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Issue 17 Issue 7

The trees are dead! Long live the forest!

What does one do about dead trees? The question has been pondered time and again. But before we get into that, it’s important to understand tree death in general. How do trees die? Let us count the ways. Often, a tree dies in situ, standing where it is. Sometimes, its roots weakened by soil erosion, it is felled in a storm. And sometimes, disease takes away a tree, hollowing out its core. A wounded tree falls prey to parasites. Fungus and bacteria, along with insects and worms, eat away the soft living tissue. Fires may singe and scar the bark. Rising water levels often flood tree roots, choking them. Nesting birds like cormorants paint them with copious quantities of caustic guano from their droppings, killing the trees in due course. In the forest, an opportunistic usurper may strangle it. Animals like elephants turn to tree bark when food is scarce, and excessive raids may tear the tree to shreds. Humans may murder it and saw away the wood, leaving nothing but a hole in the ground. 

As we can see, when trees die, they don’t go to heaven. Death itself is a long-drawn-out process, often lasting years. After a lifetime of service, a dead tree is pressed into retirement, but the work doesn’t stop even after death. When left alone in the wilderness and not cleared up by foresters, dead trees serve a vital function. 

Pause to consider the irony of that sentence. 

An Oriental Honey-Buzzard (L) and a Shikra scan their surroundings for prey in a tangle of dead trees.
Image credits : Beej

Life feeds on life. But life thrives on death, too. 

So, what good is a dead tree? Is it a threat to living trees? Is it an eyesore? Should it be removed?

I am part of an enthusiastic community of nature-lovers in eastern Bangalore. Most of us are fascinated by birds and wildlife. Some of us fancy trees. Others spiders and bees. When we are not sharing nuggets on our Signal group, we are hanging out singly, in pairs, or in small and large flocks at our neighbourhood wetlands. One lockdown brought us all together; now we’re enduring another cooped up at home and aching to return to our urban wilderness. 

A few months ago, we began an intense discussion on the utility of dead trees at Saul Kere, one of the lakes that we frequent. Besides offering a variety of wetland habitats that harbour over 150 species of birds, Saul Kere also has a woodland on its eastern flank, so dense that it can without much ado be called a secondary forest.

Working its robust bill like a drill, a White-cheeked Barbet excavates a nest hole in a dead tree trunk. 
Image credits: Saravana S

Bordering this woodland, where the grounds of the lake share a wall with the campus of a well-known information technology company, is a copse of dead trees. How they died one really does not remember, but the sight of them standing there like oversized deer antlers, bare of leaf, their trunks picked clean of bark and cambium, evoked mixed reactions. 

Some people wanted them to be removed. Others – particularly the photographers – thought they made aesthetic backdrops for their pictures. A few pondered if they would fetch any money if they were sold. Most wondered why we were making such a big fuss over a few dead trees. Live and let live; live and let die. 

For many of us, dead trees are just wood. We use the term deadwood metaphorically to describe things or people that no longer have any utility. I learned that foresters have a word for dead trees, too. They call them snags. Not a pretty word, it suggests that dead trees are obstructions to some sort of imagined progress. The truth is that forests and woodlands without dead trees would not be as full of life. In fact, without dead trees, a forest would slowly and surely lose its pluralistic character and die.

How much life can a dead tree support? Often as much, or more, than a living one.

German forester Peter Wohlleben, known for propounding fascinating but controversial ideas about trees talking to each other through a ‘wood-wide web’ in his book The Hidden Life Of Trees, draws attention to the vast underground fungal networks that intertwine among the root systems of trees in a forest. Scientists know these subterranean systems as mycorrhizal networks. The root-tips of living trees have fine, hair-like strands, which are linked by tiny fungal filaments. Trees in a forest, Wohlleben says, share information, water and nutrients through these networks. Fungi thrive on sugar and the trees produce a lot of it through photosynthesis. For the services rendered by the fungi, the living trees pay a tax: up to 30% of the sugar they produce goes to the fungi. A dead tree is prime loot.

Wood-ear mushrooms colonise the bark of a dead tree. 
Image credits: Beej

Fungi are first to know when a tree dies. There’s no mourning, no wake. Instead, it’s a party. A feast.

As fungi and bacteria get to work digesting and decomposing the tissue, insects colonise the fallen wood, attracting insectivorous mammals, birds and reptiles. Beetles, which relish tree tissues even while they are alive, lay eggs that hatch and live within the innards as grubs, which are a great source of food for questing woodpeckers. The hollow innards of a dead tree are highly prized real estate. Hole-nesting birds stake their claim, but they are careful to let the heavy lifters make the first move.

This pair of Rose-ringed Parakeets have occupied a nest hole vacated by a barbet
Image Credits: Saravana S

Woodpeckers and barbets are the builders of the woodland. They have a knack for seeking out the ideal nesting sites. Woodpeckers are often seen clambering up and down the length of a branch, probing intently for chinks in the tree’s armour. Tapping and drumming against the bark, they listen for the sound the wood makes. A hollow echo may be the cavity made by a burrowing beetle larva. The bird’s probing bill morphs into a power tool. In goes the drill, boring through the bark to get at the morsel. In due course, some of these excavations result in permanent hollows, offering an access point for moisture and fungal growth. The tree may fight back, but repeated attacks leave it vulnerable. On live trees, wounds may heal and scar over time, but in dead trees, they present opportunities to be exploited.

A male Oriental Magpie-Robin explores a nest-hole in a dead tree
Image Credits: Beej

At Saul Kere, Black-rumped Flamebacks and White-naped Woodpeckers have been observed on occasion, but it is the White-cheeked Barbets and their smaller cousins, the Coppersmith Barbets, that are the most prolific builders. Over time, the holes they make in the deadwood are taken over by Rose-ringed Parakeets, Oriental Magpie-Robins, Common Mynas and Jungle Mynas. Dead coconut palms, beheaded by lightning strikes or disease, offer attractive short-term co-living accommodations. The hollowed-out core of the palm allows for multiple apartments with separate entrances and often, shared common areas. Privacy may be a concern, but good behaviour and tolerance are essential for coexistence. We have observed parakeets and barbets coexisting quite harmoniously with large families of Spotted Owlets.

