Category Archives: politics

Why quit Twitter

If you google it you will find all the right reasons and then some. It is distraction. It is a waste of time. It is the trumpet of demagogues, and there’s a pun in there somewhere. It is a space where you radiate cheap chatter and narcissistic signals of your own virtue, in 140 characters, emojis, smileys, GIFs. It makes you more social and more anti-social #online, more asocial #offline. It is a feed, only it feeds on you.

It shelters trolls and slaughters nuance. It eschews depth and embraces facade. It is where the new Nazis, the white supremacists, the racists, the misogynists, the fascists, the journalist-haters, the others-haters, all hang out and send their bluster and bile, their innuendo and threats, send it all your way, under the willful, watchful, closed eyes of the doubtless wonderful folks at Twitter, or with the blessings of political puppet masters twiddling their thumbs behind the blue screen. It is company you would rather not keep.

Yet, trolled or not, threatened or not, isn’t Twitter still worth it? If you google this, you will find the best reasons, the best, really, and then some. It is free. It is your voice, the voice of democracy, the microblog as the great leveler. It is outreach, it is #scicomm, it is one-on-one and one-to-all. It builds your readership, pushes up your #altmetric, it fosters connections you never would have imagined.

There’s all of that. And, as I said, then some.

Still, I have seen, read, and had enough. I am pulling out of Twitter—with a h/t and a thank you and farewell to all those folks who chose to or suffered to read me on their timeline (‘followed’ seems too grand a word for a relationship channeled via Twitter). Two and half years and 6610 tweets is a reasonable time to realise that this social media whatsit ain’t for me. Yes, I’ve been on Facebook, too, and left after a spell, with great relief, no sense of having lost anything of value whatsoever, and never a regret or a look back. Now, too, I leave with a feeling that I can do better. Maybe, just maybe, I will.

What will I fill the absence of Twitter with—an absence that I already scarcely feel now that I know I am calling it quits? At this point, almost anything else I care to do seems more interesting, meaningful, restful, fun. After all, what have I spent most time on Twitter doing but reading? And there remains plenty to read out there, and better ways to read it. I have taken a subscription to a good newspaper, in hard copy; I will read others online, perhaps taking new subscriptions to those that have not faltered into the post-truth world of unworthy demagogues. I will shore up my list of blogs to read, pull in their feeds regularly, comfortably, on a reader, and read authors in the original in the places they publish. I will continue to seek out books and magazines, particularly ad-free magazines and websites carrying the finest writing on the natural world like Orion and, to name a couple. Maybe I will spend more time with family and friends, or listen to sparrow chirp and whistlingthrush song in my backyard. Maybe I will treat myself to some good music and programs that my short-wave radio pulls from the skies, or hook up my speakers and computer to the best music and podcasts on the internet. Maybe I will write, or go for more long walks. Or perhaps, maybe best of all, in the time gained off Twitter, I will do nothing. Nothing.

And there’s no harm in that, is there? If you Google that… but wait…

Conversation biology: eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

In a recent email exchange with a journalist I greatly respect, I wrote:

I am personally ashamed at how little we (as scientists) have done to either study carefully or explain the issues or even share our experiences in the public domain. The op-ed was just my small attempt to get some of those thoughts out for public discussion and criticism.

The op-ed I referred to was titled The Culling Fields. In it, I wrote about the recent notifications issued by the Central government and some states in India to list certain wildlife species—nilgai antelope, wild pig, and rhesus macaque—as ‘Vermin’ under the Wildlife Protection Act. The notifications were spurred by a belief that populations of these animals had boomed and were responsible for serious damage to crops in rural areas, coupled with a perceived lack of better management options for what has been labeled ‘human – wildlife conflict’ involving these species.

Moving species that earlier received protection in the Wildlife Act into its Schedule V (V as in five, for V as in Vermin!) allows anyone to kill those species in the respective states. Already, hundreds of animals have been killed by shooters, often from other states, in a manner that has no scientific basis, design, or monitoring. Videos also suggest a distressing lack of attention to basic humane norms to prevent animal suffering (see this IndiaTV video episode around 0:55 – 0:60 and 1:30). This is no scientific ‘culling’ or research-based wildlife population management. This desperate measure unleashed on unsuspecting animals is simply slaughter.

As a debate on culling emerged, I wrote about why the ongoing killing may not just be the wrong answer to the conservation issue, but a consequence of framing the wrong question. I do not intend to repeat those arguments, or what Sindhu Radhakrishna and I wrote in another piece, here. Nor do I intend to respond here to other articles or the few thoughtful demurring responses I received from people who had written in support of culling. Nor is this the place to discuss why widespread killing of wildlife in other countries, such as coyotes in the US, for example, makes little sense and is evidently less effective than non-lethal methods.

What I would like to do here is talk about another concern: the silence of scientists. Why have scientists in India—particularly conservation biologists and social scientists—for whom human – wildlife conflict is today a major area of research, hardly joined in the discussion to support or rebut or provide nuanced perspectives on culling as a solution? Leave alone participating in the debate, scientists are hardly even part of the backdrop.

