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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.

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Issue 13

Issue XIII: Editor’s Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Issue 13

Bats in a pandemic: Why should we care?

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

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

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

FRIENDS, OMEN & COUNTRYMEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCIENCE COMMUNICATION IN THE FIELD – FROM KOLAR TO WUHAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Issue 13

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

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

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

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

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

THE ZOO’S COLORED LEGACY

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

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

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

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

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

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

IS INDIA SAYING BOO TO ZOOS IN 2021?

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

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

WHAT CAN A RETHINK MEAN?

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

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

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

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

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

Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University.  

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

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Issue 11

Exploring Crevices in Global Healthcare Systems: An Analysis of Health Beyond COVID-19

An article published in the New England Medicine Journal in April 2020 describes the plight of a nurse whose husband died of cardiac arrest when New York hospitals were met with one of the worst public health emergencies in recent times. While the nurse, a medical professional would have ideally rushed her husband to the hospital, she struggled to take a decision for fear of exposing her spouse to the Covid virus. This incident makes one consider the story of the ‘untold toll,’ which the pandemic is forcing on non-covid patients and medical resources across the world. 

When the pandemic hit, the first response of national governments was to impose lockdowns, fund research for the study of the virus and increase hospital intakes for rising coronavirus cases. But most institutions, both governmental and medical, within this rush to curb the coronavirus spread, overlooked other illnesses that had already been affecting people. As a result, all public health funds, research, hospitals and professionals only focused on the potentially deadly virus, while special hospital wards for other diseases were either completely shut down, converted to Covid-19 isolation centres or restricted patients from entering their premises. 

news report published by Al Jazeera in April 2020 covered the impact that Covid-19 had on non-covid cancer patients in the past year, describing how a breast cancer patient was unable to continue treatment and struggled to get her check-ups for fear of getting the virus. Another report from India highlights how cancer patients within the national capital struggled because of postponement of surgery dates owing to pandemic lockdowns. And as one tries to study the scope of this ‘untold toll’ in covid times, one is introduced to articles not just of cancer patients but patients wanting to get a dialysis treatment, women struggling to get abortions and a myriad other such cases.    

 In April 2020, a  report by the Wire analysed how Covid-19 had affected the already struggling public health system in India. As a projective report, the article analysed how patients suffering from cardiac issues, kidney diseases, mental health concerns and other non-covid medical health concerns would be affected by the lockdown. The article further explored how already existing high tuberculosis cases within the country were going to be left untreated in a pandemic world, owing to bad medical health infrastructures within the subcontinent. While there is not enough data available to prove the validity of these reports and the extent to which these predictions were proven correct last year, news reports quoted above give us a glimpse of the situation being close to what this report had predicted. With shutting down of  emergency wards, closure of special wards and the conversion of medical centres into quarantine facilities, it is no surprise that the overall health and well-being of non-covid patients underwent a significant blow. 

While it is no surprise that these ‘temporary pauses’ in healthcare impacted non-covid patients significantly and put the larger health of the public at risk, this situation also brought to the fore the crevices in public health systems the world over. It was not just Indian cancer patients who struggled to get treated, the situation in the UK and the US were similar. The question that this situation raises is that if the healthcare system could not absorb non-covid patients along with new covid patients in the past, will it be able to do it this time? A year after the previous covid scare, the cases have significantly spiked again, with a much stronger, mutated strain of the virus resurfacing in the world. 

The response to this second wave of the virus is yet again lockdown impositions, curfews, shutting down of hospitals, conversion of these spaces into temporary covid wards, thereby imposing a halt on other medical services. while the question remains – can we sustain our healthcare systems in periods of crisis? And can we afford to interrupt other ‘essential’ medical services in times of a pandemic like Coronavirus?

Places like Pune’s Yashwantrao Chavan Memorial Hospital has already become a dedicated covid hospital. The emergency wards in several Uttar Pradesh hospitals have already started shutting down, owing to a spike in Covid-19 cases. Similar reports are expected to be coming from different parts of the country. 

Given the data and policy analysis from last year, one is forced to ask whether the response to the current rise in covid-19 cases will result in the same medical conundrum the country and world witnessed in 2020? Or will our past experiences fill the fissures that were made visible by a global health emergency?

