Virendra Tiwari, a dynamic officer from the Indian Forest Service (1990 batch), took the baton of running the Mangrove Cell as Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and an ex-officio Executive Director of the Mangrove Foundation. In this interview with Moon Bhandari, WCS-India, he talks about encountering a myriad of forestry subjects and milestones in his service of 29 years.
Can you tell us about your journey of serving in territorial ranges to Mantralaya and now in coastal management?
I was allotted Maharashtra cadre after completing my professional training in December 1993 from Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy. In the 1990s and 2000s, I went from working as Assistant Conservator Forest (ACF) - Yawal Division in Jalgaon District to serving as Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) at various territorial divisions such as Sawantwadi, Parbhani, Gondia and was later promoted to Conservator in Working Plan, Amravati.
I got the opportunity to write the Preliminary Working Plan of Yawal and Jalgaon as Working Plan Officer, Dhule and Working Plan of West Melghat and Buldhana Division as Working Plan Officer, Amravati. In my various territorial postings, I have handled forestry operations such as felling of bamboo, felling of forests for timber and firewood, tendu collection, soil and moisture conservation work and other developmental work. I looked after the subjects of wildlife policies, foreign trainings, minor forest produces (tendu and Apta leaves), and their supply to industries during my tenure at Mantralaya as Officer on Special Duty.
On being promoted as Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF), I was posted in the Budget section in the Office of Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), which entailed the huge responsibility of handling the budget of the whole state of Maharashtra. I was excited about my first wildlife posting in 2012 as a Field Director at Tadoba Tiger Reserve, giving me exposure at the national level. As CCF - Mantralaya, my team and I played a pivotal role in handling the Forest Conservation Act, Private Forest Act, IFS establishment, land matters, and subsequently handled the 13 Crore and 33 Crore plantation drives. I was promoted as Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (APCCF) - Mantralaya. In December 2019, I took charge of Mangrove Cell as APCCF and Executive Director of the Mangrove Foundation.
How would you define the success of the Mangrove Cell and Mangrove Foundation?
N Vasudevan, my predecessor at Mangrove Cell, has laid an extraordinarily strong foundation and has taken both the organizations to great heights. Initial discussions were to limit the ‘Objectives’ of the Foundation to ‘mangrove conservation’. Subsequently, owing to the vision of Mr. Vasudevan, the marine conservation component was added, thereby giving the society its name of Mangrove and Marine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation of Maharashtra. Incorporating the marine conservation component has largely increased the scope of the foundation, which has allowed the society to delve into subjects of turtle conservation, marine mammal conservation, supporting marine stranding centers, conducting joint patrolling in the sea, beach management, sponsoring research in the field of marine biodiversity, along with mangrove conservation. Broadening the organization’s scope has brought tangible benefits to coastal communities by improving their livelihoods through conservation-linked and eco-friendly interventions.
Virendra Tiwari and N. Vasudevan with the young team of the Mangrove Foundation and Mangrove Cell
How is Mangrove Cell functioning during the COVID-19 induced lockdown?
The functioning of Mangrove Cell has experienced a lag due to the current pandemic which has slowed all facets of life. Proceedings of the government are highly dependent on paper formalities; hence it was challenging to operate initially.
Being a Mumbaikar, I am aware of the dependency on the city’s lifelines - Mumbai local trains and BEST buses which have now come to a halt. Government vehicles were arranged for staff on three routes for commuting. With support from Neenu Somraj, Joint Director, and our competent team, we were able to reduce the effects of the lockdown on our functioning. Field operations have not been affected as the Forest Department falls under the list of Central Government offices exempted from closure. With a technology-savvy staff, the Mangrove Foundation has hosted a series of webinars, quiz competitions, and live broadcasts through online engagements. Capacity building workshops are being conducted through online platforms. A handy field guide on the identification of common Marine Shells was published. Live screening of the annual Turtle Festival in Anjarle and Velas, Ratnagiri was organized, allowing viewers to witness the journey of Olive Ridley Sea turtle hatchlings from the nest to sea. The Mangrove Cell and Foundation have jointly released two short films on ‘Sea Turtle Conservation in Maharashtra’ and ‘The Fascinating World of Flamingos’.
Adapting to the new operating model and re-engineering many procedures is the way forward to ensure continuity and sustainability.
