Why shouldn’t it be a Blackbuck that brings Salman Khan down?

Bollywood actor Salman Khan was recently convicted by a Jodhpur court for poaching two blackbucks, a protected antelope species, in 1998. He has been sentenced to five years in prison and fined Rs 10,000. Before this, Khan had been acquitted for poaching chinkara in two separate cases, both for lack of evidence.

For many of his fans and other commentators, the Jodhpur court verdict is confusing. The most common argument has been that if people get away with murdering people in India, then it is ludicrous that a person should be jailed for killing blackbucks.

There are two fatal flaws in this argument. First: much of the frenzy is because Khan is a superstar. It seems the power of celebrity has lent a plasticity to the subject. Despite what this person, a certain power is arrogated to them through society granting some leeway or making the crime appear to be glamorous and creative.

The second flaw is in assuming that a blackbuck’s death can’t bring such a star down to his knees. This is even more problematic. It is a false equivalence to assume that poaching a wild animal is not ‘good enough’ to send a person to jail for five years, even if people kill people and get away with it – as Khan did in the hit-and-run case against him.

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Blackbucks sparring in Etawah. Photo by me

For example, the journalist Rajdeep Sardesai had suggested Khan should be assigned community service instead of being sent to jail, as have others. Is this because poaching is not considered a crime of public interest, or because the accused is a celebrity? At the heart of it is the fact that the focus of the crime is a non-human subject. For those rooting for celebrity poachers such as Khan, the fact that a non-human was killed – even if illegally – makes it an ‘acceptable crime’.

Rajdeep Sardesai

@sardesairajdeep

My take: Community service and a hefty fine a better way to ‘punish’ Salman Khan after 20 years: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/video/salman-jailed-maybe-community-service-hefty-fine-for-wildlife-protection-is-a-better-idea-1205843-2018-04-05 

Salman Jailed: Maybe community service and hefty fine for wildlife protection is a better idea

Perhaps a tough message has been sent out to the rich and powerful that they cannot get away on the weight of their star appeal when the law explicitly prohibits killing an endangered species. But…

indiatoday.in

Siddhartha Basu

@babubasu

I believe active animal welfare & community service by a public figure sets a far better example to society than singling someone out for harsh retributive punishment simply because “people look up to him”, or gossip & speculation anyway condemns him as a “habitual offender” https://twitter.com/sardesairajdeep/status/981908747567190022 

So it is important to unpack what poaching means. Poaching is not just the killing of an animal; it also stands for an attempt to kill. According to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, “The killing or wounding in good faith of any wild animal in defence of oneself or of any other person shall not be an offence” – but making the deliberate attempt to kill wildlife is illegal.

“Even if a person attempts to kill a wild animal protected under the WPA unsuccessfully – for instance, if he shoots at the animal and the animal escapes unharmed – this is considered poaching,” wildlife lawyer Saurabh Sharma told The Wire.

If you’d set out to kill an animal, you’d have prepared. You’d have acquired a snare trap, a gun, etc. You’d also have the intent, you’d make the attempt and you’d execute the killing itself, which may injure or murder of the animal.

Poaching a Schedule I animal (including blackbuck and chinkara) with chase and attempt will merit a higher level of punishment than animals in other Schedules, if convicted.

However, the conviction rate for poaching in India is poor, at least if the tiger data is anything to go by. The manner in which evidence is to be presented is tedious, especially when it’s easy to destroy the evidence (animal parts, corpses, weapons, etc.). So the question then morphs into whether Khan was caught because he was famous.

This is unlikely. Khan has been accused of multiple poaching attempts. He was spotted when he drove his vehicle close to a Bishnoi community settlement, where the vegetation cover was fairly open. Further, the Bishnoi community has shown enormous will in following through with the case. A Bishnoi man chased Khan down (Khan apparently attempted to knock him over while trying to flee) while the community hired a lawyer to represent them in court.