Saman Fatima is a third-year History Major 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 9

What’s in Your Pocket – Your Office or Your Sanitizer?

“Kaske joota, kaske belt … kandhon pe zimmedari, haath mein file, mann mein dum, meelon meel chalenge hum …” (Wearing shoes and a tight belt … with responsibility on shoulders, with a file in hand and a courageous heart, we will walk miles and miles … the song continues) – was how one’s work life looked like in the pre-COVID era. The imagery produced through these lyrics remain relevant in the post-COVID world, except the song now stops at these four lines because you have reached your workstation – the table beside your bed.

The world of work, with all its stresses and gossips, shifted to homes as lockdowns began to be imposed in several countries with the outbreak of COVID-19, in early 2020. A year which has often been declared “cancelled” in our daily conversations, 2020 has come to be defined as a form of “disruption,” “an imbalance,”  as well as a “pause.” It is you and your socio-economic standing  that decides your position on this ideological spectrum. However, one aspect of our lives that cannot be concretely placed within this spectrum, and moves across it based on its fluctuations, remains ‘the professional.’ One’s economic, political and social behaviours surrounding the professions they were involved in came to be impacted due to such a drastic shift. Restrictions on travel and social contact became sole reasons that hindered work from an office desk and forced professionals to stay indoors and work-from-home.

The purpose of office spaces in the corporate world is social. Remote work has had a significant impact on workplace culture, besides dealing with the spread of the virus. “People find meaning in their daily rituals of getting ready to leave home, commuting, grabbing their cup of coffee, and filling their water bottle before sitting at their desk,” claims Thomas, a partner with the Strategy& Middle East, part of the PwC network. This process of meaning-making has transformed while working from home in a way that people find it convenient to attend office from their beds, without deliberate focus on these necessary rituals. A separate corner for the employee to organize official meetings and conferences is reserved within the four walls of one’s  house, often attended to in half-worn attire and a too-close-to-be-combed hair. The collaborative nature of tech-tools promoting remote work-culture has replaced the in-office coffee-machine gossips and hiccups. With dogs or family members walking in the background, remote work-culture on one hand offers relaxed workplace standards and is being lauded to have added “humanity to us.” On the other hand, a series of boxes and closets earlier criticised by an eminent American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, for preventing democracy and freedom, seems to have returned, though in an avatar enclosed within the four sides of our laptop screens.

This dependency on online mode of work highlights the discrimination that has operated through socio-economic hierarchies, with factors such as class, caste, gender impacting one’s access to certain privileges – be it technological or social. Access to stable internet connection? – a plethora of opportunities waiting for you out there; while a family engaging in unhealthy arguments all the time? – a full stop to important participation on the workscreen. This scenario threatens workplace democracy and freedom by considering one’s ability either to sail or fail – advocating for means that only benefit a specific population of employees. 

Moreover, the boundaries between two spheres crucial to the life of an employee – work and home, got blurred with time. While multiple online sources guide one to a productive and healthy work-life balance during the lockdown, a year into it, conversations are shifting to that of an eager return to the workplace. Opinions on the way “this is the end of the office as we know it” along with changes that could be observed in a post-pandemic world of work have been put forward by many organizations. Emphasis on the need for technological tools such as access to video-conferencing softwares, skills to operate new-age computer programs, a stable internet connectivity etc. to facilitate online work, have increased with time. However seamless and productivity-efficient it may sound, it has pushed employees into the never-ending loop of being “online,” resulting in time confetti. Time confetti, a term coined by Brigid Schulte, “amounts to little bits of seconds and minutes lost to unproductive multitasking.” A constant influx of work-related notifications, messages, emails, etc. from a co-employee or your boss has the possibility of disrupting one’s leisure time and preventing the user from engaging in physical face-to-face interactions even while at home. 

