Over the past two years, a simply dressed, soft-spoken man from Bhopal has almost single-handedly managed to rattle India’s powerful tiger tourism industry. Meet Ajay Dubey, who runs an NGO called Prayatna
When Ajay Dubey, a 36-year-old activist, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Madhya Pradesh high court in September 2010 to promote the conservation of India’s dwindling tiger population, he had three demands.
First, Madhya Pradesh’s six tiger
reserves should notify their core and buffer areas— core denoting critical
habitats for the tiger, and buffer referring to areas where human settlements are
allowed to coexist with tigers.
Second, tourism should be banned in the core areas in line with the
Wildlife Protection Act.
And third, that the tiger conservation plan specified by the National
Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) should be implemented in Madhya Pradesh.
The court rejected Dubey’s second, and most provocative, suggestion in January 2011, although it is still considering the others. Undeterred, Dubey filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court six months later. His persistence paid off. On 24 July, the apex court issued an unexpected and unprecedented interim ban on tourism in the core areas of all 41 tiger reserves in India. The tourism industry reeled. Dubey says it was a turning point in his life. “My main concern is to make sure that tigers in this country get their rights back,” said Dubey, whose activism has extended beyond the welfare of jungle cats over the past 10 years. “Just like people fight for human rights, I am fighting for tiger rights.” There were around 4,000 tigers in the wild in the 1990s, according to government estimates. Their number has now come down to 1,706, according to the tiger census conducted by NTCA. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court pulled up the government for the decrease in the number of tigers in the country from 13,000 to 1,700. They might have been referring to the number of tigers in the country in early 1990s.
The tiger tourism industry in India is worth more than Rs.1,000 crore, and many of its representatives, vehemently protesting the ban, have now turned on its instigator. Dubey said he has been receiving hate SMSes, phone calls, emails and Facebook messages from various people. “There’s a page on Facebook called ‘tiger ban’, which calls me an enemy of the tiger,” he said. Though mild mannered, Dubey is capable of extreme focus and he knows how to dig his heels in when necessary. A year after completing his Masters in business administration from Bhopal University in 2000, the young graduate started his own non-governmental organization (NGO) called Prayatna
, which translates as effort. His interest in activism overwhelmed everything else, he said. Although Dubey had never been very interested in family life, he eventually married in March last year at the insistence of his mother. Dubey now lives in Bhopal, the city of his birth, with his mother, wife and a three-month-old daughter. His wife Rupali, a PhD student in Sanskrit, said Dubey was a workaholic and often away travelling. But as the daughter of a police officer,
Rupali said she’s been used to erratic work schedules since childhood. “To win some, you have to lose some,” she said, adding that her husband’s work will always have priority over his family. Dubey’s own father was a government
official and a nature lover. “He always believed that you don’t need to be a part of the system to bring a change in society. Being an alert citizen helps as much,” Dubey said. His own journey as an alert citizen got a boost in 2005,
when he started using the Right to Information Act to obtain facts on issues such as which police officers were being transferred on the basis of recommendations by politicians in Madhya Pradesh. He campaigned against plastic
waste, illegal mining and industrial pollution. Dubey’s NGO filed its first PIL in 2005, but it was the one against illegal mining in the Madhya Pradesh high court that made him famous in the state. In 2008, the court ordered that all mines that did not have the requisite environment clearances, and air and water consents should be shut until they could obtain them. “The state government also benefited and they were able to collect the revenue which had been pending for years from these mines,” Dubey said.
Still, Dubey worried that people might question his credentials. “I still remember that I sold off a portion of our farm…to have enough funds to start the NGO,” he said, referring to his family’s ancestral home in Chhattisgarh. The NGO now runs on money donated by private parties, he said, but background checks are done on donors before any money is accepted. “We have around 500 people working with us for various causes in MP (Madhya Pradesh), but most of them are part-timers and volunteers. We only have a full-time staff of 14,” he said. Dubey admits that his new role as a tiger crusader has not gone down as well with some of the more prominent tiger conservationists in India. “A lot of them have claimed that I am a newcomer in the field of environment and wildlife, and I don’t understand the issues well enough,” he said. “These senior tiger activists don’t want anyone new to enter in their domain and they are upset because their inability to conserve tigers in the country is now being exposed.” Vishal Singh, managing director of Delhi-based Travel Operators for Tigers India lobby group
, which is fighting the case against Dubey in the Supreme Court, called him a “publicity monger”. “Ajay Dubey will be responsible for the
loss of livelihood of 10,000 people in just Madhya Pradesh,” Singh said. In his defence, Dubey argued it is the city-based tour operators and not the forest dwellers who earn the most from the resorts around tiger reserves. “I have seen cases where tribals living in a reserve do not even have drinking water, and these resorts change the water in their swimming pools every day,” he said. He dismissed well-known tiger conservationists such as Belinda Wright
and Valmik Thapar
, who have declared themselves to be against the ban
“Had they been genuinely concerned about tigers in the country, they would have also raised the issues that I have now raised,” Dubey said. “I don’t understand how the tiger numbers in the country have gone down if there are so many conservationists in the country.” Sushil Levi, Dubey’s childhood friend and co-worker at Prayatna, was not surprised that his colleague has found fame. “Since childhood, we wanted to do some positive work so that the whole country knows our name and recognizes us,” he said. Raka Arya, an assistant professor at the National Law Institute University in Bhopal, said the biggest advantage for Dubey has been that he used legal advocacy in the right way from the start. Arya has known Dubey for around four years now and said he would regularly recruit student volunteers from their law school to help him with his work. “Even now, one of the lawyers fighting the tiger case in the Supreme Court is a graduate of this law school,” she added. Dubey said legal advocacy has helped him wage
battles against many powerful people in the country, including the mining mafia of Madhya Pradesh. “But the tiger tourism case is more of a war,” he said.