The vacation urge is riding the wave in this season of Yuletide, with hopes pinned on a vaccine to expedite the exit of a pandemic-riddled year. Home-shackled residents are booking touristy destinations with alacrity.
The flip side of this verve is that VIPs in our democracy (Z-category ones included) often head to government-run facilities and disrupt the plans of the ‘common man’, sometimes exposing even wildlife to such overdose.
Several political leaders are touring such holiday destinations now on the pretext of electioneering, unveiling projects or even escaping the wrath of farmers. With an unwieldy entourage in tow, they trample through tourism zones, their movements curbing the freedom of those who pay for their holidays and wait for months for a week’s respite.
This is often the case with Kanha, the largest national park in Madhya Pradesh. It hurtled into the limelight again during the autumn festive season when legal luminaries of our nation landed in the tiger sanctuary in a helicopter and spent three days in the wildlife habitat.
National parks in our country often witness VIPs camping in core areas, with forest officials desperately trying to please them by “arranging” big game sightings. I was witness to one such circus at Kanha when the chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and his wife arrived in a gleaming helicopter that landed right inside the buffer zone. Certain routes (like Trail 7) where tiger sightings are likely were immediately closed to tourists, who pay through their noses for the open jeep safaris. Forest department elephants were appropriated to herd tigers to the trail along which the chief minister’s jeep traversed. Nearly a dozen tigers were sighted (read paraded) for their benefit.
The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, amended in 2006, specifies that the core zones or ‘critical tiger/wildlife habitats’ must be inviolate. The forest rest house, where the VIPs camp, is, however, located in the core area.
First among equals
In July 2012, the Supreme Court issued an interim ban on tourism in core areas of tiger reserves. In October that year, the apex court lifted the ban, but tourists can no longer stay in the core area. The VIPs are exempted of course; ours not to question why!
Unfortunately, this scenario is prevalent everywhere in India, the world’s most populous democracy, where the voter is deprived at the cost of the leader he elects.
Fresh pugmarks and loud alarm calls by deer and langurs do not always guarantee an encounter with the larger species. This leaves many visitors disappointed, but politicians arm-twist the forest management into breaking rules. In contrast, at Sasan Gir in Gujarat, the Asiatic lion habitat, a former state tourism ambassador failed to sight lions even after seven safaris, but was gracious enough to accept that catching a glimpse of the lord of the jungle is a matter of luck.
Gir now has a safari park around 7 kilometres away from the sanctuary with some leonine inhabitants to assuage the disappointment of those who fail to sight lions on the forest safaris. Most national parks, however, do not have such a placebo for eminent visitors who disturb the wildlife and disrupt schedules of genuine tourists.
Ironically, positive conservation activity is seldom harped on. Diligent volunteers from Calcutta have been training Kanha’s forest guides for years, making them the best in the country. Instead of lauding these efforts, we watched aghast as bureaucrats and local leaders, and even the forest ranger, raced through Kanha to pay obeisance to the VIPs.
Surely a democracy underscores the need to restrain the first among equals? Be it the right of way or a vaccine, the VIP takes precedence. Has the Preamble to our Constitution (upholding ‘equality of status and opportunity’) been reduced to a ramble?