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‘He slams with a straight bat’: Madhav Gadgil puts the human face at the centre of his ecological journey

One of India’s pioneering ecologists, Madhav Gadgil, looks back on his journey in a new memoir titled A Walk Up The Hill: Living With People And Nature. Covering his early fascination with elephants, his academic and field journeys, Gadgil talks about his experiences which shaped his ferocious, people-centric approach to biodiversity conservation, writes Usha Rai, pointing out that the book is a crucial history of some of India’s biggest environmental movements and decisions, through the eyes of one of its strongest defenders

I have never met Madhav Gadgil but kept hearing and reading about his pioneering work as an ecologist, his campaigns to save the Western Ghats, his enormous contribution to the Biological Diversity Act and the creation of the People’s Biodiversity Register. Naturally, I was all pumped up to read his autobiographical book A Walk Up The Hill: Living With People And Nature published recently – and loved it! This is not the story of a scientist working in isolation in laboratories but of one who has been walking up and down hills and dales, watching peacocks dance and elephants prance. It is about the importance of sacred groves, a testimony of ecological prudence, of life among fisher folk on India’s west coast, horticulturists on the Western Ghats and tribals of Manipur and Maharashtra.

Gadgil puts the human face at the centre of his ecological journey while being a member of a vibrant scientific community. It’s an eminently readable book with each chapter beginning with a verse to herald what follows. It is not a book that can be read in one go. It has to be savoured chapter by chapter to understand exactly what is happening to the beauty and bounty nature endowed in India. The book unfolds an enormous canvas of the various environment and people’s movements, the role of the forest departments and bureaucracy, corruption, the state of our forests and wildlife, the rampant construction activity and destruction of hills and forests leading to the cycle of floods, landslides and climate disasters. He keeps emphasising and providing proof of the knowledge and wisdom of the common man who has lived in harmony with nature.

Early days
The young Madhav was greatly influenced by his father, Dhananjaya Ramchandra Gadgil, who got him binoculars and introduced him to the rich variety of birds in the pre-pesticide days as well as to books and inspired an interest in people and their cultures. His neighbour, Irawati Karve, an anthropologist and sociologist, helped him to grow up without religious, caste and class prejudices and belief in the equality of all people. His father’s generosity in buying books developed his interest in science after reading Penguin Science News and New Biology. When just nine, he accompanied Karve and her daughter on an anthropological expedition to Kodagu in Karnataka where he saw herds of wild elephants and the large sacred grove of Talakaveri at the origin of the Kaveri River.

Gadgil was sturdy enough to pursue an outdoor career as a field naturalist. He was a runner, setting records in school and college in Pune. He was a good swimmer, tennis and squash player. His early years, living in the lap of nature, collecting insects and scorpions in glass jars to study their behaviour and parental support to live his dream set him off in a career as an ecologist. One of the early dilemmas facing Independent India, with Jawaharlal Nehru declaring dams as the “temples of modern India”, was striking a balance between development and environmental conservation. It’s a problem that persists to date. Thanks to his father and Irawati Karve, at the age of 14, he learnt of forest destruction and displacement of people after the construction of the Koyna Dam for electricity and water. It was an early introduction to the country’s development and environment conundrum.

At the Institute of Science in Mumbai, he met his life partner, Sulochana, his classmate in chemistry. They had different streams of specialisation but gelled like peas in a pod. Both were accepted by the University of Harvard in the US for their PhDs in biology and mathematics, respectively. It is at Harvard that he imbibed his life’s philosophy – ‘take nothing on authority, subject all assertions to scrutiny and maintain what is right without worrying about the reactions of the powers that be’. With a PhD in Mathematical Biology from Harvard and travelling, absorbing field-level ecology and research, Gadgil was eager to get back and practise what he had learnt in his own country.

Micrixalus gadgili from India, named after Madhav Gadgil. Photo by David.V.Raju/ Wikimedia Commons.

Life and work
One of the most fascinating chapters is on sacred groves. People valued the services that sacred groves provided and continued to protect them and avail themselves of their benefits. While most groves protected water sources, some sheltered medicinal plants and the larger sacred groves acted as shelters for animals hunted outside them. In Ambi Valley, the Mangaon sacred grove provided shelter to a breeding population of barking deer. Sacred groves were like an oasis in deforested areas. The Bombay Natural History Society journal published a paper written by him and his colleague V. D. Vartak titled ‘Sacred Groves of India: a plea for continued conservation’. Zafar Futehally, who was honorary secretary of BNHS, felt it needed greater exposure and a longer version of the report was published by Khuswant Singh in The Illustrated Weekly of India. This opened a new chapter in young Gadgil’s life – writing popular articles for newspapers and magazines in English and Marathi.

At the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, where he worked for 33 years, he was able to back his fascination for elephants with field research, parking himself in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve for six years. Among his many learnings was the importance of the Ficus tree. Even if an entire forested area is clear-felled, the Ficus is spared because it fruits when other trees don’t, and provides year-long fruits and sustenance to insects, birds, bats and monkeys. The mahouts too understood the value of the Ficus and avoided lopping its branches for the elephants as it would hurt the larger interest of wildlife. Observing the female elephants that took him around Bandipur, he found that when an elephant gives birth, the calf is suckled by the mother as well as the aunt whose udders swell simultaneously.

