In 1981, when Bittu Sahgal started Sanctuary, India’s first wildlife and environment conservation magazine, he made sense to few people. Global warming was an academic word, circulating in select coteries of environmentalists across the world. Now, celebrities in almost every country are mouthpieces for climate change. Sahgal reasons, “You can argue with many Bittu Sahgals and shut them down, but you can’t argue with nature. It strikes back when the time comes,” he says.
We meet early morning at his home, a green haven tucked away in a hilly cul-de-sac of Napean Sea Road. Trees, shrubs and potted plants of every shape and size surround it. Thankfully for the interviewer, his enthusiasm and energy at 8.30am (“I finished my morning walk at the Mahalaxmi Race Course early today, you know that’s actually the only really green patch left in the city, no synthetic carpet grass there”) turn out to be infectious.
At 60, Sahgal’s activist zeal is also undeterred, and he attributes this a lot to his upbringing. He was born in Shimla at the Lady Herring Hospital, where “Lady Mountbatten happened to visit at the time and apparently she kissed me”. His father, now 96, worked for a British company, the Prudential Assurance Co., that was nationalized to become the Life Insurance Corporation of India. “There was a strong ethical streak in my father. Ours was a family that revered Gandhi and Nehru and we were taught to be as grateful for our freedom as our daily bread,” Sahgal says. And his only role models, even today: Superman and Hanuman.
The do-gooder world view partly drives his work, but Sahgal is also where he is because it is a passion. He has had to change with the times to be heard and seen. As he reminisces about the early days of Sanctuary, he is interrupted by a long telephone conversation with a family friend’s daughter, who is helping him implement one of his already successful projects, “Kids for Tigers”. Sahgal has learnt to tap the right channels for his activism. “If you can convince children about the importance of conserving the environment at this point of time, there’s a chance we can still stop a lot of damage to the world,” he says. As of now, “Kids for Tigers”, an environmental education programme for schools, is the world’s largest “Save the Tiger” scroll of participants.
Sahgal was a jaded advertising professional in Mumbai when he discovered his life’s calling. He would travel to natural getaways all over India to beat the stress of the city. “During these trips, I used to interact with local people and I realized that, slowly, things were changing there. Big corporations were beginning to make inroads into these pristine places for their selfish interests,” Sahgal recalls. At that time, he also happened to read a short story by Charles Lamb, called The Superannuated Man, written in 1825, that chronicles Lamb’s 36 years of service as a clerk at the East India Company. “That essay horrified me. There was a line there: ‘I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul.’ I didn’t want that to happen to me,” Sahgal recalls.
Sanctuary got off to a difficult start, but Sahgal and his small team garnered the support of select Indians in cities and it expanded within three years. Now, it is a small revolution in itself. Sahgal started Sanctuary Cub, a children’s nature magazine, in 1983 and later, in the same decade, produced two wildlife/conservation serials aired on Doordarshan, India’s national television network. The first, Project Tiger, was a documentary, while the other, Rakshak, was a narrative serial for children. The magazine’s team travels to wildlife destinations in every corner of India to raise awareness about India’s disappearing natural heritage.
One of Sahgal’s next big projects aims to spread awareness about Orissa where, he believes, rapid privatization initiatives by Naveen Patnaik’s government are a threat to its majority tribal population and their natural resources.