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!
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.
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.
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%).
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.
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.)
- 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.
- Guha, R. 2014. The other illiteracy: the Indian road to unsustainability. The Telegraph 9 August 2014.
- Pradyumna, A. 2015. Health aspects of the Environmental Impact Assessment process in India. Economic and Political Weekly 50(8): 57–64.
- 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.
- 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.
Last month, a photo-story of mine appeared in the remarkable People’s Archive of Rural India. Here is an excerpt and some images as a slide show. You can read the full story here Crop cycles: Fire and renewal in Mizoram.
March 15, 2014: Today, farmers of the Serhmun village would start a fire on the hills near Tuilut, to meet a deadline set by the state government. We were in Damparengpui, a remote village in Western Mizoram, from where we wanted Lal Sanga to take us in his autorickshaw up the bumpy, winding hill road to Tuilut.
“Do you really want to go all the way to see that?” he asked. It would turn out to be the loudest, hottest, most spectacular fire that I had witnessed at close range. A deliberate fire that would reduce to ashes what had been, until some weeks ago, a dense bamboo forest. And yet, the fire did not signify destruction as much as it did a new beginning.
Or click to view the slide show.
Emerging from the rainforests, near Teirei village in a remote corner of Mizoram in northeast India, my phone comes alive, beeps a message as if from another world.
Peter Matthiessen is no more.
It brings me to a halt. Head bowed, I read the message again. At the end of a long trek, my shoulders slump with heavy backpack. A tiredness changes to an ache, the forest rest house in the village two kilometres away is forgotten.
Divya, my wife, had sent the message from our home in the Anamalai hills in the other corner of India. Peter Matthiessen, exceptional observer, witness, versatile writer of nonfiction including The Tree where Man was Born, African Silences, The Cloud Forest, and Wildlife in America, fiction such as Shadow Country and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, has long been one of our favourite authors. A cherished collection of his books fills a row in our wooden bookshelf at home. The previous day, on 5 April 2014, at the age of 86, Matthiessen, at his home in Sagaponack halfway around the world, had died of leukaemia.
How does one respond to news about the death of one of the finest writers about the natural world? And, too, in a text message? I find my fingers moving over the keypad writing something to Divya that I know would be inadequate, mean nothing.
Oh damn. So sad. I guess his books won’t die so soon.
Weeks earlier, when I set out for Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram for a spell of fieldwork on birds in the rainforest landscape, I had no doubt about the one book I would surely carry. The first book I tucked into my backpack was Matthiessen’s masterpiece, The Snow Leopard. The book, a lyrical chronicle of journey and quest in the high mountains of the Himalaya, itself rang with his searing attempt to reconcile life and death.
And it is a profound consolation, perhaps the only one, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghostly life wandering the future and the past on its hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die.
I carried the book in my bag and Matthiessen’s words in my head as I moved between camps over many weeks spent in Dampa. I was here at the invitation of the Mizoram State Forest Department to carry out a comprehensive bird survey, revisiting the same mountains and forests where I had lived and worked twenty years earlier. At that time, I had come to carry out field research on the tribal system of farming in the region called shifting agriculture or jhum and its effects on forest recovery and birds. Why had I returned now? Was I here only for the bird survey? Or was there more? A reliving of experience unearthed from the ashes of memory? A search for something forgotten, or missed for long?
But why was I going? What did I hope to find? … And so I admitted that I did not know. How could I say that I wished to penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown that, like the yeti, might well be missed for the very fact of searching?
And so, along with my fieldwork, I read Matthiessen. I read him with a headlamp on cold nights in the watchtower camp on Dampatlang peak. I read him under fierce sun in the muggy afternoons at the other bamboo forest watchtower on Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang ridge. I read him by candlelight and firefly flicker in the Tuichar Cave deep in the valley below.
Dampatlang Watchtower, 1 March 2014
At nearly a thousand metres elevation, the Dampatlang watchtower overlooks a grand, wild landscape. On one side, to the north and east, the forest canopy of rainforest trees and Rawnal (Dendrocalamus longispathus) bamboo steps away from the ridgeline in a panoply of green. On the other, just metres away, the land plunges several hundred feet past grey cliffs of serow and bear into the valley of Tuichar Lui (river). Beyond the river, dark primary forests climb the slopes of Chawrpialtlang from valley to summit at 1,100 metres. Across the valley of Tuichar, the steep sleeping cliffs of the Assamese macaques face the rainforest from where the hoolock gibbons sing.
