No amount of hard cash can help us if we continue to destroy the very foundation of life, points out Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia and founder, Sanctuary Nature Foundation
Q: What motivated you to pick up the wildlife and conservation gauntlet by using the media and journalism in particular?
I started Sanctuary Asia in 1981 to inspire the people of India to remember that all our cultures came from and were inspired by nature. And, also to raise an alarm about our disappearing natural heritage. The overwhelming response to the magazine led to the birth of Sanctuary Cub, a children's nature magazine, in 1984. Sanctuary Cub reaches out to children across India through schools and nature clubs. We conduct nature walks, camps, slide shows and rallies for children with the help of qualified naturalists and environmental educationists. To broadcast the message further a few years later, we produced a documentary series on Project Tiger and a narrative story-telling serial for children, titled ‘Rakshak’. Sanctuary was never merely a reporting organisation, we understood that our job was to act to protect our heritage and to look after the future of our children, which was endangered by the rapid damage being caused to our biosphere. We were involved in highlighting the dangers posed to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai from quarries and encroachment. We also championed the battle to protect the marine turtles that came to lay their eggs on the sandy shores of eastern India in Orrisa. We never hesitated to take a stand. We soon realised that we not only had to leave a better world for our children, but better children for our world. That is what motivated us to launch Kids for Tigers, in the year 2000. This is an environmental education programme for schools, designed by educationists and our central message projected hope, because we knew that nature could repair the damage we thoughtlessly inflicted, provided we gave nature a chance and stopped our continued assaults on our life-support systems.
Q: How has the environment journalism field changed over the decades?
What used to be an ‘animal rights’ movement turned into a tidal wave of understanding that by protecting natural ecosystems, Homo sapiens ends up protecting himself or herself. Today even the most cynical economists agree that the majority of problems faced by the economies of the nations of the world, including our climate crisis, are a direct result of our abuse of nature. Good journalists understood and a tectonic change resulted in their output and attitudes. But we are still a long way from where we need to be because too much money invested in the media comes from the very people and financial institutions that caused our problems in the first place.
Q: Do you think today's policies are aiding environment and wildlife conservation? If yes, how, and if no, why?
Today’s policies are merely acknowledgements of the grave strategic errors made by economists who once believed the biosphere was capable of being abused forever. We need to wake up to the reality of 'New Economics'. GDP growth 'for the sake of growth' cannot guarantee food, water, health, economic or ecological security. 'New Economics' will need new people at the helm. Women and men who take into account the value of ecosystem services provided by nature including the supply of water from forests, their role in soil conservation, flood and drought control, soil fertility, protection from sea surges, cyclones and much more. In an India that likes to think of itself as “reformist” and “modern” we have still to come to grips with the fact that our country will become unmanageable if we continue to erode our ecological security in the cavalier manner we see happening today. No amount of hard cash can help us if we continue to destroy the very foundation of life.
Q: More development projects mean more forest area getting disturbed and more wildlife sanctuaries getting invaded. In such a scenario, environment journalists are often criticized for not seeing the silver lining.
India was once one of the richest countries in the world. Post-colonialism, we have blindly aped western development policies and, in the process, continued to consume our forests, rivers, wetlands, grasslands, estuaries and seas. The COVID-19 pandemic for instance was a direct result of the actions of the ruthless global illegal wildlife trade and the destruction of ecosystems. There are silver linings, but that is what they are as of now, mere linings. We want the clouds to turn silver and pure again. This will happen when planners and politicians wake up to the realisation that forests, grasslands, wetlands, coasts, corals, deserts and mountains are the most valuable infrastructures available to humanity.
Q: Do you think the Chipko movement was the first wildlife movement in India?
Whether it was the first wildlife movement or not should not matter. It is representative of the strength of the common person to stand up to bully boys and to defend what is truly important. Rural India often has to bear the brunt of the lavish lifestyles of urban India. Ultimately rural and urban India must work in unison to protect the ecosystems we all-too-readily sacrifice for short-term economic gains. All our thousands of dams, mines, coal-fired thermal plants, roads, ports and other infrastructures are currently threatened because of the impact of our irresponsible behaviour towards our biosphere
Q: How did the idea of the Mud on Boots project, where Sanctuary supports grassroots environmentalists, evolve?
As the name implies, the project was developed to empower those working in the field with mud on their boots! Such individuals normally fall under the radar of governments, large wildlife organisations and the media. By giving these earth heroes even minimal support to implement their missions and by spotlighting their contribution, we magnify the impact of their conservation work. We also connect them to wider networks and supporters thus strengthening their purpose. Virtually every conservation organisation in the world stands on the shoulders of such women and men.
Q: What is your message to those who care for our planet?
You are right to care. Those who take the gifts of nature for granted are often good people who have not understood just how dependent on nature they and their future generations are upon the health of our biosphere. Economists in particular need to be reminding that every economy in the world in a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic and our current climate crisis are early warnings of worse things ahead. But we still have time to fix our circumstances, by working with nature instead of declaring war on it. Remember, the biosphere is self-repairing. Our task is to stop doing the damage and nature’s systems will repair and regenerate themselves and come back to life.
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