Chased by people when trapped in fields, run over by trains, or hemmed in by walls – elephants are at the centre of a growing human footprint. Some elephant calves are like children born in conflict zones — insecure, aggressive, and unpredictable.
How elephants became refugees on the outskirts of Bhubhaneswar city
What is happening in Athgarh is happening in many parts of India — creating a situation which is dangerous for both man and animal.
In India, there are elephants we worship. There are elephants we beat for work. There are elephants we ignore. In India, we now also have elephants that are refugees. The calves of these elephants are growing up like children in conflict — confused, unpredictable and scared.
On the outskirts of Bhubhaneswar city, a herd of elephants has become refugees. They left the intensely disturbed Chandaka sanctuary, and tried to move towards other forest patches. However, human activity has now surrounded the elephants. Videos show how people chase the hapless animals, who seem to be only wanting to cross roads and fields.
In a first for Odisha, a campaign, Giant Refugees, has been started to protect the elephants and grant them safe passage. Video documentation shows that in Khuntuni range of Athgarh forest division, people are harassing the herd of elephants for no good reason other than “evening entertainment”, say activists.
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s office has said that the CM cares for elephants, but it remains to be seen what action will be taken.
Surrounded by an ever-expanding human footprint, large animals like elephants are becoming refugees in a land that they once freely occupied.
Meanwhile, two trends are emerging.
Surrounded by an ever-expanding human footprint, large animals like elephants are becoming refugees in a land that they once freely occupied. Estimated to have 2,000 wild elephants, Odisha has a robust pachyderm population. But all of that is under threat.
Apart from poaching and disturbance in sanctuaries, elephants are also getting killed by trains. For instance in 2012, six elephants — almost an entire herd — were mowed down by the Coromandel Express.
While a large population of the national heritage animal still remains in this biodiverse state, one of the biggest ironies is this: elephants are accorded the highest protection for wild animals under the law. While they have some measure of protection in sanctuaries, the same animals are barely protected as they step foot outside these parks. With time, parks are changing — and so are the landscapes around them.
Many herds have already left Chandaka sanctuary, as it has become surrounded on three sides by people and habitation. In the 1960s, tigers went extinct here, followed by the extinction of leopards.
Second, in this setting, non-traditional patterns are emerging. Across India, not only are elephants and other animals becoming refugees, they are also coming together in confusion. Usually, elephants stick to their natal herds. Now, new herds are forming with straggler elephants coming together, with the glue of confusion and bewilderment. In Alur in Karnataka, a major human-elephant conflict hotspot, a similar trend is seen — non-related males and females have come together to form “herds”.
Elephants have complex sociologies and are deeply affected by the fate of their herd members. Usually, herds only have females and young ones. In Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, where several elephants have been repeatedly killed by trains, they have also died in trying to protect their calves from the incoming train carriages, earning the area the dubious distinction of being a “rail graveyard” for elephants. In Africa, studies show that elephants from herds which have witnessed trophy shooting become distraught and unpredictable.
Several elephants have been repeatedly killed by trains.
“I have been observing elephants wandering in Odisha, having left the disturbed Chandaka sanctuary since the early 2000s. Entire herds of elephants have died in the press against people, mining, railways and habitat fragmentation. People say these are “nuisance animals” and “marauding jumbos” but the fact is that most of these elephants just want to have safe passage,” says wildlife conservationist Aditya Panda.
It’s not just elephants. If a refugee is someone who is evicted from its land, and thrown into conflict, it would not be an exaggeration to say that many species are being made refugees: captured and thrown out of habitat owing to poor decision-making and confused ecological initiatives.
Two “conflict” leopards were recently caught and castrated (though castration has no impact on aggression) in Sariska recently. Another leopard, which had no negative encounters with people, was picked up from Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi and sent to an undisclosed location. This leads many to believe that an animal, which is protected by law, and even if passive, is being treated like a thief, a criminal or a terrorist, and also subject to encounter killings.
The solutions are relatively simple, but need political will. And in areas outside protected sanctuaries, the solutions need more than the forest department’s involvement, as animals are being harassed, with objects or torches flung at them, opening the gates to potential fatalities on both sides.
