April 18, 2021

April 15, 2021

Tiger Tales and Others

The jumping tiger on the track, 
Led to panic and a lot of flak.
Will we end up on a plaque,
Will we become the Khandwa tiger's snack.

The poor station master was once caught off-guard,
In Jaipur, he on the roof and the tiger conferred upon the theatre of the absurd.

Oh, how I wish to see the junglee stations once again, a nightmare that I confess would like to attend.  

As the waters that flow swift

 As the waters that flow swift, 

as the ripples that float and sink, 

as the blue that turns to green, 

Such is life that dips and grins 

April 12, 2021

 Give wings and they will fly too close to the sun

Give them wheels and they may roll down the hill

Give them the power to think and they may enter a deep sleep

Give them life and they will fear death still

April 5, 2021

In Communion with Nature - Deccan Herald - 04.04.2021

 

As an ecological niche, Southern Karnataka with its thriving populations of rare and endangered species forms a critical part of one of India’s largest protected landscapes, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Over millennia, the region has also harboured a thriving living ecosystem as several adivasi communities nurtured an eco-centric relationship with the forest that continues to this day.

Indigenous groups such as the Jenu Kurubas, Solegas, Kasavas and Kadu Kurubas not only depended upon the forest for sustenance but also developed unique cultural conservation practices over the years, practices that could offer a valuable pointer in ensuring conservation of our fragile forested lands. As Nanjundiah who works with adivasis in Heggadevanakote suggests, these practices range from the relatively simple acts of conservation such as restrictions on cutting of young trees to collecting only dead firewood for household consumption to the more complex interlinkages between nature and human dependence such as selectively collecting minor forest produce so that animals have an equal opportunity to feed on these plants and ensuring the protection of the ‘Queen bee’ while collecting honey, thus safeguarding the continuity of the bee colony. Another feature of most honey hunting adivasi communities is the worship of the particular tree or rock before collection of honey with the prayer that they be kept safe while effecting the difficult routine of honey hunting.

He mentions that traditionally, adivasis followed a total moratorium on the killing of pregnant and young animals while ensuring that while foraging for roots, some pieces of the root is placed back, so that the root can regenerate. Adivasis of Southern Karnataka had a unique association with fire management and know how to burn small grass in order to avoid a larger flareup during dry season. Most cultural events such as the Kolata (group dance), special games (Kumbala Kayi, Sorekayi ata) have been associated with protecting forests and more importantly respecting nature.

Sunil, a Solega from the protected landscape of BR Hills mentions that the cultural events hold significance today as well with the Hosaragi habba (offering of 12 ragi rotis to local devasthanas) being held once a year in each settlement. The annual puja is to propitiate the forest gods so that the coming year is bountiful and safe. Sunil mentions that their village worships the forest gods with the chant “kappada appa, yenu aagde irali”. While Solegas settlements often worship local deities, the community also comes together to worship at the base of their holy trees, dodda sampige and chikka sampige mara. Interestingly, Sunil mentions that adivasi groups have developed several practices to understand the complexities of nature. For example, they decipher seasons by observing the forest. For most adivasis, summer starts with the fall of leaves, monsoons come with the rise of buds and winters arrive with the bloom of flowers.

However, while most adivasis continue to live a low-impact lifestyle, the age-old ecologically symbiotic relationship has come under severe stress due to changing land uses and marginalisation in the past few decades. The fear is that the next generation, while aware of the peculiarities of the forest and old rituals due to dwelling in or close to forests, the fear of losing the traditions of these first people of Indians is a prospect that scares community elders.

 Kadu Kuruba/Betta Kurubas

The Kadu Kuruba mainly lives in the Mysore and Chamarajanagar districts within the larger Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) and are often interchangeably known as Betta Kurubas, who live in northern parts of Gudalur Taluk of Nilgiri district, bordering the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. It is difficult to distinguish between the two communities, as they are very similar in their lifestyle. The Kadu Kurubas were also known traditionally share the same landscape as the Jenu Kurubas, though the Jenu Kurubas have been known to be concentrated in the northern parts of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

A large population of Kadu Kurubas used to live by the banks of the Kabini and the Nugu rivers before most of their ancestral lands were submerged by various dams after independence. In the olden days, they were renowned as bamboo basket makers, though they were also extensively utilized by the forest department for various works including the trapping of wild elephants.

