Category Archives: Uncategorized

Its Migratory bird season – and here is where you can find some birds!

For Delhi: Basai, Najafgarh and Mangar. And read on also to know why these places are under threat.

There is a sense of oldness in natural places.

The earth before you will have evidence of being freshly trodden- the many-grooved footprints of birdwatchers in their field shoes, tracks of Nilgai, three-cleaved marks left by hopping birds. The marks may be new, the smell of fresh animal droppings stinging the air. But the place itself feels both new and old; new because you see something unseen each time, old because there is something primeval about natural spaces. These are places shaped not by the human hand, but by sun, wind, water, birds and animals.

If you’re standing under trees in Aravalli’s Mangar forest, the leaves dapple the sunlight, leaving chequered shadows on the ground and on your face. The colour of the light, and so your immediate world, may become a greenish yellow, sieved through the leaves; on the ground, shadows shift as the leaves move, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. If there are Nilgai nearby, say in the Delhi Ridge, you may be standing on a path made by them. If you are in a wetland – like Basai or Najafgarh, the levels of the water are different in different seasons, and the land around the water shifts accordingly. You could be a completely bone-dry spot that becomes aquatic at other times. Water shapes the place, migratory birds mould its character. The oldest things on earth — birds that are actually living dinosaurs, water that whips terra firma — create the place.

bird1-copy_012018015446.jpg

When Delhi talks about being an “old” city, we mostly refer to fifteenth-century monuments and tombs, the sun warming their stone on winter afternoons. We think of Old Delhi’s ancient bazaars – still selling spices and silver, flanked by solid wrought iron pillars which have seen the times of kings. We think of the feeling of Delhi, an old capital, a centre of power, the sense of government flags, corridor whispers, red beacons, which are hints in the air — power was and is here. But very few think of Delhi as an old city through its natural spaces.

Maybe that’s why Delhi-NCR’s spectacular natural spaces are under threat.

We are at a remarkable moment in the story of the city – citizens are fighting, under duress, to preserve Delhi’s history, for its future. Of the many struggles going on in the city — to preserve avenue trees, to save the trees at the iconic Pragati Maidan from getting axed for redevelopment, and to conserve lakes, three stand out in scale.

One is the pitched battle to save parts of the world’s oldest mountain range, the Aravallis. It may not be enough to say that these hills and ridges are ancient geological heritage; it may not even be enough to say the Aravallis act as a safety net for Delhi, protecting it from complete desertification from the Thar. Clearly, these arguments are not enough for developers and a determined state government bent towards hacking away Aravalli’s trees, levelling the ridges, and to sell green-view apartments, which certainly won’t have a “green” view for long.

bird2-copy_012018015634.jpeg

A concerned citizen has moved the National Green Tribunal against the cutting of more than 6,000 trees in the Aravallis in Faridabad. While the Haryana forest department says all of the Aravallis are deemed forest, trees were cut all the same. Not only does this fly in the face of environmental concerns, it is a denial of the fact that the Aravallis too — and not just apartments — are part of cultural and lived heritage for Delhi, Faridabad and Gurgaon. Delhi’s Paharganj, derived from “Pahar” or hill, is named such as it was a hilly area, and today the Delhi Ridge (named as the area undulates with Aravalli hills, ridges and streams) is a forest that gives lungs to the gasping city.

Another chapter of forgotten history, lost through tomes of city master plans, is Delhi and Haryana’s Sahibi river. “Cartographic assassination” is what rivers and wetlands face, as they get described in public record and maps, says urban ecology and planning expert Manu Bhatnagar. What was once Sahibi river has today become Najafgarh naala. In this naala too, Delhi and Haryana show reluctance to recognise the old Najafgarh jheel, which hosts flamingos, and migratory birds from Tibet and other high altitude regions.