“The state needs to send in policemen to stop crowds from harassing the elephants. As a long-term measure, better connectivity has to be provided between Chandaka and Kapilas sanctuaries and the Satkosia landscape. Prompt compensation needs to be given for crop damage,” says Panda.
The fact is, what is happening in Athgarh is happening in many parts of India — creating a situation which is dangerous for both man and animal. This conflict needs to be addressed on a war footing before more lives are lost. It is estimated that more than 200 people have been injured all over Odisha in conflict with elephants in recent times.
The problem cannot be solved only by chasing elephants away, or provoking them from the apparent safety of a group of people. To give the animals passage, forest corridors, that CM Patnaik said he has identified, need to be notified and conserved.
What Patnaik and the state decides to do now, as the problem escalates sharply each day, will determine the fate of the wild and human citizens of Odisha.
This piece first appeared here.
On Saturday night, a young tiger was killed on a road near Dehradun.
You may think: are there tigers in Dehradun? Where was the tiger going? What were we doing on Saturday night – were we on a road, heading to a party, or on a leafy residential lane, propelling ourselves to a quiet, music-suffused evening at home?
|The tiger, photographed while alive.|
For the more imaginative among us, we could remember tales of animals and beasts that crossed roads in our parent’s time, or the joke about the chicken crossing a road. For others, it may seem odd; after all, how many countries in the world can say a tiger was crossing the road?
|Tiger was later killed by a speeding vehicle.|
There are many aspects that are amazing and diverse about our country. Those who use roads – or hate using them, is one of them.
|The forests near Rajaji, Dehradun, where the tiger was run over and killed.|
There are many among us who think that a set of gleaming, black-topped roads, winding for miles, visible from a plane, is a sure sign that the nation is on the right track, the path to prosperity – literally.
|The ever-widening road which is cutting trees and shrinking cover.|
And yet there are others for whom roads, built for cars – are not such good news. I have met tribal people who prefer cutting through forests than taking a road or a bus trip, because the walk through the forests, leeches et al, is shorter than traversing a dusty, noisy, pushy road.
The National Highway from Delhi, just before Agra, cuts a town in half, with a tall iron fence dividing the area into two. What do people do to cross the road? They run for their lives. Sometimes, they clamber over the forbidding fence in the mid-day northern heat. Sometimes they walk half a kilometre to find a crossing, broken apart forcibly, or at a red-light meant for cars.
In north Delhi’s Yamuna bypass, I often see women hitching up their sarees, sprinting wild-eyed across the road, denied dignity or safety. In Kolkata’s tragic flyover collapse this April which left 24 people dead, one of the most obvious lacuna in the much-delayed project was that the flyover was being made in an old, crumbling part of the city.
There was neither the passage nor the engineering rationale to build this gigantic structure, which was within arm’s length from century-old buildings. The purpose of this flyover, like many other roads, was to serve the car-using, motorised public, to the peril of all that was around this road.
Now coming to wildlife. Wild animals do sometimes use roads. To be more specific, they are forced to use roads, as roads without speed breakers cut through national parks, tiger reserves, reserve forest, and eco-sensitive areas.
As in the case of Kolkata, the roads are built, widened and maintained oblivious to the ecosystem, human or animal, around it. On the Haridwar-Najibabad road, where the tiger was killed on May 8, three leopards also died earlier, after being hit by vehicles.
A Facebook community “Roads to Nowhere” catalogues deaths of various animals on roads across the country. The species and individual animals may surprise you. The documentation of death includes tigers and leopards, known to be sure-footed and otherwise fearsome. Like all cats, indeed, like the metaphoric “deer in the headlights”, tigers freeze when light falls on them. The death toll also includes elephants, who move surely, slowly, and for long migrations, but are unable to escape a speeding truck or car. It includes birds, usually known to fly rather than walk – struck while flying low, or doing takeoff.
|In April, this elephant herd was seen struggling to cross the Palakkad road in Tamil Nadu.|
It includes endemic animals like the Western Ghat’s lion-tailed macaque, which spends its life on trees, occasionally coming on the road to cross over to another forest. It includes tiny butterflies which seek salt from roads, incredulously unaware of a huge vehicle charging forward. It includes ectothermic snakes and amphibians, who come on roads seeking life-giving warmth. Basically, the death toll includes all sorts of wild animals.
