Sanjoy Deb Roy (1934 - 1999) – A tribute by Valmik Thapar
Photo: Valmik Thapar.
Indian wildlife has lost its best protector. Forest officers all across India are mourning the death of one of their finest, S. Deb Roy. Deb Roy, or Dada as he was called, started his forest service in Assam in 1956 and served as the Director of Manas National Park and Tiger Reserve for 18 years. He was also the Director of Kaziranga National Park for three years. He piloted Manas to international fame and was directly responsiblefor it being declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
In the late 1980s he took over the helm of affairs of the Assam Forest Department, as Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, for a period of four years. When Maneka Gandhi came into power as Minister of Environment and Forests, she immediately asked him to join her Central Ministry as Additional Inspector General of Forests (Wildlife). He retired from this job in 1992.
He also served nearly all the Advisory bodies and committees on wildlife in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. His reservoir of knowledge on Indian ecology was phenomenal and he was also a member of four specialist groups of the International World Conservation Union (IUCN).
Blunt, honest, tough talking and severe in his criticism, his intervention for the cause of wildlife can never be forgotten by anyone. He was recognised frequently for his service to wildlife and received the National Award for Management of the Manas Tiger Reserve in 1982. In 1989, he also received the very prestigious Norman Borlaug Award for his outstanding contribution to wildlife conservation.
For the last seven years Dada has been deeply involved with Non-Governmental Organisations and was very closely associated with the Corbett Foundation and the Ranthambhore Foundation.
I got to know him in his last year in office when we both happened to travel together to a wildlife conference in Caracas, Venezuela. It was from him that I had my first lessons in absorbing the complicated and intricate machinery of wildlife governance and we worked closely together on many interventions and strategies.
He had created and strongly believed in ecodevelopment, as a strategy to harness the strengths o traditional forest people for conservation, but after his retirement the distorted concept of ecodevelopment became his greatest anguish. He was tortured by its abuse, and warned of the severest consequences because it had become a ‘developmental tool’ in the hands of donors like the World Bank. He could not believe that some of his colleague forest officers had failed to understand the deeper meaning of this concept. He feared that the way this project progressed could be fatal for our protected areas. I remember the fury in his eyes about the misapplication of the concept and his own helplessness to correct it. In a way he felt responsible for its creation and frustrated at its application – he feared it would end up triggering market forces and rampant consumerism, both of which he abhorred.
In the 1990s Deb Roy grew to detest the city, especially Delhi and with it the corridors of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. He was in essence a man of the forest and completely at home in it. From 1993 to 1998 I travelled with Deb Roy to Nagarahole, Sariska, Palamau, Ranthambhore, Panna, Kanha, Pench, Corbett and of course Kaziranga and Manas – trips that I will never forget.
He was most comfortable with those who he called the true protectors of wildlife – forest guards and the daily wagers. We would sit talking into the early hours of the morning and through these frequent field visits we absorbed the grim reality that faced the wildlife of India. My best trips with him were in the superb wilderness of Manas and Kaziranga where I learnt of his enormous field knowledge. He was a great believer in self-sufficiency in the forest and his favourite food was that which the forest provided. In Assam, on several occasions we sat with forest guards at their posts feasting on the grandest of buffets of bamboo shoots, cane and a variety of vegetarian delicacies that astonished me. Most forest staff wherever we went were totally devoted to him. He was their leader who throughout his life had fought their battles.
I remember, while we sat looking at the Manas river, how he regaled me with the story of how he had once gone to sleep around a fire at night in Manas and when he woke up a few hours later he found a tiger, also asleep, 20 feet away from him apparently also enjoying the warmth of the fire!
His battles at Manas are still legendary as he invariably led his men in confrontations with armed poachers. On many occasions bullets whizzed past him. Exchanging fire with poachers was a fact of life for him and his staff at Manas. As the breeze whipped across the Manas river he turned to me and said: “How many lives of forest guards have been sacrificed for Manas – is it worth it? When will this ignorant government realise the importance of this unique natural treasure?” I had no response to offer as we watched the light fade across the Manas river.
Photo: Valmik Thapar.
Together we networked contacts and resources. For the first time in Assam, more than nine vehicles for wildlife, boats and many other resources were made available by donors for use by the true trench soldiers of wildlife who needed such infrastructure and support to secure the future of Assam’s wildlife. Debates, arguments, discussions and strategies were part of our lives in the 1990s as we strove to defeat those that damaged the wilderness. But in the last two years Deb Roy seemed to give up hope. He had watched his beloved Manas bleed to death and saw the horrors that confronted so many more wilderness areas. He knew that time was running out and felt that the future of wildlife was hopeless - caught between the vicious nexus between politicians and bureaucrats who couldn’t care less. What kept him going through such despair was his unshakeable faith in the Gita and his experience of the power and beauty of nature.
His tragic loss has sent shock waves across conservation groups and people in India and overseas. Sanjoy Deb Roy will be remembered for much more than just his 40 years of selfless, committed and dedicated service to this nation’s natural heritage. His greatest sadness before he died was to witness the explosion of militancy in the World Heritage site of Manas. He had wanted part of his ashes to be immersed in the Manas river that he loved. That was where his ashes went.
Today both Government officers and conservationists must pledge, in his memory, to restore Manas to its original glory. This will be the best way to remember and honour Dada.
First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XIX No. 5 September/October 1999.