Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fort full of life



Jaisalmer Fort’s uniqueness – it supports a huge resident population – may also be the greatest threat to its existence.

A view of the fort, which has inside it residential quarters, temples, hotels and markets.

MENTION the word fort and the images that come to mind are all too common – elaborate histories; kings, queens and palace intrigues; battle-worn warriors; huge stone ramparts with intricate carvings; crumbling walls of empty palaces; and large desolate spaces, peopled these days by a large number of tourists. All forts are about history, of accounts of the past and of stories of the dead. All forts, except one!

In the far western corner of India is an exceptional fort that rises like a golden miracle from the flat, unforgiving sands of the Thar desert. Constructed atop the Trikuta Hill in Jaisalmer, it is the second oldest fort in Rajasthan and one of the largest in the world.

The thoroughfare leading to the fort. The spherical stone balls on the wall were used against intruders.

Three layers of walls constitute this magnificent structure. The outer, or lower, layer is made of solid stone blocks that also help reinforce the rubble of the hill. The middle wall, or second layer, snakes around the fort. The third and innermost wall was the vantage from where Rajput warriors hurled boiling oil and water and massive round rocks at intruders. The fort also has 99 bastions, 92 of which were built between 1633 and 1647.

The palace complex inside the fort. It is a museum now.

What is perhaps most fascinating, however, is that for the better part of its 800-year history, the fort was the city of Jaisalmer and the city the fort. Like all forts, Jaisalmer has its own history – a fascinating blend of fact, myth and legend.

In 1156 A.D., Rawal Jaisal, a descendant of the Yadav clan and a Bhatti Rajput, is said to have abandoned his fort at Lodurva, about 18 kilometres away, and, on the advice of a local hermit, founded the new fort and capital of Jaisalmer.

A fresco on a wall of the palace.

The fort stood at the crossroads of important trade routes that camel caravans used to carry silk, spices and dry fruits to Central Asia. In the 13th century, Alauddin Khilji famously attacked and conquered the fort and held on to it for nearly nine years. His attack, it is believed, was provoked by a Bhatti raid on a caravan. The next important war occurred nearly three centuries later when the Mughal emperor Humayun attacked the fort in 1541. Many more raids followed as the fortunes of the owners fluctuated, as happens in the course of history.

The first settlements outside the fort walls, to accommodate the growing population of Jaisalmer, are said to have come up in the 17th century. Today these settlements have spread out in all directions around the fort.

Colourful turbans for sale inside the fort complex.

However fascinating the history of Jaisalmer may be, there is one dimension of the fort that makes it unique: it is believed to be one of the very few (perhaps the only) “living forts”. An entire community lives within its walls – residential quarters, temples, hotels, restaurants and markets exist cheek by jowl in an unlikely mosaic. An estimated 5,000 people reside inside the fort. Thousands of others visit the fort annually as tourists. Chaiwallas ply their trade under ancient arches, modern restaurants operate under open skies, traders run curio shops in the narrow winding streets. Not surprisingly, the fort is popular in the world of cinema. The most well known perhaps is Satyajit Ray’s 1974 production, Sonar Kella (Golden Fort). It is said to have provided the first big boost to tourism in the region. A more recent production that featured the fort is the Bollywood film Nanhe Jaisalmer featuring Bobby Deol.

A folk musician at the entrance to the fort.

A striking aspect of the fort is the group of Jain temples constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries. They were built, it is believed, to protect some 11th century palm manuscripts. They are popular pilgrimage sites and are also of considerable archaeological importance. Dedicated to the various Jain tirthankaras, these are built in the famous Dilwara style, which takes its name from the temple complex located on the hill station of Mount Abu, also in Rajasthan.

The fort museum is very popular with tourists for its collection of royal items and a depiction of the life of the Bhatti rajas and other people who lived here. In addition, Jaisalmer is famous for its intricately carved havelis, many of which are inhabited by descendants of the original owners. Some are located within the fort, while others, like the Patwon ki Haveli, are outside it.

