The man who knew winter was coming: environmentalist Bittu Sahgal and the journey of ‘Sanctuary Asia’

We are because of nature, nature isn’t because of us. We currently live with a false sense of superiority over it, as we desecrate ecosystems with merciless urbanisation and crooked production practices. But over the din of destruction, one tenet alone shall ring true – A war against nature is futile. Jo kudrat se takaryega mitti mein mil gayega.

These words of Bittu Sahgal have started resonating only after decades of advocacy for combating climate change. He had administered a clarion call and sloganeered for a cause that was the favourite fodder for the minds of conspiracy theorists. Meet the man who had predicted the current downfall, only to meet with ridicule and scorn at the hands of the narrow minded and ignorant. Today, a petrified populace finds itself staring dumbstruck at mother nature widening her jaws, but still, Bittu Sahgal stands firm with us in the face of the approaching winter.

The making of the man

Born in Shimla in October 1947, Bittu was coerced by his father into joining aChartered Accountancy firm while working mornings during his B.Com Honors degree at St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta. He, however, resigned soon after, as he “could not breathe at the thought of ticking green marks on others’ books for the rest of his life”.

Being freed from corporate clutches early on, a young Bittu had the world as his oyster, and started seeking inspiration in the hobbies closest to his heart. Having been a routine visitor to wildlife sanctuaries and parks since 1973, one fine evening in 1980, he asked Fateh Singh Rathore, then the Field Director of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, what he could do to help him save the tiger. Rathore replied, “Why not start a wildlife magazine? There are so many sports, film and politics-oriented magazines. You need to win over the public to the side of the tiger.” And thus, monthly environmental news magazine Sanctuary Asia was born.

“I did not think twice. I jumped into the task, without any experience or money, but 35 years later we are still here, stronger and more determined, and everything we had said about the consequences of forest destruction and environmental degradation has come true,” says Bittu.

Seeking Sanctuary in Tagore and Amte

In the early days, Bittu recalls, responses varied from the absurd to the idiotic. The lack of understanding was clear, as statements like "If people can live in the Sahara, then what is the problem with a few degrees higher global temperature?” and "Climate change concerns are an American plot to keep India backward!" were thrown around without so much as a second thought.

“‘It’s a hoax,’ they would say. But Baba Amte solved my problem. He said to me in his quiet voice, ‘How will people follow you if you keep chasing them? Instead, follow Rabindranath Tagore's advice... "Ekla Cholo Re!"’ In other words, walk alone, do what you have to... people will follow when they are ready,” says Bittu, of his resolution to march on in the face of scathing friction.

Of course, by the 2000’s, floods, droughts, cyclones and strange diseases began to force themselves on country after country, and that convinced most of the deniers too,” he says, on how he gathered an army to fight for this cause. But the essay he wrote last November, titled ‘The Sundarbans is a sinking ship” not only delivered an important sermon, but also performed the absolutely essential role of bringing forward the sane, those who believed in science, nature and plain old overwhelming evidence. They also doubled up as his entourage. "We became a determined bunch, and began to chip away at peoples' doubts,” he describes.

Bittu says that he never once had a "business plan", just the strongest and most sincere determination to achieve their mission of getting the truth out there in time. "Our primary strategy was to get young parents to understand why it was vital that their children's futures in this world be secured. In the process, champions just emerged. Children gravitated towards this vision like fish take to water. Parents followed. A full scale Sanctuary edifice emerged….. is still emerging!" he says.

The noise they made

Bittu insists that they are much smaller than people often presume. Way back in 1981, Sanctuary Asia started out with a print order of just 9,500 copies. Today, they print anywhere between 20,000 and 25,000 copies, and many of these go out as mass gifts from people who believe in them and want the message to travel far and wide, to large groups, such as forest officials, employees, guests at wildlife lodges, libraries, teachers, and even politicians. The digital revolution also did them a solid - the Sanctuary Asia Facebook page has over a quarter of a million followers, and their Facebook group has over one lakh people. There are 50,000 subscribers for their digital copies, and this number is rising by the thousands each quarter, Bittu informs us.

The revenues, however, were never able to keep pace with their growth. So, the challenge of paying the employees what they deserved kept surfacing. “We have periodically declined to accept ads from companies known to leave terrible footprints on the environment. Possibly everyone could get better-paying jobs, but they prefer working with us because they value fun and respect over hard cash! Even today, it’s a struggle to keep our quality in sync with our costs. And we have determinedly refused to "sell" the Sanctuary Asia magazine as we did not want the mission diluted,” he says.

One million-strong

Bittu has personally served our country on several statutory boards, including the Wildlife Board of India, the Animal Welfare Board, and the Ministry of Environment's Environmental Expert Committees.

He was also the man behind the campaign Kids for Tigers, giving rise to a one million-strong network. He was approached by Sunil Alagh, then the Managing Director of Britannia Industries, which had the biscuit brand Tiger under it. They approached Bittu to turn saving the tiger into a mission, a movement, and Sanctuary was instantly onboard. “We had to educate people about how tiger protection would save ALL other species, and regenerate degraded forests, which in turn would feed pure water into as many as 600 rivers,” he explains.

They organised film shows, nature walks and tiger melas in all the large cities and even villages surrounding tiger reserves. On Chowpatty, where Sanctuary Asia organised its very first Kids for Tigers Mela in the year 2000, as many as 25,000 children and their families turned up. Their rallying cry became ‘Tiger Bachao, Bharat Bachao!’ They collected over ten lakh save the tiger signatures, which got them into the Limca Book of records. They Prime Ministers I.K. Gujaral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh  and handed over lakhs of signatures, each time. When we met Atal Bihari Vajpayee, we asked, ‘Agar Ram Bhagwan to vanvaas lena ho... toh jungle kahan milega?’ which made his eyes well up. In his own words, he said to us, ‘Ram Bhagwan ke asli mandir hamare van hi toh hain.’”

In fact, Bittu has met most prime ministers of our country, to discuss sustainable development – like Indira Gandhi  in 1978, Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, V.P. Singh in 1990, Chandrashekhar in 199, and Narasimha Rao during his tenure, as well.

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Leaders such as US President-Elect Donald Trump, Bittu says, are ill-advised. Climate change is real. Human activities, primarily the burning of carbon and clearing of forests and other natural ecosystems, has accelerated the pace of climate change to the point where it is impossible for any species, including Homo sapiens, to adapt quickly enough.  And now, no one strategy will work, according to him. We need to cut our carbon energy and agriculture emissions. We need to restore natural ecosystems, as this is the only effective way to bring carbon levels down (think photosynthesis). We need to equitably distribute sustenance - what Gandhiji died trying to convince us to do - as that is the only way for any community, whether village, city, nation, or even planet, to survive.

The road ahead? Painful even if we do right by the planet from today onwards. Impossible to navigate if we foolishly choose to persist in the wrong course of action. “The only thing that separates us from any other planet in our solar system is that thin layer of atmosphere we take for granted. Now, we are tampering with it, and if that goes, we go,” Bittu cautions, in conclusion.

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