Although online communication between the employee and the employer provides flexibility and a certain degree of control over those interactions, it is often known to result in an autonomy paradox. A work-efficient mobile device is essential for one to ‘connect’ to the office. The term ‘work-efficient’ here would mean being accessible anytime and anywhere, adding to one’s personal autonomy. However, professionals seem to have channelised its usage to working “everywhere/all the time, thus diminishing their autonomy in practice.” An example of this dilemma would be – “if we are trying to be a committed parent while our work email goes off, we can’t help thinking we should be working on our next deadline. This conflict makes us feel like a bad parent and a bad employee.” During the pandemic-enforced remote work-culture, one could find similar scenarios evident of the work-home imbalance, promoting toxic-tasking more than ever. The guilt associated with not working from home and ‘wasting’ time on other unproductive and non-economic ventures, even for a second, overpowers our ability to arise out of this imbalance. 

Moreover, our means of leisure have shifted online – with free webinars, birthdays, weddings, get-togethers, graduations, funerals, all happening over our laptop screens. While some are looking for measures to avoid Zoom fatigue online, the talk about returning to the workplace is on the rise with recent unlocks being witnessed in different parts of the world. Several assumptions about how the workplace would look like in a post-pandemic world are being made – with ideas about AI-operated lifts and doors, segregated desks, increased use of dividers, floor signs, lesser number of employees working from office, assuring employees of their safety in the physical workplace. The world, now understanding the meaning of the phrase, “six-feet-away,” appears to be set to enter the physical workplace. Crucial safety measures being implemented in such spaces involve less coworking spaces, more private and personal spaces, regular sanitization of desks, chairs, common areas, and documentation to provide employees with the necessary information to protect themselves from associated risks. 

However, considering the merits associated with work-from-home narrative, there exists a decent push to create a balance that would allow willing employees to work from home and others from the office. As Rashmi Dhawani, Founder of the Art X Company puts it, these merits revolve around increase in trust and accountability between employees and the employers, fluid leadership possibilities due to new technologies being easily adapted by younger professionals as compared to experienced bosses, in addition to success in what companies were hesitant about earlier, that is, enhancing employee-productivity while at work from their homes. People have also cherished their ability to work in different environments and adapt new skills beneficial for their work. But, with employees connected through their mobile devices to the office while walking their dog in the park, the question, ‘what’s in your pocket – your office or your sanitizer?’ becomes necessary.

Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: BBC WORKLIFE

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 9

Where Fashion Trends Come From and Why You Should Care

My father, a physicist, once proudly told me that he doesn’t care about fashion. “I don’t think about these unimportant things,” he said. “My focus is on my work.” On most days he wears t-shirts or button downs with neutral tone pants, and he might add a jacket for special occasions. While not the most unusual, he still has a distinct sense of style and it has evolved over the years. I asked him why he didn’t wear the same thing all the time, or just throw on a potato sack and call it a day. He said, “Oh, because I like my clothes. I think they look nice.” Several others like him see fashion as a waste of time, but are involved in the fashion process nonetheless. No matter how far we may try to stay from fashion, due to the nature of the world we live in most of us are forced to make choices regarding clothing everyday. It is simply these choices that make us active participants in the fashion process, knowingly or not. 

Many choose to follow trends in order to fit in and feel a sense of belonging. While some may go out of their way to dress in un-trendy ways, and distance themselves from those they see as ‘imitators’, philosopher Georg Simmel saw these people as engaging in an inverse form of imitation, ultimately becoming part of a group of others like them. Then there are people like my dad, who don’t see themselves as part of the fashion world at all. Unfortunately for him, as a modern consumer he is just as affected by fashion trends as anyone else. Since all clothes retailers are influenced by the fashion world, when he buys their clothes he is adopting their interpretation of any given trend. 

As a multibillion dollar industry, fashion phenomena have attracted attention from sociologists, philosophers and market scientists. However, there is still no formalized theory of fashion, both due to a lack of research as well as the sheer volume of data and variables. After all, everyone wears clothes. Runway shows put on by designers provide an excellent jumping off point for learning about fashion, as the themes espoused by top brands both reflect and inform the choices of the larger fashion industry. 

September and February are usually the months where brands and fashion houses host fashion shows portraying their spring/summer and autumn/winter collections respectively, for the upcoming seasons. These shows take place in various “fashion weeks” around the world (one week per city), with London, Milan, Paris, and New York attracting the most attention. However, like everything else since last March, the Autumn/Winter 2021 shows were different this time. Most designers showcased their collections virtually, while some chose not to show at all. 

