Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Scientist reveals India nuke test fizzled

A top scientist's claim that India's 1998 nuclear test was a failure poses a big threat to Obama's nonproliferation plans.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
September 29, 2009

NEW DELHI, India — Days before President Barack Obama told the United Nations that he hoped to push through a universal treaty to ban all nuclear weapons testing by the end of 2010, a top Indian scientist threw New Delhi's security establishment for an atomic loop.

Kasturiranga Santhanam, the coordinator of India's 1998 nuclear tests, went public with allegations that India's much heralded Pokhran II test of a thermonuclear bomb 11 years ago was actually a fizzle.

“We are totally naked vis-a-vis China, which has an inventory of 200 nuclear bombs, the vast majority of which are giant H-bombs of power equal to three million tons of TNT,” Santhanam told reporters in New Delhi this week.

Naturally, the bizarre exercise in reverse brinkmanship (“About that bomb we told you we have...”) did not go down well. India's 1998 demonstration of thermonuclear capability — fission-based bombs with a force of 100 kilotons or more — was the cause of great celebration in a country still fighting for a voice in global affairs and sandwiched between a belligerent, hereditary enemy in Pakistan and a frightening potential future adversary in China.

By calling its success into question, scientist K. Santhanam, who was director of test site preparations for Pokhran II, shook the country's confidence in its nuclear deterrent at a moment when the long, frustrating peace process with Pakistan seems as futile as ever.

But for the rest of the world, Santhanam's bombshell amounts to a colossal preemptive strike against Obama's push for the nations of the world to sign a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by the end of next year — not to mention a potentially debilitating assault on last year's Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement. Already, opponents to the deal have begun echoing Santhanam's call for further testing of India's thermonuclear arsenal, and the lingering doubts about the efficacy of the country's bombs looks likely to tie Manmohan Singh's somewhat fragile coalition government's hands when the time comes to sign Obama's CTBT.

“We need to test again; it's just a question of when, not if,” said Bharat Karnad, a former member of India's National Security Advisory board and part of the group that drafted India's nuclear doctrine.

Of course, that may not have been true if Santhanam had kept his mouth shut. Since nuclear weapons are supposedly never to be used, whether the rest of the world believes they will work is more important than whether they actually do. And that's the simple fact that has flummoxed India's foreign policy experts, who are scratching their heads and asking, “Why now?” After all, Santhanam kept mum during the vociferous, three-year debate over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, which also mandates an end to testing.

“[Now] the whole thing becomes unnecessarily subject to controversy and doubts and questions, and the public loses confidence in what the government is saying about the nuclear deterrent — which is totally pointless,” said Kanwal Sibal, who was foreign secretary in the BJP-led government that proceeded Singh's Congress-led coalition.

The Singh government subscribes to the theory that a “minimum deterrent” is sufficient to protect India from its nuclear neighbors, and even though that theory was predicated on the existence of a small number of effective thermonuclear missiles, most observers believe that Singh will not begin preparations of any kind for a resumption of testing. The big question is whether he can sell the country on agreeing to Obama's full-fledged moratorium.

Some say yes, others no.

“I cannot see India testing at all, unless the U.S. itself tests or China tests or Pakistan tests,” Sibal said. “Unilaterally testing makes no sense to me. The cost would be intolerable, not merely in terms of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, but we'd be isolated internationally. We'd be seen as wrecking the international nonproliferation regime for no good reason.”

“Manmohan Singh may not be inclined to test during his tenure, which is another four years,” Karnad said. “But the idea is to nevertheless keep the testing option open.”
The implications of both testing and not testing are murky.

Even if India never tests another nuke, Santhanam's accusation that Pokhran II was a fizzle isn't as damning as it might sound. For nuclear scientists, fizzle is a technical term for detonations that yield 30 percent less concussive force than expected, and Santhanam himself acknowledges that India's thermonuclear device yielded an explosion equivalent to 15 to 20 kilotons of TNT — the rub is that it was intended to generate 45 kilotons. The minimum deterrent lobby argues that's powerful enough to dissuade Pakistan from getting any crazy ideas, and even if India's nukes pale in comparison with China's, they're still devastating enough to give any rational adversary pause.

But for others, the niggling fear remains that doubts about the capacity of India's nuclear bombs make it all the more likely that one day it may have to use them.

On the other hand, the global reaction to a new test is equally unpredictable. It would almost certainly spell an end to the Indo-U.S. agreement on civilian nuclear projects, and likely put its power projects with countries like France and Russia in jeopardy.

