Eco Systems People

R. Rajamani

(8-2-585/A/1, Road No.9, Banjara Hills, Hyderabad 500 034)


Two books are treasured by me: "Gardens of God - the Water Bird Sanctuary and Return of the Tiger , both by my friend Kailash Sankhala. The first has this loving inscription by him, dated December 18, 1990, addressed to me: "Bird sanctuary Bharatpur would not have survived without your timely help, with many thanks from the feathered friends and of the author". The second one had this on March 3, 1994: "With profuse affection of the author". This bond of affection that I enjoyed and the manner in which Kailash Sankhala conveyed it is linked with the topic that I have chosen to speak on today in his memory.

Kailash Sankhala was an Eco Systems Man and it is people like him who help conserve the magnificent eco systems of our country. A talk on them would be the best tribute I can pay to my departed friend who must be roaming with the Tiger in the Gardens of God. I must acknowledge the cementing of the friendship between our families by Mrs Sankhala (who taught my wife the mysteries of turmeric curry) and Pradip Sankhala whose quiet role in promoting ecological tourism is worthy of mention, even if I may have slightly different perceptions on how to promote it. I am grateful to his Tiger Trust for honouring me with this invitation.

I shall now get down to the burden of the theme chosen for today s talk. Eco Systems People cannot be defined precisely but can certainly be described through their qualities. They recognise the parity of all living beings and the equity involved in ensuring that succeeding generations continue to maintain this parity. They also recognise the interdependence of the species. They are not just sentimental fools harking back to Noah s Ark but are also practical as they realise the survival of the human species depends on the survival of the eco system. They are fearless in speaking out on this and are unmindful of the sarcastic gibberish thrown at them. In a sense, all people by birth are eco systems people when they recognise their atavistic moorings and look ahead for a future where they can survive along with natural resources. Those who pile layer upon layer of their reason and consciousness to submerge this vision become non eco systems people, some of whom scoff at talks like this. They reason that Man has no option but to conquer or manage Nature to subserve his design. Some others have ceased bothering about trivia in their daily pursuit of power and wants, adopting a Devil take hindmost attitude. All is not lost with even them as the influence of the subconscious and of eco sytems people on them cannot be wholly negated.

The role of eco systems people can therefore be quite important. Fortunately for humankind as also for Indians, we have had a good share of eco systems people. One is not talking only of the past, of people like the Buddha, Mahavira, Kalidasa, Kautilya and kings like Asoka, Pari and Akbar but of others of more recent memory. We have had, and mercifully continue to have, among the eco systems people, not only great philosophers, biologists, ecologists or field practitioners like foresters, but also lay people in whom the past and future mingled to make them eco systems minded. We had excellent foresters like Kailash Sankhala and Saroj Rai Choudhary who were eco systems people and have passed on the legacy to some among the present day foresters. We have them in universities, media and other professions, including unlikely professionals such as tea planters, doctors, bankers, chartered accountants and business magnates. They are not many, though. Unfortunately, we have very few of them in key positions wielding the levers of power in the country and the economy or influencing policies which impact on eco systems, whether among the politicians, bureaucrats, scientists or economists. There have been exceptions such as Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Professor JC Bose, Dr BP Pal, Dr Pitambar Pant, Dr Homi Bhabha and Sheikh Abdullah but these have become rarer now, except for a few such as Dr Karan Singh and Maneka Gandhi.

Dr Salim Ali, M Krishnan, Fatehsingh Rao Gaekwad, Dharmakumarsinhji, SP Shahi and others gave solid and unostentatious support from outside formal structures of government in recognising the importance of eco systems. I may not have named all of them but they do not add much in numbers and the cause would have been lost but for the millions of common people like our tribals, wise villagers and communities bravely bringing up the rear. It is not as though there are no sensitive or bright people in key positions without vision, but their vision seems to get clouded by compulsions of trying to fulfil their own compartmentalised roles. Some of them such as NT Rama Rao and Biju Patnaik were at heart eco systems people overcome by vote bank politics.

Eco systems people do not think or act in compartments. They set personal examples. They look at the whole and recognise the role of every living organism in it. Most of our tribals who are hunter gatherers are eco systems people, not so much by reasoning as by instinct. I have to exclude in this those who might be classified as scheduled tribes but have lost long back the qualities of eco systems people and practise aggression against nature. The tribals who are eco systems people hunt for or gather food but never destroy the food base. They clear forests and gather fuel, but only in a cycle where nature can reassert herself quickly. Their population does not step out of line, unlike other human population in countries like ours which makes more and more demands on our natural resources. Their needs are simple compared to those who have migrated to affluence, urban squalor and other similar attractions of the so-called mainstream . But, like the Gonds of Central India or the Jaravas and Onges of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, they are outnumbered and outmanouevred. Serious efforts are being made to persuade them to become non eco systems people on the ground that they cannot remain 'primitive' forever!

