Category Archives: Indie Stories

Animals have swag

Stork beak locked in plastic- and we are to blame.

A rescue team near Gurgaon is looking for an unusual subject – a black-necked stork unable to open its mouth, as it has a plastic ring around its beak.

Images of wildlife with plastic fatally stuck to them are becoming increasingly common. There are marine turtles with plastic rings around their neck, there are albatross chicks dying with bellies chock-full of plastic, there are whales and elephants dying agonisingly with plastic bags in them.

The bird is unable to open its mouth because of the ring. The bird is unable to open its mouth because of the plastic ring. Photo: Manoj Nair

Who would write obituaries for these ancient races filled with symbols of the modern age? The wildlife die unloved, unmourned, detected on coastlines and forest areas, in various stages of decomposition — and only if someone finds them. Most importantly, they die because of us.

Many of these animals are found in remote locations — islands, tiger reserves and coastlines and thus, it doesn’t seem like our problem. At least two things in the case of the stork show us this is our problem.

Firstly, Basai Important Bird Area (IBA) is in our backyard — Gurgaon — and shows the devastating impacts of plastic waste. Ironically, we are in the middle of a Clean India movement, and on World Environment Day on June 5, PM Modi called for an end to single-use plastic.

Secondly, this incident proves just how badly our natural areas are treated. Wetlands become wastelands, and rivers become sewage drains. I wrote earlier how some of Delhi’s biodiverse wetlands, Basaiand Najafgarh, are under imminent threat.

A construction and demolition waste plant is coming up next to Basai wetland, something the Delhi Bird Foundation has been fighting against in the National Green Tribunal. Not only does Haryana not recognise Basai as a wetland, making a waste plant near this wetland is likely to have terrible impacts on the biodiversity – such as debris, further water pollution, wetland dumping and filling.

marine turtles with plastic rings around their neck, or their nose. Photo: Reuters/FileMarine turtles have been found with plastic rings around their neck, or their nose. Photo: Reuters/File

The stork with its beak encased in a plastic ring is just an early sign of what litter and pollution tragedies take place when waste is dumped in wetlands and wildernesses.

Birders from NCR and the Haryana forest department have been trying to rescue the stork, which is doomed to die without intervention. “The bird was spotted today but could not be caught. There is a huge mountain of plastic bottles dumped next to the wetland,” says naturalist and birdwatcher Abhishek Gulshan. Till June 11, a team comprising conservationist Rakesh Ahlawat and the Haryana forest department were still looking for the bird.

Meanwhile, the Municipal Commission of Gurgaon has asked the company that dumped the bottles to immediately clear the area.

The problem of haphazard and harmful municipal waste dumping and management in NCR though, is far from over. Plans to make a landfill site on the Yamuna river plain, near Sonia Vihar, are afoot.

This could be yet another way of ensuring plastic and leachates reach our gravely imperilled Yamuna river. The problem is the colonial mentality—which saw wetlands (which did not earn revenue) as “wastelands”. Dumping in wetlands also dries up the area, leading to encroachment.

Plastic is killing our rivers. Photo: PTI/filePlastic is killing our rivers. Photo: PTI/file

“Wetlands are not wastelands awaiting “development”. Dumping of municipal solid waste and debris has been the most insidious way of reclaiming the wetlands by vested interests. Plastic is the latest despoiler. The sad plight of the stork is a tight slap on the face of civilised humans. If only the stork too could poke our faces!” says Manoj Misra, convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, and petitioner in several cases for river and wetland rejuvenation.

Less than a week ago, PM Modi had said on World Environment Day: “The choices that we make today will define our collective future. The choices may not be easy. But through awareness, technology, and a genuine global partnership, I am sure we can make the right choices. Let us all join together to beat plastic pollution and make this planet a better place to live.”

What is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste? Photo: PTIWhat is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste? Photo: PTI

One of the ways to do this is to cut down on plastic trash by not using plastic bags (the kind you’d find in a whale or elephant’s stomach), plastic can holders (whose rings you may find around a bird, dolphin or turtle’s neck or mouth), and plastic straws (found recently inside the nose of vulnerable Olive Ridley turtles), to name a few.

That’s on the individual level.

On the collective level, we have to make our waste — and how it is dealt with — an election issue. No more can our waste go into “wastelands”, “behind the colony”, “in that pond” or “next to that river”. These are not places for our waste. The idea is not just to get waste collected from our doorsteps but to ensure they don’t poison our last wild places and to place accountability for these urgent public health issues. What is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste?

Poisoning our last wildernesses — which have their own range of ecosystem services — would be like putting a plastic bag over our heads as we roam about in NCR’s critically polluted “air”.

Meanwhile, a stork awaits its fate — metaphorically holding its breath, without opening its mouth.

This first appeared in my column for DailyO, here
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On Being a Woman in Wildlife Conservation in India

“So, what do you do?”

The guy leans forward, all city slickness, adding, “You look like a designer.”

“Actually, I am a wildlife conservationist,” I meekly say, keeping up with the ping-pong game of what-do-you-do conviviality.

“A what conservationist?” incredulousness is writ large on the questioner’s face.

“Wildlife.”

“Oh, dogs and cats.”

“No, tigers and falcons. In the forest.”

“But you don’t look like a wildlife conservationist,” he expertly avers.

“How does a conservationist look?”

“Like… more wild… more tough.”

woman-embed_030816064348.jpgLeeches bite, a lot, in the forest. But nothing that a woman can’t take.

At which point I put down my rum and coke with a lemon twist and move away from the man, because what he means – and what many other men and women mean – is that a wildlife conservationist should look more like a man.

When I was thinking of what I wanted to do, wildlife conservation was not some expertly gendered feminist choice. I love wild animals, I love the forest, I love wild spaces, and I decided to study a science degree in the field and work in wildlife conservation.

It was a personal calling, rather than a statement. But conversations around a woman taking on an “unconventional choice” because she is a “free spirit” and doesn’t care about “triple bottomlines” are invariably comical, and perpetually stereotyped.

Cut to the road leading to the Sariska tiger reserve, circa 2008. Me and a photographer friend, both of us female journalists at that time (also seen as an “intrepid field” for women, sigh), were headed to Sariska to cover a story.

The road stretched between fields on both sides, with towering and impenetrable trees, grasses and crops skirting us. We were admiring the birds in the skyline, who were settling down to roost at dusk. When suddenly, a knocking sound in the engine brought us to a juddering halt.

woman-embed-2_030816064403.jpgThe leech in question, after biting the author.

The phrase “in the middle of nowhere” was probably written for the rare occasion when you are stranded in the middle of fields leading to a forest. Our car was completely out of commission, and we got out to make some calls. As we were standing with the tough task of making sense over call drops, a group of bikers came down the road, jeering.

It’s when they came back a second time that we decided we needed shelter, and we moved down the road. Many calls to Jaipur later, a car came to pick us up. The driver had golden-dyed long hair, glass earrings, and had music playing, and blindingly-flashing blue LED lights in the interior of his car.

We got in, ruing the garishness which was completely out of sync with the surroundings. We told him our destination, and he started the car, wordlessly. His stack of CDs rocked from side to side as he took us, not too gently, down the bumpy road. At the first petrol pump he saw, he stopped his car, filled up the tank and then spoke his first words to us, asking us for a couple of thousands. “You can’t fill your tank without asking us,” I protested. “We are not that far from Sariska, there was no need for a full tank!”

My colleague added darkly that this was not professional, and it would just not do.

The man just heard us out, some incomprehensible emotion passing through his face. Finally he spat out, “I am a Rajput. I don’t talk to women.”

It was the beginning of the end. Throughout the drive, he would sigh audibly, appalled that his customers were two sharp-tongued women. Under many threats (which were grimly unanswered by the gent in question) we were taken to Sariska, but he left his car and escaped with the keys the next day. We called his boss, who called his mother, who called the driver, interestingly threatening to slap him and deny him her homemade rotis. He finally came back. But he would not speak to us for the next three days.

Not speaking may perhaps be better than blurting out prejudice. In my years in the forest, in villages, and in the middle of nowhere, I have heard the oddest of things, many of which would make Fair and Lovely proud. “Aap jaisi ladki jungle me kya kar rahi hai?” (what is a girl like you doing in the forest?) a divisional forest officer will ask.

What do you mean sir, a girl like me, I politely ask, my hackles raised. “Mera matlab aapko toh shehar me hona chahiye, jungle me aap kaali ho jayengi” (You should be in the city, you will become dark in the forest). Sometimes the firebrand in me wants to say I am more than a skin colour, but I usually end up laughing and talking about tigresses who don’t give a shit.

Another friend of mine, also a young wildlife conservationist, is often asked, “What do you eat in the forest?” followed by the priceless “How come the tiger hasn’t eaten you yet?”

I remember the time I was camping at the edge of a tiger reserve and a fellow female researcher asked me to quietly ask a field assistant to burn my used sanitary pads. Why? Because none of the male researchers should know that such a thing as menstruation happens each month.

And secondly, hyenas would come to scrunch up my pads. I wasn’t in favour of burning anything, but ultimately had to. The secrecy bothered me though. My concern was about hygiene and pollution, not shame and guilt. A couple of years down the line, I am happy to report that we now have the she-cup, which is not polluting and will have no hyenas (or city dogs) coming for it.

langur_030816064419.jpgA langur sits in Pench tiger reserve. These are naughty monkeys, carrying away lingerie and rotis with equal relish.

There was another time when a langur ran away with my bra. My field assistants were not sure if they could laugh audibly or feel deeply embarrassed. They ended up making strange sounds. But I thought it was just as funny as a monkey running away with a pair of boxers.

Because ultimately, forests and animals do not discriminate between men and women. Though natural history has been penned by men, and the forest has traditionally been seen as a masculine space, forged, hunted in, and conquered by valiant men, or pious male missionaries, reality in the forest is far from being so gendered.

One of the best things about being in the forest is the lack of discrimination, and the lack of sexism. The trees arch above our heads, and nature is the most ruthless leveller. Animals regard us all as irritants, or as another species, not as men or women. Tribal societies in many forests are egalitarian, and in the mountains, many women work harder (and are stronger) than men.

So while history says wildlife conservationists should be like men, or more offensively, always look like men, there is a veritable army of women proving this wrong. Each time I hear I don’t look like a conservationist, I say, that’s because I look like me.

Many of us don’t want to look either like a man, or like a supermodel on a forest shoot. We don’t want the men in our lives to draw hearts around us and fill us in with hot pink, drawing us into glass cages of butch or model. If I look delicate, it doesn’t mean I can’t live in the forest. And vice versa for women who don’t give a fig about looking delicate.

Many of us didn’t get into natural history or sciences to make statements or become superheroes. The forest doesn’t see us as breasts and wombs; it doesn’t see us as intrepid and amazing, or masculine and crazy. It sees us as neither the exception nor the rule. It looks at us with its green eye, judging us only by our actions, not by our looks, or body, or hue of cheek. Time men followed suit.

IMG-20180528-WA0008_2

This first appeared in my column for DailyO here.

It was also reproduced in Sanctuary Asia, here

 

Trees of Storm: How we can prevent trees from falling

“On the afternoon of March 17, 1978, the weather took an odd turn in Delhi,” writes Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement.

