Paper Tigers

29 July is International Tiger Day. The day was first launched at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit in Russia in 2010 and is observed annually to remind the world about the decline of the global tiger population, and to encourage efforts for tiger conservation. On this day we will see many reports and statistics about tigers and their falling/growing population, and many conferences and seminars will be held on research and studies on tigers.

This is perhaps a good time to look at the tigers that roam not the forests, but that have also populated the pages of language and literature. The tiger has been a dominant character in folklore and mythology in many cultures.  

Perhaps China is the richest country in myths, representations, traditions, and legends related to tigers. Tigers have been a Chinese cultural symbol which has inspired story tellers, singers, poets, artists, and craftspeople for over 7000 years. In Chinese folklore, tigers are believed to be such powerful creatures that they are endowed with the ability to ward off the three main household disasters: fire, thieves and evil spirits. A painting of a tiger is often hung on a wall inside a building, facing the entrance, to ensure that demons would be too afraid to enter. Even in modern- day China, children wear tiger-headed caps, and shoes embroidered with tiger heads to ward off evil spirits; they are given tiger-shaped pillows to sleep on to make them robust. During the year of the Tiger, children have the character Wang painted on their foreheads in wine and mercury to promote vigour and health.

The tiger has equally captivated the people of the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial – feared and revered at the same time. These majestic beats and the lives of the people, especially those that live in close proximity to the tiger and its habitat, have long been intertwined, giving rise to several myths and legends surrounding them. Tiger lore has been interwoven with gods and legends, giving it a mythical status.

According to stories from Indian mythology, the tiger is believed to have powers to do everything from fighting demons, to creating rain, keeping children safe from nightmares, and healing. Humans are often attributed as having tiger characteristics. The consecration ceremony of a king in ancient times required the king to tread upon a tiger skin, signifying the King’s strength.

Songs, proverbs, and sayings in most Indian languages feature tigers as part of their treasury of folk lore and literature. Tigers appear in many stories in the Panchatantra.

A popular belief among many tribes in the Northeast of India is that the cosmic spirit, humans, and tigers are brothers. There are many folk tales based on this theme, with local variations. The belief that the tiger is a human’s brother has meant that the people of these tribes would rarely kill a tiger. There are traditional rituals performed even today to honour and worship the tiger.  

In more recent times, tigers were introduced to non-Asian audiences through the writings of Englishmen who had lived in colonial India by authors such as the famous hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett. His books like The Man Eaters of Kumaon were perhaps some of the early depictions of human-tiger conflict.

In the culture of the West, where they are not found in the wild, tigers have nevertheless sparked the imaginations of writers, and have become popular fictional characters in stories, films, cartoons, songs, and even advertisements. Perhaps the best recreation of the fearsome tiger is Shere Khan of the Jungle Book fame.

Anthropomorphized tiger characters in children’s books have won their place in millions of hearts. There is boisterous and exuberant, Tigger, who is a one-of-a-kind friend in the world of Winnie the Pooh. He eagerly shares his enthusiasm with others—whether they want him to or not, and steals our heart.

Calvin and Hobbes

And we have the imaginary stuffed tiger Hobbes in the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes, who is very real to the irrepressible six-year-old Calvin—a faithful companion in all the capers, sometimes a comforting friend, sometimes a savage beast. The two friends have deep philosophical conversations, ruminating on how best to find meaning in their lives, the essence of which is what all of us are seeking.

Other than literature, tigers have permeated our language through numerous aphorisms, proverbs and sayings. Here are a few ‘tigerisms’.

Paper tiger: Someone who at first glance seems to be in charge but who, on closer examination, is completely powerless.

Tiger economy: A dynamic economy usually referring to of one of the smaller East Asian countries, especially that of Singapore, Taiwan, or South Korea.

Tiger mom: A particularly strict mother who makes her children work very hard in school to achieve success.

Catch a tiger by the tail: Try to control something that is very powerful; have a difficult problem to solve.

A tiger cannot change its stripes: You can’t change your true nature, even if you pretend or claim otherwise.

Eye of the tiger: Determined and focused

A new-born calf has no fear of tigers: A Chinese saying that means that the young are brave, but often due to inexperience.

As tigers in the wild continue to be threatened and pushed towards extinction, International Tiger Day is also an occasion to celebrate the power of words that keep the tiger alive and vibrant in the pages that they also inhabit.

Some beautiful words by Ruskin Bond capture this spirit.

Tigers Forever

May there always be tigers

In the jungles and tall grass

May the tiger’s roar be heard.

May his thunder

Be known in the land.

At the forest pool by moonlight

May he drink and raise his head

Scenting the night wind.

May he crouch low in the grass

When herdsmen pass.

And slumber in dark caverns

When the sun is high.

May there always be tigers

But not so many that one of them

Might be tempted to come into my room

In search of a meal!

