Delhi’s Trees Deserve Better!

FirstPost did an interview with me on why Delhi’s trees need our help- and why trees are so important for cities.

 

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There are stories under every big Tree

Thorny shrubs, peripheral trees.

That’s the light cost of the redevelopment of Sarojini Nagar, best known for a thriving export-surplus market and government flats in various states of disrepair. According to form 1 and form 1A, required under the Environment Impact Assessment notification, 2006, and submitted by the National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC) for redevelopment – breaking down buildings to build new flats and malls would sacrifice very little, just a few “thorny shrubs”, some trees on the “periphery” of the project site and “no ecologically important flora or fauna species”.

The reality, however, is lushly different. These “thorny shrubs” and “periphery” trees amount to more than 11,000 mature trees, many of them native and naturalised species. In a city drugged on new spaces for real estate and more inches of shining, heat-absorbing concrete, what do ‘11,000 trees’ really mean?

A purple sunbird on an Amaltas tree. Credit: Neha Sinha

The streets of Sarojini are lined with Amaltas in blossom, large banyans and figs, known to be keystone species for their role in providing food sources to wild birds and mammals, and old sausage trees. A rapid biodiversity survey I undertook with a small team of naturalists revealed 26 bird, 11 butterfly and seven insect species, part of a thriving and productive urban ecology. Other year-round calculations, based on 22 bird lists, indicate there are 60 bird species at the site. The basis of these ecologies are mature trees of a variety of species that provide food sources. If the phenology of each tree species were to be represented by a string of fairy lights, the colony would be lit throughout the year.

It may be easy to overlook trees in a residential colony, although there are everyday stories under each old, big tree. Trees are used to pin boards up on, to make sheds and stalls under the canopy, to tack up lights for a wedding. Colony trees seem to just be there, part of a worn scenery and backdrop, like a well-used sofa, never really showstoppers. Trees that tend to be remembered and canonised are in places where the stranger tends to walk into them: on a main road, next to a monument, the crowning glory of a sweeping roundabout, a landmark that many will have used to give directions before Google Maps, at the centre of a botanical garden. You may remember a young banyan near your home – but when talking of banyans, most Indians will have recall value for the well-known, two-century old large tree in the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden in West Bengal.

A sausage tree blossoms. Credit: Neha Sinha

Colony trees are intimate. They brush against dreams and verandahs, filling garages with flowers and windshields with leaves, known only to those who walk residential lanes to reach home.

But the trees in Sarojini Nagar, misrepresented though they are as mostly thorny bushes, should not be overlooked.  While the NBCC seeks to cut 11,000 trees, the Delhi government said post-protests that it will not agree to this proposal. Hardeep Puri, the minister of state for housing and urban affairs first justified the decision, saying new saplings would be planted, but in the face of indignant resistance and a slew of court cases, he called for dialogue and meetings.

Black ants swarm around two flowers on the ground. Credit: Neha Sinha

The popularity of the relay protests perhaps took even the protesters by surprise. People hugged trees, sang songs, school students poured out, the trends #savedelhitrees and #delhitreesos were birthed, and petitions filed in the National Green Tribunal and the Delhi high court. In a city known for its apathy towards the environment as well as towards social causes, hundreds of people protesting for more than a month is certainly notable.

What is more notable is that people stood up for colonies they are not likely to stay in themselves: the housing in these colonies is only for government employees. Thus, the struggle is for the idea of Delhi as a well-planned place with large, old trees, rather than a Delhi of construction dust dealt with through new ornamental trees. It is also a protest against the disgusting noxious air that people have to breathe through the year, not just during the winter.

A female sunbird. Credit: Neha Sinha

The Sarojini Nagar redevelopment plan is at the heart of this protest. It is the bloated figure of 11,000+ cut trees that made the whole scheme too hazardous, too bitter a pill to swallow. The other figures for proposed tree-cutting are comparatively more tolerable: 2,490 trees in Netaji Nagar and 1,454 trees in Nauroji Nagar.

While this is not a good time to experience the urban biodiversity – in between intermittent monsoon rain – there is a lot to see in Sarojini Nagar. The last summer blossoms of Amaltas, an Indian species, carpet the ground in a florid, yellow sprinkle. Large, burgundy flowers of the sausage trees, named after its sausage-shaped pods, lay casually on the ground, trampled by buses and cycles.

A yellow-footed green pigeon is perched on a neem tree. Credit: Neha Sinha

We found mature fruiting trees, such as jamun and mango full of birds and squirrels. Yellow-footed green pigeons napped gently on neem and semal. Two types of barbet, the coppersmith and the brown-headed, looked for fruit against blindingly emerald, rain-washed leaves. Beetles, centipedes and black ants foraged in fallen flowers. Scores of species interactions were taking place in what can only be described as typical urban ecology.

Trees outside forests, interspersed with parks, parking lots, people and some level of manicuring, do not exist in a state untouched by the human hand. Rather, phenologies and inter-species encounters carry on as an interactive process, as in the case of Sarojini Nagar. The common myna are seen nesting on manmade poles and red-vented bulbuls perch on monkey bars. Indian robins use electric wires as perches to dive-bomb on to the unsuspecting dragonfly. There may be a gleaming purple sunbird behind a tangle of thick, careless wires. You may not notice the Alexandrine parakeet – ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN Red list – until it drops a piece of the sausage pod on your head. You may not crane your head to see the endangered Egyptian vultures that fly in the searingly hot sky above, which we saw a couple times. The human-wildlife interaction is neither forced nor keen; it carries on in forms of suffused interest or benign neglect. That is the nature of urban ecology.

An Alexandrine parakeet feeds on the sausage tree. Credit: Neha Sinha

As one can guess and as the survey showed, the central nervous system of this paradise is old trees, sprawling through the sky as they age, sinewed with vines forming distinct layers of undergrowth where purple sunbirds, tailorbirds and flocks of oriental white-eyes forage and nest. Perhaps these are the “thorny shrubs” being referred to in the project papers. Apart from the trees, a second kind of habitat type in the area is patches of grass on pavements, where butterflies lay eggs.

