Issue 15

‘We are a country which hates its poor’: Planner Paromita Roy on moving mountains in a metro

Central Delhi’s Karol Bagh which once had no space for shoppers to walk, is now pedestrian-friendly. Dwarka, a sub-city in southwest Delhi, has carved space on the same road, for cyclists, e-rickshaws and is on its way to get the longest cycling track in India. With the 2011 census showing the rise in Delhi’s population from 1.39 crores in 2001 to 1.68 crores, space is at a premium. Some planners are fighting all the way to keep it inclusive and in some cases, winning.“I was shocked to see the drawings, they are making road designs and there is no footpath”, urban planner Paromita Roy’s initial response as a consultant with the DDA (Delhi Development Authority), as part of UTTIPEC (United Traffic And Transportation Infrastructure (Planning & Engineering) Centre, a DDA think tank). But it is not just people on the street, she is standing up for.

While CoP26 pays lip service to scrutinizing the flying habit, in India, it is festival rush hour for trains.‘We need to connect the stations back to people.’Roy argued recently, as part of the key IRSDC team (*Indian Railway Station Development Corporation) Setting up new codes to ease  moving around an Indian railway station. Habibganj, MP’s capital railway station is already showing some proof of a shift.

Aritro Sarkar speaks to Paromita Roy to understand how giving people the freedom to move about with affordable and convenient public transport options, can make climate change relatable.

Part of Issue 15 of OpenAxis. Interviews with path-breaking Indians responding to climate change challenges. 

As an urban planner who has worked in China, Brazil, the United States and India, what is it like, in terms of differences, challenges?

In terms of work, of course, I learned a lot. The US gave me a lot of self-confidence. Over there, talent is valuable.That is, I think, the most important thing. They teach you how to value yourself. It’s not that they value everybody. You can discover your own strengths when you are in a place like the US and then you can build on your strengths and you can excel in that field and you will always get respected. Here, even if you are good, nobody will respect you. People will always put you ten steps down and there, if you are good, then you will always be pushed up ten steps. So in terms of my stature and with the amount of respect I had, I definitely had more respect in the US than I have in India. Having said that, in India, I have been able to do much more work because in the US I was working only on private sector projects. 

I spent about a year in China working in the Shanghai office of ARUP. They were very nice and very, very hardworking. They don’t believe in rest. So there are no sofas in the offices – you are not supposed to rest. Only work. That was Chinese work culture. Too much.

Honestly, when I came back, I was a nationalist. I used to be like, desh ke liye kaam karna hai (I want to work for the country). Now I am indeed working for the desh, but what disappoints me about India is that we don’t take care of our own people. Every single person is out to outdo the other person. We don’t know how to co-exist. We don’t know how to collaborate. That’s why good professionals are not happy in this country. They want to just leave. Honestly, if I was not India-born, I would have probably left.

Given your wide experience working in sync with governments across the world, what kind of projects have you led with central and state governments in India?

Most of my work [in India] primarily has been with UTTIPEC. It’s a brilliant organization that the DDA formed. Before UTTIPEC was formed, everybody was working separately and everybody had to run behind each other. Every urban project involves at least five to ten agencies minimum, maybe more. UTTIPEC allowed for them to talk to each other. All agencies would come and sit together and discuss and fight and brainstorm things. I remember we were doing this multimodal integration plan for phase three metro stations in Delhi, which are now implemented. These meetings used to be chaired by the secretary, honorable secretary of PWD and co-chaired by the commissioner of traffic police. And then DMRC, PWD, UTTIPEC, MCD, all these organizations used to be sitting around the drawing board and everybody was looking at a drawing and giving inputs. I’d never seen something like that in my life. They were so collaborative, which doesn’t happen easily in our country. We had ten departments giving inputs into a drawing, which was going to be implemented on the ground. That was amazing. 

You have also worked very extensively on the concept of transit-oriented development. For our readers, what exactly does it mean? 

It’s very simple. It’s not actually transit-oriented development, it is actually just common sense. 10 years from now, you have your wife waiting at home and you are coming back from work on the Metro and then you are walking home. What would you like to do? Would you like to get out of the Metro and then stand in line and wait 15 minutes for a rickshaw? Or, would you just love to get out of the train and immediately get into a high rise apartment, in a nice airy apartment? I don’t have to tell you, now you can answer for yourself.  So TOD is about this convenience. For people who are using public transportation, don’t torture them right now.

For instance, my house is 250 meters from the Metro station and I’m scared to walk. Believe me. I take a rickshaw to go through 250 meters. 250 meters is a three-minute walk. In the US, I used to walk two kilometers from my office to the metro. So why am I not able to walk? I’m scared because there is no light on that street and then are dogs over there. And of course, the men. It’s so dark. It’s so scary. I was scared to walk alone in that three-minute walk. Now, TOD is about making that walk pleasant, fun, safe. How can you make it safe? Through lighting, and natural surveillance through crowds. In Lakshmi Nagar, it’s chaotic, but I sometimes will get on the station at 2am and even then I feel safe because there are vendors and it’s got people running across the streets selling things. I never feel unsafe there, but here, in Dwarka, I feel very, very scared.

Somebody said this to me which I really liked. Hope is not a plan. You can’t hope that one day some hawker comes on my street and makes it safer. No, you have to plan for safety. You have to design for safety. You have to design for people to be comfortable. You have to plan for people to find convenience so that they don’t have to take the car out after coming back.

So all of these things, the planning principles, which enable this better quality of life for people, is transit-oriented development. Anyone who uses metro, if you ask to list three or four things that they would like, that is TOD. 

How does efficient urban design address climate change? Can you give an example which can help our listeners?

Climate change is a very broad thing. For the first 10 years of my life, I was working on climate change, but I don’t like talking about it. Why? Because it doesn’t matter to the common man. My housekeeper or the driver who drives my car – do they know the meaning of climate change? I’m not interested if they’re not. We need to stick to the basics. The basics are just giving convenience, giving good healthcare, giving good education. Let them earn money. If a guy earns a hundred rupees a day – more than 70% of our population earns a hundred rupees a day – and is spending 30 to 50 on travel, then we have failed as policymakers. Right? So beyond whether he’s polluting or not, it’s more important for me to see that out of the hundred rupees, he should not have to spend, ideally nothing, but if he’s spent something, then it should not be more than 10 rupees or 20 rupees, which is also a lot. So I think we as designers, planners, policymakers need to understand what we want, and what people need.

It’s a key performance indicator: let me reduce the expenditure of this guy to less than 10%. They all invest in cycles, unka cycle chori ho jata hai, puncture ho jata hai. Metro station mein parking karne ka jagah nahi hai. Maid jo aati hai unke liye bhi cycle parking ki jagah nahi hai (Their cycle gets stolen and punctured. The metro station has no place to park them. Domestic maids also have no space to park their cycles). We talk about climate change, but do we realise that climate change is linked to giving cycle parking to your housekeepers? You have to see whether you can give people basic resources within walking, cycling distance, or you can make it cheaper and you can give them housing where they are working. Or you’ll give them housing where there is a transportation port, like a bus station. So they are absolutely interlinked. 

Over the last few years, you have been working with the Indian railway station development corporation, the IRSDC. To what extent is climate efficiency a part of the IRSDC’s plans, when it comes to rethinking India’s railway stations? 

I don’t think we ever talked about climate change in the context of stations. I’m not saying it’s not real, probably it is important for policymakers, but I don’t think I need to engage in that. But where we do want to focus is – and I think the honorable PM also wants this – is to focus on railway stations as institutions. Think of the famous quote that [Spanish urban planner Santiago] Calatrava has: railway stations generate cities.

Image Credit: Paromita Roy

So most of the smaller towns that have developed around India have generated or, have taken, birth around the railway stations. They were made for whatever purpose. But the towns grew around these thousands and thousands of stations that we have. So, these cities have grown around the railway station. Wherever we go, whenever we say that we are redeveloping the railway station, the local bodies are always so happy. People are so happy that finally our railway station will be new and modern. It’s something that brings immense pride to the locals. 

With the railways, I travelled all over the country, saw the railways from inside, learnt how the stations work. We need to connect these stations back to the people, because when the British built these stations, they would actually be on the peripheries of the city. So our goal is to reconnect the people and the stations: it’s always very people-centric and we don’t really talk about theoretical things. 

I think all the work that IRSDC has done, it’s a rich legacy and I’m sure that will be taken forward. In fact, the team is mostly going to merge with the parent department at the RLDA, who will be now taking over and integrating all of the work. For administrative reasons, it’s just much easier to connect, and to bring accountability when there’s a single organization. So that’s why the government decided to merge the two organizations.

In your work with the Delhi Development Authority, could you tell us about one project that has benefited mass transit in Delhi?

The most important memory I have. When I used to attend the first two, three meetings, I was shocked to see the drawings that were presented because – and I was coming just from US, so it was a bigger shock – none of the drawings had footpaths. That was the first thing I noticed

my god, they are making road designs and there is no footpath. In the States, we could not imagine drawing a street section without a footpath. Luckily, the honourable Lt. Governor, at that time was very, very traveled and very, very aware of these things. When I pointed it out he was quick to be cognizant and repair these designs. That’s where street design guidelines took birth. I can say with absolute certainty that at the time there was nobody in the country who was even talking about footpaths. The team of UTTIPEC prepared those guidelines and then it was adopted. A lot of it was of course already being implemented as part of the Commonwealth Games project, but it was at that time, looked as beautification. 

So it took us a while to move away from looking at footpaths as beauty elements, to viewing it as a utility element. That was one of the major things that I think UTTIPEC started. Then of course, transit-oriented development also took birth in UTTIPEC. That’s also a very important concept because when the metro was being built in Delhi, there was no concept of the kind of TOD that I talked about: access to station safety, around stations, pedestrian spaces around stations.

Image Credit: Paromita Roy                                                             Pedestrian shift at Karol Bagh

All these concepts were not there. I remember, when we used to be living wherever, which had a Metro, most of the time you would meet friends near the Metro station because it was just easier to get home after that. So we would just get out of the station and go to some restaurant right in front of the station.When I came to Delhi, I didn’t want to get off at the Metro station and then take a taxi to go to a restaurant. Why can’t I have my restaurant at the station? It didn’t make sense.  Dr. Sridharan was very much aware of these things. He was saying that he has been championing it for a while. 

It was actually his pet subject. Of course, it had to be done through an agency, which was empowered to do that. The DDA was empowered to do that. DDA is currently doing a pretty good job of taking TOD forward. Hopefully in the coming years, we will see the plan’s implementation.

From the various projects you have done, can you tell us about a project that either got stuck or failed?