At 4:40 a.m., a dark, starlit sky, the silence of mountains, the susurrus of leaves in the wind, the yawing creak of bamboo culms. Soon, I would have to head out to survey two transects, lying about four kilometres away, down a narrow and steep trail. Two decades ago, I walked the same transects with little trouble, but today my legs are killing me. My knees are swollen, I cannot fold my legs, and squatting or standing is agony. Still, unless my legs give way completely, I resolve to see the fieldwork through, walk the transects as many times as I can.
It takes over an hour and a quarter to reach the transects in bamboo and mature evergreen forests. The forests throb with morning bird sounds, sweet songs of babblers and shama, the loud cries of barbets and hornbills. Walking, listening, looking, I pass a stately Khiang (Schima wallichii) tree where a black and white Malayan giant squirrel and a coal-black Pallas’ squirrel with red belly are chewing at fruits for seeds. Clasping fruit to mouth and hanging by their hind legs or stretched along the branch, long furry tails hanging, the squirrels gnaw and chew, unaffected by my presence directly below. A light rain of bitten fruit showers on me and patters softly on the earth as I pass.
It takes over two hours to finish the transect surveys before it is time to return. Plodding back uphill, I consider what it is about fieldwork that draws one out, beyond the call of duty or discomfort, into the wild. Beneath the scientific quest, lies something that is far more personal. Behind the aura of exploration, lurks the ego of achievement, the arrogance of conquest.
Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror.
Suddenly, a scurrying rustle sounds from the path ahead. A pair of grey shapes darts from the trail, a dozen pairs of iridescent green eyes glint from long feathers: Grey Peacock-Pheasants. One bird crosses the trail, another follows, cagily circles a fallen log before vanishing into the forest. From deep in the forest sounds the guttural laugh of another peacock-pheasant, the ‘Varihaw’ singing to attract his mate. Ahead, on the trail itself, I find a small space, about five feet by two, cleared of twigs and litter, perhaps for the Varihaw to tilt and dance, fanning wing and tail to dazzle his inamorata with his profusion of glinting ocelli.
Further ahead, just off the trail, a dumpy bird—mud brown below, green above, a swatch of blue on his nape—hops away on long legs into the undergrowth, from where he issues a loud two-note whistle. The Blue-naped Pitta carries the touch of earth, forest, and sky on his plumage. And a bit further, a cluster of black feathers, some tipped white, is all that remains of a male Kalij Pheasant killed by a wild cat: a leopard cat perhaps, or that more elusive, shadowy creature, photographed on a field camera placed along the same trail, a clouded leopard.
Stave in hand, I walk favouring my hurting right knee, wonder if I will be able to repeat the survey tomorrow. Or should I move camp, instead, to the new bamboo forest watchtower, find a water source nearby, and stay closer to the transects?
Despite the hard day that has ended in defeat … and the very doubtful prospects for tomorrow, I feel at peace among these looming rocks, the cloud swirl and wind-whirled snow, as if the earth had opened up to take me in.
I lean against a Schima tree, my hand on the deeply-ridged, tough layer of bark. In the driest of weather, the tree is yet felted by cool moss, soft to the touch. Now, in the forest of peacock-pheasant and clouded leopard, my pain disappears: I am still beneath the Schima tree.
Only one question remains. With all the earth underfoot in the forest, why does the Varihaw dance on the trail that I, too, must walk?
Bamboo forest watchtower, Pathlawi Lunglen Tlang, 12 March 2014
Stultifying, sweat-sticky heat by day, worrying, whispering wind by night. The bamboo forest watchtower, perched on this high ridge in Dampa, eases my strain of walking to distant transects over rugged terrain, but is otherwise most ill-suited for camping. It lies open to lashing rain and scorching sun, becomes intolerable in the furnace heat after ten in the morning till three in the afternoon. The only water, a mere trickle, seeps out of dank rocks and litter in a dark ravine almost half a kilometre down a steep, pathless slope. It is a place that stokes the furnaces of the mind, flames through eye to brain, reduces ideas to ashes.
