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Issue 15

A Litigating Life: Meet the Indian environmental lawyer who won the Alternative Nobel 2021

‘Between January and June 2021, the Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife considered a total of 62 proposals in four meetings, out of which 29 proposals were for diversion within protected areas.’ This is from a vigilant status report published by LIFE (Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment), an Indian environment law non-profit. Timely status reports and policy briefs offering accessible legal analysis on the workings of national environmental institutions is a part of their initiative. Winning a landmark case against the British mining company Vedanta in Odisha, the Supreme Court of India reiterated that consent of the local community is key, LIFE has also been instrumental in the setting up of the National Green Tribunal in India. In September 2021, LIFE was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize ‘for innovative legal work empowering communities to protect their resources in the pursuit of environmental democracy in India.’ Meera Anand speaks to Ritwick Dutta, one of the two founding environmental lawyers of LIFE, on a 15-year journey, in providing judicial access to Indians at the climate change frontlines.

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

Video: 15 min

Meera Anand is a third year undergraduate student from Ashoka University. She is currently pursuing Economics as a major and Media Studies as a minor.

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).

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Issue 15

Issue XV: Editor’s Note

Adapt to restore ecosystems and protect communities. Mobilize major climate finance. Collaborate and accelerate actions that keep the 1.5-degree target within reach. These are the COP 26 focus areas at Glasgow’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), between October 31 – November 12, 2021. As global leaders discuss the doable, we feature interviews with doers. Ordinary Indians responding with urgency to climate change. Each of them has worked on one particular aspect of environmental consciousness in India for over a decade and in some cases, decades. All of them with one thing in common – a can-do spirit that is creative, resilient, and inclusive. Meet them in Issue 15 of Open Axis.

In a 15 min video chat with Right Livelihood 2021 Award winner, environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, Meera Anand’s interview helps us understand what social justice means in the spirit and letter of the law. With some granular details of cases fought by him that might leave you bemused.

For Mongabay – India, S. Gopikrishna Warrier interviews conservationist and environmental journalist, Bittu Sehgal, the founder of Sanctuary Asia, a leading magazine for wildlife science and conservation.

Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and social entrepreneur Harish Hande, since the 90s has been implementing ways in which sustainable energy and poverty reduction can speak for each other. Cefil Joseph Soans catches up with Harish to ask about his effort during the pandemic, what SELCO Foundation’s first Integrated Center is doing after a decade and the possibilities of solar.

After 5 years of community conservation with rural youth across the 8 states of the North-East, the Green Hub fellowship programme is in Madhya Pradesh in 2021. Devanshi Daga in a video interview with award-winning wildlife filmmaker and Founder Green Hub, Rita Banerji, finds out how this empowers youth from far-flung areas.

From animal rights to mining bans, activist, lawyer, and co-founder of the eco-action group, Goa Foundation, Padma Shri Norma Alvares speaks with Ishita Ahuja on climate change and a growing animal rights movement.

Rohan Chakravarty mixes green humour, with his love of films, in a new book: Naturalist Ruddy: Adventurer, Sleuth, Mongoose. But how did he come up with it during the pandemic? In a video chat with Devanshi Daga, he opens up about his artistic journey, a love of birds, and drawing people to the wild.

With heatwaves and floods, water shortages, and power cuts, India’s cities are witnessing governance challenges in the time of climate change. Rishita Chaudhary speaks to Pradip Krishen, who has led eco-restoration projects on degraded urban landscapes, working also with municipal corporations in state capitals. The latest one, opened just this October to the public. 

Linking climate change and culture through youth-led action, Vinod Nambiar has been leading a revival initiative from his village home in Kerala. This includes potters, percussionists, and an ongoing film festival on vanishing cultures. Anushree Pratap chats with him to understand the links

Science administrator and biologist Dhriti Banerjee, speaks to Mongabay-India on becoming ZSI’s first woman director. The 105 yr. old Zoological Survey of India is the nation’s premier taxonomic research organization.

Sonal Dugar’s interview with Probir Banerjee inaugurates the Open Axis Podcast. With more beaches receiving the “blue flag” certification in India as a mark of cleanliness and safety, he talks about his work in environmental management and protecting clean water in Pondicherry.

Paromita Roy, an urban planner who has worked across continents and state governments, talks to Aritro Sarkar about her experience working on making our streets more pedestrian and renewable energy-friendly. Until recently, she was also helping lead the transformation of India’s railway stations.

