of the most significant trends visible in wildlife conservation and
management today is the increased use of ‘technology’. Camera traps, for
instance, have provided new evidence of tiger presence in the Mhadei
Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa and of the Asiatic wildcat in Bandhavgarh,
Madhya Pradesh; radio collars have helped solve the mystery of tiger
deaths in Bandipur in Karnataka and Chandrapur district of Maharashtra;
and satellite telemetry promises to provide new insights into the
behaviour and movement patterns of the Great Indian Bustard in Gujarat,
which includes its journeys across the border to Pakistan. New software
and sophisticated surveillance technologies are being operationalised to
keep an eye on developments across large landscapes and the use of
contraceptives has been suggested to contain runaway populations of
animals ranging from the monkey in large parts of India to the elephant
Within easy reach
We may not be able
to escape such a technology-based framing, but is it possible that the
current set of technologies, like those mentioned earlier, are
profoundly different from those of the earlier era? And is the change
that we are seeing, therefore, a more fundamental one?
innovations appear to do is increase our proximity to the subject of our
interest and of our investigation. Surveillance technologies are
bringing distant and topographically complex landscapes right into our
homes and offices so that they can be observed and monitored without
moving an inch. More individual wild animals are perhaps being caught
and handled today than has ever happened earlier. And then there are
various levels of physical intrusion that these sentient beings are
subjected to — be it a microchip in the tail, a radio collar around its
neck or a contraceptive injected into its body, not to mention the
sedation that most of these individuals are forced into to enable such
Technology has always allowed us deeper access into
and control over our environment; in many ways it has been key in the
human conquest over nature. And yet there are some things — a ferocious
large cat or a free flying bird or a deep-sea mammal — that had still
seemed out of reach. They were wild, defined as an animal ‘living or
growing in the natural environment; not domesticated or cultivated’.
They were wild and therefore inaccessible or inaccessible, therefore
wild. Technology is closing that gap and it is the very idea of the
‘wild’ and ‘wilderness’ that comes into focus in important public
initiatives such as conservation and protection of biodiversity. How
wild or natural, for instance, is an animal that cannot perform its
fundamental biological function of procreation because it has been
sterilised by human intervention? Is a tiger that has been sedated
multiple times and now carries a radio collar as ‘wild’ a tiger as one
that has never been photographed, sedated or collared? How wild is a
wilderness where everything has been mapped, where everything is known
and where all movement is tracked in real time?
Aesthetic and ethical issues
matter here is both aesthetic and ethical. The basic pleasures of
enjoying the wild are essentially technology mediated intrusions (think
binoculars and cameras) into the private lives of animals that the human
species does not allow in its own case. Aldo Leopold pointed out, for
instance, to the role of the automobile, and the dense construction of
roads to accommodate them, as central to the emergence of wilderness
areas in 19th century United States. Does the radio collar go only a
step further, or is there a fundamental shift here? One could argue that
this collar is a signifier of further human dominance and authority
over the wild animal if not complete control. A photograph of a collared
tiger is unlikely to win an award in a wildlife photography context
just as an encounter with a collared animal is unlikely to evoke the
same experience of thrill because the element of surprise will have been
removed. The issue is one that goes to the very heart of the notion of
the ‘wild’ and of ‘wilderness’, marking as it does a paradigm shift in
our relationship to and understanding of wildlife.
This is not an
esoteric matter because it has a direct bearing on the agenda of
conservation; it is the conservation of this ‘wild’ life that we are
talking about after all. If we agree that technologies and technological
interventions are bringing about fundamental changes in the identities
and essence of wild subjects, it follows that current ideologies and
methods of conservation will also have to change.
Are we willing
to characterise wilderness areas as glorified theme parks? Are attempts
at conservation then just routes to manage these slippery slopes? If
this is not an appropriate aesthetic or ethical stance, then how do we
think of the ubiquitous use of high technology to shape wilderness, and
to intrude into ‘wild’ bodies, even as they are used in the name of
Sekhsaria and Naveen Thayyil are researchers at the DST-Centre for
Policy Research, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences,
IIT-Delhi. The views expressed are personal
of anything you have had to drink today — a cola, fruit juice, cold
coffee or lassi — and it is likely that it was served with a straw. The
ubiquitous pink, white or blue plastic drinking straw has indeed become
an unlikely marker of the modern culinary culture. Now think of the
number of drinks served in a restaurant every day, the number of
restaurants in a city, and the number of cities, big and small, in the
world today, and one can only imagine the volume of plastic straws used
on a daily basis. The plastic straw is also emblematic of the ‘use and
And the ease with which we ask for a straw and
then dispose it underlines both the mindlessness and the magnitude of
our actions and their repercussions.