“I would expect that India would be placed in an international penalty box for some period of time and would be blamed for 'scuttling' efforts to bring a CTBT into force,” Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, confirmed in an email interview. The last time, India stayed in the penalty box for a decade, but U.S. sanctions prohibiting economic and military aid were waived after only a year.

The hawks in India's security establishment are growing more firm in their belief that the U.S. and Europe will not be comfortable isolating India from the global community for long this time, either, because it has emerged as Asia's only credible counterweight to China's growing military and economic might. “They might thrash about a bit and sound off a bit, but what option do they have?” Karnad said.

Apart from the paranoid, what developing nations hope to gain from their nuclear weapons is not so much security — though the contrasting treatment that the U.S. meted out to Iraq and Pakistan shows the value of deterrence in that realm — but a seat at the table. And that means Obama and the West have one big bargaining chip left to bring India into the nonproliferation fold: Sign the CTBT, get a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

the coming war for water

Kashmir's mighty rivers are a source of strife on the subcontinent.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
September 21, 2009

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — Atop the disputed Baglihar Dam in the mountains of Kashmir, the Chenab River roars like a 747 as its silvery waters churn the dam's massive turbines and boil out over the ravine in a tremendous, spiraling white waterfall.

The air is moist, and a massive cloud of mist floats downstream toward the roadway, where moments ago a dozen busloads of soldiers headed for posts along India's border with Pakistan have rumbled across a narrow bridge.

“Even today, soldiers are moving up and down all the time,” says my translator and guide, Rashid Dangola, a white-haired houseboat owner from Srinagar who tells me that in the heyday of India-administered Kashmir's armed struggle for independence he would buy his booze from the army and his hashish from the militants.

These troop movements are indeed a constant part of daily life in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where the Indian army stations 600,000 to 800,000 soldiers — more than double the number deployed for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A fragile cease-fire has held here since November 2003, but Kashmir remains one of the most dangerous places in the world. Anger over the bloody partition that divided India and Pakistan in 1947 and a bitter feud over the ownership of this majestic portion of the Himalayas have led the two subcontinental powers to three full-fledged wars and a perilous standoff in 2002, when many world powers feared the dispute would go nuclear.

There are many reasons for the Kashmir conflict. But perhaps the most important of them is the water that spews into the sky at my feet.

When the British drew the borders partitioning India and Pakistan, their cartographers failed to consider the run of the rivers that would feed the two countries. Kashmir's accession to India granted New Delhi control over the headwaters of the Indus — the lifeline of civilization in what is now Pakistan since 2600 B.C. And although a treaty for sharing the water was worked out in 1960, its foundation has begun to crack under the pressure of the two countries rapidly growing populations and the specter of climate change.

Shortly before he led Pakistan's troops into the Kargil War, a then-unknown Pakistani general named Pervez Musharraf wrote in his dissertation at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London that the issue of the distribution of the waters of Kashmir between India and Pakistan has “the germs of future conflict.” Because water is the one resource that neither India nor Pakistan can do without, many experts fear that one day the dispute over the Indus — already an incessant source of diplomatic skirmishes — will propel these two nuclear weapons states into an all-out war.

Battles over water are already mounting in number around the world, according to Peter Gleick, an expert at the Pacific Institute. But Kashmir could be the most dangerous flash point. According to a recent United Nations report, Pakistan's water supply has dropped from about 5,000 cubic meters per person in the 1950s to 1,420 cubic meters today — perilously close to the threshold at which water shortage becomes an impediment to economic development and a serious hazard to human health. India, at 1,750 cubic meters per person, is not much better off. Both countries' huge populations are still growing, and because most of the available water comes from the disappearing glaciers of the Himalayas they are extremely vulnerable to climate change.

“We already see evidence that the climate is changing water availability and water quality,” Gleick said. “Kashmir is a place where water may not be the worst of the problem, but like the Sudan, or like the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers or like the Nile, it's a growing factor in what is already a conflict situation.”

Perhaps worse still, it appears that hawks on both sides are attempting to use water to create an insurmountable impasse in the dispute over Kashmir, rather than acknowledging that the sharing of rivers forms a framework for the two enemies to cooperate. This unease was underscored just last week, when India objected to a Pakistani proposal to build a new dam in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, with the help of the Chinese.