– Devanshi Daga, Meera Anand, Ishita Ahuja, Rishita Chaudhary 

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Issue 13

Mapping a Movement: Two Activists Tell-All

It is the year 2001. Nitya picks up the landline. His friend from Kodai is calling. Sensing his worry, Nitya asks, What’s happened? His friend lives opposite a factory making thermometers for export. In Tamil Nadu’s hill station, Kodaikanal.

The voice on the other side of the phone call is agitated. Shards of broken thermometer glass have been found in the nearby shola forest and dumped in torn sacks, weighing about 8 tonnes. Mercury waste from the factory is contaminating the Kodai lake and the Gymkhana marshland. The factory owner, Hindustan Unilever Ltd.

Twenty years later, Nityananda Jayaraman, environmentalist, journalist and founder of the Vettiver Collective, is recalling that phone SOS, from inside an autorickshaw sputtering through Tamil Nadu’s capital city. From breaking the news on mercury contamination at that factory in 2001, he is now on his way to give an interview – a task that he has done several times over since the story first broke that made him one of the most prolific journalists in Tamil Nadu.  

A viral video and social media campaign, along with relentless protests, finally brought HUL to the negotiating table.While a case was filed in 2006, it took the company in question 11 years to offer workers compensation. Today, even as activists like him contest that leaching of mercury continues, well above permissible limits.“We’re fighting a losing battle,” he says grimly. 

Nitya, as he refers to himself, cut his teeth in campaign work co-heading Greenpeace’s East Asia’s Toxic Waste campaign. Protesting the dumping of toxic waste by more industrialised nations in Asia, he recalls as, “a great learning experience, as I learned about the elements of campaigning, communication and media. It accepted no money from governments or corporations, which was good.” Leaving Greenpeace in 2004, he kicked off the Anti-Corporation Collective, which morphed into Vettiver (a name which refers to a native grass and, less directly, a collective in Tamil). “[In Greenpeace,] I learnt about making campaigns and relying on science, which I took back to Vettiver. But under it, I found it difficult to work with local communities, which I didn’t like. I didn’t want to do brand campaigning, I wanted to make new spaces that could be taken by communities in the margins.” 

By 2021, the Vettiver collective has grown in and through group work. Many of them are youth-led and autonomous in thinking through their understanding of issues, engagement with local communities and creative protest work – all in support of what Jayaraman simply calls radical values – “When I say radical, I mean values that are extremely different from capitalist notions of how we see society work.” These have included groups such as Reclaim Our Beaches in the early 2000s, and most recently the Chennai Climate Action Group, which led nationwide protests against the EIA draft notification 2020 as well as the Thoothukudi based anti-Sterlite movement

We respond to campaigns where we are approached by members of the community,” says Nitya. “Most of our solidarity is extended by way of time, law, media and arts, in order to visiblise the community’s struggles, the values that they represent and the issues they wish to highlight.” One example of the way in which the arts have helped the goal of the campaign is the song ‘Chennai Poromboke Paadal’, written by Nitya and sung by Carnatic vocalist, T M Krishna in 2017 in order to raise awareness about the need for the restoration of the wetlands of Ennore creek.

Yash Marwah, too, as the founder of the environmental group Let India Breathe does both the read-talk-fight and the sow-grow-roam, as a mix of actionable protest. “Aarey was a big campaign, I was a volunteer for it for over a year, until we actually started the Aarey campaign under Let Mumbai Breathe,” he says. From the Save Aarey movement in Mumbai to representing eco-issues in Greater Nicobar, the trajectory has been transformative, from a Mumbai-based climate group to a pan-Indian environmental organisation. “We started with something called Save Mahim Nature Park, then it was about the wetlands of Mumbai, and then the Aarey campaign of course. We became what we became, because people from Gurgaon, people from Delhi, Bangalore, started reaching out to us,” Everyone brings their own skill and experience to the campaign. But in order to bring out effective change, whether by interrupting a developmental project in the forest dubbed as the ‘lungs of Mumbai’ or lobbying for the protection of adivasi land in the Hasdeo area of Chhattisgarh, it’s important to keep the goal grounded in material improvement. “It takes a certain amount of years and practice to learn how to navigate these things,” says Yash. “It came to me from my one and a half year of experience in the movement [in the beginning], which was all grassroot.”

