Accidental Environmentalism

Birds on Ousteri Lake

When the Government of Pondicherry takes decisive action in favor of environmental protection, one thing is for certain: there is more to the story than meets the eye.

Here is the astounding-but-true story of the designation of Ousteri Lake, Pondicherry’s largest water body, as an “Important Bird Sanctuary,” thereby providing a significant legal tool to stop the industrial development which is ravaging its watershed.

The story begins as do many wonderful stories in Pondicherry: with our friend Puru Kotthari. It was midday, and Puru phoned to say that he had just come from a chance meeting with Pondicherry’s Deputy Forest Conservation Officer, during which Puru boldly asked for a chance to discuss the ideas for sustainable regional development, currently being explored by Pondicherry Citizens Action Network (PondyCAN!). “Come after lunch at 1:30 and I’ll see you then,” was the answer. We had roughly an hour, said Puru, to put together some kind of presentation for this government official. “What about something on Ousteri Lake?” offered Puru.

Yoo-Mi had recently been doing substantial research concerning Pondicherry’s imperiled water supply, and had been focusing her attention on Ousteri. Fresh from a trip to the Bittarkanika National Wildlife Sanctuary in Orissa, we had met with several environmental conservation experts to explore the ways by which Ousteri might somehow receive government protection against the rampant encroachment of the nearby industrial zone. The odds were grim. An attempt to designate the lake as a protected zone had failed miserably in 2003. But at least we had a story to tell – and one which we could set to PowerPoint slides in about an hour, with a few hastily gleaned supporting factoids courtesy of Google.

At precisely 1:30 pm, Puru, Yoo-Mi, Ajit Reddy, and I strode into the office of the Deputy Forest Conservation Officer for our meeting, armed with a frantically prepared slide deck entitled, “Ornithology Tourism for Pondicherry”. Two points need to be made here. First, the Deputy Forest Conservation Officer is the highest ranking forestry official in Pondicherry. We have so little forest left here, that we do not merit an administrator of full title and authority. Second, “Ornithology” is a frighteningly bad first word to use in a slide presentation for an audience whose command of English is largely hypothetical.

Still, the Department of Forestry man seemed to like our presentation. His face beamed as he envisioned the construction of a grand ornamental gate at the road leading to Ousteri, proclaiming it a wonder of eco-tourism, and clusters of new five-star hotels for the bird-watchers. As we left the meeting, we were thankful thank the Deputy Forest Conservation Officer was as powerless as he was clueless.

That-was-that for several months. The presentation on bird-watching sat collecting dust (or rust or whatever electronic documents gather as they sit, forgotten, in one’s hard-drive) until early spring, when our local MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly, our representative in the Union Territory legislature) came a-courting. He’s a man with a problem. His seat comes up for election in less than two-years; and he estimates he will have to spend one crore rupees (approximately $200,000) on his campaign to hold onto it. Pay off the voters and make it back in kick-backs and other paid-for legislative favors; that’s how government works in India. But the recent local election had caught his attention, in which Pondy CAN’s Probir Banerjee spearheaded the election of a councilor who publicly refused to raise money for her election, spend money on her campaign, or take “gifts” from supporters. True, this could only have happened in our ward, which embraces the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and is substantially populated by a close-knit community of Sri Aurobindo devotees; but one less ward in which the MLA has to spend campaign money would represent a substantial savings. So this guy is suddenly Probir’s new best friend. Among other things that come up in their discussion is the following throw-away offer from the MLA: the legislature would soon be opening its session, and he would be happy to give any presentations with which we supplied him on the floor of the Assembly.

It was by this strange path that the “Ornithology Tourism in Pondicherry” presentation, along with two others, had their fifteen minutes of fame at the Legislative Assembly of Pondicherry. It was doubtless forgotten by almost all the MLAs even more quickly than it was delivered.

But it was not forgotten by everyone.

Here’s the back-story. Last spring, Pondicherry was in the midst of what passes in these parts for a constitutional crisis. Chief Minister Rangasamy had outraged party opponents and supporters alike by arranging the government so that almost all the spoils of corruption went to him and a few select colleagues. This violates an unwritten rule of Indian politics, whereby the CM takes the lion’s share of graft, but leaves enough substantial crumbs on the plate for the other politicians to feed. By last summer, his own party was petitioning the central government in Delhi to remove him; and, this fall, he was indeed replaced. This was bad news for an MLA named Anandan, who under Rangasamy controlled a number of lucrative ministries. With the fall of Rangasamy came the fall of Anandan.

As a side-project to his ministerial corruption, Anandan had acquired substantial acreage near Ousteri Lake, where he intended to construct a new engineering college. Sadly for Anandan, his colleagues in the Legislative Assembly thought that stopping his Ousteri-side development project might be amusing retribution for his collusion with Rangasamy. By a miracle of memory, someone in the legislature recalled that giving the lake protected status as a bird sanctuary would have the effect of stemming developments like Anandan’s. A resolution was quickly drafted and passed the Legislative Assembly just recently.

There is an important lesson in this story about how to get government support for the protection of fragile ecosystems in India. I’ll be damned, however, if I can figure out what it is.

3 Responses to “Accidental Environmentalism”

  1. 1 blaark 11 February 2009 at 4:29 pm

    That’s amazing, but a good indication of how things work in many places around the world… Congratulations on getting protected status awarded to Ousteri Lake, despite the accidental way it worked out in the end… As you come across more and more of this style of politics have you decided to try and push policy decisions through by triangulating the political alliances or does the whole game make you sick and you try to stand tall and keep your head above the sewage, doing your best on your own terms?

  2. 2 smita 11 February 2009 at 5:12 pm


    Wow. Hope might someday change the world, but for now, it seems malice is the real mountain-moving powerhouse.

    Here’s to you for tapping into it (all the better that it was unknowingly/accidentally done).



  3. 3 Nisha 18 February 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Means to end huh….

    Hope you are both well. In the Artic circle at the moment missing the sun.

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