In Srinagar's Cafe Arabica, I met with two Kashmiri journalists, Parvaiz Bukhari of the Mail Today and Muzamil Jaleel of the Indian Express. In most respects, the two seasoned reporters could not be more different. Bukhari, a former TV journalist, is a handsome, bearded man with a grave voice, and an eloquent turn of phrase. “In an abnormal situation, the normal becomes news,” he told me, referring to countless New Delhi newspaper articles that featured the cafe where we were meeting as evidence that Kashmir's long-curfewed nightlife was picking up.

Jaleel, by contrast, is ebullient and manic, and gushes with gossip. He stormed into our bull session shouting out his order to the barista across the room.
Both of them, however, were united in their cynicism about the saber rattling over water in India and Pakistan.

On the Indian side, Jaleel pointed out, right-wing politicians have sought to turn Kashmir into a Hindu holy land of sorts to make ceding any of its territory non-negotiable. This is the impulse behind the strong political support for the Amarnath Yatra, a new pilgrimage to a cave in the mountains above Srinagar where an ice formation resembles a lingam — a Hindu religious symbol representing the phallus of the god Shiva. The same motive lies behind a new festival called the Sindhu Darshan, which casts the Indus as a Hindu river, though it was the cradle of ancient civilizations in what is today Pakistan, long before Hinduism existed. “India is trying to turn the rivers of Kashmir into religious symbols,” Jaleel said.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the opponents of detente cast the battle for Kashmir as a struggle for survival to prevent governments there from giving any ground, according to a new report by Mumbai's Strategic Foresight Group. Recalling the standoff on the border in 2002, the report's authors argue that Pakistani ideologues immediately leaped to the conclusion that India planned to use water as a weapon without any prompting from New Delhi, and predicted that such a move would ultimately lead to a Pakistani nuclear strike. At the same time, a leader from an umbrella organization of Pakistani jihadi groups told a local newspaper: “Kashmir is the source from where all of Pakistan's water resources originate. If Pakistan loses this battle against India, it will become a desert.”

Though Indians tend to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as senseless paranoia, Pakistan's fears are not completely unfounded. Almost immediately after Partition, India diverted the Ravi and Sutlej rivers, depriving the city of Lahore and Pakistan's irrigation canals of water during the spring sowing season. Now, whenever a new Indian dam comes up, Pakistani commentators see the project as another move to starve them out. One Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, for instance, lumped Baglihar in with 50 others built “in gross violation of the Indus Waters Treaty,” lamenting “India simply cut off waters flowing into Pakistan, dealing a big blow to our agriculture and economy.”

Kashmiris on both sides of the border — or Line of Control, as it is known locally — are caught in the middle. The Indus Waters Treaty, drawn up in 1960, has prevented India and Pakistan from going to war over the rivers of the Himalayas for almost 50 years by granting India exclusive use of the three eastern tributaries of the Indus, the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers, and granting Pakistan exclusive rights to the three western tributaries, the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab.

But it has also prevented development of irrigation and hydroelectric projects in Kashmir itself. The treaty caps the amount of land Kashmir can irrigate and sets strict regulations on how and where water can be stored — making hydropower projects on the Chenab, like the Baglihar dam, difficult to execute. And, increasingly, the limitations imposed on India by the treaty are becoming a motivating force in Indian-administered Kashmir's struggle for independence.

“It is the irony of history that the waters belonging to Kashmiris are being decided by India and Pakistan. They have robbed us of our own natural resources,” said Shabir Ahmad Dar, the diminutive but passionate chief superintendent of the Hurriyat Conference — an alliance of separatist parties. “They have signed a treaty that is leading us to war.”

As to why this is so, conspiracy theories abound among the common people of Kashmir who I came across while traveling around Srinagar and its environs with Sajaad Hussain, an activist who chairs an NGO called the J&K Research Development Trust. A fair-skinned Kashmiri with long, dirty-blond hair, Hussain, too, was outraged that India's most water-rich state was struggling to meet its own needs.

As cup after cup of salted tea flowed from the samovar in Hussain's house in Srinagar's politically volatile downtown region, an interesting picture emerged of the common Kashmiri's perspective on India's water dispute with Pakistan. Motivated in part by wishful thinking, the consensus here was that India uses the dispute with Pakistan as an excuse not to invest in Kashmir's infrastructure, because it fears it may one day have to give up its claims on the territory.

“They (India) say that Kashmir is an unbreakable part of India,” exclaimed one of the tea drinkers. “But they do not treat it that way.”

