Friday, April 17, 2009



Down to Earth, April 30, 2009

PANKAJ SEKHSARIA finds out why handloom is viable—yet neglected

(All pics by Pankaj Sekhsaria)

V Venkataswamy u/s—a small sign painted in grey beside the door of a locked house in the new weavers colony of Chinnur in the Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh. It is an image from a visit almost a decade ago, but it remains vividly etched in my mind. So does the story.

U/s stood for unskilled and this is what Venkataswamy had advertized about himself. I never met Venkataswamy, but was told he was employed as a chowkidar in the Mineral Exploration Corporation Limited—in the identity card issued by his employers he had been identified as: V Venkataswamy u/s.

He gave up the chowkidar’s job, moved to Bhilai to work as domestic help for a while and then came back to Chinnur to make a living as an autorickshaw driver.

The unskilled Venkataswamy was in fact one of the finest weavers of cotton handlooms in the entire region.

Why did Venkataswamy give up weaving? How did he get the u/s label? Why did he accept it? Did he not believe weaving needed skill? What kind of a system do we have that turns a craftsperson into a daily wage earner and then brands him u/s?

Naturally coloured red-cotton (Erra patti) and hill-cotton (Konda patti), traditional varieties of cotton grown and used in the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh


Certain basic facts might help explain the continued and vital relevance of this industry to the country and place the unskilled story in context. Andhra Pradesh is a good case in point. Not only is the state known for some of the most famous handloom traditions like the khadi of Ponduru, the silks of Pochampalli and the handloom sarees of Mangalgiri and Gadwal, it also provides employment to nearly 200,000 families across the state and generates an annual output of more than Rs 1,000 crore. A large number of families are also involved in activities that are considered ancillary but critical to the handloom production cycle.

Most pre-loom processes, particularly in the khadi making process are done by women. The women of Ponduru (Srikakulam district) are extremely skilled spinners are can generate very fine yarn of counts upto 120 which is usually used for producing muslins

Weaver at the loom, Aidugullapally village, Krishna district. The handloom weaving process is one in which there is no consumption of fossil fuel energy in the entire process of fabric production

The national scenario is not very different—an estimated 12 million families are employed in the handloom sector that produces nearly 13 per cent of the nation’s textiles. It is a livelihood that is rooted in the local context of the weaver, is completely in control of the weaving family, involves high degree of skill and precision and is one of the most environment friendly and economically viable activities, whose carbon emission, for instance, is virtually nil.

That the handloom industry has not got the kind of understanding and support it deserves from the State, from society as a whole as also from the consumer, is well known. What is perhaps less known is in the past few years there have been a number of promising initiatives that connect the weaver with the rapidly changing realities of urban markets and design sensibilities that are constantly evolving. There is a whole basket of such new attempts—larger ones like the entrepreneurship based business models of Fabindia and Anokhi; non-governmental initiatives like those of Urmul in Rajasthan and Dastkar Andhra in Andhra Pradesh and smaller, localized ventures like the Charkha Weavers co-operative run by dalit women in Karnataka’s Shimoga district. Hundreds of other weavers co-operatives work well across the country and there is also a growing interest in the international market. These initiatives prove that the concern over the viability of handlooms is misplaced.

The group of young weavers from Kolluru village in a training workshop organized by Dastkar Andhra in their village in Adilabad district

The point was driven home to me recently when I visited the small village of Kolluru in Adilabad district. Eight youngsters here have recently taken up weaving as part of an initiative of the non-profit Dastkar Andhra. Talking to those enthusiastic youngsters revealed that all stories need not be like that of Venkataswamy’s. Like a large number of young men in rural India today, these eight had no permanent jobs earlier. What they managed at best was 15 days of agriculture labour work a month.

“I used to work on fields, spraying pesticide,” said 21-year-old Sampath, who is part of this group of new weavers. “The monthly income was never more than Rs 2,000. After I have taken up weaving, my income has gone up to Rs 3,000.” This is far less strenuous compared to labouring on fields or construction sites,” added Sampath’s colleague Bhaskar.” Putting up a loom requires Rs 10,000. The nature of the profession is such that more family members can join and boost income. “We feel proud,” Sampath said, “when we wear what we have woven and see others wearing our fabric.”