Foreign tourists getting a feel of fort life. Tourism is a great revenue earner for Jaisalmer.

The Jaisalmer Fort is by no means the only attraction of this desert region. The sandy, barren and seemingly lifeless landscape is home to a dazzling array of wildlife that is rare and threatened. Not far from the fort, straddling the districts of Jaisalmer and Barmer, is the Desert National Park that sprawls over nearly 3,100 sq. km. It is as unique an ecosystem as it is fragile. It is a little-known system that plays host to a wide variety of life – mammals such as the cinkara, the Indian wolf and the desert fox; reptiles such as the monitor lizard, the spiny tailed lizard and the saw-scaled viper; and birds such as the imperial sand grouse, the common sand grouse, the crane (common and demoiselle), the partridge, the vulture, the pea fowl and the great Indian bustard.

A pair of great Indian bustards. Only about 500 of these birds remain on the planet, and the Desert National Park offers the best chance to see them.

The Desert National Park offers the best chance to see the great Indian bustard. Only about 500 of these birds, known as the Gondavan in local language, remain on the planet. Some reports say it has been wiped out over 90 per cent of its former range and survives only in a few places in the country – parts of Rajasthan; Kutch in Gujarat; the Solapur, Vidarbha and Marathwada regions of Maharashtra; and some parts of Andhra Pradesh.

The 2,000-acre Sudasri enclosure in the national park is located 50 km from Jaisalmer and is popular among those wanting a glimpse of desert wildlife. And the surprises continue; wildlife ‘safaris’ can be done on camel carts organised by the Forest Department.


Not all those who visit Jaisalmer are interested in or make the effort to step out to look at the wild wealth of the region. The fort remains the star attraction, and no visitor to Jaisalmer comes away without being impressed by it. Not everyone, however, is aware of the serious challenges faced by this priceless heritage. The Jaisalmer Fort finds mention in two negative lists, if one can call them that. The Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC) has, for instance, listed it among the 15 most significant but endangered cultural sites of the world. “The world’s most precious historic and artistic sites can be visited today – but might be gone tomorrow,” it says. The fort is also on the list of eight “threatened wonders” put out by Wanderlust, the United Kingdom-based travel magazine.

Surprising though it may sound, it is water that is at the heart of the fort’s miseries. When it was built, the fort had no provision for flowing water or sewage disposal. Until recently, residents sourced water from wells located within the fort. Piped water supply is available now and a sewage system has also been put in place. These changes, experts argue, are proving disastrous. Water that flows in and leaks from the system is seeping into and impacting the foundations of the fort.

A desert fox at the park.

The heavy monsoon of 1993 is said to have permanently or partially damaged nearly 250 historical buildings. Recent earthquakes have made things worse. In 2001, an earthquake that measured 7 on the Richter scale caused unprecedented damage. More recently, additional faultlines have been discovered in the region, raising concern about the impact another earthquake will have on the fort.

Efforts are being made to deal with the situation, and a number of international and national agencies, such as the Jaisalmer in Jeopardy Trust, the Jaisalmer Heritage Trust, the World Monuments Fund (U.S.), and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), are at work in Jaisalmer. The biggest challenge would be to resolve the issues around water usage.

There is some apprehension in the people living in the fort that steps taken to save it will impact the tourism industry that they depend on for their livelihood.

That this is a “living fort” makes the challenge of restoration and conservation much more difficult. The challenge has to be met successfully if this 800-year-old fort is to continue living far into the future.



The earthquake that caused the tsunami of December 2004 has altered the topography and ecology of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands forever, writes Pankaj Sekhsaria. So far the impact of such marked changes in topography do not seem to have been taken into account by policymakers and government

Sippighat, outside Port Blair, submerged after the tsunami

If there is one thing that immediately springs to mind when the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are mentioned today, it is the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004. Official figures give a sense of the massive damage that was caused to life and property: over 3,500 people dead or missing; nearly 8,000 hectares of paddy and plantation rendered useless; 938 boats completely damaged; more than 150,000 head of cattle lost.

