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Sunderbans & him

Bittu Sahgal, wildlife conservationist and the man who gave us Sanctuary Asia and Cub magazines, chatted with Tolly young turk Gaurav Chakrabarty and a select gathering earlier this month about his new book The Sundarbans Inheritance, the myths of the maneater and the dire effects of climate change at An Author’s Afternoon, organised by Prabha Khaitan Foundation, in association with Siyahi, a Jaipur-based literary consultancy.

GAURAV CHAKRABARTY: Since I was a kid, my father [actor Sabyasachi Chakrabarty] had initiated me into wildlife conservation, preservation and why it is important for us, the new generation, to be involved with this. You are someone I have always looked up to. We have been visiting the Sunderbans since I was eight and it was after 13 years that we saw a tiger! That was really something else. But my father has always told me that seeing a tiger is not the most important part of going to the forest. That is where you come in — wildlife conservation. I would like to ask you, why should a place like the Sunderbans be protected in the first place?

BITTU SAHGAL: Oh lord, we would need about a month of sessions to give all the reasons! If ever somebody wanted to find out how life evolved on earth it had to be some kind of a soupy habitat like this. We all know that all life began in the sea and if you look at the margins of the sea and land, you are describing the Sunderbans right now.

At one time you have heard of Dakshin Rai — all the myths and legends — because people knew that something more powerful than themselves existed and that something gave them food, domicile and protection and they worshiped it because they were grateful. Human beings have evolved into a different kind of space. Today if you are an economist I would say that the Sunderbans feeds a vast population of human beings on earth, it’s not just human beings in West Bengal or Bangladesh, because these are the nurseries of the seas.

It is one of the finest, largest most active and most vibrant nurseries of the oceans. This is where sharks come, for instance, this is where prawns come, this is where ilish maachh comes. I mean this is where it’s a soup of life!

Not one million, not two, not three, not four, not five, 14-15 million people directly eat that fish without it going to the market. If the Sunderbans were to magically vanish, Calcutta’s economy would be finished, West Bengal’s economy would finish.

Aila [the cyclone that hit in 2009] was a baby, it was a tiny little infant mewling at your door. The type of cyclones that are going to be faced by West Bengal and Bangladesh tomorrow are of the kind that would put even the recent miseries that North America and Europe have faced to shame. Now the real value of the Sunderbans, to my mind, in an era of climate change is that it is a protective armour and it is possibly a greater carbon sink than the rain forests of the world.

I came back from the Sunderbans yesterday. When I am on the boat, I take a deep breath and say, somewhere in that mangrove there was a tiger that took a deep breath too and when he exhaled some of those molecules came directly into my lungs and I feel happy to be alive. That’s the real reason to save the Sunderbans.

GAURAV: At such a critical time, how important is a book like The Sundarbans Inheritance?

BITTU: Well, The Sundarbans Inheritance was born of an inner desire to present in as justifiable a manner as possible the absolute magic and the value and the worth of a place that seems from time immemorial to be written off as pestilence.

GAURAV: Every aspect of the Sunderbans has been covered in the book. How long did it take to actually put all this together?

BITTU: Well, the thought was there for at least 10 years. I would say it took us [him and his co-authors, banker Sumit Sen and publisher Bikram Grewal] about a year-and-a-half to put the book together really.

And the guy who is sitting here, Pradeep Vyas, he helped to accelerate this process. He is the additional principal chief conservator of forests, wildlife, West Bengal, and he knows the Sunderbans, he breathes the Sunderbans and it’s guys like him that we produce the book for and with. They are part of a very thankless profession. They are invisible and protect things against human greed.

GAURAV: I have always been told that every tiger in the Sunderbans is born a man-eater. How much truth is there to this statement?

BITTU: That’s like saying every Punjabi does bhangra and eats sarson ka saag and makki ki roti and saying the guy’s basically got no culture but agriculture.

Around 1972-1973, Pradeep [who was in high school then] knew a man who laid the foundation for him, Kailash Sankhala. He said, ‘We are looking to protect the Sunderbans because the tiger is only a symbol’.

It was the entire ecosystem that we learnt to protect. The magic that people like Kailash Sankhala gifted you, Pradeep, is that they produced a rationale. They said as far as the Sunderbans is considered, this myth of the man-eater is so persistent that it has become legendary. It’s like religion.

If the tiger could scavenge, he would scavenge, he wouldn’t hunt. It’s not as if it wants fresh meat with blood pouring out. If the tiger comes across a kill it will eat that first and when it is saturated it won’t hunt until it has to. Think of fish, the Sunderbans is one of the few places in the world where tigers depend on fish, and it’s not that they go out and through a line start hooking fish. It is just that the tide gives them fish. Sometimes fish are left behind in shallow ponds and sometimes they die and are lying around.

The belief that the tiger is such a dangerous animal is born in the Alipore zoo for children. If he is not dangerous why is he in jail?

It’s not that the tiger doesn’t kill people. If there were a hundred tigers, each tiger would need 50 people a year. How many deaths are we talking about? More people die in road accidents, more people die because they choke on ilish maachh! It’s like the worst nightmare of a human being to be consumed by a tiger or by a dragon or by a shark. This is built up in human psyche.

NO, the Sunderbans tigers are not man-eaters. Yes, I am scared of walking in the forest with the Sunderbans tiger. The reason is that there is no flight distance there. You will come upon a tiger and surprise him, he is going to get you. If the Sunderbans tiger was a man-eater, he had a supermarket of human beings that he could choose from! The thing is, you can’t disrespect the fact that the tiger could be killing, you can’t disrespect the fact that if you don’t have a fear for the tiger you are either insane or you are deranged. You have to have fear and have to take precautions. The same way you wouldn’t cross Chowringhee at rush hour blindfolded!

