Dr Yellappa Reddy: The Trees Must Always Come First


~85 minutes
Apr 28, 2024


Dr A.N. Yellappa Reddy is a renowned environmentalist, a former Indian Forest Services officer and member of the Lok Adalat or Karnataka High Court for environmental project initiatives.

Throughout his career, Dr. Reddy has actively championed the conservation of natural forests, water systems and rehabilitation of endangered flora and fauna.

Born in the small village of Adugodi to an agriculturist father, Dr. Yellappa grew up with a deep and abiding respect and fascination for nature and science. After earning degrees in Agricultural Sciences from the Coimbatore Agriculture College in 1960, and then a postgraduate degree in Soil Sciences, he dedicated decades to the Indian Forestry Services and also served as an Administrator of Forests.

As a key member of the Forest Services research wing he developed innovative eco-restoration technologies and bio-strategies for the restoration of native vegetation in the most degraded areas of the Western Ghats. Dr. Reddy was instrumental in the formation of several important environmental laws, such as the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act of 1976, and the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980. He is well known for his work in reviving the concept of Sacred Gardens or Pavitra Vanas where indigenous knowledge from tribal groups and ayurveda is combined in growing gardens.

Dr. Reddy has always advocated for the idea of an ecological economy, one where economic gain occurs through taking ownership of decentralized ecological services. Dr. Reddy retired as the Secretary of the Department of Ecology, Environment and Forests for the Government of Karnataka, and now spends his time as an author, educator, and role model for many young environmentalists.

Today he is in conversation with Maya Chandra, a filmmaker and communications specialist who is the founder of Maya Films. This conversation was recorded at his residence in Bengaluru.



Welcome to Grassroots Nation, a podcast from Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, a show in which we dive deep into the life, work, and guiding philosophies of some of our country’s greatest leaders of social change.

Dr. A.N. Yellappa Reddy is a renowned environmentalist, a former Indian forestry services officer and member of the Lok Adalat or Karnataka High Court for environmental project initiatives. He is also the governing member of the Foundation for Ecological Security in India and Chairman of the Bangalore Environment Trust.

Through his career, Dr. Reddy has actively championed the conservation of natural forests, water systems and rehabilitation of endangered flora and fauna. 

Born in the small village of Adugodi , in February of 1937 to an agriculturist father, Dr. Yellappa grew up with a deep respect and fascination towards nature and science. He earned a degree in Agricultural Sciences from the Coimbatore Agriculture College in 1960, and then a postgraduate degree in Soil Sciences. 

Dr. Reddy worked for the Indian Forest Services for four decades, and also served as an Administrator of Forests for 20 years. He was a part of the research wing in the Forest Services while also the Chief Conservator of Forests, during which he developed innovative eco-restoration technologies and bio-strategies for the restoration of native vegetation in the most degraded areas of the Western Ghats. 

Dr. Reddy then retired as the Secretary of the Department of Ecology, Environment and Forests for the Government of Karnataka, where he also worked extensively for restoration and protection of lakes and rivers in the state. 

Dr. Reddy was instrumental in the formation of several important environmental laws, such as the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act of 1976, and the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980. He is well known for his work in reviving the concept of Sacred Gardens or Pavitra Vanas where indigenous knowledge from tribal groups and ayurveda is combined in growing gardens. 

Dr. Reddy has always advocated for the idea of an ecological economy, one where economic gain occurs through taking ownership of decentralized ecological services. 

Today Dr. Reddy is an author, educator, and role model for many young environmentalists, offering spiritual and scientific guidance on the importance of standing firm in one’s principles, and fulfilling the moral obligation to protect and conserve the environment. 

Today he is in conversation with Maya Chandra, a filmmaker and communications specialist who is the founder of Maya Films. Together they have previously collaborated on several video series a few of which are called ‘Sacred Roots: Tree Tales by Dr Yellappa Reddy’, and Bangalore’s Biology.

This conversation was recorded at his residence in Bengaluru.


Good morning, sir. And it’s so nice to be with you this morning in a different role, in a different capacity, sitting opposite to you and trying to do this podcast. All these decades that we’ve known each other, you’ve been a great mentor to me in terms of making my films, terms of guiding the scripts and directing, co directing the movies we’ve made together.

It’s nice to be with you this morning and welcome to this podcast, sir.  You’ve been having such a rich experience of six plus decades in terms of working. And even to this day when you’re 86, you’ve still not stopped working. And that is what inspires all of us.

Let’s go back to your childhood and go back to those times and tell us what were really the influences that really made up your character, made up your mindset, made up what you are today.


I am coming from the average middle class farming community. My mother not literate.

My father studied only Amarakosha. He has become a good farmer.

I born and brought up in Adugodi. Adugodi is so very close to city market. It is six, seven kilometres to city market and it is five, six kilometres to the brigade road and the MG road. So this is the connection to the urban life. MG Brigade Road, cantonment.

Huge bungalows where european officers used to live with spacious bungalows and good tree composition. Well, scattered bungalows.

And here condition. City Kalasipalam city market. We used to go with our products to the city market. Sometimes I used to go with my labourers who we used to carry tomatoes, avarekai with about ten to twelve labourers there the… as a boy I used to witness that how the middleman come there. He will auction it, he will sell it and they will buy it. So that is one aspect of the experience of life. Market, agriculture, consumer, producer. The middleman.


So what were the produce that your family would grow and what was the social conditions of those times that you grew up in?


See, we had elements. We had agriculture, land. We had some servants to take care of the activities. My father is there no. He used to keep permanent employees who are like family members.

So we used to spend more time, more time with them firsthand. How to plough, how to sow, how to thin out… in the rain fed condition, how to transplant saplings for paddy cultivation.

