Meet Praveen Pardeshi
In his capacity as Principal Secretary, Forests, Government of Maharashtra, Praveen Pardeshi has established, beyond any doubt, that it is possible to enjoin the apparently disparate objectives of environmental protection and development. In recognition of the dramatic transformation he has brought about in wildlife conservation in Maharashtra, he and the state government were presented with the Sanctuary Wind Under the Wings Award 2011. In a wide-ranging interview, he speaks to Bittu Sahgal about working within the system… keeping it simple and just doing what needs to be done.
How did an urban development expert and economist trained at the London School of Economics metamorphose into one of Maharashtra’s most effective tiger protectors?
(Smiling) I doubt that description fits! The real tiger defenders are out there walking our forests. Conserving India’s forests and biodiversity, however, is personally fulfilling. It’s soul-satisfying to work on win-win strategies to provide dignity, fuelwood, and facilities to villagers whose livelihoods actually end up benefiting tigers and ecosystems. In the process, the poorest of the poor end up conserving their own life support systems. If natural India goes, whether they realise it today or not, the hopes of the poor will vanish forever.
How did you catch the wildlife ‘virus’? Who were your earliest influences?
My grandfather, Captain Mohansingh Bayas, was an avid shikari in days gone by and I grew up on his tales. Seeing my interest in the jungle, my father, Group Captain Pratapsingh presented me with Sálim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds and inscribed a small sentence: “After reading this book, instead of hunting, start loving birds.” That was the turning point. I became fascinated by birds and living forests. Knowing how fast our wildernesses were vanishing filled me with a sense of loss. With the loss of these wild landscapes, we Indians risk losing our moorings to nature forever. And nature has remained the single eternal constant across known human history on this subcontinent.
You have been trying to dispense social justice, while simultaneously working to promote wildlife conservation. Are the two objectives destined to conflict with each other forever?
Social justice is not possible to deliver without wildlife conservation. Recently tribal activists from Thane showed me that for Katkari tribals, collecting crabs in the monsoons is a major source of protein. If forests go, then crabs and other such biodiversity vanish. And the poorest of poor forest dwellers will suffer most. Activists on both sides of the divide do not realise that tradeoffs are inevitable, if we want win-win outcomes.
Can you list a couple of examples?
Well, we are working towards tourism policies in wildlife areas based not on lodges owned by distant investors, but on homestays owned by local villagers. We are also imparting wildlife training to locals so they are the prime beneficiaries of tourism incomes. Additionally Gram Sabhas are being offered rights over sustainable bamboo harvesting for minor forest produce, in preference to large paper mills. It’s a difficult balance, but if we do not achieve it we will lose our forests and it is the locals that will become impoverished.
You mention tourism, but can wildlife conservation and tourism actually be harmonised in Maharashtra?
We can only try! Apart from ownership for locals, even government forest guest houses have now started using solar heating, cooking is on LPG, biodegradable toilets developed by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation have been obtained! And several wildlife core areas are being freed of the yoke of unsustainable tourism. We are banning plastic bags in parks, sanctuaries and hiking trails. In the Melghat Tiger Reserve and Shivneri, those who litter are heavily fined by the local Joint Forest Management and the funds are being used to employ local youth to patrol and protect the area even more intensely.
You have been able to successfully navigate the tightrope of government policy and wildlife conservation on so many fronts, but what about CAMPA funds? These were meant to help wildlife, but have often ending up harming parks because of faulty application.
I doubt that we would allow such a vital fund to be wrongly used here in Maharashtra. We use such money for LPG connections, bio-gas plants, and in situ fodder for village cattle under eco-development programmes in forest areas. Also to re-green forest lands that have been degraded, fight fires and provide shelter for field staff such as forest guards and rangers.
Clearly you lead from the front, but was walking 25 km. cross country through wildlife areas to prove a point somewhat over the top?
Bittu, you know better than I do that over 80 per cent of forest areas are not even connected by motorable roads. If we want to protect our wildlife, then forest guards, rangers, even Chief Conservators of Forests must be fit enough to walk. If I can do it, I told my people, then you can too. Sitting in offices is not an option. That does not save wildlife.
I have to agree! Tell me about village relocation. How many villages have voluntarily agreed to shift out of protected forests in Maharashtra and is it true that more are petitioning you to help them to move? Social activists say this is not true.
We have four villages in Tadoba, about seven villages in Melghat and Koyna who are pressing us daily to shift them. There is a paradigm difference in perceptions between some social activists who neither understand daily administration, nor the reality of life in remote tribal hamlets in Protected Areas where there are no roads, no transport, virtually no power, an almost guaranteed loss of as much as 60 or 70 per cent of the crop to wild pigs, deer and insects! Only half-jokingly a Korkoo village farmer told me in Melghat, “We do not till the soil for our children, we do it for the wild pig!” These are only today’s problems. Tomorrow’s will include the fact that their children will not have access to local secondary schools, educated youth in villages will neither get jobs, nor be able to establish businesses like mills, cotton-ginning factories and what have you… because they are inside a sanctuary.
But the rehabilitation record, even of Maharashtra, is poor. So will those who shift actually be able to improve their lives? After all, inside the forest they at least get water and food for their families.
Bittu, let’s get one thing clear. We are fundamentally opposed to any forced resettlement from wildlife areas. And villagers are not exactly unaware of realities. The bottom line is this. Unless they know that they will be able to live like their relatives outside sanctuaries… near black-topped roads, with minor irrigation tanks and functioning market places, they will not move. Frankly sanctuary-locked villages have begun to question activists who have been mistakenly advising them to stay where they are.
Photograph by Amol Sawant.
Forget the activists, are YOU sure that rehabilitation will be just and effective in Maharashtra?
If you had asked me a few years ago, when rehabilitation was underfunded and lacked cohesive policy backing, my answer may have been different. But today with the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s package of Rs. 10 lakhs per adult in a family and the Maharashtra Rehabilitation Act, there is a mix of options. In many remote, inaccessible areas with dense wildlife populations, villages would be better off if policies are implemented as per the Rehabilitation Act. On the other hand, many others with existing infrastructure facilities, and in areas with scarce wild populations, it would be better to work with them on creating awareness and promoting sustainable livelihood strategies.
On a policy issue, in Maharashtra when will we see control of tiger reserve buffer zones in the hands of Field Directors?
In Tadoba, the buffer zone division is already in the hands of the Field Director! We are on the right path.
Your staff; they are shot at, but cannot shoot back. How can they possibly fight anti-poaching gangs the way guards are able to in Kaziranga, Assam?
It’s a serious issue. Often our forest staff has fired back in self-defence only to face criminal cases lodged against them by the poaching operatives who fired on them in the first place. This is a larger policy matter, but you are right, it’s a crucial one.
Let’s switch lanes. You consistently advocate the use of cycles as urban transport as an urban strategy to fight climate change. But will India listen?
Well, again, I personally cycle every morning in Mumbai! Cycles navigate crowded streets faster than a swanky Mercedes-Benz car. What is more, cycles do not occupy parking space. Will India listen? It will have to! When petrol prices rise, cycling will return!
More power to you! Any message for Sanctuary’s readers?
No message as such because they are better clued into environmental issues than most. But I would like them and others involved in wildlife to understand that unless they are able to win over all sectors of society – government and non-government – and unless we actually create on-the-ground unity, we will not be able to achieve the objective of reversing the environmental and ecological damage we see around us.
To know more about Praveen Pardeshi, visit: www.theearthheroes.com
Photograph by Vishal Bansod.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXII No. 1, February 2012