A Shout-out for the Environment: NEAC

India has always been a little ahead of the curve in its thinking about environmental issues. Four decades ago, it recognized that raising public awareness and educating key target groups as well the future generations on environmental issues, were key to a sustainable future. It designated a Centre of Excellence in this area way back in 1985–viz the Centre for Environment Education.

In 1986, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (as it was then) launched another unique initiative called the National Environmental Awareness Campaign (NEAC). The unique feature of this was that it called upon various types of organizations to plan their own Environmental Awareness programmes for their own local communities or other target groups, and implement them with the support of small grants from the Ministry.

Every year, NEAC started on Nov. 19th. Nov 19 to Dec 18 was marked as Environment Month in the old days in India—Nov 19 being Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s birthday, and she certainly had a big role in setting the environmental agenda for the country, and was a voice for developing countries on these issues at global forums.

NEAC was unique that it was conceived as a pan-national programme, at a time when there were not very many such. Even in the first year of its launch, it already touched almost every state and union territory. And it was unique in its proactive involvement of a variety of agencies as implementers. NGOs, educational institutions, professional associations, scientific bodies, community-based organizations—all were welcome to put in proposals, which were scrutinized and passed. There was a degree of trust which is not often seen.

And there were few constraints on media and methods for outreach—from street plays, to seminars to drawing competitions to films to essay-writing to teacher training to door-to-door campaigns to wall-painting to bringing out booklets and posters to….. The NEAC probably saw a flowering of outreach methods which was unique. And it reached every nook and corner of the country—from women in remote forest villages, to students in the Andamans; from famers in Assam to small industries in Gujarat.

NEAC
NEAC Campaign. CUTS.

The numbers were mind-boggling. From the involvement of 120 NGOs in the first year, it went to 9784 implementing agencies in 2006-2007. A total of 13,336 campaigns are reported to have been conducted in 2014-15. And each of these reached hundreds of people.

And the administrative backbone also evolved with the growing numbers. To begin with, there was one central Committee set up by the Ministry to scrutinize and pass the proposals. Slowly, the concept of Regional Resource Agencies (RRA) took root—reputed NGOs or academic institutions which were well networked in specific areas were given the responsibility to set up their own expert-committees and pass the proposals. Within 10 years of the programme starting, there were 27 such RRAs, making for very decentralized operations.

The amount of money involved was not high. Each implementing NGO got about Rs. 30,000 to implement the programme. But the energy, creativity and outreach it gave rise to were truly remarkable.

The NEAC has been more or less been given up in the last few years. Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave in a written reply to Parliament said that the NEAC could not be conducted during 2015-16 and 2016-17 due to lack of funds.

Nov 19 is almost here. It does not seem that there is much action on this front this year either.

There were a lot of problems with NEAC, with the key ones being: Were the funds being utilized properly? Did the kind of awareness programmes being done make a difference?

Many evaluations of NEAC were done, the latest one being in around 2017. But the report of the evaluation is not exactly locatable. So has NEAC been dropped due to lack of funds? Because it was not making a difference? Because something else has taken its place? It is not clear.

The one thing that is clear is that with environmental crises looming, the need for environmental awareness and education have never been greater. OK, if the NEAC was not effective, let’s revamp it. Surely the evaluation report should tell us how to do it. But let’s not forget that building public opinion is critical to saving the world!

–Meena




COP Out?

The acronym COP has been hitting us in the face for the last few weeks. We know that there is a meeting happening at Glasgow, and that Climate Change is being discussed. And that the decisions made or not made will affect the future of the Planet and of humankind.

COP 26

But what is COP? COP stands for Conference of Parties, i.e., all the nations which have signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). This is the foundational treaty on climate change, and came into being at the landmark Rio Convention in 1992. A ‘Framework Convention’ is one wherein parties acknowledge that there is a problem, and commit, more or less in principle, to work together to solve it. However, there are no specific obligations laid out in these. The UNFCC is ‘subject to ratification, acceptance, approval or accession by States and by regional economic integration organizations’. 

Over time, as more information, knowledge and science come in, and consensus grows, a Framework is fleshed out, and specific Protocols and Agreements with clear obligations come in. From UNFCC for instance, we have the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, laying down specific obligations on the parties. Each of these has to be signed and ratified separately—and this is where the crux of it is. Easy enough to sign statements of intent, but countries baulk at signing on to specific commitments.

