- Bittu Sahgal is among India’s pioneering conservation and environment journalists, who started the publication of Sanctuary Asia in 1981, after being involved with India’s tiger conservation efforts in the 1970s.
- After being a ringside observer for the past five decades of developments in the country, Sahgal feels that his generation has been “Homo stupidus” and has spoiled the environment for the future generations.
- In this interview, Sahgal holds out hope for the future due to the regenerative power of the environment and the promise that the young people are bringing in.
Institutionalised conservation efforts in India started with the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 and the launch of the Project Tiger – to conserve the apex predator and its habitat – in 1973. The then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, had already laid the foundation for these by hosting in Delhi the general assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1969 and participating in the United Nations Conference on the Environment at Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972.
As a young man in the 1970s, Bittu Sahgal, was attracted to conservation from its leaders such as Kailash Sankhala and Salim Ali. He started participating in the Project Tiger activities. Nudged by forester and conservationist Fateh Singh Rathore to do something more enduring, Sahgal started the Sanctuary Asia magazine, which continues to be published even today.
In addition to his schooling by the greats in the conservation field, Sahgal’s exposure to environmentalists and development activists such as Sunderlal Bahuguna, Baba Amte and Shivaram Karanth anchored his social concerns. Thus after years of championing the conservation cause, he talks about the need for conservationists and human rights activists must come together and “stop this bickering.”
To put words into action, Sahgal established the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, and has initiated projects such as ‘Kids for Tigers’ and ‘Mud on Boots’ to initiate the younger generation into conservation.
Mongabay: I have with me pioneering environment journalist, editor, activist, conservationist, Mr. Bittu Sahgal. You have been publishing Sanctuary Asia since 1984 and environment journalism has gone through lots of changes. How has the environment journalism field changed over the decades?
Bittu Sahgal: Well, the field has changed considerably, because our knowledge of the biosphere and our knowledge of human nature has suddenly changed. When we started out quite honestly, all we were looking to do was to save the large animals as an excuse to save large spaces. Project Tiger, for instance, it wasn’t the tiger, the tiger was just a metaphor. We knew that. I’ll never forget sitting down in a meeting where Kailash Sankhla was talking to us and said, look, don’t ever count tigers. You just see whether the water that used to dry in the month of November and December continues to run full. The streams run full till January, February, and March. And when they run full till June, then you know that everything is okay, the tigers will come back.
So in other words, whether it was the tiger or the elephant or the rhino or the xyz or the great Indian bustard, a simple thing was that nature knows best. Protect the biosphere, protect the ecosystems, and everything will look after itself, because human beings are not the best tree planters, we are not the best caretakers, all we can do is be watchful, and just make sure nobody else damages it. And everything will be alright.
But of course, there’s much more to it than that, you know. You can well imagine with Baba Amte and Sundarlal Bahuguna, literally feeding us with news that okay, we’re human beings. So we must make sure that those people living on the lowest rung are the primary beneficiaries of biodiversity restoration. It was a very complicated time because India had gone on an almost insane spree of destroying ecosystems in order to give human beings, I don’t know, it can’t be called livelihoods. Everybody’s game then was, the World Bank’s game was, to raise people’s status to above middle class, make them as rich as you are, make them as greedy as you are, if you want to put it that way. And then, yeah, I suppose really what is required is that people like us have to reduce our consumption, not increase it. And people at the very bottom, they had to increase their consumption because they had no consumption. So it was all a very complicated thing, at one level you’re looking to save the biosphere and on another level, you’re looking to protect the communities that exist, who are living at the lowest, lowest levels of survival.
And the greatest tragedy of my days, if you look at, if you really want to know what the problem was, it was that those fighting for human rights and those fighting for the biosphere, were unable to come together after the passage of the doyens of yesterday. Baba Amte, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Shivaram Karanth, all signed a joint appeal to the then Prime Minister, that said: “Baag Bachao Bharat Bachao” (save the tiger, save India). They knew that saving the tiger meant saving the sources of water, they knew that without saving the forests, the cultures will go. But today things are a little different. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But I’m sure there are many more questions we have to ask.