But butterflies can’t stop projects.

Why then must one pause for these micro-habitats?

A gram blue butterfly. Credit: Neha Sinha

The point that Delhi needs more trees has been historically well made, repeatedly, and through protest and petition both. It is the death of irony that the world’s most polluted city should think of cutting mature trees that provide oxygen and relief from noise and dust. It also verges on the funny that this is being done with the excuse of planting more saplings, which will take decades to become trees, by which many of those protesting may well have shifted cities. The moot point really is of governance and fake news; for example, why are 11,000 trees being described as thorny shrubs or peripherals?

As planners figure that one out – in the face of surprising civilian and judicial action – one thing is clear: there really is a story under every old, big tree.

This first appeared in The Wire.

Floods in a desert

A desert that is flooding– leaving psychological and livelihood scars, and a people trying their best to endure these hardships. Ladakh is beautiful, brutal, and blemished by climate change.

Poster

 

Arching over the white Phuktal river in Ladakh’s Zanskar valley—which is dotted with white-water rafting enthusiasts—is one bridge that the village of Neyrags calls its own.

For centuries, the villagers say, they have had a bridge. People took pictures of its stout structure, which appeared permanent in its reliability, and over-arching in its craggy height. Elders told youngsters how they did not know when the bridge was built. For the people of Neyrags, the bridge, non-motorable as it is, was a vital link to the world outside their valley.

Earlier this year, the river carried away this structure, carrying off wood, stone and clay, all in one angry day. The incident happened in a flash but it was in itself a predicted event, a chronicle foretold—repeatedly, loudly, and in vain.

The Neyrags bridge was one among 11 other bridges to be snatched away in a day, on May 7, in the remote Zanskar valley. But the river had given warnings that never reached Delhi.

In December, a landslide created a natural dam on the river. A resultant lake was formed: deep, frozen, and formidable. Locals predicted it was likely to burst if the dam was not broken. While the mountains and gorges of Ladakh look permanent, people stress that this is a landscape that is constantly shifting. The land often converts to landslides and mudslides, especially when it rains. The combination of two elements—water and terra firma—in one sliding, heaving motion is deadly.

Led by engineer and social activist Sonam Wangchuk, citizens and farmers first suggested the dam be broken gently with jets of water, to prevent more landslides and flooding.

“All the farmers of Ladakh know Ladakhi soil is very loose, very dry,” Wangchuk says. “If we suddenly try to create a passage for water, through blasting or explosions, the flow of the water over this soil would be uncontrollable.”

When a team from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) reached Ladakh in April, they decided to use explosives anyway. Using blasting techniques, a narrow canal was created, which was videographed as a success story.

In the beginning, all seemed well. Then, as predicted, the lake burst on May 5, inundating over 20 villages, of which Neyrags was one.

The people of Neyrags, a village both windy and remote, never had it easy even with a bridge. After crossing it they have to walk four hours to reach the main road. From this road, vehicles ply and cell-phones work. The high, narrow bridge is therefore the artery of life.

When this artery was cut, the village went back in time. Donkeys and livestock which carry essential rations were stranded, and many were left starving. Colleges and schools on the “other side” remained unattended. People wondered what to do, because no one remembered how to make a bridge again. Food was running out.

“First, the mountain fell in the river,” says 70-year-old Sonam Norbu from Neyrags. “For four or five months the river waited, blocked. Then it burst. It had to, it is a river. It can’t be caged. It took our bridge.” He pauses in recollection. “I am so old, but I don’t remember how our village’s bridge was made. It was before my time, maybe 200 years old.

“First, the mountain fell in the river,” says 70-year-old Sonam Norbu from Neyrags. “For four or five months the river waited, blocked. Then it burst. It had to, it is a river. It can’t be caged. It took our bridge.” He pauses in recollection. “I am so old, but I don’t remember how our village’s bridge was made. It was before my time, maybe 200 years old.”

All he knows is that no cement was used.

About 20 days after the flood, the government provided a rope-pulley system for people to cross. It wasn’t enough. Donkeys and mules, essential carriers of essential items, still could not cross. Schools and many other buildings remained broken and needed attention. The new structure itself seemed rickety, and the dizzying drop to the river below seemed fatal.

Taking their destiny—and their lives—into their own hands, the people decided to make their own bridge. A meeting was held with the elders.

“You know, in Ladakh we always see natural calamities. Like you city people see traffic,” says Tsewang Namgyal from Neyrags. “In winter, snow avalanches come in our village. And we have seen a lot of rainfall in the past few years. But even then, we didn’t think we would lose our bridge. It was about six storeys high. Can you imagine how angry the water was, to take away something six storeys high?”

The village meeting led to the formation of smaller parties of people. Each day for about two months, 25 people worked. While bridge-making is not part of inherited memory, people did have a lot of photographs of the structure. They also had raw material, from the same mountains that rained debris down on them. Rock, wood and clay were procured from surrounding areas and mountain ranges. Most of the stone and clay was chiselled with hammers from mountains, in small teams, so that rocks could slowly be carried back.

Muddy rivers barren slopes
Muddy rivers, barren slopes. Ladakh.

A hunt was launched for dry poplar beams, which was easier to carry than trees with crowns. A remarkable crowd-funding programme was started. People started building from both ends, using log beams and stone that layered onto each other.

After two months of work, the bridge, made to withstand weight of 250 kilograms, opened on August 2. The first to cross was the deputy sarpanch of the village. Then a troop of children crossed. Finally, a bunch of donkeys crossed over to bring supplies. The artery was flowing again, and tiny Neyrags was back on the map.

If the people of Neyrags could stoically and cheerfully build their own bridge—cheating death, isolation, and the clenched fist of destiny—it is because Ladakhis appear to be somewhat adjusted to the hardships they expect to face. The hardships, unfortunately, are many.

In 2010, this high-altitude dry desert and favoured tourist destination hit national headlines for a “flash flood”. Over 250 people and around 25,000 livestock were reported dead. Since 2010, Ladakh has been flooded many times. Water has swirled into houses, carried away cows and goats, bitten off chunks of fields, and washed bridges away. The high altitude desert is experiencing weather patterns that are harder to predict and even harder to live with.

