Meet Ravi Singh
August 2003: Ravi Singh exudes energy. He also communicates an infectious love for the outdoors and is in his element when out birding. Saving India’s natural environment and its large cast of characters, including the big cats, is one of the abiding interests of his life. He is a pragmatic man who is not afraid to dream. He talks with Bittu Sahgal about why leaving a high-profile corporate job with Deutsche Bank to join the World Wide Fund for Nature-India was one of the best things he ever did in his life.
How is it that a banker has dedicated his life to saving wildlife?
Wildlife and the Indian environment have been abiding interests throughout my life. The flame was nurtured over 45 years of travelling, reading, watching and working. I was able to contribute only in a small and quiet way to the cause of conservation because the professional demands of my banking career did not permit a broader involvement. The difference now is that I am working for an organisation whose dedication I have admired and I can do what I have always wanted to.
Was this an accidental move, or something you always knew would happen one day?
My transition to WWF-India was evolutionary, not revolutionary. In any event, I had decided some years ago – and my close friends always knew this – that at some point, while I was still active and able, I would devote my life to India’s wildlife and natural world. As I see it, if you are clear about the colour of your flame, life delivers you your opportunities. Wanderers never run straight!
Where did it all start? Where were you born and what injected this love for nature in you?
I was born “North of the oceans, south of the snows – in the land of Bharata,” as the ancient text says! My love for nature was a gift to me by my parents for whom the great outdoors, travelling and broadening one’s horizons were second nature. They taught me to see life differently both in essence and form.
And your schooling? How much did your teachers influence you?
I schooled in many places; completed my I.S.C. from Delhi Public School and my MA from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. Teachers influence everyone they teach and I was no exception. I am sure some of my teachers still claim I harried them in extra-curricular arenas, but I enjoyed school and loved and respected my teachers. They helped me in terms of life itself… not mere academics.
Sounds like you were one of those ‘good’ students!
‘Good’ is a very subjective word. But I have to answer in the affirmative because I did well in both school and college. I actually topped the University with a major in History and was presented the coveted ‘Best All-Rounder Award’ at St. Stephen’s in 1975 for sports and academics. But more than marks and awards, years down the line, what I am most grateful to my alma mater for are the values I imbibed, the development of character that helped me face life’s challenges, the desire for excellence, the premium placed on friendships and, yes, an innate respect for the pedagogue.
You have been a trekker. Do you intend to create special bridges between institutions like the Himalayan Club and WWF-India?
Such bridges are inevitable. In the case of the Himalayan Club, we have the advantage of a membership that is constantly out in the field and apart from detailed surveys, even anecdotal information on snow leopard and wolf kills in villages or bear and markhor sightings can provide data on the status of fragile habitats. We intend to be proactive in communicating WWF-India’s desire to build partnerships with all credible organisations.
What really drew you to wildlife?
There is no single instance that I can isolate. I revel in the earth and all its treasures. It could have been the wandering Monal that I awoke one morning to discover outside my camp; or the leopard I came upon by happenstance in a rainforest; or maybe the antlions crafting sandy traps that I drew inspiration from. I remember being fascinated, not scared, by the dhaman (rat snake) I saw when I was a child. I have lost track of the number of days and nights spent camping out in the wild. I was drawn to wildlife at all times in my life.
And where does the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) fit into your plans? You are still on its Executive Committee. Are your loyalties divided?
There is no issue here. My loyalty is to conservation and to the protection of India’s natural heritage. And towards this end, WWF-India and the BNHS have a common destiny to fulfill. They are India’s largest and oldest NGOs in the field. I see myself as a contributor, not someone who extracts or detracts. Since taking over my new assignment, I have spoken in detail to a number of BNHS members and it is clear that we have an opportunity to combine the strengths of both these organisations to tackle key priorities.
Can you list three such priorities for me?
1. The lack of understanding and awareness of the real worth of wild habitats and thus a lack of support from those in the government.
2. The lack of qualitative cohesion in the conservation movement itself.
3. The lack of sustainable resources, which makes defending wildlife a grim and thankless task.
How much do you think the corporate sector is helping?
Far too little. There is limited awareness. But fortunately there is also an underlying desire to know more and to contribute. But the effect of environmental education over the years has been upwardly absorbed and this is now slowly taking effect. Of course, a few dedicated corporates have been supporting conservation in India for decades. Their example needs emulation. The same holds good for a few trusts and private firms. But I do see a gradual change. Corporate community developments and support for social and environmental causes is emerging. Some corporates are coming up with environmental projects of their own and executives are being encouraged to be personally involved.
What more would you advise them to do?
Well, to begin with, they need to expose their personnel to more wildlife experiences in our national parks and sanctuaries. One of the ways to inject sensitivity might be to hold conferences and off-sites near wilderness areas. WWF-India intends to work with corporates, even as we pressurise them to fall in line with new environmental realities. And we believe that shareholders of large corporates would support such company efforts, provided they knew the money was being well-spent and was having a real effect on the ground. Globally, the understanding that environmentally-healthy companies enjoy long-term benefits is forming; corporate strategies are moving in this direction.
Tell me about tigers. How will you be kick-starting the WWF-India Tiger Conservation Programme?
I am not sure it needs kick-starting as you suggest. Perhaps we can refocus, keeping changing needs and developments in mind. We have several years of experience in this area and a dedicated team under our Species Programme that is a combination of leadership, committment and action. We also have an open line of communication with Park Directors and experts on tiger conservation who will be able to provide congruence in implementation. WWF-India will rely on its wide network of nature club members, supporters and partners to be at the vanguard of tiger protection.
Will WWF-India also be working with kids? Do you believe that they are a potent force for wildlife conservation?
Yes. Children form the vast bulk of WWF-India’s support. Long before it was fashionable to be involved with wildlife, we ran educational initiatives such as nature camps and invested both energy and resources in thousands of young children.
Some argue, of course, that by the time today’s kids grow up, the tiger, elephant, lion and rhino might vanish altogether.
You forget to mention the Great Indian Bustard and the Gangetic dolphin! The world did not start with us and it will not end with us. If we think positively and work towards direct action, we will disprove the pessimists. Besides, each child we work with, comes bundled with parents, teachers, relatives and friends! It is my belief that ‘investing’ in children yields immediate returns plus long-term ones. Our country’s demographics suggests we are getting younger by the moment and they will want a different, better world from the one we now have. They will also demand new and safer ideas, perspectives and products. But you, my dear Mr. Sahgal, hardly need convincing on that front, given as how half your own life is spent with kids!
Did you know S.P. Godrej, the patron of WWF-India and would you say he would approve of your stewardship?
I knew him, liked him and respected the purity of his purpose. Would he have approved of me? I have no way of knowing, but I imagine he would have approved of anyone who worked sincerely toward fulfilling his dream of building a strong, self-reliant India. This is WWF-India’s mission, striving to protect ecosystems on which our water, food and economic security are dependent.
What are your short-term goals going to be in WWF-India?
To take stock. To add qualitatively to the work we are already engaged in. To help each member of our team to rise to his or her own full potential. Also to consult with other NGOs and experts working in the field to protect our national parks, sanctuaries and connecting corridors. We hope to open fresh pathways for dialogue with others and if all else fails, we will examine the legal options available to us to achieve our mission. Clearly, for this we need to create stronger networks and linkages between government agencies, the corporate sector and NGOs.