Meet Bikram Grewal

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 22 No. 10, October 2002

His Birds of India has sold more copies than any other bird book authored by an Indian in the past decade. He loves the underdog, hates pompous windbags and suggests that birds and their habitats are being poorly defended by established conservation organisations in India. Birder, author, publisher and agent provocateur, Bikram Grewal speaks his mind to Bittu Sahgal and proffers advice to all takers on bird protection in India.

You are the "bad boy" of Indian ornithology? How did you come to acquire that sobriquet?

I just love that reputation and work hard to maintain it! I was born in Calcutta of mixed parentage. My father is a Sikh from Pakistan and my mother, a princess from Assam, so that was a pretty good start. I was, at a very early age, sent off to a very famous public school in the Shimla hills, where you were considered a sissy if you read a book. Unless you beat your opponent to a bloody pulp at boxing, you were not a hero. You can well imagine the fate of one who claimed he was interested in birds! So I spent my early life being a 'closet' birdwatcher. I hated those ten years in school. University, by comparison, was a blast and after an indifferent academic career, I sort of drifted into publishing where I have been now for three decades.

My interest in birds grew and as a birdwatcher and publisher, I was concerned about the lack of quality bird books published in India. The ones available were terribly produced. Horrible illustrations! The text, though outdated, was good. So I said why not just get a few friends together and produce my own bird book. This I did in 1993.

That hardly sounds like the kind of thing that a "bad boy" would do!

Well, all hell broke loose in the Indian birding world with the publication of my Birds of India. I was attacked from all quarters of the establishment. Who is this upstart, they exclaimed, who presumes to move into this sacred turf? No Ph.D., no formal education and certainly not one of us! They never reviewed my book; they hammered it. They also spoke disparagingly of my efforts at seminars and in private conversations (most were related right back to me!). In retrospect, it was quite funny. The only people who were supportive were the British birding press, which delivered brilliant reviews. And great sales, I might add. Between four editions, Birds of India sold over 250,000 copies. That's what I call vindication. I lose no sleep over the fact that the dusty bird 'establishment' in India still calls me names. What makes me happy is that the younger (and infinitely sharper) lot is at ease with me and I thoroughly enjoy birding with them.

You have yet another book on the cards, I understand. Do we need one, or are you merely cocking another snook at your detractors?

My first book was published almost ten years ago. I believe it is outdated in terms of its look, information and images. So, with Bill Harvey, I did a really big, "state-of-the-art" Indian bird book. I'm talking about 500 pages, 806 species illustrated and described, and more than 1,000 photographs taken largely by Otto Pfister. I am delighted with the proofs. We needed the book. I could never have cocked such an expensive snook at people, even if I agreed for a moment that they might have been worthy of the effort!

So when does Sanctuary get to review your book?

It should hit India within a few weeks. It is being published simultaneously in the US, England and Singapore. A large number of birdwatchers prefer photographs to illustrations. This book is for them. I believe it is the single largest compilation of photographs of Indian birds in a book of this kind anywhere in the world.

Would Dr. Sálim Ali have approved?

God, yes! Don't you remember how he supported Sanctuary, when so many people around him kept saying that it would close down! Frankly, one of the enduring regrets of my life is that I never personally met the great man. I have tremendous respect for his work and without him, Indian ornithology would never have risen to world standards. He left the nation an incredible wealth of information, but sadly Lilliputs surrounded him. Years after his death, I can see no one who shows even a glimmer of his greatness (Humayun Abdulali might have been the one exception, if his PR had been better!).

Where does this leave the Bombay Natural History Society in your view?

I think its publication staff should do some soul searching. Why, they should ask themselves, have the two great new books Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp and A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Krys Kazmierczak, been written by people outside India? Pam Rasmussen, an American, is writing another. I think it's time for the BNHS to move on and out of the shadow of Dr. Sálim Ali. They need to show that they are capable of original thinking.

Are you being fair to the Society? It is, after all, the only really solid scientific organisation in the country with an independent voice.

I think the current Director, Dr. Asad Rahmani, is an outstanding field biologist. His tragedy is that he has inherited the entire weight (and ghost) of the past. The BNHS is the repository of all natural history knowledge in India, not just ornithological knowledge. They should disseminate that information in a readable and attractive way. We are now two years into the new century, and have you seen the quality of the stuff they produce? It is 20 years out of date. And the less said about the Hornbill, the better. Unless the BNHS shrugs off the cobwebs of the past (which is not to say it should discard its hoary traditions), it is doomed and cannot move into the future. I really love the BNHS, but my views on its current stewards seem harsher than you can take, so I think I'll just keep my mouth shut!

Back to ornithology and birding. Where is it going? Is it growing?

It's growing regionally. We are in the cyberspace age. If you compare Indian birding sites, you will discover just why people who cannot grow intellectually are condemned to irrelevance. Sites like Nikhil Devasar's Delhibird and Sumit Sen's Kolkatabirds are just brilliant. Aasheesh Pittie in Hyderabad is another great birdman, as are a whole bunch of birders in Bangalore.

Would you agree that we have too much birding, too little defence of birds and bird habitats?

I totally agree. But many of the young people I have mentioned are indeed involved in the defence of some of the lesser-known areas like Basai, outside Delhi. But if I were to be asked who has really defended birds all these years, I would point to people like you through Sanctuary, Belinda Wright and her Wildlife Protection Society and Valmik Thapar, whose zealous tiger fixation has saved god alone knows how many birds!