As more roads come up on our maps and under our cars, and as forests and wild areas shrink, the deaths will only increase. Are we to continue turning a blind eye to what roads do to those who are not using motorised vehicles?
To stress the point, roads are used by many, and they mean different things for different people – or animals. For a cyclist, a road can be a death trap, if it has no speed breakers and motorised vehicles zip down. For a child, a road can mean looking at the patterns it forms on the ground – a mosaic of cobbles and gravel in one part, a pugdundee in another.
For villagers living close to natural ecosystems, markers and milestones are usually a fruiting tree, a holy Banyan, or a big rock. For many, roads are what is around the road rather than on it: a meeting place, a tea-stall, a place to sit.
Roads take us to places. Roads are memories. A road, a lane, a path, a walkway, is an essential part of man’s existence. Roads join people; they also displace them, as in the case with the Mumbai-Delhi Industrial Corridor. Roads take us to tiger reserves, and they also kill tigers. All over the country, roads are being thoughtlessly widened, slashing down acres of forests, thousands of trees, homes and refuge for birds, animals, and shade for people who use these areas.
Like every Indian, I want India to have good roads. No one should live in poverty and deprivation because there is no road to his home or to a hospital. But roads have to be built according to what is around them. They can’t just be planned in conference rooms and executed in isolation.
We must decide, for instance, to have roads with speed breakers in protected areas and sanctuaries. Here, the purpose is wildlife conservation; speed has to be regulated. In our ever-growing country, these reserves are minority land use; they seem invisible while decisions are being taken.
We must decide how many lanes we need in these areas- are two lanes not enough, going through forests? Do we need six? As car traffic goes up, as it inevitably will, shall we require sixteen lanes one day? We love the Fast and Furious, and every car ad shows a racing car. But what of the slow and guileless; that non-motorised vehicle, that troop of walking villagers, that elephant herd, that once-fearsome tiger?
The time has come to stop our obsession with cars, and build roads that don’t just encourage speed and width, but also suitability.
The road to prosperity is a long one. But prosperity also needs thoughtfulness. We don’t need more dead tigers and imperilled pedestrians to show us that roads need to adapt to those who are forced to use them; not just those who choose to use them.
This first appeared in the DailyO.
Silently, vultures watch us.
Their quiet gaze is cautious.
As we lace their food with diclofenac,
they watch us.
As we race over wild forest wetlands,
they watch us.
They watch, but they don’t judge us.
They expunge and expire, with no fuss.
(Vultures at Pench tiger reserve, photo by me)
What causes a gentle elephant to die on a railway track or go on a ‘rampage’? What stops the tiger from crossing the road?
Little-understood environmental clearances (roads, railways, highways), pigheadedness (making expensive walls elephants can break to keep them in) and an exclusively human-centric approach is increasing human-wildlife conflict throughout India.
Earlier this month, a leopard entered a school in Bangalore, injuring three people who tried to catch it. A few days later, an elephant tore through Siliguri town, breaking walls and smashing vehicles. Both incidents involve animals creating havoc where it was least expected: in places where people lived. And headlines suggest that we are in the deep throes of a human-wildlife conflict that consistently puts human lives at stake.
Other animal encounters are imperilling people’s livelihoods as well. For instance, in high-altitude villages in Ladakh and Spiti, snow leopards eat people’s livestock while posing no threats to the people themselves. “The snow leopard has eaten my donkeys which are crucial for my income,” says Nyamgal Lobsang, a villager who lives in Rumbak village in Ladakh’s Hemis National Park.
And the last few months have seen many moves by the government to declare species that impact livelihood as vermin: the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has asked states to report on which animals should be declared as such and culled. Many states have also named wild boars as pests; the state of Goa is considering declaring these animals as well as peacocks as vermin. In several instances, leopards, elephants and tigers have been forcibly caught and relocated away from places of conflict.
