forest trump

this is the first story i wrote on environment. i was in businessworld where, for the yearend issue, we were left loose to write on anything that took our fancy. and i had reported on ecodevelopment — a world bank assisted programme to create alternative livelihoods for villagers living in the periphery of forests, in the hope this would reduce human pressure on forests.

i picked up two national parks — the reasons are explained in the story — ranthambore and the great himalayan national park. the programme was struggling in the first but faring better in the second. one of the main reasons seemed to be population density. but there were others at work as well. again, more on those in the story.

anyway, this first foray into environmental reporting had left me depressed. i was about 25, and i had been reading natural history greats like david quammen for a while, and i wanted to write articles which were as theoretically informed and passionately articulated as theirs. as it turned out, the field trips were spectacular. i encountered lots of complexity. lots of nuance. loads of epiphanies. but when it came down to the writing, i proved unequal to recounting/analysing what i saw. there was also this stupid urge to tie the story up neatly. and so, the rhetorical flourish in the last para of the story which, as events later proved, was not how things panned out.

anyway, we live and learn, i guess. and, after that long prologue, here it is. the ghnp/ranthambore story. i also found an earlier draft of the story. have appended that at the foot of the final draft.

A Gypsy is racing towards Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Forest guards have just found a dead tigress. And GV Reddy, the park’s field director, is hurrying there. As we leave Sawai Madhopur behind, the road opens up and we pick up speed. After spending the past five hours with a management report on the problems facing Ranthambore, I am about to see them for myself.

We blur past a gaggle of Rajasthani women. And, suddenly,  Reddy is urgently telling the driver to stop and go back where the women are. That is when I realise the women weren’t simply standing by the road, they were arguing with a forest guard. But by the time we pull up next to him, the women have run into the neighbouring plain. The guard reports the women were cutting firewood in the forest. When told to stop, they began arguing with him. One of the men with them even threatened to kill him. Reddy grimly murmurs something to the driver. And suddenly, the Gypsy accelerates hard, and bumps across the plain towards the women. They take to their heels, quickly scattering in all directions.

Such skirmishes are common at Ranthambore. Occassionally, though, it gets really serious. As it did in September this year when villagers pushed 15,000 cattle into the forest. When the local SP tried to evict them, he was beaten up. Reddy received death threats. It’s hard to say who the bad guys are, though. There is little industrial activity in this area. Mining is banned due to the park. Tourism hasn’t resulted in many jobs. Agriculture isn’t all that great either. That report I read estimated 85% of the villagers, and 28% of the people in the towns, were totally dependant on the forest.

In the month of December, I spent ten days on the road wondering how communities and forests could live together. Previous attempts by the government have been laughable. Take Gir. Its Maldharis, a tribe of nomadic cowherds were given land and told to try agriculture. I found an answer in The Great Himalayan National Park, a little known park in Himachal Pradesh. Its director, Sanjeeva Pandey, has worked a miracle.

The park lies in an isolated part of the Kullu valley. Along its western rim, about 16,000 people live in 130 or so small villages. On the north, east and south, the park is flanked by almost impassable mountain ranges. This is one of the poorest parts of Himachal. While all villagers practise agriculture, most of them own land too small to sustain them through the year. So, they traditionally supplemented agriculture with forest produce.

This equilibrium was disturbed as new finds in the pharmaceutical industry fueled demand for herbs. In 1998, when Pandey took charge, 4,000-6,000 herb collectors entered the forest. So did 20,000-30,000 sheeps and goats. Soon, roots of Dhupe, used for making incense, and mehandi were being removed by the truckload. To describe what happened, Pandey gestures with his hands to form a large O about five inches in diameter. In the old days, he says, “We would routinely find Dhupe plants with roots as thick as this. All we could find now were midgets with roots less than an inch wide.”

