FACE TO FACE: Bittu Sahgal, Environmental activist and writer

Published: March 3, 2014 - 14:06

‘Leave Me Alone... Nature Needs Half’
Hardnews Bureau Delhi

Environmental activist and writer Bittu Sahgal is the founder editor of Sanctuary Asia, a leading wildlife and ecological magazine in the country. He has been associated with Project Tiger from its inception, and one of the missions he began, Kids for Tigers, reaches out to 650 schools across 15 Indian cities, covering over a million children. Sahgal warns of the colossal harm that could befall India’s biodiversity due to a blind embracing of unsustainable development practices 

What’s the status of the whole tiger conservation programme in the country?

From the Prime Minister downwards, it is a misunderstood initiative. Businessmen love to love the tiger, but equally they love iron ore, coal, bauxite, lignite and uranium lying under wild tiger paws. Human rights activists, forgetting that the tiger’s forest supplies villages with the water they need for survival, imagine, mistakenly, that those who ask for tigers to be saved care nothing for people. The bureaucracy in India cannot even begin to make the connection between saving tigers and the quality of life of a billion Indians, even though 600 rivers are fed by tiger forests, carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere by these forests and downstream farms owe their natural fertility to the nutrient carried to their lands from tiger forests.


What have been the achievements and the problems in the whole exercise? Also, how do you look at the various government law enforcement efforts vis-a-vis tiger conservation, agencies like WCCB, et al?

The principal achievement is that wild tigers are still alive and this is not thanks to the government, but in spite of it. Frankly, we are squandering the Herculean effort that was put in by people, often at the cost of their lives, over the past five decades. We have lost more than half of all tiger habitats that existed on the day that Indira Gandhi created Project Tiger in 1973. Because the Prime Minister’s office and India’s Planning Commission have paid only lip service to the issue of protecting tigers and their habitat for the past eight years, we find that those mandated with protecting the tiger are starved of funds. They are also victimised when they do their jobs well and they find themselves isolated by a system that seeks short term profit, ignoring long term costs to the nation from climate change, floods, and droughts. 


Is there a need to streamline the administration aspect with regards to wildlife conservation? There are multiple agencies and departments that are responsible for administration and enforcement.

The administration of India is still working on an old agenda gifted to us by the British: “Quickly strip the land of all it can give you and turn it to cash, or political power.” This is why we find dysfunction in place of effective law enforcement and management of wildernesses that are vital to the survival of not just the tiger but hundreds of other species, plants and animals, which are fading unsung in India. The dysfunction is best illustrated by the fact that flood relief and drought relief agencies both seem unaware that a third agency, the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife (MoEF) is failing in the task of protecting the natural forests and ecosystems, which is why the incidence of floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and more intense. Similarly, the Home Ministry and the MoEF work in different silos, while terrorists, insurrectionists and the underworld rip off our nation’s forests and wildlife to finance their malevolent objectives, unhindered. I could go on. Basically, we suffer from a myopic leadership, which in the name of development, is actually causing India to move rapidly towards financial and social collapse at the hands of climate change... the handmaiden of ecosystem and biodiversity loss. 

Can humans and tigers co-exist? Man—animal conflict is a major issue. In some areas like in Tadoba, it has become a big issue.

If both exist in high densities, wildlife and humans cannot possibly survive together. This is why Sanctuary has launched a campaign to give voice to the tiger’s survival imperative: “Leave Me Alone... Nature Needs Half”. Fortunately, nature is a self-repairing entity. If we merely desist from pillaging it, misusing resources and foisting poor governance on our land, water and air, nature’s balance will be restored and human life will improve. That, of course, is easier said than done.


What is your take on tourism? There seems to be a confusion with many saying that it be totally banned in reserved forests while there are others who say that controlled tourism has its own benefits.

Tourism is a conservation tool. A vital conservation tool. But in recent years, a bunch of no-gooders have moved into the tourism business and they have no respect either for destination, or the visitors who are their customers. Thus, over-crowding, noise, blocking of animal routes, breaking of rules and more are the order of the day. As with most situations, the good travel professionals quietly go about their work, trying as best they can to distance themselves from the short-cut takers. Fortunately, there is a way out of all this. Commmunity-owned Nature Conservancies (CNCs) born out of failed and marginal farms that fringe our sanctuaries and national parks are on the anvil. These work on the principle that wild animals need more space and the people living directly next to these animals have the greatest legitimacy to earn livelihoods from the restoration of such biodiversity. It’s a win-win all round.


What do you make of the efforts of the corporate players, especially Aircel India? Have they been successful? 

Aircel has been greatly successful in raising awareness and the Aircel partnership with NDTV and the Wildlife Conservation Trust, founded by Hemendra Kothari, in particular, has physically resulted in beefing up wildlife protection by supplementing the resources of government. There are several other examples. For instance, the solid foundation laid by the late S P Godrej and the Godrej family and their support for WWF-India. But by and large, the corporate sector must do some introspection. They flood the Prime Minister’s Office each day asking for environmental protection rules to be bent and broken to favour them. This amounts to encashing public survival assets at the cost of public good.   


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