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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Hero of the Waterway

I see that this is my 700th blog and perhaps then it is apt that it is about the many Indias and a modern hero who should be known worldwide, the way kids are taught about John Muir and other naturalists who valued and protected the natural world — and Ravidra Singh Tomar is very much alive.

Here’s the story: today we took a motor boat trip in a reservoir near the industrial city of Kota. Kota has a palace where it royal family lived and may still live. Directly across the wide river from it is a large power plant belching the particles of soft coal it burns. Why would a plant be there? That leads us to this story. The river used to be quite low, but India’s first prime minister Mr. Nehru thought the country’s future lay in dams and electricity. So the river was dammed and the power plant built. In fact this combination has allowed all sorts of dry land to support farming — and this step was seen as so central to India’s future that the plant was situated just across from the palace — in effect the plant was the palace of India’s future.

Mr. Tomar was our guide on the small motor boat, pointing out crocodiles,  egrets, owls, cormerants, and such. The walls along the river were all sandstone — very similar to the Soutwest — imagine the Grand Canyon if it were mainly a lake with just a hundred feet or so of rock on each side. I noticed some abandoned stone structures and asked if they were temples. No, I learned, they were  hunting lodges. As late as the 1950s, beaters would drive tigers and other animals out of the thick forest that grew up to the cliff edge, while the shooting party would sit in boats and kill the animals, which were then packed up the cliff on elephant back to the lodges. Terrible. After the dam was built all of that ended, the shooting stopped. But in the age of development, the entire forest was cut down. It no longer exists, thus there are no large wild animals — and the tribal peoples who lived by gathering wood in the forest and hunting the game, have no work, no income. If you are thinking of The Lorax, you are right. So modern India offered power, fertile land — everything farmers would need, it ended the old royal hunting parties, but it also sold off the forest.

Except for Mr. Tomar. On his own he patrols the reservoir, taking pictures of the animals to watch over their development, cutting the illegal fishing nets people try to sneak in, a one man wildlife conservation authority. And he does only because he cares about the water and the animals and the natural world. He is unknown, but there he was standing up in our little motor boat taking photos of every crocodile to keep count, smiling like a proud father at the first Fishing Owl chick he has ever seen, sighted in a nest far up the cliff, warning that the vultures we saw are extremely endangered, saddned at the flows of raw sewege cascading down into the water as we neared town. He truly is a modern hero.

And so again India — replacing royal hunts with dams but cutting down forests, despoiling waterways, yet having a local hero devote his life to saving it. There is a vast new bridge being built across the water for a highway that will be another great artery through the nation. But it is only half built. Exactly a year ago the parallel side collapsed, killing 48 people — cause as yet unknown. Progress and loss, leaps ahead from an unsteady foundation — everything I’m seeing in India.