Meet Biswajit Mohanty
June 2002: Winner of the Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Wildlife Service Award in 2001, this young Chartered Accountant has become one of Orissa's most persistent wildlife champions. He runs the Wildlife Society of Orissa, is the Honorary Wildlife Warden for the Dhenkanal Forest Division and the coordinator for Operation Kachhapa, an ambitious sea turtle conservation programme. He has also been at the forefront of demands to force accountability on officials responsible for the tiger deaths in Nandankanan. He met and spoke to Bittu Sahgal about his mission and vision for an Orissa where both wildlife and humans can find safe sanctuary.
You are much better known as a wildlife and legal expert than an accountant. Who really is Biswajit Mohanty and how did he come to be one of the leading lights of Orissa's wildlife movement?
I was born in 1963 in Cuttack, a beautiful, pollution-free town girdled by two rivers in whose waters we could drink and swim. Mesmerised, I would stare for hours at the Mahanadi's swift and pure waters. I think the river caused me to fall in love with nature. I studied at Stewart School and got a commerce degree from Ravenshaw College, after which I joined my father's Chartered Accountancy firm, which supports my family and my wildlife mission even today. But I am also a qualified lawyer and I have made it the purpose of my life to use wildlife and environmental laws to defend nature. It's tough sometimes to balance my professional work with wildlife but I am used to this double role now!
And why do marine turtles take up such a huge chunk of your life?
Marine turtles are living fossils. They were around long before dinosaurs became extinct. Their migratory journeys across the globe are legendary and scientists in India and overseas are trying to track their journeys using satellites. Our myths and legends are replete with references to turtles. Yet, in recent years, I have walked the coasts of Orissa counting dead turtles by the thousands. How can we do this to a species that has overcome the trials of life over millions of years? As anyone who has encountered a nesting sea turtle will confirm, it is easy to fall in love with these gentle creatures! I work with scientists, conservationists and fisherfolk to save turtles - not just because I believe the species has a right to survive, but also because saving turtles will ultimately result in protecting coastal Orissa. Orissa is better known around the world for its turtle arribada than any industrial development.
You are also fighting to save Chilika.
That is true. At 900 sq. km., this is Asia's largest brackish water lake, a Ramsar site. Unfortunately, it is under attack from the prawn mafia, which uses money power to buy political immunity. This is ruining the unique lake that plays host to millions of waterfowl, Irrawady dolphins and uncounted marine species. This is also detrimental to thousands of fisherfolk who depend on the lake for their daily survival. Ironically, the birds of Chilika have been eulogised by Oriya poets and I still remember songs sung to me by my mother describing the vast bird wealth and breathtaking beauty of the lake. Can we possibly allow this lake to die?
What about the Supreme Court ruling in favour of small fisherfolk and the protection of Chilika?
A whole series of court orders have been issued to protect Chilika but to implement them, courts must rely on the state administration. This is the problem. Officials drag their feet and some even facilitate prawn farming, instead of curbing it. This is not surprising when you consider the number of state and central politicians, including ministers, whose money is directly or indirectly invested in these farms. The result has been a decline in fish catch of over 50 per cent.
And how have fisherfolk responded?
In India, tolerance is virtually a religion but even the peaceful fisherfolk of Chilika were forced to agitate by uniting to demolish prawn farms that were destroying their lake. A few years ago, in a village called Sorana, three people lost their lives when the police fired at them. As many as 5,000 fisherfolk from 145 villages in 800 boats had taken action by demolishing illegal prawn ponds during the day. At night, when their leaders were about to be arrested, the people rose to defend them and were shot. All this happened because the government failed and people were forced to rise in their own defence. A likely outcome of all this is a special Chilika Act to protect traditional fishermen.
What steps do you advocate in such situations?
There is no use 'appealing' to politicians and the businessmen who control them to respect the law. They may need some education, but it still shocks me to hear local MLAs ask whether or not turtles come to Orissa! To thwart exploiters, wildlife and human rights groups must unite to demand enforcement of laws and implementation of court orders. With law-makers fast becoming law-breakers, I believe that the two other pillars of our democracy must be activated, namely the free press and the judiciary. And this is what we are doing. Without a supportive and sensitive press, we would be nowhere.
But do we have support from the people? I believe some fisherfolk are asking that saltwater crocs in Bhitarkanika be shot!