The clashes are rampant and often serious. Studies by Barua et al (2012) suggest that such interactions with wildlife entail direct financial losses as well as hidden costs, including the toll of fear, lack of social standing, loss of sleep, missed school attendance, and so forth. When Lobsang first lost his donkey, for instance, he recalls his utter frustration at not knowing whom to blame.
So, is successful conservation and the persistence of species leading to more conflict with people? “Certainly,” says Qamar Qureshi from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous institution under the MoEF&CC that works on wildlife research and management. “But the fundamental problem is not an increase in species numbers but the fact that we still do not have any policies to deal with animals outside protected areas,” he says. “We do not think about their dispersal, or the wider landscape. We manage protected areas and forget about the animal once it leaves the sanctuary.”
The human dimensions of conflicts
The Kanha-Pench corridor in Madhya Pradesh is a good example. It serves as a hub between the Kanha, Pench, Satpura and Bor reserves. WII released a report on tiger corridors and detailed those used by tigers to move between these reserves, calling for their especial protection. But a proposal for widening National Highway 7, which bifurcates this area, has been cleared by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the MoEF&CC without even acknowledging the presence of tigers. Specifically, the FAC report says “no tigers” were found in the project area.
The ‘human’ in ‘human-wildlife conflicts’ suggests that many drivers of conflicts are the result of poor management, misguided clearance decisions and apathy. One of the worst recorded conflicts between elephants and people occurred in the Alur area of Karnataka, where a herd of elephants killed several people in July 2014 and ate their crops. Genetic analyses of their droppings suggested that the animals were a non-traditional herd, with many of its individuals unrelated among themselves. The inference was that non-related females and males had colonised the herd and that the herd itself was created under high conflict situations. Following the deaths, twenty-three of these elephants were caught and relocated. Was the problem solved?
Far from it. “After the elephants were taken away, there is still loss of crops by other elephants. We look at the elephants as the problem and consider that taking away the elephants will solve the problem,” says T.R. Shankar Raman, a scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). But instead, we may be creating more problems. “The elephants that are there now have not killed people. So, the area is no more under the scanner. But what have we left the local people with?” he asks. “Who will address the other dimensions and reasons for conflict?”
If we looked beyond the allegedly offending animals, there lie other factors determining the context of people’s encounters with the animals. For example, the people in Alur had asked for better lighting and school buses to transport their children; a casual night-time stroll is capable of surprising both humans and elephants. But none of these demands have been met.
Apart from conflicts involving one side having gone ‘rogue’, the data suggests that there are hotspots that are spatially specific as well. Numbers put together by the Wildlife Protection Society of India, an NGO, on animal mortality as a result of collisions with trains showed that between 2011 and 2015, tigers, bisons, elephants and nilgai, and even birds like vultures, were killed. Topping the list were elephants. In 2011, trains had mowed down 13 elephants; and then 20 in 2012; 29 in 2013; six in 2014; and 11 in 2015. However, a majority of these deaths were on a single railway line: the Jalpaiguri broad-gauge. There are reports that 48 elephants have died on this line alone since 2004.
Trying to dismiss the problem
The behavioural ecology of the elephant is such that it needs to be able to move to its sources of water and food. And because of their tendency to move around in herds, more than one elephant is injured or killed in accidents. And as highways and railway tracks fragment habitats, herds are also trapped within pockets.
In Odisha, a herd of elephants is currently trapped between the Chandaka and the Kapilash wildlife sanctuaries. The elephants started venturing out of Chandaka in 2002, but the corridors since then have been eaten away by roads and factories, leaving the elephants with no means of reaching Kapilash. Meanwhile, authorities started the construction of sturdy stone walls around the same time to prevent the animals from leaving. One such wall on the northern side has actually prevented Athgarh’s stranded elephants from returning into the sanctuary. Only this year, with parts of it broken, have they managed to return temporarily.
The problem once again lies with treating the symptoms and not the disease itself.
“Watchers have been employed to chase the elephants when they come too close. The forest department appears to have decided that Chandaka should not have elephants again,” remarks Aditya Panda, an Odisha-based conservationist. “The real solution is habitat restoration but this is unglamorous and no one wants to do this. Thus, chasing off elephants temporarily is paraded as a solution. Here, a sanctuary, protected on paper by law, is being lost to apathy. In other places where government wilfully diverts wildlife habitat, what does one do there?” he asks.
