Announcing “Ear To The Ground”

How is India doing?
It’s hard to say. While some of the major changes underway in the country are extremely visible, others, less dramatic or occurring away from the media’s usual hunting grounds, are more difficult to detect. Between them, we have an incomplete understanding of India as it is today.
The fallout is predictable. We live in a balkanised democracy whose people are poorly aware about the lives of their fellow citizens. The country keeps throwing up surprises ‒ the recent lynching in Dimapur, unexpected election outcomes as in Delhi, a strident new religiosity. It’s getting more difficult to comprehend where we are headed…

i am uploading this post late. my first story for scroll’s field reporting series, called “ear to the ground”, appeared on the 19th. that day, i was in central mizoram — in its lunglei district with dim connectivity. the next day, i travelled further south for another 7 hours and ended up in saiha, one of the three autonomous district councils in mizoram. this evening, as i type this post out belatedly, i am in lawngtlai.

these are all parts of the country i have never seen before. and so many of the issues i am encountering are ones i have never written on earlier. like this first story on dampa.

The park is overrun by assorted gunmen, from local hunters to armed insurgents. A senior forest official in Mizoram’s forest department estimates that, given Dampa’s location, abutting Mizoram’s border with Bangladesh and Tripura, the reserve is used by as many as 12 separatist groups variously to enter or leave India.Key among them are splinter groups of the Shanti Bahini, which is fighting for Chakma autonomy in Bangladesh, and the National Liberation Front of Tripura, which wants to establish the state as an independent Christian nation.
In recent years, the NLFT has carried out a set of kidnappings in and around Dampa. The most recent took place in February, when NLFT insurgents, working with the Bru Democratic Front of Mizoram, kidnapped 22 workers of the Border Roads Organisation near Dampa. While the Mizos were released the same day, two non-Mizos were taken hostage. Unconfirmed reports suggest they were eventually allowed to go, but only after ransom payments were made.
Armed insurgents, however, aren’t the only threat to the park. Dampa exemplifies the complexities of wildlife conservation in the North East, a region where not just animals, even people are caught in the throes of upheaval.

ps: have spent close to a month in mizoram. one month more to go. it is a daunting thought. time goes by so quickly. and there is so much yet to understand.

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field-tripping in india…

the last few weeks have seen a lot of travel. gujarat. before that, chhattisgarh. and before that, kerala. and i will soon be in andhra and maharashtra. am uploading some snaps from some of the places i have visited. in the weeks and months ahead, i need to travel more, spend more time in the field, and do a better job of reporting on the processes underway in india than i have done till now.

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taken at a village on the road between chintalnaar and dornapaal in naxalism-affected sukma district, chhattisgarh. villagers wait for the last jeep of the evening heading back to dornapaal.

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the veneer of normalcy during an abnormal time. a boy washes clothes at a well in a village both naxals and security forces lay claim to

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more of the same. children from the same village. they were shy at first. but after i showed them the first photo i took of them, they became quite happy to stand and be photographed.

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collateral damage as two worldviews collide. a primary school blown up by naxals in bhairamgarh, on the way to bijapur.

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a big farmer forced by naxals to leave his village. he now lives in a new village with little more than this small kirana shack to support him. halfway through our chat, he broke down talking about his life in his earlier village.

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i come back to delhi after this draining trip to chhattisgarh. and soon enough, in the isolation chamber of the capital, the names and faces and stories and urgency of events underway in india’s hinterland begin to fade. this photo was taken at a now emptying salwa judum camp between sukma and konta. i have to look up my notes to recall its name — errabore.

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this slum? this is where fishermen near kandla port, gujarat, live.

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life next to the economic engine that is india’s second largest port.

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and more…

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and more…

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and a village near mundra. a lazy photo taken through the cab’s windscreen.

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and then, there are the odd moments of reprieve. a fascinating book. or occassional glimpses of the sublime. here, rock carvings at edakkal caves, wayanad, kerala.

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in a bus heading from kochi to wayanad. the best way to while away time in this biodiversity-squelching country of ours is to sit in a state transport bus and watch the land go by.

three and a half years have gone by at the economic times. and i am slowly realising just how unequal my work is before the processes at work.

see it like this. a while ago, i had reproduced an excerpt from a graphic novel on berlin where the narrator, a journalist, says this about journalism.