The next day, Haseeb Drabu, who as chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Bank has struggled to finance many hydroelectric power projects in the state, told me a somewhat different story. “There are all kinds of conspiracy theories, but the fact of the matter is that the state government doesn't have any money.” Nevertheless, Drabu, too — however optimistic he is about the Indian-administered Kashmir's ability to exploit its water resources — firmly believes that water will increasingly become a source of conflict. “Water will be the most potent political weapon by which India will screw Pakistan, because they have a huge problem as it is,” Drabu told me. “[Eventually] they will sign off on whatever we say, and say give it [water] to me, because they have such big problems.”

Downstream from the Baglihar Dam, the executive engineer on the project explained over stacks of toast and mango chutney how serious the threat of conflict has already become. Not two weeks before, an alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist captured near the border by the Indian army had reportedly revealed plans to attack the dam — which Pakistan has opposed from the outset, approaching the World Bank for arbitration in 2005. “Everything in this place is under threat,” the engineer said. “What can we do? We continue our work.”

Most Kashmiris feel the same resignation. But in their mouths it leaves a bitter taste.

india's hidden war heats up

As New Delhi steps up its fight against Maoist rebels, casualties mount

By Jason Overdorf

NEW DELHI, India — Deep in the jungles of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, commandos from the police force's elite “Cobra” division launched a devastating surprise attack on an encampment of Maoist rebels last week.

Providing a wordless rebuttal to the prime minister's admission that India is failing in the protracted battle against the would-be revolutionaries, the police action took the commandos deep into Maoist-occupied territory. And together with a new blitz of government propaganda countering the rebels' claims to be fighting for justice for the common people, the push likely signals that India plans to step up action against rebels that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has identified as a graver threat to law and order than Kashmiri militants or terrorist infiltrators from across the border in Pakistan.

Simmering for nearly a decade, India's low-level war against these communist revolutionaries has been fought mostly under the radar, since the battleground lies in the remote jungles of some of the country's least developed states — like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa — where indigenous tribal peoples comprise a substantial part of the population. But as Singh pointed out in a recent speech to a gathering of police chiefs from the country's 26 states, the rebels have leveraged official complacency and local resentments to steadily gain ground against the state.

"I have consistently held that left wing extremism is, perhaps, the gravest internal security threat we face,” Singh said on Sept. 15, admitting that efforts to contain the rebels have failed to yield significant results.

Two days later, the subsequent one-two punch of the surge-like commando strike and the propaganda campaign — full page newspaper ads featuring photos of seven innocents allegedly killed by the Maoists and the slogan “Naxals (Maoists) are nothing but cold-blooded murderers” — hints at the strategy the government plans to adopt as the mostly hidden war heats up.

But it remains to be seen whether deploying crack commando units, whose numbers are limited, can generate real results against the Maoist's guerilla army, or whether media propaganda will be effective in diminishing support for the rebels among the dispossessed — for whom newspapers and television are often unknown luxuries.
Without a doubt, India needs a new strategy. According to the latest data released by the home ministry, roughly 220 districts across 20 of India's 26 states are variously affected by Maoist activity — a fourfold increase since 2001. At the same time, the Maoist struggle has surpassed Kashmir as the deadliest conflict on Indian soil, and the number of fatalities per year continues to grow.

The reason, says Ajai Sahni, an expert on terrorism at the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, is that India has yet to come up with a sustained, coherent response to the revolutionary threat. Political sensitivity has prevented the government from launching full scale, military-type actions against the rebels, and the piecemeal efforts to fight them with small units and civilian militias have been disastrous.

“How can you send men out in a 12-man force or 20-man force when you know that the Maoists are going to come in the hundreds, if not the thousands to overwhelm these posts? You cannot say to people, 'I've recruited you as a policeman, now go commit suicide.'”

At the same time, public and political sympathy is relatively strong for the Maoist cause — unlike the cause of Kashmiri separatists, for instance — because the inequalities and injustices of society are blatantly obvious and the Maoists have been very effective at tapping into resentments of controversial government actions like the acquisition of tribal land for mining projects.

“There is a bottom 7 to 10 percent of the population which has been treated very badly by Indian policy makers,” explained Ashis Nandy, a sociologist with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies.

Though a revolution is not on the cards anytime soon, the constant gains made by the Maoists over the past decade are of grave concern, because the disruption of public services in remote areas threatens to have a snowball effect.