The area also has what is considered one of the biggest heronries in North India – more than 200 birds have created communal nests in a clump of trees. Heronries are classic features next to wetlands, reminiscent of the sight of squawking chicks-in-a-row at heronies in the world heritage site, Bharatpur. Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage (INTACH) had filed a case in the NGT for the conservation of Najafgarh jheel, though the lake is yet to be officially protected. Birdwatchers and citizens have been rallying for the conservation of the area for years, even as flats in Gurgaon inch closer to the wetland, and have swallowed its basin.

bird3-copy_012018015800.jpg

Finally, there is Basai. It is known in bird watching circles as Delhi-NCR’s finest wetland. It lies unassumingly in a corner of Gurgaon, shoved uncomfortably close to construction sites. This incredible site, hosting nearly 300 species, designated an “Important Bird Area” due to its avian wealth, is created by sewage water. But ecosystem processes sieve and save the water, creating not a filthy cesspool but a resounding arena of life. This is one of those rare places where you will find both the migratory goose in the water and the resident eagle in the sky; where you have a wet grassland merging into a wetland, creating a green-and-blue, grass-and-water mosaic one normally sees in far more “remote” or “wild” spaces.

In less remote, urban spaces, which ironically jostle for both breath and water, wetlands often turn to wastelands, quite literally so. The Delhi Bird Foundation, helmed by avid birdwatchers, has approached the NGT against waste going into the wetland –a construction and demolition waste plant is coming up next to Basai wetlands. Fifteen-year-old birdwatcher and Delhi resident Maitreya Sukumar explains why: “It is a wetland home to many birds. It is a thriving ecosystem. It gets rare birds each year and should definitely be preserved,” he says. Maitreya’s mother is one of the petitioners in the case.

bird4-copy_012018015925.jpg

All over the world, natural spaces in crowded cities are cherished as islands of succour. These are not just points, but “places”, which hold deep meaning for those who visit, an ongoing relationship of belonging between person and place. These places carry a sense of being old, timeless, and un-changing in the surrounding echelons of chaos and noise. New York’s Central Park is not famous because it is a park, but because it is in one of the world’s busiest, fastest-paced cities; the park itself is maintained more as a wilderness than a fully manicured area. The Nara Park in Japan holds several deer; the deer come out and stroll through the city of Nara, walking between people, an unsaid conversation between hooves and heels.

Closer home, Sikkim has recently passed a unique legislation to increase fraternal bonds and personal relationships with trees, allowing a person to adopt a tree as a child: the Sikkim Forest Tree (Amity and Reverence) Rules 2017.

Delhi’s own amity does not lie only in its buildings. Delhi’s geological and ecological history has shaped the names of its places, the quality of local life, and resilience — an ancient story of Nature’s survival in a harsh, polarised environment and environs.

It would be imperative for India’s national capital to not forget where it came from.

This piece first appeared here.

Advertisements

IndiEnvironment- June 2017 Issue

I have often found that in my writing and research, and in my small attempts for conservation, there isn’t adequate follow-up of issues. So many issues are cyclical and require sustained engagement or monitoring. There are also issues we as a community take up but have to give up, due to our difficult field and research schedules.
Starting June 2017, I will be putting out a single pager on outstanding wildlife issues, spanning wildlife, law and policy developments. Consider this an update, a reminder for all of us as a whole, or just reading — and please use this as you deem fit.
This issue includes Culling, a new solar expansion plan that may impact the Great Indian Bustard in Gujarat, and the definition of forest, as trees are cut in the Aravallis.
 
Comments, feedback, ideas — on these issues and more- are welcome!

Can Pokemon Go create Nature Appreciation?

At least two apps are currently attempting to change the way in which mobile phone-users view the world. One is Pokémon Go, the wildly popular augmented reality game in which players ‘catch’ different ‘Pokémon’ (imaginary animal-like creatures with different powers) in real-life locations. The second is Prisma, the photo filter app, which transforms photos into “art using the styles of famous artists: Van Gogh, Picasso” and “other ornaments and patterns”, allowing artwork to be created out of images of the mundane.

Almost Extinct

Pokémon Go, especially, has such a devoted following that people have had car accidents while playing the game. Some areas have asked to become notified game locations while others, such as the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan, have sombrely asked to be left out. The game essentially does two novel things: first, as an augmented reality escapade, it takes you out of your house, away from computer screens, and to real locations. Second, it rewards the player with Pokémon.