Somehow, unfairly and consistently, this has escaped the country’s attention.

***

stream erosion
Rivers are a lifeline and also dangerous- biting off chunks of fields.

Rainfall and cloudbursts, in unpredictable and varying amounts, have led to floods in a desert. In the past five years, villages in Ladakh have been flooded. The rainfall data for Leh for July and August vary hugely over different years.

June 2011 recorded rainfall of 0.3 millimetre (mm). This tripled in June 2012 to 3.9 mm, and tripled again in June 2014 to 6.5 mm. In August 2014 too, the patterns were unpredictable: in 2010, rainfall was an all-time high at 9.6 mm, leading to the region’s worst flood. In 2011, the rainfall was 9.5 mm. In August 2012, the rain was much less at 2.6 mm.

The 2010 flood was caused by rain over just one day: August 6. On that day, over 12 mm of rain fell all over Ladakh, including Leh, just short of 15 mm which is the average for the entire month of August. This is not a lot for other parts of India, but was a cataclysmic disaster for Ladakh’s dry, unconsolidated soil.

Over the same soil, livestock forage and crops are grown,  the mainstays of the economy. From these occupations, captivating crafts have evolved. The fresh vegetables of the area—potatoes, peas, carrots—feed many. The famous pashmina shawls of Kashmir procure their pashmina—the hair of a high-altitude goat—from the snowy pastures of Ladakh.

For a long time, farmers and shepherds thought they could count on the predictability of life’s hardships. In Miru village, Tsering Namgial shears his pashmina goat, all the while singing to it, while his scissors move.

Phutphuphutphuloogoloogo,
Ayilumpephuna,
Kachuplungchuptangdup,
Shankukhamaryungduk,
Logo khushiyarzyahe
.”

This is a song to make the goats alert, it tells the goat that it is beautiful, but it is also a warning: asking the goat to beware of the mountain, snow and wolves in the snow, says the farmer. “If I don’t sing to my goat while shearing him, he will get bored. I am not only singing to him but also giving him strength against all that he has to face.”

But traditional songs address traditional threats. There are new problems now. “The rain, it rains anytime now, and the pastures and fields are under threat,” he says.

DSC05607
Goatherds shearing their pashmina goats. I take notes.

The people of the desert are not used to seeing so much rain. Fields are on the banks of mighty rivers like the Indus and Zanskar, and smaller canals run through many others. In the desert, almost all fields are ploughed near sources of water. None of this prepares the farmer for floods which turn fields into flood plains. Miru village is on the Leh-Manali highway, just a couple of hours from Leh. The highway itself, like many roads in Ladakh, curves adjacent to the river.

Last year, Miru was flooded, from a reported glacier lake outburst. This is clearly a trend. The first ever census of glacial lakes in the Himalayas, published in Global and Planetary Change journal, finds that glacier lakes are expanding in the Himalayas. The census found 4,981 lakes in the Indus systems. The study finds these lakes significantly increase the risk of flooding and landslides.

After last year’s flooding, this year, too, the people of Miru rallied together under a cloudburst. Following about 10 minutes of constant rainfall, villagers gathered in the community hall, made of ply and wood. Outside, in the blinding rainfall, a group of people were pointing and shouting. Someone’s cow was stranded near a swelling canal, and the people strategised, over shouts, to rescue it.

Cell phones don’t work in the village, and despite a highway, the fear of isolation is real. The community hall’s roof leaked, but villagers felt the hall was safer than their own houses, which are made of mud and clay.

For centuries, Ladakhis have built houses of mud and clay, cool in summer and warm in the bone-chilling winters. Now with piercing showers, many houses get dissolved or broken.

For centuries, Ladakhis have built houses of mud and clay, cool in summer and warm in the bone-chilling winters. Now with piercing showers, many houses get dissolved or broken.

Fifty-year-old Rigzen Lahadol lives in Gya village, also on the Manali highway. Whenever it rained, people moved to the top of the mountain. “When the flood came, we were sleeping. The water came all around us, and we were not prepared,” she says.

With frequent evacuations, people are better prepared today but they are not comfortable. Many families have men working in the army while the women stay behind. In the 2010 flood, 35-year-old Tsewang Dorjey who works in the army, was posted in Lebanon. His wife, Dachen Dokler, two young children, and elderly mother were sleeping in their mud house in Miru when the flood came. The family was sleeping in the kitchen, on the first floor of their house, which is surrounded by agricultural fields.

“There is snow in the winters, and now, rain in the summers. But when we shut the windows to go to bed, we assume we will be fine. But in 2010, we woke up to find water everywhere,” says 65-year-old Tashi Angmo, Tsewang’s mother. At that time, all she could think of was to grab her grandchild’s leg and make for the highest point in the village—a mountain, dripping and shaken to the core.

Tashi Angmo and family
Tashi Angmo with her family in their kitchen.

This year, rainfall in July-August brought even urban areas to a standstill. In Baltal, a huge landslide brought traffic on the Leh-Srinagar highway to a halt for three days, impeding movement to Kargil, the venue for the national celebrations of Vijay Diwas on July 26. In the first week of August, the Leh airport was closed for a day as an unforeseen event happened: rain caused the tarmac to be covered by debris, even in the middle of Ladakh’s largest city.

The Leh-Manali road had landslides in a reported 100 spots. “Yeh jannat hai, aur jahannum bhi (this is heaven, this is also hell),” says my Kashmiri driver about Ladakh.

Heaven and hell is a good way to describe the towering but bare, fragile mountains, and the life-giving but furious, torrential rivers. In the shade, the cold can give you frostbite. And in the sun, the high-altitude, blinding white light adorns beautiful pale Ladakhis with premature wrinkles.

The windswept, severe landscape can bring loneliness and overwhelm people trying to carve a modest living under nature’s stern eye. The area does not naturally allow the growth of trees. If trees are planted, they have to be watered and cared for in summer, and frequently de-thawed in winter, else they will not grow.