In your opinion, has COVID-19 and Nisarga Cyclone impacts changed the mindset of people towards coastal conservation?
The unprecedented devastation (COVID-19, earthquakes, Cyclone Amphan, Cyclone Nisarga) the year 2020 has unleashed upon us has definitely led to a mindset change by forcing us to slow down and spend more time in personal reflection, away from the noise of the world. With more stillness, people have got an opportunity to think about themselves as individuals and their role in society. Many have started to notice nature and awakened the conservationists within them. There is much talk about the clear Yamuna water, visible Himalayan peaks, role of mangroves in combating cyclones. The recent cyclones have brought the subject of mangrove conservation into light. The Bombay High Court took cognizance in 2005 when mangroves were notified as ‘Reserve Forests’. It is rightly said that change often arises in periods of adversity.
The Maharashtra Forest Department has been instrumental in the ongoing process of notifying Angria Bank as a “Designated Area” for Marine Protected Area. In your opinion, what are the advantages of the creation of Marine Protected Areas?
Marine life at Angria Bank. Photo courtesy: Vardhan Patankar
Mangrove Foundation collaborated with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India in December 2019. The collaborative effort resulted in a biological and investigative expedition to Angria Bank, a submerged plateau located approximately 65 nautical miles offshore from Vijaydurg, Maharashtra. The notification of Angria Bank as a “Designated Area" for marine protection will safeguard the critical marine habitats and species in India for all posterity, while also boosting fish worker livelihoods. This will be the first ‘Designated Area’ in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of India. The Angria Bank technical report, containing comprehensive analyses and findings from the site visit, has been submitted to the State Government. A presentation will be made before the State Wildlife Board chaired by the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Maharashtra. On approval, the report will be forwarded to the Government of India.
Can you shed light upon the plans/strategies adopted by Maharashtra Forest Department to manage this newly identified MPA – Angria Bank? What kind of tourism is expected after the notification?
Marine life at Angria Bank. Photo courtesy: Vardhan Patankar
Given its remote location within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Angria Bank will not be under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Forest Department unlike the Malvan Marine Sanctuary. I believe the Maharashtra Forest Department will have a limited role in the management of this “Designated Area”. Unlike other Marine Protected Areas, Angria Bank notification will be more from a conservational aspect than tourism. Provisions such as regulating movement of foreign ships, pollution level monitoring, preventing oil and gas mining will be the primary concerns. A lot more thought needs to be given to develop Angria Bank as a tourism site.
Bringing about change includes facing a lot of resistance and obstacles. What pointers would you give to the young people aspiring to create change?
Change is a slow process. The key to bringing about change is being persistent and having patience. One must believe in themselves and possess positive thoughts. Great things are never done by one person, it is achieved by a team of people. A popular verse of the Bhagavad Gita sums it up well — ‘Do your duty, but do not concern yourself with the results’.
About Mangrove Cell and Mangrove Foundation
In the wake of public concern over mangrove loss in the state of Maharashtra, particularly in Mumbai and its surrounding areas, the Mangrove Cell was constituted by the Government of Maharashtra in 2012. The establishment of the Mangrove Cell initiated a series of measures for the conservation of mangroves in Maharashtra; from raising mangroves in nurseries, organizing regular large-scale plantations in degraded mangrove areas to conducting clean-up campaigns and capacity building programs.
To scale up activities and achieve the objective of securing the biodiversity of our coastal and marine environment, “Mangrove and Marine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation” (Mangrove Foundation) was registered in 2015, under the Societies Registration Act, 1860. While the Mangrove Cell handles regulatory functions related to mangrove protection and marine wildlife conservation as well as monitoring offences; the Mangrove Foundation plays a complementary role by rendering technical support to research, capacity building, livelihood generation for coastal communities, and building corporate partnerships.
N Vasudevan (IFS), former Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Mangrove Cell and Executive Director of Mangrove Foundation was instrumental in the establishment of this unique society under the umbrella of Revenue and Forest Department, Government of Maharashtra. Under his leadership many mangrove restoration programs were undertaken, registering a 72% increase in the mangrove cover of the state. Earlier this year, he moved to serve as Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests - Research Education and Training, M.S. Pune.
By Moon Bhandari