Like that you know I used to enjoy that life and I used to get a intimate connections of how to respect mother earth. Though our employees are illiterate, they know very well, more than any agricultural scientist, that is the mother earth, how she has to be treated. With great respect I used to while ploughing, while sowing, while transplanting, with a lot of divinity. It is not a mechanical, like a tractor going there ploughing and going without understanding. Here is to feel the pulse of the mother earth.

So in my days, that is 37 to 47. This ten years is very important. Still there are very, very sweet memories. And they used to teach me philosophy. They used to teach me the art, they used to teach me the skill.


Who are these big influences for you?


My father is a very committed agriculturist. And my mother is very strict, disciplinary. She never used tolerate any nonsense. She never used to tolerate if I’d lie, she used to virtually beat me like hell.

So my mother is a strict disciplinarian and known in the entire south Bangalore about my mother nature, including the village panchayat chairman, she never respected when he uttered a wrong word in a wrong manner to her, to inquire about my father’s whereabouts, she replied very arrogantly.

He uttered, “Yelli, nim hejmandru?”

“Nanu nim hendti alla. Marayadi indha matadi. Kai al yen idhe nodi, broomstick idhe. You should know how to respect a lady.”

Then when he called my father, then my father told him very correctly, “she is like that. I can’t help. She’s like that.” So that’s the type of environment I brought up.


So there was discipline on the one side and there was an exposure to the agricultural practices, mother nature on the other side. And Bangalore itself was not the Bangalore that we see today,

Right. Can you tell us about that?


The Cantonment area is full of beautiful horses and they come with the nicely dressed things and that the Britisher’s dress codes are excellent. It gives a royal look even for the army people or the people who ride the horses and the soldiers.

So all these things were ritual. As a children, during my boyhood, I used to observe these things.

See how beautiful it looks when army discipline and conducting that drill and other things in the Brigade road, Mahatma Gandhi road, I used to go in a bicycle, I used to stop there and watch for two minutes.

How do you think this child should have a mind to observe and to internalize? So without knowing the value of it, I never thought that I will go to Dehradun and I will have the same experience when I went to forest academy.

But I had internalised these feelings. So that made me, when I joined Indian Forest College, a better student.


So during your school days, before you went to the actual specialised schools, your school days. Was there any defining incident that kind of made you what you are today?


In Adugodi village there was only one middle school. That was the only school, Munichinappa middle school opened by G. Pulla Reddy, Niddhi Mohan (?). So there, you know, my middle school teachers, very good teachers. Though they are all very low paid. But their level of commitment to teach is very good.

In the fifth standard, that is the first time English textbook was introduced. Up to fourth standard it was only Kannada medium. So the English teacher is very nicely dressed, good looking personality. So he used to come and I used to like him.

So he called some children there to fetch water for drinking. Just adjacent village. So one student just went there. My teacher wants some drinking water. She gave. Opportunity, came to me once. Then I went there. I requested the lady whom I know to use tamarind. Then ash beautifully make it shining. Unstinahannu haaki, change toludu, neer kodu antha keldhe. So that lady obliged. Beautiful agi, belakku yella maadi, neer kotru. I brought that one.

There was a difference from previous day. And this day. He has seen the difference. He watched me. So his admiration I could feel. I don’t know, I could not understand that he liked me from that day onwards. So from that day onwards all my teachers, the geography teacher, english teacher, math teacher, science teacher also recognised me differently. So all teachers used to like me. Used to like me. And also they used to ask me for certain things.

So one of my… The headmaster of my middle school, there was a beautiful horticultural farm in National Dairy Research Institute. He asked me to go and fetch some vegetables there.

So I know most of them. So they used to give me the best of the vegetables. So I used to bring best vegetables. He used to take his knife, take knolkhol, peel it, cut it. And he used to eat with great, with pride. I used to feel so happy when my headmaster enjoys that vegetable because of my accessibility to the community in that horticulture.


So the college days must have been another stepping stone for formulating your ideas, your thoughts of what you wanted to be as a career.


See, after my Intermediate I didn’t have any different plan. There was nobody to guide me. Not knowing because my village there was nobody to guide me about my future. I also did not ask my teachers about how I should select my future, et cetera.

Nothing is known. So I went to agriculture college. It was a university at that time. It was totally wrong. So my field experience as an agriculture student, animal husbandry, agriculture, horticulture. And as soon as I entered agricultural college I must remember my agronomy teacher RS Iyengar.

My God. First lesson, 7:30 has to be. We have to be in the classroom. Morning 7:30. I used to leave my house at Adugodi at around 6-6:15 cycle it, go there. 730 means 730. RS Iyengar used to come and the agronomy first lesson.

My God, the amount of knowledge he had. The way he used to teach is something like. Something like a divine language. It’s not science. Agriculture is a divine language. Dealing with life. Dealing with life in the soil, dealing with life in the seed, dealing with life in the sapling.

So that made me really… I enjoyed that lessons similarly about insects, entomology. Similarly about pathology, similarly about genetics. But my pet subject was soil science. Right from the beginning. I used to spend more than 15% of my time dedicate only to study soil science. All other things to get some good marks.

So I got scholarship also in agricultural college. Free scholarship. I was selected Coimbatore Agricultural College. There was no post graduation in Karnataka state. Either to go to Delhi or to Coimbatore. Coimbatore college. So out of 80-90 students. So only hardly few people used to get the opportunity to go for post graduation. When I went to post graduation, my name is Yellappa Reddy.

So alphabetically they have called for interview. So I was the last person to be called. I went inside. As last student. Stalwart soil scientist Mirakulandai (?) Dorairaj. They’re all well known soil scientists, The dean and other people. He asked people very complicated question.

Define Chlorite, define the Morelite (?). Right. Hydrous mica. These are the typical clay complex.

Clay complex compositions. Clay complex in the soil makes lot of difference in water holding, water releasing. So it is very… fortunately I was able to answer. Then they were looking their faces each other, “he did well” and they allowed me to come out. Then I got the secured the seat in the post graduation.