And yet, villagers have worked together, bound by a strong community feeling and shared purpose—making this great desert hospitable. A few years ago, the concept of artificial glaciers was conceived by engineer Chewang Norphel. The idea was to store water in the winter before it ran off down Ladakh’s bare slopes. The concept was later modified by Sonam Wangchuk.

Using pipelines, water is stored, using the principle that water will have the same level inside a pipe. In winter, as it emerges from the pipe, the water freezes over in a conical shape, forming what the villagers now call “ice stupas”.

“In Ladakh, we are at the mercy of the mountains, the sun, the temperature. If you were to ask people here what the temperature is, they may not be able to tell you. They will just say ‘very cold, very hot’,” says Stanzin Dorjai, who was once a shepherd and is now an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. “In Ladakh, money is of no consequence for living with nature. Money can’t help you when it floods, or when you have to grow crops.”

Yet Dorjai feels the people of Ladakh don’t get their due, and there is no institution-building to equip them. “The students of Ladakh study about Kashmir, not Ladakh. They grow up feeling that perhaps their way of life is inferior, not so good.”

Others echo a deep sense of bipolarity that outsiders have towards Ladakh. One of those bipolarities is through the armed forces and border security units. Straddling two international borders—China and Pakistan—makes Ladakh a station for armed forces. The peripheries though, are skewed. Villages like Miru and Gya are on the national highway but have no mobile connectivity.

It is with a fair amount of bitterness that Leh-based Karma, who deals in construction, speaks. “In a border village, different agencies fall over themselves to make roads and repair bridges,” he says. “After the 2010 flood, areas of strategic importance had the army and the Border Roads Organisation competing to make roads. Leh is a strategic area and was repaired pretty quickly. But nobody gives a thought for other villages, which are not strategic links—like the ones in the Zanskar valley. In the last strategic village, Shayuk, a gymnasium has been made for the people! Why should a few villages get it all, and others, absolutely nothing?”

A gymnasium seems like a cruel joke for people from other villages, who toil all day in Ladakh’s thin air. Anybody who visits Ladakh would know that the last thing the villagers need is a gymnasium.

woman peeps out of mud house Miru
A woman looks out from her window in Miru village.

***

The larger question is: why does the outside world not listen to the sentiments of the villagers, or pay heed to their knowledge? This year’s Zanskar flood is an example. “Not only did we make representations to NDMA and political leaders, we also asserted again and again that we know the soil we are talking about, and that blasting the soil would lead to a flood. Nobody listened to us. The NDMA still thinks they did a fine job, and they averted a disaster. They spent a lot of money on helicopter hopping, but not in listening to local knowledge. Because of their bungle, many villages are still cut off today. What were the crores spent for?” Wangchuk says.

Indeed, the flood is not counted as a natural disaster. Since there was no direct human mortality on the day of the flood—one person died later while trying to cross a damaged bridge—the flood is not considered a tragedy. In a sense the incident this year is like many other climate-change impacts that Ladakh is facing, which don’t get quantified.

Given the new flood situations people are facing, some believe young people need to document and communicate the new areas being forged by water. Tashi Morup, 42, from the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation wants to school students and village youth to set up water monitoring systems. “We have held two workshops. We want to teach students video and photo documentation, also with the hope that these new techniques will make them interested in the agricultural pasts of their forefathers,” he says.

Villages so far have had churpan, traditional water-harvesting systems in which designated watchers saw that water was channelised equitably between villages. Now, with too much water coming too soon, the roles of water-watchers will need to change. Many feel that the greatest impacts of the floods are psychological—people still cannot believe the desert is flooding. In the harsh climate, losing income is common. But losing lives and livelihood to water, even after witnessing several floods, is not.

For most of India, Ladakh is about motorcycle trails, pious Buddhist people, good food, and a certain landscape which is forbidding in its beauty. The concept is to visit Ladakh in summer months, and leave before high altitude sickness hits, or before the climate
takes a toll.

The idea that an entire culture and people are heaving under climatic change has still not struck the Indian consciousness. Whether Ladakh is going through climate change in scientific terms or not can be debated. But what cannot be debated is the fact that people are suffering weather-related, grievous losses.

Despite the hardships, the people still think about living lives of piety, and try taking their hardships in their stride. For instance, when Phyang village flooded in both 2010 and this year people rushed to the 600-year-old monastery, built on a high hill, believing that they would be high, safe and dry. Llama Rigzin Dorje was nine when he first came to Phyang monastery. “Twelve people from this area died in the flood of 2010. By the grace of god, no one died this time,” he says.

Phyang monastery.JPG
Phyang monastery

He remembers the landscape when he was a boy. “It snowed a lot more before. We used to put plastic sheets on the slopes, and slide down. Water used to freeze over in containers inside rooms,” he says, adding that while Ladakh is still similar to his memories, now it does not snow so much.

“Many say we are poor, because we live a hand-to-mouth existence. But no, we are not poor.”

“Outsiders come to Ladakh because it’s beautiful. But they also come because of the people. People still have a strong sense of unity and community here. This I am proud of,” Dorjai says. “Many say we are poor, because we live a hand-to-mouth existence. But no, we are not poor.”

 

This first appeared in Fountain Ink.

Walking is a Way of Knowing

I review two new books, Walking is a Way of Knowing and Speaking to an Elephant, which tell stories of tribal legend.

In India, forest-dwellers are seen in binaries, sidelining a more quotidian understanding of their lives. ‘Walking is a Way of Knowing’ and ‘Speaking to an Elephant’ present the beautiful stories we’re missing out on as a result.

 

Green is not just a colour but a spectrum, suggests Walking is a Way of Knowing. Because “it is always dark inside the forest, and the sky is green”. When the sun filters through leaves, they become “parakeet green, fern green, viper green and dark spinach green”. Colour, then, becomes a simple way to understand the biological complexity of the forest.

In literature, the forest is a space that has been unpacked through the non-native. Tales of the ‘jungle’ were first told through white explorers, who exoticised the forest and were positioned as outsiders. This was a space to be forged and interpreted by the ‘civilised’ scholar, scientist or adventurer. National Geographic magazine, with its expansive, fine-grained coverage on peoples and places readers had “never even imagined”, recently admitted that its coverage of tribals or “natives” has been racist.

