Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wildlife, the last priority

Wildlife, the last priority

Pankaj Sekhsaria
First Published : 27 Nov 2010 09:35:00 AM IST,-the-last-priority/225667.html

Wildlife sanctuaries and national parks (protected areas) have for many years been at the centre of India’s official efforts at protecting the country’s wilderness, wildlife and biological diversity. While there have been many successes, questions are now being asked if the exclusionary model of conservation that alienates local communities will be sustainable in the long run. There have been many instances of strong opposition by these local communities, to either the creation of protected areas or their expansion, for fear of eviction and a strict restriction on their rights that inevitably follows. The general impression is that governments and forest departments are always keen on expanding the protected area (PA) network and communities or those who speak on their behalf are the ones opposing these moves.

The picture on the ground, however, is a more complex one as illustrated by two very interesting recent cases — one from Uttarakhand, and another from Maharashtra. In both these cases it is the state machinery that is against the expansion (or creation) of protected areas for reasons that have nothing to do with interests of wildlife or of the local communities. An interesting parallel was seen more than a decade ago when the Himachal Pradesh Government denotified about 10 sq km of the Great Himalayan National Park on the pretext that local communities were being negatively impacted by the national park. The real reason was that the Parbati Hydel Project had been held up and the only way to get it through was to have the river valley excluded from within the boundaries of the PA.

Now, in Uttarakhand, the state government has opposed the recommendation of the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) for the expansion of the Askot Wildlife Sanctuary for a similar reason. The CEC had recommended that the boundary of the sanctuary be re-drawn to exclude the 111 villages presently located inside. It also suggested that the area of the sanctuary which is 600 sq kms presently be increased to 2,200 sq kms. This, the state government has opposed on the grounds that the move will restrict their capacity to tap the high hydro-electric potential of the area.

Askot Wildlife Sanctuary, Pic: E Theophilus

Bhagirathi Valley, Pic: E Theophilus

There are already 14 hydro-electric projects proposed within the existing sanctuary area and many more in the entire region. Local communities here have also been opposing the protected area, but then, they (at least some of them) have also vehemently opposed the spree of dam building that the region is likely to see. The recent cancellation of the Loharinag Pala Hydel Project and the decision to declare the Gomukh-Uttarakashi stretch of the River Bhagirathi as an eco-sensitive zone is just one outcome of this.

In Maharashtra, similarly, the long pending notification of the Mansinghdeo Wildlife Sanctuary is being held up because part of the land belongs to the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra. The Corporation which has logged these forests for timber has in the past opposed handing over the land for inclusion in the sanctuary and the decade old proposal continues to languish. In 2004, it had even moved an application before the High Court, arguing that it would lose nearly Rs 1,400 crores if the ban on timber logging was implemented in the 10 km radius of PAs, as suggested. The state has now suggested the reduction of the proposed 182 sq km to 143 sq km by leaving out the Mansinghdeo block after which the sanctuary was to be named. Experts have noted that the areas to be left out have some of the best forests and form an important corridor connecting the Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary and the tiger reserves of Tadoba, Melghat and Pench.

Spotted deer in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria

The situation has been such that Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh had himself written to then Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, pressing for the notitification of the sanctuary.

These are situations we have encountered repeatedly over the years, with only minor variations in the script. A number of projects including those of mining, dam construction, laying of roads and railway lines and industrial activities have repeatedly been allowed by denotifying areas protected for wildlife. It is clear that in the present scheme of wildlife conservation and protected areas, local communities are the most dispensable entities. And in the present dominant paradigm of ‘development’ and primacy to commercial interests it is protected areas, wildlife and local people that are all together in being at the bottom of the list of priorities, if they find a place in that list at all.

There are different sets of people opposing wildlife conservation and protected areas for various reasons. It’s important to note that generally it is one set that has its way.