That is not exactly true. Locals from the Kendrapada district are proud of their saltwater crocodiles and mangroves. But land-grabbers will never be 'friends of crocodiles'! Croc numbers in the Bhitarkanika National Park have risen from a few hundred to over a thousand. This is a result of mangrove protection, which, Sanctuary readers will remember, actually saved hundreds of lives when the super cyclone struck last year. Croc protection benefits humans in the long run, but these are after all the largest crocs in the world and can overcome cattle, goats or humans who enter the park! In a sense, the crocs are our forest guards that keep many illegal Bangladeshi immigrants at bay! We have met with representatives of the fishing community and explained the consequences of over-fishing and why park boundaries must be respected. But it all comes back to the prawn farms that induce people to risk their lives in search of tiger prawn seedlings.
Other human-animal conflicts also seem to be doing the rounds, elephants for instance.
You are probably referring to the unfortunate incident in which a young girl was caught in the path of a herd of elephants on the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar. The herd belongs to the Chandaka forest and is often forced to leave the confines of its natural habitat in search of food. This again is a direct result of encroachment on forest lands that is causing the 193 sq. km. sanctuary to shrink. Villagers inside the sanctuary have converted prime elephant habitat into paddy fields. The state government spends millions to construct houses for these people. We are ourselves manufacturing human-animal conflicts.
Very little is really written these days about the wildlife of Orissa in the national press, a far cry from the days when S.R. Choudhury of Simlipal and his famous tigress Khairi were household words.
That may be true of the national press, but not of the local press. We, in Orissa, can boast of one of the finest networks of journalists who keep the establishment on their toes with almost daily investigative reports. It was such individuals who blew the lid on the Nandankanan tiger massacre. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that the free press and television have a historic role to play in protecting the wildlife of Orissa and all other states. Some journalists have taken on powerful bureaucrats and for their pains, false cases were filed against them, even by some dubious forest officials (as revenge for exposing the Nandankanan episode). As for Khairi, there is no doubt that the tigress was a great ambassador for Project Tiger, but in hindsight, we should remember that she was a domestic cat, not a wild one!
You work with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in Orissa...
I do. It is the oldest wildlife NGO and I am the coordinator for the Society's Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN) and Important Bird Areas (IBA) programme in Orissa. I believe this venerable institution is destined to play a very vital role in defending India's wildlife because it is independent of the government, is trusted by all and is founded on solid value systems and good science.
Which other groups do you work with and on what specific issues?
The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and its founder, Belinda Wright has been a source of inspiration, advice and support for years. I am, of course, part and parcel of the Wildlife Society of Orissa. We also work with WTI, PETA, and PFA. Mrs. Maneka Gandhi has invariably supported us by intervening on vital issues. And, of course, we depend on Sanctuary and its readership to mobilise support. Our core strength includes dynamic forest officials like Sanjeev Chaddha, a dear friend, with whom I work closely on wildlife contraband seizures.
Are your battles being won or lost? Is this a dangerous occupation?
You win some and lose some. The battles are never-ending. While the country was celebrating the closure of saw mills in the northeast, for instance, we discovered an army of saw mills (147) operating in the coastal districts of Balasore, Bhadrak, Jajpur, Kendrapada, Jagatsinghpur, Cuttack, Khurda and Puri. Unbelievably, the state government claims that no saw mills have been operating in coastal Orissa after the 1999 super cyclone. The bureaucracy is pliable and in the pay of saw mill owners. While I am not stupid, I refuse to let fear dominate my life. When friends and family fear for me, I refer them to the Gita, which advocates that we do our duty without worrying too much about the outcome. Vested interests must know that some people cannot be bought or cowed down! Neither blind support nor criticism is valid. We need issue-based action and should be willing to work with anyone who can play a positive role. And we have had some successes, such as getting the issuance of timber transit permits stayed by the High Court of Orissa.
From what Bivash Pandav reports, another battle has been added in the shape of an afforestation project started on turtle nesting beaches.
That's right. There is no end to the destructive ideas these people keep putting forward because their fundamentals are wrong. The turtles have a tough life as it is and must now contend with new enemies - the Dhamra port that threatens the Banipahi mangrove flats (also a breeding site for horseshoe crabs), an oil storage point, effluents from a fertiliser factory... And now a deluge of funds from the central government for plantation programmes has come as a gift to some forest officers who know nothing about ecology. One forest division spends nearly Rs. 80,000 per day just to water casuarina plants. And to meet the targets (on the basis of which funds are released), senior officers with the social forestry, afforestation and territorial wings have instructed their staff to plant directly on sandy beaches since they cannot find unencumbered plots inland.