Oh, there are many, but I don’t think projects are ever scrapped. I feel that everything gets implemented, some early, some late. Good work never goes to waste. Karol Bagh also got dug out after ten years of gathering dust, when the MHA took it up. After the implementation of the Karol Bagh redesigning, the recent Dwarka cycle track project got implemented. What I find is that compared to what we envisioned, reality turns out to be a hundred times better. In Karol Bagh, when we were starting the pedestrianization project, I used to tell the stakeholders that we just want to see people sit here peacefully and have ice cream. If I see that, I’ll be happy, but when the project got implemented, these are thousands of people, old, young, sitting and having chai and ice cream, hanging out on the streets. I was crying that day. I could not believe it. It’s like your life’s dream has come true. And come through 10,000 times better than what you had imagined.

It’s like the people of Delhi are waiting for a place to breathe. When you give them that, they are like, just out on the street. In Mumbai and Calcutta, it’s not so bad because over there people find their nooks and corners to hang out. In Delhi, it’s very difficult because of all the other safety issues, traffic issues. People don’t like being outside. There’s no space to give and the moment you give them space, everybody’s there. 

I was very fascinated by the concept of Delhi’s bus rapid transit system, which got scrapped in 2016. I could never really understand why. Why do you think it didn’t work out, because on paper it sounds like a great solution to a lot of traffic issues and it also promotes public transport? 

Yeah. We are a country which hates its poor. We hate poor people. I can say this on record. We work only against the poor, and I don’t expect that to stop, unless there is a tremendous political will to push it, which there was at that time. There were some planning flaws, too, admittedly. It is very difficult for a system which is meant mostly for the poor of sectional society to compete with space from the richer section of society. And I think we are very far from that, very far. 

That leads me very organically to my last question. What are some situations of hypocrisy you have faced from upper class and upper middle class in designing urban projects?

I’m trying to think. I mean, I don’t know where hypocrisy is not there. I mean, if they can afford three cars, then obviously they will always insist on wanting to drive them. So I don’t really blame them. As a government body, we always have to look at everyone’s needs. So the super rich people who own more than three cars are less than 1% of the population. But having said that, it’s not that we don’t have to take care of them. But the way to take care of the rich is different from the way to take care of the poor.

I’m not against anybody, I am for everybody. It’s like being a mother. If she has three children, and one of them is suffering from a disease, the other one is okay, and the other one is very healthy, the mother will make a decision: where do I invest my limited amount of food. So a government officer, I feel, is like a mother. I think if we just mandate that every government officer has to use public transport at least three times a week, you will see all the changes that are required.You won’t have to do anything, because then they will realize, oh, I can’t walk to the station. Oh, it’s too expensive to take an auto rickshaw to the station. So let me move my housing close to the train station. Let me make a good foot path. They will apply their own brain because it’s all common sense: you do this and all your problems will be solved. The people who are sitting on the seat are extremely intelligent, much more intelligent than you and me. 

They just don’t know what’s wrong, because they never see the problem.

*The IRSDC was merged with the Rail Land Development Authority (RLDA) in October 2021.

A few questions and all answers have been shortened for brevity and ease of reading. The tone and tense of the conversation originally recorded on audio, has been kept intact.Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 15

Ponds in Pondicherry: Hear from the citizen responding to every SOS on the east coast

Neer Kudam, a decorated copper pot filled with water from Ousteri lake, a bird sanctuary and wetland bordering Puducherry, traveling to 100 schools in the Union Territory. When India was battling a pandemic in early 2021, Pondicherry launched its one school, one pond initiative. A pond by the premises of the SRS Government Higher Secondary School, was just the beginning. The school, set in a low lying area, was a sink for rain water from the neighboring storm water drain, now stood transformed, into a community rain water harvesting structure. No more snakes, pigs and anti-social elements. The largest Bund in the urban limits of Pondicherry was now a walking area, with space for kids to play near a water body, brimming with life. The students also got Neer Nilay, a mobile app from the National Centre for Coastal Research, to measure all parameters around their pond on a continual basis. This novel idea to link each school with a local pond, was for a young generation to not only connect directly with a bio-diverse waterbody, but also for teachers to integrate history, geography, math, science, art and culture in the syllabus. That neer kudam, a reminder of new and old Cholan connections of valuing water.

Image taken from Probir Banerjee’s Facebook page- A pond being readied                            

One of the many stakeholders of this local celebration of Tamil water heritage, civil engineer citizen Probir Banerjee, of PondyCAN. A Citizen Action Group who has brought a local beach back to life and worked to come up with solutions for coastal erosion. ‘On the coast, when we see a beach, we think it’s just a static heap of sand. Actually, it’s not a static heap, it’s like a river of sand. It keeps moving in one direction or the other, depending on the monsoons,’ reminds Probir. It is a connection he also understands as part of BOBLME, which looks at the Bay of Bengal as a whole. Including the fisheries and coastal life of eight nations (Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand). As co-founder of Shuddham, he has also helped execute a neighborhood-wide waste management project in Puducherry. 

Sonal Dugar on life on the waterfront, in an audio chat with Probir Banerjee. Part of Issue 15 of Open Axis, on path-breaking Indians on the frontlines of climate change. 

Podcast: 15 min  

Questions asked in order of appearance 

  1.  Hello, Mr. Banerjee. It’s a great pleasure to speak with you today. How are you doing?
  2. You co-founded PondyCAN Pondicherry’s Citizens Action Network, an NGO committed to preserving and enhancing the natural, social, cultural, and spiritual environment? Could you tell us a little more about what PondyCAN does?
  3. I’m interested to know what the situation is like, what difficulties, if at all, did you face while funding projects such as these?
  4. I’m really intrigued by the one school one pond project (OSOP) that nourished 600 water bodies in Puducherry. I’m interested to know what inspired you to be a part of that project?
  5. Okay, now I’d like to switch gears a bit. I’d like to talk about the documentary, “India’s Disappearing Beaches- A Wake Up Call”, produced for PondyCAN. Can you tell us what the aim of this documentary is?
  6. What caught my eye in the documentary was the mention of sand bypassing the beach nourishment system as methods to prevent coastal erosion. Could you tell our listeners what the systems are and how they work?
  7. I’d like to talk about your organization PondyCAN. On the website, it says PondyCAN aims to build a model to preserve Puducherry that focuses on and I quote, “decentralized development and environmental sustainability”. What does this mean exactly?
  8. In addition to this, you also co-founded Shuddham, a non-profit organization based in Puducherry, where residents were trained to segregate garbage. What was this process like?
  9. Mr. Banerjee, would you like to share some steps  people could take to protect our beaches?
  10. While our audience is listening to you, do you have any message for our listeners?

Sonal is a writer from New Delhi, India. She is currently majoring in Literature and minoring in Political Science and Creative Writing at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 15

The Glass Ceiling Has Been Shattered, Says ZSI’s First Woman Director

By Sahana Ghosh

Senior Zoological Survey of India scientist Dhriti Banerjee has straddled two different worlds of research — physiology of drug abuse and working on the use of insects in forensic investigations — in her career spanning 24 years. She has also embraced research and administration with equal zeal. Now, as the first woman to helm India’s premier taxonomic research organisation in its 105-year-old history, Banerjee aims to scale up the organisation’s foray into transdisciplinary fields with enhanced funding and train a new generation of taxonomists, especially women, required to match the demand for its services.

“We need a lot more of us around,” says Banerjee in an interview with Mongabay-India referring to the “overload of identification and advisory services” at the organisation.

“Taxonomy is the mother science of discovery. Once you identify and systematise a species, only then can you start working on the rest of its attributes. As we say, it all starts with the name. The next step is identifying its role in nature and natural surroundings specifically in our ecosystems. Then and only then the underlying importance of the species can be determined.”

“Once that status is ascertained then we realise that it is under threat and hence it needs to be conserved. ZSI has been contributing to the science of taxonomy and systematics for over 100 years and will be doing so for another 100,” adds a confident Banerjee.

Speaking of her goals as the Survey’s director, Banerjee adds that taking the science from the lab to the field is key for the organisation’s work’s relevance and impact on society: “Increased funding is of utmost importance. High-end research today has become extremely expensive and we in ZSI are making our foray into several new fields which need to be funded.”

One such area is the application of genomic tools such as next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology and the collection of genomic data for species conservation. “Unpacking the biodiversity, including the species that we cannot see, in a Protected Area, using NGS can highlight the species richness in an area which could help our Protected Area managers and policymakers in framing better laws.”

“So far we have focused on a few charismatic species for conservation goals because they are visible to us. But there are so many species, such small insects to micro-organisms that are crucial to biodiversity, but need special tools to be seen and assessed,” said Banerjee, adding that the application of genomic tools can aid assessments, monitoring and managing efforts.

“It’s like seeing the glass as half full,” she shared.

Dhriti Banerjee in her office at ZSI headquarters in Kolkata. Photo from ZSI.

Banerjee, who pursued her doctorate studies in animal physiology at the Presidency University (earlier Presidency College), is also not afraid to take up thorny issues such as economic assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services in addition to biodiversity research in agriculturally important sectors to amplify the organisation’s role in science for society.

There has been a growing dialogue on addressing the “economic invisibility of nature”. The recent UK-government commissioned The Economics of Biodiversity: the Dasgupta Review argues that natural capital should be viewed as an asset, like produced and human capital. Between 1992 to 2014, globally produced capital per head doubled and human capital per head increased by about 13% but the value of the stock of natural capital per head declined by nearly 40%, according to the review.

“We, in our country, have been made aware of the value of biodiversity through culture, mythology and religion, but understanding the economic value of biodiversity will make people more aware of it and that we need to protect it,” shared Banerjee.

Better funding would aid such nuanced scientific work, argues Banerjee and would allow the survey organisation to take its science to the masses or “non-niche end-users”, which she likens to the transformative action of performance art from street theatre to films.

“Though we receive funding from several external agencies like the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Biotechnology and others, science can work a lot better with more funding. We are one of the very few institutes that work in the field, in dry lab, wet lab, computer and digital labs simultaneously to generate effective results. Increased funding would allow seamless transitions and make our outputs more effective and increase the penetration of our results to the non-niche end-users.”

For Banerjee, the confidence to blend multiple scientific domains and embark on collaborative work comes from her multifaceted professional experiences at the organisation. Since starting with the ZSI in 1998, Banerjee, the forensic entomologist specialising in species of the order Diptera, has amassed significant administrative and scientific work experience. She worked in finance for five years and another five years as head of office at ZSI which saw her juggle multiple tasks simultaneously, move out of her comfort zone and push the envelope.

An important milestone is the launch and steering of a suite of Digital ZSI initiatives including the ZSI Digital Library at One of the most important learning experiences in her career came from organising the centenary celebrations of the Survey in 2015 for which preparations began in 2012. She was involved in the compilation of The Glorious 100: Women’s Scientific Contribution in ZSI 1916-2015report with colleagues Debashree Dam and Nivedita Saha which documented the women’s career trajectory in the survey organisation.

Percentage frequency of women scientists recruited at Zoological Survey of India between 1940 and 2015. Chart from ZSI report.

“Compiling the report was an eye-opening experience,” remarked Banerjee on the gumption displayed by women scientists who took on a male-dominated survey and exploration domain.

