HARISH GAONKAR took his childhood passion for butterflies seriously enough to carve out an illustrious career in lepidopterology for himself. A polyglot, Gaonkar prefers illustrating his own work His interests seem to reflect a rare blend ofscience and the arts. Gaonkar spoke to KEYA AUHARYA on his views on the relation Indians share with their natural environment
On the state of natural and lepidopteran science in India:
This is a crucial issue because there is a serious lack of interest in this field here. I feel Indian culture has never really been interested in nature. During the Vedic period, nature served only medicinal and ritualistic purposes and the Upanishads too hold nature in contempt. Indians therefore tend to view nature only in terms of it serving a Purpose and do not love it for its own sake.
On our cultural history having evolved a disregard for nature:
Yes, that is so. A certain 'leftist' intellectual stream of thought blames the Europeans for the depletion of our environment, for phenomenon like the wiping out of our forests for timber and establishing plantations. Rather than giving the matter any scientific attention, there is a tendency to create myths. There is evidence that there were groves of evergreen Ashoka trees 600 km from Mathura in the fourth century Am These disappeared long before the Europeans arrived, and this is not the only example.
On the current state of India's environmental affairs:
It is not as though Indians totally tack studies on their flora. In fact, one of the best books to be published on the flora of Dehradun is by a botanist named Kanjilal in 1905, which is still the only book on the subject. But this is a very academic kind of interest. In reality, natural history is not a very academic discipline for in Europe, it was cultivated by people who lacked a professional background in the subject.
Indian culture, particularly modern Indian Culture, on the other hand, suppoesse5 the love of nature for its own sake. Among children, some may dare to harbour an affection for nature while others fear doing so. In fact, the fear of nature is somewhat glorified in India. A brilliant example of this is the Jain way Of life.
Lack of knowledge, in my view, is the primary reason for the biodiversity crisis in India. When one cannot relate to the biology of a species, it is not possible to protect it because one would not even know how it disappeared. Indians today have an interest in birds, which is almost entirely attributable to Salim Ali. But even in this case, the knowledge is simply documentary, and not evolutionary or ecological.
On scientific institutions and their contribution to this lack of knowledge:
Oh yes! they are also at fault, including the living in a certain area who should try and best ones. The Centre for Ecological Sciences, work things out with the industrialists of their Bangalore, with which I am associated is respective regions. almost the only institution which seems genuine in its endeavours. In Denmark, which is a much smaller country, about 300 people are engaged in lepidopteran studies. Each year, every single butterfly collected is registered, along with its biology. There are actually over 2,000 people who are actively interested in butterflies in Denmark.
On the degree of freedom available to Indian scientists when compared to their western counterparts:
Seriousness about scientific interest is something that is not given, it is something that has to come from within.
On his current work:
I am working on a four-volume compilation, to be called 7he Natural History of the Butterflies of the Indian Region. It will contain all the information that one needs about any particular species, like its natural history, distribution, culture, ethnology, biology, cytology and relation to different plant communities.
On how he is going about it, since there has been no previous research done in this field:
I have been working in this field and have also been collecting data from this region for the past 25 years. I began by reading every single publication available on the Himalaya. By collecting and reading, I got to know exactly which areas had been visited by entomologists and those which had not been covered. I have prepared maps identifying the distribution of each species of butterfly in India. So far 250 maps are ready. These will be sent to a London-based master computer to be fed into a programme called World Map. The computer will identify each grid according to the number of species found within it.
On your role in India's biodiversity programme:
Once the prominent areas of a certain species' distribution are identified, they will have to be earmarked as areas for conservation. I have begun recommending the conservation of such areas.
On the assurance that these recommendations will be implemented:
None at all.
On what can be done for the implementation of the biodiversity recommendations:
The best step towards implementing the recommendations would be having a serious dialogue with industry. Reliance on the government has been misplaced. After all, a bureaucrat sitting far away in a state capital has no control over the situation. It is the people living in a certain area who should try and work things out with the industrialists of their respective regions.
However, one feels optimistic because at this point it seems that issues concerning our environment are gaining in terms of popularity. But the fact that environmental problems are biological and not engineering by nature, remains to be recognised. Today, one sees engineers taking decisions on environmental issues where they in the first place are the ones responsible for these conditions, So, I propose that the government, industry and locals put their heads together to resolve matters related to environmental conservation.
On what he would like to say to future lepidopterists in India:
It is important that you pursue your work with both interest and seriousness. Butterflies are not just a beautiful species; their study is highly relevant today because they are indicative of the status of a forest.
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