As expected, the space is then taken up by well-meaning animal welfare groups and activists, who adopt a more immediate task of resistance, alongside the task of questioning. When activists in India queried the states where culling was allowed under the Right to Information Act (RTI) on whether the culls were based on scientific research studies, they learned that the orders were not based on any scientific studies. When the central government was asked, under RTI, how culling could be permitted without scientific studies, the activists were informed that no new research was required on the issue of conflict. Even with culling underway, questions asked on whether there was any monitoring of number of animals being culled, elicited only this response from the central Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change:

No such information available in the Ministry.

All this should have a sobering effect on the dozens of scientists and students I know across the country (and possibly many more that I don’t) who have spent months and years in the field studying human – wildlife interactions including conflicts. Some of them have spent years engaged in scientific research and efforts to reduce conflicts, often successfully, by working with local people and forest departments. My own work in this field has been relatively minuscule, but I have tried to keep up with the research and approaches to conflict mitigation because they have a direct bearing on wildlife conservation and human welfare. And yet, many of us have hardly spoken up in public to share our learnings to inform or influence policy, practice, and public opinion. One environmental journalist went a step further in analyzing this and wrote that perhaps wildlife conservation scientists don’t really care:

…while the animal welfare lobby has been quick to cry foul, there has been an ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community. This is where the wildlife scientists must step up to the challenge. The truth is that most wildlife biologists would rather spend their time doing pure science, that is studying species deep in the forest and learning new aspects of their behaviour. There is no charm in ‘managing’ human-animal problems. It’s also true that since most of the animals listed are not endangered, most conservation biologists have little or no concern in saving them.

I disagree with much of what that says and the way it is said: the pigeonholing of people who may have real concerns on animal welfare into a “lobby”, the oversight that many wildlife scientists now work outside reserves and in human-use landscapes, and the failure to note a growing scientific concern over common species as much as the rare and endangered. But what I do agree with is what the writer calls the “ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community” (leaving aside my personal opinion that those concerned with animal welfare are part of the same community).

Why are the scientists silent? And why is it important to ask this question? Not because science and scientists are infallible or represent the sole arbiters of truth—or other absurd claims on those lines. Not because I believe that science should form the bedrock of policy and governance—there are other aspects of society, politics, and asymmetries of power at play that are probably equally or more relevant. It is because one can envision a supportive role for reasoning—public reasoning—within the framework of any democracy. For citizens of a democracy facing various complex and shared problems that have no single or simple cause or solution, an atmosphere of open reasoning presents various possibilities, ideas, and information, and has the potential to cultivate collective—yet diverse and evolving—consciousness, attitudes, and actions.

I believe this is a discussion worth having because this is not the only issue in which the silence of scientists, including myself, rings louder than the gunshots.

So here are my “eight reasons I am a silent scientist”. These are reasons I have said out loud, just given myself, or heard expressed by colleagues. Instead of expanding on each, I am just going to toss this list out there with a brief line each, hoping that it will provoke you to go right down to the comments box and

  • add your voice and thoughts in the comments to say yay or nay or go take a f.f.a.a.r.d. (Vonnegut 1969) OR
  • add other reasons in your comments that I’m sure I’ve missed in this post.

Eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

1. My research does not address the relevant issues and places

This could be read as a polite way of saying I don’t really care or This doesn’t concern me as it ain’t in my backyard. Still, I wonder, if we study or teach population theory or political ecology or ungulate habitat use somewhere else, say, is it really irrelevant to the issue?

2. I don’t have enough data—my study is not good enough—to say anything yet

Don’t we love this one? Read it as you will, as humblebrag or a noble call to arms issued to one’s peers. But how many of us have not slipped this in at the end of our papers: we need more research?

3. I cannot make statements given the scientific uncertainties

All research is beset with some level of uncertainty. But isn’t dealing with, and reducing, uncertainty integral to science? Climate scientists have led by example on how to acknowledge uncertainty while communicating scientific findings and advances. But are we as conservation scientists content, instead, to say we need even more research until the level of uncertainty becomes acceptably low before we speak up?

4. All I have to say, I say in my peer-reviewed papers and technical reports

In other words, I’d rather not write or speak in public. As something I am culpable of and sympathise with in others, this raises the issue of access to our scientific findings. What have we done to make our research findings, data, publications more openly and publicly accessible?

5. I have spoken up—in government committees that I am a member in

Why bother with the messy and contentious public domain, when I can pick up the phone and call an influential person, a politician or government officer perhaps, or sit on a powerful committee and tell them that this is what science says must be done? (Of course, I asked for the minutes of the meeting to be made public, its not my fault that they haven’t been transparent about it.)

6. It is time to hear other voices, other world views

This one has a lot going for it, if it means actually shutting up in order to listen to other voices, especially of people affected by wildlife. Yet, complete silence on our part could be a lost opportunity for a conversation, for a dialogue or discourse, to share what we have done, learned, and what science, warts-and-all, has to reveal. This could, however, simply degenerate into Let them vent their problems, although they really don’t know what they are talking about, better listen to me instead.

