Prerna Singh Bindra answers the phone, sounding like she’s got somewhere to rush off to even in the locked-down world of 2020. “Aa rahi hoon Chottu (I’m coming Chottu),” she says moments after saying hello. Barely a minute later, she’s telling Chottu again, that she’s just on her way. Should we speak some other time, I ask, in case someone is waiting? No, she says, it’s all right, Chottu just wants attention. By and by the identity of Chottu is revealed: it emerges that Chottu, official name Doginder, is a dog.
Animals, tame or wild, are never “just animals” for conservationist and author Bindra. They are her favourite living things. She lives in cities — Gurgaon now, Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad earlier — but the forests of India are her happy place. She is forever escaping into them at every half-opportunity.
It is, by her own admission, an old habit.
“My penchant for vanishing into the wilderness goes a long way back,” she writes in the prologue of her book The Vanishing. “I would have been about eight when I failed to alight from the school bus at St Ann’s Convent, Jamnagar (Gujarat), causing the city police to swing into action (more so as my father was the superintendent of the district). It was my mother — they do know their children — who eventually found me, well-camouflaged behind the bougainvillea, in the riotous backyard of our bungalow. Her tears of relief and pent-up anger were met with an indignant, ‘But the peahen has laid eggs, I am waiting for the chicks to come out’.”
That innate curiosity and affection for all creatures, further developed during her growing-up years through reading the works of James Herriott, Gerald Durrell, and the columns of M Krishnan in The Statesman, have stayed with her. It guided the direction of her life.
Bindra graduated with a degree in Economics from St Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad. The general idea in families like hers those days — she grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s — she says, was that “a girl would do her BA or MA, marry a good boy, settle down”. Spending her life tramping around in jungles was out of the question. She was more or less on the track set by social and parental expectations when, after college, she landed a job as a research associate at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. “It was a good job,” she says, “but it just wasn’t me.”
Disquiet by itself might have taken a while to drive her destiny. Her personal life took her to Mumbai, and set her on the course that made a conservationist of her. There one day, she picked up a copy of Sanctuary magazine, found the address printed on it, and decided she wanted to write for them. So, she walked into the magazine’s office in Maker Towers seeking to meet its founder, veteran conservationist Bittu Sahgal. She was in luck. He happened to be in the office, and agreed to meet her. She asked him for a job. “He asked, why do you want to work here? I replied, because you have a dog in the office.” That was apparently the right answer. She got the job. She had become a journalist.
Newspaper and newsmagazine jobs followed. In 2009, she did a series of reports for The Pioneer on the forests of the Terai region of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar, an important tiger and elephant landscape with some protected areas, notably Rajaji National Park and Corbett Tiger Reserve. “Resorts were blocking wildlife corridors around Corbett,” she says, “and there were unethical practices such as baiting tigers to show to tourists.” Her reports got noticed. Those were better times. Rather than being slapped with cases, Bindra found herself invited to join a government committee on tourism and its impact on wildlife. It was the beginning of another phase of her journey in conservation.
In 2010, Bindra became a member of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife headed by the Union Environment Minister, which has the crucial job of approving or rejecting proposals that involve wholesale destruction of wildlife or their habitats. Projects from all over India for roads, dams, highways, mines, resorts, and hotels in forest areas come before it. The committee at the time had seven members, says Bindra. “I was the youngest-ever member, and the only woman. I lacked the requisite grey hair,” she says. She was, she adds with a laugh, called the “troublemaker” in the committee.
She had lots of issues with how the committee worked, and publicly called the National Board for Wildlife the “Notional Board for Wildlife”. But now she is nostalgic for those times when there was space to discuss conservation issues and an environment minister who respected dissent and had time for conservationists and subject experts. Since 2014, the National Board for Wildlife has not met a single time.
The current standing committee, meanwhile, has been proactive. It met via videoconference even in the middle of the current lockdown. On April 7, Union Minister of Environment and Forests Prakash Javadekar announced on his official Twitter handle, “I chaired the meeting of Standing Committee of NBWL today through VC and approved wildlife clearance for number of developmental project proposals submitted by 11 states.” He listed out infrastructure, mining, highway, and hydroelectric projects the committee had approved.
The ministry used to clear projects in a rush even earlier, says Bindra, and the tendency has worsened. Often 40-odd proposals are cleared in a few hours with a rejection rate of barely one per cent. The most ancient heritage of India — its natural heritage — is being destroyed. In the 7th April meeting, 16 major projects through national parks, sanctuaries, and wildlife corridors were approved. The mandate of the National Board of Wildlife is to protect wildlife, says Bindra, not to facilitate quick clearances for projects. “It is not meant to be a rubber stamp for the state-sanctioned giving away of wildlife habitats,” she says. She has the same concern about the environment ministry: it is there to look after the natural environment, she says, not to give it away as fast as possible.
Yet, the siren song of economic development at any cost is one that she knows to be, at least until now, an unstoppable force. She is not an optimist — though it’s hope that keeps her going.
She is pessimistic about the possible impact of the coronavirus crisis on the environment. “People are happy about seeing a few animals and clear skies. I am too — even the Delhi sky is clear these days — but I worry that the economy crashing will put more pressure on the environment…I worry that entire forests may be given away in the name of GDP growth,” she says. Such a proposal is indeed under consideration, in the Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh, where 2.7 lakh trees will have to be felled if a controversial hydroelectric project goes through.
The destruction of forests and wildlife has a direct link to the coronavirus crisis facing the world. Covid-19, according to Bindra, is a reminder to humankind about the dangers of exploiting nature. Zoonotic diseases have been increasing over the years, she says, as forest cover has decreased, thus bringing wild animals into closer proximity to human populations. “Conserving wildlife is not just about saving some animals,” she says.
The cost of a single zoonotic pandemic to the world and its economy is there for all to see now. It is not utilitarian considerations of costs and benefits, gains and losses, that drive her, though. For her, it’s a mission driven by love. The animals don’t have a voice, and she lends them hers. It is a mission where bad news usually outweighs the good, she says. She has just heard news of two leopards being beaten to death. But there are occasional victories, in the form of forests and wildlife saved, and many moments of felicity in communion with nature, that make it all worth it.
She remembers one such moment from a trip to Rushikulya beach in Odisha. It had not been a good day. She had reached there after a day of exhausting travelling, after someone filched her money in Kolkata. The beach was dimly lit by a half moon when she reached. Then the silent night came alive; the event known as the “arribada”, Spanish for “arrival by sea”, began. Olive Ridley sea turtles, thousands of them, were coming in to lay their eggs, drawn by unknown instinct to the same beach where they themselves were born. Bindra recalls the soft thumps of the turtles as they came ashore and began digging little pits in the sand where the eggs would be deposited. She was delighted. “For wild animals, humans are the face of fear and terror,” she says, “but there and then, the turtles didn’t care. It was as if I was one among them.”
For Bindra, that was life as it should be. “Nature doesn’t need us,” she says. “We need nature.”
Planet Earth, third rock from a modest sun, got on quite well before humankind arrived on the scene, and will be hale and hearty even if one more species, Homo sapiens, joins the long list of those vanishing in what is probably the sixth mass extinction event in its history.
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Enabling Wholistic Wellbeing & Meaningful Living
Enabling Wholistic Wellbeing & Meaningful Living