The Law is an ass. So, claimed the unheroic, grammatically faulty Mr Bumble, in Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, almost 180 years ago. He meant to say that the law contradicted common sense. And now, Prerna Singh Bindra, author of The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, informs us that law-keepers for bio-diversity are no different for most part. They contradict common-sense too.
That’s one key learning I took in from Prerna Singh Bindra’s new book. If Oliver Twist tells us of the excruciatingly cruel form of poverty in industrial, urbanised England, The Vanishing – no work of literature, mind you – wakes us up to the ongoing inquisition and ruthless, mindless crucifixion of our precious bio-diversity, regardless of the legal protection it is entitled to.
Bindra has worked in conservation for 20 years, in various avatars. She has been part of wildlife boards, researched and written on conservation and served as a voice, sometimes a lone one. Most useful to her writing, she has travelled, seen, heard and joined the dots. The Vanishing lays out this personal story as she gleans it – about how science is unable to speak to power and wildlife is on the verge of a total collapse.
Through its lucid if occasionally lament-laden pages, we realise that it is not by chance that the elephant is finding itself more welcomed as a severed head atop a god than as a majestic herd in the wild. A case in point Bindra uses is when she rips out and puts on display the working of the National Board of Wildlife, which is supposed to decide whether or not to give clearances to projects on forest land, acting in the best interest of wildlife.
In its 34th meeting, the board “cleared 3 projects in critical elephant corridors” One of these was through Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in West Bengal, where over 50 elephants died in cold blood as trains flattened them out, between 2004 and 2015.
Citing examples, Bindra shows how the elephant needs inviolate space and inviolate corridors both, and slicing through it condemns this emotional and intelligent species to a slow death, laced with high chronic stress, sensitive as it is, to the noise and hostility of urban dwellers who have taken over its ancient walking path.
Of tigers and leopards
Several pages are devoted to tigers. We learn how you cannot conserve tigers by protecting large tracts of fenced spaces, as is popularly believed, because tigers need to roam around, to get familiar with new spaces, teach their young and then, move from one site to another. Bindra says about this glorious animal, “but travel they must. It’s a question of survival. Genetic exchange and vigour is critical for all species, including Panthera tigris.” Again, from the Ken-Betwa river-linking project to under-protecting areas known to house tigers, we watch the annihilation of a creature we’ve spent so much to conserve.
Bindra also dwells on the terror of our times – the leopard, showing the need to celebrate an urban sighting instead of killing the creature for trespassing. In this section, she uses scientific research well, sorting out myths and offering a way to treat a leopard in our midst as a glorious cat rather than a marauding monster whose life we must brutally end. While doing this, she also gestures to the crisis of the man-animal conflict, asking for policy shifts to help beleaguered farmers. In doing this, she unpacks the modern, urban mindset towards wild animals-coloured by privilege and knowledge.
I can make sense of it. A colleague of mine once asked me if I was sending her for work to a place which “really has leopards?” I was sending her to Kumaon. She couldn’t believe forest dwelling beasts could step out to share her space.
When green isn’t green
Not always, however, are Bindra’s stories black and white. Indeed, the most complex ones – which are amongst the best – question what “green” means, even the kind embraced by the world’s leading environmental organisations. The despondent tale of the Great Indian Bustard is one such. The bird is ironically losing its living arrangements thanks to solar and wind farms, which occupy its habitat, as it were. This alone should strengthen our government to push not only for only renewables but, in my opinion, the use of coal, if that is the middle path for conservation. It is not the extreme act of villainy many international and national actors make it out to be, if these smaller, less visible but not less important trade-offs are considered.
Such threads crisscross each other repeatedly in this book. Bindra writes about animals such as the gharial in one chapter, and wider themes, such as roads (my favourite chapter, because not only does it goad readers into imagining themselves in a position of power in setting this right, but offers some ways forward). Sometimes, they blend. I do wish she had stuck to the big theme format – roads, river-interlinking – as she does, and rework other chapters similarly: the not-coasts, urbanisation, son-et-lumiere shows no one wants, etc. It would make it so much easier to join the dots, especially for someone entirely unacquainted with conservation.
The other lynch mobs
Every story underscores an observation I’ve had for a long time: Indian society is dominated by wildlife lynchers. Elephants, leopards – you name it, the reaction is to brutally end its life. It reminded me of Heinrich Heine’s chilling words, often applied as wisdom after the burning of undesirable books in Berlin in 1933. He said, years earlier, prophetically: “Where they burn books, they will also burn people.” This hit home particularly when I read about the elephant chaperones – bands who guide traversing herds across cities, farms and keep them out of harm’s way. It broke my heart as I read from line to line. How fragile India has become, to need human beings to protect the strongest of wild animals!
I read The Vanishing across several journeys – on an international flight, on a train in Europe, in my hotel room on a sunny day. At no point did I feel optimistic about the future of our wildlife. Perhaps it is important to listen to clichés and help young people to fall in love with wildlife to build up a constituency for their protection.
My damp spirits apart, I felt a great deal of admiration for Bindra, because she speaks up, she names and shames – from former ministers to foremost elephant expert, Sukumar, who has accumulated large chunks of bad karma as he willfully allowed the worst projects to be cleared, citing both ignorance about essentials and poor data. Bindra’s ability to tackle head on a sensitive subject with no discounts to political correctness adds to the quality of one’s learning. She describes the pathetic condition of communities in Protected Areas, and their improbable aspirations with data, pushing for relocation as much for people as for animals. At the end, I wished she had thrown in more such examples to suggest a trend, or otherwise.
Bearing witness in this way adds to the historical relevance of her book. It is clear that wildlife – let’s say bio-diversity to reflect the wider reality – moves nobody, and its supporters are too few and too unimportant to leverage change. It is possibly the most easily struck down element as the country marches ahead to someplace. That is also why, on some pages, I had the urge to cut down Bindra’s impassioned pleas and ask her to fill in that space with more numbers to prove her point.
If anyone lets the book down, it is the publishers. They produce a splendid cover, but their editing is less-than-mediocre. Even someone like me – a reader who is enjoying the contents – finds herself deeply annoyed by their negligence towards an important book. Nonetheless, the book sails ahead on the strength of what it has to say. I just wish it was able to deliver more good news. I hope a sequel will. For that happy ending, we’ll all have to fight much harder, give up much more.