Ajit was a dear dear friend. He was one of the finest human beings and the most dedicated Indian Forest Service Officers I have come across. He lived within his means and believed firmly in the tenet “justice with fairness”. He lived with a purpose and his commitment to enforcement of the law of the land when it came to protecting forest and wildlife was ultimate.
I saw closely and marvelled Ajit’s expertise regarding wildlife from close range and am amply aware of the vested interests that did everything to keep him at a distance when it came to wildlife management in Madhya Pradesh at the senior level. The vested interests were so deeply entrenched that at one stage an attempt even was made by a Principal Secretary Forest to block his promotion for good at the CCF level through an adverse CR. He had brilliantly contested the diabolic action and assessment by the bureaucrat in question. Ultimately his reasoned interjection won him the day. The irony was, this bureaucrat was later rewarded with a post-retirement sinecure and was made a Vice Chancellor.
I will never forget the long (after office) hours, Sundays and other public holidays he used to spend with me in the decade of the 90s discussing threadbare the factors threatening forest. A large part of these marathon exchanges were always focused on the tiger habitat and endangered species. That’s when during one of my tours as a journalist, I learnt how ex-Chief Minister Kamal Nath, who was then Union Minister and unquestioned leader from Chhindwara, was patronising those engaged in illegal fishing in the Totladeh reservoir in Pench Tiger Reserve. Exclusive reports by me in The Hindu to expose this had led to the intervention of the Supreme Court in this matter. I will always remain indebted to Ajit Sonakia for suggesting the name – Crusade for Revival of Environment and Wildlife (CREW) – and helping in framing the objectives of our NGO. CREW took off by conducting ground level investigation into factors threatening the tiger habitat and more particularly the problem of poaching and releasing the path breaking report Vanishing Stripes in June 1999. Next year we had released the sequel, Vanishing Stripes II.
Ajit played a leading role in turning CREW into a think tank and remained closely associated with Central Indian Highlands Wildlife Film Festival.