Finally, we need to address the question of what is to be done for an animal like the blackbuck, which has a stable population today. India is currently discussing whether certain animals, mostly those that appear populous and eat/damage agricultural crops, should be culled. While the blackbuck is not yet on the list of animals to be culled, another antelope is: the nilgai.

It’s unclear if public opinion about hunting blackbuck and chinkara would be different if these species were less visible. Both inhabit fairly open habitat, and the blackbuck is found in several Indian states. However, it is not rarity or restriction of range alone that engender protectiveness. For example, no one can hunt a tiger and get away with looking like a ‘hero’, and it’s not likely that tiger poaching in India will be seen as the killing of ‘just another animal’.

But the same doesn’t hold true for other Schedule 1 species in the WPA. The leopard, for example, is killed quite often by people or the state in an attempt to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts. But the political ecology, glamour and public sympathy surrounding select wild species such as tigers, lions and elephants is certainly more than for other wildlife.

If we have to differentiate, it needs to be between offenders, not species. Natural justice should connote that there is a difference between people who kill a wild animal for self-defence or food and those who deliberately stalk and kill an animal for pleasure or trade. The Jodhpur court judgment mentions how Khan was accused of hunting just for pleasure.

On the other hand, several people poach animals for bushmeat or trap them to protect crops and livestock. Such offenders, usually eking out a meagre living, do not have influencers and society rushing to defend their ‘good hearts’ nor is any creativity attributed to what they have done.

Khan has tried to defend himself on the basis of his conduct after the incident, and his professional and financial clout. The judgment mentions how Khan’s defence argued that a soft stance should be because he suffered for 20 years after the incident, that he has always appeared in court on time, and because several families depend on him for their livelihoods.

But it is precisely because the convict is a popular star, and certainly not because he has a “good heart”, Khan should be punished according to the law to show that all are equal in its eyes – especially if this equality is about just two blackbucks.

This first appeared in The Wire, here.

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Sunbird Series

Sunbirds are tiny, but mighty. Always on the move, ever on the look out for larger predators. The male glitters like stardust, and the female is like a pixie. Here’s my little pictorial ode to a Sunbird couple in Delhi.

Sunbirds

Sunshine, starbright,

Bedazzling glitter.

Iridiscent, Stardust-

You must stay forever,

In Delhi’s unworthy dust.

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A jewel on my Hibiscus!
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A Rufous-Tree Pie flies past a Purple Sunbird. Notice the size difference!
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Purple Sunbird on my Hibiscus
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Female Sunbird on Aparajita flowers
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Female Sunbird poised expertly on Tecoma flowers!
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The tiny Purple Sunbird on a Semal tree!
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A slightly different view of a singing Sunbird!
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The Sunbird’s beak looks like a well-aimed spear in this one!

2018. All photos by Neha Sinha

Please do not use without permission.

Indian Draft Forest Policy should involve people in forest documentation

A register by the people

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Leopard in Pench forest. Photo by me.

The draft National Forest Policy identifies threats to forests, but does not provide systems for public involvement

 Neha Sinha

India recorded a marginal increase in forest cover, according to the India State of Forest Report 2017. Around the same time this report was released, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change released a draft National Forest Policy, 2018, which calls for increasing forest cover, involving communities in forest management, and creating plantations for industrial use. Before formulating such a policy, a question that needs to be asked is, how much forest cover does India actually have?

Growing and losing forests

The State of Forest Report says that forest cover had increased in India by 0.21% in 2017 from 2015, and that some areas had become ‘Very Dense Forest’ in this period. At the same time, the Ministry itself admits that between 2014 and 2017, India lost, or legally diverted, 36,575 hectares of forest area towards 1,419 development projects. So, two things are clear: even if forest cover is being increased, it is also simultaneously being lost, and new forest may also be subsequently lost.