ZSI welcomed its first woman scientist in 1949 (late Mira Mansukhani), three decades after its inception in 1916. She continued to be the only woman scientist for three years, the ZSI report documents. In a hundred years of existence (1916 to 2015), women represented only 20 percent of the total scientific staff strength. But the percentage frequency of women scientist recruitment shows a marked increase from 3 percent in 1949-1960 to 40 percent in 2001-2015.

“What must have been for the women like Mira Mansukhani to work with men when women were seen as ‘burden’ on fieldwork,” Banerjee wonders.

According to a Department of Science and Technology (DST) report, as of April 2018, only 16.6 % out of the total 3.42 lakh research and development (R and D) personnel directly engaged in R and D activities in scientific research establishments in the country were women.

Shifting the needle to augment women’s leadership in a career in science administration and management calls for enhanced confidence-building measures and inspiring leadership that encourages women to push the envelope. “One way is to work (for scientists) in areas that you think are not related, for example, science administration and finance.”

Administration aside, the Kolkata-based Banerjee has had her fair share of thrills and spills in the lab and on the field. Watching maggots creep over the carcass of dead mice in the laboratory during her PhD days in animal physiology (at the Presidency University) tickled her fancy that eventually led her to explore forensic entomology.

“Since they were alive and growing I started recording their growth and maintained the maggots in the lab to see them pupate and hatch into small flies. When I started digging into the web for information, I learned about forensic flies and their role in postmortem interval assessment in criminal investigations,” she shared with enthusiasm. Additionally, the entomology lab next door was rearing biting midges from banana stalks which piqued her interest.

Scientists at ZSI and only another lab in Madhya Pradesh are working on forensic entomology, she says. “Forensic flies are a group of flies that you commonly encounter but do not notice as you are not aware of their importance. The shiny bluebottle flies and the grey checkered back flies are the notable ones. They are important nutrient recyclers of our environment. Their small white larvae feed on rotting decomposed organic matter and recycle the nutrients back to our ecosystems. Their role in assessing the time of death, cause of death and at times also localisation of death is enormous. But it is not very well studied in our country.”

*Biologist Dhriti Banerjee, who has straddled the realm of scientific administration and management, is the 105-year-old Zoological Survey of India’s first woman director.

Zoological Survey of India is the country’s premier taxonomic research organisation set up in 1916. In hundred years (1916 to 2015), women represented only 20 percent of the total scientific staff strength. But the percentage frequency of women scientists recruited has increased.

This article was originally published on Mongabay India 

Sahana Ghosh is a science journalist and a LEDE fellow (2019-2020)  based in Kolkata/Delhi. She is a Contributing Editor to Mongabay India.  

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 15 Issue 7

Connecting culture to climate change: The many WIPs of Vinod Nambiar

The 2nd Edition of the Nila International Folklore Film Festival of India (NIFFFI 2021) is on. Hosted by Vinod Nambiar and his folk culturist group, Vayali, you can join a conversation with culture revivalists from across the globe and see documentaries on vanishing cultures. These films are made by, among others, India’s own adivasi filmmakers.

Vinod, for the past eighteen years, has been exploring every medium that gets youth up close with folk art, tradition and a knowledge system in touch with nature. A software engineer by training, he grew up by the river Nila in Kerala and saw first-hand how a living culture can begin to end, if another generation does not connect with its land. A creative response was an all bamboo instrument music band who engage the young to play, perform and experiment away.   Another is to have an ongoing cultural calendar, where the local flavour of dance and pottery, weaving and drama, bring a once dying river’s bedside, alive. Determined to be creative in tackling the cultural loss caused by climate change and migration, he shares the challenges in a video chat with Anushree Pratap.

Part of  Open Axis, Issue 15 focuses on interviews with path-breaking Indians, responding to climate change challenges.

Video: 15 min.

Cover image is taken from Vinod Nambiar’s Facebook page.

Anushree Pratap is a second-year student at Ashoka University pursuing Political Science and Environmental Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 15

Rewilding Jaipur’s first desert park: Pradip Krishen on Kishan Bagh

Derelict sand-dunes. Each layer of soil, damaged. Weeds spilling over plastic waste. This was Jaipur’s Kishan Bagh, until it drew naturalist Pradip Krishen.

Sandwiched between densely populated bastis, Kishan Bagh, is now a thoughtfully laid out trail of rock and Roee. Mini-island zones can engage the walker to sense what shrub life is natural to this desert topography. Then there’s the Dhok tree, informally known as the button fruit tree,  a hardy survivor known to wrap itself around granite. With zero exotic species and a lake-view to take it all in.

Open to the public by Diwali, Rishita Chaudhary meets Pradip Krishen to find out how he did it. Excerpt from an Open Axis interview series, focussed on how path-breaking Indians are responding to the climate change challenge.

What has it been like working with the Jaipur development authority on this project?

Oops, it’s been awful. Alright, let me say to start with, on the one hand, it is quite unusual and amazing that a government department has, uh, supported something that is not within their sight. I give them full marks for doing that.

It has been quite a struggle to work within a system that is very rigid. I mean, a lot of their systems have been made to curb the possibility of easy corruption. It doesn’t really stop corruption, but it makes it very difficult to actually wade through it and just to do things.

You have to understand that what we set out to do really, was to basically restore a set of sand dunes, to create a shrub land. This is something they found very difficult to understand because they have a certain conception of what a park is like. They expect lawns and ornamental trees. No matter how much you said to them that look, this is about restoring dunes and the appropriate plants that exist on dunes are actually shrubs and grasses. These are not forests. These are not, uh, you know, that kind of biome. It didn’t sink in.

So the JDA horticulture people are basically foresters on deputation. If you scratch a forester in Rajasthan and you talk to them about the desert, they refer to grasslands as forest blanks, as if you have forests and then you have non forest and there’s no other. It is just a straight kind of dichotomy. So a grassland is of no consequence for them. And the desert is just a complete wasteland. So that’s what we were up against really.

Then also in terms of design, we were basically trying to use vernacular Thar desert architecture as a kind of language. You know, I had a very interesting architect working with me, Golak. We assembled a whole lot of pictures for him, of the way people use natural materials in their homes and their architecture and their boundaries in their fields and in their patching. He’s just done a lovely job. So most of what we have built there in terms of civil works, it’s not so much pucca buildings, but more like pavilions or open gazebo and things like that.

I mean, for us, it worked out very interestingly, but for JDA, I think they went around with a big question mark in the middle of the forest and they were saying, yeh kya banaa hai (What has been made)? So there was a lot of puzzlement. Yet they backed it all the way through. This project started in a previous political regime, so there was always the danger that when the regime changed, you know, the new political party would appoint somebody who would then question everything. Perhaps even, you know, the way a tiger destroys the cubs of a previous tiger’s sons, but that didn’t happen.

Image credit: Pradip Krishen

So, as I said on the one hand, unusual, wonderful to get that support. Quite difficult to navigate the whole thing with them. But it’s happened. I think the most difficult thing was working with contractors because in the government system, basically when you are asked to design something, you then have to write what’s called a BOQ, a bill of quantities that specifies everything that needs to be specified. Then they call in contractors, hire the lowest bidder. The lowest bidder is usually somebody who is kissing the floor in terms of  prices quoted. Wanting to make the money by then cutting corners, doing stuff in a really shoddy way. So no matter how much you insist on a sample being approved, you will see the sample of whatever it is, whether it’s a wall or anything, you just see it getting worse and worse and worse, with every square foot. That is very, very difficult with them. The fact that we managed to do what we did despite this, is a miracle, but there was a visible sense in which, you know, you aim for something, but you’ve got something else.

This was the first time I’d worked with the government. Before this I’d worked for fifteen, sixteen years with the Mehrangarh museum trust in Jodhpur. That was just such a wonderful journey because we learned to trust each other implicitly. It is not that they didn’t sometimes say no to something I said, things were discussed and considered and there were always good reasons for saying either yes or no. But it was a huge contrast, in working with what the JDA called the private sector. You know, they use private sector almost like a pejorative category.

In mainstream media, Kishan Bagh was pitched as a way to understand the unique biodiversity of a desert park. For our readers, could you help us understand what this means?

When I was first asked to come to Jaipur in 2016 to design a park, I was taken around by the JDA in a white ambassador with white cloth on the seats and four gentlemen who were all in the horticulture department and they showed me all the best parks, central park and this park and that. I said, look, this is not what I do. I mean, please understand, I’m not a designer of ornamental parks. At the end of four or five hours, they eventually said, Dekho humne aapko saare parks dikha diye hai’ (See, we have shown you all our parks). What else can we show you?

I said look, don’t you have some little corner of the city that is unraveling, that I can see because, what I like to do is work with degraded landscapes. Then one of them had this brainwave and they took me to a place I didn’t much like. Then they took me to what became Kishan Bagh. This is essentially a set of sand dunes formed with monsoon winds blowing in from the west, carrying sand particles and piling up at the base of a set of hills called Nahargarh because then they had, no, they couldn’t go any further. In the water flowing down, the hill had carved channels through the dunes, but the dunes, it looked a little bit like the Chambal ravines. When I saw this, I said, wow, this strikes a chord with me because one of the things I’ve been seeing in the desert for many, many years is a kind of desert shrub land that I felt is really important to announce to the world.

I wind back and tell you that story because it is completely relevant to what I am about to say. So when we would tour the desert quite often, we would do like four or five, six day trips, essentially looking for seeds, but slowly getting to know a fairly large tract of land between Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer. As our eyes became more and more accustomed to recognizing the plants, we started noticing that there’s a particular combination of a particular community of plants, three plants whose Marwari names were Seenio, Bui and Kheemp. So just as a short form, I’m calling it the SBK habitat. There was something very interesting, it looked extremely natural and extremely appropriate to this kind of sandy landscape.You were seeing the SBK only in small chunks, but always by mining or by farming or by plantations.

We started asking local people.What do you call this kind of shrub land? When your camel goes wandering through there, do you have a name? They would tell us geographic name is called so-and-so and we said no, no, we are not asking the name of the place. We want to know whether you have like a generic? They didn’t understand what we were saying. They thought we were nutters, you know, so they would sort of roll their eyes. Finally, we met a guy and he said we call that Thal and we realized that Thal is actually probably the original word for Thar. We call it the Thar Desert, right? Probably just based on the fact, the British heard the word thal, didn’t know how to pronounce it or spell it and wrote T H A R, because the thal is actually midway between an L and an R in terms of the said sound.

Interestingly in Pakistan, they spell it T H U L L you know, but here it’s Thar. We then looked it up on Google. It said that Colonel James Todd traveling on camel back from Sind to Jaisalmer in 1829, out in the natural jungle of the desert. Calls it the Roee. We said, my god, we have discovered a local Marwari word for the natural shrub land of the desert, which is now severely threatened by all the stuff that’s going on.

