Democracy may usually mean people's might, but many a time it turns into an useful tool for endless exploitation by the 'men in power'. At least, if one passionately looks at the recent development of rhino poaching in Assam that arousing public outcries, but in contrast, the prolonged reluctance of the government to address the issue, it might indicate that the largest democracy in the globe has empowered the politicians only and certainly not the common people of the country.
The civil societies and the advocacy groups of Assam have rigorously raised voices against the rising incidents of rhino poaching during the last few months, but the concerned authority and the state government preferred only to overlook the public resentment. Foe more than a month, the wildlife lovers have strongly condemned the authority of Kaziranga National Park, which had witnessed the loss of 24 endangered one horn rhinos to poachers since January 2007, but neither the authority nor the government has shown the moral courage to admit their anomalies in protecting the inmates of the celebrated park.
Kaziranga gives shelter to almost two-thirds of the total population of one-horned rhinos on Earth. A 1984 census showed that Kaziranga, which was declared a National Park in 1974, had 1,080 rhinos. The toll increased during 1975 to 1990, nearly 25 per year. The statistics showed that rhino population was found 1069 in another census during 1991. The census in 1999 provided more optimistic result as the number of rhinos soared to 1,552. The last census in 2006 revealed the number of rhinos in the park at 1,855.
The park director Suren Buragohain remained clueless at the increasing incidents of poaching of rhinos and only said, "The poachers are equipped with sophisticated weapons. But our forest guards lack the proper arms to counter them." However, Mr. Buragohain has earned brickbats from wildlife advocates as the recent increase in rhino poaching has occurred during his tenure. Statistics reveal that during his term of less than 12 months, Kazirnaga lost the highest number of rhinos in a decade.
If the director was oblivious to the grave threats to rhino poaching in Kaziranga, the State forest minister showed equally insensitive and callous approach to the issue. All the time, the young minister in Tarun Gogoi's state cabinet, preferred to ignore the matter. It finally compelled the students union, environmental activists, journalists organizations and political leaders to adopt the path of demonstration against the minister.
It started with Nature's Beckon, an active NGO of the region, which staged a protest rally on October 1 against the authority for its failure to manage the forest and wildlife of Assam. The concern for the rhinos was visible in media through the editorials and the letters to the editor columns. Concerned ordinary citizens and the opposition political parties also expressed their deep anguish against the continued slaughtering of rhinos in Assam, particularly at Kaziranga. Later the All Assam Students Union (AASU) activists staged demonstrations throughout Assam on February 2 protesting against the authority's failure to protect the rhinos. The venues included the offices of the forest departments in all parts of the State. The AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya demanded the resignation of Rockybul Hussain, the forest minister of Assam, 'for failing to take adequate steps to stop this heinous crime against a national treasure'.
Meanwhile, Nature's Beckon came out with shocking revelation that the forest department itself was involved with the illegal trade of rhino horns. Addressing the scribes at Guwahati Press Club on February 4, Soumyadeep Datta, the director of Nature's Beckon, said that the department had not properly preserved the rhino horns (with ivory and other wildlife organs) properly in their custody. Nature's Beckon revealed that, under India's 2005 Right to Information Act, it had acquired some vital information from the office of the Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife Division) of Assam. According to MC Malakar, CCF (Wildlife), 1,498 rhino horns had been in seized by the department till date, which Datta terms as too less.
"We have authentic information that until 1972, the Assam forest department used to sell the rhino horns. But surprisingly the department continued to sell rhino horns even after 1972 (the year the government of India prohibited hunting of wildlife and their trade by enacting laws)," claimed Mr Datta. He also added, "In India, poaching is a punishable offence with up to seven years' imprisonment. India has been a member to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species since 1976 and hence, in principle at least, is bound by all its efforts to eliminate International trade in wildlife and wildlife parts."
He went on elaborating, "We suspect that a large share of the wildlife parts, which are being sold in the international markets, made way from the forest department's stock due to the manipulation and corrupt practices of some dishonest forest officials." Hence, Nature's Beckon demands a high level probe, preferably by Central Bureau of Investigation, to examine the entire issue of poaching and illegal wildlife organ trading."
