Special Interview With Valmik Thapar
Photograph by Gertrud and Helmut Denzau.
Tiger defender all his life. Author. Filmmaker. Naturalist. Fighter. Television presenter. He has been all these and more. Having lived several lifetimes in one, on the eve of National Wildlife Week 2012, Valmik Thapar speaks to Bittu Sahgal, long-time friend and compatriot, about his life, mission and the very future of India.
Do you miss Fateh?
In a way what I am today is because of what Fateh Singh Rathore triggered in me. The one amazing quality in him was that he welcomed me with open arms into the folds of the forests of Ranthambhore and we created a unique partnership, both of ideas and how to implement them. I watched how he put Ranthambhore on the world map and saw the tigers change from evasive nocturnal predators to diurnal ones. He had a quality that few forest officers have today, of welcoming all kinds of people and inspiring them on their missions in the world of wildlife. It was like living in another world, and if I glance back to nearly 38 years ago, I believe that we have regressed enormously and there are no forest officers today who welcome anyone. When I watched Fateh, wildlife governance was at a peak – today it is at its lowest ebb. Yes, I miss him enormously but deep inside me, I celebrate his life and his incredible capacities.
You helped mould the Ministry of Environment in the 1980s and 1990s, before you turned cynical. Is there any redemption possible for the MoEF?
I started work in the ministry after the poaching debacle of 1991 in Ranthambhore. Immediately after meeting Kamal Nath, I was inducted into the steering committee of Project Tiger and in some capacity or the other, I continued my role in the ‘committee culture’ of India until 2011, when I resigned from all the committees of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. I did not mould the ministry. The ministry moulded me. And in all the wrong ways. This committee culture gives you a false sense of pride and importance and you start believing you are in some sense contributing to the nation, but in fact the government succeeds in diluting your actions and abilities. In many ways it disables and weakens you. And, as I have realised, many of the recommendations of these committees are still awaiting implementation 20 years later. For instance, the Tiger Protection Force, the ‘right person for the right job’, partnerships with NGOs, effective measures for dealing with wildlife crime, laws and how they can be counterproductive… nearly everything I wanted to do with my colleagues has ended up in disaster, and as there is little clarity on issues, we are in a pit of gloom because wildlife governance has no head or tail.
Was it always this bad?
Well, my best years were with Kamal Nath in the beginning as he had time to listen to all of us outsiders and took on board many ideas. From then on for me it has been a decline until Jairam Ramesh came in. I respected his intelligence and thoroughly enjoyed my debates with him but even he realised that the wildlife climate, what with opposing state governments, was horribly divided and twisted. He was unable to find a path with the states, and he was stymied by the bureaucracy he believed in. Looking back at more than 20 years with the ministry, I am not cynical but only realistic. We seem to have gone back to minus zero. That is how bad it really is and to change course requires massive reform and a brand new ministry and forest service, which will never happen. In fact, the committee of secretaries has even rejected a proposal for a Department of Forests and Wildlife, though this had the approval of the Prime Minister himself! That is the state of our affairs. To change course requires new thinking and dynamic decision making and this is totally absent in any field of discipline in India. Petty bureaucrats block change and in 20 years only P. K. Sen provided fresh thinking when he was Director of Project Tiger because of his ability to call a spade a spade.
And Project Tiger itself?
When I was inducted into Project Tiger I was delighted and thought I was going to change the world. In many ways I believed I was doing just that as the first years rolled by. I ran with my colleagues, believing that we were on a mission that would see fruition for a better future for wild tigers. And how we all tried, leaving no stone unturned. In retrospect, we were taken for the biggest ride of our lives by the bureaucrat much more than by any politician. It is the envious, jealous bureaucrat in the government machinery who finally has his way, with all the files and green papers he signs. They are masters of either doing or not doing and their mastery is in how to divide and rule the non-governmental person and they are able to play this game of politics with amazing talent and dexterity. That was the most rotten part of the system, but my realisation of it came at the turn of the century when I saw that most of what we had done or worked for was only on paper and not in the field. Yes, I had learnt much about the working of the government but at a great cost. I realised my utter failure and the fact that governments would never save tigers and Project Tiger, so precious to me, was just a paper tiger in the hands of bureaucrats who first look at their own interests and then the tiger’s. So many years of hard idealistic effort had gone down the drain.
