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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Time To Chicken Out!

I have always said it. And I say it again. Nothing that the Assam Government does surprises me. When it comes to bad functioning and callous attitude, no other State Government in India can challenge the Assam Government. We have left Bihar miles behind in this respect. Our State Government has panache for making mistakes and that too in the goofiest manner. We had always complained of bad roads, less electricity and other things like corruption. Ok. So these are things that are demanded by the rest of the country too. But I want to ask that how often do you come across a government that makes a mistake that affects the livelihood of tens of thousands of people? It’s a controversy, no doubt. And one which can land the present Congress Government in Assam in jeopardy ahead of next year’s elections.

It will be almost a month now that Assam is reeling under the outbreak of the avian influenza, better known as the bird flu. Culling operations have been on ever since the word broke out. Poultry products have been shunned and the prices of other meats have risen sky-high. Lakhs of poultry have been culled to avoid the spread of the virus to humans. But just when we thought that everything was getting under control and this epidemic would pass without any casualty, there came a bolt from the blue! The High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal reported that they did not find a single poultry sample that tested positive for bird flu in any part of the country, including Assam and West Bengal. Now we are forced to think what all this commotion was about? What was the State Veterinary & Animal Husbandry Department doing? Which divine intervention propelled the State Government to declare an outbreak of bird flu in the state if there was none?

I don’t know whether to call it as a mistake or carelessness. My reaction to this news was, well, pretty casual. Our State Government has a history of committing mistakes. So it was nothing like a surprise to me. But the problem is that the damage has been done. About 4.19 lakh poultry birds have been culled till now which will now take its toll on the poultry farm industry in the state. Poultry farmers have incurred huge losses and now most of them are rendered jobless, especially in the area of South Kamrup where the economy has totally collapsed with the unemployed youths as the worst affected. Apart from culling, large stocks of eggs were kept aside for the fear of the disease, which have now either rotten away or have hatched. Now people are questioning if there was any truth behind the official ruling of the Government that wild birds, besides poultry were dying of the bird flu too.

The situation has taken a political twist too. An independent MLA, Pranab Kalita has threatened to drag Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to the Gauhati High Court on the charge of killing lakhs of poultry birds in the State, especially in South Kamrup where the economy has totally collapsed. Now we are just waiting to see if the other political parties in the state will follow suit. The State Government was quick to react to this by confirming the outbreak of bird flu. The State Veterinary & Animal Husbandry Department Commissioner-Secretary S L Mewra said that samples that were sent to the HSADL in Bhopal between November 22 and December 20 tested positive for the H5N1 virus. And also that the presence of the bird flu virus was confirmed in the Rajabazar area of Hazo. The problem is that this thing has become rather serious with lots of money gone down the drain in the name of culling. The state’s economy has received a jolt that will take a huge toll on the poultry farming sector in the State. And going by the present scenario of devastation in the poultry farm economy of the state, few people are buying the government’s claim that Rs 1.38 lakh has been paid as compensation.

The coming days will tell us about the truth behind the outbreak of the bird flu. That too, if there really is any outbreak at all! Even if it turns out that the outbreak of bird flu is a lie, I really wouldn’t be surprised. This time, the Gogoi Government has got it for good. And they better clear the air regarding this one before it is too late. After all, nobody can call it a silly mistake on the part of the State Government this time.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Assam's Demand for Equality

It is a welcome sign. Finally our State Government is asking for something which we truly deserve. I normally don’t have good words for the Assam Government. But this time I must say that finally the Assam Government has asked for something which may go a long way in changing the Centre’s attitude towards Assam.

Like militancy-infested Jammu & Kashmir, the Assam Government has also sought “insurgency damages neutralization grant” to the tune of Rs 25,000 crores from the 13th Finance Commission. According to official sources, in the memorandum submitted to the 13th Finance Commission in Guwahati on December 18, the State Government has demanded of the commission to treat insurgency-affected Assam at par with Jammu & Kashmir. The memorandum stated that in the last 30 years, Assam’s economy has been badly affected due to insurgency leading to fall in investment and damage to infrastructure. Under similar insurgency and terrorism-related circumstances, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir got special financial dispensation from the 10th and 11th Finance Commissions. Assam has suffered no less. So the commission should be judicious enough to extend similar grants to Assam also.

