Prerna Singh Bindra
When Martin Luther King Jr used the words, ‘We are not makers of history; we are made by history’, it was interpreted in various ways to mean he was admonishing his black American audience to not let larger historical forces make them passive, to urge them to make history, and to convey how history makes us.
These famous words spoken in an utterly different context play on my mind as I delve into A Life with Wildlife by MK Ranjitsinh, a sweeping record of India’s wildlife from the princely era to the cusp of independence and after. It includes the Nehru years followed by the Indira Gandhi era, the succession of political powers thereafter and the current times. The author is the link between royal and contemporary India and writes lucidly of the transition and of how history and culture shaped our view and governance of wildlife.
MK Ranjitsinh’s memoirs are unlike many penned by bureaucrats. It is about a man’s passion for wildlife rooted in his boyhood in the princely state of Wankaner (Gujarat) from the time he spent in “the hide” with his father, not merely watching animals but doing something quite extraordinary. The hide had a detachable wooden roof over which kills were placed to attract resident leopards. Often, the roof was removed and, writes the author, “my greatest thrill was to have Father raise me up to the glass — the only thing separating human from cat — panel so that I could put my hands under the leopards’ belly and feel the warmth through…”
Remarkable, even for an era when gramophones were used to train leopards for the pleasure of a royal sighting! Such intriguing vignettes aside, what’s striking, and significant, is the abundance of wildlife then, and the vacuum that exists in places now emptied of them. For instance, a morning’s drive in Wankaner would yield over 400 blackbuck, a beautiful endemic antelope once a typical site of the plains. They have now been replaced by the ubiquitous livestock. The sorry fate of the Great Indian Bustard illustrates the slide best: Ranjitsinh counted 28 in a compact two km in Jambudiya, also in Gujarat, in 1952. All that remains now are about a dozen in the state, of a 100 in India, and the world.
The author draws a paradoxical inference here that wildlife was best preserved in states keen on hunting. He backs his argument with examples like Junagarh, where the Nawab preserved the last of the Asiatic lions. He points out that the loss of cattle killed by tigers was compensated by the Maharajah of Dungarpur, a precursor to the ‘Cattle-kill Compensation’ schemes now in practice across India. Indeed, a third of India’s 650-odd sanctuaries and national parks are descendents of what were once royal game reserves.
The meat (and some masala) is found in the period when Ranjitsinh served as an IAS officer, giving a fascinating insight of how he worked ‘the system’ to channelise his interest into a vision for conservation. His initial years of service in Madhya Pradesh were spent partnering with forest officers to preserve the state’s natural heritage. This included securing Kanha (now a tiger reserve) thus giving a lease of life to tigers and the rare hard ground barasingha, or by deftly handling policy to regulate sawmills adjacent to forests and the extraction of forest produce with its consequent impact on wildlife.
It was during his tenure as director, Wildlife Preservation, at the centre that Ranjitsinh was to make his most significant contribution as co-architect of the Wildlife Conservation Act (1972). This remains the primary instrument of protection. It was in these years, and then later as Secretary (Forests) that Protected Areas were expanded, many requiring adept handling of reluctant politicians and colleagues. The making of PAs is a lesson in negotiation, and I am particularly fascinated with how the endangered Nilgiri tahr gained acreage in the now celebrated Eravikulam National Park in Kerala for 36 wagons of rice!
The Indira years throw light on the Iron Lady’s resolve to protect wildlife marking the “decade following 1972 as perhaps the most important epoch in the conservation history of the country.” Post the Gandhi-era the tone of the book changes, taking on a critical note as governments become lax in their role as steward, diluting and dissolving rules and regulations that protect the forest and its denizens.
Ranjitsinh retired in 1995 but continues to remain a key figure in conservation. His memoir thus presents a unique perspective of governmental indifference to nature and to the marginalised, best illustrated in a chapter on the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
The author does not mince words, which may be the way of the retired bureaucratic freed of his diplomatic shackles. But then, he didn’t shy away from speaking his mind even when in service, standing up to then minister Bhajan Lal over the issue of (not) exporting frog legs. He does not aim to please and takes unequivocal stands on contentious issues notably the Forest Rights Act, which he writes is “the most harmful Act in relation to the forest s in the history of India”. In his communication to Sonia Gandhi he wrote, “it is ironic that the bill was spearheaded by a political party which claims inspiration for Shrimati Indira Gandhi.” He roots for the ghar-wapsi of the cheetah now extinct in India, a move criticised by some (disclosure: this includes this reviewer) and holds us all culpable – ‘no community or group is blameless in the destruction and decimation of the forests and wildlife of India.’
The canvas of ‘A Life…’ is vast and touches on the author’s involvement with the conservation of the unique wildlife of Kashmir, his tenure with the United Nations, travelogues on Bhutan, and amazing encounters with the rarest of the world’s wildlife. It is an educative, evocative read, a worthy account of a wildlife warrior who soldiers on well into his 80s.
His is a life well lived and this is a story well told.
A Life with Wildlife is essential reading for anyone who cares about the fate of India’s spectacular and rare wildlife and its precarious future in an overcrowded, aspiring country.