Saturday, April 14, 2007

There's Danger in the Air

Pankaj Sekhsaria

NOT cricket. Not Sachin Tendulkar. Neither cinema, Shahrukh, Amitabh nor Rajnikant. Not festivals. Not politics. Not the life-giving monsoon. Not the Indian Railways. Not even the great Indian election... none of these can take the credit for defining what might be called the great Indian Spirit. These are only the pretenders. The real thing, that something that signifies the "Great Indian Spirit" is clearly, and without doubt — you would have guessed it — It is the "Great Indian Spit" "Thooo... "
From north to south (include the Andaman and Nicobar Islands too), from west to the east and further into the North East, in village, town and city, in place big or small, early in the morning, at noon or in the night, if there is one thing that binds the people of this great nation — it is the spit — the one great affliction that we indulge in with such great affection.
No distinctions of any kind here — religion, caste, creed, sex, status, class, age — no bar of any kind. Everybody does it. Everywhere. Spitting breaks through all barriers. From trains, inside trains (generally under the bench), from windows of moving buses, on the road, in a park, by a tree trunk, near the garbage bin, occasionally in the wash basin when there is one (often underneath it), it is everywhere. Corners are the evergreen — I mean ever red — favourites. In public places in particular, rare is a corner which is not spat in; the pan and katha often creating a layer so thick it could be peeled off if someone felt the desire to do so.
So there is "spit in", meaning spit "in" the corner, which is rather clear to understand. Then there is the "spit at" and the "spit on". Clearly "spit at" is the most dangerous because the implications go far beyond excreting some secretion of the human salivary glands. "Spitting on" happens, but "spitting at" is an expression of disgust, anger and rejection. It is this "spitting at", that has been, at least in Hindi cinema, the critical pivot of many a story's entire plot.
"Heroine rejects advances by villain — spits at him (never on him), generally downwards and towards the side, twirls her nose, whirls around, and leaves the villain standing. Bad man can take anything, but cannot be spat at. Revenge!
Attempts to either kidnap woman or, worse, attempts rape. Enter hero... "
Moral of the story? Okay, one of the many morals — don't spit at someone because there can be retaliation.
But being "spat on" is different — it is almost inevitable, particularly in any one of India's hugely crowded cities. Co-lateral damage someone might call it, a professional hazard of being a pedestrian or using public transport or any public space for that matter.
My earliest memory on being spat on goes back many, many years. I was making this journey with a friend from Pune to the famous hill station of Mahabaleshwar. We'd managed to get seats in this new, well-furnished state transport bus with huge windows and lovely curtains. I'd pushed my friend aside, and jumped into the seat by the window. We had just begun climbing the ghats; the view was beautiful and a cool breeze blew into my face.
That's when I heard the old man in the seat in front of me starting to cough. He coughed gently a couple of times, paused a bit and then there was a loud and violent one, like we do to clear our throat. That's exactly what he had done and before I could say 68, I saw and heard him go "thooo"...
I actually saw this green slimy slob/blob of saliva and phlegm go flying out, turn around in a quick turn as the bus continued to climb up at a good pace, and come right back to hit my face that was peering out at the beautiful scenery. It happened faster than you read these lines, but it is etched in my memory in complete slow motion. Close your eyes and try going it over in your mind and you'll know — the slow motion, I mean.
The old man had seen what had happened, and before I could react, he had turned around and was profusely apologetic. What can you say to an old, ailing man who is being so sorry? I don't exactly remember what I told him. I do, however, remember suggesting that when he spits from a moving bus, the least he should do is ensure that it is downwards. It will at least ensure that what he emits does not go flying into someone else's face. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he kept saying and promptly handed me his handkerchief. At least he realised that the mistake was not mine, unlike a bus ride in Delhi a few years ago.
It was a bus crowded to the brim, and I had a window (again!) towards the rear end. A guy in his early 20s, in the seat ahead of me, leaned out and went — what else? — `Thooo... '. Red betel juice went flying in the air and sprayed back on the unfortunate me. I screamed a couple of choicest Hindi abuses — "You've no brains," I yelled. The boy was a little taken aback at my violent reaction. He was only doing the done thing. He apologized profusely, but I was in no mood to listen and kept abusing. He'd had enough. Offence, we all know, is the best form of defence. "Abey," he started aggressively in Hindi, "What's your problem? Did I ask you to put your head out of the window? Do what you can." And to prove his point, he turned his head to the window and went "thooo... " again. The only difference this time was the trajectory. It was directed nicely downwards, so that I would not get another chance to scream and abuse. I do remember hearing a scream and an expletive from outside the bus though. The bus picked up speed and we were gone.
What is it, I have never been able to understand, that makes India spit so much? Is it just the tobacco, the areca nut and the pan that we love so dearly, or is there more to it? I have no problems with their consumption, even increased ingestion. Can something, however, not be done of the problem of the spitting — at least from a moving bus?
Another white shirt of mine just got sprayed earlier this morning. I was in it too!