Which is odd. In 1994, the World Bank had funded an ecodevelopment project in two parks, GHNP and Tamil Nadu’s Kalakadu Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), to devise a model for lessening locals’ reliance on the forests. All villagers had to form committees. They would be given some money, and asked to invest it such that their dependance on the forest fell. While talking, Pandey carefully places his XX foot on a stool. About two months ago, he tore a ligament hiking. It’s taking a long time to heal.

The committees ignored the village poor, who were the most dependant on the forest anyway. One committee covered 19 villages, or 1,300 people. With that size, you cannot hear everyone. Invariably, it was the poor and the women whose voices were drowned out. Instead, the money went to the rich. Handlooms were suggested as an alternative livelihood. And the World Bank insisted, to ensure that the villagers had a stake in the venture, that they put up about Rs 2,000. But most of the people living close to the forest didn’t have such money. As for the villagers who did buy the looms, some lugged these to neighbouring Sundarnagar, and sold them.

Most villages didn’t even understand what the money was for. Some repaired roads. Others brought Jerseys – which made them even more dependant on the forest for fodder. A lot of villagers started eating more halwa than before. In 1999, the World Bank gave up on the GHNP. In five years, it had spent Rs 5.6 crore.

Now, Pandey tried again. He and the head of a local NGO, Rajendra Chauhan, began by choosing 12 group organisers. And told them to coax the poorest women in every village, into joining small Women’s Saving and Credit Groups (WSCG). Why women? Because they were the poorest. Also, most of the forest related work was done by them.

As the groups formed, microcredit was introduced. All women were told to save Rs 1 every day. The initial plan was to get them to save Rs 2, but the women balked. They had no money. Says Chauhan, “We had to cajole them to save money somehow.” He and the GOs kept pushing – bargain harder with shopkeepers, buy slightly smaller quantities. Desperate to get the savings going, Pandey gave some women jobs at his department’s medicinal plant nursery. One band of women even quarried sand to scrounge up that daily rupee.

By December, some groups had saved Rs 1,800. Which is when Pandey introduced the first income generating activity. Knowing how impoverished the women were, he had been looking for businesses where the returns were quick, where buyers could be found easily. Enter, Eisenia Foetida.

Pandey learnt about this earthworm back when the herb collectors were wreaking havoc. Fearing some plants would vanish altogether, he had started nurseries. While looking for fertilizer, he had learnt about E. Foetida. In just 30 days, it could reduce 40 kilos or so of leaves and kitchen scraps into compost. It looked suitable. Heck, Pandey even could be the first customer. He needed manure for his nurseries.

The women were hesitant. They were being told to spend a hard-earned Rs 1,200 on 5 kilos of earthworms! The momentum began building a month later, when the park management paid Rs 280 (for 40 kilos of compost) to the early adopters. Today, there are 870 compost pits between 72 groups. When the idea was mooted, every group had started with just one pit. In 2001, they groups produced over 6 tonnes of manure every month.

Other businesses have been kicked off. The local hill apricots and walnuts are rich in oil – a kilo will yield 500ml of oil. Earlier, traders would buy these fruits for Rs 16-20 a kilo, extract the oil and sell it at Rs 200 a litre. Today, the women are taking loans to buy seeds and extract oil. Some women have brought handlooms. Others have brought hemp to knit bags and slippers. The menfolk are now being trained as porters, guides and cooks to accompany hikers into the GHNP. The WSCGs have even started cultivating medicinal plants in nurseries, being set up in the park’s buffer. These will grow plants in demand like Taxus beccata. Its bark yields Taxol, which retards tumours. According to Pandey, a 20 year old tree of Taxus can yield up to 30 kilos of leaves and 5 kilos of bark. Which can produce 4 grams of taxol which is priced around $10,000. The women get the proceeds from the sale, and the pressure on the forest falls.

I asked a group organiser, Shakti Chauhan, how things have changed. Well, she said, some of the women in her groups are earning Rs 3,000 every month. The change in the women is impressive. Back when the scheme was started, Pandey used to wonder why the GOs were so enthusiastic. “They later told us that, more than the money (Rs 51 every day), it was the status and independence.” Also, reports Chauhan, the local men have started lending a hand with the WSCG work.