While discussing their Menswear Autumn/Winter 21 collection, Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons of Prada insisted that they wanted the collection to feel like an emotional response to everything the world has been through in the past year. Each look was built off the foundation of a bodysuit, to represent the body and symbolize vulnerability and a need for intimacy. Fashion has often been seen as a response to the events shaping society and the world outside. This ‘response’ attitude was evident in many of the fall/winter collections shown in February as well as the spring/summer shows from last September, when the mood was perhaps even more subdued. On the other hand the Prada womenswear collection that came out a month after the menswear show struck a more optimistic note, perhaps reflecting a turning point in the pandemic with the launch of vaccines and the tangible hope in the air. 

Prada and Simons’ descriptions of their collections would fit into the external or exogenous model of the fashion process presented by sociologists, which says that changes in clothing simply reflect changes in the cultural values of society at large. While designers might well be inspired by the world around them as well as their lived experience, this model falls short when discussing the adoption of certain trends by different social groups. Cultural changes might affect the popularity of certain trends, but they cannot explain the different times at which trends are adopted by different groups, thus failing to predict future trends. Internal models can address these questions while looking at the fashion process as a self-contained phenomenon, influenced more by internal changes than external, cultural events. Simmel suggests that changes in clothing styles are the result of a ‘trickle down effect’, with trends being steadily adopted by successive social classes, starting with the upper class. 

According to William Reynolds, a marketing professor from Chicago, trends may be either horizontal or vertical. A horizontal trend is one which spreads far, but does not change much during this time, while vertical trends remain restricted to a small group but change rapidly. Most fashion trends embody both these attributes to some degree. For example, low rise jeans in the 2000s became more popular as the waists got lower. When fashion trends die out or reach a turning point, it could be due to functional or cultural barriers to further movement in the same direction. In the late nineteenth century, hoop-skirts or crinolines were extremely popular and were made wider and wider until movement became virtually impossible. They then gave way to the smaller crinolette or bustle. 

Within a small time period trends also often show a strong resurgence, exemplified by the wild popularity of nineties trends in the past few years. Rachel Green from the nineties show Friends was a cultural icon then and still is to this day, with her style recently becoming the focus of dozens of fashion articles and blogs. Trends may exhibit this cyclical nature due to the same technological and cultural barriers, becoming more and more extreme in one direction, ultimately reaching a peak and moving to the other extreme. For example, the long ‘tunic’ tops that were popular in the late 2000s and the short crop tops that they were replaced by soon after.

Rachel Green from the nineties show, Friends.

In an eighteenth century essay on fashion, philosopher Christian Garve cited the innate human desire for change as one of the reasons for changing fashion trends. In all aspects of life, humans seek novelty and variation, sometimes even if it worsens their position. Whether fashion trends come from influential designers or cultural revolutions, or trickle down from the rich, they feed our desire for change and our craving for aesthetic beauty. Fashion remains an important way for human beings to define and express their identity, and to relate to those around them. 

Rujuta Singh is a student of political science, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are fashion, music and writing. 

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Issue 9

Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge On Zoom?

What was described as a recession-proof industry by Forbes, hasn’t proved to be a pandemic proof industry. The Wedding industry, which was estimated to be worth 50 billion dollars in India, was badly hit by COVID-19 in the past year. According to an estimate by hospitality firm OYO weddingz, the volume of wedding events in 2020 was at 40-50 per cent compared to  the number in the previous year and  guest lists shrunk by 60 per cent due to COVID-19 restrictions. Several brides and grooms who dreamt of a “big fat wedding” had to make peace with the imposed restrictions, while others cancelled their weddings in the hope of things becoming better. India in particular saw the highest cancellation of wedding globally with 23% couples cancelling or postponing the celebration. However, some couples found innovative ways to cope up with the pandemic —Zoom weddings!