In Kerala 3.3 million plastic
straws are used every day. It is 500 million daily in the U.S.. So
billions of these straws, by implication, are thrown away around the
planet. A significant chunk finds it way to the oceans and not
surprisingly, plastic straws are consistently in the top 10 items
collected every year during efforts to clean up the coastline.
the single straw multiplied a billion times over might still only be a
fraction of the total production and consumption of plastic in today’s
world, it has become the inadvertent stimulus of a very significant
anti-plastic campaign that has gained rapid traction all over the world.
initiative against the plastic straw had started a little earlier, but
it was about two years ago that the campaign took off.
specific catalyst was a 2015 video that showed a plastic straw jutting
out from the nostril of an olive ridley turtle in Costa Rica.
video that went viral on social media (more than 12 million people have
seen it so far) has a marine biologist trying to pull out the straw with
a plier, when blood starts to flow from animal’s nose. The rescuer
continues to struggle for nearly five minutes before being able to pull
out the nearly-four-inch-long straw, revealing how deep it had been
embedded inside the animal’s body. The video sparked international
outrage, giving wings to a movement to fight the menace of the plastic
Much has been achieved since then. The Plastic Pollution
Coalition (www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org) has estimated, for
instance, that nearly 1,800 institutions worldwide, including prominent
ones like Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Smithsonian have banned
plastic straws or give them only on request.
Volunteers who clean
up beaches regularly are reporting fewer straws now than they did about a
year ago and there is a small boost to those who make reusable straws
from metal or bamboo.
The international movement has had its
impact in India as well with reports of initiatives coming in from
different parts of the country. Responding to the global online campaign
#refusethestraw, earlier this year, restaurants and bars in Mumbai
decided to stop giving their customers straws with their drinks or to
offer them paper straws.
The restaurant industry in Kerala too
made a similar decision to mark World Environment Day this June, and
responding to complaints from citizens, the Kozhikode Municipal
Corporation in the State too decided around the same time to ban plastic
straws. It is one situation where the individual appears to be in a
position to make a very significant difference.
of the markers of the Anthropocene, scientists say the planet has now
entered, is plastic pollution (others include nuclear tests, concrete,
and domesticated chicken).
Not only is plastic being produced and
dumped in ever increasing quantities, it is unique in that it does not
decompose or decay. A paper published in the journal Science Advances
in July 2017 estimates that the world’s oceans now have nearly nine
billion metric tonnes of plastic with an additional 5 to 13 million
metric tonnes being added every year.
This being the case, it is
expected that oceans will have more plastic than fish by the year 2050.
It’s a problem of gigantic and timeless proportions and the humble
plastic straw might just have triggered the first fight in a battle that
will need to be sustained. The author researches issues at the intersection of environment, science, society, and technology.
Pankaj Sekhsaria has a long-standing association
with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) as a member of the
environmental action group, Kalpavriksh. He is the author most recently
of ‘Islands in Flux – the Andaman and Nicobar Story’ (Harper Collins India 2017), a collection of his journalism based on the islands over the last two decades. His debut novel ‘The Last Wave’
(HarperCollins India, 2014) was also set in the Andaman Islands and he
is also co-editor of The Jarawas Reserve Dossier for UNESCO (2010).
He is also author of ‘The State of Wildlife in Northeast India 1996-2011: News and Information from the Protected Area Update’, published by Foundation for Ecological Security.
He recently finished his PhD thesis titled ‘Enculturing Innovation – Indian engagements with nanotechnology in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS)’ from the Maastricht University, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
He currently works as a Senior Project Scientist, DST-Centre for Policy Research, Dept of Humanities and Social Science at IIT- Delhi.
when did you first realized that you want to write?
