Madhav Gadgil, born in 1942, is a pioneering field ecologist. He belongs to that lesser known species that is far more comfortable imbibing nature in all her shades than engaging in bureaucratic doublespeak  on the subject. Little wonder that his effigy was burnt by farmers in Kerala after he submitted his well known, but never implemented, report on saving the Western Ghats (WGEEP or Gadgil Report).

The Western Ghats which spans over six States, 44 districts and 142 taluks hosts India’s richest wilderness and has 13 national parks and several sanctuaries. These forested hills are also a source to numerous rivers, including the Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery. Unfortunately, vested interest united to stymie the Gadgil report. Criticism included that it did not take “ground realities” into account, that it was anti-dam and would thwart “development.” The Kasturirangan HLWG (high level working group) panel set up to go into the Gadgil report used remote sensing and aerial surveys in the Western Ghats. Many errors resulted. Moreover, the power of key decisions was given to bureaucrats and forest officials rather than gram sabhas.

That preface is necessary before reviewing ‘A Walk Up the Hill: Living with People and Nature’.   

It is a provokingly, honest  environmental history of India from Nehruvian times while navigating the sensitive balance between the nativity and tradition of the new nation and “development” as defined by modernity and a Western worldview of it. This book is just a little short, at 401 pages, of the massive Gadgil report he penned in the 90s, and the bibliography alone runs into 13 pages.

It is a record of the environmental movements and policy decisions that shaped modern India. But its uniqueness lies in that it is not a sterile account. Instead, it captures the generational trauma, trials and tribulations and collective losses of those who lived closest to the land and how their traditions instilled reverence towards the use of natural resources.

Madhav Gadgil is well known also for his seminal contribution  to the Biological Diversity Act and the creation of the People’s Biodiversity Register. This book reflects the entire ecosystem of thinking and perspectives that informed his worldview on the ground, and the rich culturally coded  nuances and experiences of the people and flora and fauna  that shaped it. It should be mandatory reading for youth to learn where we were and  how and why we got here, especially in a new age that is facing the deadly wrath of climate change and global warming.

Gadgil’s passionate interest in nature and respect for the country’s indigenous and rural people was instilled right in his childhood. His trips as a kid to Kodagu with the famous Irawati Karve, sociologist and anthropologist, who was also his neighbour, to the Talakaveri, only served to heighten his interests in a field where few Indians were working at the time.

In the foreword to the book, the (late) MS Swaminathan, father of India’s Green Revolution, writes, “Early lessons on the importance of trees and forests as part of a farmer’s life, of thinking about ecology with a human face were learnt from his father Prof D R Gadgil who was then deputy chairman of the Planning Commission...”

His father, a friend of Dr Salim Ali, the “Birdman of India” gifted him a pair of binoculars which deepened his interest in birdwatching. After joining the Agharkar Research Institute in Pune,  he narrates his encounters with rampant corruption and bureaucratic bullishness during his field trips. 

For instance, he writes about groves outside Pune, revered by locals as sacred, all of it in its primeval state, where there had never been any felling.  He  decided to spend a couple of days with the people there, documenting facts and then to meet the head of forestry in the state. To his shock, he trashed the cultural beliefs of the community.  He writes with consternation, “He had little interest in any details (and) maintained that such groves were nothing but ‘worthless stands of over matured timber’.” 

In another instance, he writes of how the peasants living in Ambi Valley in Velhe Taluka, in the catchment area of the Panshet Dam, would nurture the groves and leave the tree cover except for clearings where they farmed. But on a trip there, he and his colleague discovered only one farmer’s land that had tree cover. The trees on all other farms  had been sold to commercial fellers.

Gadgil’s sociological observations on the Kunbis, who cultivated paddy on the valleys and did shifting cultivation on the lower  hill slopes of the Ambi river and their  coexistence with the Gavlis, who dominated the upper slopes, are captivating.

Some of these studies were published, with the help of Zafar Futehally, son in law to Dr Salim Ali’s sister, in The Hindu newspaper.

Gadgil’s Ph.D from Harvard in mathematical biology helped him enrol as faculty, along with his wife and a scientist in her own right, Sulochana, at the IISc in Bangalore. Gadgil reconnected with Futehally, a lifelong supporter of his work, in Bangalore to where he had moved from Bombay and through him, secured a royal grant of Rs 25,000 from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) for a field research programme  at the Bandipur Forest Park. 

At the time, Futehally was on the governing body of Project Tiger.  The Seventies were a time when radio telemetry and other more technological modes of counting and tracking big mammals like elephants was not commonplace in India.

Gadgil and others, including, at one point, VS Vijayan, embarked on a project to conduct elephant census in the W Ghats.

Vijayan’s own pathbreaking report on the impact of a proposed hydroelectric dam in the Silent Valley was the first scientific basis for the start of the Save Silent Valley environmental, social movement. It led to Indira Gandhi cancelling the project and the setting up of the Silent Valley Park in 1980.This was a landmark victory for the environmental movement in Independent India. Ironically, this was a time when even the  progressive Left was clueless, even hostile, regarding ecological consciousness, with many framing the argument simplistically as a battle between a lion-tailed macaque and a human. In 1986, the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, of which Silent Valley Park was a part, was constituted but to Gadgil’s distress, it was being run as a conglomeration of seven protected areas, excluding people.