So who is now going to fight this new battle?
Who else? The same bunch of fire-fighters! Before one battle ends, another begins. Poaching, illicit felling, leasing wildlife habitat, posting of corrupt forest officials to the field, turtle deaths because of illegal trawling, emergency court cases... It tires one just to think of all this. Sometimes, we also have to come to the defence of range officers who are victimised by policemen working for timber smugglers. Very often, morale is down because senior forest officers turn a blind eye to such victimisation.
The Orissa Wildlife Wing, in fact, only woke up to the problem of casuarina plantations on turtle nesting beaches when Operation Kachhapa pointed it out in January 2002. The WII 1997 report on sea turtles had already recommended that no nesting beaches be used for casuarina plantations, but it was blissfully ignored. Now the Chief Wildlife Warden has had to step in to prevent another wing of the forest department from harming the state's interests in the name of protection. It's a never-ending process and you will probably have to take this up when the Standing Committee of the Indian Board for Wildlife meets next and order the state to uproot and replant the seedlings!
Which brings us to another sensitive issue, the missile centre and its effect on turtles...
Bittu, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the entire armed forces, whose support we so desperately need to protect our turtle beaches, it is time for us to redefine patriotism. How can we allow people to destroy India's natural heritage in the name of defending the nation? This year, the lights of the Wheeler missile base have so terribly affected the turtle rookeries in Gahirmatha in the Kendrapada district that no mass nesting took place at all. I hold the illegal fishing by trawlers and the heavy artificial lights of defence installations on Wheeler's island (testing site for the famous Agni missiles) responsible. Turtles are sensitive to lights, which disorient them. Thank god Banka Behari Das is not alive to see how the promises made to him by Dr. Abdul Kalam (to switch off illumination during the nesting season) have been broken. The doctrine of 'public trust' is being abused in Orissa by officials who destroy the natural heritage that they are sworn to protect.
What about wild tigers and elephants? How are they doing in Orissa?
Not too well. We know so little about the status of tigers in the wild because virtually no funds are set aside for research and monitoring. Once in a while, however, a little good news creeps in, such as the sighting of a pair of tigers a couple of years ago after a gap of 30 years in the Kuldiha Wildlife Sanctuary in the Nilgiri Range of the Baripada Forest Division. I believe that these may have come from Simlipal, indicating that the connecting corridor is still viable for tigers, which we thought was only being used by the more adaptable leopards. Tigers have also been sighted at Barbara forests after a gap of 30 years. But wildlife is in trouble all over Orissa and this includes elephants. Seizures of ivory, the disturbance of corridors, encroachments... the list is endless. Simlipal is also under threat. The January 2002 census suggests that tigers occupy only a third of the available habitat, with buffers including 'secluded' valleys taken over by cattle and goats. Once-tiny hamlets have trebled in size. Dozens of government agencies destroy wildlife, while one tiny ill-equipped agency, the Wildlife Wing, is expected to protect animals.
People accuse us of being alarmist, of being unduly negative.
Negative? For me, the Orissa coast is a temple. Respecting this 480 km. strip and managing it correctly would sustain at least a million fishermen and turtles, dolphins and horseshoe crabs. But they want the Dhamra sea port, prawn farms, oil terminals at Rushikulya, trawling in the prohibited zones and regularisation of land grabs by 'vote-bank immigrants' on the Kendrapada and Jagatsinghpur mangroves. Farmers are encouraged to use pesticides and fertilisers in Simlipal. The timber mafia operates with impunity in Satkosia. The Sunabeda Sanctuary and its 20 tigers are being edged out by politically-supported encroachers. Are we being negative?
You know about 'Kids for Tigers', the Sanctuary-Britannia Tiger Programme. Any message for our one million tiger defenders?
Remember Nandankanan. Write to the authorities to say that one wild tiger is worth all the white tigers they have ever bred in captivity. Fight for wild tigers and their right to wild spaces. Above all, talk to your parents, your teachers, your elders and friends. Tell them that you dream of an India in which not only tigers, but all living creatures including humans have the right to a life of freedom and dignity.