From Conflict to Co-existence: Scrutinizing India's Efforts
Human-wildlife conflict occurs when animals pose a direct and recurring threat to humans, usually in the course of pursuing their needs or interest, in retaliation to which the species is likely to face persecution. The conflict generally occurs in places where there is an increased proximity between the species i.e. where there exists an overlap of their habitats. This negative interaction is, however, not a lopsided affair and the damage caused is retaliated by attacks against wild animals. It not only undermines conservation goals, but also negatively impacts the economic conditions of the affected members.
The root cause is apparent – the demand for resources exceeds the available supply. On account of the exponentially increasing human population, unplanned urbanization, expansion of agricultural and cultivation activities, etc., human activity is intruding forest boundaries. Such encroachment, coupled with non-expansion of land, makes the problem of conflict an inevitable one, as identified by conservationist Valmik Thapar. Not only is this a significant menace to local human life and activity, but is also a threat to the continued survival of many species in different parts of the world. The situation is aggravated when people perceive such conflicts as a personal attack, and cooperation with authorities is shunned because they feel that their needs are being subordinated to animal conservation.
Governments generally endeavor to tackle human-wildlife conflict either by preventing the occurrence of conflict, or by mitigating its impact. The current Indian scenario lacks a calculated strategy to deal with such conflict. Not only is there a lack of research in this area, the studies conducted to address this issue are represented poorly and provide for no real estimates regarding the monetary costs associated with human-wildlife conflict. This poses a grave problem, as in the absence of pre-determined or structured goals, the result is misallocation of government resources and unpreparedness. For instance, as a consequence of scattered efforts, the Central and State Governments collectively spend 10 to 15 crore rupees annually, in an attempt to control elephant depredation, and to compensate affected people. A landscape approach to conservation and reduction in human-wildlife conflict is however, emphasized in India’s National Wildlife Action Plan for 2017-2031. While the focus is currently placed on payment to (human) victims, compensation can only satisfy short-term concerns.
ELEPHANT-HUMAN CONFLICT IN INDIA
The elephant is India’s national heritage animal. Elephants have been associated with religion, myths, history and cultural heritage of India for centuries, and even today continue to be positively associated with religion and auspicious ceremonies. With an estimated population of around 27, 312, India is home to over sixty per cent population of the world’s Wild Asian Elephants.
Despite the general moral and geographical favorableness, the survival of the Asian Elephant continues to be threatened by the continual fragmentation and degradation of its natural habitat, in addition to illegal activities such as poaching. Around eighty percent of elephant distribution in India is outside National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, and around 98.8% of the human-elephant conflict incidents occur in villages that lie within their six kilometre radius. As estimated by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, at least five hundred and ten Wild Asian Elephants have been killed in a span of five years, in addition to the 2300 people that lost their lives in conflict. West Bengal, Odisha and Assam, are the worst affected with respect to human-elephant conflict and contribute to approximately half the fatalities that occur.
In an attempt to strengthen the human-elephant coexistence, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change compiled and published the Best Practices of Human-Elephant Conflict Management in India. It was launched on World Elephant Day, 2020 and is a pictorial guide to encourage adoption of site specific mitigative measures to reduce human-elephant conflict. It prompts retaining and restricting elephants in natural habitats, emergency preparedness in case of conflict, use of technology to mitigate conflict and capacity building drives to avoid future conflicts.
INDIA’S APPROACH: PITFALLS AND THE WAY AHEAD
The general pace of acknowledgement and action with respect to environmental matters is rather slow in India. Legislations and policies, despite adopting international principles, continue to be deficient in various aspects – chiefly with respect to administrative control and quantum of punishment. On a similar note, while the document on ‘Best Practices’ comes across as promising, there exist two key hurdles. Firstly, the practices are non-enforceable i.e. there is no provision for punishment or penalty. Such lack of legal sanction reduces the instrument to a mere suggestive document. Secondly, there hasn’t been an attempt to incorporate an incentive-based approach. For people living in such communities, who have dealt with animal conflict with other means (including violence) in the past, there exists no impetus to do otherwise. Thus, while the provisions may attract already good-spirited citizens, it does not create a stimulus for an entire community. With human-wildlife conflict being an inevitable occurrence, a scanty attempt at celebrating a national day will not suffice.
Going ahead, the primary motive should encompass an attempt to decouple human-want and environmental degradation. Suggested measures include, providing legal backing to suitably oriented local-enterprises - the jurisdiction of which may be restricted to the affected community(s) or ecosystem(s); a steep increase in penalties and punishment as provided under the Wildlife Protection Act; incentivizing human participation and initiative through fiscal benefits, such as inclusion of conflict projects in CSR. The base objective of all suggestions remains the same – involving humans as active stakeholders in environment protection, whether through fear of sanctions or affirming positive behavior through incentives.
To conclude, we can remind ourselves of the reflection made in the case of T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India & Ors, that,
‘Laws are man-made, hence there is likelihood of anthropocentric bias towards man, and rights of wild animals often tend to be of secondary importance but in the universe man and animal are equally placed, but human rights approach to environmental protection in case of conflict, is often based on anthropocentricity. Man-animal conflict often results not because animals encroach human territories but vice-versa. Often, man thinks otherwise, because man's thinking is rooted in anthropocentrism. Remember, we are talking about the conflict between man and endangered species, endangered not because of natural causes alone but because man failed to preserve and protect them."
Thus, in the effort towards achieving sustainable civilization, the approach must be one of collaboration and cooperation. The opportunity to address human-wildlife conflict must be utilized, not only satisfy specific instances but to also strengthen co-relation and positive interaction on a long-term basis. After all, while the invasion of wild animals is an obvious inconvenience, it is man’s indiscriminate greed and booming population that has brought us to this point. Being mindful of the same, it is time to honor our commitment and ensure that such conflict resolution permeates the sense of social responsibility in every citizen.
Manvee Kumar Saidha
Manvee is currently a 4th year law student at School of Law, Christ University. She believes that everyone has the power to bring about a positive change. All that is required, is that instead of just complaining, we come together to criticise, contemplate and contribute!