Any dark clouds on the horizon? Well, Pandey might be transferred next year. But he thinks the WSCGs will flourish. “A micro-credit group is one of the longest lasting insititutions,” he says. Afraid the project might rely too much on his department, he has pushed Chauhan and the women towards self reliance. Today, local orchards buy the compost. And the products like the oil, shoes, bags etc are being exhitibited at handicrafts melas, etc. Chauhan is even setting up shops for these.

Now, take Ranthambore again. A similar world bank project has been underway there since 1996. But it hasn’t made much headway. In KMTR, the villagers quickly took up wigmaking, cycle repair et al. In Periyar, poachers have become guides. While at Ranthambore, I met some Gujjars. Reddy’s team has been badgering them to learn new trades – tailoring, perhaps. Or vegetable farming. The villagers demur. That is work fit only for a darzi or a maali, they mutter. Any other job they would like to try? They cannot think of anything.

Reddy isn’t giving up. The villagers have to be educated first. So, he has requisitioned Anganwadi workers from Rajasthan’s Women & Child Welfare department. He is obstinate. It may take ten years, but he will get there.

ps – trawling through the comp, i found an earlier draft of the story. this one is more vividly written but, among other flaws, seems to think the lessons of ghnp can be transposed to ranthambore. also note, again, sigh, the glib ending.

The GHNP story

Headline – Forests, communities and earthworms?

Intro – From the himalayas, a how-to guide on saving India’s dwindling forests

Matter begins: In September, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve made headlines across the world. One night, 400 villagers and 4,000 heads of cattle barged into the park’s core zone. When the local SP tried to stop them, he was beaten up. Some of the villagers were armed, others carried pesticide, threatening to use it against the tigers. The next day, things got even uglier. Seeing that nothing was being done to evict these villagers from the forest, village after village near Ranthambore – there are 94, in all – began pushing their livestock into the battered forest. Before long, 15,000 cattle were grazing inside the park. The villagers occupied waterholes. In the process, they displaced three tigresses, each of which was rearing cubs. It took XX days, and the PMO’s intervention before the park was finally evacuated. Since the invasion, one of the tigresses hasn’t been seen. She and two of her cubs are missing.

Chances are you know that India’s forests are receding. That at the time of independence, they covered 20% of India. And that they are down to just 4% today. But you probably don’t think about this too often. Life is too short to be wasted on dirges. So, the odds are you don’t know who Sanjeeva Pandey is. Or why his work at the Great Himalayan National Park could prevent ugly clashes like the one above, and save India’s forested lands.

The tragedy of the commons

This wasn’t supposed to happen. When the British left, most Indians were utterly dependant on the forests. so, our government had classified all forests into five categories – village, community, unclassed, reserve and protected. Village forests were meant for meeting villagers’ domestic needs. While they could use the community forests for more commercial, and preferably sustainable, purposes. The reserved and protected forests, amounting to a fifth of the total area under forest cover, were meant for conservation. The status of the unclassed forests was left vague deliberately – they were possible buffers for the reserved and protected areas. Take Bihar. In 1952, it had 75,000 sq kms under forests. In 1966, 36,000 sq kms of that was declared a protected area. The rest was common land. Forests for the villagers.

Today, it has 30,000 sq kms under forests. The rest has vanished. Rural development, says PK Sen, the former head of Project Tiger, never percolated down to these villages, which were far from the roads, close to the forest. So as populations grew, people’s requirements rose. And bereft of advances in agriculture and animal husbandry, their hunger for land rose. It is a story which has repeated across all of India. Today, across the country, no village, community and unclassed forests remain.