7. This is not about science, it is about politics

A dirty business plagued by environmental illiteracy, corruption, and cronyism, isn’t that what politics and politicians are all about? Heck, if it was about inter-departmental wrangling, squabbling for funds and tenure, or seeking credit over other scientists and institutions, I am an expert on politics. But this is  real world politics in India’s villages, towns, and cities. So let me not say anything to reveal any more of my ignorance.

8. I am a scientist, not an advocate or, heaven forbid, an activist

The tension between science and advocacy persists in conservation biology, with at least one case of an editor-in-chief of a leading conservation journal being ousted due to her position on “removing advocacy statements from research papers”. Yet, if one reads advocacy as giving voice to the voiceless aren’t conservation scientists committed to conservation by default? And if action and resistance can be achieved through non-violence, can inaction perpetrate violence or perpetuate oppression? I don’t want to be an activist, but what does that make me: an inactivist?

What Aldo Leopold wrote in the Round River is  probably as true of science as it is of the ‘harmony with the land’ he wrote about:

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.

 References Cited

Vonnegut, K. (1969). Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

Writing about the environment: a letter

Road to Perdition, a piece by Neha Sinha and myself published in the July issue of Fountain Ink, triggered a response from Aasheesh Pittie: a handwritten letter that he has posted here on his blog. Aasheesh critiques our piece for not being emphatic or dramatic enough, given the drastic, unprecedented, and barely-regulated assault on India’s environment now underway. He raises vital concerns on how we write about the environment and hoped his letter would begin a dialogue. In the spirit of taking the conversation ahead, here is the letter I wrote in response. Do read his letter first before reading on. And add your thoughts and comments!





The other invisible hand

One of the perils of ignoring the environment is the consequent failure to notice that the environment never ignores you. Healthy environments support human health and flourishing even as conservation secures natural resources and livelihoods. On the flip side, environmental degradation rebounds as economic losses, while pollution strikes at the heart of public health. Can one afford to ignore the environment when it affects both economy and health?

This global question now confronts India, as a developing nation surging ahead towards its predicted destiny as the world’s third largest economy by 2030. In its pursuit of a neo-liberal growth model, focused on indices such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the country has accorded lower priority to public health and environment (in the last national budget, the already low financial allocations for these sectors were slashed further by 20% and 25%, respectively). The growth model presumes that social benefits will accrue via the ‘invisible hand’ of market forces, possibly mediated by increased public revenues and spending following economic growth. Meanwhile, environmental conservation remains predicated on creation of regulations and reserves, while public health is contingent on access to clinics and care. Governance systems consider economy, ecology, and health as different domains, ignoring their inescapable connections.

India cannot afford to let this situation continue longer. The country confronts unprecedented air and water pollution and environmental contamination and degradation. Connections among health, economy, and environment revealed by recent research needs to urgently inform policy and praxis.

Smog in the skies of Delhi, India

Smog in the skies over New Delhi, India (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Pollution, health, and economy

Take the recent air pollution crisis in the national capital, New Delhi. Implicated in serious lung, respiratory, and other diseases affecting its citizens including over 2 million schoolchildren, the crisis exemplifies a country-wide malaise. Over 660 million people, half of India’s population, live in areas where fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution exceeds the National Ambient Air Quality Standard, reducing life expectancy by an estimated 3.2 years on average.

In 2011, PM2.5 and other atmospheric emissions from 111 coal-fired power plants across India resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and over 20 million asthma cases. The economic cost to the public and the government was estimated at US$ 3.2 – 4.6 billion. Agriculture, too, is seriously affected. Climate and air pollution impact (due to ozone and black carbon) has reduced average wheat crop yields across India in 2010 by up to 36%, with yield loss up to 50% in some densely populated states.

Air pollution is not restricted to cities but extends into the countryside because of poorly regulated industries and coal-based thermal power plants (Photo: Aruna Chandrasekhar).

Air pollution is not restricted to cities but extends into the countryside because of poorly regulated industries and coal-based thermal power plants (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar).

Indoor air pollution due to use of inefficient biomass-based cookstoves is another serious health issue. In India, it causes over one million deaths and affects the health of over 400 million people, particularly women and children.

Similar concerns, connecting health, ecology, and economy, arise in water pollution and over-dependence on chemicals in industrial agriculture. The Central Ground Water Board reported recently that over half of India’s districts suffered groundwater contamination, including with heavy metals above permissible levels in 113 districts across 15 states. Along rivers, about two thirds of the water courses are polluted, with nearly 275 of 290 monitored rivers having highly polluted stretches. Water pollution does not only cause water-borne diseases and other direct health impacts, it can negatively affect diet and livelihoods due to the loss of fish and aquatic resources, contamination of soils and loss of agricultural productivity downstream of industrial and mining sites.

A 2013 World Bank study estimated that the financial and social costs of environmental degradation in India amounted to about US$ 80 billion or 5.7% of the country’s GDP. Of this, outdoor air pollution accounted for 29%, followed by indoor air pollution (23%), cropland degradation (19%), water supply and sanitation (14%), and pasture and forest degradation (15%).