“If they can create substantial disruptive activities across India, the government will be confronted with a situation that will get more and more difficult as time goes by,” said Sahni. “We cannot come to a situation such as what happened in Nepal, where they had no government anywhere except in Kathmandu.”

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

top of their game

The national parks of Madhya Pradesh are home to nearly a quarter of India’s remaining tigers, as well as a host of other exotic creatures. And while the big cats are increasingly elusive these days, comfort is guaranteed at a quartet of luxury safari lodges

By Jason Overdorf
Destinasian (August/September 2009)

Skidding his jeep to a stop in the jungles of Bandhavgarh National Park, Kartikeya Singh Chauhan craned his neck to examine the rutted forest track. “See there,” he said, pointing to impressions in the feather-soft sand. “Fresh pugmarks.” A tiger was close.

“Pichey! Pichey!” our minder from the state forest department shouted. “Back up! Back up!”

Chauhan slammed the jeep into reverse and raced up a gravel incline, then stopped and motioned for silence. We cocked our heads to listen. A moment later came the short, chirping warning call of a spotted deer. The barks grew louder as we roared forward again, and then, rounding a bend, we found ouselves face-to-face with the big stag that was sounding the alarm. “They’re here,” Chauhan announced. “It’s the cubs.”

About 18 months earlier, one of Bandhavgarh’s tigresses had given birth. Today, the two adolescents were learning to hunt, sending the deer and other game crashing through the brush to escape. Chauhan sped down the track after the noise until a forest guard pushing a bicycle motioned us from the road. “You just missed them,” he said. “They crossed the path, and they’re over there.” He pointed toward a dry slope forested with broad-leafed teak and sal trees.

Suddenly, a herd of spotted deer bounded across a clearing. “Here he comes,” Kartikeya said. “He's chasing them.” Then a wild boar darted through the gap in the trees. Close on its heels loped a graceful young tiger. In an instant, it was gone. I hadn't snapped a photo. I hadn't blinked. I hadn't drawn a breath. “Wow!” I said, stupidly.

Not terribly articulate, I know. But I was stunned. This was my fourth trip to India's jungles to look for tigers, but on the first three I hadn't so much as heard an alarm call, and I'd pretty much resigned myself to the idea that India's remaining great cats would be wiped out before I had a chance to see one in the wild.

Everybody knows that the tiger is endangered. But recently the situation has been revealed to be worse than we thought. For its last tiger census, India abandoned its old method, which extrapolated numbers from counting tiger tracks, and adopted a complex system that uses satellite remote sensing, camera trapping and other techniques. The results were stunning: Instead of the 3,600 tigers estimated to be living in India's forests in 2002, the more sophisticated census found that there are really only about 1400. In other words, either half of India's tigers (and a fourth of the world's total) were killed over the past five years, or they had never existed anywhere but on paper.

Home to six tiger reserves and the setting for Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, Madhya Pradesh could be the most important territory in the battle to save the big striper. With tigers, leopards, and wild buffalo—three out of India's “big five”--and forests that are teeming with monkeys, sloth bear, deer, antelope, jackals and wolves, the state has enormous tourism potential. But due to poor management it has never become a safari destination on the order of South Africa or Kenya, and signs are burgeoning that the situation is about to get worse. A highway alongside one of its best tiger reserves is to be widened as part of a government expressway project, while at another reserve police and forest department officials are refusing to work together--instead blaming each other for the deaths of at least a dozen tigers since November. Worst of all, recently the forest department tacitly admitted that poachers have wiped out the tigers of Panna National Park when it embarked on a much-criticized plan to import breeding tigers from other reserves.

My guide, Kartikeya, was hip-deep in the controversy. A quiet, diminutive man with a Rajput's big handlebar mustache, Kartikeya is the head ranger at the three-year-old Mahua Kothi lodge—one of four luxury wildlife resorts started here by the Taj Group and &Beyond (formerly CC Africa). A former wildlife researcher who the Asiatic lion, Kartikeya is helping to push forest officials to adopt new management philosophies and to raise the standard of service provided by the park staff. But so far, Indian wildlife activists remain skeptical about how million-dollar resorts will affect the country's tiger reserves. “Tiger tourism in particular is all about making money,” Belinda Wright, who heads the Wildlife Protection Society of India, had told me before I left on my trip. “Even though there are groups which are talking about better practices and things, we haven't really seen them in action.”