So during your undergraduation days, how else what are the other factors that kind of shaped you to formulate your thoughts and ideas that you must use agriculture, natural sciences to change the world. 


Yes. At that time mechanisation, fertilisers, pesticides introduced. That is in after second World War, this absolute scarcity of the food, scarcity of the food with traditional knowledge. So the western culture of urea, fertilisers, pesticides, hybrid varieties, all these things came in a block that is called green revolution. So when it came in that way, Mother nature had tolerance limit, threshold levels. So it sustained for about five, six years, say about one decade. So one decade onwards, what happened as an agricultural graduate, I was able to see that the production started declining, you have to give more and more and more inputs. 

So farmyard manure, green manure, then local varieties which are distinct from zone to zone, from low rainfall area to high rainfall area, altogether different climate, then Temperature varies from 18, 19, 20, 20 to 30 degrees. Each region had their own package of practices which have been completely destroyed.

One seed, one chemicals, one pesticide dumped in. Whether Mother nature tolerance limits not looked into it. Arid area, semi arid area, what are they different? So the composition of the microorganisms, which plays a very important role, is completely not taken into consideration. Imitated the west. So our diversities in climate, rainfall, soil, highly diverse. So the uniform way of treating has really made damage.

Something wrong. There is internal feeling, yes it is not correct. To ill treat the Mother Earth. 


So when you said the Second World War was going on, how did the socioeconomic conditions of those times further shape your time, further shape your thoughts? 


As a young boy, Independence is something to be celebrated. Thinking that yes, we are free today, we are not under the control of somebody else. But after independence we had lot of poverty in our country because all the resources they were taken away for wars, forest resources, agriculture resources and everything is diverted only for to win the war.

And most of the resources are drawn from our forest for shipbuilding, for weapon making, for transmission lines, railway lines. The Britishers left their heritage of what do you say? Treating Mother nature as a tradable commodity. So Francis Bacon’s philosophy still persisted in India.

Francis Bacon’s philosophy is mother nature is a product. You deal with her for your prosperity. That is called anthropocentrism.

The word ecology came very late so when I was studying in Indian Forest College also in 1962 there was no word coined ecology at all. Only 70 onwards the word ecology came into existence. So that means the Francis Bacon’s philosophy and man-centric development at the highest level. Infrastructure, development this, that dam, dam construction, nuclear power energy industry industrialise or perish.

So as a young Assistant Conservator of Forest in Bhadrawati, I read the history when Sir M Visveswaraya took a decision of establishing these industries. 

Chief Conservator of Forest, hurt his hand, it started bleeding. Gone. Western [inaudible] is gone. You couldn’t face Sir MV, so at that time, when Eucalyptus introduced to supply raw material to paper mill, my Chief Conservator of Forest, when dynamic forestry concept were introduced, they call it dynamic forestry of destroying the natural vegetation converting natural forest into captive plantations to supply raw material to the various industries to plywood factories to this thing, that thing et cetera. So he started pulling out the sandalwood in world’s best sandal bearing area. Then I questioned him sir, what is this?

This is a new species of a much higher value than the eucalyptus. It came by itself but you have spent money to raise this wretched plant-  I might not have used this word, this wretched weed from Australia. He was terribly annoyed. Then he extended my probationary period for three years. I didn’t know that for a very long period. Anyway, that’s how the forest resources of a very high value and ecological services of the forest watershed area, rivers, river flow then the role of the mountains how they capture rainwater, how they treat the rainwater converting them into tirthas so we Kaveri … water then Kumudvuti water, Papagini water were all tirthas of a different type. So all these things were totally ignored with the result energy industry, energy industry irrigation was the priority after independence. So as a Deputy Conservator, I am also a very big culprit. Destroyed the forest for Hemavati, Kabini, Arangi during my regime, there was no alternative.

Though I protested in committee’s meetings, everybody used to criticise me.

So anyway, that’s how the forest, irrigation, the natural settings were completely ignored and not taken cognizance of ecological services.

All these things have made India poor and poor and poor and poor and poor.


But those days was also a compulsion that India should economically progress, isn’t it? Because we have just gained our independence. And what is the balance that you sought between development and ecological services?


It’s a very interesting question. As an environment secretary in several forums, starting from Delhi meetings with MGK Menon. MGK Menon was a scientific advisor to the Indira Gandhi.

Brilliant man. He is the one scientific advisor who was able to understand that India is different from west. Indian economy is biomass economy. Indian diversity is nowhere else you can find this diversity. If you valorise your products, for instance garcinias, for instance phyllanthus for instance, turmeric for instance, tamarind for instance, mango for instance. Jack(fruit), which other country have these resources?

For instance, if you take artocarpus lacucha, its fruit, its juice is anti cholesterol. What is the amount we are spending on swallowing cholesterol tablets?

But if you eat the fruit juice and this material for cooking, it will reduce cholesterol. So then phyllanthus for liver problems. There are nearly 400 patents found in Japan, in UK, in America, if you take Moringa, nugge, there are so many products.

So like that. Thousands and thousands of products taken from India, patented by Americans. For that we have to pay and buy. What a tragedy.

Even today, if you take one side, the patented products, another side economy, another side the money flowing out of India from Indian products, where is the economy stance? Where is the ecology stance?

There, exactly where I admire Janki Ammal. Janiki Ammal, being an eminent geneticist, excellent scientist, saw these blunders and then switched over to ethnobotanical things. And where the tribals worship nature, trees, herbs, plants, animals. Then what is its economical value? What is its ecological benefits? That is called ethnobotany.

I’m proud to say that in Karnataka state we started working in this field now. Recently we established one ethnobotanical garden in Lalbagh. And also I wanted to have ethnobotanical garden in every district that is called Sthala Vrikshas. That district biodiversity should have gene source, genetic variations. All these things have not been given priority. Priority is for space science. Priority is for nuclear science.


