Sardar Man Mohan Singh (IAS) – Poet, Bird Lover, Nature Observer And Conservationist
Author: Bittu Sahgal
Photo: J.S. Twahi.
Man Mohan Singh was responsible for the creation of the Harike Wildlife Sanctuary, the largest wetland in Northern India. An unlikely wildlife hero, he used his position to celebrate and protect birds. People like him are hard to find in the India of today.
So many years after he has gone, I still cannot quite categorise my friend Man Mohan Singh. Was he really the sum of all those apparently disparate parts? There are some people that no number of labels can describe, or do justice. When I think of him, the dominant residual memory is that of a man of depth, with a twinkle in his eye. Often called 'the poetic voice of birds', even in the middle of the most mundane discussion on the service rules and regulations laid down by the Government of India for bureaucrats who may appear to be all-powerful, but are in truth subject to the whims and fancies of all manner of influence peddlers, mainly politicians and their cohorts, he could be whimsically philosophical: “We must do what we can do, accept what comes… then find recourse in walks in the woods and whisky with friends!”
Born to Gurbax Singh, a school teacher in Daheru village in Ludhiana District, this sensitive soul began to write at a very young age. He started with short stories and soon graduated to writing for a veritable host of publications including The Statesman, The Tribune, The Illustrated Weekly of India, The Ecologist and, later in life, in Sanctuary Asia too. By profession he belonged to the (then) very prestigious Indian Administrative Service. He was respected as much for his transparent purpose, protecting birds and their habitats, as for his willingness to go out on a limb to buck the ‘system’, which even back then laid far more stress on turning natural assets to cash than protecting, or enhancing them.
Photo: Gaurav Shirodkar.
CREATING A BETTER INDIA
What kind of a world are we going to bequeath to our children? That question haunted my friend Man Mohan Singh all life long. Walking in the mid-1980s, through the verdant forests of Dachigam, to the accompaniment of the gurgle and rush of the glacial waters of the Dagwan river, this poet-bureaucrat said to me: “By focusing on children you are fulfilling a vital national hope.” He did not need to expand on that. We both felt isolated by the manner in which development cowboys in our country thought nothing of usurping the heritage of young persons, while insisting they were destroying rivers, lakes, forests and mountains to leave the young a better India. Actually we spoke very little on that walk. He seemed lost in thought, content to walk, pause, sit by the river and listen to the songs of the birds that defined the quality of his life.
Not surprisingly, he gravitated to Dr. Sálim Ali and the Bombay Natural History Society, helping to obtain permissions through the dense corridors of the bureaucracy which saw little need to go out of their way to facilitate bird-banding for the study of migratory species. In turn they greatly helped him create the scientific base to justify having the confluence of those great rivers, the Sutlej and Beas, declared as a sanctuary for birds. Located between Ferozepur and Amritsar, Harike is a vast wetland that comprises a triangle bordered on one side by the Dhussi bund, by a major canal on the second and a key highway on the third. Between these barriers lies an incredible water feature varying in depth from a metre to two metres, studded by 13 islands that have become a paradise for both migratory and residential birds.
Writing with pride in Sanctuary (Vol. II No. 4, October-December 1982) about Harike (where his sons finally immersed his ashes and those of his wife) he shared the justification he placed officially on government files: Harike, a 40 sq. km. lake fed by the waters of the Beas and Sutlej rivers, is fast-emerging as one of the most important bird-ringing stations in the plains of northern India. As Dr. Sálim Ali puts it, we know precious little of the dispersal pattern of migratory birds in India though ring recoveries confirm that Bharatpur is their main area of concentration. Harike, therefore, assumes tremendous importance as it is believed to lie directly on the migratory route of waterfowl that regularly travel south from colder climes, to shelter on the Indian sub-continent.
Photo: J.S. Twahi.
