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Duleep Matthai

Duleep Matthai

A file picture of Duleep Matthai with the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who regularly consulted him on matters of India's environmental interests.
Photo Courtesy: Duleep Matthai Nature Conservation Trust.

Arjun Matthai scripts a moving eulogy to his father, Duleep Matthai, an early champion of India’s environmental movement.

I write this within a few days after the funeral of my father… the late Duleep Matthai. For me he was my appachan, and I knew that he was a passionate environmentalist and had much empathy for animals, some of which shared our home. Ayah was a rescued female gibbon, who would watch protectively over me and cause mayhem from time to time by swinging from the ceiling fans and curtains. At that time it seemed perfectly natural to grow up with and learn to respect other living creatures.However, in the last few days, I have realised that my father meant so much to so many people. I received so many heartfelt condolences from people all over the world, sharing their experiences about his work and contribution that have made such a difference.

Born into an eminent Kerala family, my father was the second of the three children of Dr. John Matthai, who served successively as Railways and Finance minister in Independent India’s first cabinet, and Achamma Matthai, who as Chairperson of the Central Social Welfare Board of the Government of India played an important role in helping to resettle refugees from west Punjab in India after Independence and the Partition.

Though born in Chennai, my father’s love of nature and wildlife developed from his early childhood growing up in the forested family estate in Kerala. He understood and spoke about the ecological role of forests long before it became fashionable to do so. He understood that the loss of large expanses of forests through human activity, especially in the tropical regions and uplands of India posed a serious threat to human welfare and even survival. Today, there is undisputed scientific evidence that forests help to maintain air, water and soil quality, influence climatic conditions, regulate run off and groundwater levels and reduce downstream sedimentation and flooding. They sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reduce the greenhouse effect and protect watersheds and river systems. Chronically drought-affected areas are invariably those that have undergone severe deforestation. The current water scarcity in many parts of the country can be attributed to both loss of forest cover and excessive water exploitation with ever deeper bore wells being dug. Securing our catchment areas – our forests – was a key campaign for my father. However, the warnings raised by him and other environmentalists continue to fall on deaf ears because of widespread ignorance and indifference to the importance of ecological security.

His first job was in 1944 as a 20-year-old management trainee in the tea industry in Assam with Jardine Henderson. In 1960 he moved to Bombay, initially as JRD Tata’s Executive Assistant, before taking on senior roles in other Tata companies. Despite his busy corporate life, he found time with Dr. Sálim Ali, the renowned ornithologist, to expand the conservation work of the Bombay Natural History Society. The two nature lovers became lifelong friends with their shared interest and deep knowledge of India’s birds.

He became the founding trustee of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in India in 1969 and began to play an active role in promoting the organisation within the country. He was largely instrumental in getting land allotted for the WWF head office in New Delhi. His concerns about environmental degradation found resonance with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who discussed environmental issues with him from time to time and also invited him to be a member of important advisory bodies set up by the Government, such as the National Committee of Environment Planning and Coordination, and the Indian Board of Wildlife chaired by the Prime Minister. He was also consulted when the Department of Environment was established in 1980, including in the matter of naming it appropriately.

He soon became a highly-influential figure in India’s nascent environmental movement, which first flagged the long-term risks arising from loss of forest cover that comes with unfettered industrial and agricultural development, in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he was appointed to the governing bodies of the newly-established Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal and the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun. He was also a member of the Steering Committee of the prestigious Project Tiger, which was chaired by the Prime Minister, whose purpose was to monitor the progress of what, has to date, been India’s largest and most successful wildlife conservation project.

Later, as Vice Chairman of the National Wastelands Development Board set up by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, he toured the country extensively, often on foot, to understand the challenges of restoring biodiversity, including native species of flora to degraded barren tracts laid waste by exploitative human activities. He then suggested possible solutions, which included aerial seeding wherever feasible, given the political will to make available necessary resources and overcome vested interests.

Professor M.S. Swaminathan, the eminent scientist and father of India’s ‘Green Revolution’ regarded him as the father of the ecological security movement in India and considered his commitment to the conservation of nature and the development of WWF India as “truly monumental”.

In his mid-50s, my father resigned from all his corporate activities to focus his energies on nature conservation and environmental protection. In doing so, he developed friendships with many similar-minded people across India’s social strata.

In 2001, he helped set up and became a founding trustee of the Foundation for Ecological Security, an NGO that is actively involved in the massive and critical task of ecological restoration in the country, and in 2007, he set up his own initiative and became a founding trustee of the Duleep Matthai Nature Conservation Trust to which he donated the major part of his personal assets.

He passed away, at the age of 92, in Vallabh Vidyanagar, Anand district, Gujarat. Personable, driven and determined, he helped in more ways than one to bring wildlife conservation to centre stage at a time when most Indians were competing with themselves to outdo the British destruction of natural India. His primary focus then was a concept that was understood by the ancients in India, but forgotten in the melee of development post 1947... that destroying forests in the name of development would end up exhausting water supplies of the subcontinent and visit all manner of miseries on our long-suffering people. He used to say then what many young people now understand: "Nature does not need us. We need nature.”

Arjun Matthai is Duleep Matthai's son.

Regarded as the 'father of the ecological security movement' in India, Duleep Matthai understood and spoke about the ecological role of forests long before it became fashionable to do so. Photo Courtesy: Duleep Matthai Nature Conservation Trust.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 4, April 2017.


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