An unseemly controversy has erupted over a BBC documentary on the Kaziranga National Park in Assam in the last few days, raising the heckles of many people in the government as well as some in the civil society due to its inaccurate projection about the conservation efforts being undertaken at the sanctuary. Made by its South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt, the documentary titled Our World: Killing for Conservation was first broadcast on 11 February. And it immediately ran into controversy. Rowlatt’s written account about the activities at the park in the name of conservation and anti-poaching measures while introducing the documentary has also been found to be disturbingly erroneous by many.
Seething with anger because of the negative publicity accompanying the controversy, the Ministry of Environment, Government of India, has not minced any word in trenchantly criticising the BBC and threatened to blacklist the journalist for showing India’s conservation initiatives in a very poor light. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) lambasted the agency for airing the documentary last Saturday without submitting it to the Ministries of Environment and External Affairs for the mandatory preview necessary to what it calls ‘remove any deviations, so as to achieve a balanced and accurate exposition of the theme’.
Quoting some poor people living in the vicinity of the national park, Rowlatt has alleged that a brutal ‘shoot on sight’ policy is being strictly followed by the armed forest guards as per the instructions of their seniors in order to tackle the menace of poaching. As a result, in some of the recent years, more people had fallen to the bullets of the guards than rhinos being killed by poachers. According to the journalist, in the year 2015, 23 people died as against 17 rhinos. The park is famous for the one-horned rhino which, in many ways, has become a defining trait of Assam’s identity in the recent times.
But the forest authorities have refused to accept this. They have alleged that BBC is trying to malign the park in collusion with a foreign NGO and some local people opposed to the conservation initiatives.
Pramila Rani Brahma, Assam’s forest minister, has also threatened to initiate legal action against the BBC after consulting the Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.
Meanwhile, Abhijit Asom, the self-styled chairman of the secessionist group ULFA(I) introduced another dimension into the whole issue on 15 February by branding majority of the encroachers as illegal migrants. In this murky game of allegations and counter-allegations flying thick and fast from different sides, the actual truth has proved to be elusive.
There is no denying the fact that there might have been several omissions and commissions on the part of some forest guards while handling suspected poachers. Force used in tackling the challenge might have been more than what was actually required. But these were mostly isolated events. To paint all of them with the same brush and accuse them of unrestrained highhandedness is a gross travesty of truth.
No one should lose sight of the fact that the conservation of wildlife on a geographically unflattering terrain is a monumentally tough job. Inadequacy of trained manpower to effectively tackle the problem of poaching is a perennial challenge staring at the face of the forest authorities. Most of the weapons used by the guards are quite old while poachers carry extremely sophisticated guns and rifles.
During monsoon, floods create great havoc in the sanctuary, stiffening the challenges for the guards. Majority of the guards, despite being lowly paid (by the government) and insufficiently recognised (by the civil society), don’t think twice when rising to any occasion which warrants their prompt action in safeguarding the wonderfully diverse flora and fauna of the park. Since their untiring efforts of conservation are somewhat known in society, the reaction coming from the government authorities appears to be deeply disproportionate. There seems to be an increasing tendency to gather some brownie points from common people by several quarters by sharpening the rhetorical flourish against the BBC.
A section of people is also of the opinion that the documentary, despite being exaggerated in tone and tenor, has underlined a hitherto ignored aspect of the conservation initiatives by mainstreaming the suffering of the poor people living in the periphery. Notwithstanding the statement of ULFA(I), no one is going to accept that majority of the encroachers are illegal migrants. There are many indigenous people who have been forced by compelling circumstances to depend on the park at least partially for their survival. Moreover, any illegal activity, whether committed by indigenous people or illegal migrants, should attract equal punitive action as no civilised society can accept or endorse discriminatory treatment to be meted out based on the citizenship status of the guilty.
This incident shows the extent to which ULFA(I) has gone to reclaim some of its lost popular support from the people of Assam by highlighting the highly emotive issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Whether the people are going to accept their views on the face value or not is a debatable issue, but they have succeeded in muddying the waters by taking a stand not strikingly dissimilar from that of the government.
A not-so-subtle attempt by Rowlatt to denigrate the conservation efforts of the forest authorities against several odds at the Kaziranga National Park is too palpable to miss in the documentary and his written account. The power enjoyed by the guards or brutality displayed by them while discharging their duties could have been shown with greater objectivity, sensitivity and maturity. The country needs to raise its voice against this kind of blinkered depiction in unequivocal terms. But the warning of blacklisting the journalist sounds a tad too squeamish.
The authorities should use this occasion to reflect on the entire gamut of issues associated with conserving wildlife surrounded by human habitations. Any conservation initiative must have a human face in order to be truly meaningful for everyone. If this happens, no sensible person would try to denigrate; instead they would be glad depicting the plain fact.
The author, an eminent writer, tweets @mayurbora07.
Updated Date: Feb 17, 2017 14:58 PM