This demand highlights the fact that Assam no longer deserves any step-motherly treatment. We have full credibility to receive equal rights and provisions when compared to the other states in the country. We cannot, and neither can the rest of India, ignore the fact that insurgency has created havoc with the economical as well as the socio-political aspects of the state. We have lost so much money in this time period that our state’s economy was left badly crippled sometimes back. Entrepreneurs and investors shirked from making any sort of ventures here. Terrorist activities had left public property in shambles. Blowing up of railway tracks and oil and gas pipelines always have financial repercussions with them. But of course, the number of lives lost cannot be counted in terms of money. The state of Jammu & Kashmir has a special status in the Indian Union and enjoys various privileges as per the Constitution. We are not asking for any big concessions. All we want is some assistance from the Centre in reshaping our economy. And the insurgency damages grant can go a long way in solving that. This concession will also enhance Assam’s stature and the Centre will not ignore Assam like it has always tended to do so. Hopefully, now the tag of a buffer state against China will be removed from us.

Every year, natural resources like oil, gas, tea and timber flow out of Assam to the mainland but very little is given back in return to Assam for her valuable resources. This is a question which has been asked by many Assamese intellectuals over and over again. And the state has always responded by taking actions against them. To combat insurgency and cross-border terrorism, the State Government has to rely more on the Central Paramilitary Force. And for that, it has to bear 10% deployment charge, which is discriminatory as neither Jammu & Kashmir nor any of the other North-Eastern States have to pay any such deployment charge. Unlike the Kashmiris who love to wave the Pakistani flag from their rooftops, we Assamese have time and again shown that we consider ourselves as Indians. The ULFA has lost support throughout the state because the common people do not want to leave India. Each year, many brave Assamese in the defence sector lose their lives while fighting for India. Whenever India wins a cricket match, Assam also celebrates with the rest of the country by bursting a lot of crackers out of jubilation. We are Indians from the core of our hearts. But, unfortunately, the Central Government still gives a secondary status to Assam and her problems. It has always overlooked the possibility that Assam could become the next Kashmir someday.

Today what Assam demands from the Indian Government is equal treatment. All we want is that the Centre should acknowledge our problems and help us out of them. And the seeking of insurgency damages grant is a step in that direction. Apart from helping to shape our shambled economy, it will also ensure Assam’s importance in the Indian pantheon in comparison to states like Jammu & Kashmir. So I sincerely hope that the Centre accepts the memorandum and Assam gets her dues in full.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Some Lost Maps and an Obstinate Dream