Does this sound similar to non-magical things we do in reality? Conservation biologists certainly think so, having pointed out the similarities of Pokémon Go with taxonomy and the search for species. As taxonomists go out looking for new taxa, or birdwatchers and herpetologists seek an endemic bird or a rare reptile, the very search in nature is a reality game. Second, many apps that try to filter, augment, or virtualise reality around us are attempting to control nature, and thus the world we live in. They are trying to be like cultural movements in art and society, such as Impressionism. In these massively popular urbane games then, we have a clue to how we can shape attitudes towards nature conservation.

Making the world more beautiful or romantic than it actually is is at the heart of filter apps. The success of Prisma is in its application to landscape and location photography (some of the filters are too arty to apply to faces, contorting or slashing them beyond recognition). Thus, the filters succeed in making a sunset look more dramatic or a field awash with a clear aquamarine “wave filter”. It is essentially a view of nature, but a view that seeks to make nature more controlled, bearable, or performative.

In Pokémon Go, the difficulty in catching the Pokémon is juxtaposed with each Pokémon having its own abilities. Pokémon evolve, they lay eggs, some are rare; unsurprisingly, the inspiration of the app is nature. Scientists who work for EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) species point out similarities between Pokémon and real, rare animals. For instance, Pikachu is like an Ili Pika, a furry mountain mammal, and the Charmander is like the Chinese Salamander, an amphibian. Conservationists and ecologists also associate species with characteristics and morphology — tigers roar and live alone; lions hunt in prides or groups; sarus cranes are big birds that mate for life and have a clarion call, unlike storks which are also big but soundless birds, and so on. This knowledge of characteristic traits informs behavioural ecology. Essentially, Pokémon Go is to the player what behavioural ecology is to the scientist. Wild animals, though, cannot be controlled as well as they are in these games. From the idea of controlling nature comes another question. As our new mobile apps try to change how we perceive the world, how do we simultaneously grapple with the reality of climate change, which is changing the very world we attempt to control?

In his new book on climate change, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh emphasises the human impact on both culture and nature. We are experiencing the Anthropocene, which comes from the word “anthropo” (meaning human), which connotes the era we are living in. As Mr. Ghosh and others have pointed out, in the chemicals we have pumped into ecosystems, and our frenetic high-carbon activities, we have irrevocably altered both the natural as well as lived world. This leads us to the unfamiliarity of climate change within our familiar, consumerist worlds.

Many States in India are experiencing natural disasters that are linked to the Anthropocene or climate change. Assam and Bihar are experiencing terrible floods at the moment, with both man and beast struggling for survival. In Kaziranga National Park, people, rhinos, hog deer, and elephants have been flooded; many have died. Gurugram has been under water for more than a week in July, signifying bad town planning and altered drainage systems. Ironically, some States in India have also grappled with heatwaves and drought, and the coming of an above-average monsoon was meant to be succour.

In the mysterious and startling ways of climate change, we have the added dimensions of the Anthropocene which affect more than the climate. Human activity — such as bad decisions linked to the opening or shutting of water sluice gates, or building over water canals (reminiscent of the 2015 Chennai floods), or encroaching on rivers like Mumbai’s Mithi — has changed the way we receive water and rainfall. Nature, even when altered by us, keeps demonstrating how unknowable it is.

But can our predisposition towards app-based adventure, which derives from ecology, taxonomy, photography, and a certain feeling of command over nature, be used to appreciate nature more? Much has been written about video or digital games changing people for the better. In the quest to ‘do’ something, or ‘save’ someone, and in building communities of players, there is immense potential for positive behaviour among people.

It would be fitting if the behaviour of people towards nature and wildlife became more responsible as a result of these discussed games, which are essentially biomimicry in various forms. Even as we try to control nature, it shows itself to be unfamiliar and threatening in our maudlin lives. Nature has surprises, both beautiful and nasty, and wildlife act in ways that are both fascinating and grisly. Social movements and social good have often been informed by cultural interventions — street plays, board games with messages for children, colouring books, film, and so on. Apps are not an exception; many apps now identify plants, animals, and butterflies around us, though none have had the crazy popularity of augmented reality games.

