Home People Interviews Sanctuary’s Lifetime Service Award Winner of 2016 S.E.H. Kazmi In Conversation With Bittu Sahgal

Sanctuary’s Lifetime Service Award Winner of 2016 S.E.H. Kazmi In Conversation With Bittu Sahgal

Sanctuary’s Lifetime Service Award Winner of 2016 S.E.H. Kazmi In Conversation With Bittu Sahgal

Photo Courtesy: S.E.H. Kazmi.

Bittu Sahgal speaks to Sanctuary’s Lifetime Service Award 2016 winner S.E.H. Kazmi the kind of human being our children need to look up to as a true hero.

Where did you grow up and go to school? Was your family responsible for planting the seeds of nature appreciation in you?

I was born in Lucknow where my father was a lecturer in a college. He retired nine years after my birth and the family moved to Rasoolpur, our ancestral village in Barabanki district, some 90 km. from Lucknow. I completed two years of my early schooling (7th & 8th standard) here. While I would come here every now and then as a small kid, it was the permanent shift in residence to my village and the time spent subsequently spent here that got me hooked to nature. Back then Rasoolpur, which lies a couple of miles from the huge sandy bed of the winding Ghaghra river, thrived with small and medium sized wildlife. Nilgais roamed in the fields and mango orchards, civet cats frolicked on the walls of the dilapidated village house, foxes loved teasing our dogs who would chase them in vain every evening, jackals howled through the night all around the house and in the village, birds would dine with us on the verandah and the house’s very own monitor lizard often created much chaos by sneaking near the chullah before she was eventually shooed away. My mother was particularly fascinated by this huge python that lived a few metres beyond the walls of the house, and had even given him a name: ‘Cheet’ , named so after the pattern on the snake’s coat. The only creatures we were warned to be very careful around were snakes and scorpions, of which there were plentiful. Us kids however, were most scared of the wolves, whom I could often see from the bedroom’s window, roaming about in the vicinity of the house. Every other day when going to school, we would be afraid that like in those stories we’d heard and read, a big bad wolf would jump out of the pataawar (a type of grass) bushes that lined the path and make off with one of us. My family, while not explicitly telling me to go be an animal or nature lover as such, implicitly inculcated the love for nature and its myriad beings by never stopping me from spending time outdoors. In fact, in those days, my school’s ‘classroom’ was a parcel of open shaded ground below a neem tree, and I would desperately pray for rainy days since rains would naturally mean cancellation of classes! And When not in class, a lot of my time would be spent idling around in our family orchard. What wonderful days they were! Soon, however, I was packed off to then a small single-street town of Fatehpur to complete my matriculation, which I managed to somehow barely scrape through. From there, I went to Jaipur where I stayed for the next 12 years till I qualified the Indian Forest Service examination. If my rural background had planted the seeds of nature appreciation in me, it was my years in Jaipur that nurtured it. Long walks with our dog, Narry to Jhalana hills was a daily affair in Jaipur, while reading E.P. Gee’s The Wildlife of India at my college library provided me insights into India's wildlife and its distribution. However, it was a college trip to what was then the Darrah Wildlife Sanctuary (now a tiger reserve, I recently revisited Darrah, for the first time in 40 years, a few weeks after my retirement) that finally sealed my career path. There, I fell in love with the wilds and realised that my one and only true calling lay in being with the forest department. In fact Bittu, post my return from Darrah, I was actually aspiring to be a range officer, because I did not believe I was academically capable enough to even dare appear for, forget qualify, a UPSC examination. However, my brother-in-law, S.H.H. Kazmi for some reason had faith in my capabilities and extracted a promise from me that if I worked as hard as I could, he was ready to back me financially as well as morally till I exhausted all my three attempts for IFS. I failed my first two attempts, and was beginning to lose hope and that is when a great man who you knew very well came to my rescue, the late Kailash Sankhla sahab. In fact, I was going through one of the issues of Sanctuary magazine which had provided me with his address. I still remember it so clearly — 20 Dhuleshwar Bagh, C-Scheme, Jaipur. I cycled up to his house, and what a generous and gracious man he was. I, a nobody, was warmly welcomed by Sankhla sahab into his home, offered a cup of tea, while he heard me out patiently, about why I wanted to get into the services, my frustrations at not being able to clear the exam and so on and so forth. He then offered me words of encouragement, but there was this particular line he said that stuck with me that day: “Forest Service ko tum jaise ladkon ki hi to zaroorat hai Kazmi, you must get through. Hausla rakho, mujhe poora vishwaas hai tum na kewal exam pass karoge balki ek bohot badhiya afsar banoge”. I cycled back that day with a sense of confidence that I had never felt before. I cleared the exam that year, seven years after I’d first begun preparing for this exam, and became a member of the 1985 batch of IFS. I must also mention Abhijit Ghosh sir here, who was then the DFO of Jaipur Division. An upright officers and a wonderful human being he had been very encouraging on those few occasions I had the opportunity to interact with him.