“I had just passed a busy intersection called Maurice Nagar when I heard a rumbling sound somewhere above. Glancing over my shoulder I saw a grey, tube-like extrusion forming on the underside of a dark cloud: it grew rapidly as I watched, and then all of a sudden it turned and came whiplashing down to earth, heading in my direction… [later] I was confronted by a scene of devastation such as I had never before beheld. Buses lay overturned; scooters sat perched on treetops; walls had been ripped out of buildings, exposing interiors on which ceiling fans had twisted into tulip-like spirals.” This is Ghosh’s description of a cyclone which hit North Delhi in the 1970s, leaving 30 dead and 700 wounded.

The feeling of devastation may sound familiar to those who faced and survived the recent surge of dust storms in North and Western India. “Dust storms” usually are not synonymous with death — that understanding is reserved for floods and earthquakes. But consider the figures: 125 people died in a dust storm on May 3. In a fresh round of dust storms on Sunday, May 13, more than 60 people died in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. Yet another dust storm came today, in the wee hours of May 16. Damage was caused by a slew of frequently occurring and common factors — collapsed buildings, collapsed poles, lightning, falling trees.

del-body_051618123704.jpgA palm tree trunk came crashing down on cars during Sunday’s dust storm in New Delhi. [Credit: PTI photo]

Through the dust storms, 189 trees fell in Delhi, though the actual numbers must be higher. The Metro also had to halt functioning because a tree fell on it, and cars and property was damaged. It doesn’t take much to comprehend that falling trees can damage property and injure people. What can we do about it? The short-sighted answer would be to declare trees as dangerous and further confine ourself to a hellish, short-on-oxygen city. The more intelligent answer to explore is: how do we prevent trees from falling?

The question is even more important as we are in a lived state of climate change, where baselines of what are normal is shifting: what Ghosh calls the “great derangement”. Dust storms for instance, are often caused by heat waves, which are caused by a changing climate. So, expect more storms. Also, expect an unchanging storm of denial on the change we are in the middle of.

bada-peelu-1_051618123812.jpgA Bada Peelu tree at the Qutub complex. A slow growing tree, this one must be centuries old. [Credit: Neha Sinha]

In Delhi, studies say trees are stressed. In fact, the NDMC even runs a tree ambulance. The Delhi High Court has said soil should be left free around tree roots, at least to an extent of six feet by six feet, and all trees concretised around roots should be dechoked. But this is not followed, particularly in colonies and newly made footpaths. Orders often turn to farce — so while some colonies have made complaints and asked municipalities to come and break concrete around trees, in other parts of Delhi, newly made roads and pavements continue to cover tree roots. Pouring concrete right up to tree roots is a classic clash of the urban ethic encountering the wild — it yields a few more inches of neatness, land grab, and parking space. What it may also lead to though, is a fallen tree, destroyed property and a destroyed arboreal inheritance.

A major part of Delhi’s character is its trees. You have feathery-leaved, stately Tamarind trees flanking Tilak Marg, gold-blossomed Amaltas on Amrita Shergil marg, quirky Sausage trees on Copernicus Marg, Semal trees in Humayun’s tomb, gnarly and ancient Bada Peelu trees in the Qutub complex, young Banyans on some central verges, old Neems in the NDMC avenues.

crowded-semal_051618123907.jpgA Semal tree, concretised up to its roots in South Delhi, still throws up some blossoms. [Credit: Neha Sinha]

We urgently need to decongest the area around trees. We need to desist careless lopping of canopies in monsoon or winter, because that disbalances the tree. You too have the power to create change — in places where the tree is choked by concrete, you can call your local divisional forest officer or Delhi’s Tree helpline and place a complaint.

Indeed, such complaints have led to action. Delhi’s Preservation of Tree Act, 1994, restricts the cutting of any tree without requisite permissions. And if permission is granted to cut trees, the Tree Act also says more trees need to be planted: “Every person, who is granted permission under this Act to fell or dispose of any tree, shall be bound to plant such number and kind of trees in the area from which the tree is felled or disposed of by him under such permission as may be directed by the tree officer.”