My interest in writing began, interestingly, because of writing
letters. These were my early days of college and while I was not a
loner, I did not have a very large circle of friends. Those were also
the years I was learning about environmental issues and thinking about
things that as a teenager are full of questions and have no straight
forward answers. There were a couple of friends who lived in different
places and we would regularly exchange hand written letters. Remember,
this was the era of no email – even computers were hardly there. And I
would write really long letters – running into many pages. And they
would write back often saying they enjoyed reading what I wrote and the
way I wrote. Those responses, I think, sowed the seeds for me and that
is where I began thinking of writing more seriously. Being an author,
however, was never on my list of things to become. The writing
progressed then from letters to friends, to letters to newspapers, to
articles and photo-features and eventually, now, to books.
2. Where did you get information for your books?
Both my recent books on the islands – ‘The Last Wave’, which is my debut novel, and ‘Islands in Flux’
which is a collection of journalism have come after nearly two decades
of research, writing and photography in the islands. So, it is this body
of experience, research, traveling and reading that I have drawn upon
to put the two books together. In some senses, the books are a consolidation of nearly two decades of my work in the islands.
3. What do you do when you are not writing?
Research and writing is an integral part of what I do and I do end up
writing quite a bit. There is a newsletter on wildlife that I edit for
the environmental action group, called Kalpavriksh. I also write a monthly column on the environment for ‘The Hindu’
and besides that regularly put together articles and photo features for
other publications. My research work is at the intersection of the
environment and social sciences and there is a lot of writing to be done
there as well. So I do end up writing a lot. To answer your question
more specifically – I do read quite a bit, I like to travel too and I am
also a keen photographer. My photography has in fact, been an integral
part of my writing and research work.
4. How did the idea of ‘Islands in Flux’
come about? Was there a certain incident or experience that
led to this narrative? ‘Islands in Flux’ is a book that brings together my journalistic and research based writing about the Andaman and Nicobar islands
over the last two decades. The attempt is to bring together the wide
range of experiences, issues and challenges that constitute the islands,
the three main dimensions of which are the histories of the human
communities here, the ecological diversity and fragility of this unique
island chain and the constant geologic and tectonic activity that is
very much part of life here. These are subjects I have been writing
about since the mid 90s for a range of English publications in India and
I realized that there is a considerably vast terrain that these
articles have covered. In many contexts these writings continued to be
relevant today, even as the issues they deal with are very interesting.
So, Islands in Flux, is not one narrative; the idea was
precisely to show that there are multiple narratives and stories and all
of them are important and relevant in different ways. And this becomes
particularly important because of the specific vulnerabilities of the
islands – one of the issues that was raised, for instance, during the
Home Minister’s recent visit to the islands was related to compensation
for land and other losses suffered by people here during the cataclysmic
earthquake and tsunami of December 2004. A simultaneous demand was for
relaxation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms because these are
coming in the way of expanding tourism in the islands. I am not sure
about others, but I see very clear contradictions here and the fact that
policy planning continues to ignorant of these very specific contexts
and vulnerabilities of the islands. A recent proposal for the
development of the islands being pursued by the Niti Aayog has
proposed, among others, plans for port construction, an integrated
tourism complex, construction of a trans-shipment terminal and creation
of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in areas that are ecologically fragile
and also legally protected in the name of the indigenous communities.
The scale of what is being proposed in the islands today is unmatched,
and its implications for the local people and the local ecology barely
In recent years it has also been frustrating for me to see that many
of these issues have been discussed in various fora including in my own
writings in the past and yet none of these are seen reflected in new
proposals, statements and policies being put forward by politicians,
ministers, and the administration. The whole discussion has to be
started from scratch – it’s like being on a treadmill for ever. And so,
this was one of the most important reasons for me to put ‘Islands in Flux’ together – to kind of move on from that treadmill and force others to do the same as well.
5.What has been the biggest challenge while penning this book?