Working within the system, you have fought to protect species and habitats for over three decades. What moves you?

That is an interesting question. My answer would be that there are two things. I am a very spiritual person, and I always feel a deep sense of wonderment at khuda ki qudrat. There is this rubaai by the great Urdu poet Mir Anees which I learnt as a kid and perfectly describes my outlook towards the natural world, which I would like to share. It goes something like this :

Gulshan mein phiroon, ki sair-e-sahra dekhun,
Ya maadan-o-koh-o-dasht-o-dariya dekhun
Har ja teri qudrat ke hain laakhon jalwe
Hairaan hun ke do aankhon se kya kya dekhun

[Gulshan = Glades/Garden; Sair-e-sahra = tour of desert; Maadan = Minerals
Koh = Mountains; Dasht = Forest/Wilderness/Desert wilderness; Dariya = River
Har Ja = Everywhere/In all directions; teri = your (here referring to God)]

It is this sense of wonderment that drives my passion for conservation of the natural world. The second factor that moves me is a deep sense of duty, that I have to do a job to the best of my ability and with utmost sincerity irrespective of what others have done or not done in the past/are doing or not doing at the moment/will be doing or not doing in future. Out of these two factors which moves me more is something I personally have never found an answer to, perhaps its an equal mixture of both.

Is Palamau a forgotten tiger reserve, or is it making a comeback?

Without a shade of doubt it is a forgotten reserve. Despite being one of the original nine tiger reserves, after an initial period of rise, ever since the law and order situation started deteriorating in the area from the early 1990s onwards, the tiger reserve quickly slid off into obscurity especially among the conservationists. So has been the case with most of east-central India’s protected areas, all these forests and their denizens have always been children of a lesser God, and been given step motherly treatment by both the government and the non-governmental organisations, conservationists and researchers alike. And it sadly continues to be that way. Coming to the second part of your question, do I think Palamu is making a comeback. Well Bittu, with a heavy heart I must tell you that I don’t think the tiger reserve is making a comeback. I wish I could have said otherwise, and perhaps it would be easier that way too if I painted a rosy picture of a Palamau comeback, but that wouldn’t be the truth. While there definitely have been some positives in terms of the wildlife situation being a bit better than the popular calamitous predictions that had been the gospel truths uptil 2011, as well as the forest staff’s mobility having bettered quite a bit post 2011, the good news ends at that. Unfortunately, the factors that led to the deterioration of PTR — political indifference and administrative apathy, massive shortage of permanent staff and the poor law and order situation — are not only intact but are perhaps worsening with each passing year. Even if just the first two factors were taken care of (the current vacancy at guard and forester level is nearing a staggering 100 per cent) Palamau could have made some sort of a comeback, the left wing insurgency notwithstanding, but with everything going against it, I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel for Palamau at this moment. And while I pray to God that future proves me to be completely wrong on this, but at this point of time I would say that all of us, including me, have failed Palamau.

Photo Courtesy: S.E.H. Kazmi.

The distance between people and parks is growing. How can this gap be bridged?