Our system of governance seems to serve only those who are servile to them – they like chamchas (yes-men) and thrive on playing politics at the cost of endless failed missions. Even when you see this, it is not easy to extricate yourself from the system in play. It buries its tentacles into you and I found myself forever rationalising my role, believing always that I was trying to minimise damage. But even if this is true, every human being needs more in his or her life than merely ‘minimising damage’. For god’s sake, this is a country full of extraordinary talent and why on earth is that not used for saving our wilderness? My only answer is the ego and jealousy of those who rule and who prefer not to strike genuine partnerships like Fateh Singh did. Instead, they play games that sabotage and paralyse the mission on hand – they shoot the messenger, which is the core reason why both Sariska and Panna lost their tigers and no one was held accountable or answerable. That is the shocker of our system in play – it never solves the root of the problem so the problem just lives forever – and this was everywhere. I remember how I loved every bit of the Wildlife Institute of India and fought so hard for it in the early years. And then when it looked as if it was going downhill, I got involved in the Das Gupta Committee and worked hard to correct it, but nothing ever happened. And I watched the bureaucrats disable any important change. They seem to be comrades in arms at paralysing new thought and reform. That is why we have such weak institutions. I think Project Tiger went the same way as it turned itself into the National Tiger Conservation Authority with various amendments in the laws. I think if anyone was to analyse the details, it will reveal how the bureaucrat created a more comfortable seat for himself and not the tiger, since the problems of the tiger are always unaddressed. The Project Tiger I knew has died and some new avatar has been created by the government in order to be more powerful and it will probably do even less than before.
As I have learnt over these decades, we can save tigers or wildlife only when bureaucrats stop playing games and start building relationships with civil society and empower civil society to participate in decision making. We have to stop the fooling around. We are already in an era of disasters. We need new mechanisms of governance that come from new partnerships with all those who deeply care about our natural world. In the last 20 years I watched government erode this connection for a strange kind of dictatorial decision-making that always destroys and seldom creates. My life with Project Tiger was a total failure, but I realised the hard way that what the government did in the name of saving tigers was to create a paralysis of real action on the ground that was unpardonable.
Will we ever get another Billy Arjan Singh, or Deb Roy?
If I look back at Kailash Sankhala, Billy Arjan Singh, Deb Roy or Fateh Singh, they were characters from another world, on missions to achieve their goals. Things have changed today, and I do not believe there will be such exemplary people ever again.
Until the end of the 90s, I believed it was possible and I was passionately devoted to the cause of linking the best together in a network called Tiger Link. I believed that collective strength would prevent the divide and rule diktat of the bureaucrat. And how we ran around India and met frequently believing in our mission at hand. But slowly it fizzled out as most things do, sabotaged and endlessly stonewalled by the governments of the day at both the Centre and state levels.
Instead of realising the failure of such networks, faced with a government that could not care less, I still did not give up hope. I was persuaded to join the Executive Committee of the BNHS in order to bring in some fresh ideas, but it ended up being the most miserable experience of my life and pretty much the same happened with WWF-India. These huge NGOs that believe they have the answers, but are on such delicate terms with government, just cannot deal or intervene effectively. At least that was my experience and I watched their internal politics with shock and horror. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) had a much more pragmatic approach to deal with problems, but there also I saw how in recent years the change of guard can cause such chaos. All our NGOs are in a total mess and the biggest problems they face is the fear of government. Because of this there is double talk and double standards. It takes too much time and effort to just get along with the government, then comes the business of being diplomatic and minding your p’s and q’s. How much do you compromise? And where does it all take you? Is it necessary to cuddle them when you actually hate them? I know the detail of endless examples of individuals and organisations that became like government functionaries because it became too difficult for them to fight. The few who did had to deal with false cases filed against them, or other forms of harassment that governments are masters of. This is what divides the conservation community and reduces it to naught. Instead of people sitting in the field and working hard with government functionaries as equals, as is the case in most parts of Africa, we spend time correcting minutes of meetings. Our NGOs and individuals, because of this, are set against each other and spend more time squabbling and in paper work, forgetting that in the end this game is totally irrelevant. And there is a vast misuse of the media to affect the squabbling. That is the tragedy of today and a stream of examples of such happenings floods my brain. Human nature is about bloated egos all over, in government and out. All malfunctioning is because they suffer from a false sense of importance. Egos are first on the agenda and then comes the issue at hand. And it is much worse for all the individual scientists and NGOs who require to get simple permissions for research, or to apply for grants or any other detail that requires government concurrence. That is when the government can teach you to ‘rock and roll’ while our poor conservation movement gets further torn apart. Sometimes I can’t believe what I have seen with my eyes… all valuable time that is taken away from the job at hand.
