Meet Param Jit (Pammi) Singh
Photo: Prerna Bindra.
From wildlife crime crackdowns in Sansar Chand’s days, to trekking through miles of rough terrain, he’s done it all. Born and brought up in Delhi, this remarkable wildlife defender has a post-graduate degree in geology from the Delhi University’s Hans Raj College and an MSc in Forestry from the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy (IGNFA), Dehradun. Consumed by a love for nature, he obtained a diploma in Wildlife Management from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and spent virtually his entire academic life walking Himalayan hills in summer and the wild trails of Central and South India in winter. A rare and ‘endangered’ breed of officer, he actually enjoys the rigours of the field. Bittu Sahgal speaks to this Sanctuary Wildlife Service 2015 Award winner, whose life-purpose is wildlife protection.
Clearly Pammi, you are in love with nature!
Yes, I am. And I consider myself gifted for being able to spend my time in the wilds of Himachal’s Siwaliks, the forests of Uttarakhand’s Garhwal and Kumaon region and even in the relic pockets of wilderness in Haryana.
But why the shift from geology to wildlife?
Well, two years at IGNFA saw me consumed by routine work – classes, practicals, field visits and forestry work. No wildlife. My answer to the same question asked of me by the Interview Board of the Indian Forest Service (IFS) was: “So far I only looked at what was on or below the earth, I now want to look at what grows and growls on it!”
What truly turned the wild key?
(Smiling) Everything about nature. On probation in the North Kheri Forest Division in 1987, near Dudhwa, I once saw four tigers on a kill. It might have been those tigers. But virtually every wildlife experience leaves you awe-struck. I recall my Dudhwa days spent exploring forests and nights spent on machans.
That was then. Aaj ki baat kijiye! Your wife approves of your passion?
It’s a good question. A sardar, I fell in love with Kamla Bisht, a pahari (hill) girl. Both of us were pursuing PhDs in Geology. Neither of us got them. What we did get in 1986, was a marriage certificate from the court, which cost us the princely sum of Rs. 800! She went on to join the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) and I the IFS. During our probation Kamla, N.S. Bisht, S.E.H. Kazmi and I used to reach Rajaji National Park by bus on the weekends and trek 12 km. to Dholkhand in Rajaji and come back by Sunday night, after two nights and two days spent in heaven.
I must ask again… (this time the smile is on my face!) your wife condones long absences?
Yes! She was part of the early forays and still enjoys being out in nature. She also permits me the long absences and approves of what I do to defend wild India. We sometimes did have options of visiting exotic locations overseas, but both of us ended up visiting forests and wildlife areas across India.
We must get her to interact with the partners of many wildlifers whose lives are not quite so placid on this front!
Happily! After the Sanctuary Wildlife Awards ceremony in Mumbai in December, with my team, I was busy with the ‘Forest Department Competitive Games’ at Bengaluru. Meanwhile, Kamla took off for Mysore, and Nagarahole, returning just in time for the award ceremony where the Uttarakhand Forest Department team was declared the Runner’s Up. Since her employer ONGC and the Forest Department do not have any policy regarding posting spouses in the same place, out of 30 years of married life, we were posted at the same station for just 10 years. We got by with letters, trunk or lightning calls, and now by Facebook and Whatsapp! Jokes apart, she supports me fully. Often during anti-poaching operations, she served as a look-out, with phone, wireless, camera and a weapon in hand. Our son Shekhu and daughter Devanshi also love visiting Uttarakhand’s wildernesses. We are all blessed.
Village children are special to you. If you had a magic wand, what would you do for their future?
I would provide quality education, and sensitise and motivate them towards forest and wildlife protection. I would arrange exposure visits to the choicest wildlife rich areas, and train them to ask questions, and seek explanations from the custodians of the wilderness areas for the present state of affairs. I would teach them how to use the RTI Act and PILs to defend our wilds.
Photo Courtesy: Uttarakhand Forest Department.
You are also one of India’s quietest anti-poaching operatives.
I am quiet because the job demands it! If after one or two seizures my face constantly gets splashed across the print and electronic media, the next time around my photo will be in the obituary column and you would have to write a different piece in Sanctuary Asia!
Are we losing the battle against the global trade?
Yes, we are losing. The bigger players have changed strategies. They enlisted the locals and train them to lay traps for targeted species and then call the key operatives to deal the coup de grace!
