It was in August 1983 that I met Shri Lavkumar Khacher for the first time. The meeting was in front of an imposing fort at Hingolgadh and I found him an equally imposing a personality. I never realized at that time that this first meeting would lead to a series of meetings and conversations, lasting for more than three decades. Rightly called the kindergarten for budding naturalists, Hingolgadh Nature Education Sanctuary, the only such declared wildlife sanctuary in the county, and the presence of Shri Lavkumar Khacher was an inspiration for a number of youngsters to take up nature education and conservation as a serious activity. For me also the initiation in to the religion of naturalism happened here.
The 1980s and 90s could see the beginning of a momentum happening in the field of environment awareness and it was snowballing in to a movement in the country. The tragic industrial disaster at Bhopal, the issues of submergence of prime forests due to large dams in Thehri in Uttarakhand and Narmada in Gujarat, the possible extinction of Lion tailed Macaques in the silent valley forests of Kerala, all these were serious concerns for the newly emerged environmentally conscious citizens. Interestingly such individuals were identified and labeled as environmentalists by the media and establishment. My association with World Wide Fund for Nature – India (then World Wildlife Fund –India) as its Branch Organiser and frequent camping with LK Sir, that was the way few of us in the fraternity used to address him, had ignited the “angry young man” attitude in me. There were a lot of young naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts, ready to get organised and spread the message of environment awareness and action. Ahmedabad Nature Lovers’ Association, popularly known as ANALA is just one of the many such groups that started all over Gujarat and in many parts of Maharashtra.
We were youngsters and obviously wanted to change the world and we believed we could. We joined the campaign against the Bhopal gas tragedy and spear headed the movement to boycott of Union Carbide, the company that was responsible for the human error that resulted in an untold human tragedy. The need to create a huge multipurpose dam on the River Narmada that would lead to hectares of forest getting submerged and thousands of tribal population getting translocated was beyond our understanding. Stopping the construction of dam was the only perceived solution.
But LK Sir was not a typical environmentalist, he had different ideas. He insisted on practicing personal values, individual behavior and balancing personal requirements. He argued and tried convincing us that only a community that live according to the dictates of nature can go against developmental activities like big dams, industrialization and mining. He questioned how many of us could live without electricity and modern facilities that worked on electricity. He explained to us the depressing scenario of the pastoral community in Saurashtra and Kachchh that was a result of the lack of irrigation facilities. We had no answers, we were confused, and we were forced to find answers for ourselves. I believe this was the best contribution from LK sir, forcing the youngsters to go beyond the obvious!
It was the summer of 1983, I was in Manali, Himachal Pradesh with a group of 30 youngsters from Ahmedabad, all of them brimming with enthusiasm to go through adventure and were on an adrenalin rush. That was my first “encounter” with the mighty Himalaya and the second one with the mighty LK Sir. His first orientation to the camping programme was brief but with a demeanor of strictness and no nonsense, he did not even smile. I was worried; I could foresee trouble brewing for the group and for me. He looked at me and said, “Menon, you brought these boys and girls and hence it is your responsibility to lead all the activities, you are the leader”. That was nice, I thought, but he continued, “join me for breakfast tomorrow and will discuss the programme in detail”. I was too happy, felt privileged to have breakfast with Sir. But he was talking about “breakfast is at 5.45 morning” And on top of that he said, “you should have a bath in the River Beas before you join me”. The thought of getting up at 5.30 in the morning itself was a shock, having a dip in the near frozen Beas was even unthinkable. But he had no habit of giving many options, and he reminded me about my leadership. Next morning I did take a bath in the Beas, appeared for breakfast at 5.45 and listened to him for an hour. That was the first lesson in leadership training for me. And if ANALA could, of course with the help of a committed team, make any sense of relevance in the field of environment and conservation education, it was because of such innumerable lessons.
My encounters with LK Sir continued for 32 years, the sites varied from the islands of Gulf of Kachchh to the heights of the Great Himalayas. While interviewing him for a documentary “Forest Man of India” a few months ago, he was in his usual witty self and suggested a list of things that I should do and reminded me that he had less time left for helping. He also appreciated the good work I and few of his other students kept doing. I was in his good books till the end. And that was my last encounter with the renowned naturalist and wonderful teacher.