It’s official now। The Assam government has lost the original maps of Nagaland from its archives. On December 17, the Assam Government admitted that original maps demarcating the borders of Nagaland have been lost. As a concerned Assamese I can only think where our relationship with the Nagas will head to now. Already we are having a troubled history with the Nagas over border disputes and this incident will only go farther in increasing misunderstandings. One thing is for sure, that the Assam government has now to tackle with an infrastructure that is collapsing day by day.
My first reaction, to this incident of maps getting lost, was to loath the Assam Government for their inefficiency in almost everything! Archival materials are highly important things and have to be preserved with the highest care. But to report the missing of maps with such casualness is highly callous in nature. Who is to blame for the loss that has occurred? Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram told the Rajya Sabha that the Nagaland government had submitted the maps in September 1979 and they were forwarded in October 1979 to the Assam Government for its comments. But the Assam Government has informed the Centre that the maps are untraceable now. Nobody knows what the Assam government has been doing with those maps since then. No comments have ever been forwarded to the Centre on the purpose. I doubt if the Assam Government has ever cared to look into those maps due to which they have disappeared from the government archives as pieces of useless papers. What is more surprising is that the Central Government did not care to keep a copy of the maps. They were sent in the original. This, too, highlights the Centre’s lacklustre attitude towards the problems in the North-East.
Chidambaram’s statement is significant as the separatist National Socialist Council of Nagaland has been fighting for six decades to create a Greater Nagaland by slicing off parts of three neighbouring states to unite 1.2 million Nagas. Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh strongly oppose the demand. The issue of Greater Nagaland is an issue which has vexed the Assamese-Naga relations for a long time. Who knows what important links those maps might have given towards solving this problem? And this problem is not only of Assam, but also of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, Manipur will be the biggest loser if Greater Nagaland is ever formed. About half of the state will be sliced apart as they are all Naga dominated areas. Creation of a Greater Nagaland can pose huge problems for the Indian Government’s plans in the North-East too as such a huge chunk of Naga infested land can result in a united effort by the Nagas to renew their demands for independence or greater autonomy. Already the Naga militants harass the travellers on the way to Manipur from Assam. And there is no one to stop them as they do this on Naga soil.
I sometimes reflect back to older times when I was a little boy। My late grandfather used to narrate me incidents of skirmishes with the Nagas over territorial disputes. As a police officer, he had seen enough of such problems. He told of the brutalities with which the Nagas used to deal with their enemies. A colleague of his, who was known to deal firmly with the Nagas, was tied to a pole and rounds of bullets were fired at him. Not to speak of the merciless way in which the Nagas like to butcher their enemies to this day. These are all bitter memories which the North-East of India has witnessed post-independence. And every state in North-East has its own tale of bloodshed and violence. Manipur still burns from the Naga insurgency in it. Most of my Manipuri friends tell me of the excesses committed by the Naga militants with the travellers on their way to Imphal as the route to Manipur from Assam goes through Nagaland. The opening up of a railway track to Imphal or an alternate route to Manipur via Silchar in Assam can bring some relief to the travellers. But what about the overall problem that afflicts them? There are no answers to that yet.
Though Assam has not faced this problem in the same calibre as Manipur has, it suffers from occasional border skirmishes with the Nagas। There are occasional reports of Nagas entering Assam’s territory and occupying large tracts of land. As Assam has a very low percentage of Nagas living in its territory, this is deliberately done to settle as much Nagas in these areas as possible so as to facilitate its incorporation in Greater Nagaland. The State Government and the police have been totally inefficient in handling these marauders. And I often wonder if we Assamese people have lost the martial spirit we were once famous for. But then why should I doubt my entire race just because the government is corrupt and the police force is inefficient! I have always favoured dialogues over open conflict. Assam, along with the rest of the North-East, has seen enough bloodshed till date. And conflict should always be avoided so as to facilitate dialogue so that an amicable solution can come up to any problem. What I have stated here is nothing like a new gospel for peace. These are things which are said again and again and the common people also know their inherent relevance. But even then talks and dialogues are sidelined and every unethical and extra legal method is taken to take a stand. And this has to stop if peace is to ever flourish in the North-East of India.
Greater Nagaland is not just a Naga problem. It is a problem which has created discomfort for the common people of all the states concerned. Border disputes, insurgency and separatism are all venomous seeds sown by this. And the loss of the original maps is only a reminder of the hurdles we will face in reaching up to a solution to this problem. And there is seriously no use of any more comments on the Assam Government or the State police for that matter. Because it is really of no use! We just have to remember one thing. Maps or no maps! A solution has to come up to this problem before it is too late.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Musings Of An Angry Indian

26th November, 2008. This date will remain etched in the mind of every Indian now. The terror attacks which hit Mumbai have left a scar in the mind of every Indian. For three days, we saw terror in its most naked form revealed in the city of dreams. With 20 attacks, 183 dead and over 300 injured, India saw its version of 9/11 in Mumbai. The terror drama finally ended with ‘Operation Cyclone’ ending at Taj Mahal Hotel. The images which we saw on TV was simply heart-rending. It was a bloody game of AK-47s, grenades and death! The Mumbai police, NSG commandos and army fought to the teeth with the terrorists who took hostages at the Taj and Oberoi hotels. And every moment brought more gruesome news of death and misery with it. Surely, now the time has come when merely sitting and watching events unfold will not result in anything for us. It is now the time to just act.