Even as the village and community forests disappeared, the wildlife protection laws came in. These banned all human activity inside our national parks and sanctuaries. Millions of rural indians were rehabilitated outside India’s 589 protected areas. The traditional livelihoods of several million more people living next to these parks were cut off by the creation of these parks and sanctuaries. As the forests were turned into parks, their rights to use the land were taken away and their lifestyles were criminalised. The ground was now set for a clash. Today, as Sen says, “India has 750 million heads of cattle but no grazing grounds. They are bound to head for the jungle.”

Take Ranthambore, again. There are two lakh people in its beighbouring villages and towns. This is a backward part of Rajasthan. There is little industrial activity. Mining is banned due to the park. Agriculture isn’t all that great either – most land holdings are pretty small. The forest department estimates that about 85% of the villagers, and 28% of the people in the towns, are totally dependant on the forest. Most of them have little option to entering the park illegally to collect firewood or fodder for their cattle. An environmentalist would denounce these activities as destructive. A villager would call them essential. Quite the conundrum.

Unto the breach at Sawai Madhopur

Looking for answers, I went to Ranthambore. Since 1996, the world bank has been finding an ecodevelopment project in this national park. Its objective: reduce locals’ dependance on the forest by offering them alternative livelihoods. Now, while this is a step in the right direction, things aren’t going too well. Seeing that villagers are still behaving like invading mongols, 6 years after the project began.

Here is how it works. Today, the India Eco-development Project (IECD) is underway in about 62 villages – all  within X kms of the park. The World Bank kicked off the process by committing rs 38.38 crore. that was in 1996. Every village is told to constitute an Village Ecodevelopment Committee (VEDC). Each committee was promised money, and asked to invest it in such a way that their dependance on the forest is reduced. For instance, there is a village near Ranthambore called Bodhal. This tiny village, with 100-odd houses, was alloted Rs 20 lakh. It’s spent Rs 16 lakh erecting a wall around its fields. It is surrounded by forests on all sides, and the villagers’ principal grouse was that upto half of their crop would be consumed by marauding nilgais and wild boars.

But is that ecodevelopment? Questions like that have vexed field director GV Reddy ever since the IECD began. While projects like the IECD were overdue (“All this time, we have approached conservation from a very forest-centric mindset. And that hasn’t worked. Because most of the problems facing us have their roots outside the forest,” he says), he is finding the going hard. Bereft of any training, he and his team are struggling to understand ecodevelopment. Take the wall at Bodhal. “It certainly increases the farmers’ productivity. And makes them more amenable to the forest. But it isn’t scalable. It is ecodevelopment only if the expenditure reduces the pressure on the park. With this, they will probably be back pounding at the park gates in a few years.” We are racing in a Gypsy towards the reserve. And I am about to get a taste of the issues confronting the park.

A few minutes earlier, Reddy had received a call saying that his forest guards had found the body of a dead tigress. We were rushing for the post mortem, hoping she wasn’t poached or poisoned. We blur past a gaggle of Rajasthani women. A moment later, Reddy is urgently telling the driver to stop. To go back where the women were. He has, I realise later, noticed that the women weren’t simply standing by the roadside. They were arguing with a forest guard. By the time we pull up next to the guard, they have all run into the neighbouring plain.

The guard reports the women were cutting firewood in the forest. When told to stop, they began arguing with him. One of the men accompanying the women even threatened to kill him. Reddy grimly nods, leans ahead, murmurs something to the driver. And suddenly, the Gypsy is accelarating hard, bumping across the plain towards the women. They take to their heels, quickly scattering in all directions. The Gypsy turns back. As we again head for the place where the tigress was found. And Reddy is talking about the challenges of Ranthambore. “What can we do with these people?” exclaims Reddy, “They are still cutting firewood even though they have all been given LPG stoves.”

In the ranks of india’s forest officials, Reddy is an exclusionist. Some time earlier, out of curiosity, he had picked up a copy of Where Communities Care. This book recounts cases where local communities have come forward to conserve india’s woodlands. Reddy hasn’t been able to finish the book till now. “Our thinking just doesn’t match,” he smiles. According to him, all this thinking goes for a toss the moment people start using the forest not for their subsistence, but for commercial reasons. That is what is happening at Ranthambore.

