A Walk up the Hill: Living with People and NatureMadhav Gadgil
434 pages|₹ 999
Madhav Gadgil (Photo: Pratham Gokhale)
TO KNOW A LANDSCAPE one has to walk it. One needs to tread earth, soil ones shoes and feel the echo of wind to recognise the pulse of a place. How does it change on a day-to-day basis—which birds swoop down when, which flower pops its head out of the cracks, when do the bats land on the fruits, when does the grass go from husk to copper to apple green to neon? Field ecologist and anthropologist Madhav Gadgil has walked the valleys and plains of India for more than half a century. He now recounts those experiences in an autobiography fittingly titled A Walk up the Hill: Living with People and Nature (Allen Lane; 434 pages; ₹999).
In his memoir, Gadgil writes of the importance of the Vetal tekdi in his hometown Pune, which introduced him to the wonders of the outdoors. He started walking the neighbourhood hills, as a four-year-old, with his father the economist Dhananjaya Ramachandra Gadgil who was well-versed with Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds. He could soon spot the larks and pipits, bulbuls and babblers, quails and partridges. This early introduction to the natural world—and with Ali as both real and metaphoric guide—nudged Gadgil to pursue these interests professionally. Over the years, he continued to walk up both near and distant hills. And in his own neighbourhood, due to the use of pesticide and unregulated construction, he now bemoans the absence of a few of his favourites such as the hoopoe and the Indian bush lark. He can no longer walk as effortlessly, given age and health issues, but he still keeps an eye out for changes, he says, “Now with the density of population, and the construction of walls and fences and buildings, the landscape has changed completely.”
A Walk up the Hill was released at a recent event in Pune, where students sat on the stage, as every chair was taken, and even the aisles doubled up as seats. The launch was special as it marked the release of not only the English edition of the book, but also the simultaneous release of the book in nine Indian languages, including Marathi (which Gadgil wrote himself), Malayalam, Bengali, Konkani etc. Eighty-two-year-old Gadgil spoke to author and historian Ramachandra Guha about his days at Harvard University, his three decades as a faculty member of Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and the two big loves of his life; his wife the meteorologist Sulochana Gadgil, and the Western Ghats. Gadgil told Guha, “Someone once told me, ‘If you’ve a friend in nature, you’ll never be lonely.’” He has lived by that maxim.
The Padma Bhushan recipient’s autobiography differs from many memoirs as his professional experiences ink it more deeply than his personal ones. He says, “I write about my relationship with people, including my family members, but only in this specific context of my interest in science and scientific work and policy related issues.” While the book is structured chronologically it also follows themes, such as ‘Sacred Groves and Sacred Animals’, ‘Pests, Pesticides and Pollution’, ‘Herders and Farmers’ etc. Gadgil says, “It conveys a perspective on what is going on, which is fairly unusual because very few people have the kind of relationship with people at the grassroots, which I have and the actual field work at the ground level, which I have done.” When Covid hit and finding time on his hands, he decided to embark on the project. He adds with a chuckle, “I have turned 82, so I thought it is better that I finish it… because you never know.”
We meet at Gadgil’s home in a quiet tree-lined neighbourhood. He lives on the top floor of an apartment building— surrounded by books and artefacts that seem to predate him— which overlooks the Vetal hills. He is warm and welcoming, even though he is nursing a slight cold and is clad in a sweater despite the mild weather. He willingly obliges the requests of the photographer, and in good humour tries to strike different poses in varied locations.
The memoir was relatively easy to write as Gadgil has maintained a diary of important events in his life from 1971. This allowed him to go back and forth into the past. He says that the book arose from multiple reasons. For one, Guha (with whom he has co-authored books such as This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India and Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India was instrumental in pushing him to do so. Gadgil also realised that many of the issues that he has spent decades working on—such as the unequal costs of development and climate change—are today’s hot topics. He adds, “Now there is a lot more awareness about the kind of issues I have been thinking about, I have been writing about at policy level.”
“The book conveys a perspective on what is going on, which is fairly unusual because very few people have the kind of relationship with people at the grassroots, which I have and the actual field work at the ground level, which I have done, says Madhav Gadgil, author
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Gadgil was the chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), which submitted its report to the Government of India in 2011. The WGEEP designated the entire Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) and assigned three levels of Ecological Sensitivity to different regions of it. It cautioned against the construction of dams and mining, and emphasised the coastal tracts are “under severe environmental and social stress”. The report also underscored the importance of citizen and gram sabha participation in the protection of the environment. With the 2018 Kerala floods, which left nearly 500 dead, the recent landslides in Maharashtra, and other large-scale natural disasters, the WGEEP—also known as the Gadgil Commission—has come once again to the fore.