— The writer is an environmental researcher, writer and photographer.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dear Friends,
Given below is the list of contents and the edit of the new issue of the Protected Area Update (Vol XVI, No. 6, December 2010). If you would like to receive the entire newsletter in its soft copy format, please write to me at

Pankaj Sekhsaria
Editor, Protected Area Update
C/o Kalpavriksh

News and Information from protected areas in India and South Asia
Vol. XVI No. 6
December 2010 (No. 88)

FRA and wildlife conservation: The ‘critical’ question
- Locals help to restore Kaziranga NP corridors
- Centre releases Rs. 573 lakh for Kaziranga, Manas and Nameri TRs
- India, Bhutan to jointly monitor Manas tigers
- ONGC to support swamp deer conservation in Kaziranga NP
- Tiger conservation education program in schools adjoining PAs
- Ecodevelopment committees formed in 11 villages bordering the Orang NP
- Arms training for Orang NP staff

- Gir attracts 33000 visitors, earns Rs. 42 lakh during Diwali

- Dalma WLS to expand by over 1500 ha

- Plea to allow removal of already mined ore in Kudremukh

- Bandhavgarh TR to get gaur from Kanha

- HC asks for relocation of villages from Tadoba Andhari TR within a year
- High Court stays construction of tourist resorts and installation of windmills in Koyna WLS
- 49 mining leases approved in Sindhudurg; corridor connecting Koyna, Radhanagari WLSs and Anshi-Dandeli TR to be impacted

- 227 families to be evicted from Dampa TR

- Coastal fishing ban for seven months
- Concerns over proposed thermal power plant proximity to Chandaka WLS
- Maoists blow up forest buildings inside Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary

- Rs. 58 crore to fence wildlife sanctuaries

- Rajasthan Tourism proposes train-safari through Todgarh Raoli WLS
- Illegal mining threatens Sariska again

- Gangtok Himalayan Zoological Park to be upgraded

- Minister suggests inclusion of Segur plateau in buffer zone of the Mudumalai TR

- Rs. Four crore for tourism development and promotion in Buxa TR
- No river-linking project through Buxa TR

- India, Norway to collaborate for protecting biodiversity
- National Board for Wildlife reconstituted
- Save Western Ghats meet in Moodubidri in January 2011
- CEE to implement gibbon conservation programme in five North-Eastern states
- 2010 TOFT Wildlife Tourism Awards
- CEE to initiate a two-year education program for river dolphin conservation
- Former SC judge, LS Panta to chair National Green Tribunal
- Task force for Dugong conservation

- Stricter wildlife law proposed in Bangladesh

- India elected secretary in Interpol’s Wildlife Crime Working Group
- UN conference for protection of dugongs

- Openings for research with the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society
- The WCS Research Fellowship Program
- Openings at the Nature Conservation Foundation

- First Indian Biodiversity Congress

SPECIAL SECTION: Forest Rights Act, Protected Areas and Wildlife Conservation

- MoTA, MoEF clarify that protected areas are not outside FRA ambit

- Villagers oppose CWH status for Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary

- Soligas oppose tiger reserve status for BRT Wildlife Sanctuary

- Forest Rights Act being violated in Simlipal Tiger Reserve
ELEPHANTS IN THE NEWS: August – November 2010

Wildlife Tourism: A Valuable Tool for Conservation



Ever since the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA for short) was notified, large sections of the wildlife conservation community have vehemently opposed it. The vociferous opposition that had started much before the final notification is seen even today. Journalists, editors and a section of wildlifers continue to berate and demonise the FRA in any and all possible fora unmindful of developments on the ground.
A historical battle to protect forests, water security, and a threatened indigenous community in the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa has just been won on the back of the FRA and yet, the argument continues to go out that this law will destroy the last of India’s remaining forests and wildlife. Neither have other organizations who had petitioned the Supreme Court and a number of High Courts against the FRA thought it right to re-negotiate their positions. There have been no shades of grey in these articulations, not even a black and white; there is just one lens through which this issue is being seen.
The Protected Area Update (Vol. XII, No. 4) had argued even before the law was enacted that a balance was needed in the discussions and that it was certainly not the disaster it was made out to be. No law can be perfect. There will always be shortcomings and challenges, but it is baffling why the narratives don’t change even when a lot around the narrative does. Why not give credit where it is due? Why continue to discredit even when there is evidence to the contrary?
Take the case of the ‘critical’ – the critical tiger habitat (CTH) and the critical wildlife habitat (CWH) – the former under the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) and the latter under the FRA. There is a huge push to get the ‘critical’ declarations done because then people can be relocated in the presumed interests of wildlife. What is being forgotten in this urgency is that there is due process of law to be followed. Certain conditions have to be met and the local communities have to consent fully. The Ministries of both, Tribal Affairs and Environment and Forests have made it clear that protected areas are not outside the ambit of the FRA and yet, as a number of reports in this issue of the PA Update – from the Dampa Tiger Reserve (TR) in Mizoram and the Simlipal TR in Orissa to the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple and Cotigao Sanctuaries in the Western Ghats – point out, it is evident that the provisions of the law are not being followed.
There is enough other evidence to show at the same time that the WLPA is in many situations unable to protect the PAs, leave alone wildlife outside. Illustrations abound – denotification for mines, dams, and infrastructure projects, continued illegal mining in a number of PAs and continued poaching in even the best protected of parks.
The future for forests and wildlife is certainly not rosy; certainly not in this present paradigm of development where the stakes and vested interests are disproportionately large and too deeply embedded in the system. The terms of the game are not amenable to easy change, but if one looks at the possibilities that the FRA offers there might just be the faint outline of a game changer on the horizon.
It happened in Niyamgiri; it is happening in the continued opposition to land acquisition for the Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) also in Orissa and it happening in a number of places were communities are using the FRA to protect their forests and livelihood resources and keeping out the dams and the quarrying and the logging (see earlier issues of the PA Update). The critical question is whether we are willing to see this and give it even an outside chance.