In India, the forest is understood largely as a management unit, and forest-dwellers are seen in binaries. They are either painted as enemies of wildlife conservation – just this month, two Baiga tribal women were arrested in Kanha tiger reserve for gathering mushrooms – or are represented as living in perfect harmony with the forest. What is missing is a quotidian understanding of the forest-dweller’s life.

Walking is a Way of Knowing Madhuri Ramesh, Manish Chandi and Matthew Frame Tara Books, 2018

How, for example, do people find their way in the forest? What do they do when they encounter wildlife in the everyday – in instances when there is no obvious conflict or ‘event’? More broadly, what is their biography of forest life and the forest as a whole? Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi’s book Walking is a Way of Knowing works to fill this gap. It is a mild subversion of tropes, with the Kadar tribal who becomes the centre of the stories. The Kadars are a tribe of the biodiverse Annamalai hills of the Western Ghats. The tribal, not the scientist, is the expert, with experiential and traditional knowledge. In Speaking to An Elephant, Ramesh and Chandi are retellers of Kadar mythologies.

What you get in both books is straightforward writing rather than interpretations.

“Woods have always been a place of in-betweenness…,” Robert Macfarlane writes in The Wild Places (2007). “Different aspects of the forest link unexpectedly with each other, and so it is that within the stories of forests, different times and worlds can be joined.”

The sense of wonder in the everyday life of walking in the forest – and the forest itself as a story – suffuses Kadar tales. Crucially, however, this not the hobbyist wonder of the nature enthusiast or ornithologist but a more felt spectacle, existing quietly along with the menace of ticks, wildlife encounters and the difficulties of weather. The divide between the reader – the one who reads about forests in books – and the Kadar, the insider, is intimate. This adds greatly to the stories.

On the question of the Kadar finding her way through the forest, Padma, a tribal woman, explains, “If you build a map of the area in your heart this way, by constantly looking and feeling your way through the place, you will find that it reaches your feet and they will guide you back home in any season, even at night.”

And this is not for everyone. The rights of the forest must be earned, she says: “But it takes many years, a clear memory and strong legs!”

The Kadar have strong legs and they learn to walk quietly, like the elephants they meet often in the forest. On interactions with wildlife, the Kadar narrate how they have to exchange gifts with wild animals – in other words, leave food for them. They say they take only precise quantities of forest goods.

Speaking to An Elephant Madhuri Ramesh, Manish Chandi and Matthew Frame Tara Books, 2018

The forest is a provider and teacher both, gifting the Kadar with just enough, with this becoming a central idea both in their knowledge and mythologies of kadavul(Tamil for the almighty). This would also be what researchers or the forest department would later call “sustainable harvest”.

The landscape in the books will be new for most readers, particular to the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot. You have mossy trees, Kurinji shrubs, four kinds of beehives, red and pink elaeocarpus leaves. Speaking to an Elephantwill specially appeal to children, in its very Indian characters spoken of in a voice not heard before. There are stories on why tortoises have stitch-like marks on their shells, why white kumin mushrooms appear only on one day of the year and why grasshoppers hop.

What greatly helps both books are sumptuous, florid illustrations by Matthew Frame. His artwork may remind you of Chris Riddell’s work for Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle (2013).

Walking is a Way of Knowing, however, needed more careful copy-editing and a much more extensive index for local names and words. The book would have also benefitted greatly from short, contextual explanations of genus and biological names and functions.

But these are stories that become important not only because they have not been heard but because they provide alternative explanations of the machinations of the forest – at a time when it is being seen as a commodity to be raised and sold. One hopes the Kadar’s traditional knowledge of the rhythm of the forest, along with that of hundreds of other forest-dwelling tribes and peoples, will find its way into mandatory People’s Biodiversity Registers and, ultimately, in conservation and species recovery plans.

As the Kadar forge and walk their paths, they have to use all their senses to feel their way through the forest because it demands this submission, and also deserves it. The difficulty of the task is buoyed by its beauty. As Madiyappan, an elderly Kadar, sums up succinctly, “We return to the forest again and again: as much to fill our stomachs as our hearts.”

 

This first appeared in The Wire, here.

Trees of Delhi.

In Sarojini Nagar, on a fully grown Amaltas tree, this is what I spotted.

A Purple Sunbird using its delicate tongue to find nectar from the hearts of the last Amaltas blooms.

 

sunbird nectar

 

The circle of life.

The function of a mature tree: calling little wings and hearts to it.

sunbird
A Purple Sunbird drinks nectar from an Amaltas Flower

 

A mature tree is like a monument. It is like a mother. It feeds, protects, extends its arms to little creatures. And to us.

The Trees of Delhi don’t need us.

We need them.

 

Sausage Tree Blossoms
Sausage tree blossoming in Sarojini Nagar.

 

There are proposals to cut down 14,000 mature trees in Delhi.

But a tree is a form of civilisation – and as we develop plans for the city, the people of Delhi have come together to say cutting mature trees is no longer an option.

 

Alexandrine Parakeet Feeding Sausage Tree
Alexandrine Parakeet eating from Sausage tree pods.

 

The way forward has to be around the trees, not without them.

Why Indian Forest Rest Houses need Preservation

We were walking in the forest, steadily, over fallen bamboo leaves. Ahead of us were more clumps of bamboo, standing out from passages of resplendent, luminous Sal forests. All of a sudden, there was a cry from one of the group members. We ground to a halt. The bamboo clump right ahead looked scattered, like the nucleus of a flower turned inside out, a painting made by a crazed artist.

Unmistakably, these were signs of presence of elephant — elephants had foraged through the bamboo, leaving it in chaotic bits and pieces. The air was cold, like cut diamond, pure and clear. But the tension in our group was thick, settling heavily around us. The guards with me were grasping their lathis a little tighter, eyes shining bright, mouths set in hard lines. I knew though that it was not elephants they feared. It was perhaps the hint of Naxals, who had burnt parts of the Maromar rest house buildings in their rebellion against the state.

karmajhiri-day_070918125249.jpgKamajhiri, an old, terracotta-roofed forest rest house in Pench Tiger Reserve. 