Photograph by Valmik Thapar.
What about your disillusionment with your colleagues and others you worked with?
I have worked with many colleagues over the years and engaged with them in the best way I knew. Some were forest officers and they became good friends of mine and still are. Others were wildlife scientists and conservationists and with them I enjoyed debate and disagreement. I think my scientist colleagues who wanted rapid action were slow to realise that the delivery system of governments was absent. Science is an essential element of wildlife management, but only in a system that works. You cannot do effective research that results in management options when the system malfunctions and misuses what it chooses and ignores the research. I believe that many of my colleagues could have fought much more for better governance than they did. Too easily did they accept the state of affairs, but then we are all of different temperaments and have different agendas. But wildlife science is still in a primary stage because government does not strike genuine partnerships with those outside. They worry about interference and since there is no transparency in the system they are worried that their secrets will be leaked. That is why, apart from a few exceptions, we get nowhere. That is why events like Sariska and Panna can take place where no one is held answerable or accountable. And in Panna, the poor wildlife scientist who revealed the horrors of poaching became the messenger to be shot. Government culture is dictatorial and uncivilised and still wants the chamcha scientist and conservationist in the committees it runs and unless this changes, we will get nowhere.
We must also be careful of our agendas. Recently at a meeting of NBWL, a senior colleague of mine, when talking of the introduction of lion and cheetahs stated to the Prime Minister that both existed in the past in Kuno in MP. But this statement was not even factual and based on nothing... all this fantasy of articulation must stop if we are to go anywhere at all. My disappointment with the government is huge... with my colleagues I can still work it out as long as they don’t fantasise their own agendas or are myopic about their priorities. In fact, I remember telling some of them that India is made up of more than just the southern regions!
What about the period of time in the late 1980s when you created your own NGO?
In 1988, I set up the Ranthambhore Foundation and after devoting 12 years of 24x7 attention to it, I quit. During this period, lakhs of trees were planted and they survived, endless productive breeds of home-fed cattle were brought in, biogas was developed and both primary health care and education initiatives were tried, with more the 50,000 people around Ranthambhore. My colleagues in this effort believed in it and gave it all they could; we were after all trying to integrate people with the cause of wildlife. In my opinion, we failed because the success of many of our initiatives depended on government support that never came. The local bureaucrats were more interested in pointing fingers and playing politics with NGOs and therefore the success I wanted was never achieved. At least not the way I wanted. Few like fresh ideas and even fewer support you. Government is like a feudal king without space to either have humility or learn from the amazing talent that lives outside the system. But I enjoyed my panchayat and gram sabha meetings and at some point I knew more about milk and income generation than tigers! Again I have no regrets. I learned a lot from it.
Books. You have written enough to fill a library. Have these books done anything for the tigers you want saved?
I don’t know what the 25 books, or indeed my life, have done for the tiger. When I look at my life, it is like a huge failure, as all that I wanted to do I could never do and was forever foiled and thwarted by the governments that ruled who preferred to play games rather than act. But the books were my peace and solace in the mess of committees and all that never happened. So when I vanish into a world of books, it is my inner peace and truth that I can live with and that to me is vital. I am not sure what impact my books had but the most recent one which will be published in February by ‘Aleph’ has been for me a delight as I stumbled upon something and then pursued it. In a way that was a great experience. This is the magical world of books and I have written a book called ‘Exotic Aliens’ about the lion and cheetah in India and the process for me has been hugely rewarding. Each human being needs to leave something of their lives behind and try to keep records of a time – that is how the history of the world was written. I love my world of books and do not know whether they save tigers or not – very doubtful since I believe that we have regressed so sharply in the last decades that saving tigers with the present mechanisms of governance and bureaucracy is just not a reality. But no one can complain that we did not try.