Ruskin Bond


Tippy-tippy Tap…

The last few weeks have been a time of looking closely at flowers, and marvelling at their variety. I observed about 12 types of pink flowers, about 8-10 types of orange flowers, about 5-6 red, a few yellow ones, a few white ones and two types each of purple flowers and blue flowers–all in my colony. 

So of course the question came to my mind: Was this the typical distribution of flower colours? Was pink the predominant colour, followed by orange and red? And so started my search to find out a little more about this.

First and foremost, what gives flowers their colours? Colours mainly come from the presence of pigments in the chromoplasts or cell vacuoles of floral tissues.  The most common pigments in flowers come in the form of anthocyanins which range in colour from white to red to blue to yellow to purple and to even black and brown. The other major group are the carotenoids, which provide the yellow colours, along with some oranges and reds. While many flowers get their colours from either anthocyanins or carotenoids, there are some that can get their colours from a combination of the two. Other classes of pigments, but of less importance in relation to flower pigmentation, are chlorophylls (greens), quinones (occasional reds and yellows), and betalain alkaloids (giving yellow, red and purple). 

Coming back to which is the most common flower colour, all my web- searching only told me that there was no definitive answer! To begin with, we don’t even know how many flowering plants there are. And of the flowers we know and have catalogued, colour data are seldom maintained. There is no repository of flower colour information. There is no database which documents flower colours, let alone rank them.

There are many good reasons that make it difficult to document these colours. There is no absolute measure. Colours look different in different lights, at different times of the day. Each person perceives colour differently—what looks orange to me look yellow to you. And we all describe them differently—I may say violet for a colour and you may say mauve.

Moreover, colours vary from genus to genus, and even within a species. A plant growing in one area (say, the plains) can have flowers  that are very different from the same plant growing elsewhere (say in higher altitudes). The colours of flowers depend very much on the growing conditions—soil, sunlight etc. So they may change somewhat with season too.

Recent research suggests that factors like ozone depletion and global warming have caused flowers to change their colours over time. For instance, of the 42 species studied in that research, UV-pigmentation in flowers increased at a rate of 2% per year from 1941 to 2017.

Lantana is one of the flowers which changes colour on pollination

Flowers also use colours as signalling mechanisms. Some flowers change their colour once they are pollinated, so that bees do not come back to them, but rather go to unpollinated flowers. (Eminent teacher, Prof. Mohan Ram, who developed a generation of botanists, ecologists and environmentalists, taught us this during a memorable nature walk.) Some flowers change their colour with age.

But here are some speculations about flower colours:

Counter-intuitively, some people believe green may actually be the most common flower colour–many plants, including most trees, bear flowers in various shades of green. This may be followed by white, yellow, blue and the reds in that order.  Brown is not uncommon either. But all scientists and naturalists emphasize that these are only guesses.

So don’t worry too much about how many. Just enjoy the flowers and their colours!


Look, See, Wonder…

As environmental educators, our most important task with children as well as adults was to awaken them to the wonders of the world around them. From this wonder of the variety of life and the intricate connections therein would come an intellectual curiosity to understand the world better, followed by a passion to do something about it. So the responsibility was to take people through the steps of Awareness, Appreciation, Skills, Knowledge and Action.

So the first step seeing and sensing the world. I remember some of the exercises we used to do in our workshops to help people do this:

  1. Observe the greens : Closely observe the shades of the leaves of different plants/trees. Try to describe the differences.
  2. Observe the shapes of leaves: Sketch different leaves to scale.
  3. Bark rubbings: Find a tree, place a piece of paper on the bark and colour over with a pencil to get the impression of the bark design. Repeat with another tree.
  4. Listen to sounds: Sit in absolute silence for 5 minutes in a natural area and note down the sounds your hear.
  5. Smells: Go around a garden and sniff the flowers, the leaves, the plants, the soil.

Even the most cynical adult would get completely involved and excited, and the result would be a ‘Wow, who would have thought that there were so many shades of green;  that soil smelt like this; that there were so many different types of sounds in nature!’

Roles got reversed when the world decided to environmentally educate me two days ago, as I was on my walk. The very same path that I follow every day, but I was out a little earlier than usual. So the light was different and everything stood out with a brightness and clarity that I did not get to see later in the evenings.

I saw one beautiful pink flower and decided to take a pic. I continued for 2 meters, and saw another one. And within the space of 10 minutes, I had 11 flowers in different shades of pink captured in my phone. I was wonder-struck!

I had obviously only been ‘looking’. I had forgotten to ‘see’. The difference, as Grant Scott, a famous photographer puts it: there is ‘.. a seriousness of intention that one of these words suggests, whilst the other gives the impression of a casual approach to perhaps what is the same thing. The word ‘see’ suggests a depth of visual engagement that allows the person ‘seeing’ to control the action and retain control of any further action that may take place after the initial seeing. To look suggests an observation of surface, it does not suggest any further depth than that. To look suggests both the beginning and end of the action, whereas to see suggests the beginning of a process of investigation.’