As an Indian who hails from a terror-hit area of the country, I can relate very easily to this sort of incidents. Bomb blasts, gun battles and hostage situations are a rather common thing in our Assam. At this stage, I finally feel that we Assamese are no longer alone in our feelings as terror affected individuals in this country. Today, the rest of India as Assam has finally tasted what bitter fruit terrorism is! The terrorists who did the Mumbai attacks have shown that when it comes to bloodshed terrorism knows no mercy. They were trained professionals who were sent on a suicide mission to show India what the fear of death really is! The total lack of security and alertness on the part of the authorities and the government has only showed how vulnerable we are as a nation to these types of attacks. Yesterday as we saw on the news about the mission at Taj end up, I realized that we as a nation have faced the worst humiliation in the form of this attack. The attacks on the Parliament and Akshardham Temple a few years back are nothing compared to this. And this not something which we should sideline to any particular community. I am sure that among those killed and injured, there will be some Muslims as well. Their grief and sufferings will not be any different from the Hindus affected in this attack. Today what I see is a sort of unity among all people which I have not seen last since the Kargil War. Mumbai has come together to help all the ones in distress. And behind them are also the prayers of millions of Indians like us. Time and again, we Indians have stood together through the shockwaves that have hit our country. We have always proved that when it comes to our country, we are just one nation! No matter what our religion might be. No matter what our caste or community might be. We have always shown that we are the best example of unity in diversity.

Today, as I see the reactions of our politicians to this incident, I’m fueled up with anger. The Home Minister of Maharashtra, R.R. Patil has described this as a small incident which happens in a big city like Mumbai. Just how callous can anybody get than this! An incident which has shook the entire nation and made all the Indians feel humiliated has been described in this manner by the Home Minister of Maharashtra. I don’t know how to put it but all I want now is to have a revolver and gun down all these filthy political dogs! I’m rather glad that Shivraj Patil has resigned from his Home Ministership in the Centre. But now to see P. Chidambaram in his place is another awkward sight for me! It has shown that the Congress party has no strong leaders to fall back on! And when democracy is ruled by such spineless leaders, such acts of terror are bound to happen. I just wonder where will our relationship with Pakistan head to now. Considering that all the terrorists were Pakistani nationals, many including me, feel that we should attack the terror camps that are breeding in Pakistan. But then again I’m forced to think that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. And a war would mean more devastations than anyone can imagine at this moment. As Pakistan is committing hara-kiri in sending its ISI chief to India, we are now more than sure of the role of the Pakistani army and ISI in training these terrorists. Denial is a game that Pakistan has always played in its activities towards India. But then now we also should give up hopes of securing a good neighbor in the form of Pakistan. The very basis of the foundation of Pakistan was hatred towards India. And in this we should stop being the good Samaritan towards an ungrateful neighbor. I just pray that now we Indians wake up to the grim reality we are facing.

As I write this piece, I am seething with great anger from within. As a self-respecting Indian, I have every right to feel this way. We have already seen enough death and destruction. And we know that more might be coming our way. But we must stand strong because if we do, believe me we will become the super-power we aspire to be some day. This is a very rough phase for India. Nothing is going smoothly as of now. But I have great faith in myself and my fellow Indians. And I believe we shall overcome and win afterall. So I will end this piece with a prayer in my heart for the deceased and hope for my country to come out of this crisis as soon as possible. Vande Mataram.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A New Wave

Bollywood has come of age. It has finally transformed into a substance filled movie industry from a content filled one. Gone are the days when we used to be served masala potboilers which used to consist of rich girl-poor boy stint, running around the trees in songs, or a mindless action thriller where the hero beats up five to ten goons single-handedly! Can anyone remember those Mithun Chakroborty movies where some unspeakable action stunts were depicted! Audience today demands a more substance filled content in movies. This is evident in the type of movies that filmmakers are churning out nowadays. The multiplex culture has totally revolutionized the way the audience perceives a film to be made. The way a story is treated and the variety of subjects the Indian filmmakers are handling is definitely a good sign. And we really hope that this change is here for the better.

