When Sheila Dixit, in her capacity as the Chief Minister of Delhi, declared the chirpy sparrow as the state bird of India’s capital back in August 2012, many people would have been left flummoxed. By then there were hardly any sparrows to be seen in the city. So why choose it for the honour?
Why didn’t the state government go for an exciting, colourful bird with splashy plumage such as the kingfisher or the painted stork or the yellow-footed green pigeon? “After all,” the sceptics would be asking even now, “didn’t the sparrow vanish from Delhi long ago? What was the point of making it the state bird?”
Looks vs need
The answer to this issue, which has suddenly assumed fresh relevance now, is simple but not simple enough to grasp in an age where the most eye-catching woman in a carefully manicured group of beauties is adjudged Miss World or Miss Universe or whatever by a jury of 10 (or is it 13?), and the most muscular man as Mr Universe. In the case of the little sparrow, which has neither great looks nor a hulky frame to swoon over, it was done primarily to raise peoples’ awareness and concern for this much-loved bird.
Chances are that most Delhiites born in the 1990s would have missed seeing a sparrow in their backyard. It disappeared one fine morning along with frogs and several varieties of butterflies from the colonies and streets of the capital, unable to cope with the threatening levels of pollution and human population.
The sparrow stood little chance of being heard, and it was in dire need of support from powerful quarters. Ms Dixit understood its plight too well.
Saving the tiger
Similar was the case with the tiger. The early 1970s saw the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launching Project Tiger, in a move now recognised as the most successful governmental intervention in India to pull back a prime species from the jaws of extinction. Simultaneously, the tiger was declared the national animal — mainly because public opinion was needed badly, and in large doses, to guarantee its survival in the wild.
Simply put, it’s a guiding principle dictated by common sense and followed in most places in the world: an animal, a bird or a flower which requires special protection to survive and flourish in its natural state is generally put on a pedestal. The Ladakh administration recently named the snow leopard and black-necked crane as the state animal and state bird, respectively, and for a good reason. They happen to be the two most vulnerable species on its landscape.
And this brings us to peacocks and cows. The chance of either of these two species disappearing from India in the near future appears as slim as Arvind Kejriwal renouncing politics. Therefore, many heads would have surely turned when a senior and honourable member of the Uttar Pradesh judiciary recently recommended that the cow be made the national animal of India.
Yes, that’s true. This is what Justice Shekhar Kumar Yadav of the Allahabad High Court held while disposing of the bail petition of a man accused of cow slaughter. Suggesting that the Centre declare the cow the national animal, he observed: “Scientists believe that the cow is the only animal that inhales oxygen and exhales oxygen, too.”
I am sure even the cows, if they had sense enough to grasp the import of this suggestion, would be shaking their heads in absolute amazement.
Of rhymes and plumes
As to how the peacock, undoubtedly one of the handsomest birds ever but found aplenty in every nook and corner of India, won the race to become the national bird is known to many but seldom talked about openly. According to anecdotal evidence, a group of ornithologists led by Salim Ali, the most venerable and well known of the lot, had been pitching for the Great Indian Bustard as the national bird of India.
The year was 1963 and their logic was simple. If not accorded protection, the bustard lovers argued, this magnificent bird would disappear from the face of India. How correct they were in their assessment! As of 2021, there are less than 200 Great Indian Bustards alive, almost all of these in Rajasthan.
The Rajasthan government, with the help of its forest department and scientists from Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII), has been working hard to save the bird. But honestly, its fate hangs by a thin threat; and by the look of things, it might not make it to the next decade.
But what happened to the experts’ proposal to make the Great Indian Bustard the national bird? It was apparently shot down by the babus and bureaucrats of New Delhi. One of the reasons offered was that the word ‘bustard’ rhymed dangerously close with ‘bastard’ and therefore would not go well as the national bird.
So, this is how the peacock won the race, allegedly — and has been flourishing since then. So much so that a few years ago, the Goa government toyed with a proposal to declare the peacock a vermin species, because of the widespread damage it was causing to the crops.
But pray, what about the cow? Can it dislodge the tiger from the pedestal and become the national animal? I don’t know. It’s one bet I would not make either way.
(The writer is a senior media professional).
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal).