Taking on many roles for environmental advocacy, Sanctuary magazine editor Bittu Sahgal says that while we are all part of the problem, to become a part of a solution, you need a certain degree of madness
It’s great fun listening to him. All the young conservationists in the hall are hanging on to every word he says. He’s not giving any great gyaan on how to save the planet. Just opening up our eyes to the hard truths with his wicked sense of humour, very self-deprecating at most times. The crux of Bittu Sahgal’s talk on how we are messing up our planet and its environment lies in one statement — “Everybody’s saying the right things but doing the wrong things.”
Environmental activist, tiger protector, author, and founding editor of Sanctuary Asia, one of the only two wildlife and ecology magazines coming out of India, Bittu Sahgal has been very vocal in his environmental advocacy since the 1980s about the need for wildlife conservation and more recently on the need to battle climate change.
He was recently in Bangalore to talk to participants at the WCY 2014 conference, organised by Wildlife Conservation and You, on conservation outreach. He weaved in personal anecdotes, how he came to start Sanctuary Asia, the kind of threats he’s faced in opposing bigwigs… “It’s been a long and rewarding journey for me. But I am selfish — I have done only what I’ve enjoyed doing. I have not worked a single day,” he declared with childlike glee. We are all part of the complex problem we have created for ourselves, admits Bittu. But it takes a certain drive to be a part of the change. “We can articulate the problem and the solution. But to become a part of the solution, you need a certain degree of madness.”
Recalling his own experiences at Ranthambore, he also pointed out to the young conservationists and students gathered the one thing that has changed across generations: “We enjoyed nature the way it was meant to be. You need to engage with the forest. It can’t be a peep show.”
Everyone asks him what they can do to help the environment. He says “Take a cue from Gandhiji, who said just because you can’t do anything, don’t do nothing… Don’t keep having keyboard conversations.” The younger generation is in a conundrum, he points out. The whole atmosphere now is of self-centred gratification. “At one level they look self-absorbed… but very few of us adults spend time with young ones,” he rues. “In the eight to 18 age group, their greatest asset is their curiosity, lack of cynicism, and self-belief, which work in combination.”
Bangalore is a production centre for ecologists, Bittu observed with a smile. “But the number of trees is going down, just as the number of ecologists is going up!”
Two Cs figure dominantly in Bittu’s ideas — carbon and climate change — “Climate change is not our fault. It’s our disaster. You don’t have time any longer to make mistakes,” he stresses, pointing out to youngsters.
Is India doing anything concrete to counter it? “We are doing concrete things, but in the opposite direction of what the planet is asking us to. Climate change came up 25 to 30 yeas ago. But we didn’t take the right steps. We’re only sending out more carbon into the atmosphere because of our consumption,” he reiterates. Bittu has been an advisor to various ministries and governments on environmental policy making, advising more than five PMs what direction they should take. Has he seen political will to bring about change? “I will draw a parallel between a PM and a CEO. Both work short term, and without exception, every PM has agreed with us, but public utterances and rationalisation leads them to do the wrong thing. They don’t have the power to change direction, to bring change.” The best and strategic way for India now is to rebuild nature. “Use different repair mechanisms — restore coastal, river and wetland systems. Nearly 70 per cent of the country can be gainfully employed in this and we will be returning health to the nation.”
Bittu has a strong belief that his generation messed up, though. It’s something he reiterates in his talk, and later in an interview. “Use the legitimacy of the young to face the irresponsibility of the old… and if you are talking to kids about conservation, you have no right to depress them. You need to fuel them with hope,” is the advice he offered. He started Kids for Tigers, an outreach programme of Sanctuary that worked on sensitising school children to India’s biodiversity and the need to protect it. His belief in the visual media is strong. “It’s already evolved into social media. The power of the moving visual with the relevant words is closest to speaking face-to-face. It’s an effective way to change how humans think. If multimedia is married to the truth, young people recognise it.”
The pace of education is slower than destruction, he says. And the corollary is that disasters are hitting us and we’ve learnt nothing. “It’s all complicated and simple at different levels. India will collapse if we continue what we are doing,” he warns. But he’s a romantic optimist.
“India is the Petri dish where trade and technology will merge with values to lead us away from the precipice. Young India will play a leading role. I think they will make a difference.”