Categories
Issue 17

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 : Bijoy Venugopal

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: Bijoy Venugopal

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: Bijoy Venugopal

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: Bijoy Venugopal

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

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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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

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. 

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Issue 17

Diving into the life of Jacques Cousteau: What can Gen Z learn from this French icon?

A man plunges into the depths of the ocean wearing an eye mask. A cylinder strapped to his back. We see him place a strange-looking object on the ocean-bed. Before we have time to wonder what it is, we see a flash. Kaboom!

“Commercial fishing with dynamite is illegal, an act of vandalism. But for the purpose of scientific study, it is the only method for taking a census of all the varieties in an area”,  says a firm heavily accented voiceover, as dozens of fish sink to the bottom. A man goes back into the water, grabs a dead fish, his fingers shoved far into its bleeding gills. Coming back to the surface, his bag is filled with many open-mouthed creatures, cold and stiff. He empties them onto the sand. 

This is a scene from the 1956 Oscar-winning film The Silent World. Regarded as the first documentary on oceanic life in full colour. Co-directed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, it is an adaptation of his 1953 book. 

Sounds pretty horrifying, doesn’t it? What if I say this man who set off a bomb in the middle of the ocean, eventually went on to become one of the first advocates for underwater life? How could someone who did something that would be considered unforgivable in today’s world, possibly even cancellable, also be someone famously known as the world’s ambassador of the oceans? Or an early guardian of the aquatic voiceless – what he believed to be the silent world?  

Liz Garbus, the two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker has recently released a film about him, Becoming Cousteau. From National Geographic Documentary Films, this 2021 American documentary uses a lot of the real footage originally shot by Cousteau. It takes a close  look at his undersea life, touching upon the great many firsts. 

From co-inventing the first-ever scuba gear to being the one to make underwater filming possible, the French icon did a lot for someone with no scientific degree. The trailer of Becoming Cousteau calls him an adventurer, innovator and legendary filmmaker. Yet could he be boxed into either of those three categories?

An AP News article mentions how one of Cousteau’s editors found it so difficult to label him, he finally went with, “A man looking at the future.” Perhaps it was as simple as that for Cousteau. ‘‘We go see it for ourselves”, says the 2021 trailer referring to his life motto. Wanting to dive deeper, he simply co-created a device that would allow him to do so (the Aqualung, the world’s first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus). Wanting to show the world what magic lies within the blue depths, he authored over fifty books and created waterproof filming equipment. “You only protect what you love”, says Cousteau’s voice in the trailer of Becoming Cousteau. 

Or perhaps his own unwillingness to take himself seriously was what attracted people to him. “I am not interested in myself, I am interested in the world outside me”, says the scrawny man in a red beanie, who spent 68 years of his life quite casually changing the face of underwater exploration. 

Image Credit: CALYPSO

Being the first to film the oceanic wonders earned him a Cannes Film-Festival win, two Academy Awards, and a couple of long-running television shows. The shows documented his adventures across the world carried out in his special vessel, the Calypso. It was during these long expeditions that Cousteau realised the urgent need to protect marine life. 

He started the Cousteau Society in 1973. It is still working today to set up protected areas for endangered species, under Francine, the second wife of Jacques Cousteau. His children and grandchildren as part of the society, are involved in constantly improving the explorer’s inventions. Taking forward the work he started.

Cousteau soon became an environmentalist over everything else, laying the foundation for ocean conservation. He even made headlines when he spoke passionately about the warming oceans and the rights of future generations to live on an uncontaminated planet at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit.  

The 2021 biopic truly comes full circle in terms of showing Cousteau as someone who started off killing marine life to battling for their protection. While he followed unethical practices in his early days of filming, he was unafraid to retain the clips. He was willing to call himself out on his mistakes and wanted the world to do so too. An important lesson for us to learn as a generation, so reluctant to display our own shortcomings.  

Most importantly, Cousteau was a man completely at peace in water from a very early age. He thrived in the depths of the ocean. As a review by Variety suggests, Cousteau’s life outside the sea was not exactly a smooth ride. His love for the sea meant his family life suffered. A few years after graduating from the naval academy, he had to give it all up after a near-fatal automobile accident. One that broke both his arms. Hitting rock bottom, he was advised to do swimming exercises to nurse himself back to health. That journey of recovery recharged his seafaring passion. 