As we approached the rest house, with its scorched tree house and singed trees, the sight of the main building took away my breath. This rest house in Jharkhand’s Palamau tiger reserve, built before Independence, had survived the human hand. It was quaint, impeccable and the sort of colonial design one doesn’t get to see much anymore. High ceilings, white walls, funny handles.

Somehow this place had survived efforts at plywood-and-glass modernisation. It had also survived the approaching forest. It had endured and it deserved honour.

***

Karmajhiri Night

Karmajhiri Forest Rest House by night.

While forest rest houses (FRHs) across the country are stunningly beautiful — relicts of a forgotten, and climate friendly architecture — they have also been at the centre of struggle. Meant primarily for the forest department to survey or inspect forest, these grand old buildings have been eyed by other departments, who have often assumed control.

There have been proposals to commercialise these places through public-private partnerships. And many buildings have been modified in ways that do no justice to their heritage. Old, heavy furniture has disappeared or is kept without care, replaced by cheap, shiny new things. A rash of modern tiles cover old surfaces, and mirrors with glittering panels and golden-brown polyester curtains hang like invasive aliens in these solemn old spaces.

The climate-friendly lessons the buildings hold, almost a century before the advent of air-conditioning, have dissipated. Ventilating windows have been boarded, the lessons of high ceilings forgotten.

A new judgment by the Supreme Court, announced last week, comes as a breath of restorative air. The apex court has said that forest rest houses need to be under operational control of the forest department, and none other.

The judgment also says:

“The Forest Department should make every effort to retain the basic plan and elevation of old FRHs/IBs [inspection bungalows] many of which are heritage buildings, while making improvement/addition to these buildings. We expect these guidelines to prevent the misuse of Forest Rest Houses/Inspection Bungalows…”

This summer, I was in Karmajhiri, an old, terracotta-roofed forest rest house in Pench tiger reserve, Madhya Pradesh. We had just come back from the forest. The air was golden, sizzling at 44 degrees Celsius. The only respite from the overpowering heat was a shower of cicada rain. Cicadas give out a liquid that will fall on your face as you pass by. In the central Indian heat, when things take on a mirage-like quality, you’d even take what comes out of an insect, if it helps cool you down. In the deciduous forest, largely leafless in the beginning of summer, I saw langur monkeys hugging trees, gathered tightly in the little strip of shade afforded by the trunk.

The whole forest was holding its breath and waiting for the monsoon.

fireplace-rukkhad_070918125327.jpgThe fireplace in Rukkhad forest rest house. The thick-walled building is cool in summers while the dining room is warm in winters. 

As I reached the Karmajhiri FRH, the verandah’s shade felt like a soothing balm to my inflamed, sunburnt limbs. Old FRHs are often built to have deep verandahs that encircle the entire building, offering relief from both scorching heat and slashing monsoon rain. And as I entered the room, the heat seemed to dissolve away. The high ceiling of the building and its little, unreachable ventilating windows were custom-made for the unforgiving summer. As the hot air rose, it dissipated through the windows just below the ceilings.

At the very centre of the building was the dining room, equipped with a fireplace. The thick-walled building is cool in summers, the dining room warm in winters. In sharp contrast was a new dining space next to the old forest rest house — a modern construction with low ceilings, flimsy doorways, as hot as any other building in the fury of central Indian heat.

A step in to these old FRH or inspection bungalows — be it Rukkhad in Madhya Pradesh, Pench in Maharashtra, Corbett in Uttarakhand, Northern West Bengal, or IBs in the Himalayas — feels like a step back in time. These are preserved parcels of history, gift-wrapped in memories a natural historian or an aesthete would love. And I am not suggesting these need to remain part of an anachronistic or disused past.

dining-room-rukkhad_070918125845.jpgThe dining space in Rukkhad forest rest house. 

There should be an exciting future for these buildings — a centre for meetings on conservation science, inspections and monitoring, and an abode for modern conservation researchers. Restoration has to be careful and meaningful, and the buildings should be used for what they are meant — a study of the forest.

The melding together of conservation science, architectural history and a dynamic forest is precious. When I think of — and go through — heat and pollution islands in cities, my mind goes back to the thick walls, mosquito-netted four-poster beds, and high ceilings of Karmajhiri.

From the past is a lesson for a climate-adapted future, which no number of modern steel and glass buildings can erase.

This first appeared in my column for DailyO, here.

The Tree as an Urban Coordinate

A mature tree creates a sense of civilisation the way a manicured green belt cannot

The ongoing protests in some of India’s largest cities (these include Delhi and Mumbai) to save natural and not built entities — trees in urban spaces — are remarkable, even though we understand that cities are centres of construction; spaces curated and created mainly by the human hand.

Hundreds of Delhi residents took to the streets in protest against a plan to have 14,000 trees cut for the “redevelopment” of government colonies in South Delhi. In Mumbai, citizens have been fighting for years to save over 2,000 trees in Aarey, slated to be felled for another kind of development — to make way for a metro line car shed.

The idea of an urban tree, one that is outside of a lush forest, does not resonate ecologically as much as a forest or a ‘pristine’ national park. Yet for urban activists protesting for their trees to be saved, the fight is for the tree they can see near their front porch; not one that has been marked for transplantation in unreachable parts of the city.

For them, it is the tree that situates a particular part of the city by becoming an immutable part of the integrity of the landscape.

Laburnum 1
A grand old Delhi tree: the Amaltas

Trees outside a forest

It is well known that forests are invaluable as ecological entities. The UN’s REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, programme lays emphasis on planting and maintaining forests as a means to counter climate change. In India, forests are governed under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, State laws, and the Indian Forest Act, 1927, which lay down elaborate rules for the conservation and diversion of forests. Despite this, forests are the first targets when it comes to projects such as mining, dams, highways, industrial projects and so on, to be offset by compensatory afforestation. Former Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar once remarked that diversion of forest should be seen as ‘reforestation’. As far as the issue of trees outside forest areas is concerned — city trees — the situation is much worse.