Rose-ringed Parakeet on a dead tree, tidying up a claimed nest hole.
Image credits: Saravana S

Hoopoes, White-throated kingfishers, Spotted Doves and Green Bee-eaters favour the bare branches as perches. Sometimes, the odd Shikra or Oriental Honey-Buzzard can be seen in the woodland, scanning the surroundings while perched atop a dead tree stump. 

Eventually, completely eviscerated and eaten out hollow by termites and other insects, the trees collapse. The space they vacate in the woodland is occupied over time by shrubs and grasses, even other saplings. The remnants nourish the soil, creating fertile beds for wind-blown seeds to plunge roots. From death, the forest springs to life.

In late March, before the second wave of the pandemic drove us indoors, I stood in the woodland at Saul Kere, watching a pair of parakeets engaged in studious home inspection. They had picked out the used nest of a White-cheeked Barbet, which had raised a brood recently. Patiently, and with great diligence, they scoured out the hole and took out the previous occupants’ garbage. This went on for hours, even days, and eventually the pair moved in to raise their own brood.

Green Bee-eaters favour open perches on dead trees as they offer little obstruction while making sallying flights to capture insect prey
Image Credits: Beej

As I watched them, ignoring the squabbling Jungle Mynas behind me, a party of green bee-eaters sailed through the air like oversize butterflies and alighted on the deadest, barest bough, trilling the very words that were music to my ears: Tree-tree-tree-tree

Feature image credits: Saravana S

This article first appeared in the Green Ogre India and has been republished with their permission. You can see more of their work here.

Categories
Issue 17

Photos: What’s Stopping You From Rediscovering the Natural World Near You?

Nature yearns to be noticed and appreciated. The lockdown has made us cherish its ceaseless charm and hear its overwhelming cry for help before it’s too late.

Photo Credits: Aditi Singh

Photo Credits: Maitreyi Sreenivas

The gift of nature photography is that it explores nature, the backdrop to our being that we often gloss over. What’s stopping you from rediscovering the world?

Photo Credits: Vijayaditya Singh Rathore

Photo Credits: Udayan Mehra

These photos first appeared on Caperture’s Instagram page. They have been republished with the permission of Caperture, Tarang and the photographers.

Categories
Issue 17

When a Camera Trap Image Connects a Community and Foresters

Protected areas in tropical regions cover about a quarter of the world’s nature reserves and are considered to be the first line of defense for wildlife protection. One of the greatest conservation challenges they face is dealing with continuing anthropogenic pressures. As protected areas continue to undergo degradation, and the adjacent areas have a series of human-use regimes, it is most important to have partnerships and alliances to work together across forest governance systems. 

In this talk, Dr. Nandini Velho explores a decade of research and science communication with residents from Pakke Tiger Reserve and Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh, a state which spans two Global Biodiversity Hotspots, and is among the most biodiverse areas in the world. She discusses her collaborative work with the forest department, residents, musicians, film-makers, educators and illustrators for natural resource management. 

This includes working with a team on creating nature interpretation centres, publishing a collaborative book on memories of the forest and exploring the medium of virtual reality for nature education. Sharing some of her insights while doing field work, this was an enabler in gaining experience in designing and implementing communication projects on tight deadlines and limited budgets.

Dr. Nandini Velho’s work has focussed on the human-dimensions of wildlife management as well as understanding rainforest dynamics in tropical forests. She worked closely with local forest managers, policy makers in the Office of the then Minister of Environment and Forests, and engaged with on-ground outreach activities, including healthcare and logistical support of front-line forest staff, conservation education and writing in the popular medium.

She currently teaches at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru.

This session was hosted by the Ashoka Media Studies Department in April 2021.

Featured Image Credit: Nandini Velho

Categories
Issue 17

In the Long Run We Will All Still be Paying Our Debt

The biggest takeaway from Jo Sunghee’s film Space Sweepers is this: there will be capitalism in a post-apocalyptic space society. And since there is capitalism, there will subsequently be poverty, debt and large amounts of harmful waste. The film is set in the year 2092; Earth has become uninhabitable as no plant life can survive on the surface anymore, and the air is poisonous. A corporation called UTS had built a new home for humanity on Mars using genetically modified plants. But there’s a catch, only those who have the money can become UTS citizens, which means most of humanity is left to their devices on Earth and a remaining few float around space selling scraps of space debris to earn their bread. 

To begin with, the dialogue and plot of the movie isn’t pitch perfect ﹘ the villain, James Sullivan (played by Richard Armitage), is a bit caricatured and bears an uncanny resemblance to Elon Musk, and the narrative is rather clichéd. Our protagonists, Taeho (played by Song Joong-ki) and Captain Jang (played by Kim Taeri) do a good enough job making space look simultaneously cool and miserable. And five-year-old Dorothy (whose real name is Kot-nim) is the perfect emotional core for the film. At times, the characters feel under-developed, even with a running time of 136 minutes. But it’s not as bad as when the third act melts into a pot of cheese by painting James Sullivan as the sole problem, and the sole solution becomes killing him off. It’s a disappointing but not unsurprising climax; the neo-liberal, cookie-cutter quick fix to world problems. At least we get our sweet (imaginary) revenge on Elon Musk.

Ultimately, however, the film has its plus points as well. For one, the world-building is convincing enough and  the CGI is pretty cool. The story is gripping and funny. Watching Kim Taeri clad in leather jackets and spitting profanities for nearly two hours isn’t that bad a sight either. Most importantly, Space Sweepers sparks a rush of satisfaction in any viewer who’s had enough of SpaceX philosophy and how rockets are going to save the world.

The political message of the movie regarding the environment, unlike quite a few sci-fi films, is not only loud and clear but also comprehensive. Firstly, the idea that corporations will bury solutions to the climate crisis to prioritize their profits could very well be a reality, but what’s more interesting is that the movie almost concludes that technology won’t save humanity from our problems, that we need to radically change our economic structures, that making the world more equitable is part of saving the planet – until it doesn’t. Which of course, is the real dystopia ﹘ that technology, which has the great potential to liberate so much of humanity, is in the end appropriated by capitalism to reap profits. 

