Recently, I was on a panel discussion on a TV channel on the question of the culling of animals. Maneka Gandhi, Union minister for women and child development, who must be India’s most vocal, consistent and eloquent animal rights activists, had publicly attacked her Cabinet colleague in-charge of environment, Prakash Javdekar, for his “lust for killing animals”. Mr Javdekar had given permission to certain state governments to kill, for a specific time period, certain animals whose proliferating numbers were causing large-scale losses to farmers. These animals included the nilgai or blue bull, wild boar and monkey.
For me this debate presented a painful dilemma. At a personal level, I am a committed animal lover. I have five dogs at home, that include strays my family has adopted from the streets. One part of me is revolted by the thought of trained marksmen being brought in to mercilessly shoot animals brought up in the wild. I am deeply moved by stories of how their young ones are orphaned, and how some unfortunate ones linger on for days in pain before they die of their bullet wounds. I also understand that the root cause of this conflict lies in the drastic reduction of natural habitats for animals and the haphazard and insensitive encroachment of humans into forests and areas that were traditionally animal reserves.
At the same time, I understand that there are some very genuine concerns of farmers. When a herd of nilgai decimates an entire crop within hours, a farmer loses the labour of months of hard work. Already on the verge of bare survival, most small holding farmers have no other source of livelihood. If their crop is destroyed, they can neither earn nor feed their families. The annual Economic Survey of the Central government acknowledges that one of every two farmers is already under a personal debt of Rs 47,000. The vast majority of small farmers are in the vice-like grip of moneylenders who charge usurious rates of interest.
For entire farming communities the only hope is that the seeds they plant with such loving care fructify into crops. When, just as this is about to happen, a herd of monkeys, or wild boar destroys the crop within a matter of minutes, who can overlook the agony farmers go through? Wilting under Ms Gandhi’s very public and acerbic attack, the hapless Mr Javdekar quoted the rulebook. Under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 there is an article that allows the Central government, on receiving an application from states, to downgrade specific animals from the Schedule 1 list of endangered species, to other categories, where, if necessary, they can be culled for a certain period of time.
On receiving a missive from Mr Javdekar’s ministry requesting states to make their proposals, the government of Bihar sought permission for culling the nilgai, Himachal Pradesh sought it to for rhesus monkeys and Uttarakhand for the wild boar. Such provisions are not unique to India. In Africa, official permission is given for the culling of elephants when their numbers increase beyond a certain number leading to damage to crops and human settlements. In Australia too, kangaroos are culled for the same reason.
In the case of Bihar, nilgais have become the nemesis for farmers, across the Gandak and Ganga basins that cover a vast swathe of territory from Bhojpur in the west to Bhagalpur in the east. Bihar is predominantly an agricultural state where farmers, especially those with small holdings who are the majority, are helpless against the nilgai onslaught. The numbers of the nilgai have gone up exponentially, primarily also because, unlike cattle, nilgais mate twice a year.
Other methods such as sterilisation or relocation have been tried but these are very difficult to implement given the scale of the problem. I understand that the problem with regard to monkeys and wild boars in other states is equally acute. What then is the solution? Who is right, Mr Javdekar or Ms Gandhi, animal rights activists or farmers? My own view is that it would be wrong to take a black or white position in this matter. A good environment policy requires the preservation of habitats for animals; and a good agricultural policy requires that when a problem threatens the very livelihood of farmers, it must be dealt with.
Mr Javdekar, and the BJP government, needs to deal with environmental issues in a more holistic manner by devising a medium to long-term policy that gives due place to our flora and fauna and agriculture. At the same time, animal rights activists should seriously try not to make their outrage so completely one-sided. Some 30 years ago, I bought a two-acre farm on the border between Delhi and Gurgaon. My wife, who is fond of gardening, planted vegetables in one part of the farm. Every year, hordes of nilgai, that used to then raid the farm from the nearby Aravalli foothills, destroyed our vegetables.
We had the choice to both mourn our lost vegetables and love the nilgais. For us, the veggies were a boutique indulgence. Our income and survival did not depend on them. But for millions of farmers, the choices are much more stark. Nilgais don’t come any more to our farm. Gurugram has largely eaten up their natural habitats. Should India have prevented Gurugram from coming up? Could we have consciously put a ceiling on urbanisation even when the demand from the urban elite for office space and new living areas was immense?
Are some of us guilty of asserting the rights of animals over humans when it is someone else’s problem, and does not affect our own lives? Ultimately, the escalating animal-human conflict is everybody’s problem and must be tackled more pro-actively, with both Ms Gandhi and Mr Javdekar putting their heads together. But, in the interim, I cannot resist mentioning that a great many of the animal activists I know live in Gurugram.