With rising, apocalyptic air pollution, trees are a natural buffer we will literally choke without. And with heat wave conditions, we need the shade of trees to create temperature gradients. In Delhi’s temperature extremes, it is not even possible to stand at a red light if you don’t have a tree’s shade giving asylum from the maddening heat. People always say that the fury of nature are acts of God — at least now we know much of it is human-induced climate change.

Even interpreting weather is not fully in our control. The government declared May 8 as an evening school holiday based on predictions by the Met department, which said that there was possibility of thunderstorm, squall or hail, “with winds to the tune of 50km per hour”. That day, no major storm came to most of Delhi. The WhatsApp joke doing the round was that children were running around in the house at a speed faster than the predicted wind speed. We don’t know when the storms will come — but we certainly know they will.

And as time progresses, we will all become familiar with words like squall and dust storm. Trees of Delhi will become storm survivors. The time to protect and dechoke trees is now, now, now.

And while de-choking trees doesn’t mean trees will never fall, allowing them to remain choked, in the face of hail, squall and storm, means they certainly will.

This first appeared in my column in DailyO

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.

Tailorbird (3)
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.

Grey Hornbill Semal Apr 2
Grey Hornbill on Semal.
RRP Flock Takeoff Apr 2
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.

Sunbird on Semal Mar 30.jpg
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.

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

DSCN1213 (4).JPG
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.

How Citizen Scientists help Wildlife

Every winter, the thousands of wetlands that dot India transform from muddy slips of water to raucous bird parties. Ducks and geese from Ladakh and Tibet swim through aquatic vegetation, waders on stilt-like legs forage for grubs on squelchy, half-submerged banks, and sinuous Oriental darters spear the water for fish.

The two-week Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) that surveys sites across 25 countries in Asia and Australasia, including India, began last month.

While the data is still pouring in from this huge citizen science initiative, the census over the years has pointed to some clear trends. India has the biggest species diversity among the regions sampled by AWC. The survey tallied a mean figure of 1.8 million waterbirds over 300 sites in the country between 2008 and 2015.

Odisha’s lagoon, Chilika Lake, they found, supports a staggering half-a-million waterbirds. Many of the waterbirds that winter in India’s wetlands are of course migratory: like the bar-headed goose, which breeds in Mongolia, Tibet and Kyrgyzstan and crosses the Himalayas and Hindu Kush to reach India.

Decline in species

But the picture isn’t all rosy. There has been a notable decline in several species: the Oriental darter, better known as the snakebird for its long neck, which was once a common sight in many wetlands, numbered just 4,000 in the sites surveyed. The Indian skimmer, with a bright orange bill — the lower mandible longer than the upper one so it can ‘skim’ over water to snap up fish — were just 300. As for the sarus crane, the world’s tallest flying bird, often found in pairs or small groups near wetlands, only 100 birds were found in several years.

But wetlands, cherished equally by local residents, birdwatchers — and real estate developers — are in peril. The National Wetland Atlas, prepared by the Indian Space Research Organisation in 2011, found that India has over 2,00,000 wetlands. But a vast majority had not been notified as wetlands thus running the risk of being destroyed.

The many cases being heard right now in courts across the country reflect the wetland’s precarious existence.

In Delhi-NCR, birdwatchers have filed a case to protect the Basai wetland, which is fed by sewage but continues to harbour almost 300 bird species. A similar case was recently filed to conserve Najafgarh jheel, a riverine wetland in Haryana. Kolkata’s iconic East Kolkata Wetlands, designated a Ramsar wetland of international importance, is being steadily eaten up by construction, and a case has been filed with the National Green Tribunal. This wetland, like many in and around cities, plays an important civic role: it acts like a giant sieve for the city’s sewage, thanks to the fish and aquatic vegetation.

