On a boat ride on the beautiful Kabini River in the 1990s, a forest officer accompanying us was explaining the ecology of the place. His voice droned on over the quality of the light falling on clear waters, until the sound of the gentle paddling of the oars by the boatman suddenly gave way to the sight of hordes of wild elephants on the hills across.
The previous year, on our first visit to the Nagarhole National Reserve, as the group made its way across a village to the main gate, we spotted the greatest of all beasts – India’s national animal – the tiger. People have lamented not seeing one specimen of this remarkable species in their several trips to the park.
In my year at the Asian College of Journalism, I was beyond thrilled to have as my classmate Gauri Gadgil, daughter of Indian Institute of Science scientist Madhav Gadgil who in 1974 had initiated field studies at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve on the dry deciduous forest ecosystem dotted with man-made ponds and extensive open areas covered with grass.
All of us who love this tiger reserve with its chitals, sambars, gaurs, elephants, wild pigs, wild dogs, panthers and tigers and ofcourse the beautiful Kabini River, need to know about Professor Gadgil. Gadgil conducted an ecological reconnaissance of this whole tract and formulated a proposal for the establishment of a large nature reserve in this region. This eventually led to the establishment of India’s first Biosphere Reserve, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in 1986. Elephants were a striking component of the wildlife of this tract and Professor Gadgil organized the first census of wild elephants in the country in these areas.
Madhav Gadgil, an expert on Western Ghats ecology, shared the 2015 prestigious Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement with Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University, USA. Gadgil’s landmark report on the biodiversity of Western Ghats known as the ‘Gadgil Committee’ report offered guidelines on the protection and development of India’s Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the eight most biological diverse areas on earth. His body of work has helped India draft the National Biological Diversity Act.
Last year, as Kerala was devastated by floods, experts rued the neglect and rejection of the report by the Kerala Government when it was first proposed. Gadgil himself said that it was not about the extent of the rain, Kerala had received equal volumes of rain six times before, instead it was the changing nature of land use which was to be blamed.
In 1978, the Director of the Indian Institute of Science Professor Satish Dhawan encouraged Gadgil to approach the University Grants Commission to support the establishment of a separate department of ecology at IISc. Subsequently, in 1981, the Department of Environment called for special efforts in three regions, the Himalayas, the Ganga basin and the hill tracts of Western Ghats. The proposal to form a department of Ecology was formally submitted under the Directorship of Prof S. Ramaseshan in 1982 and was sanctioned by the Department of Environment, leading to the establishment of the Centre for Ecological Sciences in 1983.
In his latest article Sacred Groves: An Ancient Tradition of Nature Conservation in the Scientific American, Gadgil writes about how Indian pagan traditions were totally in sync with environmental imperatives.
“A legacy of prehistoric traditions of nature conservation, sacred groves are patches of forest that rural communities in the developing world protect and revere as sacrosanct. Deeply held spiritual beliefs ensure that not a tree is felled nor a creature harmed within its boundaries. (In times of dire need, such as if a village burns down, permission may, however, be sought of the grove’s deities to extract a limited quantity of wood for reconstruction.) Treasure troves for naturalists, the groves often serve as the last refuge for magnificent and ancient trees, as well as for species of lianas, medicinal plants, macaques, deer, birds, lizards, frogs and other creatures that have become rare elsewhere in the landscape.”
– Professor Madhav Gadgil in Scientific American
Deeply held spiritual beliefs ensure that not a tree is felled nor a creature harmed within its boundaries. (In times of dire need, such as if a village burns down, permission may, however, be sought of the grove’s deities to extract a limited quantity of wood for reconstruction.)
Over half a century Gadgil has explored many sacred hills, river origins, river stretches, ponds and groves in India, Bhutan and Japan. He has witnessed sacred groves being destroyed but also being preserved, revived or even newly established in the face of the active hostility of the developmental state. “An ecological crisis in the Indian subcontinent, brought about by relentless commercial exploitation of natural resources, is prompting a vibrant revival of these sacred spaces. This assertion of ancient values of reverence for nature, too often derided as primitive superstition, represents the most hopeful news about Indian ecology to emerge in decades.”
After his return to India from Harvard University, Gadgil trekked to the northern Western Ghats with his former botany teacher. “Suddenly we were confronted with a five-hectare patch of luxuriant evergreen forest, within which towered four trees of dhup (Canarium strictum)—the northernmost representatives of a species characteristic of the southern Western Ghats, 500 kilometers away. Vartak explained that this grove, named Dhuprahat, had survived because it was sacred to a local mother goddess—and that several other such remnants of primeval vegetation were scattered all over the Western Ghats.”
Amberly Polidor in her report for Sacred Land says the existence of sacred groves in India most likely dates back to an ancient pre-agrarian hunter-gathering era, and their presence has been documented since the early 1800s. “Believing trees to be the abode of gods and ancestral spirits, many communities set aside sanctified areas of forest and established rules and customs to ensure their protection. These rules varied from grove to grove but often prohibited the felling of trees, the collection of any material from the forest floor, and the killing of animals. Presiding deities administered punishment, often death, to individuals who violated the rules, and sometimes to the entire community in the form of disease or crop failure. As a result of these protective restrictions, preserved over countless years, sacred groves are now important reservoirs of biodiversity.”
Gadgil agrees saying that while sacred groves may have received protection through religious beliefs, the system is grounded in secular beliefs, such as securing freshwater sources. He trekked through the Western Ghats, finding villages with significant patches of sacred groves, made notes on their size, botanical composition, animal life and location in relation to topography, settlements and cultivation and spoke to the locals.
Quoting Raymond Dasmann, one of the founders of modern environmentalism, Gadgil differentiates between ‘ecosystem people’, and ‘biosphere people.’ “Ecosystem people largely depend on their own muscle power and that of their livestock to gather and process most of the resources they consume, which comes from within an area of roughly 50 square kilometers around their homesteads. Living in such close proximity with their resource base, ecosystem people fully understand and appreciate the bounty that nature confers. Biosphere people, on the other hand, have extensive access to additional sources of energy such as fossil fuels, which enables them to transport and transform large quantities of materials from all over for their use. Their ecological footprints are tens or hundreds of times higher than those of the ecosystem people. The biosphere people see distant rural locales merely as sources of timber, mineral ores or hydroelectric power or—at best—as tourist resorts. To them, ecosystem people are either a source of cheap labour or a hindrance to accessing the resources they need or want. They disregard the ecosystem services valued by the locals.” To mankind’s peril.