Free wi-fi in a park!

Saw this board at the Bowling Green park, located adjacent to the famous bull in New York City. While most places in the city offer free wi-fi facility, it's amazing that it's also available in a park!

Saw this board at the Bowling Green park, located adjacent to the famous bull in New York City. While most places in the city offer free wi-fi facility, it’s amazing that it’s also available in a park!

Where is Karnataka’s Lokayukta?

The state government in Karnataka seems to have forgotten about a post that holds quite high esteem in the state. That of the ombudsman. Or the Lokayukta. After Justice Santosh Hegde retired last year, Justice Shivraj Patil took over. He resigned soon after allegations were levelled against him in a housing society case.

Here is a video of the time Justice Patil was sworn in as Lokayukta. Alas, one wonders when we will see the next such ceremony.

The Elusive Tiger

Did you know that rats, mice, crows and fruit bats are the only four animals that can be legally hunted in India?

In a country where at least one tiger is found dead every ten days, the above statistic seems most meaningless.

It may not directly matter to you and me but the fact is that it should matter. Almost half the world’s wild tiger population is present in India. But. Tiger numbers in the country are dwindling. Very fast. The animal is beautiful and majestic. But this is not why it needs to be protected and conserved. There are hard facts and data that show the danger they are in. And therefore need to be saved.

Between 2000 and 2010, body parts of 474 tigers were seized.

The Tiger Task Force of 2005 spoke about tiger habitats and the need to rethink conservation in India. Given that tigers are territorial beings, the debate on whether locals should be relocated from near tiger habitats, or continue to live within the reserve area, continues.

In a country where management is a massive crisis, in every area you can think of, forest management of course isn’t really up there. We don’t have a forest management strategy. Forests are not wilderness areas. They are habitats of people. There are millions who depend on forests for their livelihood. It’s the survival base of the poorest. Given all of this, the tiger of course is in double jeopardy.

Data says that in the core areas of tiger reserves there 19,000 families spread across 273 villages in the country. In tiger reserves in general, there are 66,000 families in 1500 villages. In three decades till 2005, only 80 villages have been relocated from tiger reserves. People are dependent on forests for sustenance. And this has only put more pressure on forests. And the irony of all this is that as per the 2005 census, half our tigers and other wildlife were found outside 20 reserves.

Tourism – Good or Bad?

So when we talk about tiger conservation, why are we talking about humans first? Well, the reality is that we are the ones endangering the species by the minute.

Tourists at a tiger sigting spot at the Corbett Tiger Reserve, Nainital, Uttarakhand.

While those tribals and locals have almost always lived there, there is a bigger problem that’s affecting our tiger population. And that is tourism. How many of us, during vacations to national parks, have piled up on the tour guide/forest guard to sight a tiger in the wild? And these holiday resorts cash in on the lure of the tiger. Forests have become a product, says Swati Sheshadrie, Programme Coordinator, Equation. (Equations is a Bangalore-based research, campaign and advocacy organisation)

“Tourism is primarily a private industry”, explains Swati. Even as one goes to these resorts/hotels, it isn’t about enjoying the quiet calm of the jungle. Loud music and bon fires are quite common. Some even get married here. Destination weddings!

On a recent visit to the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Nainital district, I saw the line of resorts on the road leading up to the reserve itself. This has been a massive cause for concern for a while now. Tigers have been affected by this sudden influx of people and have been finding it difficult to cross to the other side which is the Ramnagar forest. The resorts stand in between Corbett and Ramnagar with the Kosi running alongside.

Swati says that the owners of most of the tourist establishments are in fact not from that region. They buy land and the original land owners end up working on that hotel/lodge as drivers, gardeners and so on. Clothes of the tourists are washed in nearby rivers, polluting the water. Vegetables are not bought locally either.

The Jungle Lodges and Resorts vehicles are the only ones used in forests in Karnataka.

So should we stop tourism altogether? Swati says no. She explains that it’s about increasing the forest in the buffer areas, thereby reducing pressure on the core. She gives the example of the government-run Jungle Lodges in Kabini in Karnataka. This lodge has a limited facility and follows regulations meticulously. I visited this place last year and found it to be quite well-run. The only disappointing factor would be the lack of takers when the films on wildlife are screened. Swati says that in Karnataka all vehicles going into the forests in any resort belong to the Jungle lodges.