What’s not a wetland

Committees are also examining the condition of Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh, Deepor Beel in Guwahati, and the lakes in Nainital, all choked by sewage, garbage and encroachment. To make matters worse, the new legislation for wetlands, the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017, unlike the Wetland Rules of 2010, implies that manmade waterbodies (such as tanks) and salt pans are not wetlands. In reality though, salt pans and tanks not only support birds both in coastal and peri-urban areas, they are also an essential part of the local cultural fabric.

“A simple assessment of (bird) count information indicates that several waterbird populations in the Central Asian flyway (comprising migratory routes) are declining. Urgent national and regional action is needed to reverse this trend,” says Taej Mundkur, Regional Coordinator of the AWC with Wetlands International.

While hundreds of wetlands in India are in need of identification and notification, at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals last year, the Central government offered to consult with other countries to operationalise the Central Asian Flyway Action Plan to Conserve Migratory Waterbirds and their Habitats.

The action plan hopes to reduce threats to waterfowl and conserve wetlands while also tackling threats such as power lines and windmills. This plan is now being created with civil society and other experts. “It should be recognised that better management of our productive wetlands for waterbirds also provides a wide range of benefits to people. So it is a win-win situation,” says Mundkur.

Yet, one thing is clear. While wetlands are clearly in legislative, administrative and physical peril, the citizens of India are standing up for them. The AWC, a simultaneous and widespread count over two continents, would not be possible without the active involvement of citizens. This effort — coming from nature lovers, forest departments, and networks like the Indian Bird Conservation Network — harnesses the spirit of volunteerism. And the observations of these intrepid citizen scientists, who count birds year after year, sometimes in places that are dismissed as nothing more than a sewage line, give hope to the world’s waterfowl that today must cross both geographical and metaphorical mountains.

All images: The Hindu.

This piece first appeared here.

And quiet flow the rivers…

Multi-crore announcements, damming failures and the ‘birth’ of a new life form – if there’s one thing that has disrupted grandiose governmental plans this year, it has been rivers.

If rivers could speak, they would have a lot to say to us Indians. But since they can’t, the Uttarakhand high court feels they should at least be represented. This year, in a landmark judgment, the court declared the Ganga and Yamuna rivers and their tributaries in Uttarakhand to be ‘living entities’.

There are scores of living entities in our natural and built worlds that don’t always get justice or representation. These include endangered species and species that are imperilled but aren’t yet known to be so, for instance.

But a river is a collection of species rather than just one living being. It contains within itself sentient, appealing species like dolphins as well as lesser known varieties of molluscs, fish and plankton. In its body, a river is a collection of living beings, giving life, habitat and conduit to life. But in calling the river itself a living thing – perhaps in ontological fashion – the high court seems to suggest that the Ganga and the Yamuna should be represented in court if their ‘lives’ are found to be in danger. This also suggests that they have rights and that such dangers should be quelled.

How do Indians really feel about rivers? For one, we know that their ‘lives’ are in danger and yet we seem unconcerned. A CAG report in 2017 pointed out an attitude of almost-complete neglect towards the Ganga: “There was overall shortage of manpower, ranging from 44 to 65 per cent during 2014- 15 to 2016-17 in the National Mission for Clean Ganga. In [state-level program management schemes], the overall shortage ranged between 20 to 89 per cent.”

River rights are violated as well: remember that our ‘holiest’ rivers are also our dirtiest. It is also true that while activists and government departments call for ‘nirmal, aviral dhara’ (‘clean and uninterrupted flow’) and for restoration, notably of the Ganga, other plans involve dredging rivers such as through the National Waterways Act, piping their water for irrigation, creating ‘highways’ on rivers routes and preventing river water from going into the sea in their otherwise natural estuarine form. The Uttarakhand judgment has since been challenged at and stayed by the Supreme Court.

