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The birds of Bharatpur and the babus of Delhi

At Bharatpur in Rajasthan is the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary, the winter sojourn of thousands of birds from far and near.

At Bharatpur in Rajasthan is the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary, the winter sojourn of thousands of birds from far and near.

Any newcomer to officialdom in New Delhi would discover soon enough that at work he has to watch his step lest he slips and falls, causing more than minor injury to his career. Like the potholes and pitfalls on the roads, there is a lurking danger in every file he would deal with.

But, what has these cautionary words got to do with birds? Ha! there hangs the tale of the unwary Deputy Secretary who had just arrived at the hallowed portals of the government straight from a district in Central India in the early 1970s, and the birds of Bharatpur. At Bharatpur in Rajasthan is the Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary, the winter sojourn of thousands of birds from far and near. They come from the icy wastes of Siberia and the cold sands of Central Asia, Europe, and the western and northern regions of China. In winter it is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with the long-necked Sarus cranes captivating visitors with their courtship dance.

An Indian ornithological outfit was interested in studying the migratory paths of the wintering birds. They wanted to catch a number of birds, put collars around their necks with identification marks and release them. The idea was to keep track of the birds wherever they rested along their routes and on their return to Bharatpur the next winter. Financial support came from the World Health Organization. Such studies were going on in other East Asian and Far East Asian countries. The study at Bharatpur went on for many years but came to a halt perhaps in the late 1960s when WHO assistance dried up. The ornithologists pleaded in vain to the donor to have the funding restored.

But a flicker of hope was visible. The 1960s and 1970s were years of drought in India and large-scale assistance in the form of foodgrain shipments arrived from the U.S., with a sweetener that the sale proceeds, in rupees, accruing to the U.S. government, would be kept in India to fund projects, programmes and deserving institutions. This was the PL-480 Programme. The Indian society approached the National Committee for Environmental Planning and Coordination to help persuade the Indian government to have itself included in the list of institutions eligible for assistance under it. Sure enough, the task fell on the shoulders of the greenhorn Deputy Secretary assisting it.

Like the young nephew in George Gamow’s One, two, three, Infinity who set about tracking the treasure trove left behind by his late uncle on a desert island with some unhelpful clues, the Deputy Secretary paid visits to the offices in the North Block and Krishi Bhavan. While he had expected a flat “no” wherever he went, he was quite surprised by the cautious attitude of the officers he met with and their anxiety to bring conversations to a close. New Delhi being what it was — and still is — few could enlighten him on the officials’ strange behaviour.

But as it often happens, the breakthrough came at a meeting with an unlikely source. One afternoon, the young officer had the opportunity to have tea with a veteran scientist-cum-administrator in the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. The elderly man was all warmth and friendliness and enquired of the officer how things were. The young man poured out his tale of woe in failing to convince the powers-that-be of the genuine request of the ornithologists and how much natural sciences research would be affected sans assistance. The man laughed, and asked, “Do you know the background of this project and the people who were interested in it?”, and proceeded to provide enlightenment.

It appeared that a unit of the U.S. Army called Migratory Animal Pathological Survey was interested in the project. The Army’s interest lay in knowing whether bacteria were being transmitted by the migrating birds. The project offered an excellent means of investigation and therefore had acquired an ominous significance. For the novice Deputy Secretary, unused to such international cloak-and-dagger stuff, it was all like a John Le Carre novel with the field agent not knowing whether he was the hunter or the hunted. The man’s words explained the caution on the part of the officers he met and were terrifying.

But what about the abrupt end to conversations? The answer was more chilling. Though a window of financing appeared to be available in the form of assistance from foodgrain funds under the PL-480 programme and could be explored, there was a catch. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the relationship between India and the U.S., was not exactly cordial. In fact, there was open hostility and suspicion and anyone who championed any cause of interest to the U.S., wittingly or unwittingly, was looked upon with suspicion. This explained the brief meetings.

The experience was to prove useful to the young man in later years. When a research proposal was received from a foreign academic to study cloud and dust cover over the Rajasthan desert, he recommended to his boss to reject the proposal forthwith as Rajasthan, being a border State, was a sensitive area from the defence point of view.

A year later, when the ‘Buddha smiled’ over Pokhran, it was reported that foreign satellites could not get a clear view of the test site due to cloud cover that day.

Maybe the research project was meant to learn the corrections to be made to the data obtained on such occasions.

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Printable version | Jul 3, 2022 4:36:47 pm |