Shyam Chainani (1943-2010)

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 31 No. 8, August 2011

By Bittu Sahgal

If he were alive he would probably yell at me for the descriptor ‘wildlife hero’ but I will take that liberty because in my view he was that and more. If it were not for Shyam Chainani I believe we would have lost vast coastal landscapes including mangroves, corals, creeks and sandy beaches that are home to uncounted marine wildlife. Some of our finest leopard habitats surrounding our hill stations would also have been lost to builders. He was, of course, best known for his heritage work, but to the day he died he insisted that living and non-living heritage laws and groups must work together to be effective. He was born in Karachi and his father was a high court judge. He studied at the Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai and went on to become an engineer after studying in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai, Magdalene College, Cambridge, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the U.S. Like most visionaries, his environmental battles began long before being ‘green’ became the fashion

He was a war horse in every good sense of the word. Over a drink at the Bombay Gymkhana (one of several we shared!) Shyam said to me, “Thirty plus years ago when we opposed the destruction of the environment people laughed at us. Thirty years from today people will curse those who destroyed our environment.” I would meet him often at the Gym bar where he would spend an hour or so after his customary swim.

Nothing scared him at all. Nothing. Not threats from the underworld, not the anger of close associates and certainly not the coercion from politicians that was part of his daily diet. Shyam Chainani was my friend. For many, many years. Though he took great pleasure in announcing from the roof tops that he neither knew nor was particularly fascinated by wildlife, to my mind he and Fateh Singh Rathore, shared something major in common – both were driven by a mission, both fought the system all their lives, both evoked admiration in most, and searing anger in the powerful people they routinely thwarted. 

In the early 1980s I knew Shyam more as the face of the Bombay Environment Action Group… someone who fought hard for Mumbai, its open spaces and its heritage. Then, fate threw us together by appointing us to the same Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) Expert Committees, where we inevitably found ourselves ranged against a series of carefully-appointed individuals whose brief often was to ‘handle those two’ while somehow getting environmental clearances through for projects. Back in those days, I used to fly into a rage when blatant lies were presented as gospel by unsavoury characters working for the MoEF and others who project proponents had paid to say the right thing. Shyam had this amazing ability to be both polite and furious at the same time. Quite capable of raising a storm himself on the rare occasion, Shyam, once pulled me out of an Expert Committee meeting that was considering clearance of the Enron Jetty at Guhagar, and calmly explained, “Why are you feeding your own ulcers? They are doing what they have been paid to do… all we need to do is state the facts and record our opposition. Remember, whatever we do is going to seem like it is inadequate. Eventually the rotten politicians will move to greener pastures as will the bureaucrats. If we have the stamina, and remain consistent we will win.” 

Not surprisingly, over the years, we became good friends. On long flights he would speak of battles fought in his usual matter-of-fact tone: “I thought Maneka Gandhi would undo all that Indira Gandhi had done for the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Rules, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she wanted to strengthen the CRZ Rules.” 

I had the good fortune also of working closely with Shyam towards the late 1980s on ways to protect large landscapes from rapacious industries. It was his idea originally to create ‘Ecologically Sensitive’ areas of both biodiversity and heritage value. Here he said there should be no large industries or mining or large dams and other similar projects. When I asked how we would ever be able to get such a law passed he said, “I trust the bureaucracy more than you and I believe there are good people there who will work to make this happen.” In the event, he spent months studying wildlife and environment laws to see how new legislation could be created to supplement and strengthen protection both along coastal India and for specific areas to be designated eco-sensitive, such as Mahabaleshwar, Matheran, Pachmarhi, Kodaikanal, Munnar and several other hill stations including Nainital, Mussoorie, Darjeeling, Shimla and Mount Abu, all of which he strongly believed were being senselessly trashed. 

Shyam Chainaini was successful in getting several key laws passed to protect India’s wildernesses and heritage precincts. Declaring regions 'eco-sensitive zones' that would keep out large industries, mines and large dams was his brainchild and he worked incredibly hard on drafts for new legislation that helped secure vast coastal landscapes and several hill stations.

Photo:Bhushan Pandya

He was also filled with angst about the way Goa was being transformed. The Portuguese architecture of Goa, he felt, was alone enough to bring in the right kind of tourists. In his words, “The Europeans might even see structures like this but for the British and Americans these reminders of a bygone age would be irresistible. The churches in particular are stunning.”

