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‘Reliving the Memories of an Indian Forester: Memoir of S. Shyam Sunder’ review: Revealing mysteries of the woods in the Western Ghats

A career in government could leave an enthusiastic professional disappointed at the hurdles to creative expression and enterprise, and having to live under the shadow of political and administrative compulsions. But happy endings are possible. What it takes to succeed is a strong belief system, clean hands, plain perseverance and a good measure of luck.

That is the story narrated by S. Shyam Sunder, who began his career as a forester after training in Geology. An astonishing sequence of events led him to a job in the Forest Service in the 1950s and with many twists and turns, concluded with his elevation as the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests for Karnataka.

Away from public view

Forest officers in India work in locations that are away from public view, and perceptive accounts of how they go about their job are rare. Several officers like to keep the mysteries of the woods to themselves, especially when the prying individuals are journalists and researchers. It is equally true that others love partnerships to expand forests and conservation. So when someone is ready to tell a forester’s story, breezily peppered with anecdotes and portraits of people high and low in the system, it is bound to be a refreshing book.

Shyam Sunder, a nephew of litterateur Shivarama Karanth, lays bare all his efforts in this memoir: from picking the most promising trees for planting, monitoring and setting new regulations on the commercial use of forest produce including timber (sometimes levelling the field for villagers vis-a-vis wealthy contractors), keeping avaricious politicians from distributing good forests as patronage, and often ensuring that “development” projects do not devastate the environment, notably the surviving evergreen forests of the Western Ghats.

As a young forest professional, he trained not just in Dehradun’s Indian Forest College, but in France, Ivory Coast and Latin America. Transforming extractive forestry into a socially beneficial enterprise is a demanding goal, considering that the British-era view of the forest was primarily that of an economic resource, seemingly inexhaustible, to be exploited for fuel, furniture, railway sleepers and construction material for everything — including ships that fought wars. Of course, extraction inevitably touched such destructive lows that Karnataka, in the final days of wooden railway sleepers, was ready to offer money to the Union government for wood, but had no more trees to offer.

Species from Africa, America

The prosperity that forests bring in the form of money is best understood by those who sell wood. In the demarcated growing areas, the official post-colonial endeavour was to achieve the highest productivity. Thus, we find the author, in his stint as Divisional Forest Officer in Shimoga putting his studies to the test. He had learnt of bioclimate-based forest classification at the French Institute and he set about sourcing the best seeds from around the world. African mahoganies of the genus Khaya, a Terminalia species from the Ivory Coast, and non-forest crops such as cocoa, oil palm and avocado came with handsome results. It turns out that tropical species from West Africa and Central America have been grown in Karnataka forests since the 1930s.

“One of the major enactments during my time in the government secretariat was the Tree Preservation Act of 1976,” recalls Shyam Sunder, pointing out that several States had adopted it since. While the law then appeared revolutionary, with a prohibition on felling of trees, he says it would work much better with incentives to grow more trees everywhere, including on private land and urban spaces. Efforts to prescribe minimum tree cover have not succeeded, though. Yet, in reserve forests and converted wastelands, things have worked better.

King cobra and a jumbo

A forester cannot spend life in the woods without encountering diverse wildlife. In Shimoga, Shyam Sunder describes a near-encounter with a king cobra hidden in a tree stump, and a life-saving manoeuvre executed by a colleague, Gaviaiah, who dived and pushed the officer to the ground, away from the snake. In Kollegal, a tusker confrontation on a narrow hillside road during a family trip left everyone shaken. The jumbo decided to retreat down a slope, rather than charge at his jeep.

Throughout the many absorbing accounts of life as a forester, the author comes across as candid and humble, buoyed by a zest for life and relationships. His wife Hira and their children formed the bedrock through the decades, while the camaraderie of talented colleagues, respect from politicians including Chief Ministers like Ramakrishna Hegde and Gundu Rao, and the appreciation of peers burnished his career.

Ramakrishna Hegde showed maturity as an administrator. That becomes clear from an anecdote. The Chief Minister did not react, when the author took a major administrative decision for ethical reasons, disregarding the government’s instructions. Even more striking, Hegde was not offended when he was told to his face by the officer that he should not feel happy at the poor giving him respect with no expectation, since they had got virtually nothing. What is more, Hegde acknowledged later in life that his view on forestry (‘remove green cover to free up land’) was wrong, and luckily not pursued.

Aftermath of populist policies

Shyam Sunder, who is a cousin of wildlife biologist K. Ullas Karanth, shines the light on the less salutary effects of populist policies. Rampant loss of forest cover was the direct consequence of political encouragement to encroachment in forest land, until the advent of the Forest Conservation Act (FC Act) in 1980. “That we required the curtailment of state powers reveals a deep erosion of concern for preservation of forests by the States,” he says.

But potential forests in Karnataka were often sacrificed. S. Bangarappa as Chief Minister ordered some lands returned to the Revenue Department from forest control, to overcome legal hurdles in distributing them as grants.

If some politicians come across as midgets in the book, others stand tall. Shyam Sunder listened to Rajiv Gandhi tell State governments keen to dilute the FC Act in 1986 to facilitate new roads, that they were already bending rules — old permissions were being used to extend roads. Hegde suggested a land use policy for the country, to end unscientific practices, but “nothing has happened on the issue to this day”.

‘Do tribals like avocado?’

Indira Gandhi, who aggressively shielded forests through law, was quite intrigued to learn, during a review in the early 1980s, about avocado, an evergreen fruit tree that is said to have originated in Central America, being planted in Karnataka’s tribal areas. “Do the tribals like avocado,” she asked. Her interest in the fruit sent Gundu Rao into a tizzy.

This memoir weaving past and present is richly detailed, enlivened by a vivid recollection of places, people and shared moments. In one instance, K. Kamaraj did not want plates and paraphernalia for lunch, and insisted on banana leaves at Top Slip near Pollachi. “None had the genuine simplicity of Kamaraj,” says the author about the many Chief Ministers he had met, adding, “The only item that did not quite fit in was the yellow tin of cigarettes that he always carried. It was State Express from England.”

The considerable botanical insights in the memoir will undoubtedly be enhanced by a dedicated index for trees and plants and a map of India’s bioclimatic zones and forest types, while a glossary and an index for all names and places would be useful additions.

Reliving the Memories of an Indian Forester: Memoir of S. Shyam Sunder; Edited by Shivsharan Someshwar, Manipal Universal Press, ₹450.


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