I imagine the daily output of the entire newspaper district. It makes me think of drowning, but I want to be able to see it another way. Instead: human history as a great river, finding its course along the lowest points in the landscape, and each page as a stone. Tossed in without purpose, just to see the splash, thousands of them might raise the water level until it escapes the confines of the riverbed. The water spreads out, the force of the river diminishes, before long, a marsh. But if each stone is placed carefully and with purpose, perhaps something can be built. Not to dam the current, but to divert its course.

it is a good way of looking at journalism. but of late, after writing on coal and whatnot, another river-based analogy comes to my mind. if human history is a river, all we reporters do is shine a light on a part of this river for some time. but, given the plethora of things to write about and the velocity of the river itself, in some time, the spotlight of the media attention inevitably moves away to examine other parts of the river. which means the previous set of issues being covered again slip back into obscurity. also, what the spotlight picks out, most of the time, is the stuff visible on the surface. deeper processes underway in the belly of the river escape our notice.

imperfect process, journalism.

this planet bleeds biodiversity

This year, I have read a few books about species going extinct. Sam Turvey’s Witness to Extinction about the collapse of the Yangtze River Dolphin. Anne LaBastille’s Mama Poc about the end of the Guatamalan Giant Grebe. And George Schaller’s The Last Panda. An angry look at chinese and global efforts to save the Giant Panda. All of that coalesced into this little opinion piece.

Have you heard of the Yangtze River Dolphin? For the longest time, it used to be found along 1,700 kilometres of the middle and lower reaches of the mighty Chinese river. The Baiji, as it is known, was white finned, a little over two metres long, had poor eyesight and relied mainly on sonar for navigation. A few decades ago, as populations along the river grew, as shipping traffic rose, as more and more dams fragmenting the Baiji’s habitat came up, as fishing by increasingly impoverished Chinese intensified, Baiji numbers began to crash.

In late 2006, after an expedition failed to spot any Baiji in the river, it was declared “functionally extinct”. It was the first aquatic mammal to go extinct since the Japanese Sea Lion and the Caribbean Monk Seal in the 1950s. And it was the first Cetacean (whale) species in recorded human history to go extinct.

And, then, I argue that current modes of conservation are not working. And that perhaps what the earth needs is a independent watchdog for biodiversity, on the lines of Amnesty, that names and shames errant governments.

How does one fix this? And fast? In The Last Panda, his angry denunciation of Giant Panda conservation efforts by WWF and China, Schaller ends by wondering if we need a body that fights for biodiversity the way Amnesty fights for human rights. It’s an intriguing thought. An independent body that lobbies for biodiversity, and names and shames countries callous towards their biota, could (even partly) ensure that the interests of these species are factored in by policy makers.

This really is something that mankind needs to sort out fast. All species have as much of a claim to the planet as humans do. What is underway right now is nothing short of a genocide. With humans pushing other species off the planet.

Chickenwire and Chewing Gum

Over the past few weeks, Barun Mitra, a director of the Liberty Institute, has been endorsing a possible move by China to lift its ban on trade in tiger parts. It is, he argues, the only way to save wild tigers — tiger farms in China have no less than 5,000 tigers in captivity; given that tigers “breed easily in captivity, these can quickly ramp that number up to 100,000 tigers in the next 10 to 15 years”; as the market fills with farmed tigers, poaching will become economically unattractive.

In this article eventually published in mint, biologist Vidya ‘Waghoba’ Athreya and I describe his formulation as no more than a half-baked suggestion “held together by little more than the intellectual equivalent of chicken wire and chewing gum.”

Saving India’s Ridleys

The subtext here is interesting. Conservation in India, built around exclusionary principles that try to protect biodiversity by blocking people’s access to natural resources, is seen as anti-poor. When environment NGOs insist that the state patrol more, or that the fishermen install turtle excluder devices (essentially, a trapdoor at the end of the net that swings upon if a large body like, say, a turtle, bumps into it), it is this perception that they run up against. Given that context, what is happening in Orissa is hugely interesting. The OMRCC has realised that the interests of the poorer parts of the local community actually align with the objectives of the conservationists.

In the third world, do conservation campaigns that ignore poverty stand any chance of success? an article examining this question in the specific context of the olive ridley turtles was published in the hindu businessline.

UPDATE (2018): I cannot find that link any longer. And so, here is the text of what I had written at the time.

Headline: Saving the Ridley

Shoulder: In the third world, do conservation campaigns that ignore poverty stand any chance of success?

Matter begins: It all began with a Greenpeace protest. Late in April, it lined up dead Olive Ridleys, all shrouded in white, all covered with marigold garlands, in front of Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik’s home in Delhi. It was classic Greenpeace. The idea was novel. It attracted the media. And the combative environmental NGO ensured that its message, that the Ridleys continue to die, that the Orissa CM is not doing enough, got transmitted unambiguously.

And yet, the event made one wonder what it would achieve. Orissa is one of the poorest states in this country. How much consideration could the government of such a state spare for turtles, especially if saving them involved impacting local livelihoods? And given that, what did the future hold for the Ridleys?

