Review of Madhav Gadgil’s A Walk Up The Hill — Living with People and Nature: A cautionary tale

Madhav Gadgil’s memoir is also a lesson on how India’s battle to safeguard ecology was won and lost 

September 15, 2023 09:00 am | Updated 09:00 am IST

The tribal communities inside the Similipal Tiger Biosphere Reserve get together at Barehipani village in Odisha. These villagers are continuing their fight against the state government for their forest rights recognition.

The tribal communities inside the Similipal Tiger Biosphere Reserve get together at Barehipani village in Odisha. These villagers are continuing their fight against the state government for their forest rights recognition. | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

As a teenager, he writes a letter to ornithologist Salim Ali at Bombay Natural History Society who replies to him about why one of the feathers of the green bee-eater disappears for a few weeks. He wants to see the hills and study communities of Kodagu in Karnataka when he is nine years old, and he tags along with anthropologist Irawati Karve for a month. He wants to get married to a girl at Fergusson College and does that. Ecologist and policy maker Madhav Gadgil’s life is stuff made on dreams — but those that he has fulfilled.

Madhav Gadgil

Madhav Gadgil | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

His memoir, A Walk Up The Hill: Living with People and Nature, is a repository of information about how India’s battle for safeguarding ecology was won and lost. It is also a life lived on his terms. Gadgil pulls no punches as he takes on the caste system or corruption or community forestry that have played a role in India’s ecology and biodiversity.

Deforestation in India.

Deforestation in India. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Why are forests dwindling?

In spare prose, he makes sense of India’s huge biodiversity, diverse ecological zones, community requirements ranging from those who live in the foothills of revered mountains to those who live with sacred groves. He sees the Forest Department’s role as that of facilitating destruction of forests by snapping the symbiotic relationship between the communities and forests for some fabled greater good. “Our forests are fast dwindling in area and a major reason for this is that no segment of our population has a personal stake in the protection of tree cover,” he points out.

Fishing boats anchored at Bunder in Mangaluru during the 61-day annual deep sea fishing holiday in the coastal districts.

Fishing boats anchored at Bunder in Mangaluru during the 61-day annual deep sea fishing holiday in the coastal districts. | Photo Credit: Manjunath H.S.

The mental framework he brings to his life can be seen from his experience aboard a Japanese trawler experimenting with new technology. “I have always been game for giving everything a try, so I joined them and thoroughly enjoyed the taste of raw crab meat. I am a field ecologist and field anthropologist rolled into one, and a field anthropologist must eat and drink whatever the people he is working with are eating and drinking for them to fully accept him,” writes Gadgil. But instead of learning from the Japanese, Gadgil learns from the fisherfolk that deep sea fishing will disturb the sea bottom and affect breeding. Something he articulates as a ‘precautionary principle’.

Gadgil is among the first Indian ecologists trained in Harvard and influenced by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. While Carson’s book led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Gadgil’s work has influenced environmental norms across India including the Biological Diversity Act. One of his first forays into planning was with the Karnataka State Board for Wildlife, 1976-82. Over the years, his key contribution includes the People’s Biodiversity Register, which incorporates locally-sourced information for understanding and managing biodiversity. Gadgil was also one of the founders of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

The Ghats connect

A view of the Western Ghats in Munnar, Kerala.

A view of the Western Ghats in Munnar, Kerala. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Every monsoon, Indians living in the Western Ghats area remember Gadgil and his policy document that came out from his research in the fragile hilly region. An enthusiastic adopter of technology ranging from computer programming for research in the late ’60s at Harvard to satellite imagery from 1972 for understanding changes in environment, a PhD at 27 did not stop his learning or research. The result: he could make connections from diverse environmental events like the cyclone that hit Gujarat in May 2021 and brought heavy rain to the west coast. “The west coast of India is bound to see more severe cyclones as the seas continue to get warmer,” is his dire warning.

At a time when green norms are being dismantled at a rapid clip across the country, Gadgil’s life comes across as a lesson. A lesson that India is unwilling to learn but appears willing to pay a high price for not learning.

PS: Incidentally, Sulochana Gadgil, the girl Madhav Gadgil married, is considered an authority on monsoon meteorology. 

A Walk Up The Hill: Living with People and Nature; Madhav Gadgil, Penguin Allen Lane, ₹999.

serish.n@thehindu.co.in

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