“When I decided to tie the knot with my partner, I imagined that at the very least, my family and friends would be able to attend.” Spardha, 29, who got married in the month of October 2020 said as she added “deciding to get married on a Zoom Call wasn’t an easy decision, however, if anything, COVID taught us to expect the unexpected and take charge.” Several couples like them made the decision to broadcast their wedding for the friends and families who couldn’t join. They also participated in several firsts — a wedding without event planners and baraat, no large gatherings or a fancy venue or what Dilli waale would call ‘show-shaa.’ As we mark a year since the lockdown was announced, it becomes pertinent to ask then, will COVID-19 leave a lasting impression on how we plan, attend and celebrate weddings in India? What stands to be the future of the wedding industry?

There is no way to predict the future and whether weddings as we know them will permanently change. However, consumer and behavioural research can offer some insight in this matter. Consumer behaviour is contingent upon several factors such as time, place, location and culture with exposure of a consumer playing a major role. With the onset of pandemic, it is disrupting patterns of how the consumers would traditionally buy or engage in experiences by offering new exposure to those migrating to virtual environments. Behaviour and habit changes have a direct correlation to the extent of exposure to new environments. Research proves that it takes anywhere between 18 to 254 days to form a new habit, while on average it takes about 66 days. As the study by Swiss Re Institute shows consumers are settling into new patterns of behaviour for considerable lengths of time as a response to multiple waves of pandemic. Therefore, it’s quite likely that people will continue relying on technology to facilitate their wedding as the momentum to shift to technology for organising weddings was building up even prior to the pandemic.

The wedding industry also rapidly adapted and transformed to meet the needs of the consumers who were and continue organising online weddings in the light of pandemic. For instance, matrimonial sites have been introducing new features to account for the lack of a physical meet-and-greet. Jeevansaathi.com now has a video profile feature while Shaadi.com launched a special app for video calling purposes called, ShaadiMeet. The company is also organising virtual social get-togethers for its users for the first time. Both Shaadi.com and Bharat Matrimony have also launched their initiatives, ‘Weddings from Home’ and ‘Home Weddings’ respectively to offer end-to-end services to customers to facilitate marriages over videos. What seemed far from truth has become possible as the wedding industry scrambles to adapt to the challenging circumstances. 

Of course, one can’t help but lament what will be lost if  weddings start happening online with an intimate gathering. The sound of loud dhol blasting in your ear, the tangy taste of gol gappas, awkward smiling as the photographer clicks your pictures while eating the messiest foods; the hugging, talking,  and  gossiping, gets missed by the guests attending online. Without these experiences, attending weddings online seems more of an obligation than an experience that one looks forward to. However, considering the social relevance that weddings hold in Indian society, it is unlikely that people will change their consumption pattern as quickly as their other items in the consumption basket. In fact, an ongoing consumer sentiment analysis study by McKinsey and Co. reveals that in China and India, spending is bouncing back beyond grocery and household supplies, and consumers in India might be more willing to spend on certain categories such as festivals and weddings. If it so happens, then once again, it will be reiterated that the big-fat Indian weddings aren’t so easy to do away with, and while pandemic might be a hiccup, it cannot efface the socio-cultural significance of weddings in India. 

Ridhima Manocha is a final year English and Media Studies student at Ashoka University and has authored the book, The Sun and Shadow.

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 9

The Way We Were – Gossip (Or Lack Thereof) In A Pandemic

As I join yet another Zoom call with my college friends, my mind rushes through the events of the day, trying to recollect something, anything important enough to share with them. After the perfunctory “how are you” and the daily mourning ritual for the loss of “the best days of our lives”, we fall into the routine hunt for interesting things to say. While I do enjoy listening to how many times my friend’s neighbour’s dog peed on the staircase, it doesn’t really count as riveting news. Looking back, I realise most of my interactions with people through the pandemic have a key element missing. At the risk of sounding like a nosy aunty from your neighbourhood – Where is the gossip? 

Human beings are social creatures – in most social settings, we require gossip of some sort to sustain us. Popular culture has done its job in stereotyping gossip as the domain of teenage girls or middle-aged women, but in reality, gossip exists in almost every social circle, regardless of age or sex. Most of the toxicity associated with gossip is also largely a construct of popular media. People of all sections of society engage in gossip, and some historians term it as a sign of evolution. Gossip doesn’t just refer to the especially scandalous affairs taken from the rumour mill – it can involve information about places, people or events that people share with each other. Whether it’s new colleagues discussing who was seen flirting with the boss, or classmates bonding over their mutual dislike for a particular professor, or teachers pointing out the different quirks of students to each other – gossip is integral to the human experience.