So while the popular adage is that we should take the time to smell the flowers, I would also urge that we take the time to see the flowers. And even more important, take the time to let a sense of wonder overtake us!

From this sense of wonder will come the sense of urgency to take care of our world!


Mama Miti Wangari Maathai: Mother of Trees

The first week of July is celebrated in India as Van Mahotsav or Forest Festival. It is marked by the planting of thousands of trees, through community events. It is a reminder of the critical role that vegetation plays in the conservation of water and soil, and thus of life itself. This week brings to mind the story of another greening movement that was the brainchild, and life-long passion, of an incredible woman named Wangari Maathai.

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, a rural area in the central highlands of Kenya in 1940. Her parents were farmers, and she was the third of six children. Wangari’s childhood was spent in the outdoors, playing in the fig trees and the stream around her home, and helping her mother collect firewood for the household. She always saw herself as “a child of the soil”, growing up with her mother’s belief that trees were ‘God’ and should be respected accordingly, something she made the foundation of her life’s work.

Wangari started her education at St. Cecilia Intermediary, a local mission school. She was always a star student; she won a scholarship to study biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in the United States, and graduated in 1964. She went on to earn a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh. But as she wrote in her memoir Unbowed: The spirit of freedom and possibility that America nurtured in me made me want to foster the same in Kenya, and it was in this spirit that I returned home.

After she returned to Kenya, Wangari continued her studies and obtained a doctorate in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, becoming the first African woman in East or Central Africa to hold such a degree. She then joined the university as an associate professor, and went on to become chairwoman of its veterinary anatomy department in the 1970s.

Wangari was however more than just an academic. She was very aware of the changes in her native country’s landscape stemming from the legacy of the British rule—massive deforestation and overexploitation of resources. As a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), she was also becoming engaged with women’s issues. She heard, and saw, rural women who were facing immense hardship due to water sources drying up, and degradation of the soil; women who had to walk miles each day in search of firewood to cook their meals.

By then I understood the connection between the tree and water, so it did not surprise me that when the fig tree was cut down, the stream where I had played with the tadpoles had dried up. I profoundly appreciated the wisdom of my people, and how generations of women had passed on to their daughters the cultural tradition of leaving the fig trees in place. I was expected to pass it on to my children, too.

Wangari remembered her mother’s words about trees. She realised that the only way to prevent the further deterioration of the land was to plant trees. Now, it is one thing to understand the issues. It is quite another to do something about them. But I have always been interested in finding solutions….It just came to me: ‘Why not plant trees’? She first approached foresters to urge for more intense and extensive tree planting. But they derided her by saying what could a veterinary scientist know about plants and plantation? Wangari was undeterred. She decided to go directly to the local women and started explaining to them about the links between tree cover, soil and water conservation, and availability of firewood to cook nutritious meals for the family. She urged that women themselves should take on the mission of planting trees.

Wangari set the example by starting a small tree nursery in her backyard and giving women saplings to plant. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree. After the women had planted seedlings on their farms, I suggested that they go to surrounding areas and convince others to plant trees. This was a breakthrough, because it was now communities empowering one another for their own needs and benefit.

This simple formula was to snowball into one of the largest grassroots tree planting movement—Kenya’s Green Belt Movement. Wangari’s approach was practical, holistic and deeply ecological—the tree roots helped bind the soil, halting erosion and retaining ground water when it rained. This water replenished the streams needed for cultivation of food crops. The trees also provided food, fodder, and fuel which were the mainstay of the communities.  Initially the government did not pay much attention to these nurseries, but as thousands of nurseries began to be created the Government began to see the potential threat that such mobilization could pose to the status quo and vested interests, and it began to harass the Green Belters. By then the movement had attained its own momentum and mobilized thousands of women and men to plant tens of millions of trees across the country. The movement also did more than get women to plant trees; it empowered them to stand up for themselves even in the face of domineering husbands and village chiefs, as well as political and social pressures.

As the movement grew, Wangari Maathai was also becoming more convinced in her understanding that environmental changes alone were not sustainable unless they were linked to issues of governance, peace, and human rights. She used the movement to also address abuse of power like land-grabbing, and human rights issues like illegal detention of political opponents. This led the Green Belt Movement to be labelled as ‘subversive’ during the 1980s.

Wangari felt that these issues could not be fought only through activism. She herself entered the political fray. She was elected as an MP in 2002, and also served as an assistant minister in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. She used her position to fight for women’s rights, democratic processes, and questioned corruption and abuse of power. This also led her to be seen as a threat to the powers that be; she was threatened, harassed, beaten and even jailed. In 2008 she was pushed out of government.