River polluted with industrial effluents and ash from coal-based thermal power plants in Korba, one of India's most polluted industrial clusters (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

River polluted with industrial effluents and ash from coal-based thermal power plants in Korba, one of India’s most polluted industrial clusters located in Chhattisgarh District (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Environment, climate change, and public health

How environment affects public health is often difficult to trace, but connections are evident and significant. A 2006 World Health Organisation (WHO) study attributed 24% of the disease burden (healthy life years lost) and 23% of all deaths (premature mortality) worldwide to environmental factors. The burden of environment-mediated disease and mortality is also higher in developing countries. Further, a large part of this is due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

In 2014, the WHO country profile for India noted that 60% of the 9.8 million human deaths were due to NCDs. The four big killers—cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases, cancer, and diabetes—account for 48% of all deaths and 80% of deaths due to NCDs. NCDs are a global problem—causing 68% of 56 million global deaths in 2012—that disproportionately affects low- and middle-income countries. Cardiovascular and respiratory health suffers due to air pollution, while cancers and hormonal disruption are known to occur due to many pollutants in the environment.

Scientists predict that the health situation will worsen under ongoing climate change. Increasing incidence of NCDs, besides other effects such as rise in vector-borne diseases and injuries due to climate extremes, is likely. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded with very high confidence that climate change will exacerbate existing health problems over the next few decades.

The economic fallout will also be high. One study estimated that India’s GDP in 2004 would have been 4% – 10% higher if NCDs were completely eliminated, while a 2014 report estimates that India stands to lose over US$ 4.58 trillion between 2012 and 2030 due to NCDs. Economic policies that alter occupation, mobility, and diet can exacerbate these problems, such as when lifestyles become more sedentary or livelihoods change from rural or forest-based occupations to working in polluted industrial areas as wage labour. The health – environment – economy connect has become a vital concern in recent debates such as over mining in forests where forest-dependent communities live, land acquisition of farms for industry and infrastructure, and reducing pollution from coal and shifting to renewables.

Expansion of mining in a Constitutionally-protected Adivasi District of Latehar in Jharkhand, where communities risk forced evictions, loss of common property resources, and livelihoods (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Expansion of mining in the Constitutionally-protected Adivasi District of Latehar in Jharkhand, where communities risk forced evictions, loss of common property resources and livelihoods (Photo courtesy: Aruna Chandrasekhar)

Health in all, for all

As research findings accumulate, the connections between environment, health, and economy grow stronger. This has many implications for policy. For instance, health impact assessments must become a mandatory part of environmental and social impact assessments in industrial and development projects. The GDP-centric measurement of progress should make way for more holistic indices that include progress in health and environmental protection. Instead of viewing environment as a ‘hindrance’ or public health as a ‘burden’, economic policy must consider these integral to human development, and provide higher financial outlays. Finally, India’s draft National Health Policy 2015 recognises the need to integrate environmental and social determinants of health across all sectors, in keeping with the ‘Health in All’ approach, but concrete actions required in individual sectors are yet to be identified.

Ultimately, human lives and livelihoods, health and resources derive from the natural environment: humans are a part of nature. The environment is, in that sense, the other invisible hand that leads to a cleaner and safer, more alive and inspiring world where people can live and flourish. Environmental health subsumes and is connected to human health, just as the health of one’s body subsumes and is connected to the health of one’s heart.

(This post first appeared here in the International Health Policies Blog.)

Select references

  1. Greenstone, M., Nilekani, J., Pande, R., Ryan, N., Sudarshan, A., and Sugathan, A. 2015. Lower pollution, longer lives: life expectancy gains if India reduced particulate matter pollution. Economic and Political Weekly 50(8): 40–46.
  2. Guha, R. 2014. The other illiteracy: the Indian road to unsustainability. The Telegraph 9 August 2014.
  3. Pradyumna, A. 2015. Health aspects of the Environmental Impact Assessment process in India. Economic and Political Weekly 50(8): 57–64.
  4. Prüss-Üstün, A., and Corvalán, C. 2006. Preventing disease through healthy environments: towards an estimate of the environmental burden of disease. World Health Organisation, Geneva.
  5. World Bank. 2013. India: Diagnostic assessment of select environmental challenges an analysis of physical and monetary losses of environmental health and natural resources (in Three Volumes). World Bank Report No. 70004-IN.

The walk that spun the world


It starts as a walk in a forest in Vermont, which takes me, strangely enough, into the high Himalaya. On a balmy July afternoon, with hesitant clouds massing out west, I set out on foot down the road that passes through the village of Craftsbury Common, Vermont. I leave behind the public library and the silent church whose spire towers over the open meadow of the commons and the white clapboard houses in the village. Ahead, the forest appears, flushed green and dense and dark from summer rains. Open fields, loon lakes, and lush farms adorn the landscape, but it is the tranquil forest that entices me in. Almost involuntarily, I am drawn into the woods, up the winding trail that disappears into darkness.

On the trail, the dark, wet earth carries the tread of tyres and the stamp of boots overlaid by tracks of deer and spoor of weasel. The imprints attest a land that the animals share with people. Shafts of evening sun brighten the canopy with amber light, but little reaches down into the shaded undergrowth. Much is still hidden from my eyes.

