I am reminded about Sheila Dhars delicious story about a conscientious godown keeper entrusted with looking after the many volumes of Gandhijis collected works. After watching, helplessly, the rats in the godown nibble away at the pages of the works, he had the bright idea of keeping a cat to catch the rats. As he was poor, with a meagre salary, he sent a request to the finance department asking for a sanction of a few rupees a week to give the cat some milk. After many weeks, the ever-vigilant finance department sent back his request with a query: if the cat is doing the job for which it has been enlisted, it should be well-fed on the rats and not require any milk. The correspondence went up and down, but to cut a long story short, the cat died while the file proceeded back and forth, seeking additional clarifications. The rats continued to destroy the books. The moral of the story is that enterprise and initiative are not valued and our system thrives on a complete lack of accountability.
Whether its the inquiry into how the Kargil heights were taken, or the Uphaar cinema fire where many lost their lives, or the recent and ongoing bank scams, as well as train and plane crashes, no one is brought to book. So why should those entrusted with managing the Nandan Kanan zoo in Orissa, where 12 tigers died last week, be held accountable?
Within days of this avoidable tragedy we are informed of the death of many an ungulate in the Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan. While the cause of this outbreak is yet to be ascertained, the bureaucratic machine is working overtime to fudge the issues in Nandan Kanan by appointing an expert committee.
The state of our zoos is abysmal. Even a casual visit to one will confirm that. Apart from the behaviour of the usual visitor, which leaves much to be desired, the first jolt comes in the form of stench. There is an absence of cleanliness and there is a lifeless look on the faces of the birds and animals with their coats reflecting the poor quality of life we have provided for them in captivity. The cages and enclosures are far too small, particularly for the big cats that roam many kilometres each day in the wild. In a system where the worker is underpaid, do we expect that the meat for the tiger will be wholesome and fresh? In a system where the public healthcare system is at a terminal stage, are we surprised at the quality of the veterinary services? The very function of the zoo, as a place to propagate endangered species, has been undermined even as we continue to misplace our trust in science and scientific solutions.
From the Indian Forest Act of 1927 to the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, to the biodiversity action plan, weve come a long way. But despite an intricate legal grid-iron, Indian forests are under siege from rapacious politicians.
The current attempts to denotify forest areas from Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh by politicians is a way of providing preferential access to forest wealth to the industry and earn populist acclaim from the electorate. In flagrant violation of the many laws, forests are being put under the axe and prised open through mining activities. Large dams are inundating vast tracts in the name of development. Industry, with little care, emits tons of noxious gases into the air and dumps and releases poisonous discharges onto the land and into water respectively.
Indian wildlife, which has survived the axe and the gun, may not be able to withstand the technology that poisons land, water and air. We only have to look around us and see the dwindling number of birds and animals which had been a part of our growing up. Where is the vulture, perched atop every monument in Delhi? Or for that matter, the friendly house sparrow which came into the house as we ate our breakfast? Remember the lowly jackal whose yowling indicated that it was late night and time to go to bed? They have fallen prey to pollution, to the chemicals in the water and the food they eat, to the growing pressure of population as our cities explode and the wilderness is brought under the plough.
OUR existence, which was once intertwined with the birds, bees and butterflies, has been fractured. The tiger and tortoises, the vahans of our gods, have been abandoned. The gods themselves are now invoked only for narrow selfish ends as we think not twice about discharging sewage and industrial waste into sacred rivers and blast their mountains and forest abodes.
We have seen many a committee come and go and this one is unlikely to provide correctives. Even the Supreme Court, which has become the favoured arbiter of all that is contentious-from Ayodhya to saving the tiger-is unlikely to move the agencies which have the mandate for the job. More than rely on these grand gestures, the way forward is for us to change the way we live and think, to be accountable and make others accountable.
(The writer is editor of Seminar and a wildlife photographer)