Eco systems are not just forests, deserts, beaches, coral reefs, mangroves, islands, riverine plains or mountains. They are found in niches even in villages, in the ponds, fields, springs and hills. They can be seen in the gardens, wildernesses, swamps and lakes of even towns and cities. Home gardens and orchards too can be eco systems, the main characteristic being the efflorescence and profusion of nature. Water or moisture and soil conservation and retention of elements of biological diversity are their hall marks. Such eco systems in even unlikely places such as towns are nurtured by those among us who have some residual qualities of eco systems people. We have people who love trees, birds, wetlands, fish, rocks, landscapes etc, but they do not always see the linkages to conserve whole eco systems. Fortunately, we have exceptional communities such as the Bishnois who are prepared to sacrifice their crops to protect the blackbuck and its habitat eco system. We have villagers as in Kokrebellur of Karnataka, Nelapattu of Andhra Pradesh and Khichan of Rajasthan who respect birds and the eco system they represent. Most of our farmers are eco systems people who are being driven to unsustainable practices which hurt eco systems almost against their will. Scattered all over the countryside are sacred groves protected by village communities for generations - such villagers too are eco systems people.

A little digression at this stage is necessary to describe the depth of feelings in eco systems people and the extent to which the perceptions of non eco systems people impact on them. In Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, where elephants and tigers used to roam over a century back, all traces of them have vanished in this century. Suddenly in the early 1980s, a herd of elephants appeared in the border areas adjoining Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. They entered the Kuppam Palamaner area of the district. Perhaps habitat stresses in Tamil Nadu made them stray in. They did not stay long but kept coming back for the next couple of years. In 1983, a tiny herd came to stay on in the area now declared as the Koundinya Sanctuary. In 1984, a few accidental deaths of villagers occurred due to unintended trampling by the herd. There was a hue and cry which was echoed in the legislature. Suggestions were made to shoot or drive away the elephants. Tamil Nadu authorities volunteered to take the elephants back! I happened to have taken charge as Secretary, Forests in Andhra Pradesh just then. I visited the area along with senior forest officers of both Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In the villages which we visited, there was grief over the human deaths and property losses. But I also got a rather stunning feedback from many villagers, who were mostly poor. They said the pachyderms had come like God Ganesha to their area, bringing more rainfall and they should remain, but the villagers must be taught how to live peacefully with them. They were not for driving the animals away. They were eco systems people. We found some compromises which helped the villagers and the herd to settle down. But the problem has resurfaced in the last one year due to the increase in the numbers in the herd and a male elephant straying into the gardens of well-to-do farmers. This has touched off another row. Again, there are suggestions to shoot the elephants. A national newspaper like The Hindu which brings out supplements on environment and wildlife had headlines in its news sheets which screamed "Elephant Menace". Thus, these animals which have lost their ancient as well as newfound habitats and chose to come to a somewhat dry forest area are considered a menace. But the human beings who have overrun their habitats are obviously not a menace! My guess is that the reaction suggesting the driving away or shooting of the elephants is of non eco systems people whereas the large majority of villagers would secretly continue in their beliefs about the links between these magnificent animals and the general well being of the villagers. Their voices, however, are likely to be muffled in the din created by the non eco systems people and the aberrant behaviour and trumpeting of the odd elephant. We can only pray that a good compromise may again be worked out.

In a milieu where even a lot of eco systems people do not see the whole but only the parts, an eco systems person such as Kailash Sankhala plays a critical role in saving some eco systems. As the first Director of Project Tiger, Sankhala did this with a few habitats of the tiger and he also rehabilitated eco systems in Bharatpur and even the Desert National Park in Jaisalmer. The Desert National Park is quite unique where importance is given even to once living things like fossils!

The obsession of eco systems people with their eco systems has been a matter of comment, mostly by non eco systems people. This obsession has often been interpreted as a preoccupation with air, water, animals and plants to the exclusion of human beings. Very few recognised that this obsession was fostered in the interests of human beings themselves and their long term survival. The great Red Indian Chief who wrote to the President of the United States of America about man suffering from a loneliness of spirit with the desecration of the eco system may not strike a chord in those who believe that USA has done very well withoutthe company of the other spirits. But in USA itself there were eco systems people such as Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and President Theodore Roosevelt himself who recognised the invaluable connection between survival of eco systems and the future survival of the American people themselves.

