Maneka Gandhi exclusive interview: Maharashtra giving away forests to cronies at throwaway prices

Nov 11, 2018, 07:15 IST | Ranjeet Jadhav

EXCLUSIVE: Day after senior minister Nitin Gadkari backs Mungantiwar in controversy over the killing of Yavatmal tigress, Maneka Gandhi rips into state forest minister, saying, you can't divert the tribals' treasures and pretend to bleed for them

Maneka Gandhi exclusive interview: Maharashtra giving away forests to cronies at throwaway prices
Maneka Gandhi and Sudhir Mungantiwar

An instance of man-animal conflict in Pandharkawda in Maharashtra, has left the BJP leadership in a bind. On Saturday, union minister and senior BJP leader Nitin Gadkari dismissed his cabinet colleague and Union Minister for Woman and Child Welfare, Maneka Gandhi's demand for Maharashtra Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar's resignation over the illegal killing of tigress T1 or Avni, allegedly a man-eater, on November 9 after a 53-day hunt. Gadkari said the killing was in the interest of saving human lives. Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis had earlier supported Mungantiwar. Since 2016, 13 people have lost their lives in tiger attacks in the area.

In an exclusive email interview to mid-day, Gandhi says Mungantiwar has lost moral authority to continue as forest minister. Excerpts.

Maharashtra Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar says you care more for animals than the poor tribals who were being killed by the tigress.
If the government of Maharashtra cared so much for the poor tribals of Yavatmal, they would not be giving away their forests to their cronies at throwaway prices. The tribals have been given nothing in the last few years and even their forest and agricultural homes are now given to cement factories and mining companies.

Are the tigers being ordered to be killed by the Maharashtra Forest Minister in order to make the villagers happy or to make his business friends happy? Has anyone asked the villagers what bothered them more: the calculated diversion of their lands and the taking away of their water, the pollution of cement companies, the blasting of the forests by mining companies or a few tigers and their cubs whom they have lived with for centuries?

Maneka Gandhi. Pic/Getty Images
Maneka Gandhi. Pic/Getty Images

You cannot deprive the villagers of their lands and forest. You cannot divert their treasures and pretend to bleed for them. You cannot pretend to build huge roads and divert land in advance - and then never build them but sell the land. I went to Yavatmal from Nagpur a few months ago on an unbuilt road listed as a highway and the diversion and naked exploitation by the government was evident.

I am one of the longest serving Members of Parliament and I win with a record margin each time. Perhaps one of the reasons is because I feel deeply for every being and I look for opportunities to help all. And perhaps because I am not dishonest and I don't pretend to love the poor while stripping them of their measly assets in order to make money.

Long before I was a minister I stopped child labour in the carpet areas of Bhadoi and Varanasi by starting an NGO called Rugmark. I run five schools and orphanages there and over 20,000 children have found new lives. Rugmark is one of the most effective NGOs in the country and we are called upon whenever any crisis in child labour arises. Very few other politicians work like that.

Controversial hunter Nawab Shafat Ali Khan
Controversial hunter Nawab Shafat Ali Khan

The government claims that it has planted one crore trees in the last year.
Each tree has cost the taxpayer how much? The forest nurseries of Maharashtra don't even have a few lakh saplings, so where did they [1 crore trees] come from. And how much have you been billed for these non-existent trees? However, the point is that you cannot replace a natural mixed forest with a few commercial saplings and think that you have solved the problem. A scam that should be probed.

The government has claimed that it has instituted an enquiry committee into the death of tigress T1. Are you not satisfied with that?
Another fraud. The state government has a low opinion of the intelligence of its own people. You put three people first – the principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF), and the additional principal chief conservator of forests (APCCF) - who report to the Forest Minister directly and have never opened their mouth when forest lands were being diverted. And a so called wildlife "expert" (the country is filled with these people who sit at computers and become experts) who has repeatedly advocated the killing of T1 and offered to join the killing team. I protested and suggested scientists' names of proven impartiality, government researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India. It has not happened. Is this the probe team? Why bother? Let the minister write his own report exonerating himself and his friends Shafat [shooter Shafat Ali Khan] and Asghar [Shafat's son]. Have you seen the inquiry order. It has already listed the supposed events justifying them in the probe order itself and listing them as facts. It leaves nothing for the team members to do as it has very narrow terms of reference. Who is the government trying to fool?