Crucially, the claim of new forests being created is questionable. In several consecutive forest reports, an absence of ground truths has meant that areas that look green, such as tea estates and commercial plantations, have been counted as forests. Environmentalists stress that it is difficult to believe that India’s forest cover has become more dense in the last two years simply because this process takes much longer. The point is that there is a need to create mechanisms to calculate our actual forest cover and natural wealth, and this should form the basis for a forest policy. For this, we need a more rigorous integration of the forest policy with other existing environmental legislation and policy. This, in turn, will help decentralise information on forests.

The Biological Diversity Act, 2002, calls for setting up a Biodiversity Management Committee in each local body. The Committee will prepare People’s Biodiversity Registers (PRBs), with tribals as members or people living in natural areas not classified legally as forest. The Registers entail a complete documentation of biodiversity in the area — plants, food sources, wildlife, medicinal sources, etc. They are meant to enable the creation of local biodiversity funds for conservation, and aid in decision-making.

A good PBR will not just be a powerful text, it can also help to trace how habitats are changing, and to understand and estimate parts of our forests. Being a bottom-up exercise, it is also a means of understanding the overlap of cultural and natural biodiversity. For instance, several Endemic Birds Areas, like in the Western Ghats, are those where tribals like the Todas live. These communities have specific ways of interacting with the environment and have helped conserve it in a sustainable way. Outside protected forest areas which are under immediate threat, PBRs will help identify forests that require conservation.

A golden chance of setting up a system of efficient natural area monitoring will be lost if PBRs and Biodiversity Management Committees are not integrated into the heart of the draft Forest Policy. The policy should take forward an existing legislation to achieve that elusive blend of tradition and modernity and also create digitised maps with truths from the ground.

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Sanjay Van.

Decentralisation

Traditionally, the view of forests in India has been that of a natural resource which requires management and effective commercial use. This is a largely centralised, government-run exercise. Forests are managed by forest departments, and their estimation and range is calculated by government agencies. While the draft Forest Policy talks about increasing forests, including for commercial purposes, through public-private partnerships, it does not create a mechanism for including those who live around forests.

The draft identifies threats to forests but does not provide systems for community involvement. It says: “The various threats to Forests due to encroachments, illegal tree fellings, forests fires, invasive weeds, grazing, etc. will be addressed within the framework of the approved Working Plan/Management Plan and also by ensuring community participation in forest management.” A major concern is that existing forests should not be used for industrial use, as diversion is one of the biggest threats to forests. A move towards decentralisation of forest wealth — wealth which is beyond commerce and embraces cultural values and oft-forgotten knowledge — will provide transparency as well as an actual and felt recognition of our heritage.

This first appeared here.

Semal in the city: A month of Semal!

For the month of March 2018, I photographed and observed a Semal (Silk Cotton tree). What a looker this tree is. It had bright red flowers, lots of birds, and plenty of little dramas. All down here!

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Only once a year, a tall tree with thorny bark bursts dramatically into blossom. In red, orange and yellow variants, the flowers seem to be on a cheerful rebellion against Air Quality Indexes above 200, apathy and road-widening stresses. The Silk cotton or Semal tree defies the expectations you would normally have of a tree in the city. Not only is this native tree doing wellin struggling, dry Delhi, it heralds spring – through the annual phenology of its blossoms – bringing scores of birds out and about.

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Tailorbird on Semal: tinier than the flowers!

Once the tree is done with flowering, it breaks out into cotton pods, which waft magically in the clogged air. If a large flowering tree is a keystone in the ecosystem, equally it can be a harbinger of a sense of place.

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Grey Hornbill on Semal.
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A flock of riotous Rose-ringed Parakeets!

I took pictures of a semal tree in Vasant Kunj for over fifteen days at the same time each day –between 6:30 to 9:30 AM. The tree I chose was a representative of Delhi – growing upright in a human-dominated, nutrient-poor environment. The findings confirm what I thought as a child – the semal has an effervescent quality of attracting not just human admirers but also several birds and insects. Observing the semal is also understanding ecology and inter-relationships – I spotted more than ten bird species, but I also saw interactions between different bird species.