All in all, Space Sweepers is pleasantly critical of global capitalism for a blockbuster, and not simply in a sensational, vague way, if you cut it some slack. Moreover, it’s a truly internationalist film, with characters of many ethnicities and countries, and a script that moves seamlessly across languages. It doesn’t feel forced in the least, and for once, it’s relieving to know that the human race’s diversity of language and culture ﹘ the film is truly multilingual, with different ethnicities speaking their own language, connected by translator devices that everyone has ﹘ will survive the end of the world. Perhaps it’s a sign that non-Western audiences and creators are more committed to linguistic diversity (or less bothered by it). I’d watch it if I were in the mood for something lighthearted and fast, but I wouldn’t say it’s a must-watch. 

PS. Also recommended if anyone is sick of seeing white people in sci-fi, only because it’s a place we’ve all been in. 

Featured Image Credits: http://www.cbr.com

Tanvi Rupakula is a writer for Navrang, the Film Society of Ashoka University.

This review first appeared in the Navrang Journal, check out more of their articles here.

Categories
Issue 17

Lawyer-Author & Sci-fi Fan Gautam Bhatia Chats with 95 yr old Sci-fi Legend Chandler Davis

In recent years, within the science fiction community, there has been a reckoning—of sorts—with the genre’s racist, sexist, and colonial past. From pioneer and first-contact stories being thinly-veiled justifications for colonialism, to male-coded obsessions with conflict and conquest, to a near-absence of non-white characters except as props or as antagonists, there is much in this history to confront, to discuss, and to overcome. And as the last decade has shown, this discussion is not always a comfortable one.

In his book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said talks about the “contrapuntal canon”. In discussing how colonialism forms an (often) unacknowledged backdrop to the classic literary texts of the Western canon, Said writes that, nonetheless, “we must … read the great canonical texts with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented in such works. The contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes – that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.

While Said’s point is about tendencies internal to literary texts, we can also think about it in the context of literary traditions. Science fiction is not a monolith: even as racism, colonialism, and sexism played a dominant role in SF-production through the long 20th century, there were always writers and texts that questions, challenged, and subverted that dominant paradigm. The contrapuntal canon, or the hidden transcript, as it were.

At Strange Horizons, we see ourselves as committed to a plural and diverse vision of SFF, and therefore, as a continuation of this older – and sometimes submerged – tradition of against-the-grain writing. To know – and understand – more about our forebears, for this Fund Drive Special Issue, we decided to interview Chandler “Chan” Davis, one of the most outstanding exponents of the contrapuntal canon, at a time at which the dominant, regressive tendencies of science fiction were at their apogee: the 1940s and the 1950s.

A mathematician and a science fiction writer, Davis was notoriously dismissed from the University of Michigan, and jailed, during the McCarthy years. He wrote a range of science fiction stories (some of which are collected in the anthology, It Walks In Beauty), exploring themes around nuclear disarmament, sexism in society, labour and capital, and first contact and language. The science fiction critic, T.G. Shenoy, recently put together a compilation of his stories, which can be accessed here).

Now 95 years old, Chandler Davis very kindly agreed to this interview, which was conducted via collaborative Google Doc earlier this year. The interview also contains responses by Hannah Taieb, Professor Davis’ daughter. Through this interview, we hope to give you a window into a lost – but important – part of the history of our genre and community.


Gautam Bhatia: Let me start with a somewhat broad set of questions. You wrote science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s as an avowed communist, at a time when the United States was consumed by the Red Scare (which saw you jailed for a time, as well). Your stories reflect your politics, whether it is satirising corporate culture in “Adrift on the Policy Level”, or the very direct references to union-busting in “Last Year’s Grave Undug”. How welcoming and open was the science fiction community at the time to left-wing ideas? Was it more difficult, say, to publish pro-Union stories than anti-Unions ones (such as “The Roads Must Roll“, for example)? Was there a group of writers who shared your views and beliefs, and wrote stories that, in a similar fashion, reflected those views?    

Chandler Davis: The science fiction community in the 1940s was a strange conglomerate. The Futurians were Communists or sympathizers from before my time; Robert Heinlein had several biases including a sentimental acceptance of militaristic values; John Campbell had his own biases, including a worship of technical fix carried over from the Hugo Gernsback era … I could go on and on. The strangest thing was the extent to which it was a community, without people dropping their individuality. Now to some degree this was illusory: an author might think it prudent not to rhapsodize about the wonders of a future Soviet America in submitting a story to an anti-communist editor (prudence we had to practise in our non-SF life as well), and an author might try to improve chances of acceptance of stories by writing under pseudonyms concealing gender or ethnicity.

To some degree it was mere expression of allegiance to the science-fiction tradition we all honored. But on the whole it was a genuine sense of community, across fracture lines which outside the genre-bubble, in the real world, were guarded by snarling watchdogs. I don’t think I resented “The Roads Must Roll” when it appeared, for example, I may even have been grateful that unions were recognized as part of the scene, but my firm pro-union beliefs were not shaken. (Going to work in a union shop about that time, I volunteered to serve as a shop committeeman the first chance I got.) We listened to ideas coming from ideologues of world-views we didn’t share at all. It was for me a liberating time in the same way as the New Left twenty years later. Maybe somewhat older leftists like Phil Klass and Fred Pohl didn’t feel the same liberation.

Hannah Taieb: I was moved and fascinated to see that the “bubble” of science fiction fans and writers took shape so firmly as a community, superseding the harsh divisions of 1940s/50s America. I guess as a daughter, having grown up watching my father pushed away and attacked by McCarthyism, it was moving to me to imagine that within the sci-fi community Chan was not rejected by sanctimonious red-hunters, or at least that he didn’t experience things that way— didn’t see himself and other leftists as somehow in a separate world. Instead, he experienced a sense of “community across fracture lines”, a feeling I didn’t get the sense of  Chan often experiencing.