Protected Area Update
Vol. XVI, No. 6, December 2010 (No. 88)
Editor: Pankaj Sekhsaria
Editorial Assistance: Reshma Jathar
Illustrations: Madhuvanti Anantharajan

Produced by:
The Documentation and Outreach Centre, Kalpavriksh

Ideas, comments, news and information may please be sent to the editorial address:

Apartment 5, Shri Dutta Krupa, 908 Deccan Gymkhana, Pune 411004, Maharashtra, India.
Tel/Fax: 020 – 25654239.
Publication of the PA Update has been supported by
- Foundation for Ecological Security (FES)
- Duleep Matthai Nature Conservation Trust
- Greenpeace India
- Association for India’s Development
- Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
- Indian Bird Conservation Network
Information has been sourced from different newspapers and the following websites

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Interview by Pankaj Sekhsaria


Prof Wiebe E Bijker is perhaps best known for the formulation of the theory of the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) and his first book, 'Of Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs — Toward a theory of Sociotechnical change'. He has been president of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) and executive committee member of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT). He received the 2006 John Desmond Bernal Prize for his distinguished contribution to the field of science and technology studies. He is one of the editors for the Inside Technology book series published by the MIT Press, Massachusetts, and is presently Professor of Technology and Society at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He gave one of the keynote addresses at the seminar ‘Shifting Perimeters: Social and Ethical Implications on Human Genome Research’ organised by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) and the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) in Bangalore this week.

In this interview, he talks about his latest book, The Paradox of Scientific Authority, his views on the social construction of science and technology and his growing interest in and engagement with India.

Q) Let’s start from the most recent — The Paradox of Scientific Authority — The Role of Scientific Advice in Democracies — your latest book written jointly with Roland Bal and Ruud Hendriks. What is this paradox of scientific authority?
A) We presently live in highly developed societies, technological cultures, that cannot exist without science and technology. At the same time we see in Europe and the United States of America that this authority of scientists and engineers is eroding. It is radically different from the situation 20-30 years ago. We are seeing this around issues related to nuclear power, genetic engineering and, most recently, in the controversy over the report of the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change. Now, that is the paradox that we talk about. How is it possible that we live in a world that is so scientific and technological, and yet at the same time we don’t trust the scientists and the engineers anymore?

Q) What then explains this paradox? What has changed in the last 30 years that this authority has come under question?
A) I think there is an increasing trend of questioning of authority — more positively framed, a broader democratisation.

Q) Of society?
A) That’s right. Authorities and institutions aren’t trusted anymore just because they have some fancy name or because they are government-supported. In the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of work in the field that I am working in, science technology and society (STS) studies, was aimed at showing the limitations of scientific knowledge — to allow for a more critical and democratic discussion of issues in which science and technology play a role. There was a lot of effort to show the socially constructed nature of scientific knowledge; that scientific knowledge isn’t dictated by nature. Nature isn’t holding the hand of scientists and writing the facts for them. No. It is scientists who design experiments, who interpret data, who discuss the interpretations of these experiments and their results. There is all this human work that goes into creating scientific facts, that then also opens them up for critical debate.