Throughout his career Yellappa Reddy has been known for standing up for his convictions and has been an impassioned advocate for nature and conservation. A powerful communicator known for his ability to influence people, many of whom occupied high positions. It often lead to unpleasant interactions and harsh consequences. His work required a great deal of dedication and integrity especially in the face of capitalist and industrial greed, corruption, and political machinations all of which have deep interests in controlling natural resources. Reddy’s agenda was always clear. The trees came first.


So we’ll come back to the time where you’ve graduated. Now you’ve taken on the career path and you’re a probationary officer and your probation was extended because of a lot of things that you fell out with your bosses. So what was that probationary period like? And how did you start your first steps?


I didn’t bother. I didn’t thought of my promotion. I didn’t thought of my benefit? See, my goal is taking care of conservation, taking care of protection, taking care of biodiversity, taking care of animals, taking care of plants. They are not vote banks.

I stood firm for my principles. Though I served 14 years in Chief Minister’s constituencies where I never compromised. Fortunately, I am lucky enough none of the Chiefs Ministers illtreated me starting from Devaraj Urs to Gundu Rao to Ramakrishna Hegde. That is why… because I was able to convey meaningfully, mindfully to the politicians about the implications.


What was this project? So you were the?- 


Deputy Conservator of Forests in Hunsur forest division. That is Nagarhole, part of, half of Coorg, part of Mysore, little bit of Hasan. Three districts, one division. At that time, I have seen this destruction as Assistant Conservator Forests. First for loss cultivation, to total company forest is cleared to promote industry. Forest in the Dandeli forest attached to Nagarhole National park. Richest forest.


How many acres of forest was cleared at that time?


3000 acres. It is right on the bank of Kaveri river. I was really fuming… what type of crimes… then it didn’t come through. Then, some gentleman from Gujarat, he came forward, “You give me this land. I’m going to grow essential plants to produce essential oils to promote economy. I will bring Karnataka in the global bank.”

This is the words, as if Karnataka is not owned to anybody. This man did nothing. Not executed the agreement, not paid the lease amount, nothing.

That was the arrogance. When I took charge of Hunsur division, I was waiting. Waiting. Then when things have matured enough, I collected all the information about his defaults.

How many violations he has done? 1, 2, 3, 4. He has not executed the lease agreement. He has not paid a lease amount. He cultivated only 40 acres out of 3000 acres. Very small distillery plant. 

Then I said nothing doing. Then I told Devaraja Urs, said, “I’m going to do this thing.” What he told me, “as a good statesman, don’t mention my name. Do whatever you want to do it. I know it is wrong. I was a minister there. But I couldn’t raise objections.”

So that’s the support I had internal support. That has given me courage. Then I started raising forest, natural forest. So this gentleman went and approached two three MPs. They started shouting, see, he’s harassing this man. He’s industrialist and he’s going to do this. All false.

Nothing, nothing. He has not paid money. He has not executed lease agreement. But still these MPs, without even inquiring me, believed and trusted only the violator. Not the person on the spot. Before venturing into that sort of allegations they should have come and cross-checked whether it is relevant. No.

So then I did it.

So then the issue went up to the Forest Minister. Very powerful minister. He wanted to suspend me. I started cultivating. I started raising beautiful plantations. Then he told me this is the big meeting they are calling in the Government level. Now what is that you are doing? I explained to him. “Sir, give me one day. Tomorrow will stop.” I took some petromaxes, engaged the labourers, completed the planting, 

One stretch Six and 500 600 acres. Because I was prepared with planting material, with site preparation, everything. So then next day meeting he has stopped the work. Then the message has gone to them, to the MPs. He has completed the planting in the entire area.

Minister is terribly annoyed. What is this indiscipline? How dare you to do that? Etc. Then he wanted to suspend me. Then Mr. Shyam Sundhar Reddy, able administrator, man of vision.

He said he has stopped the work, Sir. I know after completing the planting now I’m going to suspend you also. So that’s how the episode went on. I was not aware of that, Maya. He had written that the government wanted to suspend me etcetera in his memoirs.


That was the first kind of a big step that you took to saving 600 acres of the land by replanting, isn’t it?


In Hassan when I was a Deputy Conservator Forest there is large area. A barren area was there in Channapatna in whole of Arsikere. I wanted to reforest that area. So I introduced mechanised plantations. First of its kind in the country. So I started doing it. Then immediately they transferred me to Hunsur. The government taken a decision, they want a very competent man to deal with Hunsur division compared to Hassan. So the highest level the decision was taken. 

So in one of the meetings with the deputy conservators, my own colleagues, I was little junior to them. Then they thought that I am unfit to hold public timber auction sales in Hunsur division because I am junior. They invited or issued orders, a Kundapur man, he’s only six months senior to me, to come and hold rosewood sales because I am a junior. But within three months, Maya, I became a pakka conservator, a Deputy Conservator in Hunsur. It was a surprise postings. Usually they used to post very senior deputy conservators, to the Hunsur division.

Because it’s a very complicated, valuable, nearly 30 20, 30 crores revenue. Timber, forest, wildlife, all these things.

Then first thing what I did, banning felling of green trees, clear felling. I had a very good boss, Mr. Balaiah. All of them agreed. So in that way I was able to bring in drastic changes of destruction in the western ghats. Now somehow, the government was able to implement it.

So later on, when all these things, when I tightened up, my successors let loose things because the exploiters and timber mafia and MFP traders connived, influenced, exploited.

So in Hunsur, the biggest thing, what we did is I convinced Devaraj Urs for tobacco curing alone, You have swallowed beautiful forests. You are the biggest criminal. I have not used that word. But my narration was that powerful.

He was terribly impressed. Agreed, Yes. It is going to cause terrible damage. Then what is the next step? Then Tree Act. That means not to cut any trees, any trees without reason or rhyme. That act came in 1976, first of its kind. After Stockholm conference 1972.


So there was nothing like this. Even before?


No, Nowhere in the world.