The reason the elephants left Chandaka in the first place was human disturbance. “Chandaka was encroached by five villages from northern Odisha. Till 2002, there were about 85 elephants. By 2006, all but 15-20 were left. The herds have dispersed to other parts of the state that are inhospitable. Many have perished.” And those that have survived are now refugees repeatedly coming in conflict with humans. Additionally, according to Panda, the calves born into such herds have a higher chance of growing up like children do in war-zones: confused, traumatised, and likelier to participate in future conflicts.
Operating in denial
A closer look at the way environmental clearances are granted shows that the impacts of projects on wildlife have been consistently ignored. Despite the Jalpaiguri elephant deaths, the Sevoke Rangpo line, to be laid in the same area, was cleared in 2015. It will cut through the Chapramari-Kalimpong-Mahananda elephant corridor. Clearance for coal mining in the Parsa Kante-Basan coal blocks in Chhattisgarh, densely populated by elephants, was also given by the MoEF&CC, with no mention of mitigation strategies for elephants (but was struck down by the National Green Tribunal in 2014). While authorities refused to accept the presence of elephants in the area, it was eventually established by examining records of compensations provided in the aftermath of human-elephant conflicts. “Under the Environment Impact Assessment process, even studies done by institutes of repute, wildlife is just not considered,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta. “If a wildlife sanctuary is involved, then the animal will be mentioned. Otherwise, in most cases, there is complete denial of the animal even being near the project site.”
Simply put, denying the existence of a potentially dangerous animal leads to conflict, even if solutions exist and have been mooted. In 2010, the report of an Elephant Task Force was submitted, while a background paper for the National Board for Wildlife was submitted in 2011. Both recommend that trains should slow down while passing through known animal corridors and that sensors should be installed. These recommendations have not been implemented – and elephants continue to lose their lives in these areas, hit by trains. In Jalpaiguri, seven elephants were killed by a train travelling at 80 kilometres per hour in 2013, following a similar incident two years prior.
An important issue that causes humans and animals to become proximate to each other is food – rather, its availability and sources. Garbage attracts animals and is a determinant in conflict. The dog population has exploded due to more garbage. Leopards (and even tigers) have been known to eat dogs that forage on garbage. So, to prevent leopards from coming into cities, garbage has to be managed better. A collaborative project around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Maharashtra educates people on how to avoid leopards and what to do if the cats are indeed encountered; this includes keeping dogs well protected, decreasing open garbage dumps and not crowding around the animals.
In our environmental decision-making landscape, there are various technicalities related to environmental indicators but no proper wildlife impact assessments. “We keep encountering EIAs that do not mention species. Instead of pretending there are no animals in the landscape, let us start by acknowledging their presence,” says Dutta. “We need to create staging areas where animals can safely cross railway lines, highways, etc. And we need to look at the landscape and how it is used in its totality.”
Something for the people
Another important aspect is focusing on the problems that people have. “Different state governments want to cull wild boars and other animals that may be declared vermin. In Uttarakhand, they may kill the boars for a year, but then what?” questions Vidya Athreya, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society of India. “The focus is on the animal when it should be on the people – we have to develop proactive methods of preventing livestock loss and crop loss using traditional knowledge and new technology.”
People also suffer due to other synergistic factors, sometimes dubbed ‘human-human conflicts’. In Rumbak, a village in the Leh tehsil of Jammu and Kashmir, for example, the issue of donkeys being occasionally killed by snow leopards exacerbates the already hard life of the villagers, which includes battling the elements and cultivating stony, hard soil for the barley grown in the area. By way of compensating for snow-leopard kills, an NGO called the Snow Leopard Conservancy set up an eco-tourism initiative in the village from 2003 (and which the forest department took over in 2008). The department extended help by providing solar panels, popularising the initiative in the area and by setting up home-stays. After first getting off to a rocky start, villagers like Lobsang recognised that the efforts were to offset the losses in livestock. The initiative seeks to address people’s aspirations and not just incidents of conflict. “The animal will still eat my donkeys,” he says. “But tourists come to see the snow leopard.” Lobsang now makes some extra money through home-stays and leasing out his donkeys to tourists for carrying provisions.