That was what I had come to the jungle to do.


The night before, photographer Christopher Wise and I had bumped and rattled our way into Mahua Kothi in pitch darkness after a typically Indian day of airport delays and rough roads. As it turned out, our hosts were ready for us. Neel Gogate (the lodge's general manager), Kartikeya, Mahendra (our butler) and the rest of the hospitality crew were waiting with ice-cold towels and glasses of lemonade; Mahendra had already drawn baths in our rooms, sprinkling the water with flower petals and lighting enough candles for a saint's shrine; and the chef had whipped up a classical Indian thali—the degustation menu of delicacies that lies at the heart of any gourmet Indian kitchen. Neel cut straight to the chase. “Would you like to have a bath first, or would you prefer a drink?” he asked.

“I'd kill for a beer,” I said, thinking, There is no gout in the jungle.

Dinner was stupendous. Siddarth Sarmah, the chef at Mahua Kothi, has wisely eschewed an a la carte menu, instead creating his own selection each evening so that he can introduce guests to more varied fare than the chicken curry, dal fry, aloo gobi and palak paneer that otherwise becomes the staple diet of ignorant foreign visitors. Along with some succulent mutton curry, therefore, we were treated to an elegantly prepared ragout of karela (a delicious, knobby bitter gourd that is almost impossible to find on restaurant menus), a dish of spiced and sauteed pumpkin that I still lay awake thinking about from time to time, and a subtle pulao made with fragrant rice and the buttery flower of the mahua trees from which the lodge derives its name. I'd learn about Mahua Kothi's conservation plans later. But I was convinced these guys had the luxury thing down pat.

That was the first goal of the Taj Safaris-&Beyond joint venture, which was essentially knocked into place over cocktails by three high-powered buddies from the hospitality trade, &Beyond chief executive Steve Fitzgerald, Taj Group chief operating officer Rajiv Gujaral, and entrepreneur Binod Chaudhary (president of Nepal's largest conglomerate). “The idea was to harness the combined experience of Taj and &Beyond to create a world class luxury Indian Safari experience,” &Beyond's commercial director, Gary Lotter, told me. To that end, the partners spent five years identifying properties, designing and building their four resorts, hiring and training staff, and developing their relationship with the Madhya Pradesh forest department.

At Mahua Kothi, the first of the four lodges, Goan architect Dean D'Cruz designed 12 Ralph-Lauren-rustic cottages based on the traditional Madhya Pradesh kutiya, a rough-hewn hut with walls made of mud and cow dung and a thatched roof. A beautiful khaki color with a fine matte texture, the thick walls are impervious to the late season's 35 degree heat, and by using indigenous materials, the lodge has not only reduced its carbon footprint but also provided ongoing employment for the local village women, whose job it is to apply a fresh coat of mud and dung to the cottages after the monsoon each year, as they do for their own homes. My cottage had its own little courtyard with a rope charpoi for lounging, and even though the buildings are clustered close together to make the most of the property's small acreage, I found that D'Cruz had managed to orient the cottages toward the jungle, giving guests the illusion of being alone in the forest.


Taj and &Beyond are not the first to bring luxury to India's jungles. Both the Oberoi group and Aman Resorts have been operating luxurious tented camps near the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, in Rajasthan, for six years or more. Similarly, though Mahua Kothi runs conservation-awareness programs for local schoolchildren and provides school supplies for them with guest donations, their ad hoc efforts struck me as neither better nor larger in scale than similar programs run by other resorts.

What sets the venture apart is the wildlife expertise of its staff. Both Oberoi and Aman rely on freelance naturalists to accompany their guests on their game drives, along with the required forest department guide. But by teaming up with &Beyond, the Taj Group gained a partner with more than 35 years experience in Africa's competitive safari industry, where it operates more than 45 wildlife lodges. “We are the only operator in Africa which has our own guide training schools in South Africa, Botswana, and Tanzania,” Lotter had told me, explaining how the company had recruited its head guide from India and brought him to Africa for training, and then sent its head trainer from Africa to help him train the first team of Indian guides in an effort to raise the bar.