 LIB made news for their campaign on the draft EIA 2020 notification last July, as one of three organisations whose websites were temporarily blocked by the National Internet Exchange of India. “We see who is the affected community, and the affected biodiversity and natural ecosystem. It could be a wetland somewhere, a mangrove somewhere else, a forest. These two things are the very first things we do,” Yash elaborates. “Then we do a profiling right from species to flora-fauna, similarly indigenous communities if any, otherwise a social profiling because for instance, when it’s about evictions it’s about the SC and ST communities.

But what about activism fatigue? “As you become bigger and more trustworthy, more people want to take your help, it becomes a little difficult to turn some campaigns down at times. So at times you have  to say – I’ll help you out but I can’t take it up. I can make sure your cause gets the right attention, but I can’t drive it,” is his prompt reply.

Still, Let India Breathe officially lobbies for over thirty campaigns from all parts of India, ranging from the Save Mollem campaign in Goa to the Save Aravalli movement in the National Capital Region. A lot of the work LIB does involves keeping open channels of communication between its audience, the network of volunteers and activists on ground, so that simplified factual information can be shared with individuals who then respond to a call to action. “So while we do this, we basically make buckets of people to contact, because none of this can run without allies.” 

Both Nitya and Yash keep the local communities as the focus of the work they do. Donation drives is one thing with allies, but giving voice to what’s getting swept under is the main focus as Nitya reminds, “It’s not like the groups are restricted to local issues, but something like the EIA notification cannot teach you about the politics of social struggles, which work on the ground can teach you a lot more about, like how caste and class and gender interface with issues of development, and so I think it’s important to have a foot in both worlds”

The UN announced its “We the Change” campaign on 27th September of this year with the names of seventeen youth climate activists from India, to lead it. A cohort of young climate-aware Indians are organising themselves into groups, under the looming shadow of climate change and its inequitable impact. So, when asked what he would say to budding environmental activists, Nitya thinks for a moment. 

His reply is self-reflexive. “I’ll just repeat what Chico Mendes said – environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening. If we think of environmentalism as tree planting and solar panels then we are finished. Environmentalism is a social struggle that cannot be resolved without fighting and setting right inequality at all intersectionality. That’s something we need to be careful of, especially people from our kind of backgrounds, where the notion is of aesthetics instead of environmentalism, or cleanliness, beauty, trees, these are things that are filling in as environmentalism. I think it is very dangerous.” 

Isha Pareek is a fourth year student at Ashoka University. She has a BA. (Honors) in History and International Relations, and is currently finishing her Media minor and an ASP thesis.

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).

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Issue 13

Issue XIII: Editor’s Note

India’s 67th National Wildlife Week from 2– 8 October, 2021 is focusing on Forest & Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet, thematically. Through the 1950s, this commemoration went from a single day Wildlife Diwas to a whole week. Since then annually, Indians shine a torch on understanding what we have, what we are losing and what is shifting, in the life and times of our flora and fauna. What is shifting? This question, a classic axis which simply and directly makes news and animates the world of journalism.

Openaxis, as a student driven publication spearheaded by Ashoka University’s Media Studies Department, puts students in the editor’s hot seat, as well as experiencing what it takes to train as a journalist. Students often bring the academic lens of their Major-ing subject interest from the Social and Life Sciences and ask a timely question. The process of exploring the contours of the question is then answered through journalistic means. By thinking through practice, students get to reflect real-time on, elements of writing an analyses to commissioning stories on a deadline, from understanding copyright law through attribution and seeking permission for images and albums, to grasping balance and objectivity, from slicing through top-down view on issues to grappling with ground realities and trying to write like real people talk. Journalistic writing, meant to be easy to read for a general reader, makes students get to work on their vocabulary, grammar, interview questions, written or audio/video and get the difference between feature writing in print and online. Each class runs on this mix of thinking and doing, discussion and argument and produces issue after issue over a 13-14 week semester. Academic lens and journalistic values, that’s Open Axis in one line.

This is Issue 13. From this one to Issue 17, readers can expect a series of environmental features which grapple with the same question – what is shifting. Issue 13 focuses on ideas of the wild and captive and what it means for several different but uniquely Indian environmental contexts.

In the Openaxis focus on India’s National Wildlife Week, Derrida bumps into NDA’s National Education Policy, as Ishita Ahuja speaks to university students, teachers and employers in India’s wildlife sector, on whether the NEP is looking at the value of field experience in wildlife education

Aritro Sarkar takes us through a short history of zoos. His line of inquiry – in the middle of a generational pandemic, can India rethink its zoological park?