Vermont forest trail

* * *

I pause where the tracks of the deer swerve into the forest. The print is now no more than a suggestion. I follow, stepping off the trail into the trees. The ground feels soft underfoot, matted by pine leaves and litter, sprigs of tiny grasses, a coterie of creepers, mounds of moss. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me in the undergrowth, saplings of red and sugar maples jostle basswood and hemlock in the eternal clamour for light.

In a gap, a tree stump stands testimony to logging—not the rampant clear-cutting of a more reckless past, but a mindful selection of a woodsman. The forest is still used by people. If the trail and bootprints are not evidence enough, the pails and pipes strapped to trees reveal the touch of people tapping the syrupy sweetness of maples. And further down, a stack of logs waits beside the trail to be hauled and hewn into canoe or board or burned for warmth in kitchen and hearth.

Inside forest VT

As I look up at trees that stand tall without being colossal, I sense the passage of decades rather than centuries. Yet, this land has witnessed a great flux of trees over the ages. As ice-age glaciers retreated around 11,000 years ago, forests appeared on the open lands. In the warmer world that followed, vast tracts of forest arose, in which native Americans lived and hunted for thousands of years. Colonial settler populations surged from the 1760s and in the ensuing decades clear-felled millions of acres of forests for timber and to open land for farms in New England. By the 1850s, around three-fourths of Vermont was open land: farms and sheep pastures bounded by long walls of stacked stone slabs. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, the tide in people and land turned, as civil war and migration whittled the settlers and rested the farms, bringing a great resurgence of trees to clothe the landscape. Today, forests once again cover over three-fourths of Vermont. In the forests, assisted by conservation efforts, resident wildlife species such as moose, grouse, beaver, and marten are staging a comeback in a propitious rewilding of the New England landscape.


Stone wall VermontFrom where I stand, the river on which the timbers were once floated, like giant rafts of huge logs spanning bank to bank, is distant and hidden. Nearby, a moss-felted, lichen-blotched stone wall of an old farm crumbles into a linear tumulus weaving through trees.

The land still carries the marks of history. If I could read the rings in the recumbent trees or discern the trajectory of the resurgent landscape, I would understand better the revival of forest on exploited lands. Perhaps then, I would also perceive what it was that brought respite and respect for trees, in this momentous transformation in America’s environmental history. In 1864, at the cusp of that great turnaround from clear-cuts and farms to forest, as the nation underwent the upheavals of civil war and the civil rights movement, Vermonter George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action appeared, a book that was to deeply influence the conservation movement. Now, a century and a half later, embracing the insights from environmental history, conservationists are better placed to resolve the “great question” with which Marsh concluded his book: the question as to “whether man is of nature or above her”.

If nothing else, the tracks on the trail suggest the human footprint can now be a soft one, too.

* * *

Looking at deer tracks, I ponder over my own journey. I have travelled from India to Vermont to join a workshop on writing about the natural world. Here, I know, I am a stranger still. Yet, that is not what I feel in the forest. Watchful, wistful, I meander through tall conifers, modest maples, beech, and ash. Taking a turn, my walk through the trees becomes a trek through stately forests of conifers, ash, and oak on great mountains. In a forest above a landscape of farm terraces and pastures, I am walking in the Garhwal Himalaya.


Photo by M. D. Madhusudan

It is a landscape and people with a special place in India’s environmental history. For over a century, the colonial British government, followed by Indian foresters, exploited these Himalayan forests, taking timber and tapping pines, for products ranging from bats and boards to resin and railway crossties. Even as the State felled forests for commercial and industrial uses, it restricted access of local people to trees and forests for livelihood needs. In 1970, severe erosion and floods raised concerns about the widespread impacts of deforestation. Three years later, near the village of Mandal, government authorities curtailed access of local people to ash trees but allotted felling permits for the same trees to Symonds, a sports goods company. This drew the simmering tensions to a point of taut confrontation and more than a century of resistance boiled over into a new movement of non-violent action: Chipko. By the act of hugging trees marked for felling, supported by sustained protests, villagers, including groups of women, saved forests and livelihoods from being destroyed by logging. As the Chipko movement spread and captured public imagination and attention, it triggered regulations that restricted deforestation, safeguarding forests on the mountain slopes.

The Chipko movement inspired a generation of environmentalists in India and elsewhere. The peaceful resistance of Chipko, signifying the gentle, human act of hugging, signified a new environmentalism, an environmentalism of the poor rejecting overexploitation by industry, a renewal of people’s connections to land, reaffirming the human place in nature.


Photo by M. D. Madhusudan

I come to a halt before an ash tree. I gaze at the grey-toned bark, at the rising ridges and falling furrows on the rough surface, at the trunk soaring up into a canopy flaming in evening light. Now, the soughing shiver of broadleaved trees, the sibilant whispers of conifers, and the incessant keening of mosquitoes become all too familiar. Now, too, the strange songs of vireo and chickadee and warbler are transmuted into known voices of yuhina and tit and flycatcher. Spruce becomes kail, cedar becomes divine deodar. Raven remains raven. Suddenly, I am struck by a sense of belonging, as if the ash and cedar are to me what the ash and deodar are to people in the Himalaya, the forest a space for solace, succour, and veneration.