The choice before India is evident. More Venkataswamys of Chinnur? Or more Bhaskars and Sampaths of Kolluru? Does the question need be asked even?

Pankaj Sekhsaria is a journalist and photographer. His first photographic exhibition on Andhra Pradesh’s cotton handloom industry was held in 2008


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Himalayan Degradation

Himalayan Degradation — Colonial Forestry and Environmental Change in India
Dhirendra Datt Dangwal.

Published by Foundation Books (2009, Pages: 324 Price Rs 895)

Under The Weather

Review by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Himalayan Degradation: Colonial Forestry And Environment Change In IndiaThe Himalayan region is without doubt one of the most spectacular and enigmatic landscapes on the surface of the planet. For the people of the Indian subcontinent, in particular, it links up to almost every dimension of life be it myth, history and culture; water and agriculture or issues related to environmental protection and development.

Environmental movements in the region, be it Chipko that strived to protect the forests from timber extraction or the unsuccessful effort to prevent the construction of the Tehri dam in more recent times have pride of place in the modern environmental history of the country. One recent protest that has been in the news a bit is former Professor from IIT Kanpur, G.D. Agarwal’s effort to bring attention to and oppose the destruction of the Bhagirathi River for the generation of hydro-electricity. The river is being directed into a series of tunnels to such an extent that the main channel from Gaumukh to Dharasu downstream of Uttarkashi (almost 120 kms) will be devoid of water almost completely for most of the year. It’s not damming of the river, but it’s a death warrant in any case.

It was with this news in the background that I started reading Himalayan Degradation — Colonial Forestry and Environmental Change in India by Dhirendra Datt Dangwal. Though not about the rivers of the Himalayas, the book was about the same region where the Bhagirathi flows and it promised to provide interesting insights and understanding of the region.

There were two things in the first few pages of the book that seemed to make it an exciting prospect to read. First, of course, was the subject, particularly the link that the author was making between issues of agricultural and pastoral systems in the Himalayas and those of forests, forest management and colonial forestry. Lots of environmental research and work in the Himalayas has revolved primarily around the issues of forest and forest degradation and it is welcome that attention is now moving to these other sectors that are not only linked to forests but also very important in themselves.

The second aspect that promised to make the book a welcome read was the language itself, particularly when the general experience of reading historical research by academics ends up being a tedious exercise. “Forest degradation,” the author says in the preface, “significantly undercut the livelihood of the people of this Himalayan region and had an impact on a much larger area beyond it. Thus, though degradation primarily occurred in the Himalaya, it was Himalayan in scale as well. Hence, the title of the book, Himalayan Degradation.”

Having said that, the book ended up disappointing on both accounts. Part I in particular that dealt with the context and the agrarian system comes across as mainly a series of names (of people and places) and numbers of figures accessed from a wide set of British chroniclers. While setting the context is certainly important, a person who is not entirely familiar with the region is left reeling under what seems like an onslaught of this information and analysis and insights just do not keep pace. The writing too fails here though a good deal of the blame for that should go to the editing, that is outright sloppy in parts. There is a table, for instance, on page 198 where the entire the Year column has all the wrong years and figures in the table are wrongly mentioned in the accompanying text. Niggling errors and oversights like this appear through the manuscript.

The second part of the book that deals more with forests and their management is more convincing and the narrative too flows much better. Dangwal deals in extensive detail on the nature of the enterprise of ‘scientific forestry’ that the British introduced to their colony, the main reasons behind it and importantly the hugely negative impacts this had on the forests, on agriculture in the mountains, on pastoralism and ultimately on the economic well being of the residents.

The author also delves into the question of ‘sustainable nature of scientific forestry’ and challenges the notion of sustainability quite effectively. There are significant figures in the Chapter ‘Commercialisation of Forests, Timber Extraction and Deforestation’ that point to the huge scale of timber extraction here — the railways being one of the main consumers. The total length of tracks in 1910,” the author points out, “was 32,099 miles, for which the annual demand was 4 million sleepers. Only 1.5 million sleepers were for new lines, the rest were for renewal of the existing tracks.” There were other demands to; for fuel and timber for carriages and wagons also for the Navy and its ships and the pressure this put on the forests can well be imagined.