There is no doubt that what you say is absolutely correct, there is a growing disconnect between the forest department and the locals, especially in our Protected Areas. In my opinion, there are two aspects to correcting this widening divide. The first is that many officers and even some of the staff have been at fault in not being polite enough in their day to day dealings with the locals. A smile, a polite word, an arm around the shoulder, a shared sitting space, a communal meal — all basic etiquettes of affording respect and dignity — go a long, long way in not just mending old fences and healing old wounds but also in building new bridges, creating new partnerships and bringing the department and people closer. At the same time, there are instances when the locals feel abandoned by the forest department when it comes to high-stake issues such as mining, dams and other large-scale projects. It is critical that the department is seen standing shoulder to shoulder with the locals and the forests simultaneously in the collective struggle against saving the last parcels of forests against such ill-conceived ‘development’ projects. This is exactly what we did in the Kutku Dam issue, when the department stood along with the locals in the struggle against this project and consequently earned a lot of goodwill of the people. Finally, it is a fact that forest dwellers are completely dependent on the forests for their livelihood needs and protection mechanisms and laws sometimes come into clash with the former. In such cases, there is a need to balance between the needs of the locals and the needs of the forests and wildlife, and there is nothing more difficult in the life of a forester that finding that right balance. For example, you let the local take some wood from the forest for his house repairs, but ensure that he uses a dead tree or fallen log for the purpose and does not hack down a tree. Of course purists would argue that even a dead tree or log has its biological importance in terms of habitat as well as food source for an array of species, and I don’t deny that, but as I said we need to lose some and win some to finally achieve that optimal balance. It has to be a carrot and stick policy, you have to give concessions on some issues, such as say on MFP collection and its use, while take a firm stand on others, such as hunting or felling. There is no set formula to achieving this balance, each region will have to work out its own balance, and it will vary widely not just spatially but temporally as well, based on local dynamics that include demography, history, tradition and culture and the prevailing socio-political scenario.

The second aspect is filling in the staff vacancies at the forest guard level and daily-wage tracker level. This is because the forest guard is the most visible face of the forest department in the villages. He is also the most easily accessible unit of the department for the villagers and their go-to-man for a range of forest related issues. When the guards are absent due to vacancies, as is the case in Palamau, a sort of communication gap develops between the department and the locals because senior officers cannot visit every village of their division every few days while villagers may not necessarily have the resources to visit the officer at the headquarters every time. The guard is the critical link here. On our part, the upcoming generation of guards needs to sensitised to be polite and empathetic in dealing with the villagers in their jurisdiction, to never act highhandedly and always accord them respect and dignity, even if we act against an individual for a forest or wildlife offence. Throughout my two tenures in Palamu, I always tried to develop these qualities in my staff, ensure that while no innocent villager was ever hassled, at the same time even those detained for an offence were treated with dignity. When we were going after the katha mafia on a war footing the in mid 1990s, once the offenders had been caught in the raids, and the confiscations completed, our entire team would proceed to the nearest forest resthouse. At the end of the day, they were after all poor locals working on paltry wages given by the thekedaar, trying to eke out a living. The first couple of times, I would ask the offenders to come sit with my team and order my staff to share with the kathedis (the local term for those involved in illegal katha manufacture and smuggling) same food that we were having. ‘Jail jaaenge ye log, lekin inme se ek bhi aadmi wahaan khaali pet nahin jaaega’ was what I used to say to my people. Soon, I didn’t have to tell anything anymore, this became a part of our Standard Operating Procedure. Sometimes, I would just watch in silent admiration from afar, as I would see my daily wage trackers, guards and foresters, and the arrested men, all sitting in the same huddle, sharing the same food. In fact, hadn’t it been for the ropes tied around the wrists of those arrested, one wouldn’t be able to tell the staff from the offender and vice-versa.

And as we’d hoped, such accused katehdis on their return post bail would bear no grudges against my staff, and usually desist from re-entering the trade. So it was these little things that people would take notice of, and it earned us a lot of local goodwill, which is perhaps also a sad commentary on how low our law-enforcement agencies have sunk since people here were applauding us for something as trivial as upholding elementary work ethics and according basic human decency towards fellow humans. These steps also ensure that the guard and forester ingrained themselves into the village community life, become a part of the village family. And this is exactly what the aim of all forest guards, especially the new and future recruits, must be — to become a part of the large village family in the various villages of their jurisdiction.

I must also mention here that I personally believe that there should be affirmative action in favour of locals in recruitment of forest guards, a bulk of the guards should be locals. Similarly, there must be massive recruitments of locals in daily-wage jobs especially that of trackers. The forest department has to provide as many meaningful livelihood opportunities to the people as possible, it earns us goodwill and at the same time large number of locals ensures better cooperation between the department and the people while making it easier for the staff to ingrain themselves with the village life.