Now, I am in India and it is the Vermont forest that has travelled around the world, and not me.

Perils of oil palm

The Economic Survey Mizoram 2012-13 made a bold claim. After quoting the Forest Survey of India’s (FSI) State of Forest Report 2011 that 90.68% of Mizoram is under forest cover, the Economic Survey claimed, literally in bold letters in a box, that the State’s forests

have suffered serious depletion and degradation due to traditional practice of shifting cultivation, uncontrolled fire, unregulated fellings etc.

The claim is a frequent one made by the state government and the agri-horticulture bureaucracy. Actually, what the 2011 FSI Report said was

Due to change in customary cultivation practices, focus has now shifted to raising horticultural crops… thus preventing secondary growth on old shifting cultivation patches. This has also led to the decline in forest cover assessed in the state.

Thus, Mizoram’s forest cover may be taking a turn for the worse not because of shifting cultivation but because of the State’s push to establish permanent cultivation, notably horticulture crops such as oil palm.

An oil palm plantation on a steep slope adjoining Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

Permanent plantations and settled agriculture also result in permanent loss of forest cover, unlike the temporary loss of forest cover followed by regeneration that is characteristic of shifting cultivation. Unfortunately, the FSI reports do not distinguish areas under plantations, nor do they carefully record patterns of regeneration, so on-ground change in land use and forest cover remains difficult to assess accurately. As a result, Mizoram’s remarkable organic farming system of shifting agriculture, locally called jhum or ‘lo’, remains much misunderstood and maligned.

Oil palm clearing ground Borneo

Tropical rainforests cleared for oil palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

The expansion and impacts of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis and E. oleifera) cultivation in tropical regions, especially in south-east Asian countries, is now a global problem from social, conservation, and climate change perspectives. Palm oil now accounts for a third of vegetable oil use worldwide. The area under oil palm cultivation is rapidly increasing from around 3.6 million hectares in 1961 to over 16.4 million hectares in 2011, much of it by cutting down mature, secondary, and peat swamp tropical forests. The deforestation and burning of forests in southeast Asia for oil palm is leading to species extinctions, water shortages, and widespread pollution, besides contributing to climate change.

Oil palm and rainforest fragment Borneo

Forest areas have shrunk to fragments as oil palm plantations expand over vast areas in south-east Asian countries, like here in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

In India, oil palm plantations are now being actively promoted by government and private companies, including in Mizoram where 101,000 hectares have been earmarked and over 17,500 hectares have already been permanently deforested for oil palm cultivation. Near Aizawl’s Lengpui airport, a large hoarding now advertises the benefits of oil palm cultivation. But the photographs of irrigated oil palm trees on flat lands appear incongruous amid the surrounding steep slopes withering dry in the sun during summer.

Oil palm promotional poster along the highway near Lengpui airport.

Oil palm promotional poster along the highway near Lengpui airport.

Further ahead, in areas newly cleared of bamboo and forest cover, small oil palm plantations appear and bare slopes are studded with rubber saplings. Intended as permanent crops, these plantations are often touted as superior to shifting cultivation by government authorities and private companies.

Forest cleared for establishment of monoculture rubber plantation: worse than jhum?

Forest cleared for establishment of monoculture rubber plantation: worse than jhum?

In Mizoram, area under plantations of oil palm, rubber, and teak is increasing. Teak, a deciduous tree not naturally occurring in Mizoram, is planted extensively by the State Forest Department even in evergreen forest zones. All these plantations are worse than shifting cultivation from an ecological viewpoint. Shifting cultivation is preferable to industrial and monoculture plantations because it creates and maintains a dense mosaic of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests in the jhum landscape. In other parts of northeast India, diverse bamboo forests and jhum areas are being replaced by tea plantations, mining, and timber monocultures. Scientific research from rainforests of south-east Asia and the Western Ghats of India attests that industrial monocultures, such as teak, tea, oil palm, and rubber, provide habitat for fewer wildlife species than natural, mature, and secondary forests. A study from Thailand revealed that rubber and oil palm plantations have 60% fewer bird species than lowland rainforest.

Oil palm is conventionally grown as monocultures after clear-felling forest, retaining little or no natural tree cover. Numerous studies have documented that oil palm plantations support very few rainforest plant and animal species. Oil palm plantations may shelter less than 15% of the forest biodiversity, besides reducing water availability and quality in hill streams. My own recent research from the Dampa landscape along with Jaydev Mandal, research scholar at Gauhati University, indicates that monoculture oil palm is much worse for wildlife than the jhum mosaic of regenerating forests and fallows in the landscape.

Oil palm plantations now occupy shifting cultivation fields on slopes and wet rice cultivation areas in valleys.

Oil palm plantations now occupy shifting cultivation fields on slopes and wet rice cultivation areas in valleys.