While local communities have been mainly blamed for environmental degradation in the mountains, Dangwal contends that, it was the extraction of timber for commercial reasons and the forest management system put in place by the British that lies at the root of the problem. It is, in fact, an idea he lays out in the very beginning of his book and then goes about providing proof for it.

Does he succeed? He does, but just about and not because the information is not there for it. Better linkages, better analysis, better writing and better editing could have made this book a much better and more convincing read.

Pankaj Sekhsaria is a freelance journalist and photographer and is associated with the environmental NGO Kalpavriksh

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Trouble in tiger country

Trouble in tiger country


Six tiger reserves, over 6,000 sq km of protected forests and the highest numbers of tigers in any State in India. Those statistics would suggest that all is well with tiger conservation in Madhya Pradesh. Nothing can be farther from the truth…

Photo: Pankaj Sekhsaria.

Conflict of interests: Tourists at the Pench Tiger Reserve.

It is the heart of India and one of the prime destinations for tiger tourism in the country. With more than 6,000 sq km of forests protected as six tiger reserves and tiger numbers amongst the highest in any State, Madhya Pradesh’s claim to being the tiger State of the country might well seem justified. The latest tiger census conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India projected the tiger population in the State to be between 236 and 364 and it is not surprising that huge resources are being spent in the State for conservation and protection of wildlife in general, and the tiger in particular. In 2008 alone, the Central Government allocated nearly Rs. 25 crores to Madhya Pradesh for tiger conservation and the importance shown is evident from the fact that only Rs. Two crores were allocated to Tamil Nadu for the same period for the same purpose.

But is all indeed hunky dory for the tiger in the State of Madhya Pradesh? Scratch the surface a little and there is huge evidence of mounting trouble in the heart of tiger country. One only has to look at a range of related, but diverse, recent reports and the challenges that lie ahead loom larger than ever.

Panna goes the Sariska way

One of the most striking developments has been the official admission that the situation in the Panna Tiger Reserve is grim, resulting in a move in early March to translocate two tigresses, one each from Bandavgarh and Kanha to Panna. This is particularly significant considering that researchers studying the tiger here had been pointing out for sometime now that the situation was precarious and that Panna might indeed be going the Sariska way. Writing in the June 2008 issue of the wildlife periodical Sanctuary Asia, researchers Dr. Raghu Chundawat and Joanna Van Gruisen also pointed out that their research had shown that approximately 80-100 per cent of Panna’s breeding tigress population had disappeared fearing the creation of a “bachelor’s park”.

The translocation, however, has been mired in controversy. Locals, including villagers, tourist guides and taxi drivers in Kanha TR, went on strike to protest the move of the tigress to Panna. They questioned the logic of the translocation when resident tigers of Panna had been poached away with impunity and were also worried of the impact on their own business if tigers from Kanha were taken away to other parks.

In another related development, eight prominent tiger conservationists of the country, including Mr. Valmik Thapar, Mr. Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary, Mr. P.K. Sen, Former Director, Project Tiger and Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, have jointly released a statement expressing distress over the translocation carried out by the Madhya Pradesh authorities. “We are deeply concerned,” the statement says, “that there has been absolutely no evidence of any tigers in Panna Tiger Reserve for over a month. The last lone male tiger was sighted in December 2008. If the safety of this single male tiger cannot be secured, then what is the future for any introduced tigresses?”

The statement goes on to point out that the translocation operation was carried out even before the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) had completed the latest census report for the park; that advice from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines (which stress the need to identify and eliminate previous causes of decline) were not adhered to; and there has been no reference to any of India’s experienced and knowledgeable tiger scientists and experts. An application protesting the non-transparency of the relocation and the breaking of the NTCA guidelines is also said to be have been filed before the Jabalpur High Court.