Could you narrate any one incident or wildlife sighting that you consider pivotal to your life?

If there is one incident that I would consider pivotal to my life, both professional and personal, then it has to be the landmine blast targeting me on February 16, 1998. I had been on the radar of the illegal katha operators after I came down heavily on the trade from 1996 onwards. So intense were the operations against the illegal katha manufacturers that we were raiding a khadsaal (local name for a katha manufacturing unit inside the forests) almost every week and the mafia would lose lakhs in each raid. Naturally, these guys wanted to eliminate me, and they finally got their opportunity during the Lok Sabha elections of 1998 when they bribed a few grassroots MCC cadre to blow up the chhotka ujala gaadi (small white vehicle, i.e. my gypsy). I lost my driver Aziz Qureishi and my tracker Sukhdeo Parahiya that day, and while the MCC leadership both publicly and privately, through mediators, apologised to me explaining that the attack wasn't authorised by the organisation, that an ‘internal enquiry’ would be instituted and the culprits identified and taken action against, the damage had been done. Nothing will bring those two men back. But let me backtrack a bit to explain what exactly transpired that day. Neither me, nor Aziz nor Sukhdeo were supposed to be on duty that day. The officer overseeing the election works in that area suddenly fell ill, and I was asked to fill in. Since Aziz and my gypsy were already on election duty elsewhere in the district, I was sent another vehicle to take me to work that day. However, as luck would have it, Aziz and my gypsy were released from election duty the night the officer fell ill, and Aziz unexpectedly reported for duty next morning. Now that I had my own vehicle and trusted driver, I chose Aziz over the replacement vehicle and driver that had been sent to me. We would then gather some security personnel allocated to us from Barwadih thana and proceed towards the forest villages, where the voting was to be overseen. The entire area was under a Naxal poll boycott. In all this frantic activity, none of us had had anything to eat since the morning, and so at a place called Labhar, I asked Aziz to go to Garu and get something to eat for everyone, while I ordered the dozen odd members of the security forces accompanying me to march on foot to the villages, which weren't very far off from where we had disembarked. I had told Aziz that I would let him know the exact village he was supposed to come to with the food though my wireless. It is a long story as to what transpired from there onwards, but in all this I asked Aziz to come to a village called Nawadih. Aziz was unsure of the which kaccha road to take to reach that remote forest village, and so he stopped at Mundu beat office (Mundu FRH was incidentally blown up almost a decade later in 2006) while returning from Garu and asked my people there for a tracker who would accompany him from there onwards as a navigator. Sukhdeo Parahiya was directed to go along with Aziz , and I was later told by another driver, Idris, who was there that day that Sukhdeo sat on the front seat of the gypsy because he wanted to find out that day "ki sahab ka seat mein baith kar kaisa lagta hai". The Naxals at the trigger that day who were waiting in ambush about a kilometre from Nawadih, mistook Sukhdeo sitting on my usual seat to be me, the DFO, and triggered the blast. It is again a long story as to how I and others with me survived, but the entire incident cemented this outlook that I have towards life ever since, that its Allah's will whether you live or die. None of us, me, Aziz or Sukhdeo or even that vehicle were first of all supposed to be there that day. And then it was me who was supposed to die that day, not Aziz and Sukhdeo. And since I have had this motto of sorts – which has been central to me working and moving anywhere in Jharkhand including the so-called Maoist ‘liberated areas’ – that if your death has been ordained by Allah, no matter how much you try you can't escape it and on the flipside till he wishes you to be on this earth, no mortal can harm you. Anyway, coming back to the 1998 incident, when I finally reached Daltonganj that night – and I must mention here that in the ensuing chaos and miscommunication just after the blast, the message that had reached Daltonganj and at my residence from the field was that my vehicle had been blown up and I had been killed along with Aziz and so I was presumed dead for many hours before news came in late at night that I had survived – at around four am, all I could think of was that my comrades were lying there besides the stream alone. So, I reached home, grabbed a couple of bedsheets and told my staff gathered there that I was going back to the blast site to collect the remains of my men, that the police has refused to go with me fearing another ambush, that those here who wish to join me may come along, and finally that I would go alone even if nobody was ready to join me. And then many of the staff and even officers, both juniors and seniors like P. R. Sinha, the then Field Director, volunteered to go with me as we went back to Terhwa nullah. When the police saw so many of our men volunteering to go to the blast site, finally a few policemen from Barwadih joined in as well. It was only after we completed the funerals of Aziz and Sukhdeo that I returned. And then came the second jolt. The government announced that since Aziz and Sukhdeo weren't permanent employees of the department, their years of duty with the department not withsanding, their families were not entitled to any government compensation. That is when I frantically began writing to anyone and everyone I had ever known to contribute towards a relief fund we created for the families of the deceased. Those desperate pleas elicited great support from so many good samaritans across different walks of life, including officers, judges, conservationists, friends, my family, both immediate and extended, even strangers and finally our entire staff in Palamau district, who pledged to contribute a day’s salary to the fund. Eventually, we managed to collect three lakhs for each family, while Aziz's wife was given a daily wage job with the department. Today, Aziz's family has settled down somewhat comfortably even if his loss will always be irreparable. Sukhdeo's daughters are married and settled now, but in a cruel irony, and also an example of how upturned the world is in our conflict zones, of the three sons of Sukhdeo, two became Naxals. One later tried leaving the organisation and was killed by his own men, while the other was recently arrested by the police and has been jail since. The third son committed suicide due to depression a few years ago. Perhaps if things hadn't happened the way they did that day and Sukhdeo was still around, the life of his children and their fates would have been very different. And this is something that will bother and pains me till my last breath.