Chances are you are familiar with the contours of this story. Every year, between November and March, anywhere between 100,000-200,000 of these sea turtles nest at the shores of Orissa — mostly notably, Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary and the river mouth of the Rushikulya. They swim up from their feeding grounds, mate in the rich, shallow waters off the beaches, drag themselves ashore, lay eggs, as many as 120-300 to every nest, and then disappear into the sea for another year.

Things began to change after the early-eighties boom in the state fishing industry. Bigger boats came in. And tens of thousands of Ridleys began drowning in the large nets these boats sieve the seas with. In 1982, since the trawlers were eating into the local fishermen’s catch as well, the state passed the Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Act (OMFRA). It told trawlers to keep at least ten kilometres off the coast. It warned fishermen with motorised boats to stay at least five kilometres off. Only small fishermen, fishing with unmechanised boats, would be allowed to fish within 5 kilometres of the beach. For an assortment of reasons, like the political clout of the trawler lobby, like the fishermen’s lack of awareness about their fishing rights, the OMFRA was never implemented. And the large boats continued to fish wherever they wished.

And then, as the turtles continued to die, the greens resurrected the OMFRA. it was perfect. Nearly all the turtles are killed within 5-6 kilometres of the shore. The OMFRA banned all mechanised fishing in this zone. The small fishermen could still come in, but they are not the ones killing the turtles anyway.

Unfortunately, however, they interpreted the law selectively and focused only on the turtles. The result? With the state government more worried about the fishermen than the turtles, the state wildlife department was unable to enforce the laws. And, unlike parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where trawlers respect fishing limits because the traditional fishing communities vigilantly monitor them, the local fishermen in Orissa evinced no interest. they saw the law as elitist, more concerned with turtles than them. The trawlers kept flouting the act.

And now, the OMRCC (Orissa Marine Resources Conservation Consortium), a body formed by fishworkers’ unions in orissa, conservation organisations, development NGOs and turtle biologists, is trying to change all that. And, oddly, it doesn’t focus too much on the turtles. The OMFRA, says Kartik Shanker, a turtle biologist, and one of the members of the consortium, could “have succeeded if it was enforced to protect the livelihoods based on that natural resource rather than a single enigmatic species.” Today, in most places, traditional fishermen are too unorganised to fight the trawlers off. Once, they can stand up to trawlers and make them keep out of the near shore waters, it is an incidental benefit for the turtles.

And so, the OMRCC is trying to raise awareness among the local community about its fishing rights, and encouraging them to report trawlers that flout the fishing act. Booklets in Oriya with pictorial representations of fishing zones are being distributed in all the villages in the mass nesting areas. Boards are being put up in these villages showing fishing zones for different crafts and gear. It’s also trying to ensure that the fishermen will not be harassed by the police if they report infringements.

The subtext here is interesting. Conservation in India, built around exclusionary principles that try to protect biodiversity by blocking people’s access to natural resources, is seen as anti-poor. When environment NGOs insist that the state patrol more, or that the fishermen install turtle excluder devices (essentially, a trapdoor at the end of the net that swings upon if a large body like, say, a turtle, bumps into it), it is this perception that they run up against. Given that context, what is happening in Orissa is hugely interesting. The OMRCC has realised that the interests of the poorer parts of the local community actually align with the objectives of the conservationists. Wouldn’t that, I wonder, be just as applicable to terrestrial conservation?

In the meantime, the turtles continue to bleed numbers. In the past thirteen years, 129,000 dead turtles have washed ashore on Orissa’s beaches. Other turtles, nobody knows how many, drowned but floated out to sea. Given that very little is known about them – the total population, the number of juveniles who graduate to adulthood every year — and the fact that these are slow growing, late maturing, long-living species, it’s hard to quantify the precise damage the nets are leaving in their wake.

In the absence of such information, two other metrics are used to keep tabs on their numbers — the mass nestings, and the size of the turtles. No mass nesting, says Biswajit Mohanty of Operation Kachchapa, a conservation programme supported by WPSI, “has taken place at the Devi’s river mouth (a previously huge nesting site) in recent years due to uncontrolled illegal trawling.” Similarly, mass nesting also failed to occur in Gahirmatha in 1997, 1998 and 2002.” Studies by Shanker revealed a decrease in the sizes of the turtles being caught in the nets. This, he says, can mean two things. A growing population, with a large number of juveniles entering the adult population relative to numbers of adults. Or, two, a decline in numbers of adults relative to a more or less fixed number of juveniles entering the population. “Given the mortality data from Orissa”, he wrote, “Scenario two is more likely.”

Newer threats are emerging as well. Tata Steel and Posco are constructing private ports very near the nesting sites. The state is expanding another 13 ports along the rivers and the coast. And then, there is Reliance’ offshore drilling project, plumb in the middle of the route the turtles take to Gahirmatha.

Worries persist.