The Bed Of The Yamuna...


The great civilisations of the world, we all know, grew on the banks of the great rivers of the world. Many of the most important cities that human beings created were also located on the banks of these very rivers. There is nothing surprising about this, for rivers sustain. By their very nature, by the water that they bring and the fertility that they spread. Across civilisations therefore, rivers have always been respected and venerated - the mother, the giver of all sustenance and life.

Civilisations, it is said, can be judged by a number of ways. One is how you treat the most vulnerable and disprivileged in their societies. Another by the quantity and kind of garbage that is created and even another by how you treat your rivers.
And when you make your rivers the repositories of the garbage that you have created, it the worst of the two that are being married together.

The Yamuna, as it passes through the capital of the country is one good place to see what's happening. A day spent along, or even on the marshy bed of the river could be a lesson of a lifetime. There are myriad plants that still flourish in the stinky polluted waters; birds of all hues still flit amongst the big and small bushes; thousands of migratory waterfowl still make these waters their home every winter; the humans are there and so is their agriculture, their cattle, and yes, their waste.

All these leave behind their messages, their images and their signatures.

The bed of the river is heavily signed on by those who use the river and those who abuse the river.

In a sense, what we do a river we do to ourselves.

This is a set of images from bed of the River Yamuna in Delhi taken many winters ago…

The photofeature was first published in TERRAGREEN, Vol 3, Issue 4, Jan-Mar. 2007

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Moving on from a cataclysm

Photo Feature
Vol 20. No. 3, March 2007

Moving on from a cataclysm
Text and Photographs by Pankaj Sekhsaria

If there is a single day for which the Andaman and Nicobar Islands will be forever remembered, it is undoubtedly 26 December 2004. For the small chain of islands located far from mainland India, this was a tryst with a cataclysm, as huge waves engulfed the coasts with unforgiving power and ferocity.
Official estimates suggest that nearly 3500 people were washed away on that day, while about 8000 hectares of horticultural and agricultural land were permanently submerged. Two years later, there are no clear answers as to how the recovery process is proceeding. Part of the reason for this is because the islands are an extremely complex place – geographically, logistically, demographically and culturally. Not only are the Nicobars distinctly unique from the Andamans, but there are substantial differences even between the islands that make up each group. The earthquake and tsunami of 2004 also meted out different treatments to the various islands – to their respective ecologies and to the human communities, if any, that inhabit them.
Less than 10 percent of the over 500 islands constituting the Andaman and Nicobar group have human communities. The rest are uninhabited. In more ways than one, then, the impact of December 2004 can only be considered a natural phenomenon. Indeed, it has been argued that this is precisely the type of event that could, over a geological timescale, have been responsible for creating the islands in the first place.
Due to a host of complex phenomena, it was the Nicobars that were the worst hit by the tsunami. Each and every member of the indigenous Nicobari community of nearly 40,000 was affected. And yes, the process of rehabilitation is far from over. It has, in fact, barely begun.
One of the least-known aspects of the disaster of December 2004 is the fact that the earthquake that catalysed the tsunami also caused a permanent and vast transformation to the coastline of the islands, particularly in the Nicobars. With a pivot located roughly around Port Blair, the Andaman Islands were thrust upwards by five feet in the extreme north, whereas the Nicobars subsided by anywhere from five to 15 feet. This is a permanent change, the likes of which are rarely, if ever, seen.

