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Creating a cadre of barefoot ecologists

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I was born in 1942, a year after Salim Ali’s superbly illustrated Book of Indian Birds was published. My father, DR Gadgil, knew Ali and was an enthusiastic bird watcher. Even before I could read, I learnt to recognise the wide variety of birds around us from Ali’s book. I was 14 when I first met him, and was captivated by Ali’s knowledge, wit and charm. I adopted him as my guru and became a field ecologist. He was 46 years older, but we remained in constant touch for the next 30 years. I participated in many of his field trips and had the privilege of jointly writing a paper with him on communal roosting.

Ali supported me staunchly whenever I fell afoul of the foresters, as was inevitable, because they did not want me to witness their mismanagement and harassment of local people. Yet, Ali was alienated from the common people and believed that this ignorant, improvident mass of people was destroying our natural resources. He never imagined that they would ever control the resources so that they would have a stake in their proper management. I was always uneasy that my guru harboured such prejudices.

Baba’s life-long passion was the cooperative movement. So, I became committed to empowering people and took the lead in proposing the establishment of biodiversity management committees as a critical provision of India’s Biological Diversity Act, 2002, and participated in the campaign to pass the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. The vital Community Forest Rights (CFR) provisions of FRA assign to gram sabhas (village councils) ownership and management rights over non-timber forest resources. Mendha (Lekha) and Marada in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra became the first gram sabhas in India to be assigned CFR in 2009.

The management rights entail the responsibility to prepare a plan that needs quantification that the locals, hampered by the disgraceful state of our educational system, cannot handle. So, my computer scientist friend Vijay Edlabadkar and I volunteered to help Mendha prepare a management plan and a cadre of local barefoot ecologists.

To build such capacity, the Maharashtra government sponsored a five-month training programme for nominees of CFR-holding gram sabhas in 2018. Edlabadkar and I were associated with this programme at Mendha in which the trainees with their treasury of experiential knowledge, enthusiastically undertook fieldwork. They became experts at handling smart phones and recording geographical information, using GPS and Google Images.

They became aware of scientific names of minor forest produce-yielding species, an essential input for the CFR plans. During training, they posted photographs of local plants and animals on their WhatsApp groups. Unfortunately, many taxonomists refused to help them. One day, one of the group members, Saduram Madavi, began posting scientific names for many of the photos, using Google Photos and Google Lens. So, suddenly the Adivasi youth were freed of the stranglehold of a privileged minority over specialised knowledge and could prepare their CFR management plans and biodiversity registers.

Madavi, who failed the Class 10 examination because of poor schooling, also discovered a rare orchid, identifying it as Geodorum laxiflorum. Along with some botanists, Madavi published a paper in Journal of Threatened Taxa, thereby becoming a card-carrying member of the scientific community. My guru, Salim Ali, belonged to a prestigious family but failed to obtain a degree because he disliked mathematics. Yet he is recognised as India’s foremost ornithologist. Madavi from a highly disadvantaged background, also promises to develop into a first-rate botanist. So, my shishya is providing a counter to my guru’s prejudices. There is every hope that in the emerging knowledge age, we will progress rapidly towards an equitable society in which all people have access to knowledge.

Madhav Gadgil is one of India’s most widely-regarded ecologists. He is a former professor of the Indian Institute of Science, where he founded the Centre for Ecological Sciences

The views expressed are personal

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