These aggregated figures for the entire island chain hide an important detail that has not received the attention and analysis it deserves.

Of the 3,513 people reported dead or missing only 64 were from the Andaman group of islands; the remaining 3,449 were from the islands in the Nicobar group. Seventy-six per cent of the agricultural and paddy land destroyed, and 80% of livestock loss were also reported from the Nicobars. Likewise, nearly 70% of the construction of new housing for the tsunami-affected is in the Nicobar Islands.

It is evident that the impact of the tsunami was much greater in the Nicobar Islands than in the Andamans. So, while the Nicobars account for only 22% and 12% of the area and population, respectively, of the entire chain of islands, 98% of the deaths and 76% of loss of agricultural land occurred here. The damage caused was inversely proportional to the area and population of the two groups of islands, and strikingly so (see Table 1 and Table 2).

Tectonic movements

Although the tsunami was seen as the main cause of the damage, it was actually the earthquake that caused the tsunami in the first place that was responsible for most of the damage here. While the tectonic movements triggered by the earthquake catalysed the tsunami, they also caused a huge and permanent shift in the lay of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Assessments by a number of scientists from various institutes, including the University of Colorado in the USA and the Geological Survey of India, indicate that the Andaman group of islands were thrust upwards by four to six feet while parts of the Nicobar Islands went significantly under -- four feet of submergence in Car Nicobar; nearly 15 feet at the southernmost tip -- Indira Point -- on Great Nicobar Island. This important change in the lay of the islands was reported to have occurred almost immediately after the earthquake, a few minutes before the huge waves struck the coastline. Pre- and post-earthquake satellite maps released by the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) show striking visual evidence of this. It also explains the huge submergence and damage experienced in the Nicobars, though this group covers a relatively small area and is more thinly populated.

Jogindernagar, Great Nicobar

Ecological changes

Tectonic activity and the submergence and emergence it caused also resulted in significant ecological changes in the islands. A survey by the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team revealed, for instance, that huge areas (nearly 60 sq km) of coral reefs along the western and northern coasts of Middle and North Andaman Islands were lifted up, permanently exposed, and destroyed. Studies in the Nicobar group of islands by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Nature (SACON) showed that immense damage was caused to coastal ecosystems by the joint impact of the tsunami waves and the permanent subsidence and resultant permanent ingress of seawater. Coastal features like beaches, mangroves and littoral forests were the most badly impacted. Coastal wildlife like the endemic Nicobari megapode, the giant robber crab and the Malayan box turtle were among the species worst affected.

Coral reefs off the coasts of the Nicobars were also hit by a combination of submergence, a resultant increase in turbidity, and physical damage caused by tonnes of debris thrown back and forth by the furious water. A survey conducted by the Zoological Survey of India reported large-scale sedimentation on coral reefs around Great Nicobar Island, following the tsunami. A drop in the number of associated coral reef fauna, including nudibranchs, flat worms, alpheid and mantis shrimps, and hermit and brachyuran crabs was also reported.

Mangroves, Mayabundar, North Andaman

Increased vulnerabilities

Significantly, the region is reported to have become much more seismically active now. Data gathered by the United States Geological Service (USGS) show that over 20 earthquakes of a magnitude above M6, in addition to several hundred of lesser intensity, have struck the region in the last five years. The most powerful was the September 2007 quake that had a magnitude greater than M8. It was followed by a tsunami warning; there have been at least half-a-dozen such warnings since 2004.

It would appear that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which have always been seismically active and therefore unstable, are even more vulnerable now. It is crucial that this increased threat becomes an important aspect of policy and development planning on the islands. Likewise, changes in the islands’ topography on account of tectonic movements must be factored into future planning. An important dimension, for instance, is the alteration along the coasts of all the islands of the high tide line (HTL). Unless this is recalibrated, any management or implementation of laws and regulations related to the coastal zone cannot be carried out effectively. They would in fact be meaningless.

