A green warrior's tale

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A green warrior's tale

Kausi Sethna was an activist for whom environment mattered more than anything else, writes Nupur Basu, recalling how his enthusiasm to save the ecology of Western Ghats inspired many environmentalists.

India has lost a true blue-blooded conservationist. K R Sethna, a former member of the Indian Board for Wildlife, died at the age of 88 in Chikmagalur last month.

A Parsi by birth, Sethna, known to his friends and acquaintances as ‘Kausi’, was born in Karachi on February 24, 1926. He started his career as a racing jockey in Karachi in undivided India. After Independence, he moved to Pune and continued to race in Mumbai. For a while, he also became a falconer, training under one of the greats in the field in Pune. 

In the late 60s, a job as an estate manager brought him to the coffee growing district of Chikmagalur. “I fell in love with the wilderness here and decided to stay back,” Kausi would recall. Chikmagalur was to become his home for the next five decades. “I was always passionate about wildlife. Even as a child, I was always watching wildlife and studying them,” Kausi had recounted in an interview he gave me a few months before his death.

Later on, Kausi bought his own coffee estate where he became a pioneer in growing organic coffee. In fact, his home and coffee estate was unlike any in Chikmagalur. He maintained his estate uniquely. Around his charming cottage were rolling meadows, in which cattle grazed, resembling the Welsh countryside. The coffee estates started where the meadows gave away. This was unheard of in a district where others grew coffee on every inch of land they owned for the revenue it brought them. For Kausi, running a coffee estate, at any rate, was just one part of his life. The other major part remained conservation.

In the 90s, the pollution of the Bhadra River due to the mining, and the disappearance of the unique Shola Forests, was a great source of agitation for Kausi. It was Kausi who first rang the alarm bells on the issue. He was the first to go and document the iron ore tailings in the Bhadra River and the sand pollution. This opened up the entire debate on the ill-effects of mining on the region. 

A die-hard campaigner, he did not hesitate to take journalists and environmentalists up and down mountain-sides to show the extent of the damage due to the mining activities. His battle against the authorities to preserve the ecology of the Western Ghats took him to the country’s highest courts. Kausi was the main petitioner along with other environment groups in a public interest litigation (PIL) to stop forest encroachments and illegal mining in the Kudremukh National Park. The PIL was finally won and mining and prospecting in the Kudremukh National Park stopped. 

“Kausi’s energy and enthusiasm was infectious... and he was a major reason why many of us became environment activists. I met him when I was in school and was so inspired by his lecture that there was no looking back... he single-handedly set the ball rolling on environment in Chikmagalur by taking up issues of encroachment and pollution in Bhadra and Kudremukh. Everything that happened later was a result of that. Apart from this, he helped so many poor people in Chikmagalur without advertising it — above all, he was a good human being,” said D V Girish, a well-known environment activist in Chikmagalur, who had worked on campaigns closely with Kausi.

A product of the genteel old world, for Kausi, money was never the prime focus of his existence. It was only useful for the things it could do for you and others. He used it to travel, to fight court battles to take on the crooks and forest mafia, to educate the children of his estate’s labourers, and to provide the best medical care for labourers when they needed it. 

Kausi could suffer fools, but not corrupt politicians. “The Indian government could have done so much more for environment, but they did not have the political will to save it.” The only kind word he had for any politician was for former prime minister Indira Gandhi: “Indira Gandhi was passionate about saving the environment and was genuinely concerned about wildlife. I admired her for this passion.”

Although he never finished his formal graduation degree in confined classrooms, Kausi remained an alert student all his life in Nature’s big classroom. He served as an honorary wildlife warden in the Chikmagalur district and would be seen driving his jeep all over the place, putting the fear of God in the hearts of encroachers and corrupt politicians. Kausi lived and breathed environment and was willing to fight till his last breath to save it. 

One of his favourite places where he loved to take his friends was the Muthodi Reserve Forest. The excitement on his face when the majestic bisons came in view inside Muthodi was palpable. 

When I was featuring him as an “Unsung Hero” in a television series for NDTV a few years ago, I had lobbed the usual question about what he would consider his life’s dream moment. Unblinking, Kausi had replied: “To see a leopard on a tree!” 

Over the years, many visited his home in Yellakodi Estate, like the world famous conservationist, Salim Ali, who Kausi admired and who also became a good friend. Salim wrote about Kausi in his book.

Kausi’s encounter with the Dalai Lama when he was in Nepal left a lasting impression on him and he became a campaigner for ‘Free Tibet’. The Dalai Lama’s sister, Jetsun Pema, became a lifelong friend and would visit him in Chikmagalur. His house was full of books and memorabilia on Buddhism. He was drawn to Buddhism and he loved his annual pilgrimages to Dharamshala. The mountains were a huge attraction and as long as his health permitted, he went trekking every year to climb peaks in the Ladakh, Nepal and Canada. “What the Himalayas does to a man who loves the mountains is indescribable,” he had recalled with a great deal of nostalgia many years after he could no longer do the treks.

In the last years of his life, Kausi became a bit of a recluse living in his cottage, just gazing into the Western Ghats in the horizon. His disappointment in how things had turned out to be in modern day India was acute. He believed there was no hope for India’s forests and wildlife if the present level of mindless destruction continued.

 “Eventually, the tiger and the leopard will become a thing of the past,” Kausi had lamented in our last chat.

To pull us out of our gloom, we had walked up to admire the beautiful orchids that adorned his lovely balcony in the cottage. A smile had again played on his lips at the sight of the pink beauty.

In the course of one’s long journalistic career, you meet a few people who truly inspire you, and if you are lucky, they become personal friends. In my journalistic career, Kausi was one such person. I was drawn to his ‘fire in the belly’ for saving the environment and his courage to fight the mafia. I and many others have lost this powerful inspiration in our life. And I am deeply saddened that this country never gave him any recognition for his work in his lifetime.

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