Mongabay: So when you started, I’m sure that there was maybe less awareness. Because as you said, there’s far more awareness and far more feedback loops [today], because we do see these extreme weather events visiting us almost every year. Mumbai gets more than its share of floods almost every monsoon. It should be starting out in a few months now. But I’m sure when you started out and when you started talking about large species, large, charismatic species, did you face the criticism of being elitist? And then how has that transition happened over the decades? How did you sort of convince people of the policy and public impact of the work that you were doing?
Bittu Sahgal: It wasn’t just, I mean, the least of all the criticisms was that we are elitist. You know at one point in one of these meetings where I was playing that near-impossible role of trying to bring two sectors together – the human rights guys, and the guys protecting the biosphere – I was told that “You know, you elitist middle-class guys, you’re looking to protect the tiger.” So I said, look, I am elitist. I am middle class, I am the problem, I am everything. But show me one elitist tiger or one elitist elephant? Don’t you think that those creatures require to be protected because they are the gardeners of Eden?
So at that time, somehow or the other, the thinking minds understood that it was not just to the economists and policymakers that we would address. We were together when it came to addressing policymakers on the impact or the negative impact of large dams. But we were still … it was my failure. It was my failure. You know, I could not convince people that worshipping the mahua tree makes no sense unless you also worship the moth in the back that pollinates the mahua tree, which the adivasis in Bastar did, they worshipped every creature, they worship the ants! So this whole idea of wildlife becoming elitist, it became elitist, possibly because of the fact that we were poor communicators, that there were very, very tight, sort of positions taken and human egos were very, very large. And let’s put it like this. The bottom line is, as of now, we failed India. My generation failed India.
Mongabay: I think that you’re just being very humble and modest and just saying this. We all know that through the years that you have been running Sanctuary and running campaigns through Sanctuary, you’ve had impacts on the ground, impacts in public perception, impacts in policy and policy level impacts. Do you want to share with our viewers a couple of one or two incidents where the work that you did through Sanctuary had an impact?
Bittu Sahgal: Well, I would say the first thing that happened in the mid-80s was that when we started Sanctuary in 1981, it was at the behest of Fateh Singh Rathore, who said that you city guys are no good. Really, when I asked him that, can you tell me what I can do to save the tiger? He said you guys are no good, go back to Bombay, have a few parties and come back next year, ask the same question. What are you guys good for? So that’s what launched Sanctuary.
But when we launched Sanctuary, we discovered that there were some people who loved what we were doing, they were the minority. And a large number of people accused me of being a CIA spy. I’ve been accused of being a tiger bone trader by people to whom we were saying, please stop these tiger shows that are taking place in Madhya Pradesh and things like this, because you’re cornering the tiger and so on and so forth. So, there were these splits and divisions.
But the elitism and the human rights abuses of the earliest protection of wildlife have substance because it was English-speaking people who spoke out largely because of the socio-economic situation in India, where people living in villages had no voice to start with, there was only Doordarshan when we started, there was no social media, no nothing else. So when you talk of environmental journalism at that point, just take the television out of the picture. Because you could only say at that point what Doordarshan agreed to have you say, All India Radio, but the journalists, they were thinkers, they could have used anything. You take Claude Alvares, Vandana Shiva, Medha Patkar, you take all these greats. You know Shivram Karanth used to write poetry. Sugatha Kumari, these were the greats! And journalism at that point of the nature that you spoke off with Claude Alvares.
Traditional journalism really came to its fruition when Dr. Manmohan Singh introduced and opened up the markets in 1990. All these industries that were now being told you can’t now operate because you’re poisoning, you’re killing, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, they all came to India. So we began to focus on them and saying that if you want to bring the capital in, then please bring the checks and balances which include environmental impacts, ecological impacts, allow those laws to be done. And to be fair, at that point, if you look at Indira Gandhi or you look at Rajeev Gandhi, then what you will find is that all the laws, the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, CRZ Act in 1990, we had the best environmental legislation in the world, bar none. But we had amongst the worst implementation. So we kept on. It was just a question of keeping on. Gopi, it wasn’t a question of our being extra smart. It was a question of us being persistent. And the truth was on our side.