GB: In 1949, you wrote an article titled “Critiques and Proposals”, that dealt with stereotyping in literature generally, and in science fiction in particular. In that article, you called upon science fiction writers to make an active effort to not only avoid stereotyping (on grounds of race, gender, ethnicity etc.) but to work towards breaking them down, even if it means an – initial – defamiliarising effect for the reader. You made the point that the very fact that much of science fiction was set in the future allowed writers to imagine realities in which those stereotypes no longer existed – foreshadowing something that Ursula Le Guin would say many years later, about the role of science fiction writers being to imagine alternatives (including to capitalism). Do you think that more than other genres, science fiction allows for such possibilities, and that writers in the genre should be actively thinking about how to construct such possibilities in their fiction?     CD:  Oh, thanks for bringing this out so clearly, Gautam! Yes, emphatically. Is this to say merely that science-fiction ought to be always utopian (imagining and figuring forth a better world) or dystopian (warning against wrong policies by exhibiting horrid futures they might lead to)? Not at all. With Ursula LeGuin, I want SF to open up thinking about the future in more complex ways too.

Ursula Le Guin wanted science fiction writers to imagine alternatives to the way we live.

GB: In “Critiques and Proposals”, you talked about how editors (in 1949) were unlikely to accept a black or Jewish individual as the protagonist of a story, and how science fiction continued to have problems with gender (even though it was ahead of other genres of writing at the time). In many respects, the science fiction has made great advances in these respects over the years. But one thing that you don’t mention in your article is class—and in that respect, there doesn’t seem to have been such an advance. I can’t, for example, recall many recent works of science fiction I’ve read that have had a trade union member as a protagonist. Do you think science fiction has had—and continues to have—a certain obliviousness when it comes to questions of class? 

CD: Yes, to some extent. But many SF stories have presented a class structure different from that we know today, an aristocracy, or an elite privileged in some novel way. Think of Brave New World, for example. That counts as awareness of class structure, and imagining new structures societies might have is manifestly a desirable part of the genre, and recognized to be.

GB: Also in “Critiques and Proposals”, you advance a set of proposals for how writers can escape stereotyping black or Jewish characters in their stories. One suggestion that I didn’t see in the essay is something that the genre grapples with now to a great extent: that it is the job of editors and publishers to actively seek out writers who come from backgrounds that—to quote the end of your essay—“have been discriminated against.” So, just to take your own example: one of the solutions to the stereotyping of black people in science fiction would be to ensure that black writers write for, and are published by, science fiction magazines. I was wondering why you didn’t moot that as a proposal for editors. Was it something that would have been dismissed out of hand at the time?           

CD: No, I just didn’t think of it; I wish I had.

GB: In this 2013 interview with Josh Lukin, you discuss the centrality of the “resourceful protagonist” to science fiction, and the importance of “no hero” stories, in order to highlight that it is structures or institutions that are oppressive. I think this remains an issue with science fiction even today: the writer Saladin Ahmed tweeted about this recently, and I’ve flagged the point in a couple of reviews I’ve written on contemporary science fiction (that is otherwise quite good). Do you think the individualist bent of science fiction has detracted from an accurate identification of the systemic root of the problems that we face, and the need for collective action to overcome them?     

CD: Thanks once again for clear expression of a major challenge for authors. But even if, like Saladin Ahmed, the author is conscious of it, there still may be a protagonist who feels lonely, who suffers from the lack of an effective community of fellow rebels.

GB: Let’s get to the stories themselves! One thing I am struck by when I read your stories is their range: in your science fiction, you’ve explored corporate culture, robots, post-apocalyptic societies, nuclear war, eugenics, and the arms race, First Contact, space opera, the world of work and labour, and so much more. Could you tell us a bit about how these themes reflected your own preoccupations at the time, and how you’d situate your work in the context of what your contemporaries in the science fiction community were writing then?

CD: One striking example of my writing responding to the preoccupations of the time is my responding to the threat of nuclear weapons. All of us in the science-fiction gang who learned of the Manhattan Project only in August 1945 felt at least a momentary joy of vindication: we had been saying this might happen, the general population didn’t know, and lo! we were in the right. But most of us soon realized, “Hey! this is a calamity, an atrocity” (and to think it was done in the name of the American people). Some of the authors sounded the alarm. I cite especially [Theodore] Sturgeon’s “Memorial”, my “The Nightmare”, and Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses”, but there were several others. We put it before our audience a rather large and international audience– that if your country is the target of nuclear attack, then it is up to you not to strike back but to do everything to RESTRAIN your country from striking back. We were right, but our message didn’t stick, in the USA or anywhere.

Theodore Sturgeon addressed the issue of nuclear war in his stories

GB: Cooperation and language are two recurring themes in your work. They come together in your story, “To Share The World”, which is quite a wonderful First Contact tale: a species that human beings refer to as the Nibblies communicate through electric current, and their form of communication constructs a world that is by definition experienced and articulated in and through community. It put me in the mind of some of Samuel Delany’s work, and more recently, China Mieville’s Embassytown. How do you understand the role of language in shaping the world, and the role of science fiction in interrogating this relationship?     

CD: Language may not shape the physical world, but it surely shapes the social world, and I don’t think I brought out in “Share Our World” or any of my other stories what range is imaginable in other intelligent species. Hey, to make this point clear, I’ll have to get back to the task of writing and dream up some more extraterrestrial alternatives! It’s worth thinking about. In the real world, I don’t think we’ll experience First Contact in the sense of Murray Leinster‘s SF, or mine, or Carl Sagan’s, but thinking about it is important for life in the real world because it helps enable us to handle the changes going on all the time in here-and-now social evolution.

HT: Gautam raised the question of the “resourceful protagonist” and the importance of “no hero” stories, and later came to the issue of cooporation, using as example the Nibblies in To Share the World which Gautam points out have a “shared world” that is in contrast with human beings. I just wanted to point out that to me there is a link between Chan’s interest in “no hero” stories and his creation of stories with multiple heroes with complex interconnections. My favorite of Chan’s stories, along with It Walks in Beauty and Letter to Ellen, is Hexamnion, with its coorperative multiple protagonist(s). I am not making a point here, except to bring together the two issues, and to say that I think Hexamnion deserves a mention along with the Nibblies, in talking about images of cooperation.