Under multiple schemes besides the State’s flagship New Land Use Policy (NLUP), both Centre and State are subsidising seedlings, fertilizer, and building of water tanks, besides the construction of oil palm mills to benefit private companies. Furthermore, in an unusual arrangement, the State has apportioned captive districts to the three private companies (Godrej Oil Palm Limited, Ruchi Soya Industries Limited, and Food, Fats & Fertilizers Limited) for palm oil business, thereby making these farms “corporate plantations in effect” as one recent news report puts it.

Converting secondary forests and shifting agriculture to oil palm is a travesty of watershed management.

Converting secondary forests and shifting agriculture to oil palm is a travesty of watershed management.

In Mamit District, oil palm is even planted after clearing forests on slopes and catchments under the Integrated Watershed Management Programme. Water is diverted from natural streams to tanks and taken through pipes to feed this water-demanding crop in newly-deforested areas, in a brazen travesty of the concept of watershed management. In contrast to such support and subsidies, the State Government provides no support for farmers practicing ‘lo’ shifting agriculture.

Shifting cultivation is often considered an unsustainable practice. In reality, the major challenges today for sustainable agriculture and agroecology actually concern industrial agriculture and plantations: how to reduce dependence on agrochemicals and move to organic farming, how to diversify from single to multiple crops, how to integrate fallows and hedgerows and unplanted areas in plantation landscapes, how to retain native plant species and vegetated buffers along rivers, ravines, and ridges. Oil palm promoters and planters have not made any effort to retain valuable bamboo forest patches, wet rice valley agriculture fields, strips of forest vegetation along streams and rivers to prevent erosion and pollution, or implement other essential safeguards. All these aspects of sustainable agriculture, missing in oil palm plantations, are often already practiced in shifting cultivation in Mizoram.

Better land use: The jhum landscape mosaic of fields, regenerating fallows, and forests (on left) is a better form of land use and forest cover than monoculture oil palm plantations (on right).

Better land use: The jhum landscape mosaic of fields, regenerating fallows, and forests (on left) is a better form of land use and forest cover than monoculture oil palm plantations (on right).

A 2012 review of the science and sustainability of jhum in Mizoram in the journal Agroforestry Systems by Dr Paul Grogan of Queen’s University, Canada, and Drs F. Lalnunmawia and S. K. Tripathi of University of Mizoram, Aizawl, notes

… in contrast to many policy-makers, shifting cultivation is now considered a highly ecologically and economically efficient agricultural practice provided that [authors’ emphasis] the fallow period is sufficiently long.

The authors list options to enhance shifting cultivation, such as nutrient and water supplementation, optimising crop choice to extend site use period along with measures to further retain soil and fertility, and judicious use of commercial fertilizer coupled with organic inputs. Jhum farming, with or without refinements, and modified multi-cropping systems such as the Changkham model and Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) are all preferable to monoculture plantations such as oil palm.

Trying to wean farmers away from jhum and remove land forever from the ambit of shifting cultivation by usurping spaces for permanent plantations will have significant repercussions for ecology and economy. As oil palm and rubber plantations begin to replace bamboo and jhum and permanently dot and scar the slopes of Mizoram, an economy based on culture, diversity, and community is changing to one based on cash, permanent monocrops, and private interests. Instead of promoting such a transition in Mizoram—a land of steep slopes, fragile ecology, water scarcities, and remote villages—a policy more sensitive to land and the needs of farmers who practice ‘lo’ shifting agriculture is urgently needed.

This article appeared on 20 August 2014 in Newslink, a daily published from Aizawl, Mizoram. [Original PDF here]. It is cross-posted on EcoLogic.

Integrating ecology and economy: five lessons

“One of the hardest things in politics,” US President Barack Obama said in a recent interview, “is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away.” Obama’s words are pertinent not only to the rules proposed on June 2 by his administration to cut future carbon emissions by US fossil-fuel power plants as a step to address climate change. They are also relevant to the other great democracy and its spanking new government on the other side of the planet: India.

The science whose central concern is the long term and leaving a healthy environment for future generations is ecology. And within ecology, on a planetary scale, it is the science of climate change. So when India’s new government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, renamed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) appending ‘and Climate Change’, it was a timely move. It signalled that even as the government pursues its stated policy of industrial and infrastructural expansion for economic growth, it would place tackling climate change firmly on its agenda, along with the protection of environment, forests, and wildlife.

But a slew of media reports belie this interpretation. According to these reports, the MoEF, in its new avatar, plans to redefine what an inviolate forest is so that more forests can be opened for mining. It proposes to dilute environmental norms and procedures to bypass existing legal requirements for large infrastructure and defence projects. The government announced plans to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam, raising concerns over the rehabilitation of 250,000 people, even as a ‘leaked’ Intelligence Bureau report attacked civil society NGOs for working on ‘people-centric’ issues. Meanwhile, the MoEF has been silent on other pressing needs: releasing the long overdue India State of Forest Report 2013, acting to save critically endangered species such as the Great Indian Bustard (now down to less than 300 individual birds in the wild), or implementing pro-active measures to combat climate change. Within hours of taking charge as Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar said with unsettling brevity in a TV interview: “… India needs a window for growth and emissions and other things.” To his credit, Mr Javadekar has promised to ensure that environmental protection and developmental activities will go together. While it is too early to assess promise against practice, this is as good a time as any to recount five lessons from ecology on why environmental protection should concern India’s new government and 1.2 billion plus people.