Swati says that regulation is required and that instead of evicting local communities, they can be used as watch dogs. Tourism can be used as a tool to transform. Otherwise, it will only do more bad than good.

Alternatives to relocation

Conservation is a collective responsibility. Coming back to the conflict between humans and tigers, there are divided views on relocation of locals. Ghazala Shahabuddin, an Associate Professor at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, sees relocation as a failure. She says that the rehabilitation process is not just about money but should be a hand-holding process.

Chandigarh-based activist Madhu Sarin says that relocation violates the Forest Rights Act. She says that one cannot conclude that the rights of the tigers are superior to the rights of the tribals.

Most of the locals in and around tiger reserves in fact don’t have any land of their own. They live on revenue land. This has put the administration in a dilemma.

But Ghazala also offers alternatives to relocation. Eco tourism. Jeep rides. Small scale farming. Employment opportunities. Ghazala says that there can be an MoU with locals and negotiations can be made to reach a middle path. The problem however, she explains, is that nothing has been tried yet.

People versus wildlife

Tourists need to be responsible and play the role of watch-dogs

Ravi Chellam, Director of Research and Conservation at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust’s Bangalore unit, says that there is a huge gap between intention of the law and hot it is being implemented. He feels that it isn’t about people versus the forest department, but people versus wildlife.

Whenever a tiger kills cattle, the locals generally immediately poison the cattle which in turn kills the tiger. The World Wildlife Fund India has now started compensating families immediately after the cattle dies so as to prevent them from poisoning the cattle. This of course is misused by several.

And then there is wildlife crime. Poachers have become smarter by the day. Even camera traps are stolen these days. This year, till June 10th, 48 tigers were found dead in the country. In 2011, 56 tigers died including 9 that were confirmed cases of poaching. In 2010, 52 tigers died including 24 confirmed poaching cases. The numbers are only going up.

Today all tiger deaths are assumed to be caused by poaching unless proven otherwise.

On a recent visit to the Corbett Tiger Reserve, which has over 200 tigers, I spotted none. Probably symbolic of the fact that tigers are fast disappearing.


Vaishnavi Vittal was selected for and attended the Centre for Science and Environment Fellowship Media Briefing Workshop on ‘Tigers, tiger habitats and their conservation in India’, held in New Delhi and Nanital in June 2012

Sonia Gandhi’s 15-minute ‘apolitical’ visit

She came. She saw. She left. The Congress may have termed Sonia Gandhi’s visit to Karnataka as apolitical, but the UPA Chairperson’s brief tour had politics written all over it. On the morning of April 28th, Gandhi was expected to arrive in Nagasamudra village in Mulkanmuru taluk of Chitradurga district, approximately 250 kilometres from Bangalore.

Massive security arrangements were put in place. As the Congress supremo enjoys Z+ security, the Special Protection Guards were there ahead to oversee all the arrangements. She was to arrive by chopper with some state Congress leaders.

I reached Chitradurga district the previous day itself. Finding Nagasamudra was a whole different task. One needs to take a deviation at Hiriyur towards Chelekere, go to Hanagal and then head to Nagasamudra. 50 kms more and I would have been in Bellary.

It was on the morning of the 28th that I saw the village. Hundreds of men in khakhi. Barricades. SPG. The village had been transformed into this high security zone. It had also rained the previous day, quite heavily, so many questioned the whole point of this ‘drought visit’.

Arranagements were made at the Nagasamudra lake, over a century old, which had almost dried up, except for the previous night’s downpour. The village is extremely backward. No proper water, electricity or cow sheds. It was a ‘sample village’ chosen by state Congress leaders to show heir chief about the drought condition in Karnataka. A group of farmers, weavers and women were to present a memorandum to Gandhi. The entire village waited with bated breath.

At about 9.30 AM we heard a helicopter hovering in the area. And there it was. The moment we were all waiting for.

About 15 minutes later the Congress leader walked to place near the lake where she would meet the villagers. Dressed in her trademark cotton saree, white with black checks, the first thing that struck me was how fair she is. Later when I told my sister this, she replied, ‘Obviously, she’s a foreigner!’