Grazer Gulab Mokashe's wife Shakuntala at their home in Wedshi village in Yavatmal district. On August 5, Mokashe's body was found on the hills where he usually took the cattle, after a tiger attack. File Pic
Grazer Gulab Mokashe's wife Shakuntala at their home in Wedshi village in Yavatmal district. On August 5, Mokashe's body was found on the hills where he usually took the cattle, after a tiger attack. File Pic

Should the job of the Forest Department be to mitigate man-animal conflict?
Yes, there are methods of mitigating conflict that go hand in hand with conservation. The first is to have a strategy and vision to deal with wild animals and their habitat. This has to be done with the help of professional scientists, veterinarians and biologists who build the capacity for humanely resolving conflict situations by humane trapping/rehabilitation or by studying how conflicts take place around the world. Sometimes just increasing edible grass, increases prey species quickly and that stops predators from attacking other animals.

For the last three years I have been watching the killing spree of the minister and the helplessness of his CM in even confronting him. Every bureaucrat in his own department has been in touch with me to protest. I don't know what his partnership with the criminal Shafat is, but two years ago he paid him to go and kill 300 wild boars in Chandrapur. I was rung up by his forest officers and I spoke to him. I said that if you kill the wild boar, you will remove the prey of the tigers and they will attack cattle and goats and the herders will get hurt -and these are mainly children. So he deliberately created a conflict situation.

Then he called the same man in and had a few leopards shot on the grounds that they were man-eaters. Then he declared another tigress a man-eater and brought Shafat in. The tigress was chased to the point of exhaustion and finally was pushed into an illegal electrical fence and was electrocuted. Now you declare T1 as a man-eater – without any evidence. Post-mortems were conducted on only three people and no link could be made with TI. But the minister called Shafat to kill her and her cubs.
The Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) is a decent man. He told the minister that the tigress did not have to be killed. The minister shouted and told him that he - a secretary level officer - was to sit in the forest like a forest guard and he could only come out when the tigress and her cubs were killed. So he has been sitting in the jungle and complaining to everyone for the last two months.

I sent India's best tranquilising team from Madhya Pradesh. The minister sent them back. I sent them again. They came back in disgust because they said that every time they got near the tigress to tranquilise her, Shafat would intervene and sabotage the efforts.

If she was a man-eater, she would have killed someone in the last three months. After all, what was she eating? But she didn't. She disappeared with her young cubs. Finally they went in with illegal night rifles and put a bait for her – which is illegal. And then when she crossed the road, Shafat's son – who had not been commissioned to kill – shot her.

They then pretended that they had tried to tranquilise her and placed a dart near her body. But they had no tranquilising equipment. She was shot from above and on the side of the shoulder, which means she could not have attacked them at all. They were on a machaan probably as the shot has come from above and to her side. She did not even know they were there because it was late night.

I spoke to the CWLW immediately. He confessed in an SMS that it was a panic reaction to no provocation. Panic to what? She wasn't even coming for them. They were safe. If it was panic, why was the killer armed with illegal night-vision rifles? Why was the direction of the wound dorso ventral? Do you think they would have been in an open jeep in the middle of the night in a tiger area? Obviously, they were in a machaan, waiting to kill.

But can animals who attack people be rehabilitated?
Yes. A tusker who had killed over 20 people in Haridwar was tranquilised and successfully rehabilitated in Kalagarh tiger reserve where it still lives. It took training and effort. If Uttarakhand can do it, why has no money been put into training forest staff in Maharashtra? Odisha had successfully tranquilised Sundari, the man-eater tigress this month and she is being rehabilitated. You never hear of killings being ordered in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The staff know how to rehabilitate them. Why is it that Maharashtra kills – and only since Mungantiwar has come?

The people of India are not stupid. The outrage is now in its tenth day and 11 countries are holding dharnas and marches against the Maharashtra government. Lakhs of people have tweeted and Facebooked. Everybody is upset. I hope the fallout of this is that the BJP does not lose vote share. Sometimes it takes just one thing to tip the balance in people's minds. Look at the Anna Hazare movement.