Thinking long term

Obama’s words point to lesson one: ecology takes the long view. Development projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs for people and nation. The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in its 10-year tenure allowed the conversion or loss of over 700,000 hectares of forest—an area the size of Sikkim—for development projects and non-forest uses. Natural forests of diverse native tree species function as watersheds, wildlife habitats, and sources of livelihood for tribal, farming, and fishing communities, contributing to long term human well-being in ways not captured by indices such as annual GDP growth.

The science of restoration ecology attests that such diverse natural forests and the living soils they spring from, once destroyed are difficult and costly, or infeasible to bring back, and appreciable recovery may still take decades to centuries. This is not adequately factored into the estimation of net present value (NPV) of forests that tries to approximate economic losses over a 20-year period, by which time the losses are ‘recovered’ in compensatory afforestation sites. A project developer pays out the NPV—at current rates, a maximum of Rs 10.43 lakhs per hectare for very dense forests in the most biologically rich regions such as the Western Ghats—and flattens football fields of forests for the price of a mid-range SUV. Furthermore, compensatory afforestation, if carried out at all, frequently involves raising plantations of one or few alien tree species such as eucalypts and wattles. Such artificial forests are no substitute for the more diverse natural forests of mixed native species, including centuries-old trees. This is why, as the Modi government worries over its 100-day report card, ecologists will be concerned about its 100-year fallout.

Minding the connections

Lesson two is that ecology is a science of connections, of food chains from plankton and fish to sharks and men, of energy flowing from sun through grass to deer and tiger. Pluck the hornbills out of their forest home and forest trees whose seeds the birds disperse begin to decline. Destroy forest remnants amidst coffee plantations and farmers suffer as coffee yields dip due to the loss of pollinating bees. Strip the oceans of sharks and predatory fish with industrial fishing and entire ecosystems and livelihoods of artisanal fishers unravel in what ecologists call a trophic cascade. So, the wholesale construction of 300 large dams in the Himalaya as proposed by the government would not just generate power, but have other negative consequences radiating down the chains and webs of life, including to people downstream. When these are taken into account, implementing fewer and smaller projects or alternatives appears more attractive.

The third lesson, the mandala of ecology, is that ecology closes the loop. Nature recycles, without externalities, wasting little. If the government applied this to everything from recycling municipal waste to curtailing pollution by industries, it could generate jobs and induce growth without leaving behind irredeemable wastes. Ecology is replete with such cycles. One sees it in the organic farmer practicing rotational shifting agriculture on the hillslopes of north-east India, in the cycle of water from earth to cloud to rain and river, and in the dung beetles and fungi and vultures that help return dung and vegetation and carrion to the elements.

Fourth, ecological processes transcend political boundaries. We pump CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the common pool of our atmosphere anywhere and affect people and the earth’s fabric of life everywhere. The migratory warbler that picks the insects off the plants in our gardens may depend for its survival on protection of its breeding grounds in China or Central Asia. To conserve tigers and elephants in protected reserves, we need to retain connecting corridors and forests, some spanning state or international boundaries. Development and infrastructure projects can be designed and implemented such that they do not further disrupt fragmented landcapes, but instead help retain remnant forests or reconnect vital linkages.

On the road to development?  Destructive project promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation.

On the road to development? Destructive projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation (Photo of logs lying along the Andaman Trunk Road).

The science of home

Finally, ecology teaches us that humans are not external to nature. Land and nature are not commodities to buy or sell recklessly or reduce to a packaged spectacle for tourists to gawk at. They form the community we belong to: we are part of nature, it is home. In the debate over ecology versus economy, we must remind ourselves that both words originate from the Greek word oikos, meaning home. The science of our home environment (ecology) must inform the management of our home resources (economy).

What is often forgotten, in the debate falsely caricatured as environment versus development, is that for almost every destructive project, there are often alternatives and means of implementation that cause less harm to environment and local communities, and can provide overall long-term benefits. For instance, roads can be routed to avoid wildlife sanctuaries and provide better connection to peripheral villages, thus helping both people and wildlife. Decentralised village power generation systems that use biomass, solar power, and other renewable sources can help reduce reliance on mega power projects plagued by corruption and requiring long powerlines that suffer transmission losses and cause forest fragmentation. Mining can be carried out avoiding areas valuable for conservation or local people, after due environment and forest clearances, and keeping aside topsoil to ecologically restore even these areas later.

There are already many promising examples of ecologically sensitive development. If ecologists, engineers, and economists synergise their efforts, and the government chooses to exercise its electoral mandate to take the long view, there can be many more. The integration of ecological considerations into economic development is vital and valuable if, in the pursuit of profit, we are to ensure the long-term well-being of people and planet.

An edited version of this article appeared in the op-ed pages of The Hindu today. The longer version with links and images is posted above.