Our quality of mercy

Jambudwip is a tiny dot in the Bay of Bengal. A few years ago, it hit headlines when wildlife activists dragged fishermen, who used the landmass to dry their fish, to the Supreme Court. A case was filed regarding ‘encroachment’ of this island, partly covered by mangroves. The apex court’s central empowered committee (cec), which advises it in all forest matters, got into the act. Its report to the court was clear: fish drying was a non-forest activity, so disallowed under the Forest Conservation Act (1980).

The fishermen appealed. They had to go out into the open sea for days, putting life on hold and everything they had at risk. Jambudwip was a convenient transit camp; they used this nearest landmass, with a natural harbour, only to dry fish. They had no fancy refrigeration; this was the only way they could preserve fish for sale in the mainland. Their practices were sustainable—fishing nets were handcrafted to catch only the adult fish, leaving the small to the sea. They used the sun to dry fish. They took from nature only what they needed.

I happened to be in court that day, when the lawyer for the fishermen strained to explain this use was not destructive, and, in fact, it was in the best interest of the fishermen to protect the mangroves as buffer to the harsh sea. The permits and payments made to the forest department showed the island was in use from 1950. Destruction to the mangroves was marginal—satellite imagery confirmed the island had, over these long years of use, lost only 200 ha of forest, out of its 2,000 ha.

The fishermen also put forward a plan—use the money we pay for permits to the forest department to plant mangroves; create a sustainable management plan for the island; restrict boat numbers. Sensible solutions. But “No,” said the cec. The court concurred. Off with their heads. In one stroke, the livelihood of over 10,000 people engaged in fishing, drying, transporting and selling fish ended. 10,000 lost to penury.

Was it a victory for conservation? Cut now to another ‘forest case’. Same court, same committee. This time, though, the matter concerned a very powerful industrial house—Sterlite Industries, the subsidiary of London-based Vedanta plc—which wanted some 700 ha of rich, much more bio-diverse and valuable forest, for its bauxite mine. This time, the decision was different. Court and committee agreed to a compromise. The company could get the forest, but would have to pay for the value of the forest to be destroyed—Rs 55 crore, paltry when you think of the wildlife and the priceless watershed value of this forest, which feeds two rivers and countless streams of the region. It would also have to pay another Rs 50 crore for a wildlife management plan. And of course, it would only do ‘sustainable’ mining. No questions were asked on how ripping the top of a hill and dumping three tonnes of waste for every tonne of bauxite mined, in a high rainfall area, could be sustainable.

In this case, the apex court was possibly conscious that it could not hold up ‘development’, and opted for a middle path. So let us move back in time. Same committee, same court. Some years ago, the same committee had decided that no non-forest activity would be allowed in any national park or sanctuary, not even removing dead or decaying trees, grasses or drift wood. In the little unknown sanctuary of Kumbalgarh, in Rajasthan, this order was a death-knell for camels, which used the area, for three monsoon months, to graze. No appeal worked. Conservation science itself proved grazing benefited the sanctuary in these months. But “No”, said the committee. “No”, said the court.

Now back to the present. Same committee. Same court. The matter is of diamond mining in the core area of the Panna national park, where tigers breed. Once again, the committee turned kinder, gentler. The court, too, became considerate. The decision: mining to continue in the protected reserve; company to pay some 5 per cent of its capital cost and the net present value of the forests it would destroy. No deadline has been given for closure of the mine. There is another, cruel, twist. The same conservationist who filed the case against the mangrove-destroying fishermen of Jambudwip is now in charge of ensuring ‘sustainable’ mining in this protected reserve, where even dead trees cannot be removed.

These cases are not just about power and powerlessness. They are about our understanding of what works for conservation and what is good for development. It is clear we cannot comprehend why livelihoods of the poor are important. In our view, these are both destructive of the environment and dispensible. So, we value the ‘employment’ (meagre by any standards) modern industry will provide, but dismiss the employment, much larger in numbers of livelihoods of people.

We also believe modern industry, which by its very nature is extractive and destructive of resources, can be made sustainable. But we cannot believe the economies of the poor, which do not have such huge footprints to begin with, can be managed for sustainability. It is either our contempt for their practices or for the people, or both. In this way, increasingly, conservation becomes a mere money game. If you can pay, you can cut the forest, destroy the wildlife. No forest is so priceless it cannot be cut, or land so inviolate it cannot be had. Not by the poor, because they cannot pay and in any case their use is destructive and valueless. But by the rich.

Whatever happened to the principle that justice must compel the strong to refrain from doing what they have the power to do, so that the weak don’t have to accept what they are forced to accept? Whatever happened to our quality of mercy?

—Sunita Narain