The tigress is lying under a tree, halfway down a steep gorge. She is about 12 years old, and appears to have died of old age. By the time the vets come to this conclusion, it is getting dark. So, instead of lugging her already decaying carcass up to the plateau, the rangers collect sticks and dry branches, and cremate her on a large rock nearby.

On the way back, Reddy’s in a relaxed mood. He is the son of a range officer – who was deeply impressed by his father’s DFO boss. “Looking at him, I also wanted to be a DFO some day,” he smiles. Today, he is one of the best forest officials in the country. He certainly has one of the more dangerous jobs. He has received death threats from the villagers. And a police guard now accompanies him everywhere.

According to him, ecodevelopment will take another ten years before it materialises in ranthambore. A lot of that has to do with the local people, he says. In Tamil Nadu’s Kalakadu Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), IECD has been very successful. Local villagers have picked up new jobs like wig-making and cycle repairing with great alacrity. That is not happening in Ranthambore.

To understand why, I went to a village in Kela Devi Sanctuary the next day. there are XX villages inside the forest. And the Gujjars living inside carry out limited agriculture and keep cattle. The money from the IECD has been deployed almost entirely in making dams and water reservoirs. “Most of the villages here have just one community – either Gujjars or Minas. They are not self-reliant at all,” says Lal Singh Chaudhary. He and his team have been trying to convince the villagers to pick up new skills – so that they don’t have to pay outsiders for tailoring, cobblery, etc. But to no avail. The villagers are a proud people. they refuse to learn tailoring as that is the work of a ‘darzi’. They refuse to grow vegetables as that is the job of a ‘maali’. The villages near Ranthambore are relatively better off. the villagers at Bodhal – who constructed the wall – aren’t too happy. The five-foot high wall isn’t much of a deterrence, it seems. At another village, Hindwad, a group of villagers allege that the ecodevelopment committee has been hijacked by the local brahmins.

We are learning slowly, says Reddy. For instance, he says, “We now know that the money should be spent in generative activities, not consumptive ones.” He is starting to write a paper on ecodevelopment models. One of the points: a macroplan for the region is needed along with the microplans. Otherwise, There is no coherence between the plans of all villagers.

I travel to Shamshi…

A little known national park in the Himalayas has cracked each of those problems. To learn more, I took the overnight bus from Delhi to Shamshi – an ordinary little town on the outskirts of Kullu. That is where Sanjeeva Pandey, director of the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) stays. Pandey is an inclusionist. He believes conservation will work only if treated on par with the needs of the local people. As we settle down into the interview, he carefully places his XX foot on a stool. About two months ago, while on a hike, he tore a ligament. To his vexation, it’s taking a long time to heal.

The GHNP is about two hours away from where we sit, in a relatively isolated part of the Kullu valley. On the north, east and south, it is flanked by almost impassable mountain ranges. The only human habitations, 130-odd villages, are strung across its western rim. In all, there are about XX households in the area, with the population hovering around 16,000. Most villagers are very poor. All practise cultivation on small parcels of land. Which provides subsistence only for a part of the year. Additional income comes from the commercial grazing of sheeps and goats, the extraction of medicinal herbs for use by the pharmaceutical industry, and collection of local mushrooms.

Here too, the park came under pressure once the villagers came into contact with the outside world. Where villagers went in earlier for just domestic reasons, they now began going in for commercial reasons. By 1998, when Pandey took charge, about 4-6,000 herb collectors and 20-30,000 sheeps and goats were going into the forest every year. Medicinal plants like the XxdhoopXX were starting to vanish. In the old days, it was commonplace to find plants with 6-7inch wide taproots. Now, the only XX to be seen were midgets. Each with a root size less than an inch.

