A Bird, a Dam, and a Belief.

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

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

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

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

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

BNC
Black-necked Cranes at the project site

Case against the project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BNC with juvenile

Wonders of nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

BNC with local

This first appeared in The Hindu.

Photos Courtesy: Save Mon Federation

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Endemic birds you must know about!

If you were to describe native things about India, you could talk about the particular texture of hand-pounded coconut chutney, the inky vegetable dye splash of kalamkari, art deco buildings merging with Mughal style domes which merge with glass-fronted malls. You may speak of food, fabric, folklore, festivals.

To this, I will add: what makes India a very particular and special place is endemism in wildlife. We have over 100 bird species found only in India, and more than another 100 that are native to South Asia.

Species evolve differently owing in part to unique landscapes – for instance, the Palghat gap, a valley in the Western Ghats, has helped create endemic species like Sholicola Ashambuensis, a Shortwing bird. The small but ecologically significant Thar desert holds a breeding population of the Great Indian Bustard, a large bird found only in the Indian subcontinent – and now believed to be found only in India.

The remoteness of the Andaman and Nicobar islands have created birds that are very much Andaman and Nicobar versions. Endemics include Andaman wood-pigeon, Andaman Woodpecker, Andaman Bulbul, Nicobar Pigeon, Nicobar Bulbul, Nicobar Sparrowhawk, and many more.

Today (May 5) is Endemic Bird day. Here are six endemics you must know about:

The Indian Peafowl

It’s nice to find a total showstopper, looking like it has a hundred eyes on its tail, dancing in forests and also sitting on a roadside tree in the National Capital. In times of political turmoil, diminishing species, and conflict between communities, one national symbol still remains national in range and occurrence.

peacocksemal-2_050518020032.jpgThe Indian peafowl [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The Indian peafowl, a South Asia endemic, is not a bird shy of drama. Greek myth says the peacock was a watchman for Hera – with a hundred eyes on its tail. This bird doesn’t just shine, it glitters.

The tail of the peacock is effortlessly glamorous, and its dancing to attract females is the stuff of lore. It also manages to strut its stuff in the oddest, most protocol-ridden places. There was a peafowl nest in India International Centre, which the staff nurtured, rather than destroyed. There are peacocks at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

peacocksemal17mar_050518020102.jpgA peacock with its effortlessly glamorous tail. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

There are peafowl in crop fields and near old monuments. But we don’t know how many peafowl we have in India, and we should start counting, because peafowl regularly die in crop fields after pesticide poisoning. Peafowl is also being poached.

peacock-wooing-1_050518020126.jpgPeacock trying to woo potential mates [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The Great Indian Bustard

The thing about a species being named after India is that you expect to be able to see this bird. Sadly, for the GIB, its magnificence has not granted it protection. Found in Thar desert, scrub land, grassland and crop fields, the GIB is close to extinction, a death by a thousand cuts. At the time that India became independent, the GIB was found in a range of states – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and others. Today, the only significant populations are in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

The bird has lost out on habitat – farmlands are laced with poison, and skies are full of wires, and grasslands are taken over. This large, heavy bird collides with wires and dies instantly, with wires being a new, urgent threat.

Upcoming solar farms and intensifying lattice of transmission wires in the Thar desert and the Kutch area have killed several GIB in the recent past. India may be the last country on earth to hold the GIB – some were found in Pakistan, but their status now is unknown. It would be a chronicle of a death foretold if this critically endangered species, down a global population of a paltry 150 birds, went extinct.

There are plans for captive breeding, and stopping habitat loss. While the plans continue to get made, the bird is in shock – and disappearing because of it.

Indian Pitta

Native to South Asia, the Indian Pitta is a truly beautiful bird. “Pitta” doesn’t describe the bird the way its Hindi moniker, “navrang”, does. This forest bird has nine colours, and a presence that ricochets through the forest. It likes a thick understory, and has a distinctive, sweet, two-note whistling call. Usually, you won’t find the Pitta in open areas. The bird is also a marker for good forest cover, and with forests getting diverted everyday, you won’t find it in every forest.

indian-pitta_050518020145.jpg

indian-pitta-2-1_050518020159.jpgIndian Pitta, a bird many may never have heard of. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The colours of the pitta are emblematic of the kind of hues associated with India – a deep yellow, a flaming orange, turquoise, emerald green – bold, unapologetic colours, the sort you’d find on the houses of village walls, and saree pallus. The Pitta calls with its head up towards the sky, often together or in pairs, charming the woods with sweet music.

Green Avadavat

You may never have heard of this little bird. If you see it though, you won’t forget it. The Green Avadavat is in big trouble, partly because it is good-looking. It has a crayon-red, perfectly triangular beak, zebra like stripes on its flanks, a green upper body, and a yellow lower body. The bird is a part of the illegal cage trade, which has pushed this bird to being listed as a species vulnerable to extinction. This is a shame, because this bird breeds only in India, and is a true Indian endemic.

It lives in scrubland and grassland, which development projects also like. The future of the bird lies in India and we must hasten to protect it, before desire wipes it out. A caged avadavat will not sing, and does not have much of a future.

Nicobar Megapode and Narcondam Hornbill

Of the many island endemics, there are two every Indian should know of, chiefly because ill-conceived plans threaten their existence.  The Narcondam Hornbill is found only on the tiny, wind-swept island of Narcondam in the Andaman sea. This island is all of 7sqkm. The bird has nowhere to go, and no other place to hide. The government has given permission to make a radar station and a power station on Narcondam island.

If construction does happen, this further imperils the bird, already facing the threat of invasive species like rats and goats, which have been introduced by policemen residing on the island. The Nicobar Megapode is considered related to the chicken. It has a major breeding population on Tillanchong island. Here, of all things, the government is making a missile firing station. One can hardly think of a more negligent way to deal with birds that India calls its own. As this headline says, the government has put bombs before birds.

India’s locales, mountains, islands, shrubs and forest have contributed, painstakingly, century after century, feather by feather, to create these species.

Let’s be mindful, let’s be proud. Let’s learn our endemic names. And let’s learn to protect them.

This first appeared in my DailyO column. 

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/

 

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