It is difficult to believe that my conservation mentor, Someshwar Shyam Sunder, one of India’s most distinguished foresters of the post-independence era is no more. He lived a full life, even after retirement from service in 1989. On 29-4-2021, Covid-related health complications felled the forest giant. He was 90, the exact age when mature teak trees are felled by foresters.
I first met Shyam Sunder, when I was just seven years old. He was visiting his uncle (my father Shivarama Karanth) in Puttur. After 1967, our bond grew stronger as he started taking me to the forests with him. He exposed me to the realities of protecting forests, contrasting them with romantic notions of academic conservationists parked in ivory towers. He continued to challenge these notions throughout his career.
Shyam Sunder effectively and gently steered his political bosses (including Ramakrishna Hegde, Gundu Rao and the redoubtable K.H. Patil, a Forest Minister who was truly a force of nature), as well as his colleagues, seniors and juniors for decades. The notification of several sanctuaries and national parks, stopping the logging in tropical evergreen forests in Karnataka, reducing timber exploitation level by 50% in the Karnataka forests and reserving the fertile land necessary for relocating villages from Bhadra sanctuary 25 years before the event were few among his many landmark contributions.
However, Shyam Sunder remained truly humble in an arrogant bureaucracy, and clean as a whistle in a rising tide of corruption. He was a fantastic raconteur, enriching those around him with wit and wisdom. For those who want to know more about this remarkable forest conservationist, I strongly recommend: Forest Conservation Concerns in India (2014, coauthored with his able colleague S. Parameshwarappa) and Reliving the Memories of an Indian Forester (2020, edited by his son Shivsharan Someshwar). While I cannot promise that the readers will benefit as much as I have from his benevolence over five decades, they will imbibe much enrichment, intellectual and spiritual-the latter including a flavor of the Old Monk rum that he loved.