The bamboos on the ridgeline, facing west and south over steep cliffs, are crisping in the sun. The green culms are clothed in leafy clusters of drooping green and papery browns and yellows, as if hung with a grizzled pelt the colour of summer. The forest floor is a slippery slithery mat rustling with dry bamboo leaves. The bamboo forest around the watchtower is rimmed by tall trees of evergreen rainforest over a hundred years old.
Returning from the transects, I stretch out my blue carry mat in the drifting shadow of the watchtower, Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard at my side. Too tired to read, I lie down, cover my face from searing sky with my hat. The ants and flies find me instantly. A black ant, indignant, bites me on my neck. I spring up and swat her away, spend the next minutes flicking ants from mat, hat, book, foot, hair, sleeve, collar, and wrist, until I realise that, but for the first, none are out to get me. They scatter distraught because the grass had been cut, the litter pushed aside, burnt even, to make a small space for my mat, for me to sit on or stretch out. Now they run about to reorient to the changed contours of their own space. So, I sit still, let them figure it out. After a while, the bustle quietens, we readjust to each other.
Then the flies buzz in. A duller one, dripped in grey, like a drab honeybee, and a little gold-and-black hoverfly, a torpedo winging back and forth like a shimmering jewel. I wave, I swat, I blow, I twitch, until I stop to see what they want. The flies come only to sponge a little sweat-salt off exposed arm or leg with their tiny, tickly, tongues. If I stay still, they dab away for a while, lap up a little from elbow-crook or leg, make a short survey of ankle and shin, give a glancing touch to my cheek, a skimming look from the air over my nose. Then they disappear, resume their busy lives, perhaps visiting flowers, transmitting pollen from plant to plant.
Why should I grudge the flies this much? What am I but a little ephemeral fly myself, scanning and surveying, gathering my own little crumbs of learning off the rugged skin of Dampa? What can I aspire for in my fieldwork but to leave carrying a pollen-grain of perception to share with others, when the moment arrives of my own vanishing?
The stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning than a gust of snow; such transience and insignificance are exalting, terrifying, all at once, like the sudden discovery, in meditation, of one’s own transparence.
Tuichar cave, 27 March 2014
After morning transects in the valley, I return to the camp at the Puk, the cave in deep rainforest beside Tuichar Lui. Rending the morning quietude, a family of gibbons howls from the far forests on Chawrpialtlang. Almost in retort, another gibbon family, closer, louder, begins to whoop and hoot in morning abandon. The latter, I notice, are calling not from the primary rainforests to the south and east. Their calls—urgent, clarion, challenging—come from the old bamboo forests of Tuichar, downriver; the gibbons perhaps swing and sing from high trees in the patches of mature rainforest closer to the river, perhaps from the great Tatkawng (Artocarpus chaplasha), Lawngthing (Dipterocarpus turbinatus), Thingdawl (Tetrameles nudiflora), and Ficus trees that tower over the bamboo, or, who knows, perhaps from the bamboo itself.
Past a whinnying Great Slaty Woodpecker, who dips and darts from the broken fig tree above the cave, we turn off the forest trail, down to the Puk, where I am enveloped by grey rocks, great trees, soft voice of stream. How much this place has given me! Not by asking, just by being here, living, watching, recording: water, food, fire, shelter, experience, data, learning, and unlearning. All steamed in tropical heat, washed in thunderstorm, wafted by winds, lit by starlight and firefly. And yet, how much, really, have I perceived, have I been ready to perceive? How much remains?
The Puk stands on a threshold, a line stretching from river to ridge where dark forest gives way to light bamboo greens. Standing on that threshold, I wonder: have I been wrong about shifting cultivation or jhum all along? My study on shifting cultivation had concluded that many bird and mammal species of deep rainforest will survive in the landscape only if mature or primary forests are retained, that young bamboo forests resulting from short cycles of cultivation of five years or less are insufficient to conserve the full spectrum of rainforest wildlife.
Some conclusions may stand for a while: attested by birds and squirrels and primates persisting in mature rainforest and bamboo forests, in much the same places and manner as two decades ago. (And yet, did the hoolock gibbons not call, just this morning, not from the primary forests where they were expected to be, but from the old bamboo forests?) But my work, like other studies of jhum, was also being selectively cited and quoted as having drastic effects on wildlife. In the landscape around Dampa Tiger Reserve, decrying jhum as destructive, other land uses were being ushered in—monoculture plantations of teak, oil palm, rubber. The part where I had written that the landscape mix of bamboo and secondary forests, resulting from jhum cultivation, was more diverse and preferable to monocultures: that part had gone unread, unquoted, unheeded. Tangentially, I was implicated in the assault on jhum, the picture I had drawn, within the circumscribed ambit of science, was flawed, incomplete.