So Karnataka took the first step.


See, I am a non technical person. One young officer in my constituency advised me to do that. Then I thought it is necessary. It is needed to save the trees. Otherwise we may lose…We may not  have firewood to burn dead bodies.

Henal sudilikke maragalu iralla.

Credit should go to Devaraj Urs. He’s a very shrewd politician. Very diplomatic statesman. He called me to Piriyapatna. All politicians. I was not knowing the background, then asked me,He is the person who advised me to bring in this law. Then I took deep breath and explained. I asked one by one, now you are having tobacco. 

How many trees you cut for tobacco curing?

How many trees you planted? 

No, I have not planted a single plant.

How many trees?

So many trees. How much of forest? So much. For curing. So how long you can continue this thing? Like that argument went on then most of them convinced. Hardcore people still persisted, this is a draconian law.

So that law even today is relevant. Even today there are more than one dozen petitions in Karnataka High court. Cutting of trees, diluting Tree Act. Still going on with all that Act. So imagine without Act what happened to Karnataka. Today some greenery is remaining in Bangalore or in Karnataka. It is because of these restrictions.


So did this tree act become like a kind of a role model for other states…


Yes yes. Other states to follow steps  not only to other states, even ministry of environment.


So that was a big step then. Which you undertook.


Very big.


Which year was it exactly?



See forest is something which can be converted into money very fast. Cutting forest or exploiting forest resources is the instant money. So there you know, I somehow felt that we are doing so many wrong things.

For instance, silver oak trees planted in coffee areas in Coorg, hasan and all coffee zones. For their benefit. Sacrificing, rosewood teakwood, other much more valuable trees. Without informing the government, they removed the saplings, planted for their benefit. Then they appealed to the government stating that this is a tree which we have raised. We should not pay any royalty to the government.

The order came suddenly– “No need to collect any money for silver oak. It is their tree raised by them.”

I read it. Next day a group of merchants came. The neighbouring division they are giving permission. They are not collecting any money now. There are so many files with you. The government has already halted it. So you give felling permission to cut trees, silver oak trees. I couldn’t tolerate that.


Straightway I left my office.

Then got the Coorg manual, studied the laws, then prepared. Next day, morning, 09:00 I went to my office, read all these things, consulted my office. It is a gross violation. You have cut much more valuable trees and introduced this weed of exotic. Now you are claiming the government would have reaped much more benefit than this.

I’ve written a two page letter to my chief conservator and to the government. My conservator was terribly annoyed. Good man. Alla abba, government order madilikke, nim appan gant aa idhu?  It’s not your grandfather’s property.

Why are you writing like this?

Your neighbouring fellows are already giving felling permission. See, it’s a question of thousands of crores lost to the government. Apart from ecological impacts. The next day morning, the group of merchants came. Sir, what is it you are going to lose here? You are nowhere in the picture. We are going to give you whatever you want. Others are giving. Why are you holding it? Do you think the government is going to give you a crown?

If it is my property, I would have certainly given you.

It is public property. They have done damage to the ecology. They have done damage to the much more valuable trees. Idu nange sarkaar duddu kotru, Government has spent money to become an officer. So it is my duty as a custodian of this… to protect. So that sort of a challenge is what is.


So but then it is possible. You proved in that period of your career, it is still possible to do the good.


So whatever happens that you should not care for.  Personal benefits. So it is ethics. It is some principle in the life makes you a person with personality. People will recognise that.


So can you just tell us couple of more change that you brought about in your career. As these different, different positions that you handled at that point of time.


See, most significant change we brought in forest department culture. Forest department is only the teak Rosewood timber, plywood. They have not widened. Other than timber and plywood, cultivation rising, et cetera. So non timber and high quality products from tree crops.

Tree crops are much more economical than any agriculture. Horticulture. Horticulture Agriculture needs input and continuous care. Continuous care is required. Care of input, this thing, fertiliser, pesticides, etc. But for a jack tree, for a tamarind tree, for jamun tree, nothing.

You plant it, protect it for five years. Then you will earn hundreds of years good income. So this switching over from fuelwood timber to other products from tree crops. About more than hundred species which are grown locally. Today jamun, you can see everywhere today in your own, just near your house you can see jack fruits. You know from where all of them are coming.

It is when I was conservator. When I was the Deputy conservator for forest … I promoted mother trees, mother seeds, grafting technologies.


Can you tell us more about this? What is a mother tree?


Out of 100 population, there’ll be genetic variation. Out of 100, 2 will have good canopy, exposure to sunlight. Total canopy, total exposure to the sunlight will produce high quality fruits, canopy architecture.

Then genetically they are slightly superior. There is variation among the population, among the tree population. So selecting the mother tree, about yield, about flowering, about architecture, about root formation. All these criteria, what 26 criterias. To select a mother tree. We had prepared parameters. So we adopted that and we selected mother trees, then collected seeds from them, promoting… 

And if it is really much superior, then grafting technology also introduced. 

A group of scientists came from UK, all tree geneticists. So I was in charge. My boss Mr Shyam Sundhar asked me to accompany them and to talk to them. Then I’ve shown them about Ziziphus, chrome name. Challakere… low rainfall area. And how one bush earns about rs3000 for the family. No maintenance. Only thing they used to do is they used to take their cow, tie it to the bush and it used to urinate dung used to go there. That bush used to earn 5000 to the farmer.

Then one family used to come there during fruiting season. They used to collect it. They have to sell the trees. They used to earn Rs 25,000 within two months. 5000 Rs 6000 to the farmer, a livelihood to the other family. Who will collect it, will segregate it. Who will take it to the sandy, sell it, livelihood.

So the interconnections of resource, resource quality improvement, not by scientific methods, simply they used to tie their goats and sheep and cows near that bush. They used to earn that much of money.


Where did this happen? Which part of Karnataka was this?


