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Shine on you crazy diamonds...

By Ashish Kothari

The environment fraternity lost five extraordinary individuals in 2009 -- Ravi Sankaran, Smitu Kothari, W A Alan Rodgers, Narendranath Gorrepati and Edward Goldsmith. All of them had a commitment to a saner world, visions of how this could be attained, and the passion to transform their visions into real action

Five deaths in 2009 have left the world a poorer place. Five people, very different yet very similar, and all but one departing rather prematurely.  

The first to go was the youngest. Dr Ravi Sankaran, wildlifer extraordinaire, died suddenly on January 17, at the age of 46. Ravi had already established himself as one of India’s best field biologists, with pathbreaking work on floricans, megapods, and other bird species. I once sat with him on a tiny machaan high above the grasslands of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, and marvelled at his meticulous notes of every single movement a couple of floricans below were making. With this work he challenged the prevalent management practice of setting deliberate fire to the grasslands, to get a fresh flush of grass for swamp deer to eat -- he pointed out how this may not be so good for ground-nesting or grassland species like the florican. In fact, Ravi was in his element, asking uncomfortable questions about established doctrines, often so irreverently he could be considered rude. He showed why it was counter-productive to put the threatened edible-nest swiftlet on Schedule I of India’s Wildlife Protection Act (completely protected from any kind of use), because the best way to save the species may be to provide incentives for villagers to allow nesting in their homes and get an income from non-destructive harvesting of the nests. His persistent, science-based arguments on this finally managed to achieve the extremely rare feat of getting a species taken off Schedule I, and now his teammates have initiated a nesting project that could well save the species in the wild.  

Ravi also saw, unlike many other hardcore conservationists, the wisdom of empowering villagers to conserve wildlife, at a workshop on community conserved areas in Nagaland that was organised by Kalpavriksh and NEPED. He immediately began a programme to impart biological training to youth from several villages, which his colleagues are now taking forward.  

Like Ravi, Smitu Kothari too excelled in thinking out of the box. Smitu died soon after Ravi, on March 23, aged only 59. The hundreds of messages of grief and empathy that poured in were testament to his breadth and depth of engagement with all forms of ‘alternative’ action. With social equity, cultural diversity and ecological sustainability as his passions, Smitu challenged the dominant model of ‘development’. He engaged in both conceptual work and grassroots practice, lending his voice to people’s movements against destructive mega-projects, the displacement and dispossession of adivasis, violence against women and minorities, war-mongering between India and Pakistan, and a host of other forms of violence. Sometimes, in fact, spreading himself too thin. He was a consistent critic of oppression by the state, but could also be openly critical of civil society actions that were unethical or reeked of self-righteousness. And though primarily involved in issues of human rights, Smitu was often the first to point out that the rest of nature deserved an equal share of our attention. He wrote prolifically, authoring and editing over a dozen books, and contributing hundreds of articles to both academic journals and the popular press.  

Next to go was another extraordinary wildlifer, W A Alan Rodgers, on March 31, aged 65. Unlike Ravi and Smitu, his death was preceded by a longish illness, yet it was a shock to the thousands of people he had taught or worked with or inspired. Born in England, Alan spent most of his life in East Africa and several years in India. He made a mark as a dynamic young park ranger, became one of the world’s leading authorities on miombo woodland ecosystems, taught at various universities, started several initiatives to conserve East Africa’s threatened wildlife, and helped the Wildlife Institute of India to design a comprehensive network of protected areas for the country. It was in the latter period that I got to know him, as a guide to our research on the management status of protected areas at the Indian Institute of Public Administration. We fondly called him the ‘Great White Fear’, more because of his physical bulk than any fearful traits, which he simply did not possess. All his colleagues in fact remember him as being incredibly generous with his time and expertise, and always ready to play practical jokes on them. Like Ravi, Alan too perceived the need to integrate wildlife conservation with people’s livelihood needs, though maintaining the integrity of ecosystems and wildlife populations as the core. Like Smitu, he wrote prolifically on a host of subjects, and his writings are used in courses in various parts of the world.  

The fourth person to leave us this year was perhaps not as well-known, but equally remarkable. Narendranath Gorrepati, or just Naren, was only 55 when he succumbed to a brain tumour on July 5. Born into a landlord’s family, son of an IAS officer, he quit a secure bank job, did a brief stint at the NGO Lokayan (where Smitu also worked), then moved back to his village Venkataramapuram in Andhra Pradesh. He was restless in the city, wanting to practise what others preached about social equity and ecological sustainability. He struggled for a range of human rights, particularly dignity and livelihood security for dalits. Single-handedly, he identified 12,000 acres of surplus land to distribute to the landless through the Bhu Samskranala Karyacharana Udyamam (Forum for Land Reforms). He practised and advocated organic farming and even tried creating corridors to enable wild elephants to move through the area without damaging farmers’ crops, displaying a rare combination of human and ecological ethics. He remained an active member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, and of human rights forums, and never flinched in fighting injustice from the state or from upper castes and landlords. And yet, his gentle Gandhian methods earned him the respect of all sections. No wonder then that while hundreds of villagers and colleagues walked in his funeral procession, senior district officials observed silence in his memory. I will now forever regret not taking up his kind offers to visit him; one often puts away such visits for ‘later’, and then it is too late.  

Finally, possibly the most well-known in environment and development circles worldwide, Edward Goldsmith. Teddy, as he was affectionately called, decided to terminate his 81-year-old innings on August 21. He was a remarkable visionary: amongst the first to warn of global warming and climate change, a radical critic of neo-classical ‘development’ and colonial institutions like the World Bank, and an active friend of alternative movements across the world. Teddy’s strident critique of modernity could be considered uncompromisingly conservative, but his originality and depth were never in doubt. Almost four decades back, his Blueprint for Survival galvanised public opinion and inspired a host of civil society initiatives, including the world’s first green party. He started The Ecologist, for decades now one of the world’s most influential environmental magazines. And, like Alan, he was a great friend and admirer of India, or rather of that side of India which embodied harmony with nature, non-violence, and wise innovation. Like countless others, I and my colleagues at Kalpavriksh were lucky to have received his encouragement at a time when we were finding our feet as environmentalists; he even published our first (somewhat amateurish) critique on the Narmada dam project, nudging us to delve deeper into the troubled relationship between environment and development.

Five individuals with very different personalities, ranging widely in their interests and work. Yet all with a commitment to a saner world, visions of how this could be striven for, and the passion to transform their visions into real action. Conventional society hung up on western visions of material progress would call them all ‘cranks’ -- a label they would consider a compliment, for, as E F Schumacher (Small is Beautiful) perceptively said, the crank has been one of history’s most useful tools.

By taking them away from us, 2009 has, in some small measure, impoverished us all. I say ‘small measure’, because what they gave us survives, enriching us, and bidding us to build on their visions in our own diverse ways. Death has a finality to it, but what the dead leave behind is forever.  

Infochange News & Features, February 2010 

For tributes to and profiles of these individuals: