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On Monday, the standing committee of the newly-constituted National Board for Wildlife will meet for the first time to discuss crucial projects held up since last September, when it was dissolved. The new panel, however, has been criticised for having only two experts outside the government, against the mandated 10, and a body from Gujarat headed by the chief minister, in the place of an NGO. Noted tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar, who also served as a member of the board for nearly 20 years, tells Indulekha Aravind about what this might mean for conservation at large, and his own frustration with the bureaucracy's ineptitude, which led to his quitting the board under the previous government. Excerpts:
The newly-constituted National Board for Wildlife has only two experts on ecology and no proper representation of NGOs. What does this portend for its functioning?
When Jawaharlal Nehru created the Indian Board for Wildlife, now called the National Board for Wildlife, the intent was to involve all non-official experts in the field to reach a consensus on all vital wildlife issues. This was his way of creating a meeting point between the government and non-government sectors. Sixty years later, instead of 10 independent experts and five NGOs being a part of the board, only two have been appointed, which means the intent has changed. Till they meet, it is difficult to speculate, but it is clear that the government of the day believes it has all the wisdom to take decisions without the talent of the non-governmental sector.
You were a member of the Wildlife Board for two decades. What was your experience? How powerful or effective is the board, considering that its suggestions are not binding?
The National Board for Wildlife was powerful and effective when the prime minister in the chair was powerful and effective. My nearly 20 years with the board were disillusioning as decisions seldom saw the light of day and were endlessly delayed. The United Progressive Alliance-1 and 2 were really frustrating. I presented the case that the ministry of environment and forests needed a separate department of forests and wildlife for better governance of 20 per cent of India's landmass, which is forest. The prime minister had agreed and asked the then minister, Jairam Ramesh, to implement this. I worked hard with Ramesh on its creation, only to realise nearly two years later that the committee of secretaries had decided to overrule this decision of the prime minister and the board. There are many other such examples. Decisions are effective only when the prime minister follows it up, as Indira Gandhi always did. When bureaucrat rules the roost, it is least effective. My frustration led me to handing a letter of resignation to Manmohan Singh, then the prime minister, at the end of the last meeting as we were going nowhere.
What is the board's mandate?
The board's mandate is to deal with all wildlife matters pertaining to policy and law. It creates projects, advises the states and allocates central funding. In times of crisis, it is supposed to act, and its standing committee advises the Supreme Court on a series of project clearances that could have positive or negative impact on wildlife landscapes, so it could play a vital part in strengthening the country.
What should a reconstitution of the board have been like?
I believe the new prime minister supports public-private partnerships, encourages tourism and wants to see innovative reform. He should have doubled the number of independent members to 20 and brought in a few lawyers to straighten out the laws, business representatives to understand their problems, community activists to engage the locals and tourism experts to provide new systems to encourage wildlife tourism, along with our wildlife scientists who read the state of our wilderness and who must be represented in good number. Then, and only then, do you get meaningful change. Narendra Modi seems to believe in such a process. I think he was badly advised.
What should the new government's priority be in terms of conservation and ecology?
We need a clear land-use policy where one and all know what can be used and what cannot. We need all the five or six green laws to be made into one composite law. We need a total overhaul of the forest service, making it more of a state-focused service rather than a national one. At the moment, it is a reverse pyramid full of senior officers and fewer and fewer junior ones. The cadre control is so poor that the system that manages forests in India can crumble at any point. But more than this, we need non-officials to partner forest officers in both the long and short term, to create fresh thinking and a new mindset to deal with the mess we have. It is this partnership that will create a new way to govern.