Devanshi Daga brings the findings of two recent global studies done on human attitude to bats and field-insights from an Indian bat-researcher. Can the combo of lab and field research communicate scientifically in a pandemic with the public?

Isha Pareek navigates the journey of two urban Indian eco-activists, as they champion causes and communities, contours and blind spots of environmental justice.

To avoid the trap of the National Wildlife Week being reduced to forced anniversary speeches or school quiz trivia around dates, Issue 13 slices through the perfunctory in the debates and celebrates the theme for 2021, as it is being lived. Each of the stories speaks up for the wild in relation to the people who sustain it. As an idea, as government policy, academic research, activist’s cause and as green humour!

A pandemic’s pause is a bit like the yellow traffic light, do stop by and think with us. Look forward to your feedback.

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Issue 13

Bats in a pandemic: Why should we care?

Hidden from a clear view by our naked eye, the only true flying mammal hung upside down from a tree’s high branches. Sleeping through the sunlit morning, its eyes and made-for-manoeuvre-wings, snapped shut. Waiting for the darkness.To hunt prey. At night, one may have even seen a bat gliding. Before the pandemic.

For after that, it seems to have become prey. In April 2020, the bat roosts found in cave and building in two provinces of Cuba, were set on fire. In May 2020, people in four districts of Rajasthan, killed 150 bats, in a misdirected effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. In September 2021, the only colony of fruit bats in the Nilgiris, is under threat as people want to cut down the trees they roost on. Out of fear? 

This when, different bat species remain important for varied reasons. For much of India’s agri-lands, bats act as a zero-cost biological pesticide, controlling pest populations. Useful broadcasters, they disperse the pollen which clings to their fur, especially while drinking the nectar of flowers blooming in the night. They are vital in preserving natural habitat across terrain, helping forest regeneration and growth of new forests too. But yes, we are in the middle of a pandemic where old and new conspiracy theories also meet?

FRIENDS, OMEN & COUNTRYMEN

Even though we have seen so many reports of bats being culled in many parts of India, it has not stopped the pandemic anywhere,” says Dr. Bhargavi Srinivasulu, a Postdoctoral scientist at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Studies at Hyderabad’s Osmania University.

As someone who has worked on bat conservation for many years across India, from Maharashtra to Telangana, she offers a more nuanced commentary, “Indians in general think bats are a bad omen. So, everything bad imaginable is associated with bats, because they emerge in the darkness, so darkness is synonymous with everything evil, thanks to our movies on Dracula and all. In India, even today you have lots of negative perceptions about bats.” But there is another side as well, she continues,“In certain pockets of Karnataka, there are bats roosting in their cowsheds and there are houses next to the cowsheds, they do not bother. Some are tolerant, some do not tolerate the presence or anything of bats.” 

So how did it shift when Covid- 19 hit all India? Dr. Bhargavi continues,“During the pandemic, it [attitude] was much more negative. People used to give us calls and then ask us — we can see bats flying around, how do we kill them, we are scared for our elderly and our children. What if they come in and bite and my grandmother or mother gets Corona.” She fielded worry and questions, why can’t they be culled, what is their use? Responding patiently, she explained how the coronavirus found in bats is different from the human one and the host that transmitted the coronavirus from bats to humans still remains a complicated mystery. 

WHY WE NEED NOT MORE CAT, BUT BAT VIDEOS IN 2021

A recent study across 17 Spanish-speaking countries on human perception of bats, focused on the role of information and visual stimuli, in boosting a positive response. It also looked at how sociodemographic factors affect it. Published this April by Alex Boso, an associate professor of Social Sciences, at Chile’s University of La Frontera, the research team came together from departments of Forestry, Environmental Sciences, Zoology and Psychology from several universities in Chile. 

Shedding light on how providing information and aesthetic stimuli can increase a positive response towards bats, it experimented in four ways. The first two, solely visual stimuli, showing, say, only a picture of a panda bat and vampire bat. The third condition included both visual and informational stimuli together, in the form of a 72 second bat cartoon video, showing the who what where when why of bats in their natural home.The fourth and final condition offered no stimuli, visual or informational.The study found the third experimental condition, providing both informational and visual stimuli, gave a major boost to positive responses, in the attitude towards bats.

