The Tiger Can’t Bank On This
Why is India rejecting the World Bank’s new Tiger Conservation Initiative? PRERNA SINGH BINDRA reports

THE WORLD BANK (WB) Signature Event on June 9, in Washington DC, marking the launch of its Tiger Conservation initiative, was a glitzy affair, attended by funding agencies, government representatives, international NGOs, and Hollywood biggies like Harrison Ford. Conspicuous in its absence, however, was India, the most vital partner for the success of the initiative.
Despite all its problems, India is home to the largest number of tigers in the wild, and the WB desperately needs India to be a part of its initiative. The importance of India’s endorsement of the programme can be judged from the fact that in his speech, the bank’s President Robert Zoellick claimed, “As we launch this initiative, the Government of India has expressed its strong interest in working with us.”
India has done no such thing. In fact, quite the opposite. Although there was immense apprehension that the Indian government would buckle under — the bank lobby was working overtime, sending special envoys to keep the pressure mounting — late last week, finally, there was word that the Prime Minister (PM) had refused to endorse the bank’s tiger conservation initiative, and also turned down its “request” that India put in a formal proposal for a “loan” to save wild tigers. The PMO endorsed the view that it was contrary to the tiger’s interest to involve the WB.
Why had the Ministry of Environment and Forests advised the PM that “it was neither appropriate nor desirable” to take the WB on board? Why are the concerned authorities and tiger conservationists unanimously opposed to it, although the bank made all the right noises, dangled the bait of its considerable convening power, and held out the promise of mega dollars for the cause?
There are many reasons but at the heart of the matter lies a simple truth: the WB’s involvement could well prove to be fatal to the tiger since its core policy is at odds with the two main initiatives that will save wild tigers in India, especially in the short term: village relocation from critical tiger habitats and in situ enforcement. The WB’s operational policies, especially those relating to resettlement and rehabilitation of people from tiger habitats, are in conflict with the current policies of the government of India, which leans toward an ‘exclusive’ strategy in the core area.
This essentially means that core areas of tiger reserves must be inviolate. Mapping of tiger habitats and scientific studies have shown that where there are people, there are no tigers. If tigers are to survive, people must go, and they must be given the best incentives to do so. The bank’s soft-peddling will hinder rather than help.
In his speech, Zoellick touted the example of the Terai Arc Project in Nepal, which, he said, “offers another possible model for how human communities can coexist alongside core tiger habitats.” One wonders when Zoellick got his last update: the Terai Arc project has all but collapsed in Nepal. Most of the tigers and the greater one-horned rhinoceros have been wiped out in the Royal Bardiya National Park (RBNP), in Nepal. Some have sought refuge in Katarniaghat in Uttar Pradesh, which is contiguous to RBNP. India could be allowed a rare pat on the back, since Katarniaghat has seen a remarkable recovery in recent years: rare species such as gharials, barasingha, rhinos and tigers are making a gradual comeback, largely due to strict enforcement of the laws that protect them. But WB policies offer little scope for active enforcement, which is crucial at this juncture. We would do well to remember, it was poaching that emptied Sariska of its big cats.
History isn’t on the bank’s side either. Given its appalling environment track record, particularly in India, the WB’s grand plan is perceived as a public relations tactic, a green-wash exercise. Its past “conservation initiatives” — especially the high-profile GEF-India Eco-development Project in the 1990’s — not only failed to achieve the desired conservation but also ended up having a lethal effect on tigers. The bank had pumped in colossal amounts of money, but PK Sen, former director of Project Tiger, estimates that consultancies and WB overheads alone consumed over 40 percent of the funds. The WB’s policies and its efforts to marry conservation with development goals were a failure, leading to a mission drift in wildlife management, the collapse of protection systems and destruction of natural habitats. In a letter to the PM, eminent tiger conservationists like Valmik Thapar, Ullas Karanth, PK Sen, Brijendra Singh, Bittu Sahgal, Belinda Wright and Raghu Chundawat had written that the project “had massive deleterious effect on tigers and their habitat by sheer scale of corruption and incompetence which accompanied their execution.”
In his speech at the Signature Event, the WB President said, “Biodiversity protection is an integral part of our inclusive and sustainable globalization.” One cannot comment on the its contribution to the preservation of global biodiversity, but it may be worthwhile to mention an article by Robert Goodland, who served as environmental advisor to the World Bank for 23 years. He wrote in The Guardian, in 2007, “The bank’s private sector affiliate, the International Finance Corporation, is backing oil palm plantations in Indonesia and cutting protective mangrove forests. Among the worst is financing for monoculture soya plantations in Amazonia, even though soya is suicide for Brazil’s rich agricultural lands. A quarter of the Amazon forest has already been destroyed, aided and encouraged by the bank.”
In India, the WB’s infrastructural and development projects — hydroelectric, mines, dams, roads, forestry, roads — have played havoc with biodiversity, and reflect very little ecological or social concern.
One pertinent question is: what could the World Bank bring to our table? Does it have the expertise — or even the support of experts — to play saviour for the tiger? Eminent scientists and tiger conservationists have disassociated themselves from the WB initiative. Nor does India’s resurgent economy require funds from an outside source. India’s budget for tiger conservation has already been increased three-fold; nearly Rs 600 crore has been allocated in the current plan, plus an additional Rs 50 crore for the creation of a Tiger Protection Force.
There is reason to view the bank’s motives with suspicion. As PK Sen says, “The World Bank structure in India is crumbling. India’s dependency on the World Bank has considerably reduced, and it is seeking a re-entry into the country through tiger conservation”.
Sceptics say that the World Bank merely wants to lend at high interests in fast growing economies, and tiger conservation provides it the legitimacy to do so. This may be a cynical view, but it comes from a lesson well-learnt, and at huge ecological costs. •
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 25, Dated June 28, 2008