Trees in cities usually come under State Tree Acts; they can have variable descriptions. In Delhi, for example, these are usually avenue or colony trees. In the case of Aarey, it is a green belt or green patch. The monikers of ‘green belts’ or ‘green cover’ suggest a transferable quality in management — that the city would not be worse off if another tree or green belt comes up elsewhere, as long as it is green. Therefore, it is important that urban citizens are fighting to keep city trees where they are. They argue that the age and very place of the tree is an important fulcrum for their activism.

In a sense then, a mature tree creates a sense of civilisation.

Bada Peelu 1
Bada Peelu in Qutab Complex

Shared habitat

As India moves towards more urbanisation, can cities be looked at more as shared habitats between humans and biodiversity, rather than a jungle of buildings? The question, even if not consciously faced through planning strategies, will need to be tackled in one form or the other as cities become progressively more unliveable. With its year-round hazardous air quality and an increase in cars and inhabitants, Delhi is a tough city to live in. Trees in Delhi do not just purify the air; they are also visual relief.

The fact that cities need open spaces and greenery is clear from the number of people crowding parks, be it Central Park in New York or Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi. The earlier wave of tree plantation in Delhi which included Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, and Netaji Nagar, marked for redevelopment, have trees beneficial for biodiversity — native and naturalised trees such as neem, banyan, peepal, semal, arjuna, and siris. These large, old trees have become markers for Delhi. Yet, several new constructions in the cities belie these values even though they look green or have green belts. Buildings with basements are made in ways that allow only shallow beds which would not withstand deep-rooted, native trees. In sum, many new apartment complexes have green belts that do very little for biodiversity or the ecological idea of greenery.

Thus the fight for Delhi’s trees is also a fight for the right kind of species to be allowed to grow to the right size; this flies in the face of quickly manicured or manufactured ‘green belts’. It outlines a struggle for cities which have a civilisation of shared meaning and relationships between people and nature. And clearly this relationship comes through size, age and the tree as an optic for a lived, native habitat for birds and wildlife. Urban biodiversity then can be its own form of civilisation — one that our air as well as our urban identity needs desperately.

Golden Flameback
Woodpecker on an old tree.

This first appeared as an oped in The Hindu.

Can an Urban Chipko Save Delhi’s trees?

Civic authorities want to cut 14,000 trees in the capital but a pro-tree citizen movement is standing strong.
See the pictures for the kinds of trees we will lose!

Urban Chipko That Can Check Delhi From Another Environmental Apocalypse
Coppersmith Barbet on Subabul tree.
PHOTO: NEHA SINHA

Childhoods in India are often about trees. There are tales of summers at a favourite nani’s place shaded with mango trees, or being asked to pluck kadi patta from the tree on the front porch, or waiting for jamun fruit in a deliciously short spell just before the monsoon.

For children in Delhi, these experiences have managed to remain—chiefly because the city has marketed and marked itself as one of the greenest capitals in the world.

Not much longer, it seems. The redevelopment of several government housing colonies in the heart of South Delhi will see thousands and thousands of trees to be cut—over 14,000.

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon on Neem tree with blossoms.

Image Credit: Neha Sinha

Being billed as “redevelopment” of government houses, trees will be cut in Netaji Nagar, Nauroji Nagar and Sarojini Nagar. Consider the figures. As per documents accessed by this writer, these are the tree felling permissions granted by the Ministry of Environment and forests and Delhi lieutenant governor: over 2,490 trees in Netaji Nagar, 1,454 trees in Nauroji Nagar. In Sarojini Nagar, more than 11,000 trees are proposed to be cut, though final permissions may be on hold.

Now, let us consider the other environmental apocalypse Delhi is in the middle of. The city is India’s most polluted. In May and June, Delhi was racked by dust storms, which were far dustier and stormier than anyone expected, taking lives in the city and North India. There seems to be a desertification problem we are faced with. And like incoming tsunamis on coastlines, it is trees that can protect us.

Environmentalist Manoj Mishra suggests trees act as windbreaks. For the rampant problem of pollution, several studies show trees absorb air, noise and dust pollution.

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon on Peepal Tree.

Image Credit: Neha Sinha

Why then should making new buildings come at the cost of trees?

According to Manju Menon, Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, the Central Environment Ministry must revoke these approvals and review the commercial and government housing priorities of this project based on the environmental values of these trees and other ecological aspects of Delhi. “We don’t have to make a choice between development and environment. Both as within our reach,” she adds. “It is important to demonstrate this start this in the heart of South Delhi, one of the least densely populated areas. If trees cannot have space here, then where else can they?”

The other issue is what say people have for the city they call home. For the past many days, citizens of Delhi—including those who don’t live in Sarojini Nagar and nearabout—have been standing, singing and walking in demonstrations and protests. Most feel cutting trees in Delhi is no longer an option. Protesters are calling it an urban Chipko. Petitions have also been filed in the National Green Tribunal and the Delhi High Court.

“A massive redevelopment project like this should have had wider citizen debate and suo motu disclosure by the government, before any approvals were granted,” says Kanchi Kohli, environmentalist who works on environmental governance. “This is the hallmark of good governance, even if public interface was not legally required. A city that is already battling air pollution does not need to see its green spaces and old growth trees succumb to real estate design that drastically alters the land use.”

The protests have been met with annoyance. While the clearance letters prominently display the number of trees to be axed Minister of State for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Puri has called the protestors “mischief-mongers”. He has also said: “there will not be one tree less than there are today and the green cover will be threefold (sic).”

The practical question, though, is: where will the trees be planted? While some of the clearance conditions say the plantation will be done on Yamuna flood plains, that does not help the micro climate of South Delhi. Saplings cannot and do not replace the ecological and aesthetic services provided by fully grown trees. And if we take a look at Delhi’s compensatory tree plantation record, the picture is anything but green. For more than 65,000 trees Delhi forest department had to plant as compensation for other cut trees, only 21,000 were planted, according to a CAG Audit.

As of now, the Delhi High Court has called for a stay on tree cutting—though there are reports the trees are still being felled.

