Home People Interviews Meet Mahesh Kumar Jiwrajka

Meet Mahesh Kumar Jiwrajka

In the last three decades, the forests under Jiwrajka’s watchful eye have flourished. A fierce defender of India’s wildlife he has taken on politicians, industrial big-wigs and poachers who threaten India’s fragile ecosystems. Photo courtesy: M.K. Jiwrajka.

An introverted man and an unlikely earth hero, Mahesh Jiwrajka has been selected to receive the Sanctuary-RBS Lifetime Service Award 2010. A part of the Indian Forest Service (IFS) for over three decades, he has probably been more directly responsible for saving wildlife habitats in India than almost any other individual in the past few years. Despite his mammoth contribution to wildlife, he is probably one of India’s least-known wildlife defenders because he refuses to claim credit for victories and, apart from those who have directly worked with him, or crossed swords with him, few even know he exists. Yet, he is a virtual encyclopedia of forest laws, a green legal eagle who could probably teach many a lawyer about the nuances of India’s environmental laws. After serving the Maharashtra and Central Governments in various roles, he was appointed Member Secretary of the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) in 2002, a position he has held ever since. He met Bittu Sahgal in New Delhi and speaks here about the why’s and what not’s of his illustrious life.

How did a Rajasthan-based Maharashtrian land up spending his life in the capital of India?

Bittu, even I do not really know where I started out from any more. Yes, my family originates from Rajasthan, but my parents actually hail from Bhagalpur, Bihar, I did my schooling in Bhagalpur and Kolkata, my college years were spent in the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), my training and foundation course was in Dehradun, after which I was allotted to the Maharashtra Cadre and now I find myself working in New Delhi.  I suppose I am a good example of national integration. (Laughs!)

It can’t have been easy to get into the Indian Forest Service, Mahesh. Were you a good student?

Arre absolutely not! I hardly ever attended classes in my school days. And all my teachers used to tell me I had a bad attitude. In fact in my IFS interview, the Chairman actually got up and left half-way saying “no use”. The result was that I only got eight per cent marks.

Eight per cent! How on earth did you get in?

I did relatively better in my written tests.

And yet after all these years you took voluntary retirement from the IFS in 2009?

It was a very painful decision. Particularly when I had a very good chance of reaching the level of Director General Forests since I joined the IFS at a very young age. But there were compelling reasons that forced me to opt for voluntary retirement.

There is a general belief that you left because the reports you helped write had angered powerful people involved in the Bastar scam and other land scams in Pune.

I would not like to go into any specifics, except that it was a personal decision. In any case I felt I was getting isolated within the system, which was likely to make me ineffective within the constraints of service rules. I felt therefore I would be able to do much more for forest conservation outside the service because my loyalty was more to the forest than my bosses or those who influenced my bosses.

I guess opposition from IFS colleagues was inevitable because of your insistence that the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980 and the Supreme Court’s orders in the Godavarman forest case be enforced strictly...

It has always been a mixed response. But I must say some of my best friends whom I respect very highly are still within the system and they are making it work to quite an extent. And others directly and indirectly helped me by providing specific information and moral support. For example, when we worked to stop mining in Jamua Ramgarh and Sariska in Rajasthan and the felling of trees in Soolpaneshwar, Gujarat a lot of valuable information and support was provided by my colleagues. On the other hand many officials were angry and upset about the attempts being made to regulate the felling of trees and the working of wood-based industries in the Northeastern states.

You feel a sense of personal satisfaction about your own role in guiding and implementing the mandate of the CEC?

Well, subject to my limitations and capabilities I tried to do what I could for our forests and wildlife.

And what is it that you feel you most accomplished?

That only time will tell but I believe that I helped to institutionalise the concept of inviolate spaces, without which wildlife can have no future. To this extent, I have some sense of satisfaction that things will continue to move in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. The system still does not believe that forests have inherent value or there would not be such a race to destroy them for short-term gains.

Mahesh Jiwrajka’s efforts to regulate the felling of trees and the working of wood-based industries in the Northeastern states upset and angered many officials. However, he refuses to let others’ anger deter him from his belief that long-term economic development and the conservation of natural resources are not just compatible, but vital to each other. Photo: Samsul Huda Patgiri.

Do you feel your life has been well spent? That you have succeeded in protecting wildlife?

I am of little consequence in the larger scheme of things. The truth is but for the proactive role played by the honourable Supreme Court, our wildlife and their habitat would have suffered irreparable damage. Thanks to its various orders and judgments we have seen a sort of wall come up between our forests and ruthless exploiters.

You were an Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF) in Dahanu, Maharashtra at the age of 24 in 1977. What do you feel when you see those forests today?

I feel extremely sad.

What about Gadchiroli in Maharashtra? You served there when the Naxal problem was just taking root. Do you think the IFS let the country down?

I would not go to that extent, but at some level I believe that Naxalism in Gadchiroli could have been avoided if senior IFS officers had displayed better leadership at the ground level. Instead of leading from the front, the blame kept getting placed on poor guards and foresters who had no real power. This is a continuing problem. This is true for many government departments, not only the Forest Service. Officials display insensitivity to tribal traditions, forest dwellers and their needs. This is a real and continuing problem. In most cases there is neither understanding nor empathy. So resentment and anger build up.

Talking about anger and resentment, I guess you must have personally experienced quite a lot because of your role in the closure of hundreds of wood-based industries?

Yes, but others’ anger does not affect me when I believe that what is being done is in the public interest.

Any physical threats?