When it came to human responses in the study, males were found to have a more positive impression towards bats than females. Participants with a higher education level, ditto. Christians were seen to have a more negative attitude towards bats compared to those participants of other religions, or those who had no religious beliefs. Previous experience with bats was found to be a significant factor of influence. 

SCIENCE COMMUNICATION IN THE FIELD – FROM KOLAR TO WUHAN

If this study’s findings attempt a link between the nature of stimuli provided and the socio-economic, gender and religious belief being influential in attitudes toward the bat species, in India, Dr. Bhargavi, working largely in rural areas, places some responses in a wider experience and span of time. “When we spoke to the elders, they said when they were young boys, they used to go inside the caves and collect all the guanos [bat excreta] and use it as fertiliser in their crops. Their crops used to be so healthy. They also used to be healthy because they used to feed on non-chemical fertiliser food.” Once this link was broken by either ignorance and now fear, it has been and will continue to affect both human health and the wider ecosystem. 

In cases where there was once a close link between the community, ecosystem and bats, scientist-conservationists reached out.to share how people must let bats be. Or how people could  actively protect them, even during the pandemic. Dr. Bhargavi in her own work, specifically mentions being able to do this in Karnataka’s Kolar area,“When we were doing our various conservation activities, if we had not consistently gone there and told them repeatedly, over a period of time, you know, these [bats] are very important to the ecosystem, agriculture and all, based on scientific facts, videos and pictures. You have to go there and consistently talk to them in a scientific manner, break it down in a simpler manner.” Her field experience and the 2021 study’s centrality of providing clear information and visual stimuli, while in entirely different country contexts, in this way, do speak to each other. Infact a study published in China this February, by Wuhan’s Central China Normal University tried to understand how public fear would negatively affect bat conservation. Not only were the study findings similar, in the role previous knowledge of bats plays and influence of gender/education level of the respondents, there was also a new element.  

A specially curated bat conservation lecture. This, on the one hand, improved people’s attitude towards bats, but on the other, failed to clear the misconception surrounding the alleged transmission of the coronavirus to humans directly. The research recommended clarity in messaging around human-bat encounters for conservation of this much-maligned species. Batting for bat-science, it mentions public display of scientific facts on bats as well as highlighting their benefits. 

But beyond a few driven scientist-conservationists, including Dr. Bhargavi’s own partner, Dr. Chelmala Srinivasulu, more science and easy to understand information about bats, reaching the public, remains perhaps, as important as washing our hands. At the very least, in a National Wildlife Week being held during an ongoing pandemic.

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).

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Issue 13

The End Of The Zoo: Has The Pandemic Changed The Way We See Zoos?

Yadunandan’s last moments, in all likelihood, were spent in panic. Having accidentally wrung his neck around the rods of the treatment centre at the Bannerghatta Biological Park in Bengaluru, his desperate attempt to extricate himself, saw him twist his neck twice. The male giraffe died within minutes of asphyxiation. According to The Hindu, the staff at the park have launched an inquiry into the lapses that led to the demise of Yadunandan on 19 September. He had arrived in April 2020, as a gift from the Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Garden, Mysore. 

Yadunandan’s unfortunate death may just have been an accident, but it points to a larger issue around animals and captivity, increasingly being highlighted by animal welfarists. The primary site of animals in human captivity – the zoo, they say, needs to be rethought. 

Can we – should we – do away with them altogether?

Absolutely! We need to do away with zoos outright!”, insists a source (who prefers to remain anonymous) who works closely with animal welfare in Bengaluru. “In any case, going to the zoo during and after the pandemic feels like visiting a Covid patient’s home. But it’s not just the loneliness and sense of isolation that the animals feel, there are far deeper problems that exist in zoos in India and the world over.

THE ZOO’S COLORED LEGACY

The practice of keeping animals in captivity started out as a menagerie – which comes from the French word ‘menage’, meaning ‘to keep house’. A menagerie was a private collection of animals, generally owned by the elite, who would put them up on display. Many of these sites were open to the public, but humans and human pride would very much be at the centre of this exercise: as Gary Bruce writes in Through The Lion Gate: A History of the Berlin Zoo, humans captured animals and “put them on display to satisfy our own curiosity.” The first ‘modern’ zoo, with scientific classifications of animals, was set up in Paris in 1794, at the Jardin des Plantes, following which. a zoo was also set up in London’s Regent Park. 