The collective noun for crows is murder. Murders of crows were regularly spotted, but despite their snarky reputations, the crows did not harangue other birds – like various kinds of mynas, pigeons and barbets. There were several types of starlings or mynas on the semal – common mynas (with a bandit like yellow band on their eyes), brahminy mynas (named after the ‘choti’ or tuft of hair they have, similar to the one some male brahmins keep), pied mynas (black and white with orange bills) and rosy starlings (rosy pink, white and black), who migrate to India from Europe. There were two types of barbets – the brown-headed barbet and the coppersmith barbet, and two types of pigeon – the yellow-footed green pigeon (a tree-loving bird) and the blue rock pigeon (which nests closer to people, and usually on buildings). Grey hornbills, rose-ringed parakeets, oriental magpie-robins, paradise flycatchers and rufous treepies also visited. The size range of birds the semal supports is wide – from the tiny purple sunbird and oriental white-eye (8 centimetres long) to the huge peafowl. While several birds fed on the semal flowers, others used the crown of the tree as cover, while negotiating their way through the built landscape.

For me, the semal is a sense of place, which is otherwise marred by a shifting baseline. While certain remnants of ecological heritage and knowledge remain in Delhi – such as people selling coconut cream and water and cooling ‘chiks’ on the side of the road – most other ‘natural’ recollections are now just memories. Growing up in Delhi, I saw vultures which have now completely disappeared, and sparrows that have sharply reduced in numbers. Studies have confirmed the worst suspicions – we are witnessing several local extinctions and plummeting populations of species. In the houses I grew up in, wasps made white nests in plug points, crickets and termites flew giddily inside our rooms after monsoons. I don’t see crickets, blister beetles, and the wasp and ant diversity that I saw as a child. One thing that has remained though, is the semal.

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The iridiscent Purple Sunbird on Semal.

Grey hornbills dart in and out of the semal in the ancient Humayun’s tomb complex. In central verges and road dividers exhibiting Delhi’s plummeting Air Quality Index and Respirable Particulate Matter, the semal manages to grow – and thrive. In places where trees branches have been carelessly lopped off – to make way for signboards, lampposts or red lights – it survives. It may not outlive all of Delhi’s infrastructure plans though. Close on the heels of a contested proposal for ‘redeveloping’ Pragati Maidan, which will involve cutting hundreds of trees, more road-development projects are being executed. Citizens have fought to save old trees on Aurobindo Marg which the government wants to cut for road-widening, a proposal which may still come through. Another plan is in the offing is to cut over 2,000 trees – including the cheerful semal – between Dhaula Kuan and the international airport. Still, as planners hasten to widen roads, the semal shelters an arboreal arena of life.

As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

The semal means so much to many species. An important source of food and sustenance as the days get hotter. Yet it may be just another trunk to be cut for road-widening projects or another statistic for ‘compensatory plantation.’ As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

This post first appeared here.

All photos by Neha Sinha. Please do not use without permission.

The things a Purple Sunbird has to do to get a Lady

I’ve been watching this courting pair of Purple sunbirds over Spring in Delhi. Here’s the male with his bright red and gold shoulder patches, which he eventually dropped.

This image is from March 10. Notice the bright, unmissable embellishments!

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On March 23, the shoulder patches are noticeably less bright:Sunbird Shoulder Patch

Image from earlier today, March 30. The patches seem to be gone.

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And that’s because… drumroll.. he’s found his girl! Presenting the female sunbird!

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And here’s one last image of the Sunbird singing his heart out:

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All photos by Neha Sinha. Please do not use without permission. 

It’s World Water Week. Why India’s new Wetland Rules have it all wrong.