GB:  Sticking with the theme of language, in your novelette, It Walks In Beauty, there is a point in the story when the protagonist, Max, resolves to think of and refer to Paula as “her” instead of “it”. Immediately thereafter, he catches himself wondering “how much difference would a pronoun make to – her?” “It Walks in Beauty” was published in 1958, and it’s quite extraordinary how these lines foreshadow an issue that would come to the fore many decades later; it’s only now that we are seeing mis-gendering being started to be taken somewhat seriously, and there’s still a long way to go. I wanted to ask what was in your mind when you made your protagonist think of correct pronouns as something important, as almost a revolutionary move.

CD: It is a fortuitous resemblance. I didn’t imagine the kind of gender-challenging we see now, though Ursula LeGuin and Samuel Delany did, impressively. I did fix on stereotyped sex roles, as they exist, and the damage they do to genuine human relations, and I’m proud of the acuity of my critique. “It Walks in Beauty” is near-future SF as opposed to imagined-world SF, as I intended to make clear by reference to an actual 1940s popular song. Exaggerated though the problems were in the story, they’re real problems, and I meant Paula’s optimism at the end—despite the failure of her attempted lesson—to stand for my own determination in 1954 (when I was writing) to do something to fix them. The editor, my friend Fred Pohl, thought the bitterness had to be let stand, and changed the ending. Without consulting me, yet! I told Judy Merril, and she agreed that my original ending was better. I insisted that subsequent reprinting of the story use the original faintly hopeful ending. I’m still determined to try to fix those problems. We’ve come a long way, baby … well, a little way, and there’s a long way to go.

HT: With regard to It Walks in Beauty, I preferred Fred Pohl’s ending; perhaps, as a woman, I identified with the bitterness of Paula watching the fellow prance off cluelessly. But I’m still glad that Chan, in 1954, the year of my birth, had determination to stick to his feminism even when it got hard and challenged his conceptions of femininity. I’m sure I benefited from that, growing up.

Image Credits: Amazon.in

GB: Quite a few of your stories portray human beings failing—or refusing—to cooperate with each other, even in situations where it would be in their interests to do so, and sometimes with tragic consequences (and in “To Share the World”, the literal “shared world” of the Nibblies is placed in stark contrast with how human beings imagine the world). At times your work almost feels like a critique of the atomism that capitalism has brought us, an atomism that has perhaps become worse since the time you wrote these stories. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about these ideas of community, cooperation, and atomism in your work, and in science fiction more broadly?    

CD: You’re quite right, Gautam, to relate the ideology of market economics to weakness of cooperative behaviour in capitalist society. Not talking about actual markets but about the terribly prevalent ideology of the inevitability of competition—an ideology now called neoliberalism, though there’s nothing neo about it. And you’re quite right that science fiction should bring more to the struggle to break out of it. Utopias are likely to be free of dog-eat-dog ruthlessness, but all kinds of SF could do more to address this.

GB: My personal favourite out of all your short stories is perhaps “The Aristocrat”, where a nuclear disaster seemingly divides people into “human” and “Folk”. The story is told from the perspective of a human who exercises what he believes is an enlightened-despotic rule over the Folk, in order to preserve civilization—until things start to go wrong. I read both It Walks in Beauty and The Aristocrat as being stories that interrogate, and undermine, the categories with which we order the world, and demonstrate, in a way, the futility of endeavours to exercise control over diverse and plural ways of being as well as the arrogance of those who think they can unilaterally shape the future. In particular, “The Aristocrat” pushes back against different forms of historical determinism. I was struck both by how this is at odds with institutional communist ideology, and also at odds with some of your contemporaries, such as Isaac Asimov, whose idea of psychohistory does depend on the world being knowable, and therefore subject to human control. Would you have any thoughts about this?       

CD: Isaac Asimov has Hari Seldon’s knowledge of laws of societal development, and hence his ability to predict the future, break down due to one unpredictable event, the appearance of one individual, the Mule, with unique capacity to influence. Asimov came from the Marxist tradition, and was surely commenting on the great difficulty of understanding history well enough to predict it. I also come from the Marxist tradition. I believe that history can be understood, as the result of deterministic causal processes, but I also believe that the unpredictable events are everywhere. (Too bad we can not ask Asimov whether he agrees; he well might.) If this is a contradiction, I hope it is of the fruitful dialectical kind.  In short, I believe that there is no bound on how well we can know the laws of history, but that our knowledge will always fall short of taking every small contingency into account, and that small changes can have large consequences, so that our predictive power, while improving, will always fall short. I call myself a radical contingentist. Have you read “The Next Thousand Years or So”, a lecture I gave here a few years ago? It accepts unpredictability without accepting unknowability, and attempts to justify this.

GB: Your other post-nuclear disaster story, “Last Year’s Grave Undug”, feels oddly prescient in many ways, especially when Pop says to his companions, “the US invaded itself.” I was reminded of the recent Capitol attacks, and the firmly tongue-in-cheek comments about how the US was finally serving itself a sliver of the taste of its own medicine. Many of the themes that you explore in that story—in particular, how, even in a ruined world, people will still cling tenaciously to the world-views that they have instinctively come to inhabit—feel very real today. In fact, “Last Year’s Grave Undug” could literally be written today and feel entirely contemporary, other than a few odd dated references. Did you anticipate, when you were writing that story, that six decades on, we’d still be exactly where we are now?         

CD: No, “Last Year’s Grave Undug” is another warning story. Magnifying some present trends to show them more clearly. I’m glad we are not where that story depicts us! By the way, this is an instance of the difficulty even of understanding history, let alone predicting. As I also explained in my essay “The Next Thousand Years or So”, mentioned just now, I could not imagine in the 1950s that our society could survive unless we achieved nuclear disarmament.  Indeed it still remains to be understood! We must try to solve that riddle, as part of our solving the grand riddles of history—at the same time as we try to steer the course away from nuclear catastrophe, which is still terribly threatening, but not inevitable.

Chandler Davis; Photo: Alan M Waid

GB: Professor Davis, thank you so much for your time, and thank you to Hannah as well. I hope you do get around to resuming writing those First Contact stories!