I was transferred out a few months after the attack and packed off to Hazaribagh. There too, in the coming years I would have my share of run ins with the rebels, the highlights being my inadvertent detaining alongwith the local MLA at Kotijharna, Barkagaon; the subsequent abhay daan (official Maoist declaration assuring safety and free passage through all ‘liberated zones’) that I was given on behalf of the CPI-Maoist by the then Zonal Commander; and rescuing a kidnapped ACF and NTPC manager from Tandwa (Chatra district). However, despite these and many more such encounters over the years, the memory of that fateful February morning and what happened to Aziz and Sukhdeo lingered on. Ever since that incident, I would have nightmares – horrific visions from that day – every now and then, and then there was that guilt which stemmed from the fact that it was me who was supposed to die that day, not Aziz, not Sukhdeo. I never had closure. Finally, as I was nearing the end of my career, I requested my PCCF A. K. Singh, who was my teacher way back during my IFC days in Dehradun from 85-87, in 2011 to post me back to Palamau one last time. My request was acceded but as I was preparing to return to take charge once again, I was engulfed by a strange sense of foreboding. So one of the first things I did after signing the charge-takeover papers was to go back to the site of the blast. It was just me and Nasim, my driver who had driven me from Ranchi to Daltonganj. I guided Nasim, who naturally did not know the way around nor the significance of the place I was taking him to, to the site and as I took the detour from Labhar for the first time in 13 years, I soon realised that the very kuccha road my gypsy took that fateful day in 1998 had been long abandoned and overtaken by the forest. However, on my insistence Nasim somehow managed to drive on till we finally reached that nullah. I got down from the vehicle, walked a bit and reached the exact spot where my Gypsy lay blown apart that day. I stood there reminiscing, as those scenes flashed before my eyes. I looked up, the huge kahua tree – on whose branches, 60-70 feet above ground, the doors of my gypsy hung after the blast ripped it apart – still stood there. Clear water flowed past the spots where Aziz and Sukhdeo’s mutilated corpses once laid. The forest was green while birds chirped, and cicadas played their orchestra. It was all so peaceful now, so serene. I sat down on the banks of the nullah for some time, broke down, and recited a surah-e-fateha for the departed souls. As I got up to return, I felt a great load off my chest, all the self-doubts, apprehensions and the jitteriness regarding my coming back to Palamau had disappeared. That day, I finally had my closure.

You fought against the Coal India open pit coal mining in the 1990s. What is the status of the Hazaribagh-Palamau wildlife corridor now?

