Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary, Sultanpur. Photograph copyright © His Highness Thakore Sahib Shri Chhattrasalji Digvijaysinhji of Limbdi
In 1970 iconic birdwatcher Salim Ali wrote to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that just outside Delhi the Sultanpur Jheel (shallow lake) attracted migratory birds from Siberia and elsewhere, which gathered in the winter. It was a fine location for a protected bird sanctuary, and some birders had begun to visit the Jheel, as also diplomats based in Delhi. Salim Ali recommended that the government develop the place, with accommodation for enthusiasts, with provision for food and refreshments.
Migratory birds at Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary. Photograph copyright © His Highness Thakore Sahib Shri Chhattrasalji Digvijaysinhji of Limbdi
That set into motion the wheels of government. The PM wrote to Haryana Chief Minister Bansi Lal, who passed the letter to his Secretary, the ever-efficient SK Mishra IAS, who lobbed it to the Chief Conservator of Forests. The latter was asked to prepare a simple plan, with viewing stands, and provide facilities for the birdwatchers; the project might cost a few lakhs of rupees. Ensuring that the birds should not be disturbed, he was asked to develop a scheme quickly, including it in the Supplementary Budget Demand, say asking for Rs10 lakhs from the State Assembly.
Migratory birds at Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary. Photograph copyright © late His Highness Thakore Sahib Shri Chhattrasalji Digvijaysinhji of Limbdi
In quick time the papers came to me, as Director of Panchayat in the Haryana Secretariat, also in charge of cattle fairs; probably that implied a responsibility for animal and bird welfare. I was told by the Joint Secretary concerned to clear this file quickly, and he signed off on it. We prepared a proposal for the Finance Secretary; he bounced it back, saying that this was not how a scheme should be prepared in the government. He asked: This is only the first year of this project; who has told you that the birds will come back next year? Who is Salim Ali to make such proposals? Does he hold any responsible post, so that he can be held accountable, if the birds do not come? He added: the right way is to deploy a couple of forest rangers, who can keep a register on how many birds come, how long they stay, and then prepare a proper financial proposal.
Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary, Sultanpur. Photograph copyright © late His Highness Thakore Sahib Shri Chhattrasalji Digvijaysinhji of Limbdi.
I responded on the file: that is fine, but we had been told to act promptly, to catch the Supplementary Budget. The Finance Secretary then told me during a meeting that he would not be a party to such a proposal. The Chief Conservator of Forests and I went back to SK Mishra; I told him that the register idea was a bit far-fetched; someone might also then ask for the nationality of the birds! Secretary Mishra was firm; the proposal had to be implemented and asked that the Finance Secretary see him. We reported this back, but the latter refused, adding that he did not want to see this file again. He told us to do whatever we wanted, but not involve him.
Ducks at Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary. Photograph copyright © His Highness Thakore Sahib Shri Chhattrasalji Digvijaysinhji of Limbdi
I then wrote out a half-page note addressed to the Finance Minister. Ignoring that convoluted discussion, I set out the barebone proposal. Marking these papers first to the Finance Secretary, I wrote against his name in Hindi: Vitta Sachiv wyasth hain (‘the Finance Secretary is busy’). The Minister, a pleasant lady, probably understood the situation; she summoned me to ask what ‘busy’ meant. I explained the background, adding that I could not think of any other way out, and requested her to understand our dilemma. She smiled and signed the file.
A flock of birds at the Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary. Photograph copyright © late His Highness Thakore Sahib Shri Chhattrasalji Digvijaysinhji of Limbdi
That is how the Sultanpur project took off. The Finance Secretary later inquired from his staff as to what had happened, and they duly reported the outcome. Graciously, he did not hold it against me, and matters rested at that. It was the way things were sometimes done in our system.
A duck at Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary, Sultanpur. Photograph copyright © late His Highness Thakore Sahib Shri Chhattrasalji Digvijaysinhji of Limbdi
(All photographs are copyright © late His Highness Thakore Sahib Shri Chhattrasalji Digvijaysinhji of Limbdi. The story extract is from the Oral History of Late Nirmal S Jhala, IAS, unpublished. The sanctuary is currently closed due to the pandemic; birds seen this year include the bar headed geese, common coot bird, pintail, greylag goose, open bill stork, northern shower, common pochard, painted stork, spoon bills, ibis, and the common teal among others.)
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