We thought to ourselves, we ought to write about it. We need to get this word out into the vocabulary people use, when they think and talk about the desert. We also realized that my god, there are shrub lands in other parts of the world, they all have names. You have the Chaparral in California, you have the Fynbos in South Africa, the Maga in Western Australia, you have the Gehrig in the Mediterranean, they all have names and they are all beautifully, carefully conserved. They are all visited by tourists. People photograph these places, but we have one in Rajasthan and nobody cares what it is.

So when Kishan Bagh was happening, I thought that my god, this is my opportunity to try and sort of smuggle in the idea, the notion of the Roee and to try and insert it into the brains of people who visit the park. So in a sense, the notional center of Kishan Bagh is all about the Roee. It’s all about what a Roee is. Why a Roee happens? What are the different kinds of landforms on which Roee takes place? How does Roee change when the minerals change? How do the plants change?

Why is it important? Why is it important to actually value this land? So that’s why we have a whole section of the park, which is all about this. That’s what we mean about interpreting the desert and trying to get people to understand it. When we started doing that for the Roee we said, we can also do this for the rocks.

So we have another long section, which is all about rocks made of horst, basically of sand. Because these are all sandy dunes, let’s just stick to sandy. We don’t want to do all the rocks in the desert, because that would become much too voluminous, but let’s just take quartz as a substance and look at all the rocks, they are all made of quartz in one way or the other, including some of the igneous rocks. So there is a whole section that explains what all these rocks are about.

Image credit: Pradip Krishen

I think if there’s one thing that I am very proud of in the park, it is how we have managed to write our science, because science can go very wrong. They can be very scientific and very hard to understand, you know, uninviting. But we have tried really hard and really consciously to do these signs in a way that engage people. That sort of hooks a little bit of interest and hopefully will spur people to want to go further and go back maybe, and perhaps dial up aunty Google and say, Hey, you want to know more about this? All of these signs read in Hindi and English, a dual language thing. We have tried very hard to make these signs fun and easy to understand. That’s really what we meant by interpreting the desert and helping people to understand it now.

How do you think through a project while planting native species in an urban Indian landscape?

Oh I don’t know if I have any general principles to tell you how to, how one does that. I mean, it depends entirely on the landform, right? It depends a fair amount on instinct. But a lot of it depends, and this is something that I’m becoming more and more aware of. It is really important to find what they call a reference site, as your template. So for example, there are places in Delhi, where people have created diversity parks, parks with native plants, and they often make the mistake of planting too densely. When the actual native forest type is actually an open forest and not a dense woodland. It is very easy to plant density.

All you have to do is just stick things like a Milwaukee, you know, horrible Milwaukee forest. But if you have good sense, then it is very useful to then try and use that reference site. To look at what are the communities that you plant together? How do plants relate to each other? How do plants, you know, what are they like in physical relationship with each other, how close do they grow? It would be very easy for us, for example, in the kitchen, to grow things much too close to each other, but these are shrub lands and grassland. They are not forest. I haven’t worked with that many urban situations. I mean Jodhpur and Jaipur are the only two that I worked with. I’m now working with several other projects that are not particularly urban.

What role do you think this plays in addressing climate change, especially as cities and towns continue to experience water shortages and heat waves?

I don’t know whether it plays any particular role in terms of climate change. I think that, what, what we hope will happen is that, we are not a particularly aware society in terms of nature. I’ll give you one stark example. We have something like 2,600 species of native trees in this country. That’s a pretty staggering number, you know, especially when you consider that the whole of the United States, which is much larger than India, has about 1300 species or half of us. The whole of Europe excluding Russia, has about a thousand species. Britain, including Scotland and Ireland has something like 30 species. England alone, it’s something like 11 or 12 species. So 2,600 is almost an embarrassingly rich amount of species. Of course, China has more, Indonesia has more, the Amazon basin has more, but do you know how many species of trees we actually use? In, in our parks and in our gardens and on our roadsides, it’s less than a hundred. It’s less than a hundred species out of 2,600.

It’s as if, as a civilization, we are not interested, you know, they are out there somewhere. You know, when I did my book about the trees of central India, I kept coming across these gorgeous trees, and they have never been used, for a park or a street. When I go to Rajasthan, you see these wonderful roads, between say, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. The reason these roads are beautiful is these are border roads and the army needs to move on them really broad, beautifully tarmac roads.

There is some nutcase from Bali who has said, I’m going to plant two crore neem trees and that’s his way of ensuring he goes to heaven. So he has got these miserable neem trees growing inside tight little jaalis. He has these watering tankers come and water them every week. These trees are miserable. Why not plant native trees? When you drive through these places, you see such beauty, you see the Royda, the Jahl and the Kankero. Gorgeous trees and you can’t help but exclaim about them. Why not plant them on the road side?

The answer is, Bas milta nahi hai nursery mein, but what is the problem in growing these things? Why do you need a nursery? You are the forest department, you know? So it is very weird that we are as blind and as insensitive to nature all around us.

When I wrote my first book about the trees of Delhi, that’s what I felt after it came out, people were so grateful to be given a little bit of help to understand these things that they saw around them, that were opaque to them. They didn’t know what they were. They were there, you know? So when I do a park, I’m not consciously trying to do something in terms of either climate change or education or anything? My primary purpose is I think partly aesthetic. I’ve never seen beauty, natural beauty, like I see in a forest.

I spent three years traveling through central India for my book on the jungle trees of central India. I’ve never seen things as beautiful as I’ve seen in, you know, in the jungle. So it just makes sense that if you are creating a park or an assemblage of trees or bushes or grass or whatever, you imitate nature, you try and imitate nature.

Image credit: Pradip Krishen

Maybe you can never be as good as what you see out there. I’ll give you an example. Maybe as much as 80 or 85% of all the trees that you get in a dry deciduous jungle in central India, when they first come into new leaf, the new leaf is in some part of the, the red part of the spectrum. A zillion different kinds of reds, from dusty red to a bright vermilion. I would travel from late March through April and May, I would just see this amazing sight of all these trees in the new flush of leaves.

I thought, how interesting, I mean, this is what we read about when we read about autumn and fall in a temperate forest. We know what happens, we know why leaves turn red. Now in a temperate forest, what’s happening is that basically when you have a leaf there, the chlorophyll is masking the other pigments that exist in a leaf, right? So there are pigments like carotene and xanthophyll to fill in other pigments, browns and yellows and reds that exist in a leaf. But they are masked by the green of the chlorophyll. So when it’s time for the leaf to fall, the chlorophyll is withdrawn by the tree. Therefore these colors are unmasked and that’s why you get the reds of the maples and so on.

Here the same thing seems to be happening in reverse. Instead of happening at the end of a tree’s life or the end of the leaf’s life, it is happening when the leaf is first being produced. That is to say that the chlorophyll is not entering the leaf in the very beginning. And I began to wonder why this? Why would nature make this happen? Nature always works for a reason. It’s never completely random.

And I started chasing this idea and trying to read up and there were various theories. One theory was that, look, it’s really hot when these trees are producing new leaves. April and May, maybe the red is like a sunblock? Blocking, the UV rays or something like that. Then there was a theory that, well maybe the tree is waiting for the leaves to grow older, before they become palatable to browsers. But then that doesn’t explain why all the leaves turn red. Why not just the lower leaves, right?

Then I found this very interesting theory. I think I believe it, what actually happens is that the greatest predators of leaves in a wild area are beetles, insects? Insects don’t see in the long wavelengths, in the reds.

So to be red is to be invisible to your greatest predators. So nature has worked so brilliantly that all the reds are a way of actually evading predation. Once I realized this, I’ve been waiting to write a book about how to plant trees in ways that imitate things, effects that you see in nature. For me, this is just one of the most brilliant things, but there isn’t a single landscape architect in India, who says, hey, let’s use the reds for a wonderful effect in May or in April. Why not? I mean, it’s ridiculous. So, these are the things I bear in mind when I’m doing, when I am doing a scheme.

Somebody might ask me to create a screen along a particular wall. I’m not looking then at the flowers, which are ephemeral and short-term. But I am looking at canopies, textures, colors and I am looking at how they interact with each other.

Climate change is a very complicated and a very interesting thing. You know, for me, the most important aspect of what I’m doing and what I’ve learned in the desert, is to try and be sustainable. But the sustainability is about water. It’s all about trying to create planting schemes that require absolutely no looking at.

So when I, when I first started working in Jodhpur, I did what I read about and what everybody seems to do, which is you do your gully, do your contour, trenching, plugging, you try and stop water from running off the land quickly.You try and hope it’s going to infiltrate the ground. It didn’t seem to have much effect, but we did it anyway. Then suddenly one day I thought, why am I doing this?

When I travel in the desert, I’m picking up seeds and I’m looking at the way things grow. This is a rocky desert, in Jodhpur, whereas it’s a sandy desert in Jaipur. Totally rocky and rhyolite volcanic rock in Jodhpur, you can look at a rocky hill and you find things growing at the very top, but there’s no soil at all. Forget about water. There’s no soil. They are growing in cracks. So why are we bothering about water when there are plants that can actually survive on their own, in these hideous conditions.

So maybe it is just a matter of actually understanding what the plants need. If you go to scientific flora, there is a lovely book called the Flora of the Indian desert by Dr. M.M Bhandari. It doesn’t tell you about ecology. It is basically just an arrangement of the plants, in the way that people assume they have evolved. It’s a taxonomic list.

So for me, what was very interesting was actually beginning to learn about what it is that a particular species needs and where it will grow. If it is suffering for want of water, then it’s the wrong plant in the wrong place. It must be allowed to die and be replaced by something else that’s going to be hardier. That was really what the whole sixteen years of working in Jodhpur was about, actually learning how these plants work, so that nothing gets watered, nothing has to be given any nutrients. They just grow on their own. And that was for me, the most wonderful thing.

A few questions and all answers have been shortened, while keeping the tone and tense of the recorded conversation intact.

Author bio: Rishita Chaudhary is a second-year student studying political science, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 15

Get ready for Ruddy: Detective fighting crime in the wild

Rohan Chakravarty, the founder of Green Humour, is a cartoonist who integrates humour and art to draw attention to wildlife and conservation. After being published in magazines such as Sanctuary Asia, Saveur, having newspaper columns for the Hindu and writing books such as Green Humour for a Greying Planet, he is back with another exciting book — Naturalist Ruddy – Adventurer Sleuth Mongoose. This latest project follows the journey of Ruddy taking on the role of a detective to fight crime happening in the wildlife world. In this interview, he discusses how the idea of Ruddy came about, the research that went into it and what readers can expect from his latest creation.

Part of Issue 15 of Open Axis, which focuses on interviews with path breaking Indians responding to climate change challenges.

Video: 15 min

Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 15

From animal rights to mining bans: Why this Padma Shri awardee is a pioneer to learn from

“Initially there was disbelief and denial,” explains social worker and environmental lawyer, Norma Alvares, on how the climate change conversation has shifted. 

“Climate change was seen even by our national leaders as some theory from the Western world which had the luxury to think about such matters. But the last few years have brought climate change to the doorstep of every Indian – in the form of unseasonal rain, unprecedented heat waves, very dry climate at times and then floods at another.”