Mongabay: I know you touched about it just now, how 1991 being one major watershed where, till then environmentalism was one shape – the Chipko, Silent Valley, Narmada, Ferkuva where there were people [protesting] – and then post 1991, it took another shape, because environmentalism itself sort of became a very middle class concern, because urban middle class grew in numbers, and the focus was on urban middle class and middle class concerns. So in one way, middle class was talking about the environment, but in another way, it wasn’t sort of picking up the issues, the real issues, they were picking up issues which they liked to pick up, so how, how do you think we journalists can sort of try and find this balance in between this?
Bittu Sahgal: Even though there were two ends of the string, you know, real issues and issues that somebody wanted to pick up, the fact is, you pick up any thread, and you reach to the same place if you’re honest on the inside. And if you looked at the Chipko movement, what was the Chipko movement doing? They were saying, look, don’t cut these trees down. Because these trees are our life. These trees are our water, these trees are our forests. But the trees themselves were being looked after, the wildlife which managed to flourish in forests that they prevented from being destroyed. So, in a sense, the Chipko movement was one of the first and finest wildlife movements in India.
After that came Project Tiger where, by that time already the wildlife trade had become such a huge thing. Tigers were being slaughtered. So there were people moved out, there were human rights abuses, that also became part of the journalists of yesterday, that how can you protect the tiger without abusing the human rights of those people living closest to the forest.
There were many things, Gopi. It’s impossible to encompass in one interview, but I put it to you like this, that far away from let’s say, not very far away, far away from the heart of let’s say, tiger forests and elephant forests, there’s a place called Dahanu, the World Bank wanted to finance for BSES, a thermal plant of 500 megawatts, and it was heaven. Clean beaches, next to it a great forest, which were amongst the finest in India. And so I had filed a case in the Supreme Court at that point. And it was decided in our favour that the next 500-megawatt plant won’t come up. And that was the birth of the Eco Sensitive Zonation because around Dahanu, 25 kilometres came the order from the Supreme Court saying that for 25 kilometres, no other polluting industry, no mining but you could run chakkis, you could run cycle factories, you could do all the small things.
Everything is sort of in upside down waves, and there are many, many more things than this, the CRZ, as I said, the Coastal Regulations Zone. In the 90s, we knew what was going to happen with carbon accumulation in the atmosphere. And we said the tides are going to get worse. And at that point, they allowed the legislation to go through primarily because I think not too many people were affected by that legislation, not too many large industries were affected. And then the tourism industry came in and said oh, we want to be right here, we want to do this, and we want to do that. So today, of course everything is being watered down. But all these things that were born in the 70s, 80s and 90s, at this point, the realisation has come in not because of any great thing we have done. But because of the hard evidence, a cyclone here, a flood there, a tsunami, an earthquake; because the reservoir-induced seismicity is a reality when large areas have flooded, we don’t know what’s happening or the Himalayan landslides that are taking place.
So the shift of the younger generation and 50% of India is under 30 years old. So I think that they have greater investment and they have greater legitimacy to ask for a better future. And I’m not being humble. I’m being really sad and sorry; my generation was born doing nothing for freedom. And now we are colonising our children. And we are calling it development. And it’s not because people have got fangs and they want blood. It’s just that they don’t understand, they have not read the book, they have not understood that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. They have not understood this.
So every time they go in and take a mangrove patch away from Mumbai or Thane Creek, they’re making sure that deep draft ships won’t come into the Mumbai port because of siltation. Every time they build roads, which should not be built in the Himalayas, they are going to destroy tourism because mudslides are going to take place.. Every time they put 100,000 crores of rupees into building large dams under the Himalaya. They’re stranded assets before they’ve even started or being finished. Because that the glaciers have melted, the river run data has changed, and so on and so forth. I think that like, you know, Gopi, evolution takes place, there’s evolution of minds, there’s evolution of purpose. And at some point, there will be an evolution of human beings who are called Homo sapiens, but I would call them Homo stupidus right now. Very stupid.
Mongabay: But are you seeing promise in the young generation? Because we are seeing climate action by very young people asking inconvenient questions, questions which the older people find unnecessary, irrelevant. But then these are the other questions that they need answers for. Because they’ll be facing the consequences of our actions in future.
