Meet Sunil Mehta
Photo Courtesy: Sunil Mehta
A national-level basketball player and an alumnus of St. Stephens College, Delhi, this eco-entrepreneur started life as a pharmaceuticals promoter, exporter and as the Chief Coordinator for the Rajasthan State Government and the Rajasthan Association of North America (RANA).He now runs a real estate business that seeks to change the image of the sector by helping to improve the ecology of the geographies where his businesses are located. He met Bittu Sahgal at the Bamboo Forest Safari Lodge in Tadoba and spoke to him about how ensuring equitable justice to local communities could end up rewilding India.
Was Jaipur always your family’s base?
Today, I really do not even know where my ‘base’ is because I spend so much time travelling across India, but yes, I grew up in Jaipur where my physician father taught us that the measure of success was not your money, but how people’s lives were improved by their association with you. My mother is a homemaker and we always lived a life of purpose guided by principles that turned community into family.
Your friends at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, still refer to you as that ‘awesome basketball player’. What turned a national-level sportsman into a sustainable tourism professional?
Even back then the wilderness and the forests held a special attraction. Naturally, after retiring from basketball I set up a business based on tourism in rural India with a steely determination to help protect wildlife, while also improving the condition of the communities upon whom the success of any such enterprise is ultimately dependent. In a sense, a marriage of good natural resource management and human resource development. I hasten to add, the people I ‘helped’ ended up helping me even more. I sleep well at night!
Was there any particular incident that propelled you toward wildlife conservation?
No single incident. No epiphany. I think the constant hammering all of us got through news of depleting forests and vanishing tigers got me down. But the tipping point was the fact that every last tiger in Sariska had disappeared. Sariska was home to me. A forest I visited regularly since my childhood. I was shell-shocked that right next to me, such a huge tragedy had unfolded and I knew nothing about it. Whatever else I did, I knew then, would have no meaning unless I was able to play a role in preventing this downslide, not just for Sariska’s tigers, but all tigers.
Someone must have inspired you? Who are your heroes?
Many people, but clearly the Chipko Movement and Sunderlal Bahuguna helped me realise that wringing hands is not enough. What was wrong had to be made right. The late Fateh Singh Rathore of Ranthambhore was another such hero, as was the late Shantanu Kumar, who shone a light for me when I was lost and showed that no matter what my profession was, I could make a difference.
Photo Courtesy: Sunil Mehta
I notice that you are a god-fearing man.
I am. I believe strongly that trees are a representation of God on Earth. Plants do not merely feed our stomachs, they feed our spirit. My life is dedicated to regreening our planet, not just for aesthetic reasons, but because there can be no better way to serve God than to nurture his creations.
Thus, the 500-acre Nature Farms and the Tree House Resort that you and Uttam Kumar Tharyamal launched?
Yes, it was. I worried that all that young kids see of life is what the concrete jungle has to offer. Where was the song of the partridge? The yelping of jackals? The buzz of bees? Nature Farms is in truth a water-harvesting device.
Before planting anything, we met with community leaders and with women and children to explain what we wanted to achieve. Simple steps were taken involving manual labour. Check dams, contour bunds, nullah plugs and more. All of this was very purposefully labour intensive as this not only gave people a living wage but before their eyes they saw scrub and thorn forests come back to life. “You can do this on your own lands too,” I explained and they did. Today, while most of Rajasthan is seriously water stressed, our immediate surroundings are well-watered. You could say my strategy was part-lifted from Project Tiger… first bring back the green cover and the water will follow… then the wildlife.
Your campus does indeed look like an oasis, but some suggest facilities such as your ‘Water House’ ends up wasting water?
It may look like that to those who have not understood because you hear the sound of constantly-flowing water, but you could say the same for a river then… that the water is being ‘wasted’ because it just flows away! The water flowing through and down from our Water House helps to recharge the aquifer. Not a drop is wasted. The plants the flowing water nurtures along the way keep the campus cool and creates a haven for insects, birds and animals. It’s a closed-loop system. But yes, it does give our guests that extra something. In Rajasthan, rulers of old, including those who built massive forts and monuments managed to harness water and feed it back to nature without damaging ‘the system’.
Photo: Sudeep Mehta
I have to agree! I heard jackals howling into the night when I visited you. What other wildlife do you support here?