Norma Alvares, president of the NGO People for Animals, has in the past, led a PFA campaign that ended cattle transport by rail. If you can see a green or brown dot on packaged foods in India, it was PFA’s petition twenty years ago, that helps consumers identify vegetarian, from those items which have animal ingredients. Ditto for making dissection optional in biology classes in schools across India. PFA’s website is full of actionable advice and gives a sense of a nascent but growing animal rights movement, rooted in local and Indian realities. The overarching aim remains, an animal welfare center in each of the nation’s six hundred districts. Norma has also been instrumental in getting a bullfighting ban in her native Goa. “[I]t is enforcing the ban which is the problem because the Govt prefers to turn a blind eye to bullfighting in order to get the votes of the young men who want bullfights.” The PFA was then also able to ban the brutal shooting of stray dogs, a common practice in Goa. “We managed to get shooting banned, but the Court also said there must be a program to control the stray dog population. Fortunately, the Panjim Municipal Council offered us land for an animal shelter and we started a sterilization programme there.

A Padma Shri awardee for social work in 2002, she remains a relentless doer. Currently, she is the chairperson for the Federation for Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO), India’s apex animal rights organisation. Earlier this year, FIAPO & ACGS (All Creatures Great and Small, an NCR based animal care centre) led a joint study on 250 fish and shrimp farms across the 10 highest fish producing states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Gujarat, West Bengal, Odisha, along with freshwater farms in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Assam. They found 100% of the fish and shrimp farms in these states had toxic levels of lead and cadmium. All shrimp farms were also found to be releasing this toxic wastewater directly into the nearby canals or estuaries. FIAPO’s hands-on in a variety of ways, for instance, their ‘Learning Animal initiative offers insight into the multiple strategies and tactics used for protecting animals. Practical on-site first-aid programs and timely inputs between the members in their local chapters, or FAPOs as they call them, allow finite resources to be used sensibly and sensitively.

In 1986, Norma and her husband Claude Alvares set up the Goa Foundation, a year later they had filed their first PIL. Battling illegal mining in their home state since 1992, “around 2004, the scale of mining operations expanded massively, and the devastation had become extensive in every mining-related area,” says Norma in an interview with The Better India

Gathering ground evidence from every possible front, be it waste to mine safety, transport hazard to missing consent, it took 18 PILs, a Shah Commission Report on Goa’s illegal mining activity in the Parliament, and moving their cases to the Supreme Court that first got all mining post-2007 banned. Stalling and overriding responses did not deter the Goa Foundation duo. Despite the cancellation of 88 mining leases that Goa renewed again, it is in 2021 that the Supreme Court has ruled that no legacy mining leases can be revived.

Speaking on Goa Foundation’s vigilant focus for decades, Norma is frank, “People come all the time now for help as they have seen the work of the GF. They are also encouraged to come forward and fight for protection of their areas because they know that no one else will fight if they are not bothered.” 

Goa Foundation’s Green Goa Works Environmental Company also set up Other India Bookstore, where Marathi titles and books on organic farming combine readability and depth, with thinking through alternatives. Of the many concerns and activities of the bookstore, “marketing of literature generated by social activists” and collating and documenting “literature on health, agriculture, and education.”

With Diwali approaching, Norma explains what this can mean for animals,“[a]nimals are driven crazy by firecrackers. Dogs are extremely sensitive and in desperation, they simply run blindly to escape the continuous pounding. Many a time [sic] [animals] cant [sic] find their way back. or get run over by vehicles. Thankfully in recent years, there is a decline in the extremely loud crackers, But still, not enough.”

Cutting through the heart of climate change dilly-dallying, she says simply, “We have to protect our environment if we have to survive. However, the people still don’t [sic] seem to care enough to make changes in their lifestyle, it is not that such phenomena did not exist earlier. But now they occur with regularity and that is a clear warning that climate change is at hand.”

Her parting shot, says it like it is, “We will have loads of money, educational skills, and other talents, but without clean air, pure water, and some green around us, what good is all that?”

Cover image is taken from The Leaflet

Ishita Ahuja is a second-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She is an aspiring Literature major and Environmental Science minor, with an affinity for the outdoors. She hopes to become an environmental journalist soon.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 15

Cameras for community conservation? Rita Banerji on Green Hub

A unique fellowship programme where rural youth from eight Indian states of the Northeast have been training in conservation and the visual medium since 2015, comes to Madhya Pradesh’s capital city Bhopal in 2021. Devanshi Daga finds out from award winning wildlife filmmaker and Founder Green Hub, Rita Banerji, how this can kickstart a dialogue in the village communities, the Green Hub fellows and alumni come from.

Part of Issue 15 of Open Axis, which focuses on interviews with path breaking Indians responding to climate change challenges.

Video: 15 min

Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 15

‘India can be a R&D centre for the poor to be sustainable’: Harish Hande’s decade as a catalyst

2021 marks a decade since Dr. Harish Hande was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay for social entrepreneurship. It also marks ten years since he started SELCO’s first Integrated Energy Centre at busy junctions across India. Excerpt from an Open Axis interview series, focussed on how path-breaking Indians are responding to the climate change challenge. 

Q: Can you please tell us about an innovative project you led in 2021? 

A: The projects we did this year mostly were on the health side, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, many of the public health centres in our country got powered by solar, leading to better reliability of electricity for both ventilators and oxygen, and maternal labour rooms. So, I would say those would be the most impactful programs we would have done this year. 

Image credit: SELCO Foundation

Q: In September 2021, SELCO partnered with the Union Ministry of Health, to provide solar health facilities in ten districts across five states. What is your vision for this project?

A: My vision is, the ten districts are just the first pilot phase. Hopefully, with the collaboration between the Government of India, SELCO, and the Government of Odisha, Karnataka, Meghalaya, and Manipur, would lead to at least twenty to twenty-two thousand public health centres in our country with reliable solar power. Moving the needle of sustainability between health and energy. That would lead to more number of centres across the country. So becoming a kind of an example for other countries to follow. Ultimately, we make sure that the 1.3 billion people of our country are able to access health in the most affordable and sustainable manner. So, this project is towards that goal.

(Note: Over the last one year in a range of other COVID-19 support, the Kumbharapada potters of Puri (Kumbharapada means the place the potters stay, in Odia) who made pots for devotees at the Jagannath Temple were stuck with zero-income during lockdowns. From ration kits for the most vulnerable among them and consultations with households on better market linkage, SELCO’s ground teams are also said to have offered quick turnaround to space constraint and resource crunch issues by making ambulances go solar, creating mobile swab vans for testing on the street in Odisha and in areas where there are no public health centres, getting solar hospitals up and running in less than a month.)

Q: Reports say the pandemic has increased inequality and challenges for the poor. What have been some of your observations in the field?

A: Surely, it has. Not only have the poor lost their opportunities, but they also do not have access (Says number one, as if counting mentally, making point by point) first to technology and have no options to work from home. While many of the people who have had the option to work from home, not only got their salaries, but also have reduced their expenses by not going to restaurants or movie theatres. Which in fact led to an increase in their savings. However, for the poor, it has been precisely the opposite because of the dire strait. Many of the poor had to sell their assets like their land or jewelry, because of the hunger in their house. So it has definitely led to an increased disparity. That is what concerns a lot of us more than just the pandemic — How do you make sure the 200 million Indians who went into poverty in the last one year, do have an adequate and equitable chance to come forward?

Q: How do you see the connection between poverty reduction and sustainable energy?

A: The biggest connect is, if we have to decrease poverty in our country, we have to have people get access to better health, better education, and better livelihoods. The most economical and socially sustainable programs are the ones using sustainable energy as a catalyst, to create appropriate access to health to the remotest families and provide ample livelihood opportunities. So that’s where the link is between poverty reduction, sustainability, and climate. How do we make the poor resilient to the climate crisis? A lot of the poor are poor because they don’t have access to essential services. Many of them are poor because of the onslaught of climate change that is happening day in and day out in their particular fields. That is where sustainable energy becomes a catalyst.

Q: You have always emphasised the difference between intellectual poverty and financial poverty. Could you please tell our readers more about this difference?

A: If you look at the farmers who have been farming for many years, who might be poor, but a lot of people do not consider them as Agri-experts. Because our expertise is defined on the education levels that everybody gets. But not on the experience somebody goes into. So a paddy farmer is much more of an expert than an agricultural professor in many ways. A car mechanic, in many ways, is much better than a mechanical engineer per se. 

So how do we define what expertise is in this country – it all depends on the paper education we all get. It is high time we went away from this whole concept of paper degrees and education and where somebody has qualified from. So, I think we need to get away from that competitive race which is not leading our country anywhere. So, how do we give honour and respect to people who actually have the experience, like the cotton farmer, the shop guy, the guy who does the ironing of clothes, et cetera? They are all experts. So…

Q: I wanted to ask you about your collaboration with the Karnataka Vikas Grameena Bank. Out of  615 branches, 170 of them in remote rural areas run on solar power since 2018. Could you please tell us the response of the people who visited the bank and work there?

A: One of the biggest challenges for people at the bank branches who work in the remotest areas is the unreliability of power, which actually leads to lack of linkages to the central database, providing loans to the poor who come to the banks. And number three, the uncomfortableness in the space, for the employees of the bankers, to actually stay there. And also save what was an extra burden on the bank, to provide inverters and diesel generators to these 170.

So they came up along with some colleagues at SELCO, with an innovative solution to provide decentralized solar systems to these banks, leading them to becoming very reliable and making services to the poor accessible. So that the poor did not have to come back again and again, making sure that their cost of transaction with the bank was reduced. Because, many a time, they would go to the bank and there is no power. So I think it is more the well-being of the staff, the reliability increased, there’s better disbursement of loans, leading to fewer hassles for the people and the clients that were coming to these 170 branches. 

Q: Could you tell us how the response has changed over the years?

A: I think not much. Because after that, COVID hit, because of which, the banking sector in the country itself has gone down. But I would say Karnataka Vikas Grameena bank (KVGB) has been innovative right from, not 2018 — but they started working in this from 1995. So they are a pioneering bank who started this whole concept approximately twenty-six years ago. So I would say it’s more than just 2018, and unfortunately, the success of KVGB bank is not very much publicized in India, though it is more known outside the country than in India. It was also the first bank in the world to finance solar, to its end users. 

Q: It has been ten years since SELCO’s first integrated centre was set up. Could you please tell our readers more about what one such centre does? 

A: So the concept of IEC – The Integrated Energy Centre (IEC) came up many years ago, saying that rather than the poor buying the solar panels, is there a way that they could rent out the services per se, right? So we put up IECs in front of temples, churches, mosques, and busier places, where when people stay there, want to go and see the god, takes about five or six hours, so you put your cellphone there and the cellphone gets charged, and there’s a solar water purification system that actually leads to, rather than buying 10 rupees of clean water somewhere, they get it for one rupee. So these are services that integrate energy centres, so you create livelihoods. In the evening, the flower shop owners can rent out the lights and give them back at 10 p.m. In there, there is actually a refrigerator in which the flower pluckers can keep the flowers overnight if they have not been sold.