Bittu Sahgal: I said earlier as well, the young people have the legitimacy to ask for a better world. And we run a programme called Kids for Tigers, which reaches out to a million people, we’ve been running it for 20 years. It’s a very butterfly touch. All we do is we say that, look, you can’t save the tiger, if you don’t save the forest, you save the forest, you’ve saved the water sources of more than 500 Rivers. And in the process of doing this, every time a bird drops a seed or an elephant drops seeds, and when they grow, then they’re pulling carbon down from the atmosphere and we are controlling climate change. We’re controlling floods, we are controlling droughts, and we are giving fertility to farms.
So these connections, the young people understand but the young people don’t have their hands on the wheel right now. They’re just passengers sitting at the back. And their elders are taking the rear-view mirror out and saying, why are you looking back? They’re taking the brake out and saying why are you stopping progress from moving forward? And the young kids are saying, look, there’s a cliff over there, the car’s headed straight down, stop it, but their voices are not listened to because there’s glass between this young generation and my very arrogant, very ignorant, very avaricious, and very apathetic generation.
Mongabay: But the hope is that at least some of the seeds that you have sown will bear fruit in decades to come. And it’s already [happening], there’s already voices coming. But I want to ask you about, a good amount of your work was on protecting species and that has borne fruit in the past few decades. But we keep hearing of a whole range of conflicts where humans have got into areas where there was wildlife, or wildlife is outside into areas where they were not there earlier. So how do you sort of see this bridge? Because I’m sure as an editor, much of the story ideas you get, would be on human wildlife conflict. And I mean, how do you look philosophically at this?
Bittu Sahgal: Well, I look at it as simple as this. In India, we say: “naa rahe baans naa baje bansuri” (if there is no reed there will be no flute). Young India will have to understand that it has no future unless and until it manages to restore the ecosystems, which gives the subcontinent life, all our cultures, all our music, all our dances, all our religions, all our medicine, it all came from nature. And unless we make sure that nature is supreme, everything else will be washed away, like matchsticks in a flood. So I would say to you right now that here is the situation.
Project Tiger clearly had human rights abuses in the 1970s. I came into the picture in the mid-70s. But the fact of the matter is that there is no human right more essential and centric to survival, than the right to clean air, clean water, and safe food and soils that can produce food. So what the world is asking of us right now, and of young people are asking of this more so is that to stop this bickering, human rights and biosphere defenders must come together. And that is the only way we will change policy tomorrow.
This reality is not just a question of young people and us talking, we’re talking to the economists. And we’re saying your natural capital is vanishing. It’s like “ameer baap ke ameer bete” (the rich sons of the rich father). They’re selling all the gold and diamonds and jewels and thrones and saying this is economics. This is not economics. A mangrove is an infrastructure. A forest is an infrastructure. A river is an infrastructure. A wetland, which is dry in summer and wet in the monsoons, is an infrastructure. Unless we accept it, unless the economists and planners and politicians and businessmen understand that you cannot destroy one infrastructure to build another, which is by any measure less valuable, then the economy of India is at the brink of collapse.
There is no water left in India, there’s no water left in India, our aquifers are being poisoned, they’re being emptied, our glaciers are melting, our coastal aquifers are getting salinized because we are building too many dams and there is not enough water pressure to keep the salt water out. So at one level, there is this. But I don’t want to leave you, your generation and the generation after you with this world is coming to an end because the world will not come to an end, the world will not come to an end because nature is self-repairing.
Unlike the Titanic, which sank even as people were playing Blue Danube in the stateroom. And even as the people in the boiler room were shouting, stop, stop, there’s something wrong, we got to do this. And on the deck, there were people who were let’s say, you know, the lifeboats were being washed away. The Titanic could not repair its own hull. But nature can repair everything. A dirty river will come back, a forest even while it is being cut, the bees and the birds and the monkeys are replanting. Everything will be alright. The only thing is that we’re making it very uncomfortable for the next generation. And I do believe that human beings will find the wisdom to stop doing what they’re doing now. But the carpet bagging that is going on in the name of it, economics has to stop, you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet.