River interlinking – the act of artificially forcing rivers to join – for providing water for irrigation or other use has on and off been the agendas of various governments for decades. Under the present government, it has found vocal support in River Development Minister Nitin Gadkari. “Thirty river-linking projects have been approved, out of which work on three projects – Ken-Betwa, Par-Tapi Narmada and Daman Ganga Pinjal – will begin within three months,” he had said. The swiftly approved National Waterways Act, which envisages the construction of ‘river highways’ by dredging and channelling without environmental impact assessments, is afoot. Some tenders have already been approved.

If the Ganga is a living being, then one must wonder what she would have to say about being dredged and jetty-fied. While the river silently trundles on, carrying both garbage and trashy plans that don’t abide by environmental safeguards, it appears to manifest our bipolar outlook towards them.

On the one hand, there are dreams of the virginal, nirmal, aviral Ganga, a river that will not be touched, barraged or dammed – though rivers have already been irrevocably changed. On the other are the hyper-engineering plans that view the river exclusively as a body of water waiting to be piped, dammed or dredged.

This image precludes the fact that the river is not just a body of water but also a body of life, home to several species that live through various depths and heights of the river bed. Gadkari has, for example, said that it is a ‘waste’ that a river flows into the sea. This argument does not consider that rivers create fertile and life-sustaining deltas as well as biodiverse estuaries in their denouement. This year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature changed the status of the Irrawaddy dolphin, found in the Sundarbans delta and Chilika lagoon, to ‘endangered’ from ‘vulnerable’. This means that the dolphin, with its severely disturbed habitat, is one step closer to being gone forever.

The prevailing idea seems to be to find engineering solutions rather than environmental ones for river ‘development’, and this idea has enjoyed overwhelming institutional support. Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer, wrote in April, “At the national level, the Ministry of Water Resources has been renamed as the Ministry of Water Resources, Ganga Rejuvenation and River Development. The priority of the Central government is clear: water is a resource to be utilised, rivers have to be ‘developed’ (that is, tapped and harnessed), while the river Ganga is the only river that needs to be rejuvenated.” There is also an excessive slant on rivers being ‘holy’ entities, a narrative the environmentalists Ashish Kothari and Shristee Bajpai have argued is ripe for the embracement by communal discourses.

Then again, there are some indications that a modicum of rights is being granted to rivers as natural, and not ‘engineerable’, beings.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has admitted an appeal against the Ken-Betwa river interlinking plan, which stands to drown 100 square kilometres of the Panna tiger reserve, because the water deficit and surplus figures have not been made public. The tribunal has also quashed a clearance granted to the Kashang river dam and asked Himachal Pradesh to take a sustainable approach towards building these megastructures. Interestingly, the body also said that the Gram Sabha should be part of the decision if it wanted a hydro-electric project.

The Uttarakhand judgment had suggested the chief secretaries and advocate generals, as stand-ins of the government, could be a river’s ‘parents’. Instead, could local governance institutions running on sound environmental principles be expected to assume this responsibility?

Beyond the courts and judicial activism, there is also evidence to suggest that rivers can be accorded rights or ecological integrity, even if by non-state actors. In 2017, a first-of-its-kind gazette for the Hindon river was created to deal with land use and river basin details. Its richness of detail recognises both the ecological character of the river basin as well as a representation of how land use has affected it.

The very-polluted Assi river is hardly discussed in the media but a pilot project has successfully cleaned up portions of it using coir logs and site-specific bioremediation techniques.

During deliberations by civil society and academia on ‘India Rivers Day’ in November, much of the discussion centred on wetlands that could be saved. Constructed wetlands have helped clean and restore water bodies. A notable example is in the ancient Neela Hauz lake near Vasant Kunj, New Delhi.

So despite enormous failures in cleaning or rejuvenating rivers, the discourse around these beings has stayed thankfully bifurcated; it’s clear that not everyone looks at a river and thinks “piped water source” or “highway for barges”, as a sterile and compliant entity. Through many small but significant ways, 2017 has shown that the idea of a river as a living thing is resilient and survives.

This piece first appeared here.

Also read: https://thewire.in/67748/ken-betwa-panna-tiger-reserve/