So how do you create these livelihood centers run by solar, provide essential services to the poor in and around that community so that was the concept of the Integrated Energy Centre. Which could be done in these large floating population areas, whether it is the bus stand or the local markets that used to take place on Thursdays or Wednesdays. That’s IEC…

Q: So is it like a module that can change later to other needs? 

A: Yes, for instance, it can become a disaster room area, after floods. Photostat centre, think any services. It can be turned into a maternity labour room in 24 hours. 

Q: Like the Covid hospital you built?

A: Yes, a hospital can be built in 14-21 days, that’s the beauty of solar, you can get it when you need it.

Q: How is your organization, SELCO’s work, aligned with the global discussion at the Glasgow CoP26 Climate Change conference? 

A: I think (quiet for a moment, nods head and disagrees) I’m not sure it is linked, it may be linked but overall, countries that are contributing to greenhouse gases for so many years have to take more responsibility. We are pushing that India can be an R&D centre for the poor to be sustainable. That’s what SELCO is pushing for development, sustainability, and making the poor climate-resilient, using India as an R&D centre, in a manner that the poor Africans, Latin Americans, as well as Southeast Asians could then replicate what India is doing. Linked to climate change, linked to CoP26. But I think CoP 26 is still not grounded — it still talks about a lot of things in the air.

India is doing a lot more than just creating a grid. India is looking at the health-energy nexus, livelihood-energy nexus, education-energy nexus, gender-energy nexus. It is much more than just providing a solar grid. India is also doing a lot in the agricultural space, animal-husbandry space, resilient micro-business space. There are individual programs happening in different parts of the country, trying their best to make sure that the poor of this country are climate-resilient in terms of getting access to essential services like health, education, and livelihoods.

So I think it is just more than from the supply side that one needs to look at. It is not just about the solar grid. We need to look at it from a demand perspective. I think there are programs in India doing much more than just what the COP 26 is telling, it is more than that.

Image credit: SELCO Foundation.

How access to solar impacts girls and women run home businesses like sewing.
Image credit: Twitter/HarishHande
Image Credit: Twitter/HarishHande.
SELCO’s Integrated Energy Centre, a space to run businesses powered by solar energy.

Q: India plans to put forth its One Sun One World One Grid (OSOWOG) idea at the Glasgow Summit. India aims to have a global solar grid. Since you have been in this sector for many years, do you think this will work? 

A: I would break it into two parts. I think it’s about using the sun, as one source, and the grid need not be one grid per se, but individual people using their own way to do solar. Whether I need a smaller solar panel, he or she or a factory needs a larger solar panel, so, as long as we have one sustainable source, that is equivalent to having one grid, but having it in a decentralized fashion is what I would push for. Because if I have to look at a blacksmith who needs a smaller solar panel, while a silk weaver who needs a different solar panel per se, but they all are using solar energy to provide for their needs, I do not need to connect them by wires. It is like a little more modified way of thinking of mobile and telephones, for example. For example, no wires are connected, but communications are one. So I would push that agenda forward, saying that there is one source: the sun, but very different ways of reaching it out.

Image credit: Twitter/HarishHande
In Devanahalli, Karnataka, under solar-powered lights, mulberry silk production management. 
Image credit: SELCO foundation. 
A blacksmith using solar energy in Assam. 

Q: How can governments or communities change their attitude to decentralised renewable energy? 

A: I think more than the government; individual citizens need to change. We have relied too much saying that the government has to do it. I think what are the individual citizens in this country, especially the middle class and upper-middle-class, they are the biggest polluters, they need to change. They need to be more sustainable rather than living on the subsidies of the poor. I think it is high time that the middle class and above class took responsibility for our country or for that matter any country, and ask what is our goal of sustainability?

The wastage, I think, for example, we should collect garbage from everybody’s house, and they need to pay according to the weight of the garbage they have created. I mean, in a decentralized fashion, pay for what you are doing. You might get water in this Bisleri, but the poor have to pay for the disposal of your bottle.

And that’s exactly why unless every citizen of any country takes responsibility and that can only happen in a very decentralized fashion, where you create decentralization of decision-making and democratization. And one of these solutions is distributed renewable energy. So, you break away from these centralized power structures, including electricity. 

Q: In your Linkedin profile, you have mentioned how you spent 3-5 years trying to get a Masters and a PhD, that you are not sure has come to any use. What kind of courses need to exist in the college curriculum to talk about renewable energy?

A: The first thing is that we should stop the whole concept of exams. Exams make no sense. What are you examining against? 

So I would say, how do you create a program or a project-based or experienced-based education for kids, rather than examination. Do theoretical, theoretical is as important as practical, but do theory on the field. I mean, if somebody wants to study rice paddy, go and do paddy field work for like six months. If you want to study a street vendor, be a street vendor for a year, along with other street vendors. As we study more, we become less useful to society. So, I think our expertise is a fallacy and an absolute waste of time. I would push the youngsters to be on the field all the time, on the roads, on top of the mountains and start doing it rather than writing about it.

I mean, writing is the easiest. I mean Facebook, Twitter, and all that. I mean, tell me how many farmers actually go – I have grown X number of sugarcane. I think it’s a very wrong way of publicizing oneself. So my only question, when people, professors ask me or tell me, or send me their resume, tell me how many people got impacted by one paper that you wrote.

Q: What do you think India is doing right in decentralising energy to end poverty?

A: We are a vibrant democracy. I can actually go to any rural part of this country and work with local banks, local civil societies, local NGOs, local entrepreneurs and enterprises. I think it’s not about what India is doing right or wrong. And I would say, as a country, we offer to the world, enormous opportunities for innovation, right from dry areas of Raichur to the wet areas of Meghalaya, to the terrains of Manipur, to the flat lines of Gujarat to the innovators of enormous options. That is why India is an R&D hub for the world in many ways.

I think that is where I would say citizens and many of the educational universities are not getting it right. We are creating a xerox of all students coming out. We are not teaching the kids to be taking risks, taking to be highly innovative and fail. If India has to get it right, the citizens and the academic institutions need to change and celebrate failures, not one or two successes. 

Image credit: Twitter/Harish Hande
SELCO Pvt. Ltd. and North Eastern Karnataka Road Transport Corporation (NEKRTC) create a mobile restroom for women using an old scrapped bus in early 2021. NEKRTC since July 2021 has become KKRTC. 

Note: The interview was done via a video conferencing tool on October 24, 2021. The order of the questions in this published version has been changed for better readability. Mr. Hande’s responses have not been altered, except the last two have been shortened for brevity. You can read more about his work here.

(Cover image credit: SELCO Foundation)

Cefil is a student of Mathematics and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 15

Bittu Sahgal: “Young people want to protect the environment, but don’t have their hands on the wheel”

Institutionalised conservation efforts in India started with the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 and the launch of the Project Tiger – to conserve the apex predator and its habitat – in 1973. The then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, had already laid the foundation for these by hosting in Delhi the general assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1969 and participating in the United Nations Conference on the Environment at Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. 

As a young man in the 1970s, Bittu Sahgal, was attracted to conservation from its leaders such as Kailash Sankhala and Salim Ali. He started participating in the Project Tiger activities. Nudged by forester and conservationist Fateh Singh Rathore to do something more enduring, Sahgal started the Sanctuary Asia magazine, which continues to be published even today.

In addition to his schooling by the greats in the conservation field, Sahgal’s exposure to environmentalists and development activists such as Sunderlal Bahuguna, Baba Amte and Shivaram Karanth anchored his social concerns. Thus after years of championing the conservation cause, he talks about the need for conservationists and human rights activists must come together and “stop this bickering.”

To put words into action, Sahgal established the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, and has initiated projects such as ‘Kids for Tigers’ and ‘Mud on Boots’ to initiate the younger generation into conservation.

Mongabay:  I have with me pioneering environment journalist, editor, activist, conservationist, Mr. Bittu Sahgal. You have been publishing Sanctuary Asia since 1984 and environment journalism has gone through lots of changes. How has the environment journalism field changed over the decades? 

Bittu Sahgal: Well, the field has changed considerably, because our knowledge of the biosphere and our knowledge of human nature has suddenly changed. When we started out quite honestly, all we were looking to do was to save the large animals as an excuse to save large spaces. Project Tiger, for instance, it wasn’t the tiger, the tiger was just a metaphor. We knew that. I’ll never forget sitting down in a meeting where Kailash Sankhla was talking to us and said, look, don’t ever count tigers. You just see whether the water that used to dry in the month of November and December continues to run full. The streams run full till January, February, and March. And when they run full till June, then you know that everything is okay, the tigers will come back. 

So in other words, whether it was the tiger or the elephant or the rhino or the xyz or the great Indian bustard, a simple thing was that nature knows best. Protect the biosphere, protect the ecosystems, and everything will look after itself, because human beings are not the best tree planters, we are not the best caretakers, all we can do is be watchful, and just make sure nobody else damages it. And everything will be alright.

But of course, there’s much more to it than that, you know. You can well imagine with Baba Amte and Sundarlal Bahuguna, literally feeding us with news that okay,  we’re human beings. So we must make sure that those people living on the lowest rung are the primary beneficiaries of biodiversity restoration. It was a very complicated time because India had gone on an almost insane spree of destroying ecosystems in order to give human beings, I don’t know, it can’t be called livelihoods.  Everybody’s game then was, the World Bank’s game was, to raise people’s status to above middle class, make them as rich as you are, make them as greedy as you are, if you want to put it that way. And then, yeah, I suppose really what is required is that people like us have to reduce our consumption, not increase it. And people at the very bottom, they had to increase their consumption because they had no consumption. So it was all a very complicated thing, at one level you’re looking to save the biosphere and on another level, you’re looking to protect the communities that exist, who are living at the lowest, lowest levels of survival. 

And the greatest tragedy of my days, if you look at, if you really want to know what the problem was, it was that those fighting for human rights and those fighting for the biosphere, were unable to come together after the passage of the doyens of yesterday. Baba Amte, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Shivaram Karanth, all signed a joint appeal to the then Prime Minister, that said: “Baag Bachao Bharat Bachao” (save the tiger, save India). They knew that saving the tiger meant saving the sources of water, they knew that without saving the forests, the cultures will go. But today things are a little different. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But I’m sure there are many more questions we have to ask.

February 2021 and April 2020 edition of Sanctuary Asia magazine. Covers from Sanctuary Asia.February 2021 and April 2020 edition of Sanctuary Asia magazine. Covers from Sanctuary Asia.

Mongabay: So when you started, I’m sure that there was maybe less awareness. Because as you said, there’s far more awareness and far more feedback loops [today], because we do see these extreme weather events visiting us almost every year. Mumbai gets more than its share of floods almost every monsoon. It should be starting out in a few months now. But I’m sure when you started out and when you started talking about large species, large, charismatic species, did you face the criticism of being elitist? And then how has that transition happened over the decades? How did you sort of convince people of the policy and public impact of the work that you were doing?