Amidst all hue and cries, one more rhino (fourth in 2008) was slaughtered on February 5 at Kaziranga, which created public uproar throughout the region. Under pressure, the forest minister Mr Hussain rushed to Kaziranga to take stock of the situation. He ordered authorities to deploy 100 armed guards to police the poachers in Kaziranga. The minister also admitted that the government was alarmed at the frequency of rhino poaching in the state. Compelled by the situation, the minister even disclosed that he had no reservation against a CBI enquiry into the entire issue of poaching at the national parks of Assam.
The demand for a CBI probe into the killings of rhinos in the state was also highlighted during a citizens' meet on February 13. Organized by Journalists' Forum, Assam, the meeting also urged Assam chief minister Mr Gogoi 'to break his silence on the issue and let the people know his government's stand and the steps he has taken, if any, to stop the menace'. The citizens demanded a committee to monitor incidents of rhino poaching, natural death and stocks of wild life parts in custody of the state forest department.
"This committee should include representatives from cross sections of concerned citizens and exclude forest department officials and NGOs operating with forest department funds. In another demand, the citizens asked the concerned authorities to conduct a yearly census of wild life including rhinos and make the results public," said in a resolution. Various speakers including student leaders, NGO activists, journalists and social workers insisted that the incumbent forest minister had miserably failed to protect the rhinos and prevent their poaching and hence no longer Mr Hussain remained 'fit for the job'.
The citizens' meet was supported by a group of Non Resident Indians, who also joined the chorus to save the rhinos. In a message, sent from New York, the Friends of Assam & Seven Sisters (FASS) demanded a high level enquiry into the ongoing killings of rhinos. "We think volumes have been written and spoken about the ineffectiveness of the present measures to protect the rhinos in Kaziranga and other sites. We think time has now come for immediate actions," said Rajen Barua, CMD of FASS.
While coming up with action plans, we urge for an immediate CBI investigation into the ongoing killings of rhinos, and take immediate disciplinary actions against the officials and individuals responsible for the lack of protective actions. Since the state government has failed miserably in its duties, the administration of Kaziranga should immediately be placed under military rule for the time being with strict orders to treat the poachers as terrorists. More over, a citizen's vigilance committee should be formed to monitor the situation on a regular basis in the national parks, added in the letter of support from FASS.
Another Naagorik Sobha (citizens' meet) organized by AASU and Asom Unnati Sobha at Kohora in Kaziranga on February 24 also emphasized on a CBI probe to catch the real perpetrators behind rhino poaching and also eviction of illegal migrants from the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries of Assam. Various speakers in the crowded meeting highlighted the demand for a special task force, equipped with modern weapons for protection of flora and fauna, an annual census of rhinos and a citizen monitoring committee involving the indigenous people to keep an eye on the wildlife. The state forest minister was accused of non-performance by most of the speakers.
Inaugurated by an eminent author Arup Kumar Dutta, who penned the award winning children novel 'The Kaziranga Trail', the meeting also witnessed harsh comments targeting the Congress chief minister. A number of speakers expressed annoyance at the lingering silence of Mr Gogoi on this vital issue. While the AASU general secretary Tapan Gogoi expressed grave concern over the insensitive attitude of the forest minister Mr Hussain, the Nature's Beckon director Soumyadeep Datta alleged that in spite of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972, the forest department continued selling rhino horns (not less than 330) through hidden trade till 1980. Others, who focused on the issue, included the legendary lady elephant trainer Parbati Barua with Arun Goswami, Jogen Kalita, Umesh Deka, Punya Saikia, Biren Borthakur, Nilomoni Bora, Ranen Goswami, Dwipen Dutta, Hrishikesh Goswami etc.
But even after the escalating public resentments, the state government remained silent on the issue for more than four weeks. The chief minister, Mr Gogoi, who is otherwise outspoken, also avoided the media during the period. What is surprising, if the state forest minister admitted that he had no objection to a CBI probe into the issue of rhino poaching, what has led him now to cover up his face. Moreover, is it not his primary responsibility to address the allegation (admitting or denying) that the forest department used to sell rhino horns in illegal markets even after the national wildlife protection law was enacted? Similarly, for how long a responsible chief minister could disregard the public uproar to save one of his ministerial colleagues, even after it continued haunting his government for weeks without a pause !
The author is a Guwahati (Northeast India) based journalist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org