I have been an avid wild-lifer from childhood and now, in politics, the only solace that I derive is when I am in a wildlife park. The Supreme Court ban on wildlife tourism in “core areas” has come as a shock to me.
With this ban on wildlife tourism, I would be denied, along with millions of wildlife enthusiasts, seeing the tiger in the forest.
Kaziranga, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Ranthambore, Pench, Bandipur, Corbett, Gir and now Tadoba, are the most popular parks for wildlife tourism in the country. The tiger census has proved that the tiger population in these most-visited parks has gone up by over 25 per cent.
Take the examples of Sariska and Ranthambore, as both have a similar terrain. In Ranthambore, very popular with tourists, the tiger population went up, while in Sariska the poachers had a field day, sometimes with the connivance of forest officials, resulting in the tiger population being reduced to zero.
All the above mentioned parks are core areas and some of them, which have buffer areas, do not have wildlife. Most of the buffer areas have villages and mining factories and would take years to develop. It is also not easy to shift villages.
The Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, had conducted a study that shows tourism does not have a negative impact on tiger reserves or protected areas. This study, conducted between January and April 2011, was carried out in Pench National Park.
Environment and forests being on the Concurrent List of the Constitution, the power rests with the states who were not part of the consultation process while drafting these guidelines. All land of protected areas and national parks belong to the states, not to the government of India.
The guidelines for ecotourism in India, first submitted by the Union ministry of environment and forests to the Supreme Court, have not been approved, nor discussed by the National Board for Wildlife. Neither was it approved by the entire body of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
According to the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, the powers to allow/ disallow tourism in parks rests with the chief wildlife warden of the state concerned.
The NTCA, in paragraph 2 of the guidelines, asks states to amend their laws accordingly to incorporate these guidelines. Guidelines cannot take away the constitutional rights of the state in the federal structure. They cannot, also, overrule the provisions of the wildlife act passed by Parliament.
The following sections of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 are relevant to establishing the supremacy of the state in this matter
Section 4(2): “In the performance of his duties and exercise of his powers by or under this Act, the Chief Wild Life Warden shall be subject to such general or special directions, as the State Government may, from time to time, give
Section 28(1): “The Chief Wild Life Warden may, on application, grant to any person a permit to enter or reside in a sanctuary for all or any of the following purposes, namely: (a) Investigation or study of wildlife and purposes ancillary or incidental thereto; (b)Photography; (c) Scientific research; (d)Tourism; (e) Transaction of lawful business with any person residing in the sanctuary.
Section 35(8): “The provisions of Sections 27 and 28... shall, as far as may be apply in relation to a National Park as they apply in relation to a sanctuary.
Would the Supreme Court like to order against the provisions of the wildlife act and encroach upon the fundamental rights of the state government, guided simply by the whimsical, illogical and dictatorial guidelines drafted by a few people without the widest consultation with the stakeholders?
These guidelines directly affect the employment of over two lakh people and the livelihood of over one million, besides various other stakeholders in and around the 650 protected areas in our country. The majority of the employees in this sector are from the local communities, including tribals, and many who have been displaced from their original homes while creating these very national parks.
Ecotourism is the only sustainable, non-consumptive industry available to communities inhabiting the surroundings of our protected areas. Ecotourism can lower the cost of conservation that is borne primarily by these communities.
I saw a tribal youth, whose livelihood depended on tourism in Kanha, telling a news channel that if his livelihood is taken away, he would have no option but to cut the forest trees and kill tigers or become a Naxalite.
Take the case of African wildlife tourism, which is a significant part of the GDP of many African countries. Empirical evidence is available to prove that the critically endangered gorillas of Rwanda were saved only because of the positive impact of tourism on local economies.
I am appalled by the reaction of the Union tourism ministry which is blissfully unaware of the impact of these guidelines on the Indian tourism industry.
I am told that the author of these guidelines is Rajesh Gopal of the NTCA whom I have known since 1992 as the director of the Kanha National Park and who continued to stay there for the longest period. He has spent days with me when I was chief minister, and he took me around Kanha and was instrumental in my passion for wildlife photography, discussing how we could promote tourism in Kanha. I strongly recommended his name for director, Project Tiger, a position which he has continued to hold for the last 10 years, unheard of for a state cadre officer. I have the highest regard for his love of wildlife but I don’t have a clue as to why he has authored a guideline which would not only finish wildlife tourism but also wildlife and forests in the core areas of our national parks.
The absence of a vigilant tourism industry, which has a vested interest in the conservation of wildlife and forests, would lead to what happened in Sariska. Poachers, with the connivance of lower officials, will have a field day once tourism stops.
I am sure this is not the objective of the MoEF, the NTCA and the Supreme Court. I strongly plead with folded hands to the Supreme Court and the MoEF to reconsider their total ban on wildlife tourism.
The writer, a former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, is general secretary, AICC