(The writer is an advocate and environmental lawyer.
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The indigenous people around KNP, including various wildlife and environmental experts, have all along been in favour of conserving it through a people’s participation model
The Kaziranga National Park (KNP), along with its six additions, is about the size of the city state of Singapore. Famous worldwide for its one-horned rhinos, among other flora and fauna, the indigenous people of the area have played a crucial role in preserving and protecting the biota of the park. In fact one such local person played a key role in the genesis of the Kaziranga National Park, as we know today.
According to a book titled Kaziranga: The Rhino Century written by journalists NA Gokhale and SG Kashyap and published on the centenary celebration of KNP in 2005, there is an interesting story, which goes like this.
“It was in January of 1905, Lady Curzon, during her trip to Assam was particularly interested in visiting Naharjan tea estate, which was located close to the present-day Kaziranga National Park, since she heard from Mr Forbes, who managed the garden that it was possible to see a wide variety of wildlife that existed in abundance in that area. One fine morning, Forbes arranged for three elephant for Lady Curzon and her entourage to go around the area. He also called for Bapiram Hazarika alias Nigonashikari to accompany the distinguished visitor.
Forbes had several reasons to call Nigonashikari as a guide. A self-taught, wizened naturalist, who was not necessarily a shikari but was called so because he knew the jungles inside out. Nigona, a resident of Bosagaon, was also a very good mahout. As the party set out for the wild from Mr Forbes bungalow, Nigona took charge as the mahout of the elephant that was carrying the lady VVIP. As they went deeper into the forest, Nigona spotted a rhino at a distance and excitedly pointed it out to Lady Curzon. She however did not believe him and insisted that it was a wild buffalo. ‘No, it is a rhino,’ countered Nigona. Forbes, who had full confidence in Nigona’s knowledge of wildlife, ordered the elephants to be taken closer to the animal. But by the time the party arrived at the spot, the animal had already disappeared into the thicket. Nigonashikari would however not be put down so easily. He brought the elephants to a halt, got down and inspected the undergrowth. Nigona pointed out a series of fresh pug marks which distinctly had three toes on each foot, he then showed the feet of the elephant which clearly have four toes.
Convinced that she had indeed seen the rare sight of a rhino in the wild, Lady Curzon then bombarded Nigona with many queries about rhinos and their habitat. This was Nigona’s chance to display his knowledge about the rhinos and concern about their indiscriminate killings, mostly by white hunters. Vicerine asked ‘How can we save this wonderful animal?’ Nigona had a simple solution. ‘Stop the sahibs from killing them,’ he told Lady Curzon, who on her return to Calcutta, pressed her all-powerful husband to issue orders that would prohibit the hunting of rhinos in Assam. Had it not been for the courage and conviction of Bapiram Hazarika alias Nigonashikari, Kaziranga National Park may not have come into existence at all.”
The indigenous people around KNP, including various wildlife and environmental experts, have all along been in favour of conserving it through a people’s participation model, since globally, as well as in India, and its neighbours, conservation has been successful where local communities have been integral to such conservation efforts. Be it the Periyar Model in Kerala, the community conservation efforts in Nepal, and the successful rhino conservation efforts in Africa, local communities are the backbone of such conservation efforts.
Unfortunately, the only conservation model experimented so far in Kaziranga is the “protected area model” and limited to the national park model. The national park model is exclusionary, western, non-contextual and assumes that every right of every stakeholder needs to be extinguished. It is well known and documented that this model has not worked in India, given the fact that settlement of rights process and extinguishment of rights process is still not complete even after nineteen years of litigation in the Supreme Court. (Centre for Environmental Law-WWF-India versus Union of India and ors-C.W.P. No 337 of 1995) and the numerous orders passed therein. This mindset of the government has been the biggest stumbling block on conservation efforts in KNP.
And to make matters worse, the government of the day has floated a formula to hand over KNP in the name of maintenance to a private player under the Central government’s ‘Monument Mitra’ scheme.The Monument Mitra project plans to entrust heritage sites/ monuments and other tourist sites to private sector companies, public sector companies and individuals for the development of tourist amenities. The basic and advanced amenities of the tourist destinations would be provided by them. They would also look after the operations and the maintenance of the amenities. The period of MoU is supposed to be for five years, which can be extended for another five years.
Privatization of KNP has huge ramifications on the conservation efforts of the park, including the rights of indigenous people protected under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and livelihood of local people, such as jeep safari operators, guides, tour operators, home stay, and guest house owners, among others, who are dependent on the park. The backdoor attempt to monopolize the assets created with public money and to wrest control over the resources of the biodiversity hotspot in the name of maintenance is likely to face stiff resistance not only from the local people of the area but across all sections of people of Assam.
It has been observed from various studies by reputed individuals and organizations that alienating people from conservation is not a viable long-term conservation technique. The instant decision to hand over KNP to a private party undermines the community strength in conservation efforts, and goes against the very tenets of wildlife conservation.