In 2006, Mulayam Singh Yadav decided to build an airport at his ancestral village in Uttar Pradesh, a project that involved razing the habitat of India’s largest population of sarus cranes.

BY BAHAR DUTT

Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, 2006

I stare at the giant bird through the camera lens as it throws its head up in the air, piercing the misty morning with rapturous shrieks to woo its partner. A lush, cherry-red neck stands out against its grey fluffed-up feathers. The sarus crane with its elaborate courtship ritual is a treat to watch. Other birds keep a respectful distance, like maids-in-waiting; after all, they are in the presence of the world’s tallest flying bird. The sarus, giddy in love, hops around the female, bending his long neck forward then backward, tossing mud and grass at her in a rhythmic dance, as a love offering. The female looks away, unimpressed.

Scientists believe there are less than 10,000 breeding sarus adults in India, found all along the Gangetic plains of northern India, and Gujarat, though in some states like Bihar the bird has almost vanished. Across the world, there is a healthy population of the sarus in Australia, China and Myanmar, while in other countries like the Philippines and Pakistan, there have been no sightings of the bird in decades.

The future of the Indian sarus crane is closely tied to the quality of small wetlands and their preservation. Perhaps one reason why the bird is still around in India is the tolerant attitude of the farmers. In Hindu mythology the bird is revered and therefore, despite the damage it may cause to their crops, farmers are tolerant of their presence, even allowing them to nest in their agricultural fields.

A death warrant for the largest population of the sarus cranes in India was being written in 2006 by Mulayam Singh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. He wanted to build a state-of-the-art airport in his ancestral village—Saifai (also part of his political constituency)—in the district of Etawah. He was a chief minister credited with bringing development to a backward region notorious for dacoits and with the dubious distinction of being the region with the largest number of guns per person.

For the airport to materialise, the chief minister had to prove to a special committee of the Supreme Court (in charge of legal issues related to forest and wildlife) that there were no sarus cranes near the proposed site of the airport or, at least, that the birds would not be harmed by his aviation ambitions.

It was mission impossible, given that nearly two-thirds of the global population of the sarus crane is found in the wetlands of Etawah and Mainpuri. Much to the chagrin of the chief minister, the best habitat for the birds is all around Etawah, right at the spot where he wanted to build his airport.

Wildlife biologist Gopi Sundar believed that he had stumbled upon a unique model of conservation when he first came here to study the sarus crane for his doctoral research. Despite the fact that the area was not protected by any law, it registered high levels of biodiversity for birds. Gopi’s research showed that a combination of favourable farmer attitudes and their habit of retaining some non-crop patches had helped conserve over 300 species of birds in this area. Farmers considered it a blessing to have the sarus crane feed on their lands and for the sarus, the tall reeds of sugarcane provided an ideal habitat to build their nests and lay their eggs.

What Gopi had not envisaged was that this symbiotic relationship between the farmer and the state bird of Uttar Pradesh would be rocked by the state’s chief minister himself.

I was still making forays into my new profession as a journalist when I received a call from Gopi, urging me to come down to Etawah as soon as possible with a camera team. I had no idea then that we were walking into a big story.

The following day, we drove along the Delhi-Agra expressway. A few hours off National Highway, we were in the district of Etawah. We headed straight for Saifai, which sits on the edge of town and “where all the action is”, according to our local stringer. On that misty February morning, as I set up my camera with our video journalist N. S. Umesh, I could understand why Gopi had been pressing me to come.

Right before our eyes, every rule in the book was being violated to ensure that the proposed airport got a green signal. We meticulously recorded each of the violations. Big dumper trucks were working at a frenetic pace, ejecting tons of sand, which was then laid neatly by an army of construction labourers on the wet portions. They were using the sand to conceal what lay below so that when the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court visited in a few hours for a site inspection, there would be no evidence of wetlands. Curious bystanders watched us as we made our way to the edge of the grey tarmac of the runway, some portions of which had already been constructed.

I grabbed my microphone. Umesh had already hoisted the heavy camera on his shoulder and we started our interviews. I asked the bystanders, “Have you seen a sarus crane? Do you know if the bird is found here?” One by one, whoever came on camera shook his head. “No, never seen a sarus.” “Eh? What’s that? Sarus? Here, no never!”

I asked at least a dozen people; they all denied the bird’s existence. In the land of the sarus, no one was willing to speak up for the bird. It was ludicrous, as right before our eyes, even as we spoke, hundreds of sarus cranes could be seen scattered around the wetlands.

I tried one last time. I questioned a man who was squatting in the fields. He spoke up. “Madam, why are you asking if there is the sarus here? Of course there is the sarus, see there behind us how many birds there are! Last night, supporters from the Samajwadi Party (the ruling party) came to our village and told us in clear terms that if anyone asks about the sarus crane just keep quiet.”

I almost hugged him in delight. At least one man had the courage to be truthful. His statement made it clear that the locals had been intimidated. I made a mental note to morph the face of the farmer before my story went on air; I didn’t want the local goons beating him up for not obeying orders.

Now that we had at least one person on record, I turned my attention to the bird. From every corner of the planned airstrip, I could hear the frenzied cry of the sarus. And that’s when we noticed a bunch of people who had been deployed to shoo away the birds. We managed to film a hapless sarus flapping its wings as it tried to land on the wetlands and then encountered a man with an axe who rushed forward to scare it away. Even as I went up and down the muddy wetlands with my camera person, trying to capture all the evidence on camera, I heard the loud sound of a chopper above our heads.

