Why Indian Forest Rest Houses need Preservation

We were walking in the forest, steadily, over fallen bamboo leaves. Ahead of us were more clumps of bamboo, standing out from passages of resplendent, luminous Sal forests. All of a sudden, there was a cry from one of the group members. We ground to a halt. The bamboo clump right ahead looked scattered, like the nucleus of a flower turned inside out, a painting made by a crazed artist.

Unmistakably, these were signs of presence of elephant — elephants had foraged through the bamboo, leaving it in chaotic bits and pieces. The air was cold, like cut diamond, pure and clear. But the tension in our group was thick, settling heavily around us. The guards with me were grasping their lathis a little tighter, eyes shining bright, mouths set in hard lines. I knew though that it was not elephants they feared. It was perhaps the hint of Naxals, who had burnt parts of the Maromar rest house buildings in their rebellion against the state.

karmajhiri-day_070918125249.jpgKamajhiri, an old, terracotta-roofed forest rest house in Pench Tiger Reserve. 

As we approached the rest house, with its scorched tree house and singed trees, the sight of the main building took away my breath. This rest house in Jharkhand’s Palamau tiger reserve, built before Independence, had survived the human hand. It was quaint, impeccable and the sort of colonial design one doesn’t get to see much anymore. High ceilings, white walls, funny handles.

Somehow this place had survived efforts at plywood-and-glass modernisation. It had also survived the approaching forest. It had endured and it deserved honour.

***

Karmajhiri Night

Karmajhiri Forest Rest House by night.

While forest rest houses (FRHs) across the country are stunningly beautiful — relicts of a forgotten, and climate friendly architecture — they have also been at the centre of struggle. Meant primarily for the forest department to survey or inspect forest, these grand old buildings have been eyed by other departments, who have often assumed control.

There have been proposals to commercialise these places through public-private partnerships. And many buildings have been modified in ways that do no justice to their heritage. Old, heavy furniture has disappeared or is kept without care, replaced by cheap, shiny new things. A rash of modern tiles cover old surfaces, and mirrors with glittering panels and golden-brown polyester curtains hang like invasive aliens in these solemn old spaces.

The climate-friendly lessons the buildings hold, almost a century before the advent of air-conditioning, have dissipated. Ventilating windows have been boarded, the lessons of high ceilings forgotten.

A new judgment by the Supreme Court, announced last week, comes as a breath of restorative air. The apex court has said that forest rest houses need to be under operational control of the forest department, and none other.

The judgment also says:

“The Forest Department should make every effort to retain the basic plan and elevation of old FRHs/IBs [inspection bungalows] many of which are heritage buildings, while making improvement/addition to these buildings. We expect these guidelines to prevent the misuse of Forest Rest Houses/Inspection Bungalows…”

This summer, I was in Karmajhiri, an old, terracotta-roofed forest rest house in Pench tiger reserve, Madhya Pradesh. We had just come back from the forest. The air was golden, sizzling at 44 degrees Celsius. The only respite from the overpowering heat was a shower of cicada rain. Cicadas give out a liquid that will fall on your face as you pass by. In the central Indian heat, when things take on a mirage-like quality, you’d even take what comes out of an insect, if it helps cool you down. In the deciduous forest, largely leafless in the beginning of summer, I saw langur monkeys hugging trees, gathered tightly in the little strip of shade afforded by the trunk.

The whole forest was holding its breath and waiting for the monsoon.

fireplace-rukkhad_070918125327.jpgThe fireplace in Rukkhad forest rest house. The thick-walled building is cool in summers while the dining room is warm in winters. 

As I reached the Karmajhiri FRH, the verandah’s shade felt like a soothing balm to my inflamed, sunburnt limbs. Old FRHs are often built to have deep verandahs that encircle the entire building, offering relief from both scorching heat and slashing monsoon rain. And as I entered the room, the heat seemed to dissolve away. The high ceiling of the building and its little, unreachable ventilating windows were custom-made for the unforgiving summer. As the hot air rose, it dissipated through the windows just below the ceilings.

At the very centre of the building was the dining room, equipped with a fireplace. The thick-walled building is cool in summers, the dining room warm in winters. In sharp contrast was a new dining space next to the old forest rest house — a modern construction with low ceilings, flimsy doorways, as hot as any other building in the fury of central Indian heat.

A step in to these old FRH or inspection bungalows — be it Rukkhad in Madhya Pradesh, Pench in Maharashtra, Corbett in Uttarakhand, Northern West Bengal, or IBs in the Himalayas — feels like a step back in time. These are preserved parcels of history, gift-wrapped in memories a natural historian or an aesthete would love. And I am not suggesting these need to remain part of an anachronistic or disused past.

dining-room-rukkhad_070918125845.jpgThe dining space in Rukkhad forest rest house. 

There should be an exciting future for these buildings — a centre for meetings on conservation science, inspections and monitoring, and an abode for modern conservation researchers. Restoration has to be careful and meaningful, and the buildings should be used for what they are meant — a study of the forest.

The melding together of conservation science, architectural history and a dynamic forest is precious. When I think of — and go through — heat and pollution islands in cities, my mind goes back to the thick walls, mosquito-netted four-poster beds, and high ceilings of Karmajhiri.

From the past is a lesson for a climate-adapted future, which no number of modern steel and glass buildings can erase.

This first appeared in my column for DailyO, here.

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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

Flamebacks Forever!

The heat is killing, and you are convinced all the wild animals are sleeping in the forest. Then, like the beat of a little drum, like the sound of a very precise hammer on a very particular nail, you hear it.

Tak, tak, tak, takk..

Golden flameback 1.jpg

A doctor chiseling away at a tree, a sculptor, an artist. Flamebacks are woodpeckers who weave holes in trees to prise off insects. I say weave, as they often leave patterns on the wood. They start from the bottom and make their way up, in spirals.

Like a golden gyre, which you can see only if you are quick enough, conscious enough, of the ways of Treeland.

Golden Flameback.jpg
Flameback on a mature tree. Pench.

And sometimes, very rarely, you will find a woodpecker on the forest floor!

Flameback Forest Floor crop.jpg

Indian Draft Forest Policy should involve people in forest documentation

A register by the people

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Leopard in Pench forest. Photo by me.

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

 Neha Sinha

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

Growing and losing forests

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

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

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

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

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

DSCN4889
Sanjay Van.

Decentralisation

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

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

This first appeared here.

World Tiger Day: How Roads are Killing Tigers

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?

screenshot_2016-05-1_051016030733.jpeg
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?

screenshot_2016-05-1_051016030816.jpeg
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.

screenshot_2016-05-1_051016031004.jpeg
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.

screenshot_2016-05-1_051016030934.jpeg
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.

Also read – Tiger is not the only animal that needs saving

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.

Also read – What I discovered filming penguins in Antarctic’s icy wilderness

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.

Also read – When wild elephants go on rampage and viral

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.

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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.

Also read – India is not a Republic for all species

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?

Nearly every *katte* in south India is built under a ficus. Birds & squirrels confer above, people confer below.

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.

We could have highways that connect not just cities but citizens. It is a choice we can make, like everything else.

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.

Also read – Why does nobody talk about intolerance towards wild animals?

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.

Also read – Inky the Octopus’ prison break reveals it’s smarter than you think

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.

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