Rosy Starlings on Semal tree.

Image Credit: Neha Sinha

As Delhi struggles to breathe, will a collective citizen voice—trying to pierce the dust, smoke and apathy- change the fortunes of our wooded, silent friends, the trees? Hopefully, the earth will no longer shake in Delhi by great trees falling.

This first appeared in Outlook.

A Bird, a Dam, and a Belief.

The Nyamjang Chhu dam will inundate Zemithang valley, the winter home of the Black-necked Crane that’s sacred to Buddhists. Can development override nature and faith?

This month, an Australian court declined environmental clearance to industrial group >Adani for coal mining in Queensland, Australia. The reasons for this have been made clear by the court: the proposed project is likely to harm a skink and a snake species found in the area.

That a skink, a shy, skittering reptile, could stop a mega project may appear unbelievable to many people, particularly those who believe in rapid industrial growth. But the court has, in fact, squarely put out a message that a country needs to take care of its species. More than morphology, glamour or specification, the emphasis is on the very existence of the species.

There is something similar playing out in India’s North-east for the vulnerable black-necked crane. Magnificent, wild, flamboyant and territorial, the black-necked crane is a central force in Buddhist mythology.

Found only in China, Bhutan and India, one of the crane’s few global wintering sites is in Arunachal Pradesh, and it has chosen two places here for its winter migration: Sangti and Zemithang Valley. Zemithang, a remote area, nurtured and conserved by the Buddhist community for years, will get submerged by the proposed Nyamjang Chhu dam.

BNC
Black-necked Cranes at the project site

Case against the project

There is an ongoing case in the National Green Tribunal against the project. The legal team that is arguing in favour of the hydroelectric project claims that the numbers of the >black-necked crane are too low to merit stopping the project. On the other side of the argument is not just the existence of the crane at Zemithang, but also the belief in its presence and in its wilful choice of Zemithang as a wintering site.

The case brings to light several dilemmas: one, whether the presence of black-necked cranes and other biodiversity at Zemithang is ‘good enough’ to stop a project. Two, whether projects need to be appraised in the light of spiritual, altruistic and religious concerns. Three, whether the environment impact assessment (EIA), which lead to environmental clearances, need to be re-conducted after these concerns come to light. The EIA has been scrutinised by the local group, ‘Save Mon Region’, and it does not mention the black-necked crane.

The bird is a restricted species, which favours cold, high-altitude spots, overlapping with countries and regions that follow Buddhism. In Buddhist lore and mythology, this elusive but magnificent crane is a companion to the lamas.

In ecology, the crane has been recorded in just three places in India: it breeds only in Ladakh (about a hundred birds), and it has only the two wintering sites in Arunachal Pradesh, which are themselves part of less than 10 global wintering sites.

In court, the lawyers for the project team argue that the crane “perhaps” visited the site “years ago” but that this is an insignificant point to stop the project. Meanwhile, the Buddhist community that lives in and around Zemithang as well as organisations such as WWF-India have photographic evidence of the crane’s visits. Only about 5-7 birds visit Arunachal Pradesh each year, and their visits are eagerly awaited by local communities.

“Apart from the black-necked crane, the area also has other endemic bird species, such as the Satyr tragopan, the Mishmi wren-babbler and the Beautiful nut-hatch ”

In a sense, then, the case of the dam site in Arunachal Pradesh is similar to that of the Carmichael mine. The Yakka skink, the conservation of which the Australian court upheld, is a restricted-range species, found only in Queensland. Like the black-necked crane, the species is still visible, but only due to the conservation of a few and spatially small sites.

EIAs, a precursor to environmental clearances, are meant to give details of flora and fauna at the site of the proposed project, as well as the impact on that flora and fauna by the project in question. In the case of the Nyamjang Chhu dam, which proposes to generate 780 MW of power, the primary impacts will be the submergence of the crane’s habitat in a biodiversity hotspot. This is not acknowledged in the EIA.

BNC with juvenile

Wonders of nature

In the late 1980’s, a tiny group of Siberian Cranes still visited India, in a small dot of a sanctuary, Keoladeo in Rajashan, which spreads over a modest 29 square kilometres. Amongst very many other wetland habitats India had to offer, the Siberian Cranes chose Keoladeo to repeatedly winter in each year. Scientists can only guess why birds, especially rare birds, choose certain areas over others. The right ecology, absence of human disturbance, places to both feedas well as and hide in, are all determinants. Like people choosing a certain colony or favourite watering-hole, territorial and choosy cranes select certain spots they return to year after year. For India, the Siberian Cranes were both a tourist attraction, as well as an enigma. Through mysterious migratory clockwork, a clock run by nature, they came around the same time each year, and India could call itself part of the Siberian Crane’s range. In the early 2000’s, the Siberian Cranes stopped coming, and have not returned since. The memories of the birds, and the hope that they will return, have however not abated.

The spirituality associated with the black-necked crane is not just because of its impressive beauty and its call, but also because of its very elusiveness and the anticipation built around its appearance, ideas that seem to be a metaphor for the wonders of nature.

A monk living in Arunachal’s Tawang Valley told me that it was not the number of cranes visiting Arunachal that was important, but the very fact that they came to the State. If Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh had not been inaccessible, high-altitude areas, many more people would see the bird and hear of its associated mythology, he said.

Which leads us to the final question: how does belief and faith inform our planning and development decisions? For Buddhists, the black-necked crane visiting their remote, snowy home is living proof of their belief and faith. For conservationists, birds that traverse long migratory distances to transform landscapes in winter are part of a more secular belief system, one that valorises Nature and its surprises.

Whether a major dam gets built on Nyamjang Chhu river is not the only question. The question is also whether such a project can go ahead without taking into account certain complex realities.

EIAs that conceal facts should not be the only bulwark for deciding what to do with our landscapes. And, finally, questions of faith certainly should not be just a numbers game. The numbers of black-necked cranes in Arunachal Pradesh might be small, but faith has never relied on numbers.

BNC with local

This first appeared in The Hindu.

Photos Courtesy: Save Mon Federation

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