We were sure of a better change sweeping through Indian cinema when we saw Bollywood churn out movies like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge in the 90s. Fortunately, I feel that we were not disappointed in this. Atleast we got a relief from those mindless action thrillers which dominated the 80s. A newfound wave of romance swept across tinsel town. And we got some great classics like Dil To Pagal Hai, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. This time around music also reinvented itself and finally we got out of those horrid tuneless songs of the 80s and early 90s. The music created during this period was reminiscent of the musical jewels that were created in the 60s and 70s. It was like a renaissance sweeping across Bollywood. We also had during this period some coming of age movies like Salaam Bombay. Indian cinema, during this period, also delved into newer territories in terms of ideas and storytelling. We had films like The Bandit Queen, Fire, Bombay Boys and Monsoon Wedding. What was most encouraging was that the Indian audience known for its conservatism embraced most of them with open arms and they proved to be fairly successful. And with this emerged a new breed of filmmakers and storytellers who wanted to make films which the audience could identify with. Thus, among the mainstream commercial flicks too, we had movies like Satya, 1947 Earth and Company. What was now evident was that the audiences wanted films which were backed by a great script and involved some new ideas.

Over the last ten years, what we have seen is that Bollywood has churned out many films which have set landmarks in Indian cinema. The new breed of filmmakers that have come up have lived up to their expectations. Thus, we have Farhan Akhtar making a Dil Chahta Hai. Homi Adajania making a Being Cyrus. And Navdeep Singh making a Manorama Six Feet Under. Even established production houses have made some off-beat films like Yash Raj Films’ Salaam Namaste which dealt with the subject of live-in relationships. Or in the recent case of Karan Johar’s Dostana which dealt with gay men. The variety of topics that films are handling nowadays is really a signal that the audience along with the film industry has come of age. Even when some filmmakers have burned their fingers in their quest to explore other themes, it has not discouraged others from experimenting as well. Filmmakkers like Madhur Bhandarkar have redefined the way women are portrayed in films with flicks like Chandni Bar, Page 3 and the recent Fashion. Even existing genres have got a different treatment too . Patriotism assumed a new jingoism with flicks like Rang De Basanti, Chak De India and the recent Heroes. Horror saw a new style with flicks like Raaz and Bhooth. Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om gave a new meaning to the way the retro style is handled by Bollywood. The way infidelity was handled in Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna was something never seen in Indian cinema before. And romance, Indian audience’s favourite subject, is also getting newer treatments with each passing films. We have some off-beat romantic films like Cheeni Kum which delight us inspite of a different handling of the topic. And we can also hope for some more different treatment to romance in upcoming flicks like Aditya Chopra’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi.

I think in today’s multiplex culture scenario, the gap between mainstream commercial cinema and parallel cinema has diminished to a great extent. When we have films like Khosla Ka Ghosal and Mithya doing fine business, we can understand that all the audience wants now is a slice of difference in the films that are being served to them. Even flicks like Rituparno Ghosh’s The Last Lear and Shyam Benegal’s Welcome To Sajjanpur have lessened the gap between the two streams of filmmaking. When we have a hardcore commercial filmmaker like Sanjay Leela Bhansali make different films like Black and Saawariya, and another formula following filmmaker like Subhash Ghai make a Black & White, it is time for us to realize that serious cinema has finally arrived in Bollywood. Even well-known actors are exploring the newer themes in Bollywood. Thus we have Aamir Khan doing a Taare Zameen Par, Shah Rukh Khan doing a Chak De India and Salman Khan doing a Phir Milenge. The change has arrived . And it is definitely here to stay.

As an avid movie-going Indian, I’m looking forward for this change to consolidate further in Indian cinema so that we may experience more variety in terms of themes and ideas. Cinema is a very powerful mode of expression and this mode has finally hit substance in our country. Three cheers for the new wave in Indian Cinema!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

For The Rock n The Roll

My memories goes back to my school days when I had my first brush with rock music. Started with rather classic stuff like Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and The Beatles. Those were the days when you could play a safe song by one of these folks which even your parents would hum with you. My father’s particular favourite was Elvis Presley. While my mother dotted more on the disco types like Abba and Boney M. Me and my brother grew up listening to the usual hindi ones like Kishore, Rafi and also ghazals most which were dominated by Jagjit Singh and Ghulam Ali. But when it comes to rock n roll, I remember it was probably in around 14, when my friend suggested me to listen to the Scorpions. I was a safe start, I believe. Soft rock was particularly soothing and I didn’t have to try too hard to understand the lyrics. I particularly remember humming to ‘Wind of Change’ and ‘White Doves’ which was perhaps the first time I remembered the entire lyrics of any English song. Classic rock n roll was just a timepass sort of music for me which I listened to impress upon the other western listening crowd of my school.