The GHNP is one of the first two parks in India to experiment with ecodevelopment – KMTR was the other. In 1994, the world bank had funded a FREEP project here – this was the precursor to the IECD. Here too, villagers had to form VEDCs. But, by the time pandey came aboard, the villagers were as dependant on the forest as before. Something had gone wrong. To start with, the villagers did not realise that the money was to be used for kicking off new livelihoods. The VEDCs used some money to repair roads. Some brought Jerseys. Apparently, a whole lot of villagers brought halwa.

More seriously, the microplans were not representative. For example, one microplan covered 19 villages, with an overall population of 1,300. And, while the key was to address the needs of the poor, who are the most dependant on the forest, the VEDCs ignored them. He says, “If you make a microplan for 1800 people, you cannot hear everyone. And invariably, it is the voice of the poor and the women which is hardly heard.” Instead, the money was going towards the rich. For instance, handlooms were suggested as an alternative livelihood. But, to ensure that the villagers had a stake in the project, they had to stump up a part of its price – about Rs 2,000. Trouble was – most of the people living close to the forest were too poor to afford that. In 1999, the world bank too gave up on the GHNP project. In five years, it had spent Rs 5.6 crore.

As for Pandey, he tried again. Before his GHNP posting, he was teaching ecodevelopment at Dehradun’s Wildlife Institute of India. he had some ideas about ecodevelopment. For instance, he doesn’t think conservation is the inevitable fallout of giving people alternative livelihoods. It is also about economic, social and political empowerment. The stint at the GHNP was a chance to put those into play.

Since then, working with Rajendra Chauhan, the head of a local NGO called Sahara, Pandey has quietly transformed the lives of the villagers. His tools – smaller groups, a focus on the local poor, and introduction of self help groups. The duo began by choosing Group Organisers. These were 12 women who were matriculates, had good communication skills, and were willing to go into the houses of scheduled castes.

Every group organiser was given responsibility for about ten villages each. They had to go to these villages, identify the poorest women and persuade them to form a small Women’s Saving and Credit Group (WSCG). A typical village in this part of the country is really small. So, the GOs would simply stand outside a village, and size up people’s relative prosperity by looking at their houses. Their hunches could later be corroborated when they visted the villagers. In one group, there were about 8-14 women.

And as the groups formed, Pandey and Chauhan introduced microcredit. All women were told to save Rs 1 every day. the initial plan was to get them to save Rs 2, but the women balked. They had no money. Agrees Chauhan, “We had to cajole them to save money somehow.” He and his GOs just kept pushing – bargain harder with shopkeepers, buy slightly smaller quantities. Desperate to get the savings going, Pandey gave some women jobs at his department’s medicinal plant nursery. One group of women even quarried sand to scrounge up that daily rupee.

And then, Pandey and Chauhan waited. By December, some groups had saved Rs 1,800. Which is when they introduced the first income generating activity. Knowing how impoverished the villagers were, Pandey wanted them to get into only those businesses where the returns were quick, and buyers could be found easily. Enter, Eisenia Foetida.

Pandey learnt about this earthworm species in the days when the herb collectors were wreaking havoc. Fearing the plants would vanish altogether, he had started a few nurseries. And, while looking for fertilizer, he had run into a Pune-based salesman for E. Foetida. It looked like a suitable income generating activity for the Kullu women. For Rs 1,200, they would get five kilos of earthworms. From there, it was a simple matter of making a compost pit, and giving the earthworms about 40 kilos of leaves and vegetable scraps to munch through every month. In a month, these would be reduced to compost. Which the forest department itself would buy – at Rs 7 a kilo. Pandey needed manure for his nurseries anyway.

The women were initially hesitant. the idea looked dubious, and they had saved the money with great difficulty. But, eventually, some groups brought into the idea. A month later, they sold between 40-60kg of manure to the park. The women were ecstatic, and momentum began to gather. Other groups began to buy the earthworms as well. To understand how bullish the women are on E. Foetida, consider this. In the early days, every group had one pit. Today, there are about 72 groups. And 870 pits. In the month of XX, the groups produced 7 tonnes of manure. Chauhan’s had to look for other buyers. He is now also selling the compost to local orchards.

