Making A Difference In Mudumalai

Sometimes, all it takes to transform a place is one man doing his job well. Rajiv Srivastava, field director of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, has made that difference, involving adivasis in forest and animal conservation, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara

 

We’ve lived near the Mudumalai Sanctuary in the Nilgiris for over 27 years now. Collectors, police chiefs, forest officials have come and gone. Sometimes, however, someone comes along who makes a definite difference. You feel a buzz. See a district transformed.

One such person is Dr Rajiv Srivastava, field director of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. He entered our orbit because he was the first official to proactively try and involve tribals in the government’s wildlife conservation activities. To empower adivasis to protect forests.

We were, I must confess, cynical disbelievers, having been at the receiving end of not-very-helpful forest officials for almost three decades. So a field director who cared about tribal welfare surprised everyone. ACCORD, the Gudalur NGO working for adivasi rights, and AMS (Adivasi Munnetra Sangam), an adivasi organisation, have been considered enemies by a succession of forest department officials, even ignorant armchair environmentalists who view adivasi forest-dwellers as a conservation problem. They just want adivasis moved out; anyone working for their empowerment is the enemy. We were used to being bad-mouthed both publicly and privately.

Suddenly, here was a field director talking face-to-face with adivasis, sitting under the trees with them and, the cruellest cut of all (for hierarchy-proud, status-conscious government officials), demanding that his subordinates stand up and clap for the adivasis, publicly proclaiming that they had conserved India’s forests for centuries! It was a bitter pill to swallow for petty forest guards and watchers. For decades, these official guardians, lords of the jungle, have falsely arrested adivasis on the slightest pretext, confiscated their knives (essential equipment, any forester knows, for forest-dwellers to hack through dense jungle) and taken away the honey, tubers, fish and fruit of their daily food-gathering expeditions.

This field director acted fast. “When I came here I saw the adivasis were really poor, making them easy prey for poachers. Livelihood is crucially important for forest-dwellers. When income is inadequate, enticement by poachers begins. If you provide livelihood options, things change immediately.”

Srivastava put his money where his mouth is. The Anti-Poaching Watchers Programme became the biggest feather in his cap. He describes his APWs as “green warriors, the people on the frontline between the administration and poachers, the men with intimate knowledge of the forests”. With approval from Chennai, 40 APWs were made permanent staff. They now get medical facilities, proper uniforms, a daily ration allowance, regular wages, and are eligible for promotion as guards and watchers. Rangers were instructed to ensure they got nutritious food — sambar, vegetables and eggs. “My APW crew has gas connections for efficiency and speed. They can now cook quickly, eat quickly, and move to the forest,” Srivastava explains proudly.

A ‘maximum eco-sanitary’ operation has tribals collecting 20-30 sacks of plastic garbage left by tourists in a ‘cleaning-up Mudumalai’ operation every week. Forty fire-watchers have been hired to fight forest fires. These combined factors were a tremendous morale booster for the adivasis. But, most importantly, Srivastava’s recommendation to government that the forest department make it official policy to engage tribals in all activities is a step towards correcting a historical injustice. As stated by the Forest Rights Act, adivasis were the original people of Mudumalai, and it is their right to protect and control the forests they have lived in for millennia.

Srivastava’s Nilgiris posting has obviously affected him deeply. “When I came here, I saw Mudumalai adivasi kids drop out of school. They had no direction, no training. I had funds, but the department is busy with forest protection. I turned to NGOs. Aide de Action had staff implementing projects. I asked them to bring in youngsters. We conducted aptitude tests for vocational training — in computers, vehicle repair, tailoring, plumbing, electrical training. Of the 100 young people we took on, 50 are now settled in jobs. Then we trained 50 women in tailoring. They couldn’t all find work here, so we outsourced. We get orders from factories in the cities, and the women sit here in Theppakadu, in the middle of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, and complete them!”

Srivastava’s Mudumalai Forest Fire Disaster Management Centre, the only one in India, is a national model. As is the social fencing scheme. Tribals living in Mudumalai have intimate knowledge of the forests, including the entry of poachers. If they are supportive of conservation and involved in department activities, they automatically create a social fence around Mudumalai to keep poachers out. Adivasis now monitor and report problems because they trust the field director.

Mudumalai is the focus of the entire world because it has the world’s largest tiger population. And luck, with good management, seems to be on the field director’s side. “People have the wrong impression that it is just about tigers. But it’s equally about people living in and around tiger reserves. Tiger numbers have increased. Not just the big cats, but herbivores and other carnivores. And people are becoming more positive about conservation.”

“The night patrolling, combing operations with the police, are a model for other states. And the 10 pm to 6 am ban on vehicular traffic inside Mudumalai has resulted in freer animal movement at night. It’s a good feeling to know we are having some successes.”

Srivastava attributes this success to the Nilgiris district team. “An officer must have a good relationship with the heads of other departments. Archana Patnaik is an excellent, cooperative district collector. The SP is equally good. We have a healthy understanding and working relationship. Helps make the district work better,” he says.

What’s so great about this man ensuring fair wages for the adivasi staff, someone asked. Activists are anyway fighting for these benefits everywhere, everyday. Nothing, really. He is merely doing his job. The point is, if people all over the country did their jobs well, ensured decent wages and implemented projects properly, everything would work better. And the crores that go into the forest budget would be more efficiently spent. (Infochange)

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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