The UNFCC opened up for ratification at the Rio Conference on 4th June 1992. It came into force on 21st March 1994, after the 50th instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession had been deposited. India was one of the early movers, signing the Convention on June 10, 1992, and ratified it in Nov 1993.

As of now, there are there are 197 Parties (196 States and 1 regional economic integration organization). And these are the ‘parties’ referred to in COP. The COP is the highest decision-making body of the Convention and all States that are Parties to the Convention are represented here.

The COP meets every year, unless the parties agree otherwise. The first meeting was held at Bonn in 1995, the year after the Convention came into force. The COP presidency rotates among the five UN regions. COP 8 was held in New Delhi in 2002.

Apart from the Parties, COPs are attended by Observer States. Beyond this, there are two more categories of participants. The Press and Media are one category of participants. The last category is of observer organizations. These ‘observer organizations’ include the United Nations System and its Specialized Agencies; intergovernmental organizations; and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The number of people registered for COP 26 at Glasgow was close to 40,000, approximately double the numbers from COP 25 held in 2019. But there have been allegations that many delegates and participants from developing countries could not make it because COVID-related travel restrictions for their countries were lifted too late, thereby restricting the voices of the Global South.

This is not the only angle from which COP 26 has been criticized. More than half way through the event, many are concerned with the progress made. Greta Thunberg feels that it has been a “two-week long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah”.

What can we do but hope? And take actions at the personal level, while the powers talk and discuss and negotiate.

Till another COP next year, at a yet-to-be announced venue.

–Meena

RIP Dr. SM Nair: Father of Natural History Museums

There are the pioneers, and he was among them. Museology is not a widely-known or popular field of study even today. Way back in the 1950s, it was even less so. This is the time at which a young boy from Kerala, after finishing his B.Sc in Trivandrum, travelled all the way to Baroda to pursue his M.Sc in the subject, at the M.S. University. He went on to do research on the Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials, and was awarded the first Doctorate in Museology from M.S. University for this work.

Dr. Nair started his career as an academic, first teaching at his alma mater in Baroda, and then moving on to Department of Museum Studies, BITS Pilani.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then-PM, and a leader who took great interest in the environment, had been very impressed by the Natural History Museums she saw during her visits to Europe. She wanted to create similar ones in India. She conceived of a plan for one in New Delhi and one in Bhopal. She put together an eminent team of museum professionals and scientists to take this idea forward. One thing led to another, and Dr. SM Nair, only 37 years old at that time, was chosen as the Project Director for this initiative in 1974.

Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH
Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH

Four hectic years followed, when the conceptualization, planning and execution was done by a dedicated core team including Shri D.P.Singh, S.K. Saraswat, B. Venugopal and several others. Dr. Nair visited the best Natural History Museums around the world. He got several artists and model-makers trained at the best centres in the world. And the National Museum of Natural History opened its doors to the public on June 5, 1978 (Environment Day). Subsequently, Regional Museums of Natural History came up in Mysore, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar  under Dr. Nair’s guidance.

The stuffed rhino that greeted one on the ground floor of the FICCI building where NMNH was housed, will surely be in the memories of many a Delhi school child. The rhino had died a natural death at the Delhi Zoo, and was stuffed and kept here.

The effort in NMNH was always to make the experience interactive for children. For those times, when most museums were static displays, this focus was unusual. The Museum also had a major thrust on outreach and extension. It had an active teacher training and orientation programme, which reached out to thousands of educators in its time.

Dr. Nair had a personal connect with every exhibit and activity at NMNH, and continued to take an interest in it even after his retirement in the late ‘90s. What he must have gone through on 26th April 2016, when the news of a fire breaking out in the museum and destroying the entire collection, can only be imagined.

Dr. Nair continued to be active in his mission of Environmental Education long after his retirement, working at WWF-India and Centre for Environment Education.

Not just at a national level, he was extremely respected internationally, serving as Chairman of Natural History Museum Committee of ICOM (international Council of Museums) and as

a Member of the Joint Museum Committee of the lndo-US Subcommission on Education and Culture.