Since then, new income generating activities have been flagged off. earlier, local traders would buy hill apricots and walnuts for Rs 16-20 a kilo. These are very rich in oil – a kilo will yield up to 500ml of massage oil. The traders would extract the oil and sell it for about Rs 200 a litre. Now, the WSCGs have gotten into the act. They give money on credit to their members to buy the seeds and extract the oil. Now, the WSCGs are even professionalising. As Pandey says, “The first batch was packaged in 1-litre mineral water bottles and sold predominantly to forest officials.” Since then, the women have started packaging the oil in shampoo-like bottles – complete with label and all. Some groups have used their kitty to buy handlooms. Others have kicked off knitting businesses – they buy hemp and knit bags et al from it. Now, an ecotourism programme has been kicked off for the menfolk as well. they are being trained as porters, guides and cooks to accompany hikers into the GHNP.

In its latest initiative, Pandey is encouraging the WSCGs to run medicinal plant nurseries in the park’s ecozone. These will grow only those plants sought by the market. Like Taxus Beccata. Its bark yields taxol, which retards the formation of cancerous cells. When the plants mature, all proceeds from their sales will go to the women. At the same time, the pressure on the forest reduces. Today, there are 10 such nurseries. The GHNP is creating a marketing tieup.

The impact of all this on the villagers has been electrifying. I spent my second day in Kullu at the park. I spoke to people like Shakti Chauhan, one of the 12 group organisers. I ask her about how things have changed for the villagers. well, she says, some of the women in her groups are now earning Rs 3,000 every month. Pandey’s scheme has been so successful that the HP government has amended its PFM rules to allow the XX

The change in the women is impressive. Says Pandey, “I used to wonder why the GOs were so enthusiastic. We could only pay them Rs 51 every day, the minimum wage. They told us later that more than the money, it was the freedom and the status.” Even the local men are getting involved today. If a women has to go out and, say, dig a pit. The husbands have started lending a hand. Chauhan tells me about a recent meeting the women had with the local district collector. He was telling them about his rural development programmes. “Those of you who want a bee-keeping unit, raise your hand,” and so on. Not one hand went up. What the women asked for was training classes.

Any dark clouds on the horizon? Well, Pandey is expecting to be transferred next year. In running the park, he has made quite a few enemies among the local politicians. As it were, the typical tenure for forest officials in HP ranges between 2-3 years. And he has already been in GHNP for 5 years now. But, he thinks his WSCGs will continue to flourish. “A micro credit group is one of the longest lasting bodies,” he says. Also, this is why he has consciously underplayed his role – encouraging the local women and Sahara to come up with new ideas. And wherever he is, he says, he will back Chauhan. In the meantime, he has told the NGO to develop a core fund which it won’t touch.


So, do communities conserve? In an e-mail to me, Pandey wrote: “Effecting a change in profession cannot be done by simply offering an alternate income generation package. Before organising the WSCGs, mere distribution of handlooms, beekeeping boxes, etc, did not make much difference. Organising the community in user groups, selection of an income generation activity which is acceptable and marketing of produce are all very important.”

In the final reckoning. Things are starting to change. Ranthambore might just remain a reminder of what could have happened to our forests. Not a dire portent of things to come.


NOTE: THIS IS SOMETHING ELSE THAT MY NOTES SAY ABOUT THAT EVENING. “Dusk slips away and is replaced by night. One man continues to hack away at a tree with an axe impounded earlier in the evening. From high above the gorge, someone is playing a powerful light where we stand. In its restless light, others are walking around collecting sticks and dry branches. I am trying to shake off a sense of unreality. All these people are preparing to cremate a tigress.” extraordinary trip, extraordinary.