Photograph by Valmik Thapar.
Indira Gandhi. Rajiv, Sonia, Priyanka, Rahul... will the legacy rescue natural India, or is it already too late?
As far as the Gandhi family and the tigers and wildlife of this country is concerned I believe that Indira Gandhi, in the nick of time, saved our wildlife and the wilderness by bringing in laws that prohibited the exploitation of both. And she did it because of her experiences with nature and it ran in her blood. She was passionate about the wilderness of India and therefore felt the urgent need to keep it safe. These individual experiences determine the way battles are fought to keep our natural treasures secure, and Indira Gandhi was a key player in saving our wilds. It is this very deep link that got transmitted to Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi... all in different ways, because of their different experiences, but I believe that is why the Congress Party as a whole can be, when it so chooses, sensitive to wildlife. Not that there are not others, like Digvijaysinh and Salman Khurshid.
I think that any political leader that genuinely engages or gets sensitised to nature will fight for it and there are many from other parties like Vasundhara Raje, Nitish Kumar, Maneka Gandhi, Rudy Pratap Singh and V.P. Singh, who will take up cudgels for wildlife. I thoroughly enjoyed working with V.P. Singh, Member of Parliament, on the Rajasthan Empowered Committee where we were lucky to do some good. Sadly, there are not enough of such individuals on our political horizon and till politicians have their very own experiences with wildlife and get inspired, very little progress can happen. Rajasthan is so lucky to have its Minister of Forests and Tourism, Bina Kak, who loves her tigers and loves watching them. It is this kind of political leader that can bring about change and in the right way. And never forget that all these leaders are first of all tourists – that is why I believe that tourism is the birthright of every citizen of the planet and that’s not only how the history of the world was written, but still is being written, through voyage and discovery. Sadly, no one deals with the inept tourism industry that has never learnt to give back to either the locals or the wildlife and the totally irrelevant Forest Departments that prescribe and enforce rules in chaotic and ad hoc ways. Both these players require urgent reform and renewal before it is too late. It is the wildlife experience that created the political will of an Indira Gandhi and many others and therefore a vital component to inspire people from all walks of life to engage in the battles ahead.
What about all the decades that you spent working for conservation?
I have spent 37 years following the tail of the tiger and everything around it. Nearly 21 years have been devoted in one way or another to government committees (my worst experience) and probably the best time of my life in the company of wild tigers and with people like Fateh Singh. Throughout these years, I served tigers and no one else. I have tried to explain that I failed in my mission but I was lucky that I saw so much of the secret world of tigers, travelled to so many corners of India and the world, to present a bunch of films and write a couple of dozen books and enjoy the very special pleasures of my family.
I have no regrets except that if I was asked again to serve meaningless committees, I would say no, unless we were empowered to make a difference. In a way the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee was exactly that. Tigers will survive if this nation is governed properly and the reform of our systems is an essential component of this. I hope the next 10 years brings this point home. We need a new service which harnesses the talents of this country in the interest of its wildlife. We need to look at land use and landscapes to ensure their viability for all that lives in them and some steps will have to be mandatory. We need to make one holistic green law that governs our wilderness so that the present basket of laws fades away. This is the only way to prevent the contradictions in our laws from paralysing the process of decision making. We need to more importantly create happy and effective relationships between people who care in order that new partnerships are made for saving the great treasures that exist. And we will have to unite those who fight for peoples’ rights on forests and those who fight for wildlife rights. We need to force the governments we elect to do the right thing and till this change occurs, little will happen in concrete terms for wild tigers. Trust and faith is in short supply all across the country. We need to forge a new way forward and change course but in that process we need political reform and change... in its absence there will only be paralysis... and an eroded delivery system will do little.
Clearly, the rot extends much further than the arena of wildlife governance.