Bittu Sahgal: It wasn’t just, I mean, the least of all the criticisms was that we are elitist. You know at one point in one of these meetings where I was playing that near-impossible role of trying to bring two sectors together – the human rights guys, and the guys protecting the biosphere – I was told that “You know, you elitist middle-class guys, you’re looking to protect the tiger.” So I said, look, I am elitist. I am middle class, I am the problem, I am everything. But show me one elitist tiger or one elitist elephant? Don’t you think that those creatures require to be protected because they are the gardeners of Eden? 

So at that time, somehow or the other, the thinking minds understood that it was not just to the economists and policymakers that we would address. We were together when it came to addressing policymakers on the impact or the negative impact of large dams. But we were still … it was my failure. It was my failure. You know, I could not convince people that worshipping the mahua tree makes no sense unless you also worship the moth in the back that pollinates the mahua tree, which the adivasis in Bastar did, they worshipped every creature, they worship the ants! So this whole idea of wildlife becoming elitist, it became elitist, possibly because of the fact that we were poor communicators, that there were very, very tight, sort of positions taken and human egos were very, very large. And let’s put it like this. The bottom line is, as of now, we failed India. My generation failed India.

Mongabay: I think that you’re just being very humble and modest and just saying this. We all know that through the years that you have been running Sanctuary and running campaigns through Sanctuary, you’ve had impacts on the ground, impacts in public perception, impacts in policy and policy level impacts. Do you want to share with our viewers a couple of one or two incidents where the work that you did through Sanctuary had an impact?

Bittu Sahgal: Well, I would say the first thing that happened in the mid-80s was that when we started Sanctuary in 1981, it was at the behest of Fateh Singh Rathore, who said that you city guys are no good. Really, when I asked him that, can you tell me what I can do to save the tiger? He said you guys are no good, go back to Bombay, have a few parties and come back next year, ask the same question. What are you guys good for? So that’s what launched Sanctuary. 

But when we launched Sanctuary, we discovered that there were some people who loved what we were doing, they were the minority. And a large number of people accused me of being a CIA spy. I’ve been accused of being a tiger bone trader by people to whom we were saying, please stop these tiger shows that are taking place in Madhya Pradesh and things like this, because you’re cornering the tiger and so on and so forth. So, there were these splits and divisions. 

But the elitism and the human rights abuses of the earliest protection of wildlife have substance because it was English-speaking people who spoke out largely because of the socio-economic situation in India, where people living in villages had no voice to start with, there was only Doordarshan when we started, there was no social media, no nothing else. So when you talk of environmental journalism at that point, just take the television out of the picture. Because you could only say at that point what Doordarshan agreed to have you say, All India Radio, but the journalists, they were thinkers, they could have used anything. You take Claude Alvares, Vandana Shiva, Medha Patkar, you take all these greats. You know Shivram Karanth used to write poetry. Sugatha Kumari, these were the greats! And journalism at that point of the nature that you spoke off with Claude Alvares.

Traditional journalism really came to its fruition when Dr. Manmohan Singh introduced and opened up the markets in 1990. All these industries that were now being told you can’t now operate because you’re poisoning, you’re killing, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, they all came to India. So we began to focus on them and saying that if you want to bring the capital in, then please bring the checks and balances which include environmental impacts, ecological impacts, allow those laws to be done. And to be fair, at that point, if you look at Indira Gandhi or you look at Rajeev Gandhi, then what you will find is that all the laws, the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, CRZ Act in 1990, we had the best environmental legislation in the world, bar none. But we had amongst the worst implementation. So we kept on. It was just a question of keeping on. Gopi, it wasn’t a question of our being extra smart. It was a question of us being persistent. And the truth was on our side.

Bittu Sahgal started the publication Sanctuary Asia in 1981, after being involved with India’s tiger conservation efforts in the 1970s. Photo from Sanctuary Nature Foundation.Bittu Sahgal started the publication Sanctuary Asia in 1981, after being involved with India’s tiger conservation efforts in the 1970s. Photo from Sanctuary Nature Foundation.

Mongabay: I know you touched about it just now, how 1991 being one major watershed where, till then environmentalism was one shape – the Chipko, Silent Valley, Narmada, Ferkuva where there were people [protesting] – and then post 1991, it took another shape, because environmentalism itself sort of became a very middle class concern, because urban middle class grew in numbers, and the focus was on urban middle class and middle class concerns. So in one way, middle class was talking about the environment, but in another way, it wasn’t sort of picking up the issues, the real issues, they were picking up issues which they liked  to pick up, so how, how do you think we journalists can sort of try and find this balance in between this?

Bittu Sahgal: Even though there were two ends of the string, you know, real issues and issues that somebody wanted to pick up, the fact is, you pick up any thread, and you reach to the same place if you’re honest on the inside. And if you looked at the Chipko movement, what was the Chipko movement doing? They were saying, look, don’t cut these trees down. Because these trees are our life. These trees are our water, these trees are our forests. But the trees themselves were being looked after, the wildlife which managed to flourish in forests that they prevented from being destroyed. So, in a sense, the Chipko movement was one of the first and finest wildlife movements in India. 

After that came Project Tiger where, by that time already the wildlife trade had become such a huge thing. Tigers were being slaughtered. So there were people moved out, there were human rights abuses, that also became part of the journalists of yesterday, that how can you protect the tiger without abusing the human rights of those people living closest to the forest. 

There were many things, Gopi. It’s impossible to encompass in one interview, but I put it to you like this, that far away from let’s say, not very far away, far away from the heart of let’s say, tiger forests and elephant forests, there’s a place called Dahanu, the World Bank wanted to finance for BSES, a thermal plant of 500 megawatts, and it was heaven. Clean beaches, next to it a great forest, which were amongst the finest in India. And so I had filed a case in the Supreme Court at that point. And it was decided in our favour that the next 500-megawatt plant won’t come up. And that was the birth of the Eco Sensitive Zonation because around Dahanu, 25 kilometres came the order from the Supreme Court saying that for 25 kilometres, no other polluting industry, no mining but you could run chakkis, you could run cycle factories, you could do all the small things. 

Everything is sort of in upside down waves, and there are many, many more things than this, the CRZ, as I said, the Coastal Regulations Zone. In the 90s, we knew what was going to happen with carbon accumulation in the atmosphere. And we said the tides are going to get worse. And at that point, they allowed the legislation to go through primarily because I think not too many people were affected by that legislation, not too many large industries were affected. And then the tourism industry came in and said oh, we want to be right here, we want to do this, and we want to do that. So today, of course everything is being watered down. But all these things that were born in the 70s, 80s and 90s, at this point, the realisation has come in not because of any great thing we have done. But because of the hard evidence, a cyclone here, a flood there, a tsunami, an earthquake; because the reservoir-induced seismicity is a reality when large areas have flooded, we don’t know what’s happening or the Himalayan landslides that are taking place. 

So the shift of the younger generation and 50% of India is under 30 years old. So I think that they have greater investment and they have greater legitimacy to ask for a better future. And I’m not being humble. I’m being really sad and sorry; my generation was born doing nothing for freedom. And now we are colonising our children. And we are calling it development. And it’s not because people have got fangs and they want blood. It’s just that they don’t understand, they have not read the book, they have not understood that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. They have not understood this. 

So every time they go in and take a mangrove patch away from Mumbai or Thane Creek, they’re making sure that deep draft ships won’t come into the Mumbai port because of siltation. Every time they build roads, which should not be built in the Himalayas, they are going to destroy tourism because mudslides are going to take place.. Every time they put 100,000 crores of rupees into building large dams under the Himalaya. They’re stranded assets before they’ve even started or being finished. Because that the glaciers have melted, the river run data has changed, and so on and so forth. I think that like, you know, Gopi, evolution takes place, there’s evolution of minds, there’s evolution of purpose. And at some point, there will be an evolution of human beings who are called Homo sapiens, but I would call them Homo stupidus right now. Very stupid.

Mongabay: But are you seeing promise in the young generation? Because we are seeing climate action by very young people asking inconvenient questions, questions which the older people find unnecessary, irrelevant. But then these are the other questions that they need answers for. Because they’ll be facing the consequences of our actions in future.

Bittu Sahgal: I said earlier as well, the young people have the legitimacy to ask for a better world. And we run a programme called Kids for Tigers, which reaches out to a million people, we’ve been running it for 20 years. It’s a very butterfly touch. All we do is we say that, look, you can’t save the tiger, if you don’t save the forest, you save the forest, you’ve saved the water sources of more than 500 Rivers. And in the process of doing this, every time a bird drops a seed or an elephant drops seeds, and when they grow, then they’re pulling carbon down from the atmosphere and we are controlling climate change. We’re controlling floods, we are controlling droughts, and we are giving fertility to farms. 

So these connections, the young people understand but the young people don’t have their hands on the wheel right now. They’re just passengers sitting at the back. And their elders are taking the rear-view mirror out and saying, why are you looking back? They’re taking the brake out and saying why are you stopping progress from moving forward? And the young kids are saying, look, there’s a cliff over there, the car’s headed straight down, stop it, but their voices are not listened to because there’s glass between this young generation and my very arrogant, very ignorant, very avaricious, and very apathetic generation.

Bittu Sahgal with children in Pench National Park in central India. Projects such as ‘Kids for Tigers’ initiated several children into the natural world and conservation. Photo by Gaurav Shirodkar.Bittu Sahgal with children in Pench National Park in central India. Projects such as ‘Kids for Tigers’ initiated several children into the natural world and conservation. Photo by Gaurav Shirodkar.

Mongabay: But the hope is that at least some of the seeds that you have sown will bear fruit in decades to come. And it’s already [happening], there’s already voices coming. But I want to ask you about, a good amount of your work was on protecting species and that has borne fruit in the past few decades. But we keep hearing of a whole range of conflicts where humans have got into areas where there was wildlife, or wildlife is outside into areas where they were not there earlier. So how do you sort of see this bridge? Because I’m sure as an editor, much of the story ideas you get, would be on human wildlife conflict. And I mean, how do you look philosophically at this?

Bittu Sahgal: Well, I look at it as simple as this. In India, we say: “naa rahe baans naa baje bansuri” (if there is no reed there will be no flute). Young India will have to understand that it has no future unless and until it manages to restore the ecosystems, which gives the subcontinent life, all our cultures, all our music, all our dances, all our religions, all our medicine, it all came from nature. And unless we make sure that nature is supreme, everything else will be washed away, like matchsticks in a flood. So I would say to you right now that here is the situation. 

Project Tiger clearly had human rights abuses in the 1970s. I came into the picture in the mid-70s. But the fact of the matter is that there is no human right more essential and centric to survival, than the right to clean air, clean water, and safe food and soils that can produce food. So what the world is asking of us right now, and of young people are asking of this more so is that to stop this bickering, human rights and biosphere defenders must come together. And that is the only way we will change policy tomorrow. 

