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

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).  

Categories
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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Issue 15

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast: 15 min  

Questions asked in order of appearance 

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

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

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

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Issue 15 Issue 7

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

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

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

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

Video: 15 min.

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

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

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

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Issue 15

Cameras for community conservation? Rita Banerji on Green Hub

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

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

Video: 15 min

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

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

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Issue 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published on Mongabay India 

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

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