Truly positive action would be to recognise that nature is an entity that can never be fully controlled, even as our games try to do so. Thus natural resource management needs to be open to ecology rather than engineering, and ultimately nature needs to be preserved. And the thrill of searching for Pokémon, or other creatures, should inform the importance of saving our real, threatened biodiversity. That would be a sport well played, and a legacy worth having.

This piece first appeared in op-ed in The Hindu.

Shaktiman: Soldier? Martyr? On the Prevention of Cruelty to animals

Shaktiman, a snowy-white police horse, was greviously hurt during a protest march in Dehradun. Called a police officer, a soldier of the state, a re-presentation of Congress, the political party against which the march was called, eventually Shaktiman was just an innocent horse with no voice to say who actually hit her. This calls into question, once again, the poor state of our Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Shaktiman died after a month of suffering. The Act remains unchanged. The price of torturing an animal remains Rupees 50, less than the cost of a cup of coffee.

ANI photograph of the BJP MLA threatening the horse

The word Shaktiman, Hindi for “strong one”, usually connotes a male. More specifically it stands for ‘one who embodies strength’. And it is also the name of India’s homegrown, pre-cable TV, male, flying superhero. It comes as something of a surprise then that a snowy white Kathiawari mare belonging to the police of Uttarakhand was christened Shaktiman. And it’s a twist of irony that this mare cleaved India in two, with the nation watching with equal diffidence and pain as she was attacked during a political protest, dying later, a martyr in a useless battle.

On March 14 the BJP led a protest against the Congress in Dehradun. Shaktiman was used by the mounted police in Uttarakhand during the protest. In videos that emerged, BJP MLA Ganesh Joshi was seen violently brandishing and hurling a long, stout stick; he was with a group of equally agitated, shouting followers. One person pulled at Shaktiman’s reins, and Joshi was captured on camera making loud whacks on the ground with his stick. It is unclear if Joshi actually hit Shaktiman, but the usually placid mare, terrified, backed away from the violence, stumbled over a piece of metal and finally fell.

Her fall is what the BJP did not see emerging as an outcome of their protest. As the gorgeous horse lay in a pool of blood, Shaktiman overnight became the vessel for anger against brute violence, a frustration at savage politicians who did not seem to care and, above all, symbolised the excruciating innocence of the gleaming white victim, now stained a sticky blood-red. “Brave”, “magnificent”, “fighter” were some of the words used for Shaktiman after her fall, which resulted in a broken leg that was later amputated and replaced with a prosthetic limb – a painful process lasting over a month. Arguably, if Shaktiman was a woman or a man, an attack on her would not have caused such a furore; people are tear-gassed, water-cannoned, lathi-charged by police during political protests throughout the country. Agitators, too, respond with violence — a stone thrown expertly in one part of India, a flaming torch speared like a missile in a caste agitation in another. What was so special about Shaktiman in a country with scores of horses, and countless cruelties toward its domestic animals?

Most profoundly, Shaktiman was attacked because she was a symbol. As the one who carried a policeman, seen as an emblem of the then-ruling Congress party, the horse herself became an extension of the ruling state. In fact, having been carrying an officer as part of her duties, Shaktiman was as good as a police officer herself, as described by retired Indian Police Service officer Kiran Bedi. Contrast this with the fact that Shaktiman is actually a hapless, mute animal, who would suffer an attack or a beating, bleed and starve, but not actually be able to speak the name of her attacker. The irony that Shaktiman, seen as an active agent of the government, can neither utter a word of eloquence nor present a defence is rich and disturbing. It reminds us of a wide-eyed footsoldier taking a bullet for wars he has no hope of controlling or understanding. It shows us avarice in a naked form.