SON OF THE SOIL
Man Mohan was old school. Principled. Disciplined. And a very good friend of the legendary Milkha Singh, better known in India as the ‘Flying Sikh’, a hunting buddy. When I wrote to his sons, Vikram Jit and Gautam asking for hidden nuggets on their father’s life, here is one they sent, which truly represents the man I knew: “When he was the Chandigarh Union Territory (UT) Finance Secretary, he had gone out shooting with his old friend, the Flying Sikh, Milkha Singh. They inadvertently strayed into a reserved forest area and found themselves stopped by a forest guard. Milkha Singh curtly informed the forest guard that the UT Finance Secretary was on a shikar and should not be stopped. My father was silent. The guard, however, would have none of it. My father then turned on his heel and returned. The next morning, he summoned the UT Chief Wildlife Warden and directed him to promote the forest guard.”
A true son of the soil, he would stop frequently at villages to share dal, roti and lassi with locals and used such visits to learn more about their problems. Such visits resulted in the upgrading of umpteen schools and the construction of uncounted link roads that enabled farmers to reach their produce quicker to markets. Not for one moment losing sight of his passion, he also got the Punjab Wildlife Department to publish a credible book on the vernacular names of Punjab's birds.
Fascinated by traditional customs and mores, he, inspite of his own love of shikar, found himself irresistibly drawn to the legends of the Bishnois who he always felt were bravery personified for their unquestioning commitment to wild nature, even when ranged against the most powerful in the land. He never once went out shooting in their territory and, in fact, went out of his way to win support for their efforts, and wrote passionately about them. Impeccably honest himself, part of his attraction to the Bishnois was their simplicity and love of life.
Photo: K.S. Hazuria.
A LIFELONG AVIAN FASCINATION
He was just as curious and fascinated by the saga of bird migration, as he was by the poetry of their flight. He was one of the early people from within the system who helped establish the imperative of field biology and serious ornithology in India. Writing for Sanctuary (Vol. VIII No. 4, October - December 1988) he said: "The migration of birds has always fascinated human beings. Prophets, mystics, saints and sufis, have, over the years, woven the phenomenon of migration into images of exquisite beauty. One of Guru Nanak's classic hymns speaks of the Demoiselle Cranes, popularly called koonj in Punjab. Why is it, the hymn soliloquises, that the birds travel across rivers and snow-clad peaks to winter in the sunshine of Punjab? And who feeds their young ones back home while the parents are away? Understandably, the conclusions are more theosophical than ornithological, but we are nevertheless, left awestruck by the sheer magnitude of the travels undertaken by these frail, feathered creatures each year and the apparent ease with which they perform their athletic feats."
Sitting with Man Mohan at his very homely New Delhi residence in the company of his gracious wife, Bimal, in the early 90s, I listened to him speak with child-like glee about two of Harike's most remarkable recoveries, a Grey Heron and a coot that were ringed in February/March and were retrieved just a month later, thousands of miles away, in the Soviet Union after what must have been a most arduous adventure. In the same breath, he, a shikari, spoke with deep sadness that the scientific feedback data was made known only after the ringed birds had been shot in Omsk by a Russian hunter! He also rued the lack of scientific management of Harike's hydrology – “The ponds must never dry up, nor can the land areas ever be fully inundated. The noxious water hyacinth must be tackled at its infancy, like a cancer.” With great pride he informed me that the Harike bird count confirmed the presence of 197 species from a tally of 225 for the whole of Punjab.
As he would often say himself, the smell of Punjab permeated his being. He revelled in the sight of swamps and reed beds that had somehow escaped Punjab's `Green Revolution'. Poet, bird lover, nature observer, conservationist, administrator-beyond-reproach, loving father, husband and friend – Man Mohan Singh was all this and more. They don’t make his kind any more.
KISS OF BEAKS
With his armour of spurs
the rooster invades the dreamland
The rage of the sun
burns in his comb.
With the first step of a waltz
he demarcates the bounds of
mapped by the agitated passion of
He gathers the hen in an embrace.
In the meeting of beaks and tails
a million stars drop
from the pores of the sky.
– Man Mohan Singh
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 4, August 2014.