My first real serious experience with rock n roll happened one day when I chanced to see a documentary on TV about The Doors. There was this guy who was simply high on dope and the crowd was simply swinging with him totally mesmerized! The next day immediately bought a cassette of The Doors and instantly I fell in love with the haunting vocals of Doors frontman Jim Morrison. For the first time I thought rock n roll had a deeper meaning than I ever imagined. By that time I was reaching 18 and was taking my keyboard lessons. Listening to Ray Manzarek’s awesome keyboard parts in the songs was enough for me to take the keyboard seriously. I began to live The Doors day in and day out. For the first time my parents were baffled to hear me listen to a kind of music they were not familiar with. Morrison’s lyrics totally freaked out my psyche. For the first time I began to look at the things around me in a different way and went through the ‘confusion’ phase that most teens go through. Love, life, violence, sex. I felt I could understand these things in a clearer way than ever before. Songs like ‘Riders in The Storm’, ‘Light My Fire’, ‘Roadhouse Blues’ and ‘The End’ have become anthems with scores of people. But for me, one underrated song that particularly stands among these gems is ‘People are Strange.’ It connected with me especially in the period when I came to Delhi for the first time and felt like a complete stranger in the place. The Doors never failed to give me solace in my hours of depression and I almost worshipped Jim Morrison.

I began to venture to other rock n roll bands too. There were Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Kiss, The Rolling Stones and the like. They made great stuff to listen. And I felt good because I was increasing my rock range. But then one day, my friend gave me a cassette called ‘The Dark Side of The Moon.’ It was by a band called Pink Floyd. Suddenly, I felt that I had reached a very extreme point of psychedelia! Rock, for me, was never the same again! It totally blew my mind. And I realized I had finally found the medium to vent out my frustrations. Pink Floyd’s songs helped me delve into the darker realms of the mind. I still get hysterical when I listen to their ‘Coming Back to Life.’ This song has become an anthem with me now. And for me, nothing can match the dark soothing beauty of this song. There is an ultimate rush of ecstasy and sadness in this song. All at the same time. Another song I fondly recall leaving a huge impression on me was ‘Wish You Were Here.’ Anybody would fell in love with this song recalling their first love. Pink Floyd’s effect started from the point where The Doors faded off. And not to forget their ever popular ‘Education’ song.

Now I sometimes wonder what is it that endears rock n roll so much to the youth? Maybe it is some sort of a medium to vent out their hidden frustrations. Or maybe it is something with which the teenager’s often troubled mind can identify with. I think more than the music it is the lyrics which form the real core of rock music. If you go through lyrics like “Remember when you were young, You shone like the sun,” you will realize that it connects more with the youth than anybody else. Though it’s timeless quality can appeal to any age group, it will be more appealing to the troubled teenaged mind as it will take back to the magical innocence of childhood. Or take this one for example. “I wish I die before I grow old.” Now how would a young mind react to it? Or even the ones who are in the prime of their youth? Really psychedelic!

Maybe I’m just goofing around trying to define what rock n roll is all about like most idiots before me have done. But here like most, I myself have felt its impact on my brains. But again, I really can’t do justice to it by trying to make an explanation out of it. A friend of mine, who unfortunately died of a drug overdose, summed up rock n roll in the best way possible. “You have to feel it to understand it.” I think I’m no authority to better that!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An Ode for The Tiger.

Tigers are facing extinction. And with it also our chances of future survival. Over the years the number of tigers have dwindled down dramatically. Poaching has already erased it from some sanctuaries like Sariska and in the rest where they remain, they are fighting a constant battle to survive against the rampaging forces of man. What is most disheartening here is that a government initiative like the Project Tiger has done but little to save the tiger from facing a slow extinction. While the government continues to make tall claims about the achievements of the Project, statistics and naturalists have painted a different picture altogether. And this has raised the alarm among conservationists because poaching is on an all time rise. And along with it fears have risen that our coming generations might not get to see this magnificent beast.

