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Is it really tiger vs tribal?

By Pankaj Sekhsaria

In reporting on environment, why does the media always present the conflict in black and white --tribal versus tiger, trees versus wider roads? These are fundamental questions, because it is the media that plays a key role in setting debates and deciding both the frame and the outcome

For more than two years now, discussions on wildlife conservation, forest protection and tribal rights in India have centred around what is now the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act that came into force in January 2007. The Act seeks to correct the historical injustices committed in denying, even snatching away, traditional rights and forest lands from tribal communities across the country, and has found huge support from tribal and human rights activists and prominent sections of the political setup. It has, at the same time, come in for serious criticism, particularly from one section of wildlife conservationists and forest officials who argue that implementing the Act will drive the final nail into the coffin of India’s already threatened forests and wildlife.

The debates on these issues have been acrimonious, to say the least. Not surprisingly, they managed to garner considerable newsprint. In the English mainstream press, for instance, editorial positions were well defined, sometimes aggressively so. 

Nothing illustrates this better than the opposition to the Act articulated in the Indian Express. The paper carried a series of editorial pieces in the middle of 2006 that vehemently argued against the provisions of what was then still a Bill. The general argument was that the Tribal Bill (as it came to be known) should be jettisoned as it was not in the interests of the country’s forests and wildlife. 

It was surprising therefore that the newspaper agreed to publish an opinion piece by me that went against its line of argument. It was my contention that the proposed legislation was not the disaster it was being made out to be, and that, importantly, discussions on its provisions needed to be far more balanced and nuanced. ‘Balance needed in the Tribal Bill discussion’ was how I titled the piece I submitted for publication.

The title my article finally appeared under was drastically different and could only be called ‘eye-catching’. ‘It needn’t be tigers vs tribals’; the original title, admittedly, was drab in comparison.

That set me thinking. It was not how I had seen the issue. It had not been my intention to position the tiger and the tribal in a ‘vs’ kind of situation. I had wanted to move away from precisely this, and the tiger, in any case, had found only one passing mention in the entire piece of over 1,000 words. Was it the work of a creative sub-editor? Phonetically, tribal and tiger certainly do sound nice together.

Perhaps journalism demands clear and starkly polarised conflict to make it attractive. And where better to put that conflict than in the title? Or was it something else? Was it a statement more about those articulating the debate (me included) and less about the real situation on the ground? Do we do this because it helps to effectively push the issue into a domain that we are not part of, isolating and sanitising us from the responsibility of what happens or doesn’t happen?

Every problem has its visible and proximate reasons. The obvious ones are the poor tribal killing a wild animal to feed his family; a farmer committing suicide because his crop failed; cities losing trees because there is not enough road width to carry the increasing number of vehicles. But what we also know is that these are mere symptoms. The malaise lies deep and some place else. The underlying causes, the root of the problem that’s not visible. These are the real drivers.

Is the tiger really posited so obviously against the tribal? Are they really threatening each other so squarely? Or is this articulation a function of the reality that English newspapers, their contributors and their editors exist in?

These are fundamental questions because the media, we all know, plays a key role in setting debates, contextualising them and, in many cases, deciding both the frame and the outcome. When the problem gets articulated as that of tribal against tiger, there’s little space left to look at a number of other issues, be they economic policy, the political set-up, or social situations that play a significant role.

The issue of tiger (and by extension wildlife) conservation in India has, over the years, been pushed into a strait-jacketed framework. And the role of the media, though not fully researched, is certainly an important one here.

An excellent example of this is a recent Newsweek report (‘India’s missing tigers’, May 5, 2008) that argued that it was, in fact, a combination of ‘democracy and economic development’ that was driving the tiger to extinction in India -– a serious contention, particularly when democracy is one of the most cherished notions of our times.

While one would be willing to examine the contention that democratic processes are antithetical to the interests of wildlife, the problem becomes evident when one looks at the conclusions and the premise on which the articulation is based. It is solely the opinion of a few who oppose the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. For any publication to argue, in this context, that this single piece of legislation is an example of democracy negatively impacting wildlife is naïve at best and grossly unrealistic at worst. The law is less than two years old and implementation, if it is happening at all, is only just beginning. Although fears about forest and wildlife loss may indeed be justified, selectively wiping away history and placing the responsibility for the demise of the tiger entirely at the door of this one piece of legislation is not only irresponsible, it could even prove counter-productive.

Particularly so because one aspect of India’s conservation history continues to be repeatedly invoked -- the role of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. There is a whole generation of wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists in this country who believe, and with good reason, that Indira Gandhi ensured that Indian wildlife still has some hope. She was the architect, during her tenure in power, of critical legislation and frameworks that helped protect wildlife, and her personal interest and intervention, as in the case of Silent Valley in Kerala, ensured that many critical habitats were saved from certain destruction.

It is a legacy we cannot deny or wish away, but we also need to ask whether we can keep hanging on indefinitely to the past. Our socio-political-economic realities have changed so drastically since Gandhi’s time that no one, herself included, would have been able to predict them. It is crucial to recognise that the same wildlife conservation policies will not succeed today just because they did in a different era. It is a matter of conjecture, but if she were alive today, Gandhi, the astute politician, would perhaps have agreed.

There is also a whole new ‘post-Indira Gandhi’ generation of wildlife biologists involved in cutting-edge research across wild India. Many of their formulations of problems and solutions are extremely nuanced and far more representative of the realities on the ground. Rarely, if ever, does the media seek out this younger generation for its opinion and perspective.

The reality on the ground is a complex one and yet talk about protecting wildlife inevitably comes down to blaming the poor and the tribal; demanding their displacement to protect wildlife; seeking stricter and military-like protection for wilderness areas. Arguing, additionally, that the enactment of one law has caused the demise of wildlife is the wrong place to start.

Many parallel realities are being ignored in the process. Most of the communities that share landscapes with wildlife, for instance, live extremely low-impact lives and yet they are made to pay the greatest cost for conservation. In the hierarchy of power, it is these communities that are considered expendable in the interests of wildlife and of capital, industrialisation and greater economic growth. And in the toss-up between wildlife and an economic growth that needs mines, dams and infrastructure projects, the side the coin will fall is already decided. It is this complexity that the media needs to reflect in its reporting and in its editorialising.

It is not a coincidence that countless people’s agitations across the country today are fighting policies and projects that threaten the basic survival of forest and land-dependent communities. Neither is it a coincidence that many of these are important habitats that support a great diversity of threatened flora and fauna. It is as important that we recognise this overlap as it is for us to recognise that both communities and wildlife are, together, losing the battle. Nothing, be it the laws and the courts, the politicians and the bureaucrats, or the media and the wildlife conservationists, is able to help them there.

This connection has to be made, and it’s something the media must not lose sight of because embedded power hierarchies have too much at stake to be able to see it. Herein lies the promise and the challenge.

(Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of the environmental action group, Kalpavriksh where he edits the Protected Area Update, a bi-monthly newsletter that carries news on wildlife from across South Asia)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009