Wildlife Protector And Environmentalist Mir Inayet Ullah
Photo Courtesy: Inayet Family Photo Collection.
He lived, loved and fought for Jammu and Kashmir’s wildernesses, writes Bittu Sahgal of a dear friend and compatriot.
My friend Inayet was at once a diplomat and a fierce fighter. A poet and a conservationist. He led from the front to defend the forests of Kashmir and used his position, over decades as forest officer, Chief Wildlife Warden and then J&K’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, to engage everyone from Chief Ministers and Governors, to Army Chiefs and village heads. He was a government man unlike any I had ever met before. Efficient. Personable. Caring. Resourceful. Calm. Driven. Loved. Jovial and… beyond competent.
I first met him outside his cabin in the somewhat tired-looking, walnut-wood-smelling, Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar, where I stood waiting for 30 minutes for the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden to open. I needed a permit to enter the Dachigam National Park.
“How can I help you?” he asked as he breezed into his office, wearing dapper khakis, hat in hand and a scarf neatly tied around his neck. Typical Inayet, I would come to learn in the wonderful years that followed. Asking his staff to organise two cups of tea even before knowing what I wanted, he welcomed me into his office and, though we were not to know it then… his life.
This was in 1983, soon after the launch of Sanctuary Asia, the magazine that ended up opening more doors and more hearts for me than I could have imagined. “Permit? No problem… it will be with you before you finish your cup of tea, and since I am going to Dachigam you can travel with me as my guest." He signed files, made a couple of calls, including one to the legendary forest guard Qasim Wani, to wait for us at the entrance gate to Dachigam, one of the world’s most beautiful forests.
We walked for hours along the crystal Dagwan river. We watched bears together. He asked us to carry the magic of real Kashmir to the whole of India through a series of wildlife films, partly conceived while we were sitting around one of the many campfires we shared on cold Kashmir nights.It is rather difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that Inayet is not with us. For decades his was the face of J&K’s wildlife. He always said he had a simple mission… to save Dachigam… to save its hangul and in the process the Dagwan river that supplied drinking water to Srinagar. But of course it was always more than that. Fighting politicians and developers, he was driven to save the wetlands of Hokesar, Hygam and Wular, and many others he felt were more than just bird havens. “These are Kashmir’s flood control infrastructures,” he would say.
He rued the fact that short-sighted Kashmiris were hacking forests and filling such wetlands for profit, while others were shooting birds mercilessly and still more conspired with people from distant New Delhi to turn tourism into an industry that rendered ordinary Kashmiris dispensable. In dark moments he would say: “Bittu mere bhai… hum to kaam karte jayeinge, lekin kabhi aisa lagta he ki khuda hi bacha payeinge hamare pyare Kashmir ko.” (We shall keep working, but I sometimes feel that perhaps only God will be able save our beloved Kashmir).
In the words of Akhtar Rashid, former PWD Chief Engineer, who was a close friend of Inayet’s, he was: “A committed environmentalist, a committed worker, a committed Kashmiri, a committed family man.” Little wonder then that his popularity grew exponentially, in the face of his opposition to the environmentally ill-advised plans of the high and mighty. When Farooq Abdullah wanted to build a golf course by cutting down the Sálim Ali National Park on the forested slopes leading down to the Dal lake, Inayet said to me: “My service rules do not allow me to be forthright, but you have no such problem. There is already a golf course in Gulmarg. This forest belongs to my hangul and bears. Help to stop this please.” And we did indeed stop it. For a while. Eventually, the power-brokers had their way. Inayet wept quietly as we walked together through the graveyard that was once a forest. He even asked the Bombay Natural History Society to demand that
Dr. Sálim Ali’s name be removed from what was now an apology for a national park.
Long before the connections had been made, Mir Inayet Ullah knew that leaving forests unprotected was a strategic error because the international trade in wildlife contraband was not just active, but growing like cancer. Working with the J&K Police through undercover operatives, Inayet helped bust one of the largest wildlife poaching syndicates. Many animals including snow leopards, common leopards, Himalayan black bears, markhor and Tibetan antelope were hunted and sold in a thriving trade that flourished in the name of tradition. “Bittu, a huge conspiracy is at play. Wildlife skins are sent to traders operating through the ‘New Kashmir Stores’ from Lucknow, Madras, Calcutta and Jaipur because they know the most skilled taxidermists are still found in Kashmir. But we will get them all.” And he did. For a while. A taxidermist called Habibullah Butt was caught red-handed with skins he was suspected of farming out to other traders. The business ran into millions of dollars and was connected to the illegal wildlife trade networks dealing in weapons, narcotics and wildlife. But like the golf course battle that was won, then lost, the trade continues to thrive, long after Inayet has gone.
Photo Courtesy: Inayet Family Photo Collection.
Apart from the friendships that flourished throughout his life, he had a flood of honours too. In 1984, he was presented with an award he cherished all his life, the Best Environmentalist Gold Medal from the All India Bishnoi Committee. The same year Dachigham National Park received the Central Government’s Rajiv Gandhi Best-managed National Park Award. In 1994, he was presented with the Dharti Gaurav Award for promoting people’s participation for nature conservation and a year later the Indira Priyadarshini Vriksh Mitra Award. Even after he retired he went on to serve as a member of India’s National Board for Wildlife. His will be a hard act to follow.
Author: Bittu Sahgal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 10, October 2015.