Among his books are ‘Endangered Animals of India and their Conservation’, brought out by the National Book Trust, and  ‘Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials’ by Agam Kala Prakashan.

We knew Dr. Nair since the mid-eighties, as one of the fathers of the Environmental Education movement an India.

He mentored us first as a member of the Governing Council of CEE, and then as a senior colleague. Even today, old-timers in CEE-VIKSAT recall his contribution to these institutions with great respect—when it was a struggling NGO, he spotted the potential of the team and gave them a project to develop labels and take-away materials for the NMNH exhibits. This not only paid salaries for a couple of months, but gave them their first project from a national-level, government institution. This project was a critical stepping-stone.

We have also known him as the father of a colleague, Meena, who was inspired by him to follow in his footsteps in a career in Environmental Education.

NMNH and other natural history museums excited the imagination and curiosity of generations of children. NMNH may no longer exist, but Dr. Nair’s legacy lives on.

Dr. Nair passed away last week. May his soul rest in peace.

Dr. SM Nair (1937-2021).

–Meena

Beauty and the Bees

If last week was about boring bees, this week it is about beautiful bees—bees in art, bees and art.

Bees have been depicted in art through the ages, the oldest known been a Spanish cave painting dating back 15,000 years. These insects also have great symbolic value—variously standing for peaceful coexistence, teamwork, industriousness. In some cultures, they are symbols for fertility and healing. In Hindu mythology, Kamadev’s sugarcane bow is strung with a row of bees, thus symbolizing the sting of love.

One of the most popular works depicting bees has to be the Fontana delle Api, or Fountain of Bees in Rome. In a city replete with fountains, this one stands out for its elegance and creativity. Built in 1644, it prominently features bees because it was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, who belonged to the Barberini family, whose symbol was the bee. The 3-bee symbol of the family was also immortalized with St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, in the Baldacchino sculpture.

Fountain of Bees
Fountain of Bees, Rome

Napoleon did his part for bees—they were one of his imperial symbols. His red coronation robes were embroidered with gold bees. It was not just the beauty of bees which captured Napoleon’s imagination. He consciously used this symbol as a rejection of the fleur-de-lis, which was the symbol of the previous regime of the Bourbons. His use of bees started a rage, and they were used as decorative symbols on everything, from porcelain to textiles.

Coming to contemporary arts, in something called bee sculpture, artist Tomas Libertiny collaborates with bees and bee keepers, to re-create famous sculptures in beeswax. He makes 3-D replicas of the originals—from the Nefertiti bust to Micaheangelo’s sculptures—and creates a wire frame of the same shape. He gives these frames to beekeepers, who encourage bees to build their hives on these. In a matter of months (or years if it is a large and complex structure), the bees build in the desired shape. Not a simple process though—Libertiny compares it to doing bonsai, with the constant need for adjusting, trimming and building the growth in the desired shape. The result is a beautiful and very durable piece of art made of beeswax.

The Hive is a huge immersive exhibit at the Kew Gardens. It is a huge structure made of metal. It reflects the activity of a real bee hive in the Kew. An accelerometer (a device which detects vibrations) is placed in the real hive. It picks up the vibrations of the bees and transmits them to the metal hive in real time. There are 1000 LED lights in the structure, which light up in tandem with these vibrations. There are also recorded sounds from hives to add an audio dimension. It is the closet a human can safely get to being in a beehive!

Then there are artists for bees. The Good of the Hive initiative of artist Mathew Willey has made it a mission to depict 50,000 bees in murals and installations across the world, towards raising awareness of the role of bees in our lives, and the threats they face. The number 50,000 is chosen because that that is the number of bees which can sustain a healthy colony. Louis Masai Michel is another artist with a similar mission.

On the one hand there are humans celebrating bees in art. On the other, there are bees exhibiting a developed sense of art recognition! There is a fascinating experiment concerning bees and art conducted by scientists in Australia. Bees were shown 8 paintings, four by the French artist Claude Monet, and four by Australian Indigenous artist Noŋgirrŋa Marawili. The scientists placed a small blue dot at the centre of each painting. The ones on the painting by Monet had a bitter quinine drop in it. The ones by Marawili had a drop of sugar solution. After letting the bees interact with these paintings for some time, the scientists replaced the paintings with two new paintings which the bees had not seen, one by Monet and one by Marawili. The bees made a beeline for the painting by Marawili! In other words, they were able to distinguish the styles of the two artists, and knew which painting would yield the sugar!