This interview first appeared in Strange Horizons and has been republished with their permission. You can see more of their work here.

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Issue 17

Shaleena, 1st from her community to patrol a jungle in AP shoots her own story

First published in RoundGlass Sustain, a treasure trove of stories on India’s wildlife, habitats and their conservation.

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Issue 17

Kapur & Miyazaki: Wild celluloid connections from the 7th Century CE to 2022

Yet another Kapoor in film? 

At about the time, a second generation of the Kapoors were becoming a hit in Hindi cinema, animation films were getting packed movie halls in Japan for the first time. The oil from a camphor tree, was being used to make film stock. All three from the 1950s.

Camphor, from the kapur family was a key ingredient in the making of celluloid. So yes, yet another kapur is in film.

Celluloid, or cellulose nitrate plasticized by camphor. Hailed by some as the first industrial plastic in the late 19th century. Early still photographers and filmmakers through the 1920s to the 50s, found it extremely moldable. Until acetate replaced it. 

While the jury is still out on which is better, Indians have known about the natural and artificial version of camphor, for several centuries. The 7th century Ayurveda work, Mādhava Cikitsā, advocates its natural variety for treating fever. Egyptians embalmed their dead in it. Both civilizational lands continue to value its fragrance. As Karpura in Sanskrit, Hindi and several Indian languages. 

In colloquial North Indian use, some shorthand it to kapur. This slow growing tree is a Taiwanese and Japanese native, with many species of its evergreen variety found from India to Egypt, Mongolia to Vietnam and China to Southern United States.

Camphor, actually references the species, Camphora. For the chemical in the oil, found in the tissue of the tree. Used by modern organic chemistry eventually, to also make film. The East Asian avatar is still used to make both insecticide and perfume. Indians currently find it handy for moth-free cupboards, while many cultures still treat it a like noxious weed.

In Japan though, it remains pretty sacred. An 1890 article in the Scientific American, reminds us that some of the best camphor exported to the rest of the western world back then, came from Southern Japan. Hayao Miyazaki, film director and co-founder, Studio Ghibli, featured it like a body guardian presence in his 1988 anime, My Neighbor Totoro.

Isabel Stevens, writing in the November 2021 issue of the film magazine, Sight & Sound, evokes this connection, “Miyazaki’s film is true to life in acting like a guardian to the girls, whose mother is in hospital, just as it does to shrines across Japan. Throughout the film, the tree is tenderly observed in many different shades of watercolor. All manner of green by day, ink black, grey and purple by night, and dappled with yellows at sunrise.” Stevens also points out that the oldest version of this tree still alive in Japan, is said to be 1500 years old. Another one, she speaks of, survived the atomic bombing at a Nagasaki shrine.

Resilience, clearly a quality of this tree also surfaces in Hayao Miyazaki’s animation films, through a variety of protagonists. Who navigate uncertainty or change. Young girls go on adventures and come of age in some significant or quirky way. While creatures drawn from Japanese myth, simply help pause or protect. Shape-shifting, between the supernatural and the wild. 

Take Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the highest grossing film of all time in Japan, when it released in 2001. It had a mountain witch and part of the film’s name in Japanese, implied a hidden deity, kamikakushi. A folk tale reference there. Where when a girl was lost, the Japanese were prone to suggesting, she has gone to the kamikakushi. This is invoked in the film’s story as well. 

Miyazaki’s fantasy, as a comfort food offering also speaks to his own youth. When Japan began modernizing quickly in the 50s, his placement of protagonists in rural settings, protected by folklore, was as much to connect the young, as a touch of staying rooted. Himself.

After all, Japan has worn its own past-continuous animistic tryst with nature and spirit life, like a second skin. Be it Japanese literary references of ghost foxes, going all the way back to the 11th century work, Genji Monogatari. Or the more zombie-in-a village-graveyard anime hit, Jujutsu Kaisen, in the Japan of 2021. 

While Indians can watch both My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away on Netflix. Miyazaki’s own tripping the light fantastic has created an enduring following, both at home and abroad. This September, when the Academy of Motion Pictures finally opened USA’s first proper Museum of Film, they celebrated with a Miyazaki retrospective.

In another American hat tip to a wider and younger Japanese anime creativity, nature and film touched base in a new way. Seven of Japan’s anime studios got their hands on some unexpected material. To reimagine the Star Wars connections.

On an open invite from the US franchise. The New York Times pointed to this landmark east-west sharing. ‘It is the first time outsiders from any country have been given this sort of access to the themes, ships, characters and even signature sounds of the Star Wars franchise.

Each anime studio worked its own style and story. Making a rock opera, a family centric reflection and an ecological tale. Nine shorts by nine individual directors. All of them available on Disney Hotstar as a collection called Star Wars: Visions.

In fact in a curious case, the one US state to get the first Disney hotel dedicated to Star Wars in 2022, is Florida. Where camphor also happens to be a native tree. The hotel conceived apparently like an immersive spaceship experience, speaks to a younger Miyazaki. Whose early sketches were not of humans in anime. But planes in flight. 

Now readying to feed the fantasy of a different OTT generation, navigating uncertainty and change in a pandemic. Who perhaps use celluloid as a shorthand for film itself, like some Indians do kapur?

Tisha Srivastav teaches 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 17

A Thanos snap for India’s growing hunger crisis?

*Snap*

No more people surviving on rice morsels. Or drops of unsafe drinking water every day. No more people with their ribs popping out. No more people dying on the footpath.

*Snap* and people are eating their fill. *Snap* no malnourishment. 

Unfortunately, Thanos’s idea of ending world hunger by snapping his finger and killing half the world’s population in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is pure fiction. Or so implies Paul Ehrlich in ‘The Population Bomb’ where he says, “Conscious regulation of human numbers must be achieved. Simultaneously we must, at least temporarily, greatly increase our food production.” 