This reality is not just a question of young people and us talking, we’re talking to the economists. And we’re saying your natural capital is vanishing. It’s like “ameer baap ke ameer bete” (the rich sons of the rich father). They’re selling all the gold and diamonds and jewels and thrones and saying this is economics. This is not economics. A mangrove is an infrastructure. A forest is an infrastructure. A river is an infrastructure. A wetland, which is dry in summer and wet in the monsoons, is an infrastructure. Unless we accept it, unless the economists and planners and politicians and businessmen understand that you cannot destroy one infrastructure to build another, which is by any measure less valuable, then the economy of India is at the brink of collapse. 

There is no water left in India, there’s no water left in India, our aquifers are being poisoned, they’re being emptied, our glaciers are melting, our coastal aquifers are getting salinized because we are building too many dams and there is not enough water pressure to keep the salt water out. So at one level, there is this. But I don’t want to leave you, your generation and the generation after you with this world is coming to an end because the world will not come to an end, the world will not come to an end because nature is self-repairing. 

Unlike the Titanic, which sank even as people were playing Blue Danube in the stateroom. And even as the people in the boiler room were shouting, stop, stop, there’s something wrong, we got to do this. And on the deck, there were people who were let’s say, you know, the lifeboats were being washed away. The Titanic could not repair its own hull. But nature can repair everything. A dirty river will come back, a forest even while it is being cut, the bees and the birds and the monkeys are replanting. Everything will be alright. The only thing is that we’re making it very uncomfortable for the next generation. And I do believe that human beings will find the wisdom to stop doing what they’re doing now. But the carpet bagging that is going on in the name of it, economics has to stop, you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet.

Mongabay: And we saw some impacts of what you said, you know, nature rebounding during the first lockdown though it was not intended. It was not an intended consequence. But we did see a whole lot of benefits – people seeing the mountains, people seeing animals, which they hadn’t seen, etc. But we have sort of realised that systematically government policies have been diluting forest laws, wildlife laws, environmental impact assessment safeguards. In fact, in Mongabay, we have a series which we call Hewing the Regulatory Tree, you know, where it’s like a tree that’s being locked branch by branch. How do you think we as environment journalists can sort of work to protect this?

Bittu Sahgal: I think environmental journalists now need to be the glue between people who have the power to stop this misunderstood notion of what development is. It is time for human rights and social groups to come together. It is time for you, as a journalist, to explain to both groups who are today only slinging arrows at each other and they’re not sitting down and talking, that look, if we had Project Tiger that succeeded in protecting dry deciduous forest here, a rainforest there, you know a temperate forest here, then, outside that temperate forest, there are people living. It’s about time that those people’s lands that have been devastated by coal, by lignite, by iron ore, by all manner of destruction, it’s about time that we got together and told those people to call a halt. If we unite, then I can promise you this, it will not take 20 years, it will take four to five years. And India cannot only change policies, but the ecology of these places, the actual ecosystems can come back to life, the grasses, the bushes, the trees, it can come back to life. 

Let’s give a specific example. India is one of the world’s largest large dam builders, but almost to a dam they’re all dying early; their cost-benefit ratios were never fulfilled. Instead of relieving us from floods, they’re causing floods. Very often in places like Marathwada, at the end of the monsoon, even then, two months later, the reservoirs are empty. Why are they empty? They’re empty because a dam and its catchment forests are like your teeth and your gums. There’s no point doing orthodontia if you’ve got gum disease, which is going to cause your teeth to fall out. 

So what we need to do is to put back, look at what’s happened, more people have migrated away from cities to their villages, than migrated during independence. Now those people need jobs. Those jobs need to be to restore ecosystems of the catchment areas of large dams. So that floods are controlled, so that the reservoirs are filled, so that we can get agricultural supply and water supply. If we do this, please believe me, we don’t have to go planting trees like toothpicks to save the world. The bees, the butterflies, the moths, the fruit-eating bats, these are the ones. The elephants, the tigers; even the tiger plants grass, the grass seed gets onto the side and he goes and he plants, the grass that his prey eats and he depends upon it. Nature will fix itself. 

But we have to understand that this whole delusion that GDP will trickle wealth down. People don’t get wealth trickled down, they’re getting trickled on. And its better that we have people getting jobs to restore ecosystems. So that GDP begins to bubble up from down up. And people living close to the biodiversity that is still extant in India need to become the first beneficiaries of that biodiversity. 

I’m a Punjabi so I can say this. I don’t want a fat Punjabi contractor to come with a helicopter, drop some cement and say I run an eco lodge. I want that eco lodge to be owned by the people outside the protected area. These protected areas remaining in India are like the temple forests of yesterday. They are the vanarais (sacred groves). There they are the places where our ancients used to say, don’t go, don’t even walk through here because the spirits of our ancients will be disturbed. Treat them as temples now. And in the process of doing this, please believe me, dahi jamane ke liye jaman chahiye, abhi aap jaman ki lassi banayenge toh kya fayda? (to set curd, you need a starter, there’s no use making lassi with this starter).

The fact is, we should not lose hope. There are enough people even in my generation who understand. We need the unity to make sure that we talk rationally, and not be afraid of saying I love nature. All is born of love. But nature is also our protector. And this is the lesson we teach children. And we are now running an adult literacy programme. Each One, Teach One. Each child teaches an adult what the real priorities of life are, and we shall prevail. Mongabay will help us to do that.

Mongabay: How did the idea of the Mud on Boots project, where you’re supporting the grassroots environmentalists, evolve? Do you want to tell us?

Bittu Sahgal: That idea evolved from the mind of a young 11-year-old girl who turned 28 or 30 and said that we must form bridges between those protecting nature and those living with and close to nature, Mud on Boots are literally people who have got mud on their boots, they live on the ground. And so Cara Tejpal conceived a programme called Mud on Boots where we took different people from all over India, and we supported them in very small ways. 

Sajal Madhu, a Mud On Boots project leader, documenting details of an elephant attack in a village of Chhattisgarh in central India. Mud On Boots is a programme designed to empower on-ground conservationists across the country for biodiversity conservation and community engagement. Photo from Sajal Madhu/Sanctuary Nature Foundation.Sajal Madhu, a Mud On Boots project leader, documenting details of an elephant attack in a village of Chhattisgarh in central India. Mud On Boots is a programme designed to empower on-ground conservationists across the country for biodiversity conservation and community engagement. Photo from Sajal Madhu/Sanctuary Nature Foundation.

Sanctuary is not a large organisation, but we got donors to give us small grants. Those grants allowed one person to look at the ibex, another person to look at mangrove forests, a third person to try and reduce elephant-man conflict in Chhattisgarh, a fourth person to sit and look at the fishing cat somewhere in West Bengal. And like this, we went all over. And right now we are actually going to Kashmir. And in Kashmir, there are beautiful trekking routes. And there are people who know those forests there, they are Gujjars. So we’re working with the Gujjar families to say that look, just take an idiot like me to cycle up there and he will pay you enough money and thank you for introducing your beautiful mountains to him. In the process, you might see a bear, you might see the flowers of blue Poppy, we don’t know. So we want them to become the primary beneficiaries of biodiversity restoration. And if we do that, that’s Mud on Boots. It’s the Kaveri in one place, wonderful, wonderful people living there. And their message is simple. While Karnataka and Tamil Nadu fight over the waters of the Kaveri, who’s protecting the source of the Kaveri? And that source is being maintained by the wildlife of the Western Ghats. So we are trying to create those bridges. And we will create those bridges, and young people will do it. So this 11-year-old girl called Cara, who is now heading this project, she has at least another 1000 people like her, and we will soon be phased out. And all will be well again.

Mongabay: Yes. And that’s a very nice message to the future, and the future generation. The very last question I want to ask you about is that after the Covid-19 pandemic, impact on overall finances and economy of not just India but you know, everywhere. And that’s made an impact on environment journalism, and the space is shrinking, opportunities are shrinking. But there are a lot of environment journalists who still want to continue because they are there because of a certain agency and a certain drive. What’s the message you would like to give them, a message of endurance you would like to give the environment journalists?

Bittu Sahgal: I would give environmental journalists the message of endurance that says basically, that you’re on the right side of history. As far as this pandemic was concerned, they need to understand, they need to study they need to understand and not spout forth, and opinions that came second and third and fourth hand. Here is the truth with this pandemic. The pandemic was a direct result of the illegal wildlife trade in the world, which was something like USD 20 billion, or USD 30 billion. It was linked to human trafficking. It was linked to narcotics, it was linked to arms, and the operators were common. It started with a bat. 

There’s a man called David Quammen who wrote this in 2012. He said this is going to happen. The virus in the bat spilled over, he wrote a book called Spillover. It spilled over and then the largest traded mammal in the world today is the pangolin, the chances are that the virus spilled over into the pangolin. The pangolin was boiled and eaten. And virus came into the much larger host Homo stupidus – Homo sapiens. 

And the fact is that we lost USD 40 trillion in one year. USD 40 trillion dollars of global economy because we didn’t think it was important enough to staunch the wildlife trade, in combination with the staunching of all those other misunderstandings that I can take an entire valley and drown it so I can grow sugar cane, or I can take an entire area and completely obliterate it so I can build a new Collectorate for a city or like they are planning to do in Uttarakhand now. Destroy the elephant reserves so that we can expand an airport. 

Now, these are big boys with big toys, you know, they’ll be taught a lesson. But in the process, they might trample us. So I’m sorry, my truth is never something that comes out all sweet and nice. But whether you’re a human rights activist, whether you’re an economist, whether you’re an environmentalist, or a writer or a poet, you are dependent upon wild nature. And once we understand that you are dependent upon wild nature, you will also understand that whatever happened is cyclical. You know it’s cyclical, and things will come back to normal again, but a few people will be hurt. I would rather that people on the top get hurt, because they had been milking the system and playing, gaming the system for the last 50-100 years. And let the people at the bottom rungs of the ecological ladder become not only the repairers of, but the beneficiaries of restored ecosystems. 

We are going to win this battle. When I say we are going to win this battle, I am not talking of Homo sapiens, I’m talking about me as being a bumped-up monkey, which is all that I really am. I’m just an animal. And the system will survive. But it will break those who disobey. If we don’t adapt, then we are destined to die. Darwin said this a long time ago in different words. And it’s a good message for the corporate sector. It’s a good message for economists; it’s a good message for politicians. If you don’t adapt, you will be made irrelevant, which is sometimes worse than dying itself.

This article was originally published on Mongabay India 

Managing Editor, Mongabay-India. S. Gopikrishna Warrier (Gopi) is an environment journalist with years of experience in communication in Asia and Africa. Before joining Mongabay, he wrote environment stories for publications such as the India Climate Dialogue, Nature India, The Hindu, Frontline, Times of India, etc. He has been a media trainer and handled communication for international agricultural research organisations such as ICRISAT and the Africa Rice Center. He has earlier worked with The Hindu Business Line newspaper and Down to Earth magazine, and also a few national environmental NGOs.

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