Yes, various coal firms and I have been locking horns throughout my career and I must have been a pretty hated figure in the coal lobby. After we forced the CCL to abandon their ambitious Horilong Underground (UG) mining project — despite the strong political backing that it had — that would have wrecked the north-west portion of Palamu TR, I had quite a few run-ins with the coal lobby during my tenure as the DFO, Hazaribagh (West) Division. Apart from incessantly raiding illegal coal extraction units and plugging its transport, I wrote quite a few factual reports – which naturally would become an adverse commentary for the project proponents – on various coal projects such as Ashoka, Piparwar, Magadh, Amrapali, Pakri-Barwadih and others. In those days, the standard procedure was to write “Nil” in the space provided for describing the wildlife in the proposed project area and how the said project would affect the biodiversity, it was all part of what we today call as the ‘ease of doing business’. How can the wildlife in any forest, even the most degraded ones, be ‘Nil’? And here we were talking prime forests of Hazaribagh that ran uninterrupted all the way upto Palamau tiger reserve. As soon as I took charge of the division, I made it amply clear that ‘business’ could not go on as usual. And then began a series of field visits over the entire division, long discussions with the local villagers, who stood to lose equally, as well as talks with the staff. All this established the presence of not just significant wildlife in these forests, but even the presence of flagship species such as tigers, leopards, elephants and even gaurs which were thought to have gone extinct from the Hazaribagh landscape by the 1960s. All this was then reflected in my comments on the proposal files of all these projects, along with my general factual comments on the destruction these projects would unleash for both wildlife and people. Only time will tell how successful me and my team were in the long run in securing these forests, did our efforts only temporarily avert the disaster or did we save these places in perpetuity. In all likelihood I won’t be around anymore when the final judgement on the fate of these forests are passed, but I hope the coming generation will ensure that eventually it is the forests, wildlife and the people who win this long drawn battle.

Coming to the second part of your question about the Hazaribagh-Palamu corridor, the situation is pretty bad Bittu and it has deteriorated considerably over the last decade. When I joined Hazaribagh in 1998, the corridor was healthy and functional, and in fact was a full-fledged landscape in its own right rather than the typical image that the word corridor conjures up in one’s mind. It was a smaller landscape connecting two large forest landscapes, Palamu and Hazaribagh. Back when I first began exploring this landscape in 1998, I often found ample signs of predators such as tigers, leopards and and dholes while elephants were regularly using it to move between the Palamu and Hazaribagh landscape. In fact in December 2005, a tiger landed up in Hazaribagh WLS for the first time in 12 years, in all likelihood through this corridor. But over the years, mining has ravaged the Palamau-Chatra-Hazaribagh corridor so much so that today while the corridor may be physically present, even if much depleted, it is functionally on the verge of destruction. Official apathy hasn’t helped the cause either. Another decade of mining without any protective and remedial measures will be the last straw and seal the fate of this corridor.

Photo Courtesy: S.E.H. Kazmi.

Can coal and wildlife ever coexist in an era of climate change?

No, never. There can be absolutely no co-existence between mining and forests and wildlife. Wherever mining commences, the forests and wildlife will go, it is as simple as that.

You have been involved with the fight back against poaching gangs in Palamau. Is there a connection between wildlife traders, MCC Naxals and disenchanted villagers?

That is a very good question Bittu and one that I have been asked often. No, there is absolutely no connection between wildlife trade and Maoists. Even though Maoists had a stake in the form of levies in other forest activities such as the katha smuggling and bidi patta/tendu patta trade, none of the Naxal outfits be it the former MCC, or PU (Party Unity) or the present day Maoists (post the 2004 merger between MCC and PW) have never indulged or assisted in any poaching activities, nor have they ever indulged in trafficking of wildlife contraband. And while the Naxals have over the years issued diktats and made public proclamations against poaching and in favour of conservation in Jharkhand, the reason why they do no indulge in wildlife trade in my opinion is not out of a sense of altruism, but rather because it makes no economic sense. The movement finances itself through much bigger, better, easier and low-risk means of funding through an extensive ‘levy’ regime which yields incredible amounts of money. Jharkhand alone is said to be contributing hundreds of crores to the Maoist coffers annually, an overwhelming bulk of which comes through levies extracted from various government infrastructure projects and mining firms (both public and private) while bidi patta trade (and formerly katha trade, the trade now having ceased with the wiping off of exploitable khair trees from the state) forms a secondary source of income. With such incredible amounts of funds being generated, it makes no financial sense for the organisation to make a foray into wildlife trade which at best would yield amounts that would be negligible compared to the other sources listed above while at the same time requiring much more effort.