Gadgil’s disdain for the forest department and the upper-class conservation culture of the WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature), the BNHS and the Wildlife Act comes through very clearly in his book. He wanted an alternative way of thinking where nature could be conserved by working with, rather than against the people. The alternative seemed possible in UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere programme launched in 1971. In 1986, the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve was constituted but to his disappointment, it was being run as a conglomeration of seven protected areas excluding people and science.

People-centric ecology
The chapters on Managing Bamboo, Herders and Farmers and Hunters, Poachers and Foresters are not just readable but a commentary on the sad state of nature conservation where the people who looked after our ecology, forests and wildlife were left out and lost their livelihood. The peasants that he met at Tehri, where he saw deforested hill slopes dotted with landslides and silted riverbed, referred to the DFO (district forest officer) as “Death of Forest”. The people said a village of 60 families could develop and maintain 2400 acres of community forest. They could plant diverse trees, plants yielding fodder, leaf manure, fibre and food. A family could maintain 10 animals on 40 acres and get 20 litres of milk per day, providing them a decent income. A forest-based industry, it was argued, would generate far less employment from the same amount of land.

Among Gadgil’s numerous environment and ecology-related reports, the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel was monumental. It was bold with 39 guidelines for initiating bottom-up democratic decisions from the gram sabha (assembly of adult people in a village) level. These included no economic zones, no new hill stations, rehabilitation of mined areas with special focus on reviving water resources, promoting organic agricultural practices, strict control of explosives to kill fish, no mining or large storage dams in areas demarcated ESZ 1 (Environmentally Sensitive Zone), no new mining in ESZ 2, no new railway line and no new national/state highways in ESZ 1. The report promoted people-owned, small-scale hydropower systems. Neither the Central nor state governments were keen to implement the WGEEP Report but Gadgil fought valiantly for it. A high-level working group, headed by Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan was appointed to examine the report. Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, who was a member of the working group, is said to have told journalists that though she agreed with the WGEEP Report, it was impractical. Gadgil retorted “What is practical, flouting our laws and sabotaging democracy?”

However, the Kerala Chief Minister endorsed the report and former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh said it was a roadmap for development, not just for Western Ghats but for the entire country. The interest in the report has only grown as people have become aware of the adverse impact of climate change with floods, super cyclones and landslides hitting the west coast and burying entire villages.

Gadgil interacting with people about digitization of knowledge resources in 2017. Photo by Subodh Kulkarni/ Wikimedia Commons.

Criticism of national policies on environment
To mark 50 years of Goa’s liberation in 2011, Gadgil was asked to prepare a Goa Development Plan spanning 30 years. Here again, he pointed out how rampant mining was destroying the sylvan landscape with groundwater and springs drying up. Looking at the Environment Impact Assessment of 75 mines, he found the data was inaccurate about the existence of water resources in the leased areas and the actual distance between mine leases and protected areas. Outspoken and extremely critical of the forest department and the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act of India, he says it was drafted by the elite like Dr M. K. Ranjitsinh from the royal family of Wankaner and driven by those paying homage to the British rulers and by tea and coffee estate owners who treated Indian labour on their estates as slaves. Using their enhanced powers under the WLPA, the forest department, he says, deliberately weakened the van (forest) panchayats and harassed leaders of the Chipko Movement. This led to the degradation of the habitat of goral and other wildlife species, triggering the landslide of Chamoli in 2021 and the death of 204 people.

Courting controversy, Gadgil says 50 years of the Act precipitated a human-wildlife conflict with nearly 1000 people killed by tigers, leopards, elephants, gaur and sloth bears. He favours licenced hunting and says the challenge before humanity is to conserve the whole spectrum of biodiversity and not narrowly focus on a few flagship species. The earth has become hot and angry with tampering with nature– replacement of original trees by exotics like eucalyptus. He quotes the IPCC adaptation gap report of 2022 which warns of climate change landing blow upon blow on humanity and the planet. Sea levels have been rising more rapidly than expected and it is particularly noticeable in the tropics. Simultaneously, the ground has been sinking in cities like Mumbai and Ernakulam due to the weight of construction and lowering of ground water level due to overuse. The entire west coast, he warns, is plagued by blatant violation of coastal regulatory zones norms – construction of highways destroying whatever tree cover remains and environmentally degrading projects like the Vasco De Gama Coal Port in Goa, Tadadi Coal Port in Karnataka and the Vizhinjam Coal Port in Kerala.

Gadgil pleads for a review of the current priority for roads and highways, metros and railways and housing for the healthy, for these activities encroach on open public spaces, rivers, estuaries, mangrove forests, and seaside beaches, lead to extensive tree felling, and promote environmentally destructive rock quarries and sand mining. These, he points out, are the alarming reality of climate change. India’s huge population has to be engaged in ecological restoration by giving local people rights over natural resources. Madhav Gadgil slams with a straight bat. May his tribe grow and, more importantly, be heard.

(Courtesy: Mongabay-India/ The writer is a veteran journalist who has worked with The Times of India, The Indian Express and the Hindustan Times from Delhi. A recipient of the prestigious Chameli Devi Award, she was a pioneer in reporting on women’s issues, health, environment and development. She was also assistant director of the Press Institute of India when it was in Delhi.)