The format of the book – of putting together old writings to make
them relevant for a contemporary context and reality – I think, is an
interesting one. It is not a new format at all and has its limitations,
but it also offers some striking possibilities. And the key question is
whether I’ve managed to do it right. That would depend on how the book
is received and what kinds of discussions and debates it generates. The
initial responses from readers have been very encouraging and
interesting. At least a couple of people have written in saying they
realized on finishing the book how unaware they were of the multiple
realities and challenges in the islands – that there is much more to the
islands than the cellular jail, pretty beaches, and sparkling beaches
that the tourism brochures show us. All of this is very much the reality
in the islands, but there is much much more and conveying this is the
challenge that ‘Islands in Flux’ seeks to take up.
6.Tell us about cover of your latest book and how it came from?
The book as you know is titled ‘Islands in Flux’
and the central idea for the cover was to focus on this idea of
‘change’ and ‘flux’. So what we ended up doing was to create a rather
serene and calm scene with the boatman, the water and a tinge of green
via the coconut. It in some senses, depicts the calm before a storm –
the idea is that the calmness and the serenity is only momentary and
change is just around the corner. And this has worked well, I think
because of the contrast between what this scene depicts and the title
where the letters that make up ‘flux’ themselves are struggling to find a
7.Are you writing new book? If yes. What is it about?
There are two books that I am working on at the moment. One is an
edited book that looks at wildlife in the state of Maharashtra and the
other is in what is broadly called the Social Studies of Science and
Technology. This is based on my recent PhD thesis that studied
nano-science and technology laboratories in India to understand life
inside the lab and to also understand what innovation means inside these
labs and for scientists and technologists who work at the nano scale
8. What advise would you give to aspiring writers?
Writing is hard work and the more we write the better we get. Every
single iteration of a piece of writing is better than its preceding
version. So one should never think that what I have now cannot get
better. It can and being at it all the time is very important.
The other thing I believe is useful if not important to be a good
writer is to read – to read to learn and get new ideas but to read, also
to see how other writes write, how they use the language, how they work
this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Pankaj
Sekhsaria discusses the ecology of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and
his new book, Islands in Flux
Sekhsaria on a turtle survey in Wandoor, South Andaman Island. Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria
Wednesday, 09 August, 2017
Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a microcosm of multitudes – not just
because of their unique location, ecology and biodiversity, but also
because of the variety of contexts within which they can be experienced
and studied. (But information and studies on the islands are sparse and
hard to find, so you might find this backgrounder useful for some cultural and historical context.)
a noted researcher, writer, activist, and photographer of the Andaman
and Nicobar islands, Pankaj Sekhsaria embodies the diversity of the
region in his own work. Sekhsaria has been chronicling the stories of
the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades now. With a sharp
understanding of the islands’ issues, ranging from the cultural to the
political to the economic, he has been instrumental in crafting both
intellectual discourse and active intervention pertinent to this
landscape. His recently released book, Islands in Flux – The Andaman and Nicobar Story, is a collection of his journalistic writings on the ANI over the past twenty years.
Islands in Flux
is a tapestry of events in the island story, organised by themes that
transcend timelines and continue to be relevant today. With their unique
location off the mainland and their interconnected threads of culture,
community, ecology, and geology, the Andaman and Nicobar islands defy
singular, linear narratives – they are truly islands in flux.
sat down to talk with him about his experiences from the union
territory that most of us on the mainland know shamefully little about.
What motivated you to put together a chronicle of the islands?
motivated me was the need for a consolidated account of the islands,
that could comprehensively cover a gamut of issues. I realised that
every few years, with every new person that comes into the
administration, we had to start from scratch. Despite so much
information out there in the public domain, it’s like these people were
saying things in complete ignorance of certain issues, without any
historical knowledge. So two years ago, I thought, why not make another
consolidated account [his first compilation was titled Troubled Island
and released in 2003] so that all the facts are in one place.
you compile such a large body of writing, certain themes begin to
emerge, and that’s how this book is organised. It offers a snapshot of
issues beyond the usual. The islands aren’t just about the tsunami, or
about the Jarawa. Even older stories have a new salience in today’s
context – those issues haven’t gone away. I have had readers telling me
that they weren’t even aware about some of these issues that plague the
What first brought you to the islands, and what has the journey been like so far?
grew up in Pune, and was pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in engineering.