I think that in my 60 years I have never seen such a political climate that plagues this nation. I grew up with politics and my parents were deeply ideological and completely engrossed in it, believing in an India that could create new visions for the world to follow. Today in nearly every field, we are in a mess. A lack of decision-making and clarity. Polarised ideologies. A lack of consensus. A younger generation that is so confused that it has disabled them from intervening. A demoralisation, right through the system in play, that I have never seen in my life. An erosion of institutions. Little depth in dealing with issues. Personal greed. Bloated egos. No inspiration for change. A self-serving bureaucracy that has lost its way in a quagmire of inept politicians. A nation that is topsy-turvy and where priority and ideals are blurred and self interest is at the forefront. What an era we are living in, where whatever you touch reveals a scam or a horror or a nightmare... how can you save tigers and forests in such a scenario? Impossible. We are just masters of scotch tape governance. We divide and rule and play politics to govern. The government thinks it knows best and perfects techniques to get a following amongst the so called intelligentsia. Everything suffers in the process. We need radical reform and change in the system of governance. We need to rewrite parts of our constitution to deal with today’s problems. We need to redraw our districts based on their site specific needs. We need a new set of civil services – a new Indian Administrative Service. A new Indian Police Service. A new Indian Forest and Wildlife Service.
We need political reform and a fresh debate on what system to follow, be it presidential or the way we are... we need to engage civil society and the enormous talent in it with good governance. We need White Papers and institutional frameworks for new models of wildlife governance. We need to share power to govern with the talent outside government. For all this our mind set has to change, more debate based on mutual respect rather then abuse, more brainstorming and new mechanisms for solving the huge arena of problems. We have to think, inspire and create institutions that are just. We need to create hope and optimism for the future and not the horrors we have fashioned today for the younger generation. Only when we do this can we think of saving tigers. Saving tigers requires fresh and new partnerships with civil society and the present Forest Department can never provide this. It needs to be reinvented. Our mission has to be radical reform, even if our democracy requires to be redrawn in terms of laws, courts, and the method of functioning. We may also need to review the Centre and States and their ever-growing conflict. Let’s review everything. Let’s rewrite our laws to suit the needs of today since so much is not working. This is the only way forward otherwise we will be plagued by inaction that causes serious strife and fatal conflict.
Photograph by Amitava Banerje.
Can the tiger possibly survive the politics of India?
Saving tigers is possible. For this, working with local people is essential. Discussing issues with all is vital, but only in a climate of change and change at the very core of our entire system as I stated earlier. For the future of tigers, the Forest Department will have to share power and enter new partnerships with humility of purpose and mission. If we continue on the path we are on then we are only observers of the End Game.
Is Jairam Ramesh lost to conservation or will he be able to do more for wild India by backing Community-owned Nature Conservancies?
I have known Jairam Ramesh for ages and he is like a friend. If he wanted to do something in his new Ministry of Rural Affairs and for wildlife landscapes, then he needs to take a month off and go on a study tour to several African countries and to Costa Rica and Brazil. He needs to have his own wildlife/local community experience and listen to how his colleagues in different governments have engaged in converting degraded farmlands to forests. Then, if he is inspired by what he experiences he should create a very special green, very green, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NAREGA), which benefits our wilderness landscapes and the locals who live in and around them. This is essential in order to get Jairam engrossed in the possibilities of what the future can hold. It is such experiences that will not only invigorate him but also keep him away from the clutches of redundant forest and other bureaucrats. I have great respect for Jairam’s intelligence and this he can use very effectively in his present job for wildlife but only after he allows himself to be positively impacted by working models elsewhere.
And the Central Empowered Committee?
In my lifetime, I served on 200 or more committees of the central and state government believing that I was serving my nation. I became a committee wallah and got totally abused by the system in play. If I had to rewrite my life I would never do it again and till we have a system that has a core of hope, I would never suggest that anyone from the younger generation should join committees as it negates and neutralises the being and sometimes what you recommend takes 20 years to see the light of day. Instead of outside talent being used to work in the field and do a job that is useful, they are used to destroy criticism in endless meaningless committees. I am covered in a layer of dirt after all the committees I worked in. I watched the horrors of divide and rule politics of the most vicious kind and the abuse of intelligence, and of threats and harassment, neither of which I will ever forget. I watched rejected projects resurface regularly and saw governments creating their cadres of chamchas to benefit other interests.