The WGEEP was criticised for being out of touch with ground truths, but the recent extreme events have proved that climate change is very much a reality of today. It is against this backdrop that A Walk up the Hill becomes an important record of India’s ecological conditions and changes. Gadgil’s life and work have revolved around three pillars—nature, ecology and society. And as a “scholar, field researcher, teacher, institution-builder, policy influencer, activist, author” (as described by Jairam Ramesh) the central thesis that emerges from the book is that “we have been implementing a system of passing on the benefits of development to those already well off and costs of development to the weak and poor.”
Gadgil’s readings and interests are vast, and he drops the names of British geneticist JBS Haldane and climate activist Greta Thunberg with equal familiarity. I ask if over 60 years of study he has found a suitable answer to the environment versus development riddle. He says, “Because the costs of development can be imposed with immunity and impunity on the weaker sections of the society, this is happening. If there is a more equitable apportionment of these costs, then so-called development will not be at the cost of the people, its cost will be more equitably distributed. You will then see a very different path.”
THE BOOK IS ALSO an interesting memoir in itself. Gadgil whose “favourite pastime is writing popular articles for the lay public” recounts the past with a light touch and an accessible tone. He details his days of athleticism at Fergusson College, and how he chose his wife—Sulochana a “habitual backbencher” in his chemistry class. After attendance had been marked, she would jump out of the large French windows to go play table tennis with her friends. Despite her truancy, she nearly topped all the exams. Convinced of her aptitude and spirit, Gadgil asked his mother to reach out to her family.
Gadgil also writes in rich detail about the many expeditions he embarked on, from the hills of Manipur to the valleys in Kerala. On an expedition to the Upper Nilgiris plateau in 1981, he had to spend a night on top of a tree to escape a herd of wild elephants. Realising the importance of this skill, he started asking prospective field assistants to come perch beside him on an imposing gulmohar tree in the IISc compound. He writes in detail of the numerous people he’s met in his career; from birdwatching with Salim Ali to visiting Himalayan villages with the environmentalist Chandiprasad Bhatt to meeting villagers in Goa, to the Kondh tribals protesting the Niyamgiri mining project.
Though his parents had given up markers of caste, before he started travelling he hadn’t tried varied cuisines. He recounts enjoying the taste of different foods from raw crab to plant-sucking bugs to meat soups. He writes, “I am a field ecologist and field anthropologist rolled into one, and a field anthropologist must eat and drink whatever the people he is working with are eating and drinking for them to fully accept him. So, my willingness to taste and relish all manner of food has been an asset in my pursuit of field work to this day.”
As someone fond of literature and poetry, Gadgil also has a way with languages. He is equally fluent in English and Marathi, and as Guha mentioned at the launch event, he can even be claimed by Karnataka, given his familiarity with Kannada. Gadgil found speaking Kannada to be particularly useful. As a member of the Karnataka Planning Board, he often had to attend meetings chaired by the chief minister and other senior ministers. Most of the experts would speak in English, even if their mother tongue was Kannada. He says, “Whatever I wanted to say, it may be technical, but you can always put it in simple language. So I spoke in Kannada and some of the ministers actually became very fond of me because of that. So it had even a political advantage, even though I was not looking for political advantage.” While at Harvard University, he also learned Spanish and German. Given his multilingualism, he says he still largely thinks in Marathi but relies on English for scientific terms and concepts.
Gagdil has the unique distinction of having five ‘new’ species named after him. He lists them out, with a hint of merriment, there is a tarantula spider, which he first identified at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. A frog expert who joined him on an expedition—but then turned back as he couldn’t keep up—to the Silent Valley named a frog after him. A caecilian (legless amphibian) has been named after him in the Western Ghats. As has a species of bamboo and a forest tree. I ask which would he like to be the sixth? He chuckles, “Well, they are not left to be discovered. But in Arunachal and so on, there are certainly new species, including even monkeys and birds. That would be nice. Though I don’t think it is likely.”
For now he will continue to watch the hills from his home.