In the present time, they depend on different means of wage work, forest collection and mixed agriculture. Many of them have found employment with the forest department as watchers and elephant mahouts. Though access into various protected areas have reduced over the years, they are known to go into the forest for bona fide use to collect shikakai (Acacia concinna), kodampuli (Garcinia gummigutta) and some medicinal plants, besides small quantities of honey.

Jenu Kurumbas

The Jenu Kurumbas/Kurubas live in the northern part of the reserve, are named due to their skill in honey collection (Jenu means honey bee). These communities numbering approximately 36,000 are concentrated in the Heggadadevanakote, Gundulpete, Hunsuru and Periyapatna taluks of Mysore district and Madikeri, Virajpet and Somawarpet taluks of Kodagu district in the Karnataka part of the NBR.

Amongst all the adivasi groups of the region, they are the foremost expert of honey collection especially that of the large rock bee, Apis dorsata. However, over time, though they were hunter-gatherers, most took to practicing agriculture in cultivable land given by the government. Other members of the community depend on wage labour in the coffee estates of Coorg or still collect forest produce for local consumption.

They were known to be the masters of the forest way of life. In 1877, Lewis Rice wrote that ‘They have no fixed abode but wander about from place to place in search of honey, hence their name, from Jenu honey. They are excellent climbers of trees and skilled in the use of sling and bow and arrow’. A unique aspect of Jenu Kurubas was noted by (Ulrich Demmer, In Hockings, 1989) where he wrote that “But most of the time there will be several conjugal pairs, who move together in search of minor forest products, forming gathering camps. Even though these camps do not co-operate in the actual process of gathering, their members are expected, due to their kinship position, to support and help each other in case this should be necessary.......Such camps are called jodi by the Jenu Kurumba, a term denoting a `pair’, a `couple’, but also more generally `those who are one, united and equal’.”

Sholegas/ Solegas

Traditionally, hunter-gatherers, they are mainly located in the Karnataka part of the NBR, bordering between Bandipur and Biligirirangana Betta. Small numbers of them also live in Theppakadu (within Mudumalai Sanctuary) of the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu. Closely related to the Uralis with significant similarities to Irulas, the Solegas in the northern part of the Nilgiris speak an independent adivasi speech relatively like the Kannada language. The Solegas have been known to show genetic affinity to two Australian aboriginal populations and along with some other adivasi groups in the Nilgiri region, they might well be amongst the first human populations in mainland India.

The Solegas are known to live in isolated hill slopes in small, dispersed settlements called ‘Podus’. This landscape is covered with forests, which is their largest resource base for livelihood in the form of honey, gooseberry, eecham and lichen collection. Traditionally, they also practiced shifting cultivation growing ragi (Eleusine coracana), which is their staple diet. They are now settled in villages undertaking seasonal agriculture, slowly joining the mainstream, supported by several government and NGO initiatives.

Irulas/Kasavas/Kasabas

Though most Irulas live in southern slopes of Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu, they are also known by various names such as Erilagaru, Iraligar, Irulan, Kasaba, Kasava, Kasuba, Ten Vanniya, Vana Palli and Villaya, some of whom are known to live in Karnataka.

The Kasabas/Kasavas, for example are clubbed under the larger Irula group and known to live in the northern part of the Nilgiri District inhabiting forest lands between the base of the Nilgiri massif and the Moyar River as well as parts of Southern Karnataka. Linguistically, Kasabas are supposed to form part of the larger Irula complex as per a study done by Mr. R. Perialwar. While they are clubbed with Irulas in the Nilgiri region, some of them are parallely termed and identified with Uralis and Solegas in the Bilgirirangan ranges of South East Karnataka and the adjoining plateau of Tamil Nadu. Kasabas mostly reside close to wildlife rich areas and are known to be expert NTFP collectors.