It is in Bangalore, entire Karnataka. So in DHarwad, in Mercara, so each zone had their own high value tree species.

So we established that centres. And today the number of research papers also have been published in Dharwad Agricultural University. Now central horticulture research people have identified the best varieties of the jack.

Two, three varieties now. So all those things now it has taken that long period to recognise tree crops have got high value. So now, recently, but four or four years back, Central Horticulture Research Institute identified the farmer. One good thing what they have done.

This is your property. We patent it. You raise the seedlings, you earn the money. Not the research institute. We will facilitate it. That’s how the institute should grow. By transferring the technology to the individuals. Then every individual will certainly grab it.

If you say that it is government property, it will go to bad politicians and it will not go back to the system. But this system which Horticulture Research Institute did I really admired.


My way of understanding the geography which division of circle. You must not open your mouth. You come down to the grassroots level. You talk to them. Then you will understand the ground realities. Then you start practising.  This is a skill an able administrator should learn. You will not know anything about Hasan. You will not know anything about Hasan district. How many Arsikere is different from Holenarasipur or Holenarasipur is different from Arakalagud. Arakalagud is different from Sakleshpur. Every taluka is unique.

Ecological economy has not been recognised at all. So we committed blunders and blunders and blunders. Today we are facing problems and problems and problems. This is where my approach is different. Because of holistic governance.

Understanding the problems, converting the resources to livelihood, keeping goal for mother earth, human health, livelihood. See how much of health will improve for a  60 year old lady when she walks in the forest, exercise and earns rs50 per day. So per month 1500 rs. For three months? That’s enough for her. Instead of giving, I’m going to give you old age pension. Rs2000.

Then she has to go and Beg everywhere. Go to MLA, beg. Go to SP, bribe. There’s no need for something in this country. Nobody thinks like that.


One of the other very important characteristics you have is picking up grassroots people, recognising their talents, recognising the contributions that they can make to your work.

And the shining example are two people, Tulsi Gowda and Ramegoda. Tulsi Gauda was even the Padma Sri awardee recently. And she was your mentee, isn’t it? And how effectively you nurtured her into becoming what she is.


Many people ask me what made you to recognise this daily wage worker? It’s a very simple thing. 45 years is walking in the forest, observing seedlings, observing seeds, observing flowering, observing trees. No school, no library, no textbook. So that mental recording, that knowledge, divine knowledge. That is not a tutored knowledge, it’s a divine knowledge.

So I have totally forgotten that I’m a conservator forest. I have seen that divinity in her skill and ability of filling the bag which you documented.


[Interview with Tulsi Gowda (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3I0fp3nAC8) 2:33-5:18]

The top bureaucracy should give adequate opportunity and placement for them. Opportunities and placement to flourish. So I am grateful to Tulsi because she taught me that. I am grateful to Ramegowda, which I could not do in my service of raising remarkable seedlings. You ask for some plant. Your mother asked for some plant.


Kaadu basale


Kaadu basale So he immediately wrote it. He’s an encyclopedia of the… He knows kaadu basale. I will challenge today the entire flock of IFS officers. If they know there is a kaadu basale in Biligere Betta I will prostrate to them.


So there was yet another very interesting turn in your career when you opted for VRS. And that was because of a very big conflict that you faced at that point of time. So tell us about that.


For me, money, position, family is second. My morals and ethics is priority for me.

When chief minister insisted to give clearance to a deadly, dirtiest industries like thermal power plant at Mangalore and acid rain, and in that too imported coal, rich in sulphur dioxide, sulfuric acid. The fate of my vested God came before me. I never thought even a single second.

I don’t care. What is going to happen? They may dismiss, I may not get pension anyway. There’s somebody to take care. But believe me, he cleared my pension within one month.


So the thermal power plant was the bone of contention for you. What exactly happened?


He came with obsolete technology, abandoned machines. And making money. The two thermal…. One Enron in Maharashtra. Cogentrix in Karnataka. This gentleman met at Singapore and mentioned that he’s not getting clearance. Et cetera. He narrated about his difficulties. 

Then from there, there is a telephone call to the principal secretary to CM. Tomorrow. I’m coming tomorrow. I want environmental clearance report on my table. So early morning. 7:30 got a call from principal secretary to the chief minister. This is the order from the boss. You must clear tomorrow. He is an IAS man I explained to him. There is an Act. There is a procedure. It is the world’s dirtiest industry. It needs lot of scrutiny. Lot of problems has to be understood. To mitigate the harm which is going to cause to the ocean, to the watershed areas, to the biodiversity. All those things.

He simply said, “I don’t know all those things. This is orders.” I told him that is not possible. Then immediately he went to office and called for high level meeting. Law secretary, industry secretary. I am a chairman. To give clearance. Pollution Control Board chairman and member secretary.

Then they asked the pollution control board people, “Did he furnish all these details?” They said no. “They never going to give a clearance. Not possible.” Proceedings No. Then he came to know about it.

Cogentricx, Ron Sommers complained to the chief minister. Who is the chief minister of Karnataka State. Is it your secretary or you? The way he want to irritate him.

He irritated him. Naturally any chief minister will get…. So I will teach him a lesson. Don’t worry. Go. So he called press. Told the press. I’m going to take severe action against this man. Something. Something like that. So evening edition came. I didn’t know he’s going to take severe action against secretary. Somebody came and told me. Then I anticipated. I spelled. Then I given a voluntary retirement letter. Took my file. Told my private secretary. I am going in autorikshaw to my house. This is my leave letter. I’m a voluntary retirement letter. I didn’t told my wife.

Then early morning I went all.. In national level papers. There is huge publicity. Then I went to my mentor. Professor SK Ramachandra Rao Sir, I did this. This is what paper…. Newspaper was there. He read it already. “Vod bittidini yella. I read it. I’m very happy. I’m proud of you. You did your job well.”

How do you value for that statement of giving immense confidence to you? By a man of professor S. K Ramachandra.