Q) How do you think The Paradox… is relevant to other situations, say to a country like India?
A) One way of resolving the paradox, we suggest, is to create pockets of scientific advice that function as a kind of bridge between the scientific community and arenas of debate and policy-making — institutions like the Health Council of the Netherlands that we discuss in our book and the Academy of Sciences in the USA. This may be surprisingly relevant in India, even though until recently scientists and engineers in India seemed to have an unquestioned, high status.
Take the Bt Brinjal case. It clearly shows a very deep rift in society about this one example of modern science and technology. This is typically the situation where a high quality independent scientific body could have played an important role and I was happy to hear that the Indian Academies of Science were asked for advice. But it is clear that they failed in what was, I think, a golden opportunity to play the kind of important advisory role in democracy that we describe in this book. I think that this failure has not only damaged the Indian debate on Bt Brinjal, but also the general appreciation of scientific authority in India.

Q) Can you also tell us a little more of your increased engagement with India? How did it come about and what are your present research interests?
A) I first came to India about six years ago on the invitation of Dr Shambu Prasad of the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar, to visit some research institutes that were working at the crossroads of technology and society. I met Indian scientists and also Indian NGOs that work on science and technology related issues. Dastkar Andhra, for example, working with handloom weaving cooperatives, trying to innovate technology, design, marketing and the social infrastructure to help the weavers build up new stable livelihoods. I also met people from the Centre for World Solidarity (CWS), the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), and the Central University in Hyderabad. I was fascinated by the work going on in India — what I would call ‘science technology and society studies (STS)’ work, though they didn’t use that label themselves. I realised that there is a lot that we in Europe can learn from India about the larger democratic questions of science and technology in and for society. That is what got me going.

Q) And what have been the specific areas that you’ve been working on in India?
A) I have been supervising three European students who have been working on their PhDs in India. One has worked intensely with CSA and studied their efforts to upscale non-pesticide crop management. Another has been studying tuberculosis in India and the most recent is presently studying democratic governance of water resource management in south India.

Q) And the manifesto…
A) Yes, we are now in the final stages of a larger European Union-funded project that works on the triangle of India, Europe and Africa. We want to find out how countries can take into their own hands the development of their science and technology, rather than just following, say, the US or world trends. In India we worked with a broad set of, both, academics and more NGO-related Indian researchers. In a workshop held two years ago in the Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh in Gujarat, we formulated the first draft of the manifesto. The manifesto takes as its central agenda the principles of justice, sustainability and plurality of knowledge. It very explicitly formulates that there are different kinds of knowledge and that they all have their own merit; that they develop in parallel and that scientific knowledge is just one of them though with its own importance and merit. We are now re-writing it by including experiences from concrete case studies on sustainable agriculture, on water management, on reconstructing the built environment after the tsunami, and on medical care. We’ll be presenting it in 2011 and hopefully it will spur further discussions and debate.

Q) And your future plans for India?
A) I hope to keep working myself and through my students. Hopefully, we’ll also have a separate India Inside Technology series co-published by the MIT press and a local publisher to bring to India some of the published work in science, technology and society studies.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

CONSERVATION AT THE CROSSROADS- Beyond cliches and the obvious

Sunday, November 14, 2010 8:27 PM IST

'CONSERVATION AT THE CROSSROADS' by Dr. Ghazala Shahabuddin.
Review by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Beyond cliches and the obvious

Pankaj Sekhsaria

Wildlife conservation in India is an extremely complex and intricate matter, related as it is to the fate of thousands of species of plants and animals and also the millions of humans who live in or are dependant on landscapes that are critical for conservation. The matrix is a complex one and to say that conservation in a rapidly changing India is at a crossroads is as much a cliché as a statement of the obvious.

'Conservation at the Crossroads' by Dr Ghazala Shahabuddin manages to go beyond both, the clichés and the obvious, in a contemporary account of conservation that is timely and well-informed. Spread over eight chapters, the book explores the different paradigms that either exist, are being attempted or might indeed be possible. The central debate in conversation in India, as it has been all over the world, is over the exclusionary paradigm — keeping out people from areas where wildlife should rule the roost. Various arguments have been put forth in favour and against this over the years and Shahabuddin shows that while this is crucial, it is not the only debate that we need to have.