Let’s look at our own case. India has dropped seven positions in just one year in the Global Hunger Index 2021 (GHI). This is a tool used to calculate global, regional and national hunger. The GHI releases its score annually based on four factors. Undernourishment, child wasting (children under the age of five who have low weight for their height), child stunting (children under the age of five with a low height for their age), and child mortality (Death rate of children under the age of five). All of these factors are traced back to hunger. This means among many things, a lack of nutritious food. India’s score of 27.5 in 2021 is termed serious by the GHI. But how is the calorific intake doing?

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), defines hunger or food deprivation by it after all.“Hunger is an uncomfortable or painful physical sensation caused by insufficient consumption of dietary energy. It becomes chronic when the person does not consume a sufficient amount of calories (dietary energy) on a regular basis to lead a normal, active and healthy life.” The Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) suggests every individual in rural India consume 2400 kilocalories (kcal) per day. However, a paper published by BMC Public Health says, as of 2019, 95% of India’s population consumes less than required.

The Government of India’s Women and Child Development ministry’s response to the drop in the GHI?“The opinion poll does not have a single question on whether the respondent received any food support from the government or other sources.” While India has improved in some parts, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have simply done better and gone past India in the GHI. The central government has called the survey process unscientific. Like the BMC public health research, recent studies are pointing elsewhere, again and again, to grasp the shifting nature of reality, particularly in the last year. This is crucial to understanding hunger as well. 

For instance, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013 is meant to ensure that “all people, at all times, should get access to the basic food for their active and healthy life.” Through a targeted public distribution system 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population, is meant to be covered. But 75 million more Indians have fallen into the poor category in the last year alone. The poor here is a category of those with a daily income of $2 or less. This is due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Pew Research Centre Analysis. People are earning less and therefore finding protein-rich food more difficult to buy. This is about a diminishing economic ability to afford food items and not about how much grain a nation produces. “Population growth, along with over-consumption per capita, is driving civilisation over the edge: billions of people are now hungry or micronutrient malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people,” says Ehrlich. 

Ehrlich’s conscious regulation is what China did and has reversed now. Even before the pandemic though, things were not looking good. Only 44% of the central and state funds allotted to the Supplementary Nutrition Programme (SNP) were found to have been utilised by 2018-19. The dip in funding the Mid-Day Meal scheme by the central government is evident in the 2021-2022 Union Budget document, where the world’s largest food programme shows a drop of a whopping 32.3%. So fewer people were being reached. Now the numbers of those becoming poorer are up too. This also suggests possible intergenerational malnourishment. As children born to malnourished mothers then sadly walk into life, underfed from day one.

Thanos’ theory does not work, because a sudden decrease in the birth rate will improve things only in the short run. The population will increase exponentially if chronic reasons are not addressed. There is already a draft bill introduced in the Upper House or Rajya Sabha in 2019 which calls for a revised population policy. With a small family as the norm, not as the exception. Except here it is a private member bill. Not one debated in Parliament yet nor therefore drafted into law. 

In it, there is a slew of incentives for those who keep to two children per family. There will also be punitive exclusion from the state’s benefits for the family that does not follow it. With the memory of the Indian Emergency still fresh, when Sanjay Gandhi tried to force a sterilization drive and failed, this 2019 ‘Population Regulation Bill’ sounds closer to Thanos’ snap, doesn’t it?

For overcoming hunger though, some of India’s best results have come when young parents feel secure enough, having good healthcare and nutrition nearby. Where they are. They themselves then are able to see their child grow to live a well-nourished life. It is part of a truer picture of what helps curb hunger. The opposite of a *snap*.

Featured Image credit

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).

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Issue 17

Building utopia with robot gardeners: Celebrating 35 years of Laputa Castle in the Sky

Sheeta and Pazu’s 19th-century adventure, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, is celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary in 2021. Could this steampunk fairy tale about two orphans also be seen as a movie dreaming up an ecotopia? 

A shorthand term for ecological utopia. Ernest Callenbach who coined the term way back in his 1975 novel of the same name wrote, “What matters most is the aspiration to live in balance with nature, to walk lightly on the land, to treat the earth as a mother.”

High sounding words for our two protagonists who just want to get to the mysterious floating castle of Laputa, you might think. They of course have to fight the military on the ground and the pirates in the sky. In a bid to conquer the world, Colonel Mushka tries to capture Sheeta’s ancient stone so it can lead him to Laputa. The bad guy, emblematic of humankind’s greed and destruction.

In contrast, there are the sky pilots, inhabiting a greyer territory, led by the matriarch Dola. Donning pink braids, Dola is ready to fight anyone in quest of treasure. However, she is more soft-hearted than she lets on. Together, they all race to this mysterious kingdom, where nature and technology live together in peace. The perfect ecotopia. 

The earth speaks to all of us, and if we listen, we can understand. These words set the signature theme of Studio Ghibli, known for its vibrant, ecological storytelling. Neither a foreground for human action nor just a passive scenery, Hayao Miyazaki’s landscape is an active character. As the plot unfolds, so does the landscape- constantly transforming and evolving with the characters. Every action of the human characters affects the larger environment, which affects humanity, all in a vicious loop. The message is clear. Man cannot extricate himself from nature, nor should he attempt to. As the lyrics of one of the songs in the movie unfold, “take root in the ground, live in harmony with the wind, plant your seeds in the winter and rejoice with the birds in the coming of spring.”

While East vs West storytelling often displays this battleground between living in harmony with nature in contrast to dominating it, what sets Laputa apart is its questioning of technology. Are these systems capable of coexisting with the spirit of ecotopia? Let’s look at the example of the Laputan robot soldiers. 

These robots are large, sentient humanoids who can fly. When one of the formerly-thought dead robots is activated through Sheeta’s spell, it quickly devours the military facility. It is framed as yet another antagonist the duo must tackle. But soon enough, we see it meant no harm. It was only trying to escape. When another robot advances towards the duo, it is again not out of malice. It was to lift the glider off a bird’s nest so he could protect a nest of eggs. 

These scenes show us that tech is tech, neither good nor bad. It is what humans make it do. The Laputan robot soldiers are, in equal parts, terrifying. They are capable of unleashing immense destruction. They are endearing, capable of nurturing woodland creatures on their shoulders. Benign gardener or destructive monster, their actions derive from the whims of their human master. Colonel Mushka’s machinations rest on the latter. A stark statement on how industrialisation and war are destructive to culture. 