As more natural habitats get usurped by human activity, conflict is likely to increase. The ‘Make in India’ programme will be creating hundreds of kilometres of highways and roads in addition to those already stumbling through reserves and sanctuaries – so it’s only fair that wildlife impact assessments should be done at least in biologically rich areas, a longstanding demand by conservationists.
This piece first appeared in The Wire.
While the last post looks at how religion, in part, protects wildlife– even crop-damaging species like Nilgai– this is not a simple issue.
This piece looks at various moves to use, and abuse, animals in rituals in India. Should religion and custom be part of state-sponsored decision-making?
The overarching sense is that it is religious practice and use, rather than ecology, science or animal cognition, that is the shining light for subliminal but broad changes in our environmental policies.
Earlier this year, the central government issued a notification that lifted a ban on jallikattu, an ancient bull-taming sport that’s been embroiled in controversy over animal cruelty charges. As a practising wildlife conservationist, I appealed for a rethink on this feudal practice, arguing that baiting a peaceable animal was cruel. I was promptly hectored on social media with a barrage of questions. Twitter users, many of whom had no names or no profile pictures, declared I was against “Hindu religion and custom”. I was also asked what my views on Bakr Id were. Then, I was asked if I supported the beef ban.
My idea was to reflect on the jallikattu sport as cruel in and of itself, divorced from whichever community it originated from. The purpose was not to shame a community but to etch out the non-political, non-human animal as being helpless. The unwitting animal in this case was the very anathema to politics, class, culture or the galvanisation of an organised event. But a green animal-rights issue suddenly seemed to have become painted saffron.
Eating beef and what one feels about Muslim festivals is not analogous to what one feels about jallikattu. When I said I would only focus on the issue at hand, I was accused of practicing ‘selective outrage’ and being ‘sickular’. I could speak about animals only if I would say that I would protect cows and denigrate beef-eating. As a Hindu, I was repeatedly asked if I practise vegetarianism, depicted as akin to holding a conservation science degree – my final qualifier for speaking for animals.
This is simply one in many episodes in the construction of what is Hindu and what is not, when faced by questions to do with animals, environment and wildlife. Conservation biology teaches us to focus only on issues that are researched and known but the ‘bhakts’ will have us know that it’s all about cows.
There is an interesting ‘adarsh liberal’ poster doing the rounds. I haven’t been able to find its origins but I don’t think it’s a satire either; it mirrors much of what environmentalists hear as criticism today.
Two things are happening here. First, when environmentalists critique the religious or cultural agenda, they are descried as unworthy, foreign-funded or anti-Hindu – even should they be dealing with agnostic subjects such as ecology or animal behaviour, concerning a dying river, a hissing cobra or a placid bull. While religion has contributed to conservation, it does not follow that each animal or environment-related issue is a question of religious or communal identity.
Second, the distinction between culture and religion has collapsed. Criticisms of the World Culture Festival held on Delhi’s flood plains earlier this month were buoyed with the mass respectability religion and spirituality bring. Criticism on social media around jallikattu focused on activists being anti-Hindu, even though jallikattu is a community-led event rather than a flagship for Hindu customs.
A lot has been uncovered about trolls loving abuse and hating debate. It is established that they revel in group bullying, showing signs of psychopathy. But to what extent will this mentality inform conservation planning and future choices?The Art of living sponsored World Culture Festival is an interesting case in point. The Art of Living was the principal host of the World Culture Festival. Per court orders, construction on the flood plains is not permitted. The festival, which brought in lakhs of visitors, flattened the plains, concretised it in places, removed reed beds and set up a huge complex. The National Green Tribunal found that the permissions for this event were illegal.