In addition to the socio-cultural affinity to the forest, the Kasabas, Jenu Kurubas, Kadu Kurubas and others share a common response to animal interactions. They have a traditional set of rules when suddenly confronted by a wild animal. If it is a tiger, more often than not, they sense the animal’s presence by its smell. In the unfortunate case of stumbling without a warning, the response is not to look the tiger in its eye under any circumstances. If carrying a stick, one can lightly tap the stick in the ground. Strangely, there is no definite way to figure out a leopard’s presence in the vicinity. When it comes to a large mammal such as the elephant, most warnings come through the elephant’s strong smell. Yet, if the encounter is sudden, their first reaction is scan for more elephants before they make their move. This is done to avoid crashing into another giant pachyderm while escaping the first one. If the adivasi fears any animal more than an elephant, it is the bear as it is virtually impossible to sense a bear’s presence and as most bear encounters are sudden, adivasis are extremely wary of the bear while walking in the forest. In case, they do come across a bear, they try and climb a smallish tree with few horizontal branches so that the bear cannot follow them. If possible, many adivasis try a light a fire as bears usually avoid fire and smoke. These and several more adaptations are but a small portion of the practices ingrained upon an adivasi child and provide the growing child with a sense of appreciation of the land, yet these deep connections are getting frayed now.

It is worth recalling that while the diversity of wildlife, especially large mammals in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve has accorded the region with international acclaim, these forests were equally known for the small populations of indigenous communities who have helped conserve this vast landscape for thousands of years.However, low populations and material poverty coupled with alienation from their traditional lands have left most community members unsure about their future. At many places, adivasis have been displaced from their traditional grounds and often not allowed to enter their old lands for bonafide purpose as well. On the other hands, efforts to integrate them in conservation related works with the forest department and implementation of the Forest Rights Act could go a long way in alleviating their fears while providing them opportunities to be infinitely associated with their ancestral forests.

(Thanks to Keystone Foundation, Nisarga Foundation and adivasi friends for sharing information on their socio-cultural practices)

April 3, 2021

The Covid Dilemma that creates a chasm

The shoes were matching his shorts and the shorts were in-sync with the cap. It was all pastel and looked poetic as the putter swung his golf stick in a wide 180 degree arch. It was a serene moment and for passerbys, the scene embodied all that a rich and luxurious life can afford. Similarly, one could find a gentleman puffing away at his cigar as the golf cart ran parallel to our shared taxi or a professional golfer about to finish her turn at the course and walk back for a refreshing downer.

Things looked fine and the world seemed to be at peace. Even the masks were religiously worn in the golf course. Covid was but one of the many inconveniences that these frequent club holders faced and it was nothing that a little social distancing and mask wearing could not prevent citizens from falling prey to this distant disease.

Yet, the community researcher could not help feel despondent. Here he was, just a few kilometers from the slum landscape of D J Halli and it did feel like two different worlds in a matter of minutes. The backward region of D J Halli with its broken drains and open air burning of trash could perhaps be as large as the golf course itself but while the golf course entertained a few people at a time, DJ Halli was home to lakhs of people who lived cheek and jowl to each other in tenements as tall or as wide as a healthy well built person. DJ Halli is in the midst of a corona fear that has led to job losses and increased deprivation and even as the days progress, it seems more likely to fall in a deeper economic morass.  

The corona virus has inadvertently opened up windows to human behaviour and created deep rifts within the society as well as within individuals. The disease, due to its nature has made humans shun other humans and even worse has led to an active stigmatization of the victims, especially in the earlier days of the pandemic.

Worse still, the early days, though in the distant past had opened the window to human behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the first lockdown.


March 23, 2021

Climate questions before Bengaluru

In a country like India, still blissfully unaware of the climate threats lapping up its shores an an urgent need to ramp up its commitment to the Paris Agreement as well as take strong local action to help restrict temperature rise to less than 1.5 degree celsius, Bengaluru stands out but only marginally so. Having committed to the Paris Agreement like the rest of the country and being a part of the C40 cities network which seeks to channelize the collective actions for effectively reducing the impacts of climate change, Bengaluru has a lot on its plate.