Never. But I have had to face attempts to coerce me to change a particular line of action, which may not have suited many influential persons in the country.

Tell me a bit about the NPV or Net Present Value, which you worked on and which has resulted in what might be the world’s largest forest natural-regeneration fund of Rs. 18,000 crores – CAMPA.

The idea occurred to me long ago when I was doing a course on agricultural development in the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. This led to the evolution of my belief that the tangible and intangible benefits that flow from forests, for instance soil conservation and prevention of floods should be calculated and compensated if and when a forest had to be destroyed for any project.

And how can all these be financially calculated?

It’s not easy. Which is why it was very conveniently never calculated or taken into account in the past. Basically project promoters got forest land and forest resources practically free of cost. The basic idea of the NPV is to withdraw such hidden subsidies that projects enjoyed at the cost of the nation. After considering the CEC report of August 2002, the Supreme Court directed that NPV had to be recovered from any user agency at the very time that approval was granted under the FCA, 1980 for any non-forest use.

And how was this done?

Initially the NPV rates were fixed on an ad hoc basis. Then in September 2005 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the recovery of the NPV and its deposit outside the consolidated fund of India. It was also decided by the Supreme Court that the NPV was to be calculated on a scientific basis for different forest areas. That was the real milestone.

How so?

Based on scientific studies, forests were classified into different ecological-classes and density sub-classes. The monetary value of various goods and services provided by the forests were calculated and thereafter the NPV rates for various forest eco-classes and density sub-classes were determined – based on the ecosystem services they provided.

If any area fell in a wildlife sanctuary the NPV had to be multiplied by five and in the case of a national park 10 times the stipulated rate. This served two purposes. First it helped to create a huge fund now managed by the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority or CAMPA, to conserve, protect and regenerate forests, wildlife and its habitat – including relocation of villages from critical wildlife habitats. Secondly, it stopped most project proponents from making demands for forest lands because they were no longer available free of cost. Today, they look at forest lands only when no other land is available.

Is this not what GIST and TEEB are all about?

The CEC relied heavily upon the study undertaken by GIST to assess the monetary value of the goods and services provided by forest ecosystems. The TEEB report was published very recently and hopefully other countries will also be able to take advantage of the findings to place a proper valuation of their natural resources.

Mahesh Jiwrajka’s role in drafting an advisory stipulating that no projects could be implemented in a Protected Area without obtaining permission from the Supreme Court has allowed to keep reserves such as Pench out of bounds of those who seek to exploit our wilderness areas. Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.

What about the utilisation of CAMPA funds?

The Supreme Court passed an order on July 10, 2009 permitting a release of Rs. 5,000 crores at Rs. 1,000 crores per annum for the conservation and protection of wildlife and the regeneration of forests. The CEC had recommended to the apex court that only the interest be used, so that the fund remains in perpetuity. We wanted to defer the total release of funds until a credible system of accountability, checks and balances, monitoring mechanisms and audit was instituted. This was also done to ensure that the capacity to utilise the money was developed by various state Forest Departments. Without this “leakages” would result in the money vanishing without the objectives being achieved.

And then there was that other famous advisory you drafted that was issued to all states in 2004 about the management of national parks and sanctuaries.

Yes. Basically sanctuaries and national parks or Protected Areas (PAs) as they are called used to be managed like any other forests by state governments, where felling of trees, removal of bamboo and the grant of rights to extract biomass was routine. We felt this was harming wildlife. In 2004, therefore, on behalf of the CEC we issued an advisory to all states and Union Territories stipulating three things: 1. No projects to be implemented in a PA even if approved under the FCA without first obtaining permission from the Supreme Court. 2. No felling or extraction of trees, including bamboo, even if the working plan was approved. 3. No infrastructure development, including widening of road, tar-coating of roads or new roads to be built, unless they were explicitly required for patrolling and protection.

Your life has become intertwined with the CEC. What have the CEC’s  key achievements been?

I would say the most significant success of the CEC has been establishing the adverse impact of mining in forest areas, both legal and illegal. Amongst the more notable projects we had to deal with were the Kudremukh iron ore mines that had to be shut down, the diamond mining in Panna National Park that was stopped and the marble and stone mining in Jamua Ramgarh and Sariska. Many other states were also involved and the extent can be best gauged from Orissa where between 2002 and 2010 roughly Rs. 1,300 crores were paid into CAMPA as NPV by various projects. The CEC has since filed a report regarding mining in Orissa, which is yet to be considered by the Supreme Court.  But the mere filing of the report has resulted in additional deposits of Rs. 1,800 crores towards NPV by various Orissa mining companies.

I suppose the list of such interventions that you helped draft for the CEC would require more pages than we have in Sanctuary!

There really are too many, but they are all in the public domain on the website. These include the clearance of encroachments from 30,000 acres of Kolleru in Andhra Pradesh, orders against mining in Netravalli in Goa, withdrawal of environmental clearance for the Lower Subansiri dam in Arunachal Pradesh and so on.

Mahesh, what drives you? What fuels your determination to fight on?

Who knows? I have never questioned why I do what I do. But I am a strong believer of inter-generational-equity and I firmly believe that wild species cannot survive without inviolate wildernesses. Long-term economic development and the conservation of natural resources are not just compatible, but vital to each other. I also believe very strongly that there is no lack of policies or legal frameworks in India, but the implementation of the same is seriously lacking due to greed and widespread corruption. This I feel has to be stopped at any cost.

What is your message to the youth of India about their forest heritage?

Don’t merely talk about saving wildlife. Get involved and do something.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXX No. 6, December 2010.


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