Sandeep Tambe: Protecting our Flora and Fauna
Image: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee
My Mentor: Mahatma Gandhi. I read his works, especially his auto-biography (My Experiments with Truth) extensively during graduation.
How he has helped me hone my leadership skills: Gandhiji always led from the front whether it was the Dandi March or the fasts he undertook. Gandhiji also taught about ‘doing it yourself’ and ‘learning by doing’ so that one has the skills to be self-reliant.
His advice that has stayed with me: I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.
“Shere Khan sees me not as a man but as a creature of the jungle.”
[Mowgli, the man-cub, explains why his formidable foe gave up its grudge against him in the end.]
--- From The Jungle Book movie
Running up the heavily forested Karia Pahari (Black Mountain) after a swim in the Narmada, sweat trickling down his forehead, eight-year-old Sandeep Tambe would often imagine himself as Mowgli from Rudyard Kipling’s iconic tale.
The year was 1979 and Tambe was the youngest in the pack, just like the man-cub. His two cousins, two sisters and a bunch of Gond (a local tribe) friends flanked him. Together they went charging up the hill in their native village of Ramnagar in the Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh — famous for housing the Kanha National Reserve, one of country’s foremost tiger sanctuaries and the inspiration for The Jungle Book.
It was a special day. His grandmother had just let him in on a secret — a tiger was rumoured to be in the jungle. Young Tambe was excited. It was only during summer breaks that he could come out of Rourkela, Orissa where his father worked in the SAIL steel plant. Could this be the day he meets Shere Khan?
Today, the 39-year-old Tambe is a member of the Indian Forest Service. He is a mechanical engineer from IIT Mumbai, a Ph.D. holder from the Wildlife Institute of India, a wildlife photography enthusiast and a long distance runner. For the last three years, he is also the officer-in-charge for the implementation of NREGA (or Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) in Sikkim. But in many ways, Tambe is still quite like the young Sandeep who saw himself as Mowgli.
The only change is that Tambe now spearheads much bigger packs and has more vicious foes than the imaginary Shere Khan to contend with.
Foes like corruption and indifference: Two big reasons why despite being the most widely acclaimed social welfare scheme in the country, implementation of NREGA — or the lack of it — across most states has disillusioned even the people who campaigned for it.
However, in a recent gathering of activists from across the country in New Delhi, bemoaning the problems afflicting NREGA implementation, no one knew about Sikkim’s stellar performance. Neither did they know of the man who made it possible in Sikkim. Perhaps, like everyone else, they missed spotting Tambe since from a distance one only sees the civil servant, a bureaucrat.
But as Tambe nears the end of another routine five-kilometre trek to arrive at a village in the lower reaches of a hill around Gangtok, the Lepchas (the original inhabitants of Sikkim) living in the slopes greet him with such applause that he appears no less than a champion long distance runner being cheered by the onlookers as he is about to cross the finishing line.
“The jungle speaks to me because I’ve learned how to listen.”
Tambe left Infosys, where he was working in the US, for a career in the wild. That was in 1994 “I did it because taking care of the forests and the wildlife gives me the maximum satisfaction and happiness,” says Tambe. “One does not need such material things to be happy in life. [As a child] I saw them [the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh] work hard right through the day and then enjoy themselves each evening.”
It is no surprise then that even as a special secretary-rank officer — the second-highest rung of bureaucracy in the state — he still does not own a TV or a car. What he does own is a scooter which his wife rides and which has made him famous in his residential colony as “the husband of the woman who rides the scooter”!
But what is a forest officer, who loves wildlife, doing implementing NREGA for the rural development department in the first place?
“I have come to see [that] there is not much difference between wild animals and poor human beings since neither can speak for themselves. It gives me immense satisfaction to work for their welfare,” he says.
For the villagers Tambe is an activist, in the guise of an officer, who has transformed their lives by the manner in which he has implemented NREGA.
Today Sikkim is ranked second after Tripura in achieving the most important NREGA outcome — providing 100 days of work in a financial year to the rural people. In 2009-2010, Sikkim could achieve 80 days on an average for the wage seekers, with 23 percent of the households completing 100 days. This is significantly higher than the national achievement of 54 days. For 2010-2011, this figure is expected to cross 90 days for Sikkim.