Having said that and in spite of making a claim to the contrary, the book does end up treating strict conservation in protected areas (wildlife sanctuaries and national parks) and initiatives of community conservation asymmetrically. Where protected areas (PAs) are concerned, the problems outlined are located entirely in the broad domain of ‘management’ (lack of resources, personnel, training etc). In dealing with communities that are conserving on their own account, meanwhile, a question mark hangs on the value of the paradigm itself in achieving conservation. Much larger trust and belief is placed in the PA system. Much tougher questions are being asked of the community conservation paradigm.

It is well known, for instance, that ‘good’ forest and wildlife areas remain outside PA boundaries for reasons that have nothing to do with either wildlife, forests or science. The contradiction is an obvious one then, when we show faith in the protected areas system to ‘scientifically’ protect biodiversity when the basis for the creation of the system itself can be questioned on the grounds of its scientific validity.

The other thing I started to see towards the end the book is the almost complete absence of the larger political, social and economic context of the present within which conservation has to be located. Shahabuddin does talk of developmental threats (dams, mines, infrastructure projects), but these are discussed more as stand-alone projects. The narrative emerges uninformed by the drives, moves and trajectories of the larger context.

What value is there to communities conserving or even PA boundaries being ‘sanitised’ when one big project tomorrow can upset it all, riding roughshod over or perhaps aided by the legal, administrative and economic systems we are presently part of?

The last chapter ‘Reinventing Conservation: Creating Space for Nature’ too was a little disappointing because the space had been created in the preceding chapters for solutions that could have been much bolder. Disproportionate emphasis, for instance, has been placed on tourism as a means to ensure conservation and livelihood security for the locals and the notion of the buffer zone too is also not examined critically when it remains only a concept on the ground.

If the account so far sounds like only a string of complaints, it is because I have concentrated on only certain parts of what is, overall, a delightful read. The first chapter on the Sariska Tiger Reserve, for instance, is very good for the details provided of the author’s own field work and her personal interest and experience. It’s an account that is rooted in strong empirical work and builds a credibility that is sustained through to the very end.

The best chapter of the book is the third one — ‘The endangered tribe of the wildlife biologist’ — not surprising considering that Shahabuddin’s training is that of a conservation biologist. This is an account that wildlife biologists and scientists will welcome with open arms. Not only is the title laced with huge irony, the outlining of the problem and the suggested solutions are insightful and succinct. It gave me, for the first time, an understanding of the nature of the problem of wildlife science in India and why it is a problem in the first place.

Conservation at the Crossroads is an excellent piece of scholarship — one that I found insightful and useful and one I would strongly recommend. Permanent Black and the New India Foundation need to be congratulated for bringing it out and hopefully there will be many more.

— Pankaj Sekhsaria is an environment writer, researcher and photographer. He edits the ‘Protected Area Update’ a bimonthly newsletter on wildlife produced by the environmental action group, Kalpavriksh

Saturday, November 6, 2010

OLD GROWTH - Longwood Shola


A walk in the Nilgiris' enchanting—and still surviving—Longwood Shola reserve forest
Pankaj Sekhsaria

Don’t let its size fool you. Longwood Shola, the little forest located in the Kotagiri taluk of Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district, is a very big deal. For one, it is an unexpected gem—a sparkling island of a forest in a sea of villages, tea estates and plantations of exotic trees. Longwood is also one of the last remnants of the primeval forests that once clothed the Nilgiris. It has taken zealous guarding and action by conservationists and locals to keep even these 100-odd hectares safe.

I had barely entered Longwood Shola, on a visit sometime in April last year, that its treasures tumbled out one after the other. Up in the canopy to my left, a rust-and-cream Malabar giant squirrel scurried restlessly on a branch, the colour of its fur glowing in the morning sun. If you’ve seen this resident of the forest canopy, you’ll know just what I mean when I say ‘my jaw dropped’ and I ‘stood stunned’. Then suddenly, really suddenly, the creature froze. It was looking straight at me, the intruder. The squirrel turned around in a flash and, in three nimble leaps, managed to disappear completely in the foliage above.