Table 1: Island-wise losses
Island People (dead or missing) Livestock loss Agricultural land lost Permanent housing Area Population (2001)
Total number Per cent Total number Per cent Area in hectares Per cent Number Per cent Sq km Per cent Number Per cent
Andamans 64 2 31,521 20 1,877 23.5 2,796 28.6 6,408 77.68 314,048 88.1
South Andaman 7 19,634 1,667 823
Little Andaman 54 11,165 117 1,973
Middle Andaman 722 93
Nicobar 3,449 98 126,056 80 6,115 76.5 7,001 71.4 1,841 22.32 42,068 11.9
Car Nicobar 854 50,350 969.35 3,941
Chowra 117 11,896 230.4 346
Teressa 17,307 743.96 506
Katchal 1,551 18,678 1,628.50 315
Nancowry 378 1,440 256.57 269
Kamorta 7,501 637.4 518
Trinket 2,590 328.5
Little Nicobar 2,267 111
Great Nicobar 549 12,298 1,291.28 995
Kondul 336
Pilomilow 823
Bambooka 570 29.55
Total 3,513 157,577 100 7,992 100 9,797 100 8,249 100 356,252 100

Table 2: Losses in percentage (island-wise)
Andamans (%) Nicobars (%) Total
Area (sq km) 6,408 (77.68) 1,841(22.32) 8,249
Population (2001) 314,048 (88) 42,068 (12) 356,252
People (dead or missing) 64 (2) 3,449 (98) 3,513
Livestock loss 31,521 (20) 126,056 (80) 157,577
Agricultural land lost (hectares) 1,877 (23.5) 6,115 (76.5) 7,992
Permanent housing 2,796(28.6) 7,001 (71.4) 9,797

The changed scenario also has direct implications on issues like land that can and cannot be allotted for reconstruction or for agriculture and plantation, as also on the materials and design of new buildings being built on the islands.

Fishers in Great Nicobar

All these aspects need careful consideration because they are the foundations on which any scenario for the future of the islands must be built. Many worry that they are not being given the importance and consideration they deserve. This was starkly evident in September 2009, when former President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam was in Port Blair to unveil Andaman Vision 2020 “for the strategic development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by the year 2020”. Speaking at a national seminar on ‘Security and Development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands’, Kalam advocated, amongst other things, the construction of a 250 MW dedicated nuclear power station on the islands, and use of the islands as bases for static aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine-based fleet.

It’s as though the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004, and the hundreds of subsequent earthquakes, did not happen at all! Whatever visions of power we might have for ourselves, ‘security and development’ cannot be ensured by industrial and military might alone. If we ignore the foundational contours of the region’s topography, its seismic instability, and its environment, we only increase the risks and our subsequent vulnerability. And we do so at our own peril.

(Pankaj Sekhsaria is the author of Troubled Islands -- Writings on the Indigenous Peoples and Environment of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands)

Infochange News & Features, April 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Day of the dolphin

Day of the dolphin


The Gangetic River Dolphin has been notified as the national aquatic animal. Will this save the animal from the many threats it faces today? PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

If the dolphin must have its day, good intentions alone will not suffice.

Photo: Dr. Sandeep Behera

New lease of life:A Gangetic dolphin being released in Budhabalanga river in 2006. This was the first sighting of Gangetic dolphin in Orissa.

It can only be considered an extremely positive step that the Gangetic River Dolphin Platanista gangetica gangeticahas now been notified as the national aquatic animal. The decision was taken in the first meeting of the recently formed National Ganga River Basin Authority that was chaired by the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. The move has received an enthusiastic welcome by the conservation community. Writing in the November issue of the journal ZOO's Print, Dr. Randall Reeves, Chairman of IUCN/SSC Cetacean Specialist Group, expressed his pleasant surprise, “ see the small and somewhat cryptic freshwater dolphin occupying the ‘throne' of national aquatic animal…All things considered,” he continues, “it is an admirable decision by the Central Government to give this honour to the susu(as the Ganga dolphin is often called in India).”