By then, I was already interested in wildlife and writing. It was a
‘forced’ gap year that started it all. I had enrolled in a post-graduate
degree in journalism, but two months into the course, I found out that I
hadn’t cleared my Bachelor’s and couldn’t continue the journalism
course, so I had a lot of time on my hands. At the time, a very dear
friend of mine was based in Port Blair, working in the Navy. He invited
me to come over, and that’s how I showed up at the islands for the first
time, more than 20 years ago. I spent about two months there,
travelled, met people, and got to know about the issues at the
forefront. I came back to complete my graduation and then enrolled for a
masters in communication at Jamia [Millia Islamia University] in Delhi.
It was when I moved to Delhi that I got in touch with Kalpavriksh, which had been working in the islands for some time. And then I went back for a research project in 1998.
It was during this visit of yours that the Jarawa first came out in large numbers. Could you describe that experience?
the first big interaction of the Jarawa was in early 1998 and I,
absolutely by chance, happened to be there at that moment in time. It
was the first time they’d come out in such large numbers, though we
didn’t know that at the time. I had a camera on me and took a lot of
pictures, which today serve as historical documentation of a historic
moment. It was particularly puzzling, given the fact that Jarawas have
long been hostile towards the settlers, to whom they have lost large
swathes of their forests. In fact, over the next few months, there were
several more reports of Jarawas coming out of their forests.
(To read more about the Jarawa’s trysts with their neighbours, read Pankaj’s article “Jarawa Excursion”, published in Frontline in 1998)
Had you known about the Jarawa before that?
Jarawa have always incited a huge amount of fear and curiosity. I
remember a time during my first visit when I was on a harbour cruise
with one of the local boats that take tourists to popular sites around
Port Blair: I heard one of the tourist guides telling stories to her
captive audience about how the Jarawa are an extremely dangerous people;
that they applied their saliva, which was poisonous, to their
arrowheads before shooting at you. Knowing this to be untrue, I became
incensed and spoke up, telling her she couldn’t claim such things
without any evidence.
the same time, there were organisations that would defend the rights of
the Jarawa. One of the first was the Society for Andaman and Nicobar
Ecology (SANE), started by Samir Acharya. SANE began their work much
before anyone else was even in the picture. Samir has been a pioneer of
tribal rights and environmental activism in the islands for almost 30
years, and is a great influence on me. Along with BNHS, we took a case
for the protection of the forests and the tribal communities here to the
High Court and then to the Supreme Court in 1998. At that time, one
knew only a little bit about these issues.
reading your book, I noticed the use of language that is particular to
the islands – from a colonial definition of tribes as “primitive relics”
to the contemporary “settlers”, the people who’ve come from outside.
How have you seen the dynamics between them play out?
a complex historical context to these issues. According to recent
research, indigenous people have been on the islands for 30,000 to
40,000 years. Most of the current population came to the islands from
the 19th century onwards; the Cellular Jail itself was built only in the
beginning of the 20th century. All that’s a very short story – it’s
only 150 years old.
settler population is even more recent – it only dates back to the late
1950s and ’60s, when the Indian government thought of the Andamans as an
‘empty space’, and encouraged people to go live there. The government
often gave incentives such as 10 acres of free land to settlers. It’s a
very interesting history, and it’s only now that people are studying it
deeply – who were these settlers? What were their compulsions and
limitations that forced them to make such a choice? We have to remember
that they were also vulnerable.
speaking, we have put them in conflict with the Jarawa, because these
lands originally belonged to indigenous peoples. And sure, with two
communities living side by side, with one’s lifestyle being imposed on
the other, much conflict has ensued; biodiversity has suffered.
Administration officials admit in private that they are unable to do
anything to ease the tension between the tribal communities and the
settlers. The two groups are locked in a tussle over land rights, and
the atmosphere has been vitiated by some administrative policies of the
The settlers aren’t
the ‘outsiders’ though – what’s interesting is that they, as local
people too, are very upset with people like us from the mainland taking a
stand on island issues. The insider-outsider card is played often,
however futile it may be. The real challenge is that policy decisions
are made far away in New Delhi.
a talk you recently held in New Delhi, you mentioned that it’s
difficult for you to fully comprehend the situation of the indigenous
communities of the ANI today. Could you delve a bit deeper into that?