Many citizens also saw this incident as a politically significant one. In a charged atmosphere, with BJP leaders talking continuously about proving one’s nationalism – by stating love for the “holy cow”, uttering “Bharat Mata ki jai” among others – the attack on Shaktiman was read as evidence of the hollowness of all the sanctimonious slogan shouting. “Was the horse anti-national?” asked many voices on social media. Would such an attack be tolerated if the horse was a cow, asked others. Significantly, Joshi offered no apologies for himself or his followers, stating he was not even “point one percent guilty.” Joshi’s lack of even a general apology led many others to ask if the BJP, ruling at the Centre, was getting too arrogant. The Congress took up the issue in the state assembly and the horse led to many sessions being disrupted. The BJP appeared to lose face for awhile, but then rebounded. Following a set of simultaneous political events, the Congress government was dissolved. Meanwhile, following her own tragic leg amputation, the spread of gangrene and infection Shaktiman died, a month after being endlessly feted by politicians, who posed for selfies with her, photogenically feeding her leaves for the camera. She had been fitted with a prosthetic leg which was flown in by a kind volunteer from the US. An assorted team of veterinarians and a handler named Ravindra Singh had been taking care of her.

Meaning of death

But in the end, what did Shaktiman’s death mean? A reading of Shaktiman’s fall as a symbol of the larger dystopia by right-wing elements among us is not a popular one. Yet, it is significant in that the incident symbolises several forms of hypocrisy. A party that talks constantly about saving the cow did not bat an eyelid when another equally innocent livestock animal was attacked. The BJP also accused the Congress of not giving the mare medical aid. The Congress too, did all it could to horse-trade: using this incident to bluntly attack the BJP with the splintered Uttarakhand assembly as its stage and arena.

Daniel Bilac's Monumento ruína n. 08 / o cavalo. Photo credit: Guto Muniz/Flickr CC 2.0

Those who care nothing for horses or even political horse-trading may still ask: What really is the big deal? It’s just a horse. Shaktiman will remain just a horse if we don’t use this incident to relook the awful state of animal-welfare affairs in India.

Our dusty Prevention of Cruelty Towards Animals Act (1960) charges a person with a princely sum of 50 rupees for beating animals, that too only if the person is convicted. A cup of coffee is usually worth more. Horses with battalions and troops, whether for sport, racing or patrolling are looked after well while on the government’s roster. When in time for retirement after more than a decade of service, they are put down or sold off. If the latter, they are beaten and worked. We need to use the energy generated around Shaktiman to change our animal welfare Act. We need to change the way animals like bomb-sniffer dogs, camels in desert troops and horses used by mounted policemen – all of which provide invaluable services – are treated after their retirement. Some have remarked that Shaktiman is like Chetak, that great beast which was felled in an epic battle leading to the animal’s death but ensured its rider Maharana Pratap’s survival.

The Shaktiman of today seems to be transforming into a gentle myth of tomorrow, but pearly Shaktiman did not want to be a martyr. She did not want to be a one-of-its-kind Indian horse with a uniquely foreign leg. Shaktiman wanted nothing but to live and to gallop. As a victim of dirty, violent politics that shows no signs of reform or change, the fall of Shaktiman seems to mirror our inevitable death of innocence.

This first appeared in The Wire.

Every Dog doesn’t have its Day- on the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act

In India right now, we are in the middle of a dilemma: there is a strong animal rights movement which advocates for the Right To Life of dogs and companion animals; at the same time, dogs and cats are wreaking havoc on wildlife.

Simultaneously, cruelty towards animals is also outraging people more, as is the case of this little brown dog, later called Bhadra, who was videographed being thrown off a roof. By a medical student! A strong protest followed, but our Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) is toothless.

A thin, shivering dog, the colour of light cocoa powder, was recently picked up by a grinning man, and thrown off a roof. The man is reportedly a medical student in Chennai.

The “activity” appears to have been part of planned group leisure – another person, also a student at the same institute, documented this, and the fruit of his labour is a slow-motion video carefully showing the man’s smile, the dog’s scared whimpers, and its thudding fall onto the ground.

The video has enraged people, particularly on social media. Others have come forward and filed a complaint against the men. Kind-hearted people have come forward to foster the injured dog. They have poignantly pointed out that the dog was “still wagging her tail” when they found her.

This follows close on the heels of a man caught on camera, killing puppies in Delhi.

In both instances, a small but enraged (and perhaps, growing?) community has rallied together to snatch justice for the animals and get the perpetrators behind bars.

dogtreatbd_070616040013.jpg
The dog fractured one of her legs after being thrown off a building in Chennai.

