 12 per cent) has been set aside for sanc­tu­ar­ies and na­tional parks (there are 11 na­tional parks and 24 sanc­tu­ar­ies in the state). Of th­ese, the bulk of tourist foot­fall is at the six tiger re­serves, namely Kanha, Band­hav­garh, Pench, Sat­pura, Panna and San­jay. In 2018-19, about 1.9 mil­lion tourists vis­ited the state’s wildlife ar­eas, gen­er­at­ing about Rs 27 crore of rev­enue. Th­ese rev­enue num­bers had re­mained largely static in the re­cent past un­til a sub­stan­tial hike in en­try fees was im­ple­mented in 2017. How­ever, un­der­lin­ing the con­ser­va­tion con­cerns was a Supreme Court in­ter­ven­tion in 2012, which led to the de­ci­sion that ar­eas open for tourism in tiger re­serves should not ex­ceed 20 per cent of the re­serve’s core ar­eas.

“The na­tional wildlife ac­tion plan of 1983 is the only pol­icy guide­line [to be] fol­lowed on the sub­ject of wildlife tourism,” says for­mer prin­ci­pal chief con­ser­va­tor of forests and mem­ber of the state wildlife ad­vi­sory board Suhas Kumar. “It states that tourism can be used to elicit the sup­port of the lo­cal com­mu­nity, but con­ser­va­tion can­not be treated as a source of in­come. In case of con­flict be­tween con­ser­va­tion and tourism, the for­mer will pre­vail.” He adds: “It is not legally ten­able, and in fact laugh­able, that a com­mit­tee is pro­posed to be set up that will over­ride Supreme Court guide­lines on tourism in tiger re­serves.”

While for­est de­part­ment of­fi­cials do not have a favourable view of tourism, there are oth­ers who dif­fer. “In the 2014 wildlife cen­sus, in Mad­hya Pradesh alone, 79,000 sq. km of forests were sur­veyed for tigers. [They were found to in­habit] 15,000 sq. km of area. Of th­ese ar­eas, only 4,000-5,000 sq. km of tiger ter­ri­tory was in pro­tected ar­eas, while the rest was out­side. To pro­tect th­ese tigers, the for­est de­part­ment only wants to cre­ate more pro­tected ar­eas— but who will pro­tect wildlife in th­ese ar­eas?” asks wildlife sci­en­tist Chun­dawat. He adds that the cur­rent pol­icy of con­ser­va­tion, based on ex­clu­sive con­trol by the for­est de­part­ment, needs to change. “A coun­try like Scot­land, with no big cats, earns 4.6 bil­lion pounds a year from tourism—we don’t even get a frac­tion of that.”

Chun­dawat says the for­est de­part­ment vil­i­fies those who have dif­fer­ing views on con­ser­va­tion. “Tourism has to be within the con­ser­va­tion frame­work,” he says. “Right now, there is no dif­fer­ence be­tween tourism at the Taj Ma­hal and at wildlife re­serves, which is the root of the prob­lem.” He also sup­ports Tha­par’s can­di­dacy. “He was be­hind the de­ci­sion not to in­clude for­est staff in elec­tion duty,” says Chun­dawat, adding that those out­side the de­part­ment have an in­ter­est in con­ser­va­tion too. ■

“There is no dif­fer­ence be­tween tourism at the Taj Ma­hal and at wildlife re­serves—this is the root of the prob­lem” — Raghu Chun­dawat Wildlife sci­en­tist


CAT(CHING) THE SIGHTS Tourists at Panna Tiger Re­serve

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