There was only one exception. The CEC where I worked with people like M.K. Jivrajka, an expert on so much and with a talent that is exceptional. Both P. V. Jaikrishnan, Chairman of CEC and M. Vyas were a delight to engage with. We worked hard and ideas like CAMPA were born and endless decisions were taken that saw the light of day. I loved it and because it was a Supreme Court committee, it was taken seriously and without the bureaucrats’ interference. Probably one of the most redundant committees was created at my suggestion at an NBWL meeting, which the Prime Minister chaired. The Tiger Task Force was created, three members of which had very little or no experience of tigers. The final report will collect endless layers of dust as it never served the tiger’s interest. Another suggestion of mine to bifurcate the MoEF and create in the first stage two departments, one for Forests and Wildlife with its own Secretary, was accepted by the Prime Minister and he asked Jairam Ramesh in 2010 to do it. But then months later the bureaucrats that run the show, in this case the Committee of Secretaries, rejected the idea. In both cases the bureaucrat had the power to negate effective interventions even from the Prime Minister.
Photograph by Aditya Singh.
Is this why you work best as a loner?
I have realised that in my life I have been able to do more behind the scenes and at the end of a phone line than in all the committees I have ever served. I wait for the day when this negation of good ideas ends. No more sabotage of this kind is required. My suggestion or advice to scores of committee aspirants is... get involved only if you are certain that you can make a difference otherwise the endless politics played with committees and their minutes and the paralysis they create can leave scars that never heal. And they hate the very few that follow their truth, or remain unscathed... you get harassed by bureaucrats whose egos are bloated and they use diverse means to damage. Many have experienced it. This will stop only with the radical reform of our civil services. Today it is like walking through a minefield to find a path of sense. That is why wildlife never gets its due.
Is there a way out?
India’s future depends on a new vision within and outside government that engages the best in the fight to keep our natural world alive. Firstly the forest bureaucrat has to be reinvented as an enabler of new relationships and not as a destroyer of them. To do this requires a complete overhaul of the Indian Forest Service and all that it is associated with. Then can start the partnerships between those who believe in the rights of tigers and wildlife and those that believe in human rights. Both need to give way to reach agreements and I am sure they can if the first issue is resolved. We need new institutional frameworks and delivery systems that provide relief to both people and wildlife. We need to create and develop new models of governance where decision making is shared by those who care for our wild landscapes. Our bureaucracy requires urgent reform. Serving officials often cuddle politicians, seeking post-retirement tenures in exchange. This unethical practice must end. Can this ever happen? Yes it can if we stop fighting between ourselves and doing each other down. If we get Chief Ministers that enable dynamic decisions. If we get NGOs to stop bickering and confront the prevailing system to force change. In all this we need good science and a way forward where scientists are encouraged and not undermined and where the seniors are able to step back and allow the younger generation to grow. Nobody has the final answers but for god’s sake the least we can do is try.
And in light of all this, your advice to colleagues?
To my colleagues outside of government I say: Stop the game of cuddling the bureaucrat, it is in the long run detrimental to the future of wildlife. Force by your actions institutional change. If you don’t then what you do in your lifetime is only for yourself. Tigers will not be saved by the endless yap yap that goes on in board rooms and committees, which has been so hugely counter productive. They will only be saved when fresh partnerships are struck in the field and when the talent of those that want to give is received. This will happen when the system in play changes for both the government and the non-government. That is the job on hand. Open up and act so that the engagement is effective. If laws have to change then they have to. We cannot have five or six green laws that fight each other. We need one holistic law that people understand. Today there is a basket of them that negate common sense. The laws must change, so must the forest service and the attitudes of all of us outside the system so that we can work together with a new vision. That is the only way we will save tigers in the future.
Photograph by Hamir Thapar.
What is Valmik Thapar going to do in the next 10 years?
My next decade will be devoted to catalysing change that I believe is an essential ingredient to the future of our wildlife. Without new partnerships and relationships, without the Forest Department overhauling its mindset, we will go nowhere.
by Bittu Sahgal, First appeared in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 5, October 2012