Mongabay: And we saw some impacts of what you said, you know, nature rebounding during the first lockdown though it was not intended. It was not an intended consequence. But we did see a whole lot of benefits – people seeing the mountains, people seeing animals, which they hadn’t seen, etc. But we have sort of realised that systematically government policies have been diluting forest laws, wildlife laws, environmental impact assessment safeguards. In fact, in Mongabay, we have a series which we call Hewing the Regulatory Tree, you know, where it’s like a tree that’s being locked branch by branch. How do you think we as environment journalists can sort of work to protect this?
Bittu Sahgal: I think environmental journalists now need to be the glue between people who have the power to stop this misunderstood notion of what development is. It is time for human rights and social groups to come together. It is time for you, as a journalist, to explain to both groups who are today only slinging arrows at each other and they’re not sitting down and talking, that look, if we had Project Tiger that succeeded in protecting dry deciduous forest here, a rainforest there, you know a temperate forest here, then, outside that temperate forest, there are people living. It’s about time that those people’s lands that have been devastated by coal, by lignite, by iron ore, by all manner of destruction, it’s about time that we got together and told those people to call a halt. If we unite, then I can promise you this, it will not take 20 years, it will take four to five years. And India cannot only change policies, but the ecology of these places, the actual ecosystems can come back to life, the grasses, the bushes, the trees, it can come back to life.
Let’s give a specific example. India is one of the world’s largest large dam builders, but almost to a dam they’re all dying early; their cost-benefit ratios were never fulfilled. Instead of relieving us from floods, they’re causing floods. Very often in places like Marathwada, at the end of the monsoon, even then, two months later, the reservoirs are empty. Why are they empty? They’re empty because a dam and its catchment forests are like your teeth and your gums. There’s no point doing orthodontia if you’ve got gum disease, which is going to cause your teeth to fall out.
So what we need to do is to put back, look at what’s happened, more people have migrated away from cities to their villages, than migrated during independence. Now those people need jobs. Those jobs need to be to restore ecosystems of the catchment areas of large dams. So that floods are controlled, so that the reservoirs are filled, so that we can get agricultural supply and water supply. If we do this, please believe me, we don’t have to go planting trees like toothpicks to save the world. The bees, the butterflies, the moths, the fruit-eating bats, these are the ones. The elephants, the tigers; even the tiger plants grass, the grass seed gets onto the side and he goes and he plants, the grass that his prey eats and he depends upon it. Nature will fix itself.
But we have to understand that this whole delusion that GDP will trickle wealth down. People don’t get wealth trickled down, they’re getting trickled on. And its better that we have people getting jobs to restore ecosystems. So that GDP begins to bubble up from down up. And people living close to the biodiversity that is still extant in India need to become the first beneficiaries of that biodiversity.
I’m a Punjabi so I can say this. I don’t want a fat Punjabi contractor to come with a helicopter, drop some cement and say I run an eco lodge. I want that eco lodge to be owned by the people outside the protected area. These protected areas remaining in India are like the temple forests of yesterday. They are the vanarais (sacred groves). There they are the places where our ancients used to say, don’t go, don’t even walk through here because the spirits of our ancients will be disturbed. Treat them as temples now. And in the process of doing this, please believe me, dahi jamane ke liye jaman chahiye, abhi aap jaman ki lassi banayenge toh kya fayda? (to set curd, you need a starter, there’s no use making lassi with this starter).
The fact is, we should not lose hope. There are enough people even in my generation who understand. We need the unity to make sure that we talk rationally, and not be afraid of saying I love nature. All is born of love. But nature is also our protector. And this is the lesson we teach children. And we are now running an adult literacy programme. Each One, Teach One. Each child teaches an adult what the real priorities of life are, and we shall prevail. Mongabay will help us to do that.
Mongabay: How did the idea of the Mud on Boots project, where you’re supporting the grassroots environmentalists, evolve? Do you want to tell us?
Bittu Sahgal: That idea evolved from the mind of a young 11-year-old girl who turned 28 or 30 and said that we must form bridges between those protecting nature and those living with and close to nature, Mud on Boots are literally people who have got mud on their boots, they live on the ground. And so Cara Tejpal conceived a programme called Mud on Boots where we took different people from all over India, and we supported them in very small ways.
