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`Time we went back to the future'

Where the environment is concerned, politicians seem to be unaware of what is in the best interests of the future generations. But there are some who are well intentioned. Will they be able to stem the rot? An account of the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee's exclusive interview with BITTU SAHGAL and the representatives of the `Kids for Tigers' project.

The tiger ambassadors selected for a camp at Ranthambore National Park.

I HAVE been editing the Sanctuary magazine, a wildlife and ecology journal for two decades and have an admission to make. We have failed to put across a very simple message to India: "We are not seeking to protect our wildlife and wildernesses because of their emotional or aesthetic value. The real reason to protect wild India is that the forests, rivers, lakes and other eco-systems are crucial to our water and food security and, therefore, to our social and economic security."

I hasten to add that, when I see (apparently) intelligent people squander our natural wealth, it leaves me desolate. Not because this unfailingly results in floods, droughts, disease and human misery, but because the slow demise of the tiger, elephant, blue poppy, mahseer and green turtle fills me with a loneliness of spirit.

It is to prevent my children from feeling the pain of this loneliness that I am sworn to defend the Himalayan glaciers, the Thar Desert sands, the dripping rainforests of Kudremukh and the throb of life that is tiger land. It was of such matters that the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreed to speak with me when I met him with representatives of "Kids for Tigers", the Sanctuary-Britannia Tiger Programme at his residence earlier this year.

I commented, half-seriously, half in jest, that if Lord Ram were to be banished to a forest in modern India, it would have to be a sanctuary or national park, because most other forests had been destroyed! He chuckled good naturedly and responded to my accusation that the Sangh Parivar had done nothing to save the real temples of Ram — our forests — saying: "I agree that the forests, indeed the earth itself, should be looked upon as a temple of God. But society seems unable or unwilling to treat them with respect. In fact, they are treated merely as commodities for sale. Almost every God and Goddess in our pantheon is associated with some animal or the other. And, that animal is venerated almost as much as the deity itself. Our folklore and arts and crafts reflect our love and reverence for the animal world. Sadly, the reality is otherwise."

Over the past three decades, I have met many Prime Ministers and many more Environment Ministers with whom I have found myself lobbying, fighting, begging and scheming to protect what little remains of our rivers, mountains, wetlands, corals and coasts.

To little avail, I pointed out to the Prime Minister, stating that where the environment was concerned, politicians seemed unaware of what was in the best interests of our children.

Far from taking umbrage, he disarmingly confessed that the children who had eloquently asked him to help save the tiger had moved him deeply. "They have woken up. We cannot afford to remain unconcerned any longer."

I reminded him with more than a little angst that political expediency ruled the day and that it would take very special effort on his part to break from this past. And he said: "We will take hard decisions. Even the Supreme Court is encouraging us to do this. But as the Prime Minister of a nation of one billion people I must also carry the public and different sections of society with me. We will achieve much more if we work together rather than at cross-purposes. I firmly believe that future human development will be linked to protecting the earth from mindless consumption and destruction.

"Repairing the excesses of the 20th Century will be integral to future development programmes. An example is the devastation wrought by drought that we read about today in our papers. Soon the same areas may be in the grip of floods. It is not a secret that forest destruction has a major role to play in both these tragedies. So, we have to evolve a long-term, sustainable perspective on development."

I had been invited to meet the Prime Minister together with Sunil Alagh, Chief Executive Officer of Britannia Industries Ltd. and Dr. Maya Alagh. Together, we informed him, we were trying to raise a young green army of tiger defenders.

Clearly we touched a responsive chord because the Prime Minister, known for his poetry and oratory, was more than just supportive.

He vehemently asserted that his Government could and would start the long climb back towards ecological sanity: "Many of the (environmental) solutions already exist. They do not need to be invented. Take the example of Palamau district in Bihar where pani panchayats harvest water and manage watersheds. Here traditional structures and modern scientific inputs are combined to determine how much water a particular crop needs. This drought-prone area is undergoing a positive change. There are many more examples and many individuals, like Rajinder Singh of the Tarun Bharat Sangh in Alwar (Rajasthan) and Anna Saheb Hazare in Ralegaon Siddi (Maharashtra), Sundarlal Bahuguna and his Chipko movement in Uttaranchal. I believe that in the name of development and modernity we have dismantled strategies for sustainability and traditional life-sustaining structures that had served our people for centuries. Perhaps it is time we went back to the future."

The Prime Minister acknowledged the vital role children were playing by reminding adults of their duty towards the environment.

Delighted to hear such words from the highest executive office in India, I pointed out that when environmentalists propounded identical views they were often branded as anti-development!

To which his instant reaction was: "I believe that environmentalists are playing a vital role in India's development. It was brought to my attention, for instance, that carefully constructed rain water-harvesting systems in Rajasthan, set up centuries ago, were being ravaged by miners who had been given licences for minerals. Soon the affected area was hit by a severe drought. Had the structures been in place, the impact of the drought would have been somewhat less. I hope that such a crucial watchdog role continues to be played by environmentalists. I also hope that some kind of internal self-regulation takes place to prevent lobbies from manipulating environmental groups for narrow ends, which as you know also takes place."

I learned, in the course of our discussions, that he had a much deeper understanding of the cause and effect of ecological destruction than I had presumed.

He had stated at a meeting of Chief Ministers, for instance, that had the Bhitarkanika mangroves not been intact, the super cyclone would have taken an even more vicious toll of human life.

He also reiterated the promise he had made earlier to declare wildlife and forests a "Priority Sector" backed by enhanced allocations and to set up a Forest Commission to reconstruct the Forest Department and give it resources and clout.

He even agreed that, in Kudremukh, his Government had taken a position opposed to that of environmentalists, but added that he hoped such instances would be exceptions. He also stated that while India had good environmental laws, implementation was a problem.

I have been hardened over the years. I do not believe that anything will ever come easy to those fighting to protect the environment in India. But I have been in contact with the Prime Minister for several months now and I do believe he is sincere in his desire to do well by generations yet to be born:

"I wish I could restore the age-old philosophy of co-existence, not merely between human beings, but between all living beings within the cosmos ... this is the only way that the balance of the five basic elements — the panchtatva — air, water, fire, earth and sky can be restored."

He really does seem to want to "leave behind a cleaner, better, safer county and a more beautiful world" for our children.

I intend to be around for as long as it takes, with this Prime Minister and the next, to help make this possible.

The writer is the editor of Sanctuary.

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