Has Shafat Ali Khan done this before?
When Shafat was sent two years ago - recommended by Mungantiwar - to kill the blue bulls inside the forest in Mokama, Bihar, which he did with illegal assault weapons, the entire nation was aghast when they saw him killing on national TV.

But it has been claimed that the decision to kill was taken within the boundaries of law.
Not at all. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 does give power to the Chief Wildlife Warden to order the destruction of a wild animal that has caused damage to property or to human life, but this can only be done after every effort has been made to tranquilise and capture it. Neither did the Forest Department of Maharashtra conclusively scientifically establish any connection of this tigress with the deaths, nor could they be bothered about attempts to tranquilise the tigress.

The order to tranquilise or shoot was given in favour of a private hunter, and it was patently illegal because no person other than a veterinarian is allowed by law to administer any drug used for tranquilisation. This has been mandated by the Indian Veterinary Council Act, 1984 because only a trained veterinarian can calculate the right dosage for an animal based on its physical condition and even revive it through drug antidote after the operation. The operation should have been headed by a veterinary scientist trained in wildlife from the state. Since Maharashtra has never built this capacity, they could have used the expertise of the Wildlife Institute of India or asked NTCA [National Tiger Conservation Authority] to send a team from any other state.

The use of the tranquilisation drug by a private poacher is also a violation of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985. The drugs used for tranquilising can be handled by veterinary scientists exclusively and not by private persons. So who gave the drugs to the hunters?

The Veterinary Council of India and the National Veterinary Service Association have protested against this gross illegality. When the team of vets volunteered to tranquilise this tigress in Maharashtra, they were refused all support. The intention, clearly was to kill.

It has been mandated by the National Tiger Conservation Authority to use rifles only over .375 win mag for shooting a tiger. To ensure this, the shooter is required to submit the guns and sample ammunition for a ballistic test. It has been more than a week after the shooting and still the shooter has not submitted the gun or the ammunition to the authorities. In fact, I am told that he has moved these guns out of the state and has refused to put his weapons through scrutiny.

Shafat has done this before. In 2016, videos of this man shooting at nilgai using assault weapons with silencers was all over national television. This is totally disallowed under the Arms Act. Not a single case was filed against him, therefore he is doing it repeatedly and now his son acts as illegal backup.

You have tigers in your constituency of Pilibhit, UP. What do you do to protect people?
Every village near the tiger project and national park of Dudhwa area has lights, gas cylinders for cooking and water bodies. Villagers are discouraged to keep animals that might attract tigers. Fencing is done in some places. Villagers are discouraged to go deep into the forest and forest guards are trained by the DFOs to drive tigers back. We do not allow the cutting of trees. A balance has to be kept. If someone is killed by a tiger - after a proper investigation, compensation is immediately paid. Sometimes people die at home and then their bodies are taken to the forest and scratched so that it looks as if a tiger has killed them. Legal and thorough investigations take place. Our CM is very sensitive to this.

You are the only Union Minister criticising the Forest Minister for his decision to involve Shafat and his son in the operation. No other colleague or member from your party has supported you in the issue. Do you feel isolated?
As a union minister, my job is to think about survival. I think like a very concerned Indian who believes that the direction we have taken is suicidal. We must have a scientific team in every environment ministry. We need politicians who have an understanding of India's needs and how the poor can survive and be happy. I object to crony capitalism. After all that is what the BJP campaigned against.

Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has come out in support of Sudhir Mungantiwar and has said that the issue should not be politicised. What is your take on this?
Shri Gadkari is a kind, good man and I like and respect him very much. Perhaps he has not understood the issue and he believes he has to show his loyalty to a close friend. I am not politicising anything. I and the rest of India differ with him on this issue. l am saying that Mungantiwar should not be the Minister for Forests. He has boasted to me many times that he demanded this portfolio. Was it so that forests could be decimated, the water levels go down even more in the state and the animals be killed. Maharashtra needs someone more sensitive and scientifically sound to resolve its water problems and farmer suicides by maintaining an environmental equilibrium.

Also Read: Tigress Avni's (T1) Post-Mortem Report Reveals She Died Of Gunshot

Also Read: Veterinarian And Forensic Expert On How Tigress Avni (T1) Was Killed

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