Rewilding India: We can't rely on governments alone

India's rapidly degrading ecosystems are in dire need of rewilding, especially in the North-East, Himalayan states, and Western Ghats

Part of the forest created by Jadav Payeng in Assam (photo: @forestmanofindia/Instagram)
Part of the forest created by Jadav Payeng in Assam (photo: @forestmanofindia/Instagram)

Avay Shukla

As I have stressed in part one of this article, the job of rewilding is too big and innovative for governments to handle. Globally, the responsibility is being taken up by individuals, retired corporates, and environmentalists wishing to return to nature in some measure what they have extracted from it. There are various models being followed in the USA, Europe and Latin America. It would be illustrative to share a few examples with the reader.

Perhaps the best known and most successful instance is that of Kristine Tompkins and her husband, both ex-corporate honchos. With their own money, they have purchased 15 million acres of barren, degraded wildlands in Patagonia (Argentina and Chile) to manage them in PPP mode in coordination with the wildlife wings of these countries, and the cooperation of local natives in matters such as restrictions on grazing of livestock and felling of trees.

Photographs show that these lands have been successfully restored to their former status, wildlife species which had disappeared have returned in ever increasing numbers; these include the peccary, swamp deer, highly endangered green macaw, and jaguar. On these millions of acres, 13 new national parks have been established, and the Tompkins have also promoted marine reserves.

One Eoghans Daltun has purchased 73 acres of barren land in Cork, Ireland, and rewilded it, hoping to make it a tourist attraction too.

There are a couple of notable examples in India, by socially responsible citizens. Perhaps the best known is Jabarkhet Nature Reserve just outside Mussoorie, established by environmentalist and WWF for Nature, India ex-programme director Dr. Sejal Worah and businessman J.P. Jain, the owner of the land.

Covering over 950 acres, this private forest had gone to seed, overgrown with invasive plants, filled with trash, trees felled by local villagers, damaged by regular forest fires, devoid of any wildlife. It has now been restored with sustainable forest management practices: new planting, coopting locals into banning felling/lopping, removal of more than three tonnes of garbage, measures against forest fires, laying out of fire breaks and walking trails.

All this has paid off big time, the forest has regenerated itself and all kinds of wildlife have returned: leopard, bear, red fox, ghoral (Himalayan goat), sambhar, jungle cat, and 140 species of birds. To make it financially sustainable, its owners have launched a membership drive, making it an ecotourism destination on a payment basis — it broke even in its third year itself!

Tiger expert Aditya 'Dicky' Singh has bought 50 acres of wildland just outside Ranthambore National Park and restored its natural habitats and green cover, to the extent that the water table in his rewilded area is at 50 feet, whereas outside, it lies at 500 feet. Naturally enough, wild animals including tigers are regular visitors to his private forest and its brimming waterholes.

A more humble example is from Majuli, Assam, the world's biggest riverine island at 550 hectares. Subject to biotic pressures and rampant tree felling, Majuli has lost half its area to erosion by the mighty Brahmaputra since 1917. One resident, Jadav Payeng (named 'Forest Man of India' by former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam), has taken it upon himself to replant the island and give it back to nature.

He has been doing so, quietly and anonymously, since 1979, when he was just 16, and has so far planted an area larger than the size of Central Park in New York City, an astounding 340 hectares! Native animals — rhino, elephant, tiger — have all started living in Payeng's forest.

Which makes one wonder, if one ordinary villager can do all this on his own, why can't our vaunted 140 billionaires, 150,000 HNIs and $4.33 trillion stock market companies do so too? 

India's rapidly degrading ecosystems are in dire need of rewilding, especially in niche areas like the North-East, the Himalayan states, and the Western Ghats. The root cause, of course, are mindless 'development' projects, in the teeth of opposition by local people and tribals, and the only beneficiary is Big Capital.

A leopard in Jabarkhet Nature Reserve (photo:
A leopard in Jabarkhet Nature Reserve (photo:

The failure of governments, both Central and State, to rewild nature is evident in the steady reduction of primary forests and increase in scrub and open forests. Corporates, rich individuals and socially minded citizens owe it to our country to step in and intervene.

Of course, it is not easy to replicate the marvellous feat of the Tompkins in a place like India. Our forest departments and laws suffer from a colonial mindsetv — that only governments can be trusted to manage forests and wildlife. The Forest Act, Forest Conservation Act, Wildlife Protection Act and various rules are so restrictive as to rule out the entry of any private player or organisation in this area.

A prime example is ecotourism. Himachal Pradesh was perhaps the first state in the country which developed an ecotourism policy in 2006 or 2007, and proposed to lease out forest areas to private entrepreneurs, under strict conditions and regulations, for the development of camping sites.

This was shot down by the MOEF (ministry of environment and forests) on the grounds that forest areas could not be used for non-forest activities! The ministry has acknowledged its stupidity since then, and this activity is now allowed, but we have lost precious years and market confidence.

Another example: farmers who grow plantations on their own land (like khair) have to struggle against a regressive forest bureaucracy to obtain permission to harvest them.

For the concept of rewilding to succeed, this mindset has to change. Laws and rules have to be amended, the dog-in-the-manger attitude will no longer work. Private players should be allowed — indeed, encouraged — to buy degraded wild land, or unfarmed farm land, and rewild them; they should be allowed to mange them under strict rules and guidelines; they should be encouraged to develop their own working plans for these forests, reintroduce native wildlife species, and make these ventures financially viable by setting up ecotourism projects. The role of forest departments should be one of mentoring rather than intrusive and officious regulating.

CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds can play a huge role in making rewilding possible, and this should be included in the CSR rules specifically as a permissible activity. More than Rs 15,000 crore (almost US$ 2 billion) is spent annually under CSR: if even 5 per cent of that went into rewilding, it would be a huge step forward.

And the icing on the cake would be if our 140 dollar billionaires spent just 1 million dollars every year in this sector, instead of donating to political parties.

Incidentally, rewilding should not be confused with the Central government's recently launched 'Green Credit' scheme, which is a pure business investment, whereas rewilding is motivated by "wildlands philanthropy".

Under the GC scheme, companies pay state governments for greening of barren scrub land (belonging to the governments) and in return, get green credits which are set off against any payments they may be required to make for use of forest lands for their industry/business purposes.

Not only is this hare-brained scheme old wine in a not very new bottle (it is simply compensatory afforestation under a new label) like most of Mr Modi's programmes, not only does it suffer from the same inefficiencies as the CA and CAT Plan schemes, not only have such schemes been discredited worldwide, but it also does not conform to the voluntary and philanthropic nature of rewilding.

Rewilding is an acceptance of the serial rape of nature by industry and the super privileged, an atonement and reparation for the wrongs inflicted by them on this planet. It cannot be a thinly disguised sop for industry. It cannot be a plea bargain.

Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer and author of Disappearing Democracy: Dismantling of a Nation and other works. He blogs at

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Published: 28 Apr 2024, 3:17 PM