In India, we have reasoning people like Kailash Sankhala who want conservation of eco systems without excessive and unnatural interference by human beings who behave as non eco systems people. I had long conversations with Sankhala at Bharatpur and Sariska on this point. I was sent to Bharatpur when the grazing by buffaloes was stopped, resulting in disaffection of the neighbouring people. Sankhala was torn between his basic sympathy for the villagers and his desire to stop undue pressures on a fragile eco system. We found some compromises like education in stall feeding of the milch animals and introduction of cycle-rickshaws in the sanctuary which gave alternate employment of an ecological nature to the villagers. If Sankhala was an unreasoning 100 per cent eco systems person, he would not have written in his book on the Bharatpur sanctuary as follows:

"Among wildlife enthusiasts, the majority are birdwatchers and the Sanctuary cannot be locked up in the name of total preservation. Their number needs to be controlled according to the carrying capacity of the Sanctuary."

He went further in 1994 in Return of the Tiger' and said: "No doubt, in the enthusiasm for preserving reserves and saving the tiger, we have incurred the displeasure of the people living close to these tiger reserves. The latest realisation is that no park can survive by policing alone. The people must have their say in park managment. They also deserve a better deal, if not re- access to the meagre resources of the reserve, at least a greater share and priority in the process of their upliftment". For good measure, he added: "How this is to be done is debatable".

Thus, the eco system person has established that the concern for the eco system is not to the exclusion of eco systems people. This is the central point of the current discourse on the pattern of eco-development in our protected areas which are cardinal eco systems. Should the eco systems people living in them be left undisturbed on the understanding that they will not compete with other living beings to the point where the human needs score over the needs of all animals, birds, trees and vegetation? Or should they cease to be considered eco systems people when they choose to lead lives like other non eco systems people and therefore kept at an arm's length from the eco system? Those who plead for human rights and do not recognise animal rights would obviously insist on tribals and others living in and around protected areas being given unrestricted access to the eco system and its resources, even if, over a period, it results in elimination of all the animals in it and erosion of the system by deforestation, loss of moisture, soil and biodiversity. Those who want preservation of eco systems would not want people to live in them adopting lifestyles of non eco systems people. Among them are those who would want policies of total preservation in terms of which even eco systems people would be relocated from their moorings, away from the eco system.

Kailash Sankhala noted in his abridged book on Tiger: "We stopped woodcutting, took the cattle away and moved the villages. In fact the villagers were happy to start an easier life, free from the wild animals that were destroying their plants. Everyone was given a house and more land than he had before". But later experience has shown that all this was not painless, especially to eco systems people among the villagers. Unfortunately, there are powerful vested interests claiming to speak on behalf of the villagers while having an agenda of their own and it becomes a tangled web of clashing interests.

What is the right approach to these dilemmas? In a populous country, full of both eco systems and non eco systems people, the democratic polity may result in the larger number swamping the smaller and the voiceless and voteless. Just now, it appears like a losing game for the eco systems people as some legislatures are even prepared to vote against continuance of protection to even notified eco systems! For them, today is sweet, tomorrow we are unborn. Industry, mining, tree- felling, clearing forests to raise exportable commercial crops, wrong types of tourism, indiscriminately laying waste of the land with wrong tilling practices - these seem to be the 'panacea' for the 'developmental ills', especially of the poorer countries.

The game will not be totally lost if active eco systems people try to win over more people to their side. This should not be done with arguments which have only ethical, moral, aesthetic or sentimental appeal but with an approach which is science-based and stresses the practical too. This would help peel off the layers of hardness surrounding basic eco systems consciousness. It should inform the people better of the real dangers to their own future by losing ecosystems. Early efforts should be made to develop tools such as natural resources accounting, assessment of carrying capacities and impact assessment of alternatives which can save the day for endangered eco systems. Efforts should also be made to influence the polity of the nation and see if more eco systems people can come to the fore in it. It should also be the endeavour to see that such people do not succumb to the attractions of soliciting mere human votes for a mess of pottage, ignoring the large army of non-voters in the country, which includes not only our children whose lives are threatened, but also our animals, birds, plants, trees, water and air which are the foundations for our collective survival.

There is no reason to believe this cannot happen. In that spirit of optimism, I conclude by praying, "May the eco systems people arise, increase and finally, overcome".

This speech is taken from the Kailash Sankhala Memorial Lecture, delivered on October 8, 1998.