As a 14-year-old boy, Madhav Gadgil and the son of his family gardener trekked three hours up the Yavateshwar Hills in Maharashtra in the blazing heat and found themselves impossibly thirsty. The duo reached a temple on the hilltop with a gular (cluster fig) tree under whose shade was a well. And there, they ran into the temple priest. “Are you Brahmins?” the priest asked them. “I have water only for Brahmins.”
A Walk Up the Hill: Living with People and Nature
Penguin Allen Lane
Gadgil was shocked. Though Brahmin himself, he said, “Neither of us is Brahmin” and walked on, thirst unquenched. This was the environmentalist’s first encounter with caste discrimination: “The priest’s response dramatically demonstrated to me the truth of what both Baba [his father] and my mother Pramila said: that caste was an abomination.”
The same year, one night over dinner, Gadgil’s father (D.R. Gadgil, the future deputy chairman of the Planning Commission), normally a “cheerful person”, was distraught: the Koyna hydroelectric project threatened to submerge the forests of the Western Ghats and destroy livelihoods. “…for the first time in my experience, [he was] even depressed,” writes Gadgil in his memoir A Walk Up the Hill: Living with People and Nature. “He said, ‘Madhav, I do believe that we need electricity to drive industrial progress, but surely we should not be paying these environmental and social costs.’” And that is how Gadgil, as an adolescent, became “dramatically aware of the environment and development conundrum”.
These experiences, at an impressionable age, informed Gadgil’s environmental activism that would place, at its centre, the people of the land. He, to a large extent, inherited his philosophy from his father: “Baba was at once a nature lover and an egalitarian economist.”
As a student, Gadgil studied mathematics, statistics, evolutionary biology, and the life cycles of fish; while at Harvard University, he was fascinated to have sighted whales, an enormous school of flying fish, and bioluminescent Noctiluca on an oceanographic trip. Science remained at the core of his interests, but by the time he entered his twenties, he was well on track to a career that involved “working with the people at the grassroots”. He says in his memoir that his study of living organisms and their physical environment “completely neglected the role of human beings, clearly the most dominant of all living organisms”. After an instructive sojourn at Harvard, he “hoped to have a positive impact on Indian society at large, like [his] father.”
Back in Pune, Gadgil ventured into the Western Ghats where he was distressed to see eroded hills that had once sustained a tropical rainforest. He then chanced upon patches of verdant forest nurtured by communities. Gadgil read up voraciously on sacred groves: “The reigning hypothesis among nature conservationists was that they represented lingering elements of nature worship prevalent in all primitive societies; they had no secular function but persisted purely because of superstition.” But as a scientist, he wanted to dig deeper, “confronting any hypothesis with objective evidence, always looking for testable predictions”.
“Back in Pune, Gadgil ventured into the Western Ghats where he was distressed to see eroded hills that had once sustained a tropical rainforest.”
Gadgil shared meals with the villagers and slept under their roofs at night. He learnt the following: “The groves were distributed throughout the entire range of habitat types as predicted by the hypothesis that people protected them to sustain their ecosystem services.” The groves protected water sources, nurtured medicinal plants, and served as refuge for wildlife. But the story did not end there. Six months later, Gadgil received a letter from the residents of Gani village in the northern Western Ghats: the Forest Department was marking trees for felling in the sacred grove. Gadgil met the head of the Forest Department in Maharashtra. While the head agreed to the villagers’ request, he insisted that such groves “were nothing but worthless ‘stands of over-matured timber’”.
The scholar-ecologist describes how he revised within himself a popular opinion he had held about wildlife conservation: “I subscribed to the urban conservationist approach to nature conservation, namely, protection through the devices of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks…. I also subscribed to the view that it was necessary to remove habitations from within such habitats to safeguard them.” But later, Gadgil was to shun what he saw as the urban upper-class culture of conservationists and the elitist approach in the framing of The Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972. “My attitude began to change and I started thinking about alternative ways of following my passion to conserve nature, working with rather than against the common people of India.”
- Madhav Gadgil’s memoir underlines his idea of environmental activism that places at its centre the people of the land
- Gadgil sees The Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972 as a tool that empowers the Forest Department “to subjugate the common people of India”
- One of Gadgil’s biggest contributions has been the formulation of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, within which was enshrined “People’s Biodiversity Registers”
Gadgil sees the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 as a tool that empowers the Forest Department “to subjugate the common people of India”. The traditional hunting practices that the Act criminalises, for instance, has been a means of survival for people over millennia. He writes: “This Act declared the centuries-old means of livelihood of numerous hunting-gathering communities throughout the country to be a crime, with no thought of creating alternative employment for them. It was not just those communities; there were others like the Madaris, who maintained a couple of tame monkeys and play-acted with their help, who saw their livelihoods snuffed out. Finally, large numbers of the farmers of the country who had hunted pests like wild pigs to save their crops for centuries suddenly found themselves branded criminals.”
As the leader of the Green Revolution, M.S. Swaminathan, says in his foreword to the book, one of Gadgil’s biggest contributions has been the formulation of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, within which was enshrined “People’s Biodiversity Registers” that, in Gadgil’s words, endeavoured to “serve as a basis of promoting conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity including preservation of habitats and is not merely for its own sake”.
Gadgil doffs a hat to all those who enabled his journey as an advocate of sustainable development: the social activist Bismarck Dias, whom he dedicates the book to, his neighbour and the anthropologist Irawati Karve, the ornithologist Salim Ali, and Lal Shyam Maharaj who inspired the Jungle Bachao-Manav Bachao movement in Maharashtra.
Amid the many wars against the environment and the people who inhabit it, Gadgil is confident that the new generation of Indians “will guide us on to a new, better path. This will be the third generation of people born in free, democratic India whose Constitution professes values of social justice, equity, equality, non-racism and non-sexism, human dignity, an open society, accountability and the rule of law.”