His persistence paid off. The ‘Report of the Committee on Identifying Parameters for Designating Ecologically Sensitive Areas in India’ was a path-breaking document that caused as much consternation in the board rooms of the rich and powerful as it afforded protection to wildlife outside our sanctuaries and national parks.

He trusted me enough to send me (and other colleagues, I am sure) his manuscripts prior to publication for my comments. During the time he was putting together the text for his first book, Heritage & Environment – An Indian Diary, published in November 2007 by the Urban Design Research Institute, I remember his agonising over sentences and calling several times to ask, “Are you sure I should include this… or drop that… or mention his name…” He was never vindictive and did not want either to be careless or thoughtless. He was particularly respectful of our armed forces. But this never stopped him from fighting against policies, even those pushed by the armed forces, if he felt these would erode our heritage “of which the armed forces are themselves extremely proud,” he never tired of saying.

Some of his greatest admirers were bureaucrats, including the late Dr. S. K. Maudgal, Advisor to the MoEF. I remember Shyam would always insist that we visit Dr. Maudgal in his room (with me lugging one of Shyam’s permanently heavy leather bags, stuffed with documents that he would whip out in an instant when challenged on any fact!). Even when Dr. Maudgal had been divested of almost all his responsibilities because he had become a thorn in the side of politicians and businessmen, Shyam and I would share tea and conversation with him, particularly in those rocky days when the Sardar Sarovar Dam project was at the centre of much controversy. In 1991, Shyam briefed Dr. Maudgal, in my presence, about the likely adverse impact of the BSES thermal plant in Dahanu, which was in contravention of the CRZ Rules. When his report was submitted, Dr. Maudgal stated confidently that BSES was dumping earth in the creek area, a CRZ violation that would seriously impact the fishing community. He was, of course, ignored as was Shyam’s advice. The World Bank in fact placed pressure to quadruple the capacity of the 500 MW BSES plant instead of advocating that it be shifted to a less ecologically-sensitive area. Eventually Nargis Irani and Kitayun Rustom launched the Dahanu Taluka Environmental Welfare Association (DTEWA) and asked me if I would file a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court against the project. Guided by Shyam and egged on by Debi Goenka, I filed the writ… and we won (in a sense). The court did not order the dismantling of the thermal plant as we wanted but forbade any expansion, and laid down very strict environmental conditions. Further the apex court used this PIL to order the setting up of Maharashtra’s first Green Bench. 

That was Shyam Chainani for you. Always looking ahead, trying to set good precedents instead of merely expending energy on fighting single environmental misdemeanours. 

To really know him, Sanctuary readers would need to read his books and manuscripts (some still to be published). Shyam fought to conserve the Cantonments when politicians wanted to cash in on their real estate value. He fought for mangroves when the JNPT authorities tried to trash huge parcels of land, way beyond their port requirements, just to sell the land to builders and thus finance their port. He fought for our sea forts, for the buildings around Horniman Circle including the Asiatic Library in Mumbai and for the mill lands (a heartbreaking loss for him since he wanted parks and heritage precincts to be created in their place) and virtually all open spaces such as Mumbai’s famous Oval Maidan. 

Lest anyone imagine that his focus was restricted to Mumbai, the truth is that Shyam Chainani’s impact on the heritage movement in Pune, Goa, Mahabaleshwar and even Delhi, Kolkata, Nagpur, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad was profound. He worked closely with Intach, which in fact published his second book in 2009, titled Heritage Conservation – Legislative and Organisational Policies for India. The kind of work Shyam has put together for Cantonment area heritage alone should have earned him an Honorary Doctorate, in my view. Much of his writing was done in between court battles, on flights, in airports, or, of course, while sitting in his wonderful, full-of-character home on Marine Drive where his large seat-swing and his views of the Arabian ocean combined to create his fortress of solitude.

Shyam was 68 when cancer took his life on Christmas day, December 25, 2010. Only weeks earlier I had called him up and requested him to be one of the presenters during the Sanctuary Wildlife Awards ceremony and he agreed, saying sternly, “Are you sure I am a suitable choice for wildlife awards? My doctor tells me it’s not safe for me to be in crowded places but I’d like to come even if it is just a few minutes before you want me to present the award.” He was like that. He listened to everyone, then did what he believed he should do.

Shyam Chainani, you will be missed, but never forgotten.


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