FRO's killing in Telangana: Who's running 'jungle Raj' anyway, Mr Modi?

The Telangana state government has been trying to address the issue at the local level. The problem though is India-wide

FRO Ch Srinivasa Rao

The BJP has upped the ante in Telangana. Attacks of all sorts, verbal, physical and monetary are now common.

Cases have been filed about money being offered to MLAs to jump ship, and the BJP just brushes over such allegations. Helped, of course, by a largely pliant mainstream media.

The BJP stand on the issue of "illegal" forest dwellers underlines further another dichotomy: the Modi government's so-called stance at international fora on climate change and the environment, and the ground reality in India. A forest range officer was brutally attacked and died from his injuries, in the Chandrugonda mahal area. His attackers are allegedly Gutikoya tribals. First reports suggested that FRO Ch Srinivasa Rao had attempted to stop them from "podu" cultivation. Later reports, as two men were arrested, said that he had stopped them from cattle-grazing.

Podu is also known as "slash and burn" and is a burning example of the various human-wildlife-conflicts which affects India's environment as well as its environmental policies.

The KCR-led state government was blamed by the BJP and Congress for being lax on podu cultivation. The allegation being he was protecting his vote banks. There is no doubt that slash and burn is dangerous to India's shrinking forest areas. Human and domestic animal ingress into forests create innumerable problems for the future of wildlife as well as vegetation.

However, India's Forest Rights Act does allow licences for slash and burn or ingress for some communities. The rights of some communities to live within forest areas is also accepted.

Further the Modi government has been consistent in giving permissions to industries to destroy forests without any arguments. And roads and highways are commonly made through precious forest areas using the entitlement of eminent domain or the irrefutable argument of "national defence", regardless of the disastrous effects on the forests, its wildlife, climate change and sustainable ecology.

Therefore, double standards are the norm when it comes to our forests. This is the same across any part of India where there are forests, protected areas and potential for human-wildlife conflict. The death of any person is unconscionable. There can be no argument there. But there is a larger responsibility on governments – state and Centre – to identify why and how such violence occurs and then search harder for conflict resolution. However this can only happen when governments are on the same page. As a country we are now so caught up in trivialities or intense politicking that it is too much to hope for any resolution here.

The Telangana state government has been trying to address the issue at the local level. The problem though is India-wide. It includes traditional forest dwellers, encroachers both historic and new, degradation of forests, dwindling wildlife, the forest department's own concerns and its commercialtimber and felling activities, mining industries and environmentalists at loggerheads with each other. The Supreme Court is supposed to look at the Forests Rights Act in December. How will it negotiate this minefield, when so much depends on it.

When the UPA set up a National Advisory Council, to engage with such issues and look for equitable solutions, there was widespread mocking and anger from opposition parties and from our venerable commentariat. But how are any answers possible when stakeholders are not involved in the process?

"Compromise" and "adjust" have practically become Indian words – especially when it comes to marriage and railway berths – and these are the words we need to use to their best ability. There will be no one size fits all when it comes to forest rights for the connected trio of humans, wildlife and forest environments.

It is likely that this incident will soon be forgotten. The two accused will languish in jail, the murdered man will be mourned only by his family and friends and the main Indian game of Petty Politics will carry on. The BJP will pretend that Modi is the great saviour of the world's ecological balance;the media will amplify that lie. And state governments, local administrations and forest departments, forest dwellers and encroachers will be left holding the problem.

If there is any hope, it will come from the Supreme Court's decision in December. And if there is any justice, then all those who have agency will be given a voice and a stake. But this is India 2022. Our rights are trampled on and good sense is in short supply. And the BJP which rules the Centre has only one agenda: to win elections by any means possible regardless of the rules it has to break along the way.

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