In a country where every second news headline is a crime story, news of what is done to a single stray dog, or dead puppies with no lineage or “pedigree” parents, are finally hitting the headlines.

But what will the punishment be for these acts, described as nasty, evil, barbaric, and spineless?

Prepare yourself – if convicted under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (PCA), the accused would be fined 50 rupees. Many are even fined ten rupees.

Yes, you read that right. What do you get for fifty rupees?

A notebook. A pen. A cup of tea (not coffee) at a Café Coffee Day. A couple of packets of cola candy. A single rose stem. A dab of rat poison. Not even a litre of petrol.

So while I am so indebted to all those people who take the time to share news stories, to collect themselves online and rally for “indie” dogs and nameless animals from all corners of our massive country, I urge you: ask for changes in the law.

Also read: How India can pay the perfect tribute to Shaktiman

The Supreme Court has recently asked for upgradation in the PCA Act. This is the right time to form a constituency – not just to shame people who behave in bullying and terrifying ways, but also to ask for common sense in our laws.

People’s outrage towards puppy killers and animal torturers has had many responses. There have been those with schadenfreude, making the jaded argument that there are too many human rights violations for us to care about animals.

This is such a tired and cynical argument that I have stopped responding to it.

Caring about animals does not preclude caring for people. Asking for a better way to treat animals does not mean that activists are misanthropes or wonky in the head.

The second is the more complicated argument that people who call for vigilante or mob justice are wrong – “kill the b*stard” “throw him off the roof”. I want to add to this thought.

People feel the need for vigilante justice, at least in most instances, when other options are exhausted. It’s really important to take this energy and channelise it towards stricter, and, appropriate punishments.

For starters, I would want penalties proportionate to a person’s ability to pay, and punishments for perverse and deliberate cruelty to an animal. A fine is meant to be a deterrent.

Would fifty bucks and a bunch of internet forwards constitute a deterrent? What of the animals who don’t get videographed? What about convictions that never happen because cops don’t consider them important?

One doesn’t even need to ask a friend for fifty bucks.

Even if one is a raving maniac who kills puppies because a relationship didn’t work out with a girl, one can escape shaming by going offline, or one can pay up.

Dear internet, you have come a long way – enough for police to make special search teams to find animal killers, in a country where even people’s lives are cheap. A few years ago, these would not even have been issues.

But please don’t stop. Please take the fight to your members of Parliament, to newspaper columns, to letters to the environment ministry.

No one can ever hope that the stricter laws would stop crime. We can hope though, that when convicted for crime against the voiceless – be it a child, a whimpering animal, a senior citizen – the perpetrator can experience a deterrent that is more than a fifty-rupee joke.

This first appeared in DailyO.

What a single paddy field reveals

The fog was heavy on the stalks of paddy. It hung like wool, spilling outside the horizon. I was in Uttar Pradesh’s badland– Chambal, for a bird fair. But at that moment, I was waiting in a paddy field at dawn, waiting for birds to reveal themselves.

I expected to see Sarus Cranes. And I did. They came stepping daintily into my line of vision, ballerinas seeming like they were holding their skirts up. The light was too poor for any sort of vividity, but the Cranes seemed like they were a very part of the fog, a dream drenched in dew, as everlasting as the horizon.

DSC06330 (2)
A single Sarus Crane picks its way through the fields

But what a surprise! Just a single group of fields reveal so much. Sarus Cranes played hide and seek, in a confident group of three. Some distance away, Open Bill storks foraged. Painted storks and Sarus Crane flew overhead, not far from a Crested Bunting.

DSC06334 (2)
The joy of open skies and horizons.

A crazy nutjob of an animal– a strutting male Blackbuck antelope, ran in joyous circles in the field. Further off, a group of Nilgai stood sedately in repose.

DSC06391 (2)
As dawn lifts, a group of Nilgai are revealed.

All of this breathtaking diversity, in a few fields. Showing us once again how important organic agrarian landscapes are for bird and animal conservation.

Showing us also, how farmers who put up with crop damage are true conservation heroes.

All photos by me.