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I am an Indian journalist with interests in energy, environment, climate and India’s ongoing slide into right-wing authoritarianism. My book, Despite the State, an examination of pervasive state failure and democratic decay in India, was published by Westland Publications, India, in January 2021. My work has won the Bala Kailasam Memorial Award; the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award; and five Shriram Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism. Write to me at


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…a critical enquiry into why representative government in India is flagging.Biblio

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M. Rajshekhar’s deeply researched book… holds a mirror to Indian democracy, and finds several cracks.The Hindu

…excels at connecting the local to the national.Open

…refreshingly new writing on the play between India’s dysfunctional democracy and its development challenges…Seminar

A patient mapping and thorough analysis of the Indian system’s horrific flaws…” Business Standard (Image here)

33 മാസം, 6 സംസ്ഥാനങ്ങൾ, 120 റിപ്പോർട്ടുകൾ: ജനാധിപത്യം തേടി മഹത്തായ ഇന്ത്യൻ യാത്ര… (33 months, 6 states, 120 reports: Great Indian journey in search of democracy…)” Malayala Manorama

Hindustan ki maujooda siyasi wa maaashi soorat e hal.” QindeelOnline

What emerges is the image of a state that is extractive, dominant, casteist and clientelist.Tribune

…reporting at its best. The picture that emerges is of a democracy that has been hijacked by vested interests, interested only in power and

Book lists

Ten best non-fiction books of the year“, The Hindu.

Twenty-One Notable Books From 2021“, The Wire.

What has South Asia been reading: 2021 edition“, Himal Southasian


Journalism is a social enterprise…,”

Democratic decay at state level: Journalist M Rajshekhar on book ‘Despite the State’,” The News Minute.

Covid-19 en Inde : “des décès de masse” dont un “État obscurantiste est responsable,” Asialyst.


JP to BJP: The Unanswered Questions“.
Mahtab Alam’s review of “JP to BJP: Bihar After Lalu and Nitish”.

Urban History of Atmospheric Modernity in Colonial India“. Mohammad Sajjad’s review of “Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c1860-c1940”.

Westland closure: Titles that are selling fast and a few personal recommendations,” by Chetana Divya Vasudev, Moneycontrol. (Because this happened too. In February, a year after DtS was released, Amazon decided to shutter Westland, which published the book. The announcement saw folks rushing to buy copies of Westland books before stocks run out.)

Time to change tack on counterinsurgency” by TK Arun, The Federal.

All Things Policy: The Challenges of Governing States” by Suman Joshi and Sarthak Pradhan, Takshashila Institute (podcast).

The Future of Entertainment“, Kaveree Bamzai in Open.

On What India’s Watching“, Prathyush Parasuraman on Substack.

The puppeteers around us“, Karthik Venkatesh in Deccan Herald.

Will TN election manifestos continue ‘populist’ welfare schemes?“, Anna Isaac for The News Minute.

Why wages-for-housework won’t help women“, V Geetha in Indian Express.

The poor state of the Indian state“, Arun Maira in The Hindu.

Book discussions

26 December, 2021: Rangashankara, Bangalore, a discussion with Dhanya Rajendran.

16 November: Rachna Books, Gangtok, a discussion with Pema Wangchuk.

29 August: Books In The Time of Chaos, with Ujwal Kumar.

21 May: Hyderabad Lit Fest with Kaveree Bamzai and Aniruddha Bahal.

28 March: Paalam Books, Salem, Tamil Nadu.

19 March: The News Minute, “Citizens, the State, and the idea of India

6 March: Pen@Prithvi, with Suhit Kelkar

20 February: A discussion between scholars Usha Ramanathan, Tridip Suhrud, MS Sriram and me to formally launch Despite the State.

6 February: DogEars Bookshop, Margoa.

5 February: The Polis Project, Dispatches with Suchitra Vijayan.

30 January: Founding Fuel, “Systems Thinking, State Capacity and Grassroots Development“.

25 January: Miranda House Literary Society