Perhaps my field study, seen closely, resembles the great Char (Terminalia myriocarpa) tree that stands by the trail to the Puk: an apparently strong framework outside, hiding a hollow inside, home of dark beings that fly by night. One day, the tree will come crashing down, return to the soil from where it sprang. And just as the canopy gap opened by the fall of the Char would stream again with sunlight, crowd with seedlings clamouring towards the sky, so, in the space illuminated anew, other studies will follow mine.
At the Puk, I cannot shake myself out of the self-questioning. Was it all worth it? The studies, the surveys, the travails of fieldwork, camping, the money raised, spent, the energy expended, the ligaments torn and knees pounded, the shoes shredded tromping sharp bamboo and hard rock? The hour upon hour spent walking, looking, listening, binoculars clutched in my hands.
Already the not-looking forward, the without-hope-ness takes on a subtle attraction, as if I had glimpsed the secret of these mountains, still half-understood. With the past evaporated, the future pointless, and all expectation worn away, I begin to experience that now that is spoken of by the great teachers.
I look at my hands, my thin brown arms. In the humid heat, my skin beads with tiny droplets of sweat, small as the pores, in every crinkle and crevice on the skin along my arms. In slanting shafts of afternoon sun, the little droplets glint and twinkle, like flecks of gold on soil. The glimmer shifts and slides as I flex my arms: even sweat is beautiful. In its winking lights, I see the flicker of fireflies in the dark rainforest, the pinprick gleam of spider eyes in the crevices of rocks, the eye-shine of nocturnal civets on leafy trees. I see starlight sprinkled between branches of towering Thingdawl trees, the spangles on the plumage of drongos, the eyes dancing on the feathers of peacock-pheasants. I see the bamboo erupting in flames in distant fields, the flicker of our evening camp fires, and sun flecks and sparks and the eternal shimmer of star and moon and sun in the flowing waters of Tuichar Lui.
From a boat on Assam’s Deepor Beel—the freshwater lake lying south-west of Guwahati, the largest city in India’s northeast—you can look east past thousands of waterbirds and a carpet of floating leaves to see the city’s seething, smoking garbage dump. Under spotless blue skies, a thin brown haze blankets the lake from fringing forest to quarried hillock, from skirting township to the Boragaon dumpyard. As another dump truck lurches to a halt and tips its load of filth over, an unruly mob of Black Kites and a cloud of dark mynas explode from the murky earth flapping like pieces of tattered cloth caught in a gust. The truck deposits another mound of unsegregated waste—a fraction of the more than 600 tons generated daily from the city of nearly a million people—all plastic and putrefaction, chicken heads and pigs entrails, street dirt and kitchen waste, broken glass and soiled cloth, bulbs and batteries and wires and electronics and metal and paper and more. Beside the truck waits a line of people: women, adolescents, and children. And behind them, a phalanx of Greater Adjutant storks—tall, ungainly birds with dagger-like beaks and naked yellow and pink necks—awaits its turn.
In company with cattle and dogs, the people will scavenge first. Driven by poverty, with little or no land or possessions of their own, the women and children from poor families living around the lake have turned to the dumpyard, despite its appalling prospects for their health, to scour a livelihood from the residues of urbanisation. In the waste thrown out of home and market, hospital and motel, collected and dumped again by the trucks, in that twice-discarded garbage, they will rummage to gather things to sell, to use, to survive. Without even a cloth draped over their noses against smoke and stench, they will sift valuable scraps from the offal with metal hooks and bare hands.
Then, it will be the turn of the Greater Adjutants. The birds will parade over the dump, pick up and swallow rotting meat, skins, and bones, fish tails and goat’s ears, eyeballs and hooves, and some will carry it back to their nests on tall trees in villages kilometres away, to regurgitate and feed their hungry chicks. The stork, whose world population is estimated at around 1200 – 1800 mature individuals, about 650 – 800 of which lives in Assam, is considered endangered, its population trending downhill. Yet, there are days when nearly half the world population may be seen in the city of Guwahati, congregating at the garbage dump. In its decline, the stork has learned to survive off the thrice-discarded filth of humanity.