Mulayam Singh Yadav had arrived in person, to convince the Supreme Court committee members of his plans and to assure them that no harm would come to the birds or their habitat.

We rushed to the hall where the meeting would be held. The chief minister was dressed in a crisp white kurta and dhoti. He had at least eight Black Cat commandoes around him. A bit wary of the commandos, I asked him politely if he could talk to us about his plan to build an airport. He beamed at me. “Yes, of course. I have a meeting at the local college. You wait there, I will talk to you afterwards.” I felt relieved that he was willing to speak to me, a first time reporter whom he had never seen before and who wasn’t on his “beat”.

We arrived at the law college where hundreds of local journalists were lined up, waiting to interview him on state issues. There was no one from the national media, nor did anyone seem interested in interrogating him about his controversial airport. As a roar of claps and cheers greeted him, he grinned widely, raising his hands in the air. From his body language it seemed he had had a good meeting with the members of the CEC, although we didn’t know what exactly had transpired.

I waited impatiently for him to finish his speech. It was apparent that in Etawah he was God. I wondered—did this part of rural Uttar Pradesh really need an airport? Later I spoke to aviation experts and was told that even the Lucknow airport did not function to full capacity, so who would want to fly to Etawah? Who other than the chief minister himself!

Finally, after an hour, the eulogies and garlanding were over, and Mulayam Singh Yadav descended from the wooden stage. I grabbed my microphone and nudged Umesh to roll the camera. As I jostled through the crowds, I had an almost out-of-body experience. I could see myself behave as I had watched so many reporters on television do, and in that moment it hit me that I was no longer a conservationist, I was now officially a journalist.

The chief minister smiled at me encouragingly. I pushed my way forward, shouting, “Mr Yadav, you are building an airport on the habitat of the sarus crane. It’s the state bird of Uttar Pradesh. As chief minister, do you not care?”

He looked irritated, then angry. The smile was gone. The battery of journalists and stringers were nudging each other, wondering who I was, amused that this journalist would dare question the chief minister about a silly bird. ‘“It is not an airport, we are simply expanding the airstrip, that’s all,” he replied.

I continued my probing. “But Mr Yadav, we have documented this morning workers from your party shooing away the birds, to destroy any evidence that they are found here. There are dumper trucks filling up the wetlands. Are you not violating environmental laws?”

He stared at me, clearly infuriated. “Who has sent you?” he shouted, lunging forward. “You are not a journalist.”
“Sir, I am from CNN-IBN, see this is our channel logo,” I pointed to the mike in my hand.

He shoved the microphone aside and rasped in anger, “Every word you have uttered is a lie, you are lying, that’s it. You can’t be a journalist, no, you have been sent by someone else, from above, maybe the opposition party.”
His raucous outburst on camera sealed the story for us. Rattled by my questioning, he walked off in a huff and then paused and came back, now appearing embarrassed by his outburst. He then stated in a calm voice, “Do you know, as the state chief minister, how many trees I have planted across Uttar Pradesh?” I let him speak. I didn’t interrupt. It didn’t matter what he said now.

It frustrated me to see those other reporters crowding around the chief minister, full of adulation. Not one had wanted to report on a story that was playing out in their backyard. And why would they? Wild animals or green agendas don’t form vote-banks. No one in Etawah seemed to be interested in the story of the sarus; the airport, yes. In the years to come, I would always get that one initial look of surprise when questioning a chief minister or a head of state on the diversion of a tiger reserve for a coal mine or a highway project. Perhaps my questions just struck them as plain impudence, as politicians in India are very rarely questioned about green issues.

I realized soon that my banter with the chief minister had ruffled some feathers. As I walked out of the hall, a reporter from a local television network pulled me aside. “Madam, be careful. He has instructed his men to follow you wherever you go. I suggest you leave, you are not safe here.”

As we made our way out of Etawah, we went via the airstrip. It was calmer now. I could see 10 to 15 sarus reclaiming the wetlands, now that the crane-shooers were gone. I stared at them one last time before we started our six-hour drive back to the city. I was exhausted. I sat at the back, glancing every once in a while to check if anyone was following us. There was a police jeep to start with, but it tailed off once we hit the highway.

Back in office, I sat through the night and early next morning, putting together the visuals with the help of a team of producers and editors. We carried the story through the day and on prime time the next evening. When I joined television, journalist friends had warned me that environment stories would not run on prime time but the story of the chief minister and his flight of fancy against the state bird ran in every bulletin, every hour, and through the next day. There was an outcry from the Opposition and, under public pressure Mulayam was forced to abandon his airport plans. Better still, he set aside a corpus fund to convince people that he cared about the sarus. Suddenly, all across Etawah, there were billboards with his face, proclaiming his love and support for the sarus crane!

My first story had made the transition from conservation to journalism easy. After months of self-doubt I had found my calling. Environment stories are not soft feature stories. They are about contested spaces, and this was going to be my focus in my reportage. It also proved a point I had learnt, not as a journalist but as a conservation biologist, that wildlife conservation and the reportage around it had to move beyond stories of individual wild animals to their habitat: the forests, the seas and the rivers in which these creatures live and breed.

Excerpted with permission from India’s Green Wars: Dispatches from the Forest by Bahar Dutt (Harper Collins India, 172 pages, Rs. 250).

A conservation biologist by training, Bahar Dutt has run an animal ambulance for injured primates, studied a troop of Amazonian monkeys at the world-famous Jersey Zoo and worked for over a decade with a traditional community of snake charmers. She is known for her television journalism. She lives in New Delhi.

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