However, this is not to suggest that Naxals have been protectors of wildlife either. The biggest drawback of Naxal presence and the resulting limited control (and complete ousting in some areas) of the forest department in such areas has been the local bush-meat hunters having a field day across these forests, thus creating an ‘empty forest syndrome’ across many forests within the Red Corridor. At the same time, while the organisation may not be hunting or harming the wildlife themselves, wary of jeopardising their support base among the local populace, the Naxals have refrained from acting against hunting of animals by locals in their areas of control, their public proclamations against such activities notwithstanding. Thus the apt words to describe the attitude of Naxals towards issues of wildlife and conservation would be indifference and neutrality. And to their credit, staying true to their neutral stand on this problem, if Naxals have not stopped locals from hunting then they have also never interfered when we took action against poachers. In fact sometimes they would pass on verbal praise towards us saying things like ‘vibhaag theek kaam kar raha hai aise logon ko pakad kar’. And so the Naxals neither stopped poaching nor did they assist or protest our fight against poaching in anyway. Exceptions like the 1995 incident of MCC returning stolen ivory and leopard skin to the department did exist, but then the MCC had its own reasons for returning those items too. So to summarise, while Naxals do not poach or participate in wildlife trade in any way, the poor law and order situation in such conflict areas allows other players to take advantage of the chaos and use it to their advantage.

You have gone undercover to bust wildlife gangs. Was it dangerous?

Were you effective?Going undercover to bust wildlife smuggling gangs is always a dangerous proposition. But then I have always maintained that  if you cannot risk your life in performing your duty, do you really have any moral right to ask someone else to risk his life? This was true in 1995 when I first went undercover, in 2011 when on my return I started camping in abandoned field posts and what were then called ‘out of bound’ areas, and will hold true even after I am long gone. Coming back to the effectiveness of the undercover operations, yes indeed they were pretty effective. The largest seizure of wildlife contraband in Palamau took place when I went undercover in 1995 and then again a similar our team again went undercover in 2012 to recover a leopard skin.

How safe from poachers is wildlife contraband lying in the custody of forest departments?

Is there enough security?I think the contraband is fairly safe in a division’s headquarters. However, it should be burned from time to time as per government policy to further minimise any risks.

What is the status of wolves in Bihar and Jharkhand today?

While I cannot speak for their status in Bihar, wolves are doing fairly well in Jharkhand, one of the very few species that can claim this tag. I studied them quite a bit at Mahuadanr during my first tenure in Palamu as the DFO. I would camp myself at the abandoned and crumbling forest resthouse at Sarnadih — where Shahi sahib once camped to click his now famous photographs of Mahuadanr’s wolves — and would observe the wolf packs in the vicinity. In fact, in a bid to revive the Mahuadanr wolf sanctuary, I had the resthouse at Sarnadih by the Burha river resurrected, and was the inaugural occupant of the same post its resurrection. Sadly as I would find out later, I was the inaugural and the last occupant, and post my transfer a couple of years later the resthouse again fell into disuse and turned into ruins within a few years. When I returned to Sarnadih more than a decade later, now as the Field Director of PTR, I found the place in the exact same condition as I had 20 years ago when I’d first come here. But thankfully, the wolf populations had remained stable as well. A lot of it was because the villages in Mahuadanr had and continue to have remarkable tolerance towards wolves, and a few losses of goats and other small animals is taken by the villagers in stride. I, for my part after becoming the Field Director, ensured that from 2011 onwards the losses were promptly compensated even if the compensation amount fixed by the government might be a bit less than the market value of the animal. I must also mention here that during our camera trapping efforts in PTR, we made a remarkable discovery. A wolf was camera trapped not in Mahuadanr as expected, but rather from the forests of Garu, one of the densest forests right in the heart of the tiger reserve. We would later find pug marks of wolves in these dense moist deciduous forests around Maromar. My friend and an old Palamau hand Prosenjit Das Gupta sahab wouId later show me a photograph of a wolf of the Garu-Maromar road that he took in the mid 1990s. All of this made me wonder if these were transient wolves moving through these dense forest patches to the more open fringe areas of the reserve or had wolves of Palamau adapted themselves to live in dense sal forests?