Then I used to get a lot of threat calls this, that etc. My wife used to reply for them. She insisted me don’t take call I will reply. She replied. She replied in a colloquial language. Thu nan makla. Raatri 11:PM ge phone maadthria henmakalige? Nan ganda gandsu kano. Deshake oskara maaadine. Yen maadtiro? Rape maadtira, sayisbidthira? Banni. Taxi fare naane kodtini. That’s the words she has used. So look at her courage.


Just one retract back where During your career, during your thing. When you were working to save the environment. There was a small twist that happened in your thinking process. Where you met Professor SK. Ramchandra Rao. And the whole aspect of the academic look at environment took a spiritual turn.


180 degrees turn, my god.


Tell us about that interaction with SKR and how this shaped further shaped what you were doing.

What happened, I went to Gokarna temple. When it was a conservatory forest. The priest. Came to me. Sir, we used to have lot of bilva trees. Aegle marmelos trees. Bilva patri we used to offer to Lord Ishwara. That is his favourite. Not even a single bilva there. Can you do something? I felt ashamed. We built temples after temples. Forest deforestation, dereforestation after deforestation. Spending crores of rupees. So many pilgrims come here. We don’t have patre, leaf to Shiva which is of a high ecological value of volatile organic compounds to detoxify your system.

Then I approached KT Pandurangi, I approached SK Ramachandra Rao to guide me. That made me… what a rich country. What an amount of connections and continuum of life.

Unwritten laws. Not Forest Act. Not any other Act. But there are unwritten laws connecting you, your soul, your mind, your spirit to the trees, trees to God. That with that fear you will not derobe mother earth. The amount of guidance he has given.

The amount of this thing, Today we were able to talk about the Navagrahana, Nakshatravana, Pavitravanas.


So this is where professor was able to support you, guide you, hold your hand into something different.


You have to believe me. Every day get up. Remembering him every day, at least 100 times I think of him, to get mental peace.

What happens. You know? Most of the educated class, intellectual class youths, they confine only to the IT and computer, computer science, IT, medical engineering and these things.

So they have a little time for cultural aspects, spiritual aspects. I had an occasion to interact with several students and also corporate sector engineers.

So when I interact with them, corporate type of groups, quite a number of groups, they come to me here. And also I would take them to the forest area and explain about the deep ecological aspects about origin of mother Earth.

Then how soil came, how water came. Who converted this carbon dioxide into oxygen and H2O water, how much time it has taken and what is the now, what type of destruction is going on by unlocking the fossil fuels.

So when you explain in these terms, they will understand, feel, yes. So there is disconnect about the moral, about how we are wounding, bleeding, fracturing things.

So that really makes us, the country or the world, need something different. So what is needed? Coherent conceptual framework, help to move together. River is something different.

Mountain is something different. Ocean is something different. Terrestrial ecosystem is different. River and ecosystem is different. If you treat them in isolation, you don’t understand.

You have to link mountain to the river to the ocean.


In this next section, Maya and Dr. Reddy talk about his work after his retirement. From founding the Foundation for Ecological Security, to the Lalbagh project of rehabilitating over 145 rare and threatened species endemic to the Western Ghats in Lalbagh gardens in Bengaluru, and his vital contributions to Botanical Gardens across India. 


So we’ll just come to the phase of your post retirement. You took a vrs. You came out facing a lot of backlash in terms of the kind of right you were trying to fight for. Post retirement you’ve been more busier, I think, doing a various number of things that you have been doing. Tell us about the organisations that you put together during this post retirement phase.


Immediately after my retirement, I have been selected by Government of India to frame forest law, Forest Conservation act. So there, retired chief justice and myself, we have written policy guidelines.

Then came the FES founder member of that one. It is one of the well known NGO where conversion of degraded lands into productive assets, then involving communities, How to share resources, how to share water, how to share biomass.

Sharing and promoting, developing common property resources. That Nobel laureate. She visited Kolar. She contributed in a big way about global commons, local commons, local body commons.

That’s the first 1st lady got Nobel prize for eco-economics. So that organisation all over India, in every district, including Karnataka, Andhra and Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Orissa played a great role. So that has engaged me, and understanding where I used to visit the project areas, interact with them.

Added to that, Bangalore Environment Trust.

Then Agathya International. The latest one is our Lalbagh. 

Lalbagh and Bylakuppe. Bylakuppe went within four or five years, transformed that degraded area of Kaveri catchment. We have seen the results. Talking about it is possible to create Satyam Shivam Sundaram. 

Now I created under my advice as a chairman. Ten botanical gardens, including Ooty Botanical Garden. Ooty Botanical Garden is much superior than our garden today.

You know how much money they earn every day? Every day about eight to ten lakhs in Ooty.

So at the same time the organisations like ATREE, FRLHD where Darshan Shankar and Sam Pitroda’s favourite chain there have to play a very important role in developing the concepts and organising seminars, and discussing.


Let’s talk about all the positive projects that you have been putting forth through these various organisations. One is definitely the ecotherapy for children. Special children which you have conceptualised, devised and is now back in action after the COVID pandemic.

Because I have seen the children interacting with nature and the changes that it is bringing about with them and inside of them.


[Ecotherapy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVAV3Y1yqQ8&list=PLbUh9sjiMWsVlBcm-d4BFVLjgBc84xDig&index=3) 16:06-17:40]


The chemicals, the volatile organic compounds which they inhale will help in releasing the serotonin oxytocinins. These chemicals will soothe and reduces that irritations. The erasing that red spots, stresses to green spots will not only improve their health, thinking behaviour.


Behaviour also. Absolutely.

So, coming to the work in Lal Bagh that you have put up as the chairperson of the committee there, tremendous amount of work has gone on in Lal Bagh to conserve and preserve a very special lung space in the centre of Bangalore.