Protected Area Update

News and Information from protected areas in India and South Asia
Vol. XIII No. 2April 2007 (No. 66)
Pilgrims and PAs
58 rhino deaths in Kaziranga NP in 2006
Centre agrees to Assam plea for increase in elephant depredation compensation
Rs. One crore for Pobitora WLS
Two rhinos released in Manas
Call to declare the Khabalu-Ghagarmukh stretch of River Subansiri in Lakhimpur as a river dolphin sanctuary
Migratory bird deaths in Sukhna; bird flu ruled out
New Ceacilian found near Mhadei WLS
Gir lions to be moved to Barda
Gujarat Government to form 'Gujarat Lion Conservation Society'
Efforts to reduce lion mortalities, conflict in Gir
Meeting held to discuss Bhindawas WLS
Over 1,00,000 birds in Pong Dam WLS
Training for Jharkhand PA staff
New Tiger Reserve to include Dandeli WLS, Anshi NP and Mahaveer WLS in Goa
Walls to deal with human-elephant conflict
Marine national park proposed for Netrani Island
Fire threat to Bandipur, Nagarhole NPs
FD seeks power to shoot illegal miners
Scheme approved for forest villages outside protected areas
WII study indicates 9 tigers in 185 sq. kms of Panna NP
Village relocation starts from Tadoba Andhari TR
Vigil in Sanjay Gandhi NP and Tungareshwar WLS for Mahashivratri
Eco-festival in Bhimashanker WLS on occasion of Mahashivratri
Indo-Bangladesh border patrol road to pass through Dampa TR
FD objection to power lines inside Lakheri Valley WLS
Seven sites for 'Conservation and Management of Wetlands and Mangroves' Scheme
Kin of elephant attack victims get compensation
HC probe into Badrama Wildlife Division tree-felling
Sea turtle nesting sites for tourism development
Hydrophones to study Chilika dolphins
Crab culture project in Chilika area
Concerns over tourism plans in Chilika
Villagers volunteer land for mangrove regeneration near Bhitarkanika
1482 crocodiles counted in Bhitarkanika
Dogs sterilized to save Orissa turtles
Fisherman shot dead; forest guard arrested; colleagues boycott protection duty at Gahirmatha
Rajasthan to set up a Tiger Cell
Wildlife sanctuary proposed at Sujilkuttai near Bhavanisagar
Augmenting tourist facilities in Indira Gandhi WLS
Wildlife census in Indira Gandhi WLS
Deer census in Guindy NP in May
Wildlife census in Tamil Nadu from March 12
Elephant rides resumed at Mudumalai too
ATREE newsletter on KMTR
CEC approves road through Askote WLS
State to purchase 50 elephants for patrolling, tourism
Luxury cruise to Sunderbans from Kolkata
Survey finds no river terrapin in Sunderbans
Steps to check illegal felling in Buxa TR, North Bengal region
Elephants kill two timber smugglers in Buxa
Workshop held for National Policy for Human-Leopard Conflict
New technology for tracking small animals
Definition of Forest
Rs. 65 crore for National Tiger Conservation Authority
Members of the NTCA appointed
Training Programme on Wildlife Crime Management in Guwahati
Gold mining being allowed in Hukuang Valley Tiger Reserve
Locals in Chitwan buffer zone demand action against warden
Army initiatives in Nepal for wildlife protection
1850 elephants killed in Sri Lanka in 15 years
India signs IOSEA Marine Turtle MoU
Call for entries: Vatavaran Environment Film Festival 2007
Call for papers on failed proposals for protected areas
State of Environment 2005 - Andaman and Nicobar Islands
'Carnivore Conflict': Support provided to leopards in Conflict related cases in Maharashtra
Environmental Issues in India - A Reader
Opportunities with GEER in Gujarat
Position available in project on epiphytes
Volunteers needed for survey of Bugun Liocichla around Eaglenest WLS
Curatorial Technical Education staff needed for new nature facility in South India
Samrakshan Trust needs Conservation Awareness Officer


Many protected areas across the country, be it the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra, the Sariska and Ranthambore Tiger Reserves in Rajasthan, Gir in Gujarat, the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala or the Biligiri Ranga Temple Sanctuary in Karnataka have one thing that binds them.Deep in the heart of these PAs with rich forests and a diversity of wildlife are important and extremely popular places for worship; sites that are revered and visited by lakhs of pilgrims every year. In many places the traffic of the devout is a steady, regular stream flowing through the year. On special occasions like the recently passed Mahashivratri this stream becomes a flood and lakhs of visitors descend to these areas.The pressure this creates on the forests, the wildlife and basic amenities like water and sanitation can well be imagined. It can also be argued that changing times and values are destroying the very sanctity that made them sacred in the first place. What is also clear is that we have little understanding or capacity to deal with these situations and particularly so because these are within areas kept aside for wildlife.Some efforts, however, are being made like we saw on the occasion of Mahashivratri in Maharashtra in February (see stories below). We also know of initiatives from other places like Periyar where there are joint efforts with the local communities to deal with this specific situation of a huge number of pilgrims.For a deeply religious country like India the challenges and questions that this throws to us are, of course, huge and daunting. Can we have a pilgrimage in forest areas that is different from what we see elsewhere? How can the communities, both the local residents and the visiting thousands, be part of the solution? Can we conceptualise and execute systems that make a difference? Can / does the conservation community see this as an opportunity of educating the huge numbers a little more about the animals, the forests and their importance? Can NGOs, the Forest Department and other interested parties come together to send back a pilgrim who is a little more aware of the environment and sensitive to the imperatives of conservation.A good starting point might be an effort to comprehensively document such situations and also the small and scattered efforts that are indeed being made. There might be lessons to learn and share.The questions, needless to say, are easy to ask; the solutions, if any, will be extremely tough.

Issues of the Protected Area can be accessed at

Vol. XIII, No. 2, April 2007 (No. 66)
Editor: Pankaj Sekhsaria
Illustrations: Madhuvanti Anantharajan
Produced by: Kalpavriksh
Ideas, comments, news and information may please be sent to the editorial address:KALPAVRIKSH, Apartment 5, Shri Dutta Krupa, 908 Deccan Gymkhana, Pune 411004, Maharashtra, India. Tel/Fax: 020 - 25654239.Email:

Production of PA Update 66 has been supported by Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), Anand.