In the list of things that people missed out on due to the pandemic, gossip definitely ranks high. Cooped up inside our houses for the better part of a year, most of us have witnessed a deficiency in the amount of gossip we get from people. It is not merely the content of gossip that one misses. Admittedly, hearing about the latest new couple around town, or the cops breaking up a party nearby is a sorely missed feeling. What one also misses, however, is the experience of getting gossip itself. Bumping into a fellow student at the campus mess, grabbing a cup of coffee and talking about the highlights of your day – these are all experiences that one took for granted in the pre-pandemic days. These conversations were ringed with an air of spontaneity that one simply cannot replicate through virtual interactions. Even though in the last few years technology has made virtual interactions seamless through texting apps and video calls, there are still certain feelings that one cannot experience online. 

Gossip needs an atmosphere to thrive in. As cliched as the high school movies’ depiction of gossip spreading like wildfire is, it does have some truth to it. Oftentimes, gossip is a result of unprompted discussions, chance encounters and unplanned meetings. Every interaction that happens online has an air of deliberation to it. Although social media has made staying connected through the pandemic much easier, it has also highlighted the difference between online and offline communication. The casual intimacy of impromptu meetings, sitting together in silence, passing a friend in the hallway and stopping to wave at them – the virtual world is unable to recreate these. The experience of sharing gossip during the pandemic, therefore, is restricted to exclamation points, emojis and the occasional high-pitched screaming voice note. Not to mention, considering that the rest of the world has also been restricted to their houses, there is hardly any “gossip-worthy” information. 

For gossip to spread, it first needs to exist. Because of the lockdown, people are no longer going outside to parties or even having a mundane day at the office. The physical isolation has ensured that the only scandalous thing that happens is when someone notices another not wearing a mask. While people have resorted to other forms of entertainment like making dalgona coffee or baking banana bread in quarantine, the void that gossip has left is still felt quite strongly. 

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought about major changes in the lives that we lead, in what is now fondly known as the ‘new normal’. The actual ‘normalcy’ of the new normal remains contested since at every turn we’re faced with new ways to behave, new issues to deal with and new forms of interaction to adapt to. In this milieu of major social as well as political shifts, we often miss the little things the most. The lack of gossip is just one of those shifts in our lives that serve to remind us of the way we used to be. 

By relegating people to their houses and human interactions to phone screens the pandemic has fundamentally changed our relationship with other people. It has set a fear in us against strangers and even against people of our own community due to the virus. When we lament the loss of time with our friends or the monotonous routine that we’re stuck in at home, we’re also lamenting the deeper loss of a sense of connection with people. Gossip is but one of the consequences of a virtual existence that is both connected as well as disconnected. 

Akanksha Mishra is a second-year political science and media studies student at Ashoka University. 

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Issue 9

WhatsApp With India’s Travel Plan?


Share the pain

April 1 2020. Within days of India’s first national lockdown, my WhatsApp pinged an ‘RT Action Group’ invite. 

Soity Banerjee, travel journalist and long term lead at Outlook India’s Responsible Tourism Initiative, quickly brought together a pan-India group of hundred members on Whatsapp.  Most were tour operators, running or selling a multi-terrain niche travel business in India, with some attention to responsible travel. A few other invitees were from sectors travel people work with such as craft, heritage, artist collectives, social media influencers, conservation specialists and rural NGOs. Many were e-meeting each other for the first time. The Whatsapp group call was to, “please share any good ideas being tested to help small travel businesses and individuals: for the protection of communities & for the future (when the travellers come back and they will!).”

 After a pandemic announcement that made human touch life-threateningly infectious, this call tried to put a human touch back into this community – one that was not new to handling delays or crises with a smile. This time though, the travel vehicle had braked the hardest, with an all India STOP sign staring it in the face. 

