Union Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Ashwini Kumar Choubey has sparked off a debate for changing the name of Jim Corbett National Park (JCNP).
He recently mentioned in a museum guest book on his tour of the park. According to reports, he wrote that the name of Jim Corbett National Park should be changed to ‘Ramganga National Park’.
The Minister’s views are his own and the government has not announced or confirmed anything to that effect. Harak Singh Rawat, Uttarakhand Forest Minister has reportedly said that there is no proposal as of now to rename the park. “We have seen reports of the Union Minister’s statement. I am personally not for renaming the national park. Besides pilgrimage sites like Badri-Kedar in Uttarakhand, Jim Corbett has the largest number of tourist footfalls as compared to any other place. There is also an advantage with the name as it somehow is identifiable with those coming from Europe and the rest of the world,” he told the media.
And many seem to echo Rawat’s point of view. Renaming public spaces has been part of a national political game for decades now, and the possible renaming JCNP as ‘Ramganga’ falls in the same category of appropriation. JCNP was named after the legendary hunter-turned-conservationist and writer – Jim Corbett. However, India’s – and Asia’s – first national park hasn’t always been called Jim Corbett National Park.
Set up in 1936, it was initially named Hailey National Park after Sir Malcolm Hailey, the governor of the United Province. After Independence, it was renamed Ramganga National Park in 1954-55, after the river that flows through it. Soon thereafter, in 1955-56, it was named Corbett National Park after Jim Corbett, who played a crucial role in the founding of the national park, and remains a fond figure in the hills of Kumaon and Garhwal even today.
Corbett was a loyal British citizen whose life as a big cat hunter, and subsequently as a conservationist who worked closely with the people of Kumaon has been extensively written about. Such was his popularity that JCNP is a rare instance of a public space being named after an Englishman after the Independence. Usually, it is the other way around when the Anglicised names were forsaken in favour of Indian names.
A report quotes Stephen Alter, author of In the Jungles of the Night: A Novel About Jim Corbett (2016, Aleph Book Company) explaining the case of JCNP: “It was at the insistence of Corbett’s friend, the great freedom fighter from Kumaon and the first chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Govind Ballabh Pant, that the park was renamed after him, to honour his conservation efforts.”
While the debate on the name has effectively been put on hold by the Uttarakhand government, the question now is of the conservation status of the national park, semantics aside.
The Uttarakhand state government has been actively pushing for the construction of the Kandi Highway that will cut right through the national park, which is also a tiger reserve (known as Corbett Tiger Reserve, or CTR). A tiger reserve is accorded a higher level of protection as it is an area statutorily designated for the conservation of the striped big cats.
The proposal for the Kandi Highway came soon after former CM Trivendra Rawat took charge in 2017. He announced the construction of the road from Kotdwar to Ramnagar that would pass through the core area of CTR.
Earlier, in February this year, Supreme Court had put a stay on the state government’s decision of plying of buses in the core region. Days after the order, Minister Harak Singh Rawat approached Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to persuade him to go ahead with the road in view of its significance “from the defence point of view.”
He reportedly pegged the importance of the 88-kilometre-long road in connecting the headquarters of Garhwal Rifles in Lansdowne with the Kumaon Regiment HQ in Ranikhet. The road, which will reduce travel time between Garhwal and Kumaon divisions by two hours, is a disaster for the wildlife of CTR, which has the highest tiger numbers in the country – 252 individuals inside the reserve, as per the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Besides tigers, the JCNP is home to a sizeable population of elephants, and other critically endangered species like the gharial. In fact, it is home to at least 50 species of mammals, 580 species of bird and 25 species of reptile.
Whatever the reserve be called, we are sure that had Jim Corbett been alive, he would have had a bigger problem with the highway than whether the national park is being named after him or not. Semantics can wait; conservation can’t.