GAURAV: There are people all over television and the Internet saying that global warming is a myth. Is it actually a myth or is it really happening? And how is climate change affecting the Sunderbans?

BITTU: I will start with an apology, from my generation to yours. We owe you an apology, we have not looked after your world the way we should have. I met with more than 1,500 schoolchildren this morning. I looked at those innocent faces, something cold happened inside me. What on earth do we think we are doing to this lot of people?!

Climate change is as real as gravity, it’s happening and it’s clear. The only people who are in sharp denial are those who have projects that are threatened by the acknowledgement that climate change is real. So, when you have somebody who wants to set up thermal plants, like in China or India, and you say that if you put a thermal plant and you put carbon into the atmosphere it’s going to destroy your life and these lives, they don’t want to accept that.

The largest migration in the history of humanity has begun to take place in the Sunderbans. If you are a girl in the Sunderbans, your parents have to pay next to no dowry to have you married in the Sunderbans. If the boy lives 50km north of the Sunderbans, your dowry price goes up. It is the people of the Sunderbans who know that there is no future here.

Three to five per cent of people [that were displaced] after Aila have not come back. But while there is migration out this way, there is a huge migration coming in from Bangladesh. I have read the book The Hungry Tide [by Amitav Ghosh] and I loved the book but I think he got a lot of facts wrong. He said, for instance, millions of people got displaced by sanctuaries. But that never, ever happened. The fact is, the Sunderbans, with climate change taking place, when there is a 3mm rise in water married to a 200kmph wind, that wave is going to kill people, and when it kills people it leaves behind salt because it’s sea water. The salt settles, the sun evaporates it, your fields don’t have any hope of growing food. The freshwater ponds that you have made, they get saline, kidney damage takes place, ill health takes place, endocrine disruption takes place because of the amount of pesticide that is being poured.

Climate change is being aggravated by the mistaken notion of how powerful we are as human beings and the Sunderbans are our petridish. Not a single person in the Sunderbans causes the problem but they are the first global refugees of climate change and that will be written about tomorrow. But I think we should act today. The Sunderbans is a sinking ship in the rains, extra water is going to come and hit them in the monsoon, cyclones are going to hit them and like a sandwich in the middle these beautiful people about whom poetry and stories are written and books are sold, they are going to be dead.

K. MOHANCHANDRAN (General manager, Taj Bengal): What is your take on wildlife tourism, both pros and cons?

BITTU: In my book, wildlife tourism is a conservation tool quite the same as a gun, quite the same as a book. Without wildlife tourism, we have no hope of protecting our wildlife. Having said that, the gun can either kill or protect. If you ask me if wildlife tourism is doing more good than bad, I will say it is doing more bad right now. If Kailash Sankhala asked me 40 years ago to protect and I am passing on the mantle to these guys saying you must protect, the difference then and now is that you have no time left.

I would place upon you the onus not of sacrificing your financial health at the alter of good tourism but I would say recognise what could be done. Take any tiger reserve, for instance Kanha National Park. The people living around Kanha National Park are the victims of Bittu Sahgal’s desire to have the tiger saved. They are the victims of those people who come down and set up a lodge here and milk the tiger reserve for a lot of profit and do not plough it back. When I say profit, it’s not a bad word. It’s just the fact that you charge Rs 2,000 or Rs 3,000 or Rs 20,000 a night and these guys don’t see that much money in a year. But when their cow dies they can’t actually feed their kids.

Here is how tourism could turn into a conservation tool. If the edges of these parks, the farms, could turn back into forests while these people are given a livelihood for the restoration of wildlife, then what you would have is tourism professionals running the equivalent of homestays, which are owned by these people in which they have a vested interest and stake.

ARINDAM SIL (actor-filmmaker): What is the younger generation doing to learn about forests and wildlife?

BITTU: You talk to the 14-year-old or 15-year-old today, somehow the Internet has come down and given them information that climate change is real, protecting is a good idea and they are a bit disgusted with our generation’s behaviour. Children don’t do what you tell them to do, they do what you do. May be because I am working with a younger lot of people, I think that there is a tidal wave of understanding about the consequences that are taking place. And we are spurring this on. This morning I told the children I met, ‘Your homework is to go home and talk to your parents and tell them that you cannot save the tigers without saving the forests. When you save the forest you save all species and feed 600 Indian rivers with pure water. Talk to your parents and friends.’

I think the younger generation has got it right and the wheel will turn and the real reason why I have total faith in this is that nature is a self-repairing machine. Nature is conspiring to fix every piece of dirt we put into it. It is just that my generation has begun to believe that we are the gods, that we are omnipotent, omnipresent and can do everything.

SUDIPTO ROY (chief of public relations, Exide): Lots of people complain that conservation in India is only about the tiger, people are not talking about creatures like the Great Indian Bustard or other birds.

BITTU: It’s like saying why is Shah Rukh Khan getting so much attention when there are so many good Bengali actors, good Marathi actors?! The tiger is the metaphor for all of nature. I cannot move a person sitting down in Talegaon in Maharashtra about saving a tiger prawn in the Sunderbans but I can motivate him to save the tiger and in the process of doing that, I save the prawn. And there is a retinue of species that are benefited. We said the tiger needs this much space and we kept dams out, mines out, chemical factories out, we even said no heavy-duty agriculture. And nature just came back and nature does not come back as only tigers. The tiger wants a deer to eat, he wants a wild boar, the birds come in and nest in there. The whole system is like a magic machine and every little creature, from the tiger to the tick on the tiger to the bird. As far as the Great Indian Bustard... I agree with you, that bird is on the edge of extinction right now and it is about time that our government learnt that you can’t take grassland and pass them on. Every time there is an election you pass off grassland for agriculture.

Text: Malancha Dasgupta