A change of Heart


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As a child I had always been fascinated by the story of Emperor Ashoka.

The British historian H.G. Wells described him thus : “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star.”

History describes him as a great warrior, who turned to Buddhism after the battle of Kalinga, on seeing a river of blood filled with dead bodies. Amongst the bodies were said to be women and children, for Kalinga was a Republic, and it’s citizens rose as one, in defence of their homeland. As recorded from his edicts, over 100,000 soldiers and thousands of civilians were said to have been killed in this terrible battle.

The River was the River Daya, named perhaps for the Compassion that Ashoka regretted not having, as he despaired of the outcome of his actions and cried “What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women?”

So it was with fascination, that I stood on the bridge over the River Daya, as it flowed tranquilly a few miles from Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa (present day Kalinga). Not far from this very bridge is the stupa at Dhauli, where Ashoka dedicated his life to the pursuit of Peace and non violence.

In many ways Orissa remains almost untouched by the passage of time, and it is easy to imagine it as the Kalinga of old.

Our ultimate destination was the village of Manglajodi, where the RBS India Foundation has been working with the villagers for the past 3 years. The village, which lies in the marshlands of Lake Chilka, is a bird watchers paradise. The villagers who intimately understand the habits and habitat of every migratory species, used to regard these as prey, to be hunted and sold for the price of common poultry.

The purpose of my visit, was to join the team, in an Impact assessment of the Eco Tourism project that we have funded in Mangalajodi, with the aim of converting poachers to protectors.

The results were heartening, witnessed best in the profusion of birds. Our Eco- guides from the village proudly told us that the census this year had recorded many more birds than previously, including some species that had not been witnessed for several years. Equally important, they had received 900 tourists from India and abroad, who had enjoyed the modest but comfortable Eco friendly facilities that they had offered.

Using their knowledge to preserve the marshland habitats and protect their feathered visitors, was now proving both more lucrative and self fulfilling for the villagers of Mangalajodi, than poaching.

The question in my mind however was, would this be sustainable ? Could the villagers make a sustainable business of Eco- tourism once funding from the Foundation stopped, and if not would they revert to poaching ?

The words of Narendra Prasad Behra, the leader of the team gave me comfort. “When we started, I joined the project for the money. Then one day I looked at these birds” and he pointed at a pair of beautiful golden Brahmini ducks that are said to mate for life, “and remembered how I killed one. Its mate kept flying around till I shot it too. Till this day I remember the cry of the grieving duck and its blood on my hands. My heart changed. This is not something I would ever do again, even if my family was starving.”

Others in the village concurred. A small ecosystem was developing around the project. Catering facilities; photocopying and digital print shops; the possibility of home stays – we had a lively discussion on how sustainable business opportunities could grow organically. It was fascinating to see how in the span of just a few years a Win-win situation could emerge ; one that bred entrepreneurship and self reliance while protecting the environment.

As I continue my journey over the next 3 months, conducting similar Impact assessments at our Foundation projects across India, I wonder if the Change of Heart that we witnessed in Mangalajodi, will find a resonance elsewhere.

In one of his Pillar edicts, Emperor Ashoka declared :
“Twenty-six years after my coronation various animals were declared to be protected — parrots, mainas, //aruna//, ruddy geese, wild ducks, //nandimukhas, gelatas//, bats, queen ants, terrapins, boneless fish, //vedareyaka//, //gangapuputaka//, //sankiya// fish, tortoises, porcupines, squirrels, deer, bulls, //okapinda//, wild asses, wild pigeons, domestic pigeons and all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible.Those nanny goats, ewes and sows which are with young or giving milk to their young are protected, and so are young ones less than six months old. Cocks are not to be caponized, husks hiding living beings are not to be burnt and forests are not to be burnt either without reason or to kill creatures. One animal is not to be fed to another. On the three Caturmasis, the three days of Tisa and during the fourteenth and fifteenth of the Uposatha, fish are protected and not to be sold. During these days animals are not to be killed in the elephant reserves or the fish reserves either.”

The Kalinga of yore and Orissa of today provide much food for thought.

For our policy makers, who seem to believe there is an inherent conflict between promoting development and preserving the environment, taking a leaf out of the great Emperor Ashoka’s book, and learning from the villagers at Mangalajodi, may be a wise idea !

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5 thoughts on “A change of Heart

  1. Dear Meera,

    What a wonderful journey you’re on. It will give you new insights, you will make many new friends and I suspect you will gain even more energy for the work of the Foundation and beyond.

    Franklin and I are bird lovers. Here in Mantorville Minnesota, we enjoy the bird migration that started early this year. We’re on watch for unknown species that use the area around the Zumbro River (a creek compared to the River Daya) to rest and feed. Perhaps the warm temperatures of this year gave them a boost to visit us early. We were surprised, the first year here, to see White Pelicans; birds you typically find in the Southern States and the Caribbean. We’ll be on on the look-out for them and other species this year. I love to see how the Bold Eagle parents are teaching the “Young One” how to hunt and explore the world on his or her own. Nature has a lot to offer if we are open to it and take the time to absorb it. I loved your King Ashoka comparison and the story of Narendra Prasad Behra; in my experience we sometimes we have to feel before we can see.

    I’m convinced the beauty of your country and your passion for it, are an inspiration for those working in the various projects you will find on your journey.

    Safe travels and keep the stories coming!
    Annemieke

  2. Beautiful, inspiring post! The hardest change to effect is a change of heart. Warm congratulations to the RBS India Foundation team.

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