The 2017 Wetland Rules limit monitoring and omit important wetland types

Earlier this year, a judgment by the Uttarakhand High Court, stating that Ganga and Yamuna rivers are “living entities”, captured the national imagination. It is worth noting that wetlands, the other major water-based ecosystem apart from rivers, are at a moment of policy transition in the country. This year, a new legal framework for wetlands was passed, the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, replacing the earlier Rules of 2010. Also this year, the Supreme Court passed an order directing States to identify wetlands in the country within a stipulated timeframe.

Going forward

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Sambar and Chital at a stream in Pench Tiger Reserve.

The 2017 Wetland Rules have been criticised for doing away with strong wetland monitoring systems and omitting important wetland types. At the same time, the Supreme Court order directs States to come forward and notify wetlands. What then could be the way forward?

The 2010 and 2017 Rules for wetlands both emphasise that the ecological character of wetlands ought to be maintained for their conservation. ‘Ecological character’ refers to processes and components which make the wetland a particular, and sometimes unique, ecosystem. For example, as lagoons like Chilika (Odisha) and Pulicat (Tamil Nadu/Andhra Pradesh) are characterised by a mix of saline and fresh water, the flows of each type need to be maintained; river flood plains contain wetlands that require conservation so they can re-fuel the river with fish and other aquatic life during flooding.

In the 2010 Rules, some related criteria were made explicit, such as natural beauty, ecological sensitivity, genetic diversity, historical value, etc. These have been omitted in the 2017 Rules. There are a few reasons why this is problematic. First, there is multiple interest around wetlands. Multiple interests also have governance needs, and this makes it absolutely necessary to identify and map these multiple uses. Leading on from this, and second, it is crucial to identify ecological criteria so that the wetlands’ character can be maintained. The key to wetland conservation is not just understanding regimes of multiple use — but conserving or managing the integrity of the wetland ecosystem. Finally, restriction of activities on wetlands will be done as per the principle of ‘wise use’, determined by the State wetland authority. Whether wise use will include maintaining ecological character remains to be seen. Under the new Rules, no authority to issue directions, which are binding in nature to desist from any activity detrimental to wetland conservation, has been prescribed to State wetland authorities.

Salt pans are an example how one use (of making salt) has trumped the other (of environmental balance). Salt pans as ‘wetlands’ have been omitted from the new Rules. They were identified as wetlands in the 2010 Rules, as they are often important sites of migratory birds and other forms of biodiversity. The omission in the 2017 Rules suggests that while saltpans do exist as wetlands, they do not require any conservation or ecological balance. The inference can also be that it would be acceptable to tip the environmental balance or integrity of such a wetland, which could lead to damage and pollution.

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Forest wetland in Asola Sanctuary, Delhi.

The case of Deepor Beel

The issue of wetlands being multiple-use areas — and subsequently being abused due to clashes of interest — found centre-stage this year with the observations of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in the case of Deepor Beel.

Deepor Beel is a Ramsar site and a part of it is also wildlife sanctuary in Guwahati, Assam. (‘Ramsar Sites are designated because they meet the criteria for identifying wetlands of international importance.’) This wetland harbours a wide variety of biodiversity, and also suffers from intense man-made pressure — the city’s municipal waste is dumped close to the Beel. Large, meat-eating storks (Greater adjutant storks) are ironically found eating from the mountains of garbage at the site. Potential impacts of contamination or poisoning from the garbage are still unknown. This January, 26 storks died. The fact that Deepor Beel (Beel means water body) exists as a wetland does not prevent garbage dumping; this is a fate faced by many wetlands. The NGT’s observations on Deepor Beel are interesting and symptomatic of what is happening in several wetlands. In an inspection done by the judicial member of the Tribunal, it was noted that waste was being dumped “not beyond the site but within it,” and “demarcations are made by drying out areas or cutting off water sources”. These are classic ways of killing a wetland and turning it from a wet to a dry ecosystem; or from a lake to a garbage dump or cesspool. The Tribunal has now asked for the “traditional” spread of the wetland.