While royalty from Egypt to India were known from ancient times, for taming wild animals and keeping them in captivity, the empires of these European nations used their violent prowess to ship ‘exotic’ animals from Asia and Africa all the way home. By displaying these animals in the zoo to a broader public, these countries would underline their might as imperial forces. Often these exhibitions would display ‘exotic’ human beings to bewildered European audiences as well. 

The shift from menagerie to zoo was an exhibitionist turn that animal captivity as a concept took: zoos were to be more accessible to the general public. They became, “important public places mostly for the lower middle class, labourers, poor people and women,” according to Dr. Mahesh Rangarajan, professor of environmental studies and history and Vice Chancellor, Krea University. This enabled a zoo to be turned into an arena of wildlife education. Common people could now learn about plants and animals, while staying in their own urbanizing areas. 

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) in 2015 offered a new World Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare Strategy, while also clarifying the contours of two centuries of human-animal interaction in the West. “First, in the 1700s and 1800s, at a time when blood sports and blatant acts of cruelty remained common and perfectly legal, reformers sought to stamp out cruelty as part of a broader programme of social progress. This led to the criminalising of deliberate cruelty and the banning of recreations such as bull-baiting and dog-fighting in many countries.”

“Then during the 1900s, with the large-scale institutionalised use of animals in food production and biomedical research, the key problem of animal ethics was perceived not as acts of cruelty, but as the use of animals for utilitarian purposes in ways that resulted in deprivation and curtailment of their freedom”. 

The report continues: “This gave rise to radical ideas, such as animal rights and animal liberation, which opposed all ownership and use of animals. It also gave rise to concerns about the welfare or ‘quality of life’ of animals in human care, and to a combination of scientific and philosophical attempts to understand what constitutes a good life for animals.”

IS INDIA SAYING BOO TO ZOOS IN 2021?

Prosenjit Dasgupta in his book, 10 Walks in Calcutta, mentions a local zoo set up in 1854. Today, with over 150 zoological parks and nature centres across India, from March 2021 -2022, the Central Zoo Authority of India, is currently celebrating 75 zoos, with specific focus on 75 species across India. Their theme: Conservation to coexistence: the people connect. In October 2021 alone, this includes a week each of public outreach activities at three nature centres in Gujarat (Indian fox at Ambardi Wildlife Interpretation Zone, Greater Flamingo at Sayaji Baug Zoo, Bar headed geese/Lesser florican at Indroda Nature Park and the Peafowl at Haryana’s Pipli Zoo) “The education concept is a lie. People don’t come to the zoo for education. Most visitors at zoos are there to picnic, or there for entertainment”, maintains the source from Bengaluru.

A joint report in 2020 by Wildlife Institute of India and the Central Zoo Authority, on Management Effectiveness, Evaluation of Indian Zoos, makes a counter numbers claim, “In India, rough estimates indicate that zoos are one of the highest visited public spaces with over 80 million visitation numbers annually.” A 2020 TERI led case study of the Delhi Zoological park also confirms that 77 % of all earnings are from recreational activities.

WHAT CAN A RETHINK MEAN?

Are private zoos a solution then, akin to the one Reliance is aiming to build in Gujarat’s Jamnagar? Not according to the source, who insists, “zoos are the problem. At least in government zoos, you can file RTIs and find out things. Plus, how will so many species from all over the world survive in the heat and humidity of Gujarat? We can use this pandemic experience to generate more attention among the public, in order to raise awareness on these issues that zoos have.

Zoos anyway need rethinking. The old cage system is out of modesty. Captive collections may not die but need to be rethought”, says Dr. Rangarajan. “In any case, specialist captive collections are not new. Gerald Durrell’s zoo in Jersey bred rare small creatures, and in India, the Sakkarbaug Zoo helped breed Asian lions.” 

The animal welfarist goes one step further. “Going forward, zoos should make a list of animals who can be released into the wild, and then they should actually be released into the wild”. Zoos can, “house injured animals who can’t make it in the wild, and thus also be a site for veterinary practice, because where else can vets be trained for the wildlife but animals in zoos?” 

Perhaps, the 45 year experience of one of the country’s longest volunteer programmes at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust also points to a middle ground, benefitting both conservation and public connect. Raising several generations of humane volunteers keen to understand animal life, 400, 000 people visited in a year and the fee helped in funding conservation. Not only were they able to bring the croc back from near extinction, but also released 1500 of them in the wild, across India.

The pandemic’s rupture can also mean taking further stock not just for ourselves, but for a new tandem with our fellow species of the planet too.  And that means no more captive Yadunandans dying, by accident or poor design.