Of course, you are right. What can be done?
Some people say that the wildlife in Protected Areas is safe! Well, if you were a poacher and wanted to kill a tiger, would you go to a non-protected forest where animals are unpredictable or to a Protected Area where tigers have no fear of humans? We need to get smart. We need to rethink our strategies, particularly outside PAs. Think. There are 46 tigers in the Ramnagar Forest Division... more than the tiger population of many Indian tiger reserves! Yet these tigers are counted as Corbett tigers! Ask poachers what they do during the rainy season and they will tell you the ground is wet, grasses take over, there’s water everywhere, and it is next to impossible to predict where tigers are. Trap laying is tough and there is no place to dry skins or cook food and it’s very uncomfortable camping out then. This therefore is when poachers go to visit relatives and arrange and celebrate marriages. Yet, we spend millions of rupees on Operation Monsoon. We need to get smarter.
You were the first to arrest Sansar Chand?
Yes, the team comprised Forest Officers, my batch mate Vasu Arora, some senior officers, Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India and Ashok Kumar of the Wildlife Trust of India, judges, advocates and my own very determined staff. I learned the ropes of anti-poaching operations, intelligence gathering and running successful undercover operations from these stalwarts.
Let’s switch tracks. Why are leopards hated in Uttarakhand?
Leopards have lived near human settlements since time immemorial. Even Jim Corbett has written about how his mutton was snatched by a leopard as it was kept on a wall for just a few minutes! Right now very few forest areas are inviolate. The human footprint is everywhere hence the number of encounters is on the rise. Predictably, the tolerance of humans towards wildlife has fallen tremendously. Land holdings have decreased too, and cattle-rearing is in decline. The loss of one crop or one head of cattle is a huge financial setback for locals. Their retaliation is swift and results in poisoning, trapping or political demands to remove the ‘problem’ leopard.
That’s the bottom line? That is why leopards are vanishing?
No… it’s not. As that wonderful lady, Rasila Ben, Gir’s Lion Queen, said during her acceptance speech at the Sanctuary Wildlife Awards ceremony, “Everything is tiger, tiger, tiger.” Leopards have never been accorded the status they deserved. Though they are equally vital to the ecosystem there is no hullah-gullah (hue and cry) when a leopard is killed. Permits to eliminate ‘problem leopards’ are easily issued without TV crews rushing into expose the folly.
Without a wakeup call and effective measures, leopards will soon be listed as Critically Endangered and perhaps only after that will Project Leopard be launched. Just imagine… even the massive WII and MoEF estimation barely even mentions the status of leopards!
Tell me about the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). Has it lost effectiveness and has it drifted from its original purpose?
Not in Uttarakhand for sure. Within the past eight months in our state CAMPA has spent two crore rupees on field kits for forest staff, instituted a corpus of Rs. 6.72 crores for staff welfare, trained 3,000 staff and local people as First Responders for wildlife problems, and one team from each Forest Division has been trained in the capture and rescue of ‘problem monkeys’. We have finalised the purchase of 10,000 improved chullahs (stoves) for staff and local people. The CAMPA fund is critical to wildlife protection. It enables Range-level staff training in the rescue of snakes, it finances the purchase of solar lights, pumps and water heating for our staff in remote locations. We used that money to build a two-kilometre-long elephant barrier in the Kotdwar area to reduce elephant-human conflict. We even managed to train locals to use bee boxes to dissuade elephants that tend to avoid bees.
But wait… that’s not all. Two crore rupees were earmarked for a Centralised Forest Department Library that is critical for both new and old hands. CAMPA also funds afforestation, helps train veterinarians and finances the simplest of soil and water conservation schemes that employ locals with whose help water regimes and pastures have regenerated, in places such as Haathigaliyaar, Sandini Gaja, and Fatehpur. Come and visit us to get a first-hand look at the wildlife recovery. To answer your question in one line – In Uttarakhand, CAMPA is doing what it was designed to do.
You have also worked in the Territorial Division, best known for its preoccupation with timber felling for much of your service career?