Even as I was scanning the canopy for another glimpse, something flew past me and across to the bushes on my right. It flitted around for a while and then came right up. Here was another stunner: a little brown bird with striking white eyebrows, just a few feet from me. Its eyebrows seemed to form an inquiring frown, no doubt asking me, “Why are you looking at me like that, mister?” Senthil had noticed my stupefaction. “Quickly, Pankaj,” he said. “This is a great chance, take your picture.” Before I could recover enough to act on that, though, the endemic Nilgiri laughing thrush decided it had made its point and was gone.

K. Senthil Prasad, incidentally, is the best walking companion one could have in the Longwood Shola. He is part of the Kotagiri Wildlife and Environment Association (KWEA) and the Keystone Foundation, has lived his entire life here and continues to work to protect Longwood Shola. And herein lies an important story.

The Longwood Shola reserve forest is not a big one by any standards; but it could quite easily have ceased to exist, just like the forests that once surrounded it. Over the years, the growing villages and settlements in the region have been pressuring the forest for fuel-wood and other resources. Local initiatives to protect Longwood started in the early 1980s. They took a more permanent form in May 1998, with the Forest Department setting up the Longwood Shola Watchdog Committee (LSWC) in collaboration with a group of concerned and committed local people (Senthil was one of them).

The LSWC took up a number of activities, including patrolling to keep away woodcutters, removing exotic plants that were threatening the local flora and clean-ups to remove garbage left behind by picnickers and visitors. Seminars were held for local schools and colleges and, importantly, LSWC began conversations with the villagers living around the forest. It helped that Longwood Shola is the prime and perennial source of water for nearly 15 villages located downstream and, over time, local communities became partners in protecting their forest.

It worked well for the locals—human and wildlife alike—and the conservation work has begun to be noticed. Longwood Shola was recently included in the Directory of Community Conserved Areas published by the NGO Kalpavriksh, and it has been recognised as an ‘Important Bird Area’ by BirdLife International for the conservation of the Nilgiri laughing thrush, the white-bellied shortwing and the Nilgiri wood pigeon. Ten of the 16 birds that are endemic to the Western Ghats have also been recorded in this small forest. It is also home to a large number of other fauna, including gaur, the occasional leopard, barking deer, wild boar, porcupine, black-napped hare and, of course, the Malabar giant squirrel.

In more good news, of late, the Nilgiris itself has become the focus of several local and regional conservation attempts. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, for one, has set up a large research and action initiative for the Western Ghats, of which the Nilgiris are a part. For another, a new Nilgiri Natural History Society has been formed with the Keystone Foundation in the lead. And the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has set up an expert panel on the Western Ghats to “assist in the preservation, conservation and rejuvenation of this environmentally sensitive and ecologically significant region”. Longwood Shola is certainly a sweet little success story.

So it is the good people of the Nilgiris that I must thank for the fact that, just minutes into my stroll around the forest, I had already seen two endemics. With the thrush having done its disappearing act, we walked on a little before we were distracted by a murder of jungle crows creating a racket. We soon found out why—sitting on the other side of a small stream was a huge brown wood owl and the crows were harassing it. This fellow sat around for a while even after spotting us, and this gave me an opportunity to finally put my camera to some use. But then the crows started to get really aggressive and the owl took off, with the crows still in pursuit.

The wonderful thing about Longwood is just how walker-friendly it is. A comfortable path meanders through the forest, making it an enjoyable walk. Senthil led me past a biggish wetland, over a stream and up a gentle slope, stopping along the way to peer into the forest or strain upwards to catch the action in the canopy. At least on the morning I went, the squirrels seemed to be the most active residents. I must have seen at least half a dozen of them; the rudraskha tree (known locally as bikkimaram) was fruiting and that’s where these guys were mainly concentrated. The squirrels seemed to favour the seeds, for the floor under the trees was littered with fruit scrapings left behind after the seed-extraction.

That day, it seemed, my luck just wouldn’t run out. “Gaur,” said Senthil, as he pointed into the distance, “Be careful”. There were two there—a young calf and a huge adult that must have been the mother. The little one jumped away as soon as it saw us, but the mother stood regal and magnificent and stared as us for a while. She finally turned nonchalantly and sauntered off behind her young one.

