Peter Jackson’s death last month in England after a prolonged and sad illness went virtually unnoticed in this country. This is a pity given his lifelong association with India and his two signal contributions to nature conservation, one in Haryana and the other in Gujarat.
Jackson came out to India in the early fifties as a correspondent for Reuters and was among the first to report the ascent of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in May 1953. Subsequently he became Secretary of the Delhi Bird Watching Society, which had been established in May 1950 under the chairmanship of Mahatma Gandhi’s close associate Horace Alexander, with Indira Gandhi as one of the founder-members. She had got interested in birdwatching while jailed in Naini between September 1942 and May 1943. Her father, who was himself then in Ahmadnagar Prison, had sent her the second edition of Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds which she read and used both in prison and after.
Protecting the Sultanpur jheel
In November-December 1969, the International Union for Conservation of Nature held its Tenth General Assembly in New Delhi. Over 300 of the world’s biggest names in conservation congregated for the event. Indira Gandhi had made a forceful inaugural address on November 24, 1969. Thereafter, Peter Jackson wrote to her on March 29, 1970: “During the IUCN Conference, I took a number of distinguished wildlife experts and ornithologists to the jheels at Sultanpur in Gurgaon district, about 25 miles from Delhi. They were astonished at the wealth of wildlife and decided on the spot that efforts should be made to have the jheels protected…
“All of us interested in the Sultanpur jheels feel that your interest would add immense impetus to the creation of this Nature Reserve of a kind which few, if any, capitals in the world boast within a short distance. “We know the heavy demands on your time, but, as you are a founder-member of the Delhi Bird Watching Society, we wondered if you would like to slip away for about three hours one morning to see the Sultanpur jheels…”
Two days later, Indira Gandhi noted on his letter: “I could. How long will the birds be there?”
On April 1, 1970, Moni Malhoutra, her undersecretary and aide on environmental matters, after speaking to Jackson, informed her that the flamingos and pelicans would be around for a few more weeks though the ducks were already beginning to migrate. He suggested that the Prime Minister visit the Sultanpur jheel on Sunday, April 5, 1970, to which she responded the same day in her own hand: “US [undersecretary] seems be innocent so far as security arranged are concerned. I am very much afraid that the sanctuary may be ruined.”
Subsequently, Indira Gandhi sent Malhoutra to visit Sultanpur and brief her. The papers that Jackson had sent her were passed on to the Chief Minister of Haryana, Bansi Lal, who wrote to her on September 25, 1970 that he had initiated action to develop the jheel into a bird sanctuary and a tourist destination. Four days later, she complimented the Chief Minister for the steps he had taken, adding: “I hope one day to visit them [the jheels] myself, quietly and without fuss.”
The sanctuary was notified on April 2, 1971 and the formal inauguration took place on February 6, 1972. Indira Gandhi sent a message: “The development of the Sultanpur jheel as a bird sanctuary will be widely welcomed by all lovers of wildlife and conservationists. The potentiality of the jheel, which attracts a large variety of birds, was first noticed during the IUCN Conference in Delhi. I congratulate the Government of Haryana for having acted so quickly to preserve and develop this great natural asset. The proximity of the sanctuary to our capital city will make it an obvious tourist attraction for all who are interested in our natural heritage. To the people of Delhi in particular, it will afford easy escape from the monotony of urban life, and the joy of observing some of nature’s most beautiful creatures in their own habitat.”
Abandoning the park plan
Peter Jackson left India in mid-1970 and joined the World Wildlife Fund in Switzerland. But he kept up with India regularly. He visited Porbandar a decade later. During that trip, according to his own account, he “spotted a small lake where over 4,000 Lesser Flamingos were gathered”. When he was told that that the lake’s days were numbered and it was soon going to be filled up to construct a park, he approached Indira Gandhi. The Prime Minister immediately spoke to Madhavsinh Solanki, the Gujarat Chief Minister, who assured her that the park plan would be abandoned. This paved the way for the notification of the bird sanctuary in the Mahatma’s birthplace in November 1988. Jackson was also closely associated with WWF’s Operation Tiger, which was launched to support India’s own Project Tiger launched on April 1, 1973. It is generally believed that in the seventies, tiger conservation in India was due to the WWF’s efforts. In part, Peter Jackson’s communications skills helped create this impression. The WWF certainly helped raise the international profile of India’s programme but in the first six years of Project Tiger covering nine reserves, the total investment was about Rs.6 crore, of which just about 13 per cent came from WWF. That such an amount was set aside when the finances of the Centre were in a precarious position was entirely due to the Prime Minister herself. Jairam Ramesh’s ‘Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature’ will be published by Simon and Schuster India in mid-2017.