Posts across April on the group tried to reverse that car in spirit, in two ways. All useful media links that eased our uncertainty were shared immediately. I tuned in, perhaps for the first time, to the immediacy of the business side of travel – stranded visitors were trying to head home through cancelled flights, inter-state borders, airports and trains were shutting overnight, varying quarantine and international travel advisories were being meted out. Whether you were a hotel in a mountain valley or a rural retreat, expenses had been hit hard and a hibernation mode had only just begun.

The group shared information from as far as Costa Rica, on how a particular Responsible Tourism initiative put out timely FAQs, using prepaid reservations to pay staff salaries in the short term and let the travellers who had paid know about it. Without displaying any panic, posts on the group also conveyed the stark scale of human and material resource crunch in their own region, both rural and urban.

Secondly, the group displayed an ‘all hands on deck’ energy to aid the people that travellers and tourists meet, but often forget. Singers, artists, camp hands, drivers, cooks, front desk managers, tour escorts were all people currently out of work. The response of the group was specifically to laud and encourage field effort and support them in their time of financial need. 

In the national capital, alongside several initiatives, the team running the popular Café Lota New Delhi ran a free community kitchen for migrants trying to leave Delhi and Gurgaon. On her Instagram, travel influencers like Lakshmi Sharath forefronted ten calls of help, every day. These initiatives were both spontaneous and coordinated, often which ordinary citizens could contribute to.

Building on the NGO Anahad Foundation’s idea to pay 300 statewide rural folk artists for daily live performances on YouTube, the Rajasthan state government started a similar scheme for artistes to upload phone performances from home and earn a one-time Rs 2500 grant.

Within days, Soity led her team in circulating an RT Covid 19 Action Plan document with immediate relief measures, travel-related initiatives and future plans, including perspectives on what post-Corona travel might look like. By now, hotel chains too had begun sharing CoVid 19 protocols and practices.

India’s Ministry of Tourism, in a reply to a Lok Sabha question, confirmed only in December 2020 that foreign tourist arrivals were down 97% from April to December 2020, compared to 2019. But within the first few days of April, the Responsible Tourism community grasped the toll this absence would take and stepped up to support the vulnerable through April itself. 

Adapt and act?

Could a scramble for survival lay the ground for another model of tourism to thrive?

 By May 1, posts began wondering aloud.  Would a tourist now fearful of human contact choose to detour to uncongested spaces? The viral success of Facebook groups like View from my window was reflecting a worldwide human longing to turn to an uncongested view, if not towards nature itself. Webinar meetups with community members from Ladakh to Lakshadweep spoke honestly of rethinking resilience. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum Forecast was beeping, ‘it could take 10 months for the industry to recover’.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, primed with promoting responsible and sustainable tourism, circulated a document Supporting jobs and economies through Covid 19. A World Bank blog post pointed indirectly to the outer circle of managed nature tourism when it suggested, ‘Restoring degraded forestlands and landscapes could create many jobs over the short term while also generating net benefits worth hundreds of billions of dollars from watershed protection, better crop yields, and forest products. In Ethiopia, for instance, the Humbo Assisted Natural Regeneration Project increased local incomes and helped restore 2,700 hectares of biodiverse native forest, boosting carbon sequestration benefits. More tree cover also reduced local drought vulnerability.’

Despite no ‘industry package’ by the Central Government for the travel sector, by mid-September, this RT Action Group had completed a feedback loop and submitted a recommendation to the Ministry of Tourism on its draft National Tourism Policy 2020. By New Year 2020, there was an uptick in self-driven holiday numbers, and for the first time the all India Stop signal was perhaps now on yellow. But was there any evidence that an Indian tourist, fresh from worry and work from home, had hit pause on older ways of travel?

P.S. It will be a year soon since this WhatsApp group came to be. I now habitually check its notification pings. As a media academic, I marvel at how fake-news-free a WhatsApp group can be. When I think of this year I think of the time when nature’s breathing space for species other than humans became too visible, the ongoing loss of human life became too acute, and the claustrophobia of the home-stuck too real. In these times one is reminded not of luxury travel, but of the fact that travel itself has been an unexamined luxury. And now to travel responsibly – luxury or not?

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).