The situation in Uttarakhand is different to that in others parts of India. Here we have a complete ban on commercial felling of trees above 1,000 m. The sal (Shorea sp.) forests in the Terai Arc Landscape are also protected from green felling. In reality, virtually all Uttarakhand Forest Divisions are Wildlife Divisions, where wild species are doing quite well, though of course we still have all the best-known problems. Having said this, we do have a challenge in sensitising and motivating Territorial and other Division staff towards wildlife protection. Towards this end their involvement in successful anti-poaching operations, leading to successfully apprehending offenders, has been a great motivation and the number of successful anti-poaching operations carried out by my team has proven to be comparatively higher in Territorial than in Protected Areas or other Forest Divisions. We have a greater degree of freedom to act and consequently some of our forest and wildlife conservation efforts are more successful here.
Photo Courtesy: Uttarakhand Forest Department.
On top of all this at a time when most governments and human rights activists oppose sanctuaries and national parks, you have managed to get many new protected forests declared.
Yes we have had some successes, primarily because our concepts were clear, concise and specific and were patiently explained to all concerned, balancing the positive and negative aspects. The commitment of wildlifers, NGOs, print and electronic media, scientists and key points raised at Wildlife Board meetings all combined to move our agenda forward. Dialogue with the local communities to address doubts and incorporate remedial solutions was vital to Uttarakhand’s success on this front and we also had the support of Forest Ministers and senior officers.
But specifically, you have done what most failed to do… win community support.
True. We first mooted the need for the Asan Wetland Conservation Reserve in January 2015 and locals, politicians and officials agreed that the Asan reservoir should under no circumstances be drained during the peak arrival of migratory birds. We went on to have it declared India`s First Conservation Reserve, in mid-June that year.
And the NGO sector?
Many good and successful initiatives, models and experiments were a result of their involvement, including with anti-poaching operations, training, education, raising public opinion and awareness campaigns. Teamwork is the key. Award more young people so they will be motivated to do more.
Policy makers? Do they understand the connection between protecting natural ecosystems and dealing with the impacts of accelerated climate change?
Not to the desired extent. Much needs to be done at the State Forest Department level. Things that need doing are not very clearly spelt out. Projects like CAMPA, JICA, Green India Mission, Watershed Development Project, Kailash Sacred Landscape Project, Catchment Area Treatment Plan, Aajivika and regular Forest Department activities badly need to be dovetailed, integrated through common strategies to meet common objectives. Stand-alone projects, irrespective of how much money is poured into them, results in patchy distribution of treated clusters, unquantifiable results and impacts and ambiguous benefits.
What about your Van Mitra initiative, which started out with so much promise?
Van Mitra provides a platform to collect information from locals and also to redress the grievances of forest staff. The public response has been overwhelming with over 2,000 submissions and complaints. But our own response fell short. Some officers took prompt and meaningful action, but the majority resented the additional work load, so action reports were not uploaded and several shortcomings emerged.
But with help from the Forest Minister and the Additional Chief Secretary of Forests, we expect this situation to improve very fast now. Van Mitra is destined to function as an effective information-gathering tool, integral to saving the forests and wildlife of Uttarakhand.
What in your view are the three most critical wildlife issues facing India?
Degradation and loss of habitat in all areas, lack of efficient protection and financial resources to Territorial Divisions, and increasing human-animal conflicts.
Do you have faith that communities will prove to be the custodians of wild India, or will the material aspirations of youth destabilise conservation plans?
Without the active support and watchdog role of communities, the official system will enter the ‘sleep mode’. We ourselves need to be kept on our toes, with responsibilities fixed and officials made answerable for their actions. Good initiatives must be rewarded. As for the material aspirations of some rural youth, perhaps they might actually move away to urban centres and we might then be able to reduce the impact of their footfall on forests. Some may even consider forests and wildlife as the most visible sign of ‘material possessions’ and could help in the protection of wilderness through the kind of community-owned nature conservancies that Sanctuary is propagating! Who knows?
Any message for colleagues and compatriots?
We have been entrusted with the safekeeping of forests and wildlife of our country and are paid handsomely. It is our legal, moral, emotional and social duty to protect and preserve the wilderness for future generations. Let us deliver what is expected from us. Most of us are doing it, but in these trying times this needs to be taken up as a mission.
And what would you say to the children of India?
You are the ones who have the greatest right to ask questions. Demand accountability for any failure in protecting YOUR forests and wildlife. Don’t shy away from getting emotionally involved and unite to force us adults to move in the precise direction that ends up saving your natural world. This is your right. A thriving wilderness must be your future companion.
Author: Bittu Sahgal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, December 2015.