Bittu, what we have is recognised as a tourism destination, but it is in truth a sanctuary! We have leopards, hyaenas, jackals, antelopes, black-naped hare, porcupines, desert fox, and of late, the occasional wolf. The birdlife is astounding and we are contemplating hosting a bird festival here in the future. You figure it out… our naturalists have seen Indian and Eurasian Eagle-owls here. A bird list is under preparation. Sanctuary should help us put it together!
So you are saying that the water you use on your campus, swimming pools included, does not deplete the ground water for neighbourhood farmers?
No. We had hydrologists come in and they confirm that the water table has risen dramatically. But we hardly need any certificate from hydrologists. The villagers are all the certification we need. They are happy. Their holdings produce more, their children are healthier, better educated and gainfully self-employed. They are less dependent on the vagaries of the infamous Indian monsoon.
Is this why you were presented with the Jal Mitra and Gram Bandhu awards for community and social service by the Rajasthan Government?
I guess it was! I truly feel for and work for both water and for the communities. Rajasthan is an arid state, but it always had enough water when people respected water. Down the decades, that respect stayed alive within villagers, but many city-dwellers lost contact with their roots and in the name of development, they foisted and continue to foist ideas on rural Rajasthan that are, let us say, inappropriate. All I did was organise villagers, ensure they were gainfully employed and I took their help to restore natural vegetation on their lands. Nature responded by enhancing the recharge of water during times of plenty. This was one of my most gratifying achievements way back in the year 2006.
Photo: Yash Sisodia
Tell me about Jhalana… the love of your life you say!
I dream to one day see a tiger drinking from a water source in Jhalana, which has become nationally famous for its leopards, though the forest is literally 10 minutes away from the Jaipur airport! Few know that a tenuous forest belt exists between Jhalana and Sariska, connected through the much-abused Jamua-Ramgarh forest, which desperately needs protection and regeneration. As a child, I once saw a tiger at Nahargarh near Jhalana. Elders speak of tigers at Ramgarh. This is not some pipe dream. If we wish we can bring tigers back here, but that will depend on planners, citizens and leaders understanding that the ambition of bringing the tiger back will pay us a rich dividend of pure, sweet water… the product of healthy forests.
We met four years ago when Sanctuary’s idea of Community Nature Conservancies was mooted. What made you so instantly identify and carry the idea forward with such alacrity?
Bittu, this was convergent evolution of sorts. As I mentioned earlier, we started doing this way back in 2005-06 in all our resorts and projects. Local communities always did and always will constitute 80 per cent of our work force. At the Alizanza village bordering the Tadoba National Park, our Bamboo Forest Safari Lodge compensates farmers who are genuinely unable to grow their crops because insects, herbivores, birds and monkeys get to them first!
What is the future of wildlife tourism in India?
Very bright. But not the unimaginative, exploitative tourism practices that you defined so well (Sanctuary Vol. XXXI No. 3 June 2011). We Indians are a proud people and no one wants permanent hand-outs. When the people of Alizanza agreed to rewild their own farmlands on the edges of Tadoba, Bamboo Forest offered to donate high-end homestays for the community to set up on their own lands... all fully-owned by them. What is more, we have offered to run these homestays for them and train their young men and women in the fine ‘art’ of hospitality. Within a few short years they will be running their own entrepreneurial businesses independently, without any external help.
Photo Courtesy: Sunil Mehta
I’ll drink to that.
So will the hundreds of good people who patronise the homestays and landscapes that local communities will rewild, not just in Maharashtra and Rajasthan, but across India as you are at pains to point out to decision-makers. In my view Sanctuary’s COCOON Conservancy concept is set to restructure wildlife tourism in India by turning it into a vital conservation instrument that offers people dignity and right livelihoods, while giving wild species both space and security. Wildlife tourism could be a game changer because it can employ more people per rupee invested than almost any factory, or industry and in the process it will place India in a leadership position on the global stage as a major force to battle climate change through rewilding and biodiversity conservation. But Bittu, this will only happen if the idea remains sustainable. No idea can be sustained solely on largesse and the uncertainty of human intent. Local communities must directly benefit as partners and they must see the wisdom in making biodiversity restoration a part of their cycle of life.
Author: Bittu Sahgal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 4, April 2018.