Collaborators consolidated

THE intentions of the recent Jungle Jivan Bachao Yatra, during which environmental activists and villagers living around India's national parks and sanctuaries went on a 45-day walkathon through 18 protected areas from Sariska in Rajasthan to Rajaji in Uttar Pradesh were undoubtedly good. The yatra's members sought to discover how nature protection affected the day-to-day lives of people and whether at all any substantial conservation was taking place.

What it found was nothing new: villagers harassed by the forest department, deprived of their traditional resources by antiquated Western ideas of environmental conservation. But what the yatra failed to -- or perhaps chose not to -- realise was that the reason for this lay in the disempowerment of affected villagers and a legal framework which does not recognise -- of all things -- the very existence of communities. It is precisely this framework, created by the urban middle class to appropriate the resources and knowledge of the villagers, that has given the forest department power that approaches the absolute.

The yatris also failed to recognise that the only way to change the situation and ensure both the conservation of wildlife and sustainable livelihoods for the people who live in the country's protected areas, is to fight tooth-and-nail for a system which places the villagers in the nerve centre of the decisionmaking process; a system in which they are empowered sufficiently to exercise control over the parks and sanctuaries with their own laws, rules and regulations.

Included in the yatra was a section which failed remarkably to appreciate the spirit of the sacred groves they saw en route, in which people conserved wildlife and forests through laws evolved over centuries of trying and testing. Had this group been opened to this historical fact, it would not have vehemently emphasised only the difficulties faced by the forest department, all too often the biggest and most inflexible obstacle the villagers encounter. This group had concluded almost unilaterally that there should be increased cooperation between the people and the forest department -- a cooperation facilitated by the forest department's laws, rules and regulations.

This is the kind of nose-in-the-files middle class naivete that the villagers are justly terrified of. In the working manual of the sacred groves, all violators are equals and punishments don't vary according to their financial or political clout. Unfortunately, when industry comes in with its jackbooted march, tossing money right and left, the laws of conservation followed by the book by the forest department and ardent middle class conservationists, are immediately and unctuously set aside. Such is corporate clout.

This doublespeak comes naturally to some in the yatra who were ardent naturalists till the other day. They not only pushed the notorious 1991 amendments to the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) -- which is singularly responsible for making life for the villagers in and around forests more miserable -- but were also actively involved in formulating ridiculous sanctuary management-ecodevelopment plans that hold that forests and people are mutually, and militantly, exclusive.

Indeed, putting people in the centre of things, giving them power to control their lives, destinies and resources -- and even pay for their mistakes in their own manner -- is a move unthinkable to India's dogmatic officialdom. It's time for some unavoidable pessimism: the forest department and a majority of the NGOs belong to the powerful but equally unwise middle class, which seeks, in its own self-serving manner, to diffuse, divert and hijack the grassroots people's aspirations. Radical rhetoric notwithstanding, it is clearly against the controlling interests of the professional class of foresters, particularly wildlife experts, to allow local people to be involved in protected area management. Doing so would mean loosening their powergrip, both financial and political.

At the end of the day, the yatra gave the impression that what it really achieved was the glorification of the forest department in general, a few officials in particular. These officials know how to be politically correct, to mouth the right words that convince middle class naturalists of their genuineness.

What is also surprising is that some of the yatris, who have long experience in fighting for the people -- and have been fined for planting trees on forest department land -- allowed themselves and the villagers to be duped by this fanfaronade of urban bleeding hearts. The Bharatiya Janata Party Rotarians dined them in Shivpuri, and the forest department threw open their best guesthouses to them almost everywhere they went. Perhaps that's why they did not even meet the Van Gujjars of the Rajaji National Park, who have been struggling for years against being ousted from their traditional sylvan domain.

Instead of getting caught in the quagmire of middle class politicking and mutual backpatting among NGO activists and forest department officials, the saner elements peppering the yatra should learn from the people. What is needed is a mass movement that hands over the reins to villagers, leaving them responsible for environmental management.