In the meanwhile Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement were attracting international attention. She travelled across the world campaigning for change; urging action to be taken on environmental justice, climate change, and championing the cause of participatory democracy, good governance and women’s rights. Her key message was: It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in. Meanwhile in Kenya, the Green Belt Movement continued to grow and spread with over 6000 grassroots nurseries and tens of millions of trees planted across Kenya.

In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African woman to be awarded the Prize.

In presenting her with the Peace Prize, the Nobel committee hailed her for taking “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular” and for serving “as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights.”

Wangari Maathai passed away in 2011. Even her last wish to be buried in a casket made of hyacinth, papyrus, and bamboo, echoed her life’s mission to save trees. Mama Miti or ‘ mother of trees’ as she was fondly called in Swahili left behind an inspiring legacy of millions of trees that sustain their land, planted and nurtured by the thousands of women whose lives she touched, and changed in many ways. She exemplifies how one woman can be a powerful force for change.



The Versatile Shoe Flower

Within urban myths (defined by the Collins Dictionary as ‘a story, esp one with a shocking or amusing ending, related as having actually happened, usually to someone vaguely connected with the teller’), there should be a special category for ‘school myths and beliefs’  which could be defined as ‘stories and other things believed by a generation or generations of school children’.

One such myth subscribed to fervently by our generation was that if pencil shavings were soaked in milk, left in the moonlight, and some incantations recited over them, they would turn into erasers. Hundreds of children tried this, but since the incantations were not known to anyone in our circles, we attributed our failures to the lack of this knowledge.

The other widely held belief was that we could polish our leather shoes to wonderous lustre with the shoe flower or hibiscus. This was a very convenient belief to hold, as we thus avoided putting in 10 minutes hard work a day with brush and polish, and getting all messy. On the way to school, we would grab some red hibiscus flowers which were ubiquitous, and just before assembly, surreptitiously give our shoes a wipe-around. When the shoes were still kind of wet with the juice from the flowers, they looked ok, but I was never sure if they actually did anything.


But unlike other urban myths, maybe this one has some basis in fact. The hibiscus is called shoe flower because in Malaysia and Indonesia, the flower petals were used to produce a black dye for shoe polishing.

Hibiscus belongs to the genus Malvaceae of the mallow family. There are many hundred species, and the genus is native to warm temperate, subtropical and tropical  regions throughout the world. 

In fact, the hibiscus is an extremely versatile flower. It is used extensively in pujas, and having a bush in the garden assures the devout that they will have flowers throughout the year.

And then of course, its use as a hair tonic. Remember the jabakusum hair oil? The jabakusum or javakusum in fact is a name for hibiscus. It was C.K. Sen, a vaidya from a family of Ayurvedic practitioners, who took this oil commercial. He formed a company C.K.Sen & Co Ltd in 1878, with Jabakusum Taila as the first product. It became an instant hit. Its inherent qualities were assisted by smart marketing—it was positioned as ‘The Royal Toilette’ and ‘By the appointment to the Princess of India’ (no one seems to have asked who that would be!). It was the first hair oil brand in Asia to have a commercial film ad.

Even today, some people dry the flowers and steep them in coconut oil and use it for their hair. The leaves and flowers are also used as the base of hair packs and shampoos.

The humble hibiscus has several medicinal uses as well—it is a laxative as well as a diuretic. It is used to treat colds, fluid retention, stomach irritation and a number of other ailments.  There are claims that it may help to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol.  Hibiscus tea, made by steeping the flowers in hot water for five minutes is a popular drink and home remedy.

In the Philippines, children use the flower to make bubbles. The flowers and leaves are crushed until the sticky juices come out. Hollow sticks or straws are dipped into this and bubbles are blown. 

The hibiscus flower is worn by girls in Tahiti and Hawaii. Traditionally, if the flower is worn behind the left ear, the woman is in a committed relationship. If the flower is worn on the right, she is single.

The hibiscus is a national symbol of Haiti, and the national flower of many countries including the Solomon Islands and Niue, South Korea, Malaysia and Hawaii.

With all this, we seem to tend to take the hibiscus for granted just because it is so common and easy to grow. I never knew of a hibiscus which did not take wherever it was planted. Even a ten-thumbs like me can plant and see a hibiscus bush flower.

Hibiscus come in various colours, with red, pink, white, yellow, orange, multicoloured ones being most common. There are even purple hibiscus. In many cases, the colour of the flowers of a hibiscus bush will change with changes in temperature, hours of daylight etc. For instance, the hotter it gets, the brighter the orange and yellow flowers bloom.

There is something special in the bush outside your house. Marvel at it!


A Day for Sea Monkeys

My generation grew up reading comics usually borrowed from lending libraries. Foreign comics were very expensive and there were few parents in our circles who allowed us to buy them often. Maybe once or twice a year.