In Kartikeya, we seemed to have the best of the bunch. After a short introduction of the animals we might expect to see and an explanation of the park rules the next morning, we took off for Bandhavgar to hunt for tigers. India's forest department does not allow guides to use radios to alert each other to the presence of a big cat, so sightings depend a great deal on luck. Having driven for hours unrewarded through the teak forests of the vast Jim Corbett National Park, in the northern state of Uttaranchal, on past trips, I hoped that Bandhavgar, with the highest concentration of tigers of any of the Indian reserves and lots of dry expanses, offered me a better chance—especially since I would spend only two days there and then three in Panna, where the only tiger was the one that the forest department had imported a few weeks before.

As we drove down the winding forest tracks, Kartikeya hinted that our chances were good. Apart from the density of tigers, he explained, Bandhavgar boasts a big male and a breeding female that make their territories very close to the tourist road, and over the years they've grown indifferent to jeeps, cameras, bright saris, silly hats, and everything else that comes with the tiger-watching trade. He also impressed me with his knowledge. As a genuine wildlife researcher, rather than a jumped-up tour guide, Kartikeya pointed out the park's wild boar, sambar, spotted deer and “star birds” – a category that &Beyond has invented to initiate first-timers to the pleasures of spying and identifying the more than 140 species that roost amid the park's sal and ghost trees – without bludgeoning us with factoids or the tour leader's dreaded rhetorical questions. (Do you know why the yellow-throated fox weasel mates after the monsoon? Yada yada yada). He made sure we got our tiger sighting, too, by tracking the 18-month-old cubs through their practice hunting ground.

We stopped for brunch at one of the ranger stations, and Kartikeya laid out a spread that reminded me of the days when travelers needed a retinue of bearers to haul their gear and grub—warm paranthas and kathi rolls, homemade muffins, fruit, and coffee and tea in silver urns. Chris and I were on our second cup of coffee when some rangers rolled up in a jeep and told Kartikeya that the forest guards, riding on elephant back, had turned up a tiger near the park entrance. Now tourists like us could race over, climb from the back of the jeep to the back of an elephant, and follow the tiger into the bush.

When we got to the spot, we climbed aboard an elephant and headed into the jungle. In a few moments, half a dozen jeep loads of tourists had arrived, roaring up in billowing clouds of dust, and the mahouts began trying to drive the tiger toward the road. As our elephant bobbed and weaved like the world's most ponderous cutting horse, the tiger stalked ahead, alternatively aloof and irritated, and eventually padded across the road to find a spot to lie hidden in the tall grass. It was an amazing experience. But it was difficult to reconcile with the claim that the tourism industry was the key to saving the tiger—and that's precisely the benchmark that &Beyond will have to reach if it is to be an unqualified success in India.


On the five hour drive from Mahua Kothi to Taj Safaris' Pashan Garh lodge, on the outskirts of Panna National Park, near Khajuraho, I thought about what that will take.

Already, the income and public scrutiny associated with wildlife tourism has helped to curb poaching, according to the tourism lobby, which is why about 40 percent of India's tigers (or 560 of the big cats) live in a handful of national reserves that see heavy tourist traffic. But a great deal more needs to be done. A few days before, I'd spoken with &Beyond's South African conservation manager Les Carlisle, who has bold ideas about what the deep-pocketed operator can achieve. “Indian conservation is where South African conservation was 35, 40 years ago,” he told me. “They're facing major human-wildlife conflicts, and, most importantly, they've got areas with local abundance and other areas with local extinctions.” As in South Africa, the solution lies in more tourism and more active management of the animal population, Carlisle believes. Every year, the tigers in India's unfenced reserves give birth to dozens of cubs, but the overall total falls or remains the same for one simple reason: the maturing tigers are leaving the parks to stake claim on territory, and they're getting killed. “To bridge that hurdle, the single biggest factor is that you've got to move from passive, recording management to active management—containing, confining, protecting, breeding and relocating,” Carlisle said.

Relocating breeding tigers from other parks is precisely the course of action that the Madhya Pradesh forest department took when it discovered that Panna—which researchers allege has lost upwards of 30 tigers over the past five years—had no tigers left. But if this is the path that India needs to take, it promises to be a bumpy one. When the forest department unveiled its relocation plans, eight of India's most respected tiger experts wrote to the prime minister in protest, alleging that the bureaucrats pushed forward with the scheme before making any effort to plug the leaks that had allowed poachers to take 30-odd tigers out of Panna in the first place.

Partly because there is only one tiger in Panna, I knew Pashan Garh would be very different from Mahua Kothi. But it's also different by design. The Taj Group and &Beyond conceived their four wilderness lodges as a circuit, so it was imperative that each property had its own unique character.