With the reek of burning, decaying garbage, the air carries the keening of flies and mosquitoes, the chatter of women and children, the clatter of stork beaks. The air lies thick, in humid vapours that burn the nostrils, clog the windpipe, catch at the throat as if to stifle the breath of life. And above it all, a twister of storks turns slowly, as the lanky birds rise and rise, in a thermal spiral, wings held wide, yellow pouches hanging at their throats, like penitent beings weighed by remorse heading to the heavens.
Seated on low thwarts, the three of us are rowed out by the boatman into Deepor Beel. The floodplain lake, a now-festering fragment of the great River Brahmaputra that has swung its course to the north, is a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance. Every year, thousands of waterbirds gather at the lake, from resident swamphens, lapwings, and herons, to wintering migrant shorebirds, ducks, and geese. Rowing in deeper water or punting through shallows with his oar, the boatman guides the flat-bottomed boat, freshly waterproofed with sticky black tar, over water clouded with sediment and plankton, towards the distant flocks of waterbirds. The boat skims the canopy of a swaying forest of soft underwater plants, topped by floating waterlily leaves that look like plates, like expanded hearts.
Fed by river and rain, the lake receives water and storm runoff along feeder streams and drains. It mixes city wastewater with the purer flows from the hills of the Rani and Garbhanga Reserved Forests to the south. Polluted by pesticide and fertilizer runoff, contaminated with fecal bacteria, muddied by erosion and sewage, Deepor Beel is slowly turning into ditchwater. Hemmed in between stolid hills and restive city, pincered by highways to the east and west, cleaved from the southern forests by road and railway line, the lake is shrinking, too. Over two decades beginning in 1991, Deepor beel lost 41 per cent of its open water, the area shrank from 712 hectares to 421 hectares and became more fragmented. With the loss of wetland area, the birds, too, appear to be in decline. Only the city and its impressive garbage dump are growing and growing.
On the lake, the water parts for our boat, closes in our wake, the parted plants mark our passage on the surface. In distant boats, fishermen fling their cast nets onto open water, or pull at their nets, stooping to pick their day’s catch from the tangle. Our boat slips over a long, taut fishing net stretched wide across the lake; the water is calm, now it is the horizon that is swaying. To the west vehicles ply on the busy highway, to the north the city burgeons, to the east the unsavoury Boragaon dumpyard moulders, and to the south a train thunders along the railway.
The tracks shrill and clatter under metal wheels, as they will almost every hour: the trains will not stop. There is blood on these tracks, the blood of elephants—herds, calves, tuskers—who tried to cross the tracks from the forest seeking water and forage in the lake. The elephants were slammed, were dragged, were extinguished: a slaughter wrought in passivity, for who, in their right mind, will attribute active intent to trains? Only the journeys of the elephants, the lives of the elephants, shall come to a stop.
The clamour of hundreds of whistling-ducks accompanies our passage, their pulsed whistles and squeals lance over the water. Suddenly, the air reverberates with wings. The resounding beat and rush of wings roils the air overhead, as hundreds of pintail ducks and greylag geese take wing from rippling lake to splayed-out sky.
The storks still soar in the distance. From high, they must see the vast braid of the Brahmaputra winding through the landscape. They must see, far, far to the north, the grandeur of Himalayan peaks, dusted with snow and weighed by glacier. They must see that the lake below is but a drop of water on land. The ducks and geese wheel and quarter, they sweep and swerve in the air. They begin to descend, as the storks do, too, out of seamless, unmarked skies.
As dusk settles over the landscape and the milling flocks of birds settle for their roost, the fishermen return to their villages in their boats. The trucks and trains have passed, and perhaps the elephants have, too.
By night, as the city flickers to life before us, the garbage dump, its people, its birds, all become invisible. Tomorrow, the fishers will return to the lake, and the women and children to the dump. And, from the skies above Guwahati, it is again to the lake and garbage dump that the birds, too, must drop.
…Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
~Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind
This piece follows an earlier post, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, at EcoLogic.