The project undertook the laborious task of elephant census at the Bandipur and Nagarhole National Parks and the Mudumalai-Wyanad Wildlife Sanctuaries by spoor marks, turd and real time counts of herd composition at waterholes and greens where the pachyderms collected. At the end of this project, it was concluded that the Bandipur-Mudumalai housed about 1,000 elephants while the Nagarhole-Wyanad sanctuaries were home to about 300. These were, in a very definite sense, pioneering efforts at wild elephant census in the W Ghats, which emphasised on ground surveys as mandatory, in addition to other methods.

As with Project Tiger census gathering, elephant census is today done with ground surveys,  animal signs (dung, head count at watering holes, green cover damage, spoor marks) , analysis of remote sensing data and camera traps. It has to be noted that Gadgil’s perspective on wildlife conservation, batting for the culling of species in case of over population and increase in man-wildlife conflicts, did not always go down well with wildlife conservationists and it is easy to understand why. Citing examples from Kenya to the US, he argues that while conservation laws hold good inside reserves, outside, overpopulation and man-animal conflicts should dictate rules on hunting and culling. He believes that wildlife conservation should be based on the “conservation value” of species and that there is an obsession in India with protecting tigers and elephants, although their “conservation value” may be low.

That a field ecologist of Gadgil’s nature and calibre would run into problems with forest department officials was clear from the word go. While in Bangalore, he, along with Ganapathi, deputy director of Bandipur Project Tiger, had come across clear-felling of natural species diverse forest, that had been supplanted with teak which was parasite infested and stunted, for timber. He wrote an article in the Deccan Herald that the forest department found unpleasant..Gadgil got a letter from the head of the Forest department asking him not publish anything without clearance from them, This was two weeks after the declaration of Emergency on 25 June, 1975. But the then IISc Director Satish Dhawan backed him fully and asked him to speak truthfully. “This was a watershed moment that brought home to me the value of free speech. I have striven, to this day, to write fearlessly on issues I have knowledge of, stating objective facts including those related to inefficiency and corruption in our body politic,” writes Gadgil.

Outside Bandipur, Gadgil recalls how he spotted a ground dwelling spider with white spots and managed to trap and send it to the Zoological Survey of India’s BK Tikader, arachnid specialist. It proved to be a new species and was named after him as Oornithoctonus Gadgili.

In 1990, Gadgil had opportunity to train his anthropological and sociological lenses on the People Of India (POI) project, initiated by Kumar Suresh Singh, a bureaucrat who had done his thesis on tribal societies. The survey covered the entire inhabited surface of the country. For the ecologist who chose to view natural conservation in a holistic way that included the fast vanishing traditions and cultures of the people who enriched it, this was a delight.

 Drawing from the PoI database, Gadgil and his colleagues came to the conclusion that improved economic status impacted positively on the Desired Family Size or DFS of poorer communities with a higher number of children, especially since they viewed them as economic assets who contributed to the income of the family. The study led to the conclusion that poverty alleviation should mandatorily complement population control policies in order for the size of the Indian family to be smaller, thereby allowing better sharing of resources in the face of modernity, rapid “development” and urbanisation.

Gadgil’s fascination with languages and the people connected to them led to another project based on the four major families and dialects of India. It suggested, correlating with archaeological evidence available, that the Indian continent was populated by a series of migrations propelled by significant technological innovations outside India since the first major expansion of non African Homo Sapiens, probably 65,000 years before the present. 

The study concluded that the waves comprised Austric language speakers (65,000 Years Before Present) like Korkus, Mundas, Santhals, Khasis, Dravidian speakers (Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Gonndi) with the knowledge of cultivation and domestication of animals, Indo European speakers(Punjabi, HIndi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Bhil) in several waves( 6,000 YBP) with control over horses and iron technology and later Sino-Tibetan speakers (Nagas, Kukis, Manipur, Kinnauri) in with knowledge of rice  cultivation.

In 2012, the government  appointed the Kasturirangan HLWG to go into the WGEEP recommendations, by now subject to concerted canards, including that it was driven by US interests.  In his letter to Dr Kasturirangan, Gadgil wrote “ India’s cultural landscape harbours many valuable elements of biodiversity...Through the night, I hear the peacocks calling and when I get up and go to the terrace, I see them dancing. It is our people, rooted  in India’s strong cultural traditions of respect for  Nature, who have venerated and protected the sacred groves, the ficus trees, the monkeys and the peafowl. Apparently, all of this is to be snuffed out. “ Dr  Kasturiragan did not reply.

In The Way Ahead, the last chapter of the book, the author asserts “India has a huge population and we need to engage them in a fruitful, satisfying manner  to undertake the  vital task of ecological restoration. The key to this is empowering people and giving them rights over the natural resources of their own localities.” In an era of climate change, this is advice that should be heeded urgently.

(Prabha Jagannathan is an independent journalist and a canine caregiver who is deeply  interested in environmental issues )

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About the Book

Title: A Walk Up the Hill : Living with People and Nature

Author: Madhav Gadgil

Publisher: Penguin Allen Lane

Price: ₹648 (hardcover)

Pages: 412 pages