Finally, we walked down a slope and across another small stream that had a magnificent tree fern growing on its bank, and we were back near the point we started from. The squirrel I had seen first was back in its place (I’m quite sure it’s the same one), but the owl was nowhere to be seen. The crows were still running amok. I had spent just over two hours in the forest and been privy to the tiniest part of its secrets, but that’s all it took for Longwood Shola to bewitch me.

For pictures see

Toxic Assets or Toxics as Assets

Toxic Assets or Toxics as Assets
by Pankaj Sekhsaria

The New Indian Express, 21st Oct. 2010

If there is one term that defines the tailspin the world economy experienced recently, it is ‘toxic assets’. The phenomenon has been hugely analysed and debated but little has been discussed on the coinage of the term itself. Who used it first? What was its purpose? Has it had any particular implications? Would the responses to the crisis have been different if toxic assets were called something else, say ‘legacy assets’?

It is believed that the term toxic assets was coined and popularised by the founder of Countrywide Financial, Angelo Mozilo, who used ‘toxic’ to describe certain mortgage products in early 2006: “(The 100% loan-to-value subprime loan is) the most dangerous product in existence and there can be nothing more toxic...” he is recorded as having said in an e-mail he sent in March 2006.

What is particularly intriguing here is the crossing over of ‘toxic’, from its primary usage in the environmental context into the realm of finance. This offers, both, an interesting metaphor on the one hand and an important commentary on the other.

It doesn’t need much to see the contradiction in putting toxic and assets together; it’s the ultimate oxymoron. If it’s an asset, it is positive and welcome. If it’s toxic it is best avoided, even better disposed. What does their juxtaposition in ‘toxic assets’, then imply? Is it a dichotomy of the real world or can it be dismissed merely as a play of words?

Language does not just modulate the experience of the real world, it often becomes the experience itself. It is language that we use again to change the experience, like when a new term ‘legacy assets’ was created for the purpose. Most readers are likely to have missed it earlier in this essay because it does not have the power, the influence or the history of ‘toxic assets’. ‘Legacy assets’ or ‘legacy loans’ as they are also called, were in fact, a re-branding exercise attempted by the US Treasury in March of 2009 to make more palatable and sellable what were now widely known as ‘toxic assets’. The term, however, is so firmly embedded in public memory that it has been impossible to dislodge.

‘Toxic assets’ has made the boundary between financial and environmental risks unexpectedly and visibly porous. The same was done a while ago in the climate change debate as well — in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a financial instrument that offers a solution to the climate crisis by transacting in ‘carbon credits’. CDM is a politically sensitive issue; economically an uncertain one and has been seen, empirically, as rather unsuccessful so far: trade in carbon is increasing but there seems to be no commensurate reduction in carbon emissions.

The question then is this: Was the creation of trading in carbon, implicitly, an effort to ‘repackage’ a certain toxicity as an asset. That the packaging has been widely successful is evident in the growing interest in the idea. A number of developing countries including India have bought into it fully and have now created multiple scenarios of economic revenues through different forms of carbon trading.

That ‘waste is a misplaced resource’ is a commonly accepted principle. It has been shown that excretions from one system, particularly in nature, are productively used in another. For this to happen, however, the waste needs to be thrown completely out of the system first; inside it becomes toxic and extremely dangerous. This also assumes that there are clear boundaries between systems and that waste moves across these boundaries.

While carbon is an integral part of the system of the Earth, its excessive accumulation is the toxicity that threatens. This toxicity is now being promoted as an asset for a transaction that will now happen before its removal from within the system.

The irony is that the climate change crisis is built on the notion of the Earth as a single, unified entity: it doesn’t matter where and when the emissions happen or who is responsible because the consequences are to be faced by all. The problem this raises for carbon trading is evident. If the Earth is indeed one, there is no ‘other backyard’ to put the waste (carbon) into; it’s the reverse of the ‘toxics assets’ case. The argument that carbon trading will work is, then, in direct opposition to the notion that there is one Earth because carbon emissions can’t be toxic and an asset at the same time!

The options that this leaves us with are two: that the Earth is not one entity or that climate change is not a problem that we should be worrying about. Neither might be acceptable, but then it cannot be dismissed as mere word play either!