This is an opportunity for a forester to go and start advising the horticulture department. It is not only just flowers, the orchids and vegetables and fruits. It is beyond that. Fruits, Flowers are byproducts. They will come only when there is core activities.

So the core activities were neglected. And when we started planning, discussing, fortunately, they were listening and implementing that implementation of your suggestions after due deliberations,

It is not somebody’s idea alone. And we have to consult the executors and other experts, other scientific experts like Balkrishna Gowda and others who are knowledgeable people. Dr. Balakrishna Gowda, Dr. Sajjappa, coming of Prashant as the vice chairman, added value because he had access to the CSR.


So kind of a public private partnership has been brought in under your leadership and a lot of interesting work is going on.


Most of the Lalbagh developments, it is not government funds, even for Kidwai.


So these are some two key projects in the centre of the city. One, a healthcare institution, institution that treats cancer, which is on the rise, where you’ve been able to bring a change through massive tree plantations. Tell us about this.


So in Kidwai hospital it was stinky. They are throwing biomedical waste, this waste, that waste, organic waste, then the human waste, all kinds of things in a disorganized way.

Nobody thought of having to put things in a systematic way. So when Dr. Ramchandra was a director and he called us for some advice and given full freedom, then we sought help from private sources.


So what was that change you were able to bring in Kidwai? How many trees were planted, what type of trees and what is the brain?


Daily 40, 40, 50,000 trees, saplings, climbers, creepers, shrubs, herbs to attract butterflies, moths, birds and flowers, and to kill bacteria in the breathable air. Cleaning at the same time.

Now there is zero waste generated. Water has been treated, organic waste has been converted, recyclable waste has been given for a profit. So water treated, used for watering the plants, fountains, improve the breathable air quality, so sound ecological concepts. Now people are able to see that results, so that change even ordinary patients, 2-3000 patients, who come for outpatients also enjoy that serenity and green breathable air quality. 


And also the pollution from the vehicular traffic on the main road has also been prevented, which is a very wonderful way of looking at how planting of trees can serve a multiple purpose, especially in a very, very toxic environment like a cancer hospital.

So the other project that is now just the latest one is the Lalbag project where species from the western ghats have been brought in and curated and planted, when we look back and see you’ve been this epitome of a visionary who plants a tree and probably would never sit under it.


So more than about 100 or 200 trees. Their services are free of cost, no money is involved in that. But the amount of ecological services given not only to human beings, to the birds, to the bees and to the beetles, to the various, just the whole life forms.


So also this entire western ghat plantation, about 450 saplings which have been 


It is much more than that. 


Also rare, endangered and threatened species.


Not only that, even tuber crops. There are nearly 300 edible tuber crops. Then aloe family, zero fights. So like that we are plotting and we have created six, seven other botanical gardens.

The people, technical people involved them, consult them, tell them what they are going to do and they taken pride in creating and talking about their projects. We don’t take credit. We will always give a credit to them. Then they tell us we learned, we have done it, it is our project. So I requested the horticulture department not to disturb them till it comes to a safe stage. They obliged.


So it’s a very wonderful project that’s just now been launched and we just saw it in front of our own eyes.


Help comes from everywhere.


When you’re doing the right thing. And now coming to the last point of how you’ve been at this stage where you’re not just hands on person doing things and projects which are of benefit to the larger section of people.

But you’re also communicating using various medium of communication. The messages that are important for our younger generation. You’ve used the theme of dance, music, performance, films and various groups that you have created. Artist groups, performing groups that you have created. And you are able to delineate these communication messages through various art forms.


See, we have to create ambassadors in their own field. Then give holistic messages to be conveyed, to impress through visual media, through music, through dance. The amount of time we spend in discussing and conceptualising.

We discuss 


concepts and then put it into place. And it does take that kind of brain time.


Now what happened?

When I was able to enter into judiciary. In the judiciary, I was able to bring in some change. There are some judges who are talking and giving very valuable judgments. Now recent NGO, the NGT National Green Tribunal given a beautiful order, excellent order to the whole country.

It is because of the judicial involvement in educating them. So the whole thing today every government in India has to answer and they are penalizing. That has been…. Supreme Court has given that order. You have to implement, chief secretary has to sign, if you don’t do it, you will be penalised. It’s going on. I never thought that I’d be able to influence to this extent.

Impossible for ordinary man. No institutional support, but support like workers like you. How many ladies involved in that? How many ladies of quality jobs resigned, joined our group, studied, published. I never went in search of them. They came in search of me, spent their time. And they excelled.


I think that’s one of the biggest contributions that you have made to the society at large. Because you’ve created an entire collective. People who think like you, who are inspired by you and who work like you for the generations to come and to create a better society and a more cleaner, more environment friendly society. 


There is something wrong in the system to transform the young minds to become a useful, protective citizens and to respect God’s creations. Maybe ant, maybe cobra, maybe tiger, maybe elephant. All these things has got right to live and you have to understand your role they will not bypass their roads.

I lived in all national parks, spent quite a lot of time with… I never carried a gun. My superiors asked me, warned me, I said carry a gun antha. I used to go alone. I encountered tiger, elephants, bisons they will come and watch you for about five minutes if you are not harmful, they will respect you. You should learn to respect them.


And that is wonderful coexistence, isn’t it?


That’s it,


that is the cosmic circle.


My personal experience, many may not believe, but it is animals can understand us better than human beings.


So I think with this message we hope that a lot of people will be able to learn, unlearn, relearn many of the things that we need to do right in the future. And we thank you very much sir, for this wonderful time that we had with you. It’s been an honour and a pleasure to do this and thank you very much.


Thank you very much, I really admire about ths opportunity. I am sure it will make some sort of an impact to zero zero zero one percent, and that’s enough…



Grassroots Nation is a podcast from Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. For more information go to rohini nilekani philanthropies dot org or join the conversation on social media at RNP underscore foundation.  

Stay tuned for our next episode.

Thank you for listening to Grassroots Nation.