Makes me wonder – how many lives were on a pause during the pandemic? How many people felt paralysed and unmotivated in the midst of isolation? As the world takes small steps towards normalcy in 2021, perhaps Liz Garbus, through her documentary, wants us to draw inspiration from this legend who was determined to make a comeback, and boy, what a comeback it was! 

Featured Image credit: Combined Military Service Digital

Meera Anand is a third year undergraduate student of Ashoka University pursuing a major in Economics and a minor in 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 16

In the year of the crypto-creators raking it in, what about the energy bill?

Photo by Old Money on Unsplash

More than a decade had passed since American writer Blake Butler tried to sell his novel. Ironically titled Decade.

In February 2021, he sold it as an NFT for 5 ETH (short for cryptocurrency Ethereum). At the time, 5 ETH was worth approximately $7,570 (INR 5.5 lakh). It was more money than what his previous books, published the traditional way, had made together. Value is up since. This one in GIF mode is downloadable to read as a PDF. 

In an interview with Literary Hub, Butler says of NFT, “It feels like a moment for reinvention, where the field is as wide open as you could want,” But before getting to what it means for the environment let’s see, what in internet heaven is an NFT? Here is a hypothetical story to explain this.

Give me those cards,” says the teacher while snatching the action superhero cards from the students in the classroom. She then locks up the cards (not the kids)It’s not fair,” one student cribs to the other. “I wish nobody stole our own cards from us,” says another, ready to howl.

In 2021, digital versions of these cards or books can be kept as Non-Fungible-Tokens or NFTs. These are unique digital files you cannot touch or put in your bag but just see on a screen. So, no teacher can take away a superhero action card, if it is in the form of an NFT. But how does someone own one?

One student feels that the other student has a card they want. They exchange cards. Many others follow suit. Now, to avoid confusion, everyone writes down who owns which cards in each of their notebooks. They keep updating their notebooks real-time. This notebook is a ledger. 

When a student tries to cheat by showing more cards in their notebook than they actually have, it simply does not match with the other notebooks. So no cheating. But what if a student without any cards wants to get their first one?“Those who update the notebooks will get yellow coins,” a smart chap puts an idea forward, “people can use these coins to buy the superhero action cards.” 

Those writing on notebooks may find it boring to maintain, but cryptocurrency is the reward for those who maintain a ledger. You get it? This is not just child’s play, but an internet model for buying and selling things, in a virtual marketplace worth millions. A collection of such notebooks, action hero cards and children, online is like a blockchain network in operation. 

Every computer is constantly creating copies and maintaining such ledgers in a decentralised way. While regarded as low on error, this system is heavy on energy use. Harvard Business Review says, “Bitcoin (the most common cryptocurrency) currently consumes around 110 Terawatt Hours per year — 0.55% of global electricity production, or roughly equivalent to the annual energy draw of small countries like Malaysia or Sweden.” Yet, people are increasingly using it

Writers like Indian self-help author Arun Batish, published EKA, as a paperback in 2019. It is available as an NFT too. In 2020, N.E Carlisle published a young adult book, Mermaid Eclipse. In the same year, she announced it as the first NFT Novel in collaboration with cyber artist, Lori Hammond.  They have launched this magic tale as an NFT with the book’s manuscript and a signed copy of the original artwork. An Indian and a global example, but you get the drift? NFT is helping writers.

Continuing with the student analogy, what happens next? One student puts forth a demand, “Everyone has to write this condition in their notebooks, I will pay for this action card only if it allows me to win the card competition tomorrow.” The seller can choose to sell the card if the other party agrees to this condition. The buyer too knows the terms. A condition like this is called a smart contract.

RVRS, one instance of a cryptocurrency, is using such a smart contract. When someone is buying or selling using this token, they are asking its users to agree on a condition. Which in their case is, “we will be using a tenth of your transaction amount to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.” RVRS says they support tree planting projects around the globe.“Does anybody need a shovel?”, asks a volunteer, in their PR tree-planting drive video

As the first year of a new decade wind down, NFT sales and creativity for its collaborators will define the upcoming decade. But so will the uncryptic truth that Terms and Conditions are the only major superhero action card the industry has authored, in exchange for its carbon footprint. So far.

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

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

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Issue 15

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Paromita Roy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Paromita Roy                                                             Pedestrian shift at Karol Bagh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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