These precious comics therefore, were read and re-read and savored cover to cover. The last few pages would often carry ads for a fascinating variety of knick-knacks and gimcracks, of which the most fascinating were the quirkily illustrated ads for ‘Sea monkeys.’ Just add the contents of the package to a tank of clean water the ads promised, and lo and behold, in a few seconds or minutes (I forget which), your tank would have these fascinating little creatures swimming around.

Digging a little deeper, I found that in fact sea-monkeys are in a way manmade creatures. They were ‘invented’ in the 1950s and are a hybrid breed of brine shrimp  (Artemia NYOS, a hybrid of Artemia salina) created artificially by a person called Harold von Braunhut. Traditionally used as fish food, von Braunhut felt that brine shrimp could easily be maintained in home aquaria, and used to foster a love of nature among children and help them observe nature. He set about experimenting and found a way through which his hybrid shrimp could be preserved in dry conditions, and brought back to life when they came in contact with water. He patented the process, which is still a secret today. Sea monkeys are translucent and breathe through their feathery feet. They start life with one eye, and then in the course of time, develop two more. Von Braunhut named them ‘sea monkeys’ because of their monkey-like tails. Initially, these creatures lived only for a month or so, but with the help of marine-biology experts, he was able to create creatures which live up to two years.

Von Braunhut introduced them commercially in 1960 under the name ‘Instant Life’.

But marketing the concept and the product was not easy. No toy shops or pet shops would stock them. So von Braunhut came out with the idea of advertising them in comic books, to be bought directly from the company. Sales took off and never looked back! Generations of children in the US have kept sea-monkeys and become acquainted with the wonders of nature through observing them, caring for them and nurturing them. They are still very much an in-demand product.

Sea monkeys did not just find their way into homes and hearts. 400 million of them accompanied astronaut John Glenn to space. Sea monkeys even had their own TV show in the ‘90s revolving around the adventures of three microscopic sea monkeys which are enlarged to human size by a Professor. They have also featured in several TV shows and movies including The Simpsons. Needless to say, there are also several internet fora which discuss these creatures. Sea monkeys have their own Day too—May 16th is marked as National Sea Monkey Day in the US.

Sea monkeys continue to be ‘manufactured’ and sold, and are quite popular even today. They are available on the company site, as well as on Amazon, including in India. I am not sure if they are still advertised in comics though!

I have to confess that in my confused mind, for a long time I thought sea-monkeys and seahorses were the same. It was only many, many years later that I realized they were completely different. Sea horses are more bonafide– any of about 50 species of marine fishes allied to pipefishes.

Happy belated Sea Monkey Day!


Image: Shutterstock

Of Fireflies and Glowworms

When we were young, we used to see fireflies in the garden a few weeks in a year. What a magical experience it was! Like the stars had come down to visit us.

After that, I did not see them for many decades. Either I did not live in the right place, or I was not lucky enough to spot them in the short window that they glowed. But in the last few years, since we moved to Bangalore, I have been sighting a few. Year after year, the same two spots in our community hosted them—shrubby areas on the periphery. This year, for some reason, I am seeing many more . Each spot has only a couple, but from two, the number of spots has risen to six or so. That definitely sounds like good news!

But what are fireflies? Sorry if this takes the magic and romance away, but they are a type of beetle!  There are over 2,000 species of firefly spread across the world on every continent except Antarctica. However, in India, we have only eight. They are generally seen in the pre-monsoon season.

Why do fireflies twinkle? As is usually the reason for most beauty in the natural world, it is to attract a mate and reproduce! Fireflies use flashes as mating signals and the flashes we see are generally from males looking for females. They flash a specific pattern while they fly. If a female waiting in the greenery nearby is in the mood, she responds back with a flash. They will continue this flashy exchange till the male locates the female and they mate. Each species has its own pattern so that males and females of the same species can identify each other.

And how do they twinkle? Through a phenomenon called bioluminescence. At the risk of taking away even more romance, it is when two chemicals found in their bodies, luciferin and luciferase, lead to a reaction in the presence of oxygen, adenosine triphosphate  and other compounds, that they twinkle. The light they produce is called ‘cold light’– that is no heat is produced during the reaction. Which is a good thing, as otherwise not only would it waste energy, but also burn the poor creature.

This year was a lucky year, as I am seeing so many fireflies. Firefly populations are rapidly decreasing because of habitat degradation, light pollution, pesticide use, poor water quality, climate change, invasive species, and over-collection. In India, pesticide use may be the most significant cause of the falling numbers.

