Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced the two awards at the convention of the Vishnoi samaj at the Guru Jambeshwar Dham in Churu on April 12. He said the law would be amended to enhance punishment for wildlife poaching. The following is the text of his speech.

"I come here not as a Minister but as a pilgrim and as a student of India's fascinating cultural and ecological history.

The late 15th century was an unusual period in Indian history. This was a period which saw the birth of a large number of social reformers who continue to inspire us even today--Purandaradasa in the south, Shankardev and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the east, Vallabhacharya in central India, Narsinh Mehta in the west, Guru Nanak, Mirabai and Guru Jambeshwar in the northwest, Ravidass and Kabir in the north.

Guru Jambeshwar who founded the Vishnoi sect laid down 29 rules for simple living and high thinking, 8 of which have to do with environmental protection and biodiversity conservation. Also, 363 of his followers led by Amrita Devi sacrificed their lives in Khejarli village near Jodhpur nearly 280 years ago protecting the khejri tree from the greed of the Maharajah of Jodhpur. Amrita Devi inspired Gaura Devi to lead a band of intrepid women to protect their trees in Reni village in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand in 1974 giving rise to the famous Chipko movement. Thus two women, Amrita Devi and Gaura Devi are the pioneers of the environmental conservation movement in our country. They deserve to remembered by all of us. The MoEF will institute national awards in their name to recognise the contributions of communities, particularly women to the cause of forest protection and regeneration.

The Vishnoi community has played a pioneering role in fostering ecological consciousness and its example must be emulated by others in our society. I congratulate the Vishnois for the role they played in apprehending Salman Khan and his buddies. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 is now being amended to make punishment more stringent for offenders. Future Sansar Chands and Salman Khans cannot get away lightly. The Amendments will be introduced in the monsoon session of Parliament.

The Talchapper Blackbuck sanctuary is an unusual sanctuary located as it is in a desert ecosystem. It is about 700 hectares in area and it is being expanded by another 1000 hectares. Although blackbucks are the mainstay, the sanctuary is also a bird-watcher's delight with cranes coming all the way from Central Asia every year during winter. Talchapper must be brought on to the tourist circuit in a public-private partnership mode, perhaps clubbed with the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. Tourism will help in boosting incomes of local communities who must see an economic benefit to them from the preservation of such sanctuaries and protected areas."