The Project Tiger was the Indian government’s mammoth attempt to put tiger conservation under the official scanner of the government. Launched in 1973-74, the project aimed at tiger conservation in specially constituted ‘tiger reserves’, which are representatives of various bio-geographical regions falling within our country. Under the Project Tiger, various tiger reserves were created in the country on a ‘core-buffer’ strategy. The core areas were freed of all sorts of human activities and the buffer areas were subjected to ‘conservation oriented land use.’ Nine tiger reserves were established in different states during the period 1973-74, by pooling the resources available with the Central and State governments. The WWF also gave an assistance of US $1 million in the form of equipments, expertise and literature.

Over the years, the government has made long claims of huge success in this area. But recent statistics and suggestions by naturalists have formed a different picture altogether. Poaching has steadily risen with Sariska, one of the reserves under Project Tiger, being left with no tiger at all! The situation had become so bad that tigers had to be imported from the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve to Sariska. And the situation is still is not going well because out the three tigers (one male and two females) that had been brought to Sariska, the male has refused to adjust to its new surroundings. Now the situation has become such that one can only speculate if Sariska will ever see tigers flourish in its jungles again. Corruption in the beaurucratic system has infected the efficient functioning of the Project with the evidence of the rise in poaching in recent years. There have been several cases of poaching reported this year from sanctuaries like Manas and Kaziranga in Assam. And the brunt of poaching has fallen on other endangered species too like the One-horned Rhinoceros.

Ask tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar what he thinks about the prospects of the tiger’s survival in the near future, and he gives you a dismal picture. For him, it is the worst wildlife crisis that India had faced post-independence. And Sariska proved to be the national embarrassment in this case! Certainly, Thapar speaks from a position of authority. He has been tracking tigers for nearly three decades, keeping a keen eye on the cats, spending hours shooting them with his camera as well as watching them hunt, sleep and play. He has campaigned for their protection and fought to preserve their habitats. He insists that today the poachers have finally gained the upper hand and are mercilessly laying traps for the great cats. What’s more, the forest protection machinery seems to have collapsed completely.

Thapar heard the warning bells in early March when a census conducted in Sariska by the Forest Department, which was supervised by the empowered committee set up by the Supreme Court revealed that the park had been wiped clean of its tiger population by poachers. The tiger count in June 2004 stood at 16, but, according to the survey, the tigers had vanished entirely by October. One person who has responded swiftly to the conservationists is Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Soon after the Sariska report, he called a meeting of the National Board for Wildlife of which Thapar is a member and also agreed to create a National Wildlife Crime Prevention Bureau. The Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court is an administrative body which looks into environmental cases which come before the court. It also began an inquiry into the crisis. Thapar is also a member of the committee. Then, the CBI’s recently formed wildlife squad instituted an inquiry and backed the finding that Sariska’s tigers have vanished.

Today the beast is under grave threat in reserves across the country. According to Thapar, the solutions lie in setting institutions right. At the meeting of the National Board for Wildlife, Thapar pushed for the splitting up of the Ministry of Environment and Forest. He’s pushing for an environment ministry that deals only with issues like pollution, CNG and urban environmental problems. Then, he argues, there should be a separate forests and wildlife ministry. But only time will tell if any of these suggestions will ever be implemented. Plus, one is also forced to think how much of reforms in the institutions will give positive results after analysing the results of a government initiative like the Project Tiger. People like Thapar will continue to stand by the tiger in this testing time, but the fact is also that how much aware can the people get regarding the preservation of this magnificent beast. Poaching and trading in tiger parts are the biggest threats to the tiger today. Unitl the government comes up with some proper alternatives to quell them, there can be no hope for the tiger. Especially in countries like China, where officialisation of tiger trading has jeopardised the chances of the tiger’s survival there.

Therefore, it is now very essential that a ‘preservationist’ approach is taken towards the conservation of the tiger. Otherwise the day is not far when our coming generations will get to see the tiger only in pictures!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

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