But you have it in for us too, don't you? "Tigerwallahs" I have often heard you refer to us dismissively!

Do you deny that the wildlife movement in India is far too tiger and mega-fauna centric? Talking tigers works fine for the birds of Corbett or Ranthambhore. But where does it leave the Great Indian Bustard or the Double-banded Courser? I think Dr. Rahmani and J.C. Daniel would actually side with me on this one!

Bikram, we are going to steer far from the BNHS for a while! Tell me a bit about the joy of birding. Which are your favourite birding destinations?

That's like asking which child I love the most! Several. All sadly under serious threat. For waterbirds, I'd say Hokarsar and Wular in Kashmir, Chilika in Orissa, Point Calimere in Tamil Nadu and, of course, the one and only Ghana in Bharatpur. But what really drives me wild are forest birds. So much so that I have, in fact, built a house on the Tons river between Dehradun and Mussoorie. Only someone who goes birding in the Lower Himalayas, the northeast or the Western and Eastern Ghats will know what I mean.

Are you still looking for the Mountain Quail here?

We all live in hope. The Jerdon's Courser and the Forest Spotted Owlet were rediscovered, after all. I am told that a few people have mounted a search for the Mountain Quail (now known as the Himalayan Quail). Where my home is situated is precisely where this elusive quail was found 100 years ago. Perhaps, I will spot it while out walking one morning. Now that would surely set some tails on fire! On a more serious note, I think that the search for species, which have been presumed extinct would revitalise the natural history establishment.

Is the Pink-headed Duck going to pop up somewhere too?

No. I believe that the Pink-headed Duck is lost to us forever. The last authentic record was in 1935 from Darbhanga, Bihar. It was never abundant and current 'discoverers' mistakenly talk about the Red-crested Pochard, to which it bears a very superficial resemblance. Some intriguing sighting claims, however, are coming out of Upper Myanmar, which is (ornithologically) hopelessly under-explored.

A lesser-known fact is that just one specimen of the Large-billed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orinus actually exists! A.O. Hume reportedly collected one specimen in the Sutlej Valley in Himachal Pradesh in the mid-1800s and till this year, experts felt that Hume's bird was possibly an aberrant form of a known species. Recent research suggests otherwise. The bird's status remains unknown, but its short wings indicate that it could be a resident, or short-distance migrant. Orinus is probably beyond redemption, but I am convinced that there are yet-to-be-discovered birds lurking in the Eastern Ghats and the northeast. Habitat loss in places like Lava, West Bengal is killing birds. We could well be killing off new species before even discovering them in places like Darjeeling and Sikkim.

So what are the key problems facing birds? And in which direction do we search for solutions?

The problems are pretty much what they were before. But the situation is getting more acute by the day. I'd say that deforestation is the single most serious threat today, followed closely by toxic contamination. The statistics do not make happy reading. Half of India's natural forests have disappeared, 70 per cent of the water bodies are polluted and 40 per cent of mangroves have been cut. The felling of tall trees in moist deciduous and evergreen forests has affected hornbills in particular. Similarly, Adjutant Storks are losing nesting sites much too fast. The massive deforestation in the Andaman and Nicobar has affected the status of the megapode, the only one found in our territorial limits. The Nicobar Pigeon too is on its last legs. The destruction and conversion of grasslands has rendered the future of the Great Indian Bustard and the two floricans very doubtful at best. Draining water bodies seriously affects the White-winged Wood Duck, which already has the dubious distinction of being the rarest duck in India.

Why has so little work been done on toxics by ornithologists?

Because they clump together in small insecure clubs and suffer from acute myopia! The impact of pesticides on falcons has been known for decades. Have Indian ornithologists and field biologists been sleeping? They should have been raising hell about pesticides, organochlorine contamination and endocrine disruptions. These affect the breeding biology of birds. What could be more basic to bird studies than this? What is more, as Rachel Carson showed us, birds are the early indicators of chemicals in our own bodies.

They say that this is the task of activists and that the scientists' job is done the moment the facts are pointed out.

By this token, Dr. Sálim Ali should not have fought for Silent Valley. Rachel Carson should not have fought the pesticide and chemical companies. Dr. Rosalie Bertell should not be fighting the nuclear industry. Just take one look at the holy Yamuna in Delhi, or the Ganga. If this is how you treat your goddesses, what hope is there for birds? Unless scientists look beyond funding for their next projects, or lucrative consultancies from the very sources that damage the environment, we will see DDT, aldrin and other chemicals kill the Sarus Crane. Even common species like sparrows might vanish. I am not even going to talk about vultures!

This hardly sounds like the Bikram Grewal I know. Are you trying to ruin your "bad boy" image by turning politically active?

Not by a long shot! Maybe some of your own anger has rubbed off on me! I'll probably be normal by tomorrow!

What does the future hold for India's birds?

As the song suggests, que sera sera! What will be, will be. It's very mixed, I'm afraid. The good news is that more and more young people are taking to birdwatching. More binoculars are floating around. Birds like Stoliczka's Bushchat and the Sind Sparrow are being seen around Delhi. These raise questions. Were they always there and overlooked, or are the changes in habitat drawing them close to Delhi? The resultant debate can only add to our knowledge.

The bad news is that birds continue to be accorded the lowest priority, even among conservationists. Like I said earlier, there is a Project Tiger and a Project Elephant, but who looks after the birds? The extinction of the tragopans will be no less a tragedy than the death of the last cheetah.  

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