A place that is marked by the presence of people is not unusual, but a place whose presence itself leaves an indelible mark on people is something extraordinary. In the ancient mountains at the southern tip of the great Western Ghats ranges, sheltering among rocky peaks and rugged slopes draped with tall evergreen forest, lies one such place. A place of beauty and challenge and diversity, which if you have really experienced, you will declare has no real equivalent. And if you have lived and worked there, wherever you go, the place will go with you. It will remain a benchmark, a touchstone, a reference point in felt memory and field experience, against which you will forever measure other places, newer knowledge. A place that does all this, slowly, gently, but inevitably, is Kalakad – Mundathurai Tiger Reserve.
Near the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, the Kalakad – Mundathurai Tiger Reserve sprawls over an expansive forest landscape within the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu state. Occupying 895 square kilometres, it adjoins other wildlife sanctuaries (Neyyar, Peppara, and Shendurney) and reserved forests lying across the administrative boundary in Kerala state, forming a forest tract nearly twice as large over the Agastyamalai – Ashambu hill ranges. Biologists consider this landscape one of the most significant areas for conservation of biological diversity in the Western Ghats. It retains one of the largest and last remaining unbroken tracts of over 400 square kilometres of tropical rainforest, much of which has not been logged or converted to plantations, ripped by roads or ravaged by mining like many other parts of the Western Ghats have been. Partly for these reasons, Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand the ecology of rainforest plants and animals in a relatively undisturbed setting: an understanding that is a vital step to help conserve such a place for posterity.
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From the wide sweep of the Tirunelveli plains, the Kalakad mountains rise abruptly in looming grandeur. South of Tirunelveli, on the national highway that runs down to Kanyakumari at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, the road turns sharply west towards the mountains. It passes through a rich countryside where paddy, banana, and other crops are grown in flatlands amidst scattered lakes, old village ponds, and rocky outcrops. Past villages at the foothills, the road ascends the mountains to a Forest Department camp.
A mile further, up a steep foot trail along a torrent passing through dense forest, on which everything from rice and gas cylinders and pipes and field supplies had to be carried, in the middle of the rainforest in the shadow of Kulirattimottai mountain, we established a base camp that became our home for three years.
It was an abandoned house with a cardamom drying room, the remnant of an earlier plantation lease that had expired. It was a house with no electricity or modern embellishments, but as a camp from where we just had to step out to enter the rainforests for our field research, it was perfect. People said we were cut off from the rest of the world. Yet, there in the rainforest, we felt more immersed in the world than ever before.
We had come there to study small mammals and birds, posing fundamental questions of ecology: on the distribution and abundance of species in relation to their environment. What were the small mammal and carnivore species, from rodents and shrews to civet and marten, that lived in the rainforest? And what was the community of birds? How did the distribution and abundance of all these species change from lower to higher elevations or from abandoned plantation and previously logged forest to undisturbed mature tropical rainforest? How did endemic species such as the nocturnal brown palm civet thrive in the rainforest: how much area did the civets need, what did they feed on, where did they roost by day before they set out to feed by night?
With a bunch of such questions tucked into our belts, we set out to answer them through field research and observations. We laid quadrats to measure vegetation and grids and catch-and-release traps for studying rodent populations. We surveyed transects and point counts for birds and walked trails with tagged trees to document monthly patterns of leaf-flush, flowering, and fruiting of rainforest trees and lianas. We radio-collared brown palm civets to track and study this elusive and enigmatic species by night. With eyes and ears on the mountains and feet on the earth, we tried to discern the pulse and flow of the rainforest.
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Immersed in the rainforest, day in and year out, our work slowly brought us to appreciate the enduring rhythms of nature and cycles of renewal. From early morning counts of birds, daytime surveys of plots and trails and transects, through nocturnal tracking of civets onto the next day: this was our daily round of activities. Around us, the daily rhythms of the rainforest played on. Every morning, the eagle owls tucked into their tree hollows and as the sun crested the mountains, the black eagles came skimming over the treetops. At the end of the day, as the giant squirrels went to roost in their tree nests, the flying squirrels and civets emerged to roam by night.
