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PRIYALE CHANDRA | 14 JULY, 2017

Book Review: 'The Vanishing' Takes A Close Look At India's Disappearing Biodiversity

PRIYALE CHANDRA


Amongst the various issues debated in recent times -- intolerance, Goods and Services Tax (GST), demonetization etc. -- environmental policies remain a relatively unexamined topic. 'The Vanishing: India's Wildlife Crisis' by Prerna Singh Bindra fills this void, revealing the sorry state India's biodiversity has been reduced to.

Bindra has worked as a conservationist for many years. She was also a member of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). Her book gives an insider's view into conservation, development, and human-wildlife conflict. She takes readers through the decision making procedure of the NBWL, explaining how the environment loses out to industry and economic growth. The tussle between the two is illustrated through the disagreements between the bureaucracy and conservationists in the NBWL.

Bindra does not mince words in condemning the government's lax attitude towards the environment. The media coverage on the development versus conservation issue and human-animal conflict also gets criticized. An example is Bindra's view on media reports of a leopard found in Delhi in November last year-

"The media, and forgive me for generalizing here, must stop imagining that the mere sighting of a wild animal is like a terrorist in the neighbourhood."

'The Vanishing' details not just the tug between the official and non-official members of the NBWL. It gives a first-hand account of the various measures that are used to pass industrial projects, regardless of the effect on natural resources. Bindra gives examples of major infrastructure and industrial projects infringing into Protected Areas (PA) reserved for wildlife. Attempts made to manipulate the NBWL into issuing clearances for projects are also detailed.

"Agendas reached us at the eleventh hour. There were times when the proposals did not even inform which PA was involved! Also missing was other essential stuff: the area of the PA, maps, lands proposed for diversion, whether the matter was sub judice or otherwise..."

'The Vanishing' also takes a look into the human-wildlife conflict in the country. It deconstructs the conflict, detailing the reasons for the situation, apart from giving examples of co-existence between animal and wildlife.

"There was a resident chinkara at the forest guest house. Rani had been found as a quivering and starving orphan by the forest staff, who nurtured her. She followed them around like a loyal little puppy, butting her head-pointy horns and all-in a rush of exuberant, if painful affection."

Conservationists, government officials, residents in wildlife-human conflict areas, forest guards and task forces; all find a voice in the book. Bindra takes a personal approach, travelling throughout the country and giving a first-hand account of both areas endangered by habitat destruction and the people and animals who reside there. She reveals how humans live precariously with wildlife, their interactions and how eliminating natural habitats has an impact on not just animals, but also people. Moreover, she provides case studies of how various species including tigers, leopards and elephants are getting more involved in clashes with people due to destruction of their habitat. This is supplemented by incidents where local communities have been at the forefront of protecting wildlife, like the Athgarh Elephant-conflict Mitigation Squad of Odisha.

The book's main agenda is revealing how India's biodiversity is threatened by habitat destruction and poaching, largely caused by the government's superfluous treatment of the country's natural resources. The entire history of India's conservation policy is laid out by Bindra, from its strong beginnings to the present attempts to dilute environmental bodies and green tribunals.

"If you defend a forest, or would rather have tigers than a wider road, then you are anti-national. There is little attempt to factor ecological considerations in the development agenda, or balance both imperatives. More than anything it is this dangerous notion that conservation or a clean environment is not for the national good.."

Grasslands, wetlands, forests; all are getting destroyed in the race for development. The book lists many such projects that are being approved by the government, even as the natural world struggles to cope up with the ever-increasing pressures being dumped on it. An example is the government's project to link the rivers of the country. Bindra protests against this move, citing irreparable damage to the ecosystem. She writes that this move will damage entire ecosystems, endanger several species and ultimately affect human lives too. She constantly reminds us of the symbiotic relationship between people and nature, maintaining that destroying one cannot make the other prosper.

'The Vanishing' couldn't have come out at a better time. The debate on development vs. conservation is once again at the forefront, thanks to President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Pact. While India continues to reiterate its commitment to the pact, the ground reality is different. With talk of development and progress dominating discussions, this book provides an account of what we stand to lose by consistently pursuing unplanned and unregulated development.

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