I was lucky enough to see another ‘glowing phenomenon’ — the glow worms of New Zealand. Of all my nature-travel experiences, I would count this as THE top! In an experience like no other, boats take groups of tourists through a waterway in an intricate web of caves. It gets darker and darker, till you are in the darkest-dark you will ever experience. The boat-captain guides the boat by pulling along ropes tied on the sides of the cave. Just as you start to wonder whether the sight you will see is worth the risk of being toppled into a water course of unknown depth in pitch dark which will make rescue impossible, you are rewarded with flashes of light which grow in intensity as you proceed. And then you know it is worth it as you see constellations of twinkling glow worms on the roof and sides of the cave!

These are glow worms—again, not actually worms, but in the case of those found in Australia and New Zealand, the larvae of fungus gnats, an insect that looks like a mosquito. Their bioluminescence works much the same way as that of fireflies, and they emit light from an organ near their tails that is similar to a human kidney. However, in their case, the glow is mainly used to attract prey. Smaller insects and flies are drawn to the light and fly towards it.

These special sparklers and their habitats are fragile. We don’t know what human actions can push them over the brink. We need to take care that our carelessness does not take the glow from our lives.


Gandhi and the Environment: A Tribute for World Environment Day

Mrs. Indira Gandhi was the only Head of State at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm in 1972, apart from the host Prime Minister Olaf Palme, who was the host. The speech she gave at the Conference, linking human development, poverty and peace to environmental conservation is definitely one of the first steps towards the articulation of sustainable development. i.e., ‘meeting the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

But long before this Gandhi, there was another Gandhi who was calling the world’s attention to these issues. Who else but Mahatma Gandhi!

Hug the Trees!

Gandhiji may not have articulated his thoughts on the environment in terms that we use today. But his whole philosophy was deeply rooted in concepts of what we now call sustainability: taking only what one needs from the environment, simplifying wants, equity, non-violence towards all life forms, and a caution against mindless pursuit of ‘development’. Many environmental movements like Chipko or Narmada Bachao Andolan are in fact inspired by Gandhiji.

On the occasion of Stockholm+50 and WED, here are some quotations from the Mahatma, which mark him as a very early spokesperson for environment and sustainable development.

‘I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my immediate use, and keep it, I thieve it from someone else. I venture to suggest that it is the fundamental law of Nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our wants from day-to-day, and if only everybody took enough for himself and nothing more, there would be no pauperism in the world, there would be no man dying of starvation in the world.’

Speech on ‘Ashram Vows’ at YMCA, Madras. 16 Feb, 1916. CWMG Vol 13, 230-231.

‘Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.’

Quotation popularized by Gandhi.

‘We cannot have ecological movement unless the principle of non-violence becomes central to the ethics of human nature.’

Mohan-mala. A Gandhian Rosary. Ahmedabad. Navajivan Publishing House. 1997. 93-94.

‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.’

Young India. 12 Dec 1928. CWMG Vol. 38. 243.

If it is man’s privilege to be independent, it is equally his duty to be inter-dependent.

‘In the modern rush, the chief use we have for our rivers is to empty our gutters in them and navigate our cargo vessels, and in the process make them dirtier still.’

Young India, 23 December, 1926.

‘Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants.’

Yeravada Mandir. Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad.  

‘We cannot have ecological movement unless the principle of non-violences becomes central to the ethics of human nature.’

Mohan-mala. A Gandhian Rosary. Navjivan Publishing House.


Credit: Centre for Environment Education put together a collection of Gandhiji’s thoughts to mark the 10th anniversary of the Earth Charter, in a publication called ‘Earth Charter & Gandhi: Towards a Sustainable World.’ Compiled by Karikeya Sarabhai, Meena Raghunathan, Amishal Modi. These quotations are taken from there.

Taking Stock in Stockholm

When I started my journey as an environmental educator in the mid-1980s, my orientation began with an introduction to the key milestones in the global environmental movement. The first milestone was the Stockholm Declaration which put forward a vision, as well as a set of principles on the way forward in the shared management of the global environment. The Declaration was promulgated at the conclusion of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm in June 1972, which became popularly known as the Stockholm Conference. 

Why was this conference such an important milestone? Among many other firsts this was the first-ever UN conference with the word “environment” in the title. The Stockholm Declaration provided the first agreed global set of principles for future work in the field of the human environment.

What was the road that led to this? The world had seen unprecedented scientific and technological progress since the end of World War II. But a fallout of the resulting development was the deterioration of the environment. In the 1960s, several scientists and thinkers began to express concern about the negative environmental and societal effects of the rapid industrialization. The shortcomings of the UN system to deal with the new developments were also becoming evident, but at the time environment was not high on the agenda of national and international politics. What was the way forward in a world polarised by the Cold War, and also the increasing gap between the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing’ countries?

It was a small Scandinavian country, Sweden who took the initiative. It urged that the time was ripe for a collective, substantive discussion at the global level about environmental problems. In 1967 it proposed to convene a UN conference on the human environment to increase awareness, and to identify environmental problems that needed international cooperation.