Given all the modern uses of wetlands, or the use of the wetland only for its land, looking at traditional cartography may be one way to understand catchments of wetlands. It may also be a way of restoring some modicum of ecological character, identity or ‘rights’ to wetlands, as the river judgment suggested. There are challenges ahead in identifying wetlands – multiple and competing use is just one of them. Understanding the historic spread and ecological character will be an important bulwark for the way forward. Setting clear governance systems would be the next. Without either, we are looking at a complete dilution of wetlands in the country.

This first appeared here.

Looking for Sparrows on World Sparrow Day (and everyday)

I had just reached home from school, and he was sitting there, eyes glittering, cheeping at me with all the painful anguish of a little one with a little voice.

The sparrow looked suited and booted, like he was wearing a very black tie over a ruddy brown coat. In all my school-child importance, I had imperiously flung my bag aside and was ready to peel off my sweaty nylon socks so I could put my feet up on the sofa. I owned the drawing room: it was my grandparent’s drawing room, but unlike the school, I could do what I wanted here, and for a few hours each day, this was my kingdom. The old ceiling fan, cavernous coir sofas, oil paintings on the wall, a stack of curios on the old bookshelves – this was my empire. But the sparrow kept cheeping. He had an important message for me. The window was not open enough for his mate to come in, especially when she was carrying twigs. They had important business to do: a house to build behind my grandfather’s handmade oil painting. The sparrow wife, her mouth full, stared at me balefully from the branch of a scarlet bougainvillea.

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Each summer, the sparrows made their nesting preferences clear, asking for space. Sometimes, they would nest between the tube-light and wall. Many years, behind paintings. And most annoyingly, on the cup the ceiling fan hung from. Coming back home on hot summer days, I could arrogantly peel my hot socks off, throw away my bag with practised carelessness, but I couldn’t put the fan on, for more than speed “2”. The sparrow couple were always around, feeding their chicks in the ceiling fan. I had my heart in my mouth each time the female sparrow would dodge the whirring fan; I admired her grudgingly even as sweat ran down my face.

Sometimes the sparrows would quarrel. Sometimes they would fly away for longish periods and I could hear the chicks yelling their protest. They seemed to be such noisy children, like me. The drawing room was no longer just mine. The hot summers were a bit hotter. But I had company. And I had surprise, with the sparrows pulling a variety of unpredictable capers all afternoon long.

Today is World Sparrow Day. The most natural reaction would be to assume that the sparrows are still around. But they’re almost not. March 20 is remembered as World Sparrow Day as sparrows – especially house sparrows – are declining everywhere. What happened? When did it happen? How did the charm of cheep-chirp leave our lives?

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There are so many reasons: with insecticides being used everywhere, soft-bodied insects, the young sparrow’s food, have disappeared. In our extreme manicuring tendencies for perfect, manufactured order, grass – which supports nesting material as well as insects – is being mowed too short in lawns.

In residential facades, ledges, of no use to anyone but a little bird, have gone out of fashion and are being replaced by sleek modern buildings. Inside our houses, windows have been shut and ACs have been switched on. The oil paintings still hang, but there are no sparrows to flit behind the paintings.

All over the world, there are assorted movements to bring house sparrows back. In some places, architects are leaving bricks missing, so sparrows can have a nesting place. In others, parts of gardens are being left wild, for grass, insects, and sparrows. In India, a massive movement to give sparrows a space in gardens, homes, and hearts, is ongoing.

Today, sadness washes over me for the sparrows. I hope they will come back. Once, they took over my kingdom – and our collective afternoons, so many vestiges of domestic existences. Today, we ask them, beg them, cajole them, to return. So many sparrows have been lost in the humdrum and banality of urban life. But what we have lost, in the companionship of a little, stubborn, brave bird, the “nanhi gorayya”, is incalculable and perhaps much worse.

This piece first appeared here.