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).

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Issue 13

Deconstructing the NEP: how important is experiential learning in wildlife conservation?

We usually hold turtle walks starting at midnight. Going and searching for their nest, taking the eggs and putting them in a hatchery, until they hatch and then putting them back,” says Manan Chhugani, a first year undergraduate studying Environmental Science at Ashoka University, describing his midnight routine in Chennai. To stay awake, patrol the beach and protect the turtle eggs, from the stomping of possibly careless human feet. 

They are this tiny,” placing his fingers close enough to each other to imply that the eggs are only a few centimeters in size.“You can hold 20-30 of them in your hand. After [the turtle walk experience] I’ve always wanted to pursue hands-on, working with the hands, working with the body,” he continues.

 The turtle walk he went on, continues to be helmed by Chennai Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN), a network of school and college students who work alongside the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. But 2020’s National Education Policy gives students the option to take wildlife courses, without making field-based learning compulsory. It makes it mandatory for higher education centres to include environmental education courses and projects promoting “holistic and multidisciplinary education.” 

“The flexible and innovative curricula of all HEIs shall include credit-based courses and projects in the areas of community engagement and service, environmental education, and value-based education.”

Field based learning is indispensable for learning about biodiversity in general and wildlife in particular- there is no doubt about that,” says A. J Urfi, an Environmental Studies professor at Delhi University. So does this hold back the meaning of a “quality higher education” and could keep students from having the upper-hand in looking for jobs in wildlife conservation? This limitation of meaning can be defined by Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction as explained in his essay, “Sign, Structure and Play”.

Not including hands-on work, especially in the field of wildlife, goes against Derridian thought, whose work has been greatly influential in the late twentieth century. Derrida speaks of the “arbitrary nature of a sign,” where a sign refers to a word with its meaning. Therefore, the “arbitrariness” of a sign then means that a word’s letters have no inner relation with the word’s meaning. 

The NEP states that a quality higher education must make “good, thoughtful, well-rounded, and creative individuals” The letters that make up the words “quality education” have no fixed relationship with the meaning of being that it makes quality students. Therefore, giving “quality education” a meaning, limits the possibilities of it, which allows the NEP to leave out field-work for college students, who are otherwise taking courses meant to be experience-based. 

Dr. Divya Vasudev, founder of Conservation Initiatives, chimes in, “If [colleges] do offer field-based courses or internship-based courses for credit, during the summer semester, especially when you have fewer courses to take, it will be quite an enriching experience.You learn a lot when you go to the field, you don’t just learn from textbooks, you learn from experience,” Manan echoes this when asked about his current environmental science courses,“the only thing is you don’t have physical interaction. You can comment on the readings how many ever times you want, but the way you lead your life is always different.”

Derrida speaks of the absence of a centre when talking about the meaning of a word. This can be placed in the education setting, where a quality education can also mean the ability to experience and learn, and not simply learning from theory or research. The removal of the fixed classroom or laboratory-based learning is the removal of a centre which now allows the freedom to define education, or redefine it.

In the wildlife employment sector, Divya adds on, field-based experience “definitely gives [students] an edge, but it’s not the main thing.” While hiring people in her organisation, she says “the things that I look for, are your passion for conservation, because that’s critical.

Sleeping under tarpaulin sheets, using the toilet outdoors, collecting your own water from the nearest sources, travelling often and working with a group of people, are all add on-qualities that wildlife employers look for in the hiring process. Developing these habits, can be achieved by experiential learning in colleges.Equipping students for wildlife job-readiness as well as learn about the outdoors, outdoors. Being flexible is being without a “centre” and allows one to explore all angles of a quality education. 

Yogita Karpate, an engineer turned research consultant at Wildlife Conservation Society-India says, “my knowledge on nature, on various species and their biology is not that great, not as great as my colleagues. I would say you can pick it up when you work.” This shows another aspect of there being no “centre” to education and that learning has no point of origin in the field. 

While relating his experience with the Planet Life Foundation doing otter conservation, Manan Chhugani went looking for otter excreta, to check their movements for a conservation paper. “There are a few places they are likely to [defecate], large rocks, near a stream. I set up a camera trap to catch them doing their business. This is a very basic work you have to do if you want to start conservation.”

“It’s quite a lot of work but it’s a lot of fun. Once you see the product of the work you’ve done for a long time, best thing,” he adds cheerfully. 