The response was unexpected. Despite Cold War politics, the Soviet Union and other members of the Eastern bloc joined the United States and most Western European countries in supporting the Swedish initiative. However many developing countries were uneasy that Northern interests would dominate the proposed conference and that “green issues” would be an excuse to restrict their national development. But by and large Sweden’s proposal was positively received.

In May 1968 Sweden sent an official request to the Secretary General of the UN making their case.  ‘Environmental issues … have not yet been given the prominence in the deliberations of the competent organs of the United Nations… Furthermore, as the problems of human environment grow more serious every day… there is, therefore, an indisputable need to create a basis for comprehensive consideration within the United Nations of the problems of human environment.’

In 1968 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution which called for a conference on the relationships between environmental, social, and economic issues to be convened in 1972. The conditions were that the conference would not take decisions. Any recommendations arising from it would have to be formally adopted by the General Assembly. Maurice Strong, a businessman and, at the time, the head of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), was appointed to be Secretary General of the Conference.

In May 1969, the United Nations accepted Sweden’s offer to host the conference in Stockholm. So it came about that in 1972, “For the first time nations came to consider the state of the planet Earth, habitually taken for granted, treated as an unchanging backdrop to human drama. For the first time we were integrating the scenery into the action of the play.” (Shridath Ramphal Commonwealth Secretary General)

The Stockholm Conference was held in the first week of June 1972. It saw the participation of the representatives of 114 of the UN’s 132 member states. The Soviet Bloc did not participate in the main event but took active part in the preparatory process. This was the first major international event in which the People’s Republic of China participated as a new member of the United Nations. In addition to government representation, 250 non-governmental organizations came to the conference—an unprecedented achievement at the time.

Only two heads of State attended–Mr Olaf Palme the Prime Minister of Sweden, and Mrs Indira Gandhi the then Prime Minister of India. Indira Gandhi emerged as a figurehead to represent developing countries’ fears and priorities, stressing the issues of war, poverty, and development. She made an impassioned plea “We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”  This has been a key point in international deliberations in the five decades since Stockholm.

The Stockholm Conference produced three major sets of decisions: The Stockholm Declaration which provided the first agreed global set of principles for future work in the field of the human environment. The second was the Stockholm Action Plan comprising 109 recommendations for governments and international organizations on international measures against environmental degradation. The third was a group of five resolutions. The resolutions called for: a ban on nuclear weapon tests that may lead to radioactive fallout; an international databank on environmental data; the need to address actions linked to development and environment; international organizational changes; and the creation of an environmental fund.

The Conference had several outcomes that we today take for granted. Environment ministries and agencies were established in more than 100 countries to implement the recommendations of the Conference. It also led to a great increase in non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations dedicated to environmental preservation.

The Conference was used as a model for a series of similar UN events to try and come to grips with interlinked cross-sectoral issues from gender to human rights.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) was set up as mark of the UN’s commitment to carry forward the Action Plan of the Conference. It was headquartered at Nairobi in Kenya, the first UN body to be located outside of the industrialized world. 5 June was designated as World Environment Day.

The Stockholm Conference was indeed a milestone in many ways. It stressed that environmental issues are inherently political—not just scientific and technical, as many policymakers previously thought, and therefore need political negotiations and decision-making. The Stockholm Conference demonstrated how global cooperation could take place. It identified a theme that has been at the centre of international environmental discourse: Sustainable Development.

This week it is exactly fifty years since this vision for a sustainable future for mankind was discussed and deliberated in a spirit of international cooperation. In the half century since, our planet has seen changes—for good and the bad. We are far from achieving the vision. Rather our planet faces a looming triple threat from climate change, pollution and waste, and loss of nature and biodiversity. The alarm bells are growing louder and closer. 

Once again, this week, Stockholm will host concerned world leaders, and a wide range of stakeholders in the Stockholm+50 event—a high-level gathering convened by the United Nations, and hosted by Sweden with support from the government of Kenya. They will meet in an effort to take stock of the achievements and failures of the past five decades, as well as with the hope to accelerate a transformation that leads to sustainable and green economies, more jobs, and a healthy planet for all, where no one is left behind.

As citizens of Planet Earth this is a good time for each of us to take stock of our own lifestyle, and remind ourselves that a healthy planet for the prosperity of all is our collective responsibility, and our collective opportunity.

The fate of Planet Earth lies largely in our own hands and in the knowledge and intelligence we bring to bear in the decision making process. In the final analysis, however, man is unlikely to succeed in managing his relationship with nature unless in the course of it he learns to manage better the relations between man and man.

Opening statement by Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the Stockholm Conference June 1972.



As the late April heat intensifies and the scorching sun begins to wilt and melt all that it beats down upon, it is time for the golden showers. The Indian laburnum or Golden Shower tree is in bloom. Its masses of yellow blossoms cascade from the tree like waterfalls of molten gold. Indian summer is really here!