The population of the endangered Gangetic Dolphin in India today is only about 2,000 individuals spread over the rivers of the Gangetic basin and the Brahmaputra river system. The dolphin and the rivers they live in are inextricably linked — something that can be seen in the way the creature has evolved to survive in these rather specialised environmental conditions. For one, these dolphins are almost blind — the turbid waters of the river systems having made the use of eyes almost redundant. The eyes are merely pin holes, have no lenses and are believed to be used only to differentiate between light and dark. They mainly use echo-location to find food along the floor of the river. They also exhibit another peculiar characteristic of swimming on the side, dragging one flipper against the muddy river bed. This, it is believed, enables them to navigate in water streams with low water depth, a well known characteristic of the seasonal rivers in the sub-continent.

Tied to the river

The water levels and flow patterns in rivers also greatly determine the spread and the migration of the dolphins. They are known to collect in deeper parts of the rivers with a preference for areas with eddies in the dry periods from October to April, and migrate to other stretches in the monsoons when the water levels rise.

The health of the river, then, is crucial to the long-term well-being of the dolphin.

While poaching for oil, fishing and accidental entanglement in nets are important concerns, there is evidence that dam and barrage construction is one of the biggest threats to the dolphin across its entire range. A 2006 WWF Nepal report points out, for instance, that “Barrages on the Mahakali River (Sarda in India) at Banbasa on the India-Nepal border in 1928, and at Sardanagar in 1974 about 160 km into Indian Territory, have resulted in the extinction of dolphins from the Mahakali River.”

Photo: Dr. Abdul Wakid.

Well Adapted :In Kukurmara area of Kulsi River near Guwahati, Assam.

Dams and barrages not only fragment dolphin populations, they also degrade downstream habitat, create reservoirs with high sedimentation and change the fish and invertebrate species found in the waters. Luxuriant growth of macrophytes and excessive siltation have, for example, eliminated suitable habitat immediately above the Farakka Barrage and reduction in water availability downstream of the barrage has eliminated dry-season habitat for more than 300 km.

The other big concern is the increased pollution of rivers caused by chemical pesticide and fertilizers runoff from agriculture and the indiscriminate release of untreated industrial effluents into rivers.

Research by a team led by Dr. Leo Yeung of the City University of Hongkong recently revealed that a huge pollutant load enters the Ganga at its confluence with the Yamuna in Allahabad. Their paper, published in the March 2009 issue of the journal Chemosphere, points out that “…(the Yamuna) is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world, especially around New Delhi, where approximately 57 per cent of the city's wastes are discharged into the river. There are approximately 45 major industries, including coal-based thermal power plants, fertilizer, food processing, textiles, insecticide manufacturing, and electroplating located along the river.”

The waters of the Yamuna and most of our other rivers that have been the source of life and nourishment for centuries are, now, almost dead themselves. The impact this has on the dolphins and other plant and animal life in the water and the millions of people who live along these rivers can only be imagined.

The fate of our rivers are symptomatic of deep and underlying problems with our development process where damming of rivers, chemicalisation of our agriculture, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation have been given priority over everything else. More than 168 large dams, for instance, have been planned in the Brahmaputra river basin alone, with little realisation that this will change the entire up and down stream ecological systems and adversely impact the dolphin. It is precisely these kinds of developments that are working as a noose around our rivers and the diverse life found in them. Recognition of the dolphin as the national aquatic animal has been followed by commitments for their protection in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. A further interest in the dolphin has also been spurred in Assam, where the creature was declared the state aquatic animal over a year ago. If the dolphin must have its day, good intentions alone will not suffice. The Gangetic dolphin is one of only three surviving species of freshwater dolphins on this planet. The fourth one, the Yangtze River Dolphin in China, went extinct as recently as 2006. A lot will need to be done if the Gangetic Dolphin is to avoid a similar fate. A declaration that accorded it national status will have, otherwise, amounted to nothing more than symbolic lip service.