this point of time, I don’t know enough of what is happening, say in
the case of the Jarawa. In any case, we have limited knowledge of these
communities, and that in itself can be problematic. We are often asked
how we can represent the Jarawa, even going to court for them. The work
we have done is from the outside, we are operating as outsiders. What we
do know, is that changes are taking place very rapidly. The outlook for
indigenous peoples is a very sad state of affairs – physically and
culturally – and one that’s being repeated in different parts of the
world, not just the Andamans.
interesting thing is that what’s being tried for the Jarawa – in terms
of education, health, rehabilitation – is better than what’s been done
before. There is an awareness and an acknowledgement that we have to do
things differently. What we don’t understand is whether that’s good
enough. If the Jarawa were still in the forest, and hadn’t come out, it
would be a different situation. But they have been coming out and
interacting, and if we remain fully aware of the historicity and context
behind their presence here, that’s what may help. But at the end of the
day, I don’t really know. The position of the administrators is
that there’s more of a focus on the development of infrastructure and
strategic outposts on the islands, how have you seen policy pertinent to
the ANI evolve over the past decade?
key concern and contention is that, not just in the last ten, but fifty
years; government policy, planning, bureaucracy and the political
establishment has not understood the key challenges faced by the
islands. The key thesis, if I might, is that the idea of ‘flux’ is
central to the existence of the islands. There are three levels of flux
that the islands are facing – socio-cultural, ecological and most
important, perhaps, geological. You can think of it as a pyramid, at the
very top is the socio-cultural context – for instance, the constant
change and dynamism of the communities: indigenous peoples such as the
Jarawa, the Onge, the Great Andamanese, the Sentinelese, and the
settlers who have come in in the last few decades. Their reality is
dependent on the next block of the pyramid, the ecological and
environmental context – the land, water, soil, coast, sea – which
decides the conditions in which these communities will live. You have to
take into account the unique tropical conditions, the climate, the high
endemism of species. The third, and perhaps most critical level of flux
is the geological context. The islands are located in one of the most
seismically active zones in the world. The tsunami of 2004 was caused by
an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, just a couple of hundred
nautical miles from Nicobar.
the last fifty years, we have not acknowledged these independent, but
connected realities. A recent NITI Aayog report does not take any of
this into account while planning large infrastructure projects. In 2009,
at a defense-related seminar, former President Kalam talked about
building a nuclear power station in the islands, in a landscape where
you’ve had earthquakes which have been 9.3 on the Richter scale. Imagine
the vulnerability we’re setting ourselves up for. What happens to the
nuclear power plant if another earthquake or tsunami happens? Similar
plans were made long ago in a 1965 report. The same ignorance is still
prevalent in 2017, despite so much more information being available,
despite a deeper understanding, despite technological advances.
(To learn more about policy measures designed for the islands, read Pankaj’s article “Islands on the Seam”, published in The Hindu this March)
Tourism in the islands is on the rise. From an ecological perspective, how much tourism is too much tourism?
a genuine concern, but the scale of tourism hasn’t increased all that
much yet. The number of proposals to take tourism to more remote parts
of the islands is small, but growing. There are issues of resource
availability and waste management which will have to be considered. On
the whole, I find it difficult to say no to tourism, but it’s a slippery
slope. A very critical understanding needs to be built, and we need to
develop the tools and arguments to help people understand that for all
its benefits, tourism isn’t the ultimate solution.
from an economic and livelihoods perspective, tourist arrivals in 2004
fell from a lakh to zero in a matter of a week after the tsunami. So
it’s important to remember that tourism could become unviable at any
point, and we shouldn’t be putting all our livelihoods eggs in the
tourism basket, so to speak.
We recently wrote about a photo exhibition of Pankaj Sekhsaria’s photographs of the islands, reproduced in silk. Read about it here.
The exhibition travels next to The Story of Space festival, an
interdisciplinary arts and science festival in Panjim, Goa from November
Sekhsaria writes a regular column on the environment for The Hindu. You can read it here. Pick up a copy (print or digital) of Islands in Flux here.
Aadya is an independent
researcher currently working with Nature inFocus. Through her work, she
has been exploring the intersection between livelihoods, environmental
conservation and skill development with a focus on Himalayan
communities. In her spare time, she enjoys playing pretend naturalist,
musician, photographer and writer.