Wildlife conservationist and former bureaucrat Dr M K Ranjitsinh talks about the issues plaguing conservation in India, and his recently-published book A Life in the Wildlife
Prompted by his father, family and friends, Dr M K Ranjitsinh penned down A Life with Wildlife: From Princely India to the Present, talking about the transition that wildlife preservation and conservation has undergone in India from pre-British era till now. A lot was spoken about wildlife in colonial India, but not so much in the princely era, believes the member of the erstwhile royal family of Wankaner, Saurashtra, Gujarat.
An Indian Administrative Service Officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, Ranjitsinh has served as the collector of Mandla, the headquarter town of the famous Kanha Tiger Reserve. “Princely India was an autocratic structure, with hunting being a rampant activity,” says Dr Ranjitsinh, adding, “We have definitely come a long way from there. There is immense scope for betterment but what we have achieved is noteworthy too,” he says.
Media’s role crucial
The shortcomings that he sees in wildlife conservation in India, are completely awareness-driven. “If we are to look at the failures, it would entirely be the fault of media. We haven’t been able to make wildlife a public issue. There is public movement surrounding it, but it is still an isolated area,” he stresses. Even politicians, he says, speak of conservation as if it’s someone else’s constituency, adding that forest and wildlife was constantly associated with the British rule. “The laws are in place but as always, implementation is lacking. Political will is absent and the approach is wrong,” says the former bureaucrat.
Discussing India vis-a-vis other nations, he says that India was one of the easiest countries to conserve wildlife, given its pro-nature and pro-life religious beliefs. “Yes, India has done exceptionally well as against foreign countries, but we do have issues. Over the years, we have lost only one major mammal — the Cheetah. But we continue to have a wide range of species and the maximum number of endangered ones,” he explains, ranking India at the top of the conservation success list of developing countries, miles ahead of countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We are behind Bhutan though, owing to a number of reasons,” he says adding that Bhutan’s good conservation record can be attributed to low population, no poverty, monarchy and Buddhism.
Conservation and votebank politics
Having been the principal author of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the conservationist says that former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s era had a cascading effect on wildlife conservation. “Now, the catchword is development and votebank politics makes matters worse,” he sighs.
Giving an example, he recalls his return after having served his term at the United Nations in 1981. “Headloads of wood were being carried from the forests of Madhya Pradesh, under the guise of giri padi sukhi lakdi (fallen dry wood) for ‘bonafide household use’, used in law. This was twisted to sell the wood,” he says, adding that a total of 17,000 headloads were coming into the city of Jabalpur every day from these forests.
But what about the harmony of nature and tribal living? “Gandhiji had said that nature has enough for the needs of man but not for greed,” he answers. There are several examples of liberal laws being misused to exploit nature and wildlife.
He goes on to talk about the Forest Rights Act (FRA) being the worst act in the history of India. While its purpose was to rectify a colonial wrong vis-à-vis forest rights of local people, it has become a politically-motivated implementation and its impact has been disastrous. “I have written to a number of people in positions of power regarding this, but have received no reply,” he says. The best documented areas of FRA-related destruction are around Pune and the Konkan belt, he informs.
Success and challenges
Ranjitsinh has spearheaded a number of conservation projects across India, including Project Tiger and the Kashmir Stag. Project Crocodile that was initiated in 1960s-70s, is according to him, the most successful of them and was hence discontinued.
But he, too, had his share of obstacles. “I was called a turncoat in Gujarat because I suggested moving the lion from Gir to Madhya Pradesh,” he recalls. The increase in the number of lions in Gir forest is substantial and “I had hence suggested moving some population to MP. But I was told not to ‘increase our problems’ by the authorities.”
He urges people to be much more active at the grassroots. “People think tiger conservation is wildlife conservation. That’s not true. We need to look beyond,” he concludes.