She rushed down the barricaded area, started shaking hands with the people, spoke to a few of them, accepted their gifts.

It all lasted 15 minutes. And she was gone.

I had spent the last 24 hours planning this trip for my office. The security personnel were arranging the place for the last two days. The villagers were up and about for even longer I guess. All for a blink-and-miss appearance by someone who is said to be heading the country, if not on paper.

What irks me is the point of the visit. Why visit at all if you are going to be doing it in a hurry? Can we expect any major changes in Nagasamudra?

But the bigger question that I feel requires an answer is the amount of money that was spent on visiting this place. Since Gandhi enjoys Z+ security, there’s nothing we can do about the SPG. Then there was the state police on duty.
Who paid for the chopper from Bangalore to Nagasamudra? Some say it is highly unlikely to be government money and that some businessman would have overseen the charges.

Whatever said and done, when there is so much talk about austerity, isn’t this visit taking it a bit too far? What assessment could Gandhi have made in those 15 minutes. More sadly, the people of Nagasamudra would have loved it if you heard them out patiently. Alas, none of that happened. It was a whirlwhind.

It’s therefore more than obvious that this was only poll tactic. I even asked Gandhi whether this was preparation for the elections next year. She was in such a hurry, I’m not sure she even understood my question. She nodded and kept walking.

Lawyers versus media

The friction between lawyers and media persons does not seem to be dying down. A day after that awful attack took place, the Karnataka Bar Council and Advocates Association have taken a decision to boycott court proceedings on Monday. Further, they will not argue any cases for media houses and withdraw from existing ones. They will also file defamation cases against those media houses that referred to lawyers and advocates as ‘goondas’. The Bangalore Police meanwhile have arrested four lawyers in connection with Friday’s attack.

One television journalist asked the most appropriate and significant question there is to ask, now. ‘What is happening?’ Well, nobody seems to know exactly. But the problem that spiralled out of control on March 2nd has definitely sparked off something.

Lawyers said that the media coverage has been one-sided, that the atrocities carried out on the lawyers was conveniently left out or mentioned only in passing. Well, true. But if the lawyers are going to go about town pointing fingers at the media, they also need to be willing to acknowledge the fact that ‘they’ in fact ‘started’ it in the first place. Many say that it was the media that provoked the lawyers at the city civil court. I was right there. And the chaos unfolded right before my eyes. It was a group of close to 30 lawyers who started it.

Now some city lawyers and the Advocates Association say that those lawyers were in fact not lawyers at all and that they bought black coats in bulk from a nearby store. Fine, let us take what they say, at face value. So if these lawyers were ‘fake’, why didn’t a single ‘real’ lawyer come to our rescue that day? Why did they just stand and watch? Easy question. No simple answer I’m sure.

That said, I would also like to acknowledge that a section of the media did express their anger in a completely unacceptable manner. But no advocate seems to be acknowledging their mistake as well. If 10 scribes damaged vehicles belonging to lawyers, are you going to call the media, in general, unethical? If so, that should apply to you as well. 30 lawyers may have started the mayhem, so we will also call lawyers in general to be violent. But I wouldn’t.

It is sad that the media and lawyers have brought it down to a game of ‘tu tu main main’. Lawyers have now started citing the Indian Constitution and other rules to prove that media persons cannot be allowed on court premises without prior permission. That’s complete bull. For the past many months, media persons have religiously tracked and covered high profile court cases, many of which have been filed by lawyers themselves. The lawyers have come to us and given sound bytes. After all this, they now decide to point out laws.

The issue is very simple. Friday’s attack was unwarranted. Those who attacked or assaulted must be identified and punished. Then, there should be a proper solution to whether the media should be allowed near the courts. If you don’t want us there, then fine, say so clearly. If the police can’t give us protection, then say that as well. If the state government can’t make up their mind, then be clear about that too.

At the end of the day, we have no interest in indulging in any sort of duel. We want to do our job and go back. CBI inquiry, judicial probe, committee report, are all for the sake of records. When you are on ground, none of it is going to matter. It’s going to come down to how the lawyers and media really want to be on the field.

Mahatma Gandhi preached non-violence. Ironically, he was a qualified lawyer and a practicing journalist.