Ishita Ahuja is a second year undergraduate student of 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).

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Issue 12 Issue 13

It is the ‘Tax-the-Rich’ hour!

On 31st March 2021, The Guardian reported that New Zealand was raising its top rate tax for the country’s highest earners to 39% and also raising its minimum wage to $20 an hour. On 9th April, the New York Times reported that the budget for the coming fiscal year includes a long-overdue increment in the income-tax cuts of people making more than $1.078 million. Back in April of 2020, Landais, Saez and Zucman proposed a Progressive European wealth tax to fund Europe’s COVID response. However, the idea of taxing the rich started reappearing in mainstream media a little before the pandemic itself hit. In the recent US Presidential race, two candidates, namely Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, proposed two separate models of progressive wealth taxation as a policy suggestion in their campaigns. These models were also designed by UC Berkeley Economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. But despite Europe’s failure with the wealth taxation system, one may ask the very obvious question, ‘Why expend time, effort and resources on a failed policy?’

The progressive wealth tax model presented by Saez & Zucman is widely lauded for its striking approach towards countering the flaws persistent in the European system and coming up with a more effective system suitable for the USA. They argue that a wealth tax is a potentially more powerful tool than income, estate, or corporate tax when it comes to addressing the issue of wealth concentration. This is because the wealth tax goes after the stock rather than the flow, i.e., it does not target the annual income, but rather the accumulated wealth of the individuals. The two striking features of their model are that a) they propose a fairly high threshold, beyond which wealth will be taxed, which ensures that it doesn’t lead to the problems of illiquidity (as was the case in many European countries) and b) they can find ways to counter tax evasion, which was one of the main reasons behind the failure of European countries’ wealth taxation systems. They argue that since the USA’s taxation system is citizenship-based, it makes the USA’s system much less vulnerable to mobility threats than other countries.

One of the major contentions against any sort of wealth tax or taxation targeted on the rich is that it disincentivizes them from working hard and/or innovating. However, Smith et al., argues that most top earners derive their income from human capital rather than financial capital. And while credit constraints could perhaps be a problem, a wealth taxation model with a high exemption threshold like the one presented by Saez & Zucman, by definition, spares the credit constraint. Moreover, they also argue that it is the established businesses that gate-keep innovation in their industries by fighting any new competition in order to maintain their dominant position. Moreover, it has a significant impact on income inequality, because wealth taxation prevents maintenance and growth of people’s existing accumulated wealth, and specifically reduces consumption inequality.

Although wealth taxation may seem like a good idea on a solely altruistic basis as well, it might actually be very instrumental in poverty targeting policies, especially for countries that face a severe lack of resources, like developing countries. In fact, a targeted and strictly enforced wealth taxation model could be very helpful for a country like India. Saez & Zucman argue that tax evasion depends only on the design of the taxation system and the strength of enforcement, both of which are active policy choices. The long-run revenue-maximizing wealth tax rate according to their model is about 6.25%, which they categorize as a fairly high rate. According to S Subramaniam, if India’s top richest 935 families’ wealth was taxed at a flat rate of 4%, it would be able to generate revenue that is equivalent to 1% of India’s GDP. This money could then be used to fund more targeted schemes such as a Quasi-Universal Basic Income (QUBI). There could be various QUBIs like ones that provide a guaranteed income to women or one that seeks to provide a basic income to people that have lost their jobs owing to the pandemic, or even to automation.

It is certainly no coincidence that policies targeted at taxing the rich are making a comeback, it has taken relentless effort on part of activists around the globe to bring this up to the forefront. The New York Times reports, about the increment in income taxation on rich in New York, that: “In January, 170 grassroots organizations along with dozens of legislators formed the Invest in Our New York coalition, which in the subsequent months made close to one million calls to lawmakers, sent more than 260,000 texts to residents across the state, held 100 teach-ins and placed hanging cards declaring “Tax the Rich” on 120,000 doors.” And while the debate about taxing the rich has been around for long enough, it does seem like the world is finally ready to embrace radical measures to reduce inequality and make the world a more equal place to live in (at least in economic terms).

This article has been republished from LiveWire with permission of the author.

Ishita is currently pursuing her postgraduate diploma in Entrepreneurial Leadership & Strategy, and has recently completed her undergraduate studies in Economics & Finance, from Ashoka University. When she’s not stressing about the next thing and over-planning her coming activities, she can be found discussing issues related to politics, managing her page @angrybrowngal.

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).