Long live bees!

–Meena

Snail Alert

As I was walking along in my colony the other day, on a patch of grass I saw a gory sight. Someone had stepped on a snail. It was crushed. And beside it, I saw a yellow outgrowth. I couldn’t figure out what that was: for a moment I thought that the snail had been dead for a few days maybe, and some kind of mushrooms or fungi had grown there, thanks to the nutrients available. That didn’t seem too plausible. So my next idea was that in fact the accident was very recent, and these were the snails innards. But a closer look revealed that small yellow balls made up the outgrowth.  So the final conclusion (borne out by web-searches) was that the crushed snail had been pregnant, and the eggs had come out and lay beside the dead father/mother.

Father/mother? What does that mean? Well, if you remember your high-school biology, most snails are hermaphrodites–which means that they have the reproductive organs of both males and females. In theory therefore, they have the ability to self-fertilize. However, they don’t usually do that. They mate in the “traditional way.” As a result, both of the partners lay eggs.  Each clutch has about 200 eggs on average, and each snail may lay 5-6 clutches per year.

And this high reproductive ability is a cause of great concern. Because the crushed specimen was a Giant African Land Snail, one of the most invasive species ever. A native of East Africa (mainly Kenya and Tanzania), today the snail has spread across almost the whole world, an active and aggressive pest. Given the rate of its reproduction the snail spreads like a wildfire. It is extremely adaptable, and eats about 500 species of plants, and hence poses a threat to both agricultural crops and native plants wherever it goes. Not only does it eat the plants but it is also a vector for plant pathogens, thus causing further damage to agricultural crops and native plants. It carries the rat lungworm parasite and can transfer it to humans, causing meningitis. And once entrenched, the snails are almost impossible to get rid of. Some states of the US have spent millions of dollars to eradicate the creatures, but with limited success.

But coming back to snails in general. Well, snails are gastropod mollusks, which means they are related to both octopuses and slugs.  There are some species adapted to living on land—the land snails, and there are aquatic snails, which live in either fresh water or the sea. All snails carry shells into which they retreat when threatened by predators, or in unfavorable weather. They hatch out of the eggs with small shells, which grow as they grow. The shells are made of calcium carbonate, and they keep adding more of it to the edges of the shells till they are adults. They don’t have legs, but move thanks to the muscular movement of their bodies, and aided along by the mucous they secrete which helps them to reduce friction and slide along. And moving along at snail’s pace means maintaining an average speed of about half-an-inch per second. They can’t hear, but their sight is good and sense of smell even better. They live for 3-7 years. While most species are hermaphrodite, there are some which are not and have distinct males and females.

Well, we do know that snails are a delicacy in some parts of the world. But lesser known is that in places in the UK, snail-racing is a sport! Snail shells are also sometimes incorporated in jewelry. Certain varieties of snails, especially the Muricidae family, produce a secretion that is a natural dye. In ancient times, purple and blue dyes were made from these snails, and were very expensive and prized. There was also belief that snails had medicinal properties, especially for bronchial problems, tuberculosis, etc., and some of these uses are still being investigated. And not to forget, snail slime may well be a part of that anti-aging cream or moisturizer you just bought!

Coming back to my crushed snail.

I know the person who stepped on him/her did so unknowingly.

And that if that clutch of eggs had hatched, we would have hundreds of more pests to ruin our gardens.

But still I cannot but feel a little sad, at the memory of the crushed body and the doomed eggs.

–Meena

Did I See What I Saw?

8.15 pm, June the 9th, 2021. Bangalore.

I was looking out at the madhu-malti (Combretum indicum; English names: Chinese Honeysuckle or Rangoon Creeper) in my garden.

And I saw an amazing sight. An aerial creature hovering and sucking nectar from the flowers. It darted away and was back for another 10-15 second go at the flowers. And again and again and again. And the movements were accompanied by a whirring sound.

Smaller than any bird I have seen, and with gauzy wings, it was much larger than any bee or wasp. To me, at first sight it looked like a giant wasp. But a wasp that was behaving like a sunbird or a humming bird. So then I wondered whether it was some sort of sunbird. But I didn’t feel comfortable with either explanation.