Gaur relocation

Another development that has run into trouble is the MP Forest Department’s project initiated about a year ago to move about 20 gaur from the Kanha Tiger Reserve to Bandavgarh because the animals were not being sighted in Bandavgarh. The project was to be executed with the help of the Conservation Corporation of Africa which has set up the Taj Safari Company in co-operation with the Taj group and has tourism properties around tiger reserves in MP. Questions were being asked on the wisdom of spending huge resources (estimated to be Rs. 1.25 crore) on this translocation and, as if on cue, some gaur were spotted in August 2008 in forests adjoining those of Bandavgarh. While the FD confirmed these sightings, it also reiterated that it was going ahead with the translocation project.

Photo: Joanna Van Gruisen

Where is He now? The last sighted tiger of Panna, photographed in January 2008.

Unfortunately for them, however, the NTCA too has come out against the project now. Secretary NTCA, Dr. Rajesh Gopal, pointed to the fact that gaur had also been sighted in the forests here during the recent tiger census and that efforts needed to be made to revive the gaur population in Bandavgarh itself and to restore the wildlife corridors with adjoining forest areas. The Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) has now asked the State government to re-examine the status of the gaur in Bandavgarh and plans for the translocation project have been put on hold for the present.

Road threat to Pench

Another project that the NTCA has helped put on hold in a similar manner is the widening of National Highway 7 (NH-7) in areas that adjoins the Pench Tiger Reserve. In a recent decision taken by the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee, the Chief Secretary of MP has been asked to halt tree cutting for the road widening project that is part of the government’s Golden Quadrilateral programme. The order came in response to a petition filed by the Wildlife Trust of India and following a strong recommendation by the NTCA that it must be stopped. The stay might be temporary but has been widely welcomed by the wildlife conservation community.

And trouble in Kanha too…

The same can certainly not be said of other reports from Kanha Tiger Reserve, perhaps the most famous and well known of India’s tiger habitats. In what seems like a bizarre set of developments over the last few months, the Forest Department and the Police have been accusing each other of neglect in matters related to those of tiger protection. This, even as six tiger deaths have been reported here since November 2008 alone (see box for details). In a letter to the NTCA in December 2008, Kanha Director R.P. Singh listed a number of concerns related to the working of the police: interference in the booking of forest rest houses inside the tiger reserve; not providing information about investigations into tiger poaching incidents; and even that the police seemed more interested in getting rewards for skins seized from poachers. He also expressed apprehension that the informers used by the police to fight naxalites in the region might actually be directly involved in cases of poaching.

The Police on the other hand have said that it is the forest officials who are not following correct procedures in dealing with cases of tiger deaths. It was, in fact, a letter sent in November to the National Wildlife Crime Control Bureau by the Superintendent of Police (SP), Mandla, that is said to have started this chain of responses and reactions.

Murky waters

When contacted, a senior wildlife official of the State sought to downplay the matter but it is clear that the waters are rather murky. There are fundamental issues of transparency, responsibility and accountability that are involved here and important questions that arise immediately. Can conservation succeed if the key agencies responsible for it operate in such a manner? How realistic would it be in a situation like this for the local communities and others to trust enforcement agencies, leave alone co-operate with them? There are many in the field, for instance, who would vouch for the fact that the involvement of enforcement agencies, be it the Police or even the FD in malafide and corrupt practices is much more common than we are willing to accept. The Kanha case is significant because differences between the agencies have actually forced the matter onto a larger platform.

When top agencies themselves seem to be floundering so badly in such high profile areas such as Bandavgarh, Kanha and Panna, what, one might ask, will be the situation in the lesser known forests and protected areas of the State? One can’t say for sure, but then, only the bravest is likely to hazard a guess of any kind.

Recent deaths

Confirmed tiger deaths inside Kanha TR. Information compiled by the Wildlife Protection Society of India

Adult male tiger electrocuted near Sautia village, Kanha TR – November 1, 2008

Two young tiger cubs found dead near Indri Camp, Kanha TR – January 3, 2009

Adult male tiger found dead near Salghat, Kanha TR – January 18, 2009

Adult male tiger found dead near Aurai Camp, Kanha TR – January 31, 2009

Adult male tiger found dead near Dhamman Village, Kanha TR – March 4, 2009