Where D'Cruz riffed on the mud-and-dung kutiya at Mahua Kothi, at Pashan Garh, which means “stone house” in Hindi, South African architect Nick Plewman drew inspiration from the dry-packed stone houses of the surrounding area—a dry, stony landscape that is like an anvil beaten by the sun. These are hard, angular buildings made of pale gray cut stone blocks, fitted together without mortar. Because the cottages are spread out to make the most of the 200-acre property, and because the stony grounds are more reminiscent of a resort under construction than one in full operation, my first impression was of sterile remoteness. But over the next three days, the modern comforts of my cottage and its slick d├ęcor won me over. Here, Chris Browne's interior design features bold, black-and-white photographs taken by the company's own naturalists, clean-lined utilitarian furniture and spacious lounging areas on the hearth and window seat that I favored to the bed for reading and drinking my morning coffee. Throwing open the curtains to the enormous picture windows gave me a panoramic view of the scrubby desert forest—much like parts of Arizona—and a colossal empty reservoir cut out of the earth that general manager, Arvind, vowed one day would be filled with water. Despite the windswept sand and long hike to breakfast and the swimming pool, I began to understand the appeal of the huge space.

Without the promise of tiger sightings, the staff at Pashan Garh has to work to entertain guests. Over our three-day trip, we toured the small neighboring town, took a birding jaunt through the resort's home tract (interrupted by our butler, Rohit, who'd pulled a fully stocked bar, converted from a bullock cart, into the woods), and made a day trip to the nearby temple complex at Khajuraho—whose fascinating and beautiful erotic sculptures have made it a UNESCO world heritage site.

Pashan Garh is also the latest of the four Taj Safaris properties to open for business, and my naturalist there was a recent graduate of &Beyond's new guide training program, so this visit perhaps gave me a better idea of the challenges that Taj and &Beyond have overcome. On our first evening at the lodge, our naturalist, Sajith, regaled Chris and me with stories from his training, which the recruits had soon realized had all the components of a reality TV program—late night cramming sessions, an obstacle course, and, every week, somebody “voted off” by the trainer. Sajith was a strong endorsement for the rigorous process—which sent about half of the recruits packing before it was over. A former call center employee from Karnataka, he was a charming, well-spoken twenty-something, and he took care of us well, even if he seemed hampered by the boot camp methods of his training.

For our first game drive in Panna, Sajith took us along the winding Ken River, which cuts through the park and provides home for a legion of water fowl, as well as the long-snouted and more common marsh crocodiles. Because of its stony ground, Panna's terrain is harsher than Bandhavgar's rolling hills. The trees here are stunted, and the heat belched back from the stone gives the land a dry, bleached character that had my photographer pal Chris complaining about the lack of anything colorful to set off his snaps. Viewed with the naked eye, though, Panna's harsh landscape is stunning within its narrow, blond palate—its ancient silvery rocks, crisscrossed with fissures, still evoking the lava flow of centuries ago.

Even on an uneventful drive through India's jungles, there is plenty to see. We watched a jackal pad off to feed its hidden pups and spotted a sleepy owl keeping vigil over the river; our jeep scared up Indian rollers and attracted the attention of green bee eaters, two of Panna's more colorful birds; and we saw dozens of sambhar, spotted deer, chinkara and nilgai, the park's various species of deer and antelope. Still, with tigers off the table I was hoping for a sloth bear, jungle cat or a leopard, so I was a bit disappointed when we stopped for a picnic brunch near the boat launch—a bird-and-crocodile watching trip on the Ken being Panna's answer to Bandhavgar's elephant rides. Luckily, Sajith had brought chef Nitin Sharma's homemade cookies, and after we'd stuffed ourselves, the boat ride offered a few satisfyingly close encounters with crocodiles.

But I am a hopeful soul—or I try to be—so for me the highlight of my stay at Pashan Garh came the next morning when we stopped by a ranger station on our way to a giant cliff that is a playground for vultures. One of the forest guards was standing on the roof with an antenna in his hands, pointed into the trees further up the road.

“Where is she?” Sajith called out to him in Hindi.

“She's over there somewhere,” the guard shouted down.

It was a small moment. But it allowed me to hope that the forest department—whatever their past mistakes—was committed to doing the right thing. The lone tigress of Panna National Park wears a radio collar. And the guards watch her night and day to make sure that she, too, doesn't disappear.

(See http://www.destinasian.com/issuedet.php?id=945)