I rushed to get my phone. The creature was a fast-darting type; my phone does not have a great camera; the light was bad; last but not the least, I am a terrible photographer. I clicked away, knowing full-well that there would be nothing out of the exercise other than some dark blurs. And I was right.

I called Raghu. He came a few minutes later. Just caught a few glimpses of the creature. Not enough for him to make any conjectures apart from that it was a larger-than-ordinary flying creature. It did not hover when he came. The saga ended when it vanished into the dark. Raghu said it was just a moth and it was my hyperactive imagination which had seen it hovering and sucking.

I could not let this insult pass. I went to good old Google. And have concluded that what I saw was a Hummingbird Moth, probably a Hummingbird Hawkmoth (genus Macroglossum). But which one, I cannot tell.

Kitching, Kendrick and Smetacek in their enumeration ‘ A List Of Hawkmoth Species (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) Of India, Nepal, Bhutan And Sri Lanka, Including Their Common Names’ list about 20 Hummingbird Hawkmoths which may be sighted across this area. The common names run an interesting gamut, from Black-Based Hummingbird Hawkmoth to Burnt-Spot Hummingbird Hawkmoth to Obscure Hummingbird Hawkmoth.

Obviously not the pic I took!

What is this creature which looks like a bird and acts like a bird, but is an insect? An evolutionary phenomenon called convergent evolution or homoplasy explains this resemblance. In homoplasy, two creatures from different families and orders develop similar forms which serve the same functions. Basically, Hummingbird Moths mimic hummingbirds because it gives them some advantages. What could these advantages be? Scientists opine that looking like a bird may help them for two major reasons: first, these moths are diurnal, and this makes them more vulnerable to predators. They are also pretty colourful, which adds to the vulnerability. So looking like a bird may fool predators, and give them an edge.

These moths, like hummingbirds, have extremely strong wings to enable them to hover and sip. Hummingbirds beat their wing over 80 times a second. While the moths are not quite as fast, the speed is enough to keep them suspended over the flower for several seconds at a time. They have very long proboscis, which enable to suck the nectar.

Good to know. But can I be sure that what I saw was a Hummingbird Hawkmoth?

No. While Hummingbird Hawkmoths have been sighted in Bangalore, they are supposed to be seen in South India in the winter. But this sighting was in June.

And emphatically, all HHs unlike most other moths, are diurnal creatures. They are supposed to be active in the daytime, especially when it is sunny and bright. But this sighting was at 8.15 p.m.

These moths are supposed to come back at the same time to the same place, day after day. But alas, not in my case. I have been watching the madhu-malti for the last few days not only between 8 and 8.30 p.m., but on and off through the day, with nary a sight.

So did I see what I saw?

–Meena

On the Wing, By the Thousands

It has been raining on and off for a week and more here. But yesterday, as I took a walk after the rain, I saw swarms and swarms of winged termites circling the lampposts. Even as hundreds swarmed, as many fell on the ground, lost their wings and started crawling around, hopeful of mating.

But in reality, most became a high-protein meal for the frogs that were out by the dozens, hopping and mating all over the paths. And should some land on a wall, there were the lizards, ready to give chase and swallow them up.

It was a full-on display of with predator-prey drama. An amazing sight.

It often rains, but it is not every day that these creatures swarm. What triggers this? When do they swarm? Why do they swarm?

Swarming termites, also called alates, swarm when their original colony has reached a certain capacity level and is ready to expand. This usually happens once a year. All colonies in an area swarm at around the same time, which explains why one sees the phenomenon of thousands of them out in a small window of a few days.

The swarms have both males and females. They live close to the soil and when conditions are right, they take to the wing.  Their sole job is to reproduce and set up new colonies, so once they are airborne, they find a potential mate, shed their wings, fall to the ground and mate. They then find a new place to start a nest.

The swarming usually happens on a day following a rain shower, when the skies are overcast, and the wind speed is about 9.5 kmph. Alates wait for the rains to have moistened the soil well, as damp soil makes it easy for the couples to build their nests, and survival rates are higher when there is more humidity. But even in the best conditions, survival rates are only about 0.5 per cent, which explains why there must be so many swarmers!

Humans being conditioned to think of