Sanctuary is not a large organisation, but we got donors to give us small grants. Those grants allowed one person to look at the ibex, another person to look at mangrove forests, a third person to try and reduce elephant-man conflict in Chhattisgarh, a fourth person to sit and look at the fishing cat somewhere in West Bengal. And like this, we went all over. And right now we are actually going to Kashmir. And in Kashmir, there are beautiful trekking routes. And there are people who know those forests there, they are Gujjars. So we’re working with the Gujjar families to say that look, just take an idiot like me to cycle up there and he will pay you enough money and thank you for introducing your beautiful mountains to him. In the process, you might see a bear, you might see the flowers of blue Poppy, we don’t know. So we want them to become the primary beneficiaries of biodiversity restoration. And if we do that, that’s Mud on Boots. It’s the Kaveri in one place, wonderful, wonderful people living there. And their message is simple. While Karnataka and Tamil Nadu fight over the waters of the Kaveri, who’s protecting the source of the Kaveri? And that source is being maintained by the wildlife of the Western Ghats. So we are trying to create those bridges. And we will create those bridges, and young people will do it. So this 11-year-old girl called Cara, who is now heading this project, she has at least another 1000 people like her, and we will soon be phased out. And all will be well again.
Mongabay: Yes. And that’s a very nice message to the future, and the future generation. The very last question I want to ask you about is that after the Covid-19 pandemic, impact on overall finances and economy of not just India but you know, everywhere. And that’s made an impact on environment journalism, and the space is shrinking, opportunities are shrinking. But there are a lot of environment journalists who still want to continue because they are there because of a certain agency and a certain drive. What’s the message you would like to give them, a message of endurance you would like to give the environment journalists?
Bittu Sahgal: I would give environmental journalists the message of endurance that says basically, that you’re on the right side of history. As far as this pandemic was concerned, they need to understand, they need to study they need to understand and not spout forth, and opinions that came second and third and fourth hand. Here is the truth with this pandemic. The pandemic was a direct result of the illegal wildlife trade in the world, which was something like USD 20 billion, or USD 30 billion. It was linked to human trafficking. It was linked to narcotics, it was linked to arms, and the operators were common. It started with a bat.
There’s a man called David Quammen who wrote this in 2012. He said this is going to happen. The virus in the bat spilled over, he wrote a book called Spillover. It spilled over and then the largest traded mammal in the world today is the pangolin, the chances are that the virus spilled over into the pangolin. The pangolin was boiled and eaten. And virus came into the much larger host Homo stupidus – Homo sapiens.
And the fact is that we lost USD 40 trillion in one year. USD 40 trillion dollars of global economy because we didn’t think it was important enough to staunch the wildlife trade, in combination with the staunching of all those other misunderstandings that I can take an entire valley and drown it so I can grow sugar cane, or I can take an entire area and completely obliterate it so I can build a new Collectorate for a city or like they are planning to do in Uttarakhand now. Destroy the elephant reserves so that we can expand an airport.
Now, these are big boys with big toys, you know, they’ll be taught a lesson. But in the process, they might trample us. So I’m sorry, my truth is never something that comes out all sweet and nice. But whether you’re a human rights activist, whether you’re an economist, whether you’re an environmentalist, or a writer or a poet, you are dependent upon wild nature. And once we understand that you are dependent upon wild nature, you will also understand that whatever happened is cyclical. You know it’s cyclical, and things will come back to normal again, but a few people will be hurt. I would rather that people on the top get hurt, because they had been milking the system and playing, gaming the system for the last 50-100 years. And let the people at the bottom rungs of the ecological ladder become not only the repairers of, but the beneficiaries of restored ecosystems.
We are going to win this battle. When I say we are going to win this battle, I am not talking of Homo sapiens, I’m talking about me as being a bumped-up monkey, which is all that I really am. I’m just an animal. And the system will survive. But it will break those who disobey. If we don’t adapt, then we are destined to die. Darwin said this a long time ago in different words. And it’s a good message for the corporate sector. It’s a good message for economists; it’s a good message for politicians. If you don’t adapt, you will be made irrelevant, which is sometimes worse than dying itself.
Banner image: Bittu Sahgal, the editor of Sanctuary Asia and the founder of Sanctuary Nature Foundation, with school children. Photo from Sanctuary Nature Foundation.