Then came the pulse of seasons. The year opened cool and dry, or laced with the moist departure of the north-east monsoon, and Canarium trees flared red amidst a sea of rainforest green. After the elephants passed by in March, peeling tree bark and snacking on Ochlandra reed bamboos, came two hot and tempestuous months with pre-monsoon thunderstorms that revived the wilting shrubs and replenished rainforest streams. Then, from June to September, the southwest monsoon reigned, with short sunny mornings and rain-lashed afternoons under dark, gloomy skies. The forest turned damp, as did our clothes and books and everything in the camp, and fruits of Palaquium trees littered the forest floor and little seedlings sprung up on the moist leaf litter.
Then, as one monsoon withdrew, depressions in the Bay of Bengal brewed another. The north-east monsoon brought persistent, torrential rains and thick mists that swallowed the rainforests hardly twenty metres away from our doorstep and poured in through the windows into our home. The swelling rivers, which sometimes flowed over the trail cutting off our base camp, thundered down the valley, carrying revivifying waters to the people in the plains. Even during a deluge it was remarkable how, as the slopes were swathed in dense forests, there was so little erosion and the waters remained clear and pure to drink. Finally, as the year wound down, the winds and clouds and rains withdrew, cool, clear skies would open over the forests again, and the crimson flush of Canarium would flag the beginning of another year.
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The rainforests were a place of eternal surprise. Even as we went exploring our study questions, looking for our study species, other creatures, puzzles, and wonders confronted us. We could take nothing for granted: all our senses had to be on alert all the time.
The trail cameras had been set, the civets collared, but dense vegetation kept much hidden. In the darkness of night, our spotlight would reveal little more than shining eyes of flying squirrel or civet in the canopy, or a shy mouse deer nibbling on fruits fallen on forest floor. Even by day, birds were noted more by their songs and voice than by sight, although a glimpse of an elusive Malabar trogon or the sweet songster, the endemic white-bellied blue flycatcher, was an almost daily joy.
The sights and sounds of the forest hinted at what was there, and yet constantly surprised us. That loud honk was not the alarm bell of a distant sambar, but the courtship call of a nearby frog; that black blur on the branches was not a scampering giant squirrel, but a Nilgiri marten on his hunt; that repetitive pulse was not the beep of a receiver left on by mistake, but a tiny cricket peeping in the undergrowth; that flash of yellow streaking from tree trunk to trunk was no darting woodpecker or butterfly, but a Draco, the gliding lizard; that whistle emerging from the dark rainforest by night was no forlorn cry of mystery mammal, but the haunting call of the rare Oriental bay owl. In the rainforest, even a sudden silence or a carpet of fallen Mesua leaves revealed something: of the hushing of an unseen cicada on tree bark under the scanning eye of a treepie, or the passing of a sated troop of langur in the trees.
Watching animals, we learned more about plants. The civets, although carnivores, ate more fruits than animal prey, and so we tried to document and identify the fruits and the plants they came from. And fruits were always there: every month, through the year, some species provided sustenance to civets and macaques and birds such as hornbills and mountain imperial pigeons. Seeing seedlings sprouting from civet scat or trail side, we grasped how many native rainforest plants could be regenerated from seed, into seedlings that could be planted to bring back rainforest in abandoned plantations and other degraded sites.
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We had come to the rainforests for our research, but when we left three years later, we went with so much more. Working by day and night, more than what we came to study, we learned about natural history and ecology of the rainforest. And what we gathered informs and guides us to this day. As we completed our doctoral research, wrote our theses and papers and reports, we began a project to ecologically restore degraded rainforest fragments in the Anamalai hills.
Our restoration work was inspired by field experiences in the Kalakad rainforest. It was this place that taught us to not just take away new knowledge, but try to return something to the forest through informed conservation actions. It taught us how we could assist the civets in their task of forest regeneration, how we, too, could contribute to renewal as farmers of the forest.
Fourteen years later, in the hills hundreds of kilometres away, the planted saplings now reach towards the sky having become young trees over twenty feet tall. In the restoration site, the young Canarium flames upward year after year, alongside quick Elaeocarpus and slow Palaquium and many other species, and on the leaf litter below, a passing civet has deposited a fresh batch of seeds.
The plants evoke a recollection of a distant rainforest, a home by the river running below the rocky dome of Kulirattimottai, a place where we would like to be again—to be reinvigorated, to learn, to be surprised anew.
Yet, in this moment, the forest does not seem to be outside of us at all: seeing seed and scat and surging sapling before our eyes, we perceive the rainforests of Kalakad.
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.
* * *
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.
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.
From 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.
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.
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.