With the existence of an NGT order barring constructions on the floodplain, this was akin to throwing a bash on the Moon, in precisely those areas which are no-go. On social media and other campaign platforms, Art of Living volunteers buried their heads in metaphoric river-sand, denying the very photographs that proved the rampage, and hectoring all those who said otherwise. Others inverted all criticism into an anti-Hindu activity. If secularism is the separation of the state and religion, then this was the Art of Living event appeared to have the blessing of both the state and soft Hindutva, backed by Delhi and the central government.
“I’ve worked for the Yamuna for years. We were simply saying that Yamuna is a dying river and does not need this sort of blow to the floodplain, which recharges the river and Delhi’s water table,” says Vimlendu Jha, an activist who was lobbying for the festival to be shifted away from the floodplains. “The festival bulldozed the flood plain and was actually against the sanctity of the river.” Instead, he and other activists were threatened. “Never before has my environmental activism been viewed as a bad thing. But now, not only do I have trolls coming after me, but also middle class gentry. I was threatened with my life, and people came to my office to intimidate us. On TV shows, I was called anti-national by a BJP spokesperson. It seems if you argue, you are bad. Supporting the river over a music festival is anti-national,” he says.
Interestingly, while AOL did not once accept the damage they caused, they inverted the incident to claim they wouldrestore the floodplain. The sanctimonious spirituality on display involved usurping the area and then declaring it would be saved – the classic, pay, pollute, repeat that has been the fate of the Yamuna’s banks since the time of the Commonwealth Games. Only, this time, it came backed with state silence and the gleaming badge of religious colonisation and respectability, according to activists.
In the past, environmentalists have been blamed as obstructionist and anti-development. Legal environmental clearance processes have been described as green terrorism because questions of sustainable development and conservation do not always go hand in hand with polluting industrial expansion. But many environmentalists feel being called anti-cultural and anti-Hindu is new. “I appealed to people not to use glass-coated manja (kite-string) on Makar Sankranti as this leads to the death and injury of thousands of birds,” says wildlife conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra. “Immediately I was told that I was against Hindu culture. Then, I was told that I raise objections to anything that is Hindu. The environment is important to all of us. Giving this a religious spin is bizarre – and bad for the cause,” she says. It doesn’t end there. “I am asked next what I have done for cows.”
Another environmental activist adds, “If anything critical of the ruling government is said, you are immediately classed as anti-Hindu, anti-national and a ‘Congressi’. There is a mob constantly on the watch, on every possible platform, waiting to attack you. What is most disturbing is that this sort of extreme right nationalism seems to have affected even that class of people who were once believed to be well educated, well-travelled, broad minded, forward thinking and above religion.”
Social media, of course, is not the real world. But there are indications that the government is interested in colonising secular animals as religious subjects, or as cogs in customs which have loud lobbyists. For instance, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is mulling changing the Wildlife Protection Act and wildlife policy to allow the hunting of animals for “religion and culture”. At the forefront of this wishlist are customs such as Nag Panchami, in which cobras and other snakes are illegally caught to be worshipped. The practice almost always leads to complete mortality as snakes are averse to human handling; their mouths are usually stitched with needle thread and on capture. Interestingly, allowing for the capture of cobras and snakes for Nag Panchami, a longstanding demand from Hindu groups, also found its way in the recommendations of the T.S.R. Subramaniam committee report, which was tasked with suggesting amendments to five Indian environmental laws.
That cobras and religious hunting found mention along with far-reaching, big-picture recommendations, such as environmental clearances and penalties for environment damage, gave an insight into favoured policy aspirations. The overarching sense is that it is religious practice and use, rather than ecology, science or animal cognition, that is the shining light for these subliminal but broad changes.
As a result of this bent towards appropriating animals for culture and religion, we may also be seeing a new hierarchy emerging for animals. For instance, Haryana is mulling changing the word ‘nilgai’ (the blue antelope) to encourage hunting of this crop-raiding animal – while simultaneously absolving any guilt connected to killing a ‘gai’ (which literally means cow). The nation has shown that people have several ways of being fractured and polarised, but are we moving towards a fractured protection of animals? Will animals be placed in hierarchies informed by their role in religion, spirituality and custom, and discarded if not? Perversely though, an animal’s participation in religion is not directly proportionate to it being treated well.
This first appeared in The Wire.