The choices are stark. If Bengaluru wants to be carbon neutral, a honest assessment of the current situation in order to design a future climate action plan is the way forward. This action plan should focus on hitherto ‘black-spots’ and tackle issues of efficient transport planning, waste management, better air quality and so on. The emphasis on an effective climate action plan should expand to include the entire state and neighbouring regions as well.

A good starting point could be to conduct an assessment of inventory of current practices to understand the complex inter-linkage between climate and activities such as waste management, construction, energy systems, forest management and so on.

From a city point of view, preserving the existing greenery of the forest is perhaps the most important intervention needed now. The key focus of reviving the city starts with the surprisingly simple act of not cutting trees as the entire hullabaloo around planting new trees is an ecologically long drawn process, while existing trees are already busy sequestering carbon unless cut down.

While India is a signatory to several multilateral and bilateral agreements, on the other hand, the states often work at cross purposes. Destructive activities such as the Hubbali Ankola rail project, the myopic Turahalli tree park project, issues related to Hesarghatta lake and cutting of existing trees are akin to the fable of several blind men and an elephant.

Bengaluru also needs to ensure that commitments are adhered to. A long-planned tree survey is still to happen. Projects such as Tendersure may work at several locations but cases of cutting trees and planting shrubs instead are flawed approaches to sustainability. Lake management is still a controversial issue with significant amount of money poured into fencing, planting trees, beautifying, removing solid waste and creating common spaces while the issues of treating inflow of grey waste is often neglected. From a climate change perspective, as recent floods and droughts in North Karnataka, Kodagu, Bengaluru, Kerala and many places suggest that the complexities of a water stressed nation are likely to intensify in the future. Flawed lake management should not add to our complicated approach to nature and aspects such as protection of catchment areas should deserve greater attention in addition to waste treatment before inflow falls into lakes.

With Bengaluru and London being city leads for monitoring air quality network, the onus falls upon city planners as well to take the lead. Bengaluru city has infact taken measures to address issues of environmental dissonance and hopes to build upon its legacy of being the first city to pass rules regarding building water harvesting. A series of activities have been planned in the coming year to help improve the quality of life of Bengalurians. Some measures identified include rejuvenation of 25 lakes in the next 12 months, measurement of ambient air quality monitoring programs and setup of measuring stations. Also planned is a special drive of planting upto 10 lakh trees during this year and creation of tree parks where necessary. Additionally, traffic engineering measures are being addressed such as better lane management, rectifying spot of traffic inefficiency, bus priority lanes, focus on non-motorized transport methods and on suburban rail projects that aims to complement the metro network. Additionally, electric vehicles are also being promoted as part of the electric vehicle policy of the state with focus on ease of manufacturing as well as sales. It is estimated that atleast 1000 charging points will be setup in the coming year to improve customer comfort in charging electric vehicles.

The city still suffers from the colonial trait of a largely withdrawn policy planning and implementation. Inclusive participation with stakeholders such as waste pickers and ward committees could go a long way in reducing the quantity of waste being sent out to increasingly hostile village communities. Certain attitudinal and institutional changes can also work wonders.

Young climate activist say that incorporating urban environment into our education system have the potential to work wonders. While current curriculums definitely needs an upgrade, hands on activity such as planting trees or tracking the waste-cycle should be promoted with school going children. More inclusive talks as well as engagements between young people and institutions such BBMP as well as ward committees can provide children an opportunity to understand the inner working of such bodies while also provide space for a breath of fresh idea for policy planners.  

Lastly, the hitherto overlooked feature of entertainment options for young people should be reassessed. As any visitor to an European country would testify, open space for interactions, games, art, community service and even space for pets to play unchained can have a positive impression on young minds vis-a-vis spending an inordinate amount of money and time in energy consuming malls. Bengaluru still retains several open common spaces, what it needs is a little encouragement for the young to adopt such spaces as their own.