Yet, it also implies that in the right hands, machine intelligence may set an example of what an ethical relationship with nature might look like. By spelling out the amorality of AI, technology and everything in between, Miyazaki prods the audience to rethink our current technological systems. At best, our systems cater to human interests without factoring in the external symbiosis of living and non-living elements. At worst, they cater only to the interests of capitalists, ignoring other sections of society such as marginalised communities. Even the very creation of these technological systems is rooted in extraction that is exploitative to those from the lower strata of society. For instance, the mining community that Pazu belongs to works day and night to power the technology that keeps their island afloat, yet they receive none of the benefits. Their lives are characterized by uncertainty, suffering, and unremitting labour. 

However, with a little bit of tinkering, humans can build into technologies the complexity of interrelationships that exist across living beings and environments. Coined by philosopher Arne Naess, deep ecology is the environmental philosophy that all living beings have inherent worth, regardless of their utility to humans. Hence, we as a species should strive for ecological harmony between all living entities and non-living systems. It is only through forging future technological systems that embrace all of Earth’s systems can we shift from human narcissism to values of deep ecology. This might just bring us closer to inhabiting an ecotopia. 

Ecotopianism is ultimately a philosophy of hope, one rooted in a desire to change society for the better. And perhaps along the way, one can improve the human condition. Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky embodies this yearning. It presents a window out of the current doom-laden state of humanity, and that alone makes it worth a watch. 

Featured Image credit

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).  

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Issue 17

Ecoflix, a new streaming platform says zero-celebrity or ad: Only animals and the planet?

In August 2007, Los Angeles resident Aaron Leider sued L.A. Zoo Director John Lewis and the City of Los Angeles. ‘The zoo’s “cruel, abusive and illegal treatment” through use of chains, drugs, bullhooks and electric shocks,’ claimed Leider was harming the Asian elephants in the zoo’s care. One of them had been bobbing his head in a way an elephant does when stressed. This was Billy. A decade later, the attorney fighting the case lost.

In 2021, David Casselman, that same animal rights lawyer after a nearly forty-year legal career, became CEO, Ecoflix. 

A not-for-profit global streaming platform, ‘dedicated to saving animals and the planet’, says the official website. It also mentions, ‘there will be no advertising.’ Launched during the global climate negotiations at CoP 26, Casselman clarifies, ‘we are not looking for celebrities or famous faces. Instead, we are looking for kindred spirits.’

This decade also marks a century of the thespian or star as narrator for documentaries. This has tilted even more in the direction of  celebrities post 2000, as documentaries began to be more commercially viable. Maria Pramaggiore and Annabelle Honess Roe remind us of this in their recent book, Vocal Projections: Voices in Documentary.“If the aim for these documentaries is to get wider press coverage and higher box office returns or viewing figures, then the celebrity voice-over strategy seems often to be successful.” 

Is that Ecoflix’s aim then? A look at the wider behind-the-scenes team offers clues. Let’s look at the Board of Directors first.

American Beth Pratt has had a long association with two of the largest national parks in the US. Niall McCann, from Wales, wears many hats. Nat Geo Explorer, biologist and an anti-poaching charity he helped establish in Africa. Teo Alfero, also American, heads a California-based large-canine rescue center and sanctuary. Will Travers runs an animal charity in England. All four, white, with Beth, the only woman. 

Their Advisory Board has Lek Chailert. Founder of a Thai non-profit working with elephants,  the only Asian among them. The rest are all again white. Like much of their Executive team too. 

Again, save one. The global south, as you can see, seems quite underrepresented.

Let us see what it does for viewers then? 100 per cent of all memberships are tax-deductible for US Taxpayers. This incentivizes US citizens to join perhaps. But global viewers will soon be able to upload their own nature videos, in an upcoming interactive map.

Currently, if a viewer becomes an Ecoflix member, one month of an annual membership fee will be donated  directly to an Ecoflix partner NGO. But the platform confuses by saying that all profit in the not-for-profit streaming platform will be directed toward conservation. “Our impact team makes assessments based on a range of criteria including urgency, need, recommendations and track record.” A fair probe may check, is the partner NGO network connected to the Board in any manner?

Yes is the short answer. Of the thirteen Ecoflix partners listed, five work in animal care in the US. Many others have multi-country projects. The highest number come from Southeast Asia and Africa. Like Gentle Giants in Thailand which looks after captive elephants. Or Indonesia’s Danau Girang Field Centre involved in field research in conservation. 

The African Conservation Foundation team again seems overwhelmingly white, even when African. It leads many projects it says on behalf of Africa’s endangered wildlife and habitat. Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection runs what is said to be Liberia’s very first chimpanzee sanctuary. Cameroon’s Limbe Wildlife Centre runs a zoo turned sanctuary for chimpanzees saved from wildlife trade.

Indian data shows that paid subscribers to OTT platforms have shot up since 2020. Wrestling overtook cricket in sport viewership on TV in India since 2018, with the rise in Oriya, Bhojpuri, Urdu, Assamese and Marathi content. With streaming platforms like Ecoflix, who say that any ‘kindred spirit’ will be able to upload nature related content, it remains to be seen how this plays out, in terms of representation of a wider range of voices, especially post the pandemic? 

Pramaggiore and Honess Roe’s documentary research, also reminds us that, “Voices in documentary are inextricably linked to issues of power. To ‘have a voice’ in the wider world is in some sense to have power and recognition; similarly, the presence or absence of voices in documentaries grants power to some and denies it to others. The disposition of voices expresses the way in which the filmmaker exercises his or her power over the material of the film. Voices also determine the form of a documentary.” 

So with a wide swathe of multi-continental presence, whose voices might have been included at the launch of this platform? The Ecoflix Foundation’s first and so far only original documentary is Free Billy. 

The campaign’s description remains instructive, “perhaps the biggest surprise, Billy is not in an unenlightened zoo in a poor country, but in Los Angeles Zoo in California.” 

Featured Image credit: Ecoflix’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).