Apart from Palamu, wolves are to be found in most parts of the state and Hazaribagh is their other stronghold. The wolves of Hazaribagh were infact quite infamous during the colonial days and right until the 1980s as child lifters and had caused significant human fatalities in these years as per the available records. Thankfully that is not the case anymore, and man and wolf finally seemed to have inked a permanent truce in the Hazaribagh landscape.

What three steps would you advocate for India to take to protect its natural heritage?

If I were to suggest three steps, they would be as follows:

We cannot hope to save our forests and wildlife if the local communities are not with us in the endeavour. And that won’t happen till the communities do not find conservation efforts to be creating or augmenting their livelihood avenues and improving their overall quality of life. You cannot create inviolate forests throughout India, beyond a few core inviolate areas, people and wildlife will have to co-exist with one another and cooperation and participation of communities will be critical. Our forest communities are famed for their tolerance with wildlife, which we urban dwellers cannot even dream of. But a poor forest dweller can only tolerate so much, you cannot expect him to keep on losing his crop to an elephant or his cattle to a tiger or leopard and do nothing about it. If government and conservationists do not come to his aid, and provide him opportunities and means to offset these economic losses, he will retaliate against wildlife. And when entire communities go against wildlife, no amount of policing will be able to save the day. History is replete with such examples. I must also mention here that I have realised over the course of my career that water is central to village life, and hence water conservation measures by the department go a very long way in creating goodwill for the department. I built a lot of water harvesting structures for numerous villages during my career, people still fondly remember that work and after all these years will often come to me, even after my retirement, to take me back to their villages to show me how those water conservation measures transformed lives and livelihoods in their respective villages. Finally, I would also like to reiterate that as officials and representatives of the forest department, it is our responsibility to be just, honest, helpful, respectful, dignified, kind and polite in our dealings with the forest communities. Do that and the people will rise up to assist you with whatever they have and when the department and people join forces, miracles happen.

2. While the importance of above measures to ensure goodwill of local populace and their cooperation cannot be highlighted enough, equally important is ensuring that the law is enforced not just in letter but in spirit as well. A modicum of policing is needed and will always be needed in conservation just as you will always need a modicum of policing and rule of law in the society no matter how good the society as a whole is or becomes. The balance between policing and community participation will vary regionally and temporally, and that balance will have to achieved keeping the local demography, history, culture, traditions and socio-political scenario in mind. Similarly, nothing will ever beat mud-on-boots foot patrols with a disciplined, sensitive and motivated ground staff. It is imperative that apart from always ensuring that no vacancies exist in the staff numbers, and they are even augmented, the staff (including the daily wage workers) must be provided with incentives especially in terms of pay bands, health insurances, allowances for difficult postings, and most importantly public recognition of their sacrifices and good work. In fact, the forest staff must be given the same incentives and respect as our armed forces, because if the armed forces ensure our territorial integrity and security, it is the forest department ground staff that is the sole workforce striving towards ensuring India's ecological security.

Photo Courtesy: S.E.H. Kazmi.

3. Last, but not the least by any means, is the need for creating awareness about wildlife and forest conservation, especially the former, but not just in cities and towns but in the villages on a priority basis. While not taking anything away from the importance of awareness campaigns carried out among the urban populations, I would say that it is the rural population living in and around the forests that are the biggest stakeholders, whose lives are most intricately connected with the wildlife and forests and who will decide the eventually decide the fate of the two. The department already overburdened by so many disparate responsibilities can only do so much on this front, and it is here where the NGOs, conservationists and wildlife lovers need to step in and frankly speaking right now there are very few of them working in and with the villages. We need more wildlife literature in vernacular languages, the wonderful content of a magazine like yours needs to reach the children in Garu, Betla, Kutku, Kujrum and so on. Scholarships created, local arts and crafts popularised and marketed, tribal children given free joy rides through the park, perhaps even to areas that are normally out of bounds for tourists because the locals who bear the brunt of conservation the most also deserve to be given a special status then denied to all others. And I can guarantee you that out of 20 such locals and children that you reach out to, even if one goes on to become a conservationist, then the future of our forests and wildlife is secured.

 
 
 

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