Indian laburnum or Cassia fistula gets its genus name from the word Kasia which was given by an ancient Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscurides, and its species name fistula meaning pipe, which refers to its tube-like pods.  

C. fistula is widely grown as an ornamental plant in tropical and subtropical areas. It is native to Southeast Asia and is found in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, South and SW China, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and other tropical Asian countries, some parts of Australia and tropical Africa.

The Amaltas as it is commonly called in Hindi, is one of the most widespread of Indian trees and occurs throughout the country including the Andamans, and thus it has a vernacular name in all Indian languages. Many of the names refer to the long stick-like pods which appear almost alongside the blooms.

The Indian Laburnum is the common English name of this moderate-sized, deciduous tree. Its bark is greenish-grey and smooth on young trees, but with age it becomes brown and rough. This is not a tree that attracts attention for the large part of the year. It has a nondescript branching pattern and scant foliage. Between February and May the leaves get dull and ragged and many of them fall. New leaves are a beautiful fresh green sometimes tinged with pink, or a rich copper colour, and covered with a soft down; they remain folded and hang loosely downwards until they are fully grown.  It is with the onset of the summer that the laburnum bursts into full glory with sprays of golden flowers. It is the profuse mass of colour that attracts immediate attention. But a closer look reveals the delicate distinct beauty of the individual flowers that make up the mass. Each flower has five spoon-shaped petals of unequal size and ten yellow stamens of which three are long and curve gracefully upwards, the next four are shorter and curve the opposite way, while the remaining three are even shorter and straight. All are crowned with large, brown anthers where pollen is produced.

Around the same time, the long hanging cylindrical pods that give the tree some of its common names like Pudding Pipe tree appear in large numbers, making a striking picture of brown with yellow. At first the pods are green and soft, then they turn brown, and eventually become black and very hard. The pods contain large numbers of shiny brown seeds arranged in small compartments surrounded by a sticky brown pulp. 

In the scorching sun, the blooming flowers are a magnet for a wide range of insects and birds, which in turn creates dynamic ecological interactions. Bees and butterflies are important pollinating agents. The laburnum is specially connected to the Carpenter bees; the vibrations generated by the bees as they hover near the flowers cause the pollen grains to break out of the stamens, and attach to the bee’s body, and therefrom travel far and wide. Weaver Ants lurk around the flowers to pounce and prey on pollinators that visit the flowers. While flowers are the star attraction, the leaves too play important supporting roles. Greater Short-nosed Fruit Bats consume the leaves of the Golden Shower Tree, which are rich in protein and calcium. Butterflies like Mottled Emigrant, Common Emigrant and Common Grass Yellow, lay eggs on the leaves, which also provide the first food for the caterpillars as they emerge from the eggs. The ripe pods also attract mammals like monkeys, jackals, bears and pigs who break these open to eat the pulp, thereby helping to scatter the seeds that lie within, either directly or through their ingestion and excretion.

For humans, the Indian Laburnum also provides much more than sheer aesthetic pleasure. Its leaves, fruits and flowers are known to have medicinal relevance in Ayurveda and other traditional systems of medicine. In fact, in Sanskrit, the tree is revered as Aragvadha or ‘disease killer’. The fruit pulp is known to have laxative properties, while its flowers are used in certain folk remedies. The leaves have also been used as fodder to supplement the diets of domestic cattle, sheep, and goats, and as green manure. The flowers are also eaten by some tribal communities, and more recently, new age chefs are creating innovative ‘Amaltas’ recipes of teas, chutneys, jams, and salads using the flowers.

As with most indigenous trees, the Amaltas finds a place in culture and tradition. The tree finds mention in literature from the epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, to folk literature, and is depicted in paintings and pictures. The Indian Postal Department issued a stamp in its honour, and some cities in India have beautiful avenues of Laburnum trees, original planted by the British.

In Kerala, the Kondrai or Kannikona flower as it is locally known has great cultural and religious significance. According to traditional belief it is very auspicious to have a first sighting of the flowering tree at dawn on Vishu, the New Year’s Day. The Vishukanni (literally the first sight on the day of Vishu) ritual includes an offering of all the ‘golden items of seasonal harvest’ like jackfruit, golden cucumber, mangoes and cashews, on this day. In fact the Kannikona flower is the state flower of Kerala.

Several countries of South East Asia also honour this beautiful tree. The golden hues of the Laburnum flowers signify royalty in Thailand where this has been designated as the national flower, and there is an annual flower festival is named after this tree.  In Sri Lanka where it is called Ehela, this tree is planted around Buddhist temples. In Laos the blooming flowers known as Dok Khuan are also associated with their new year when the flowers are offered at temples and also hung in homes in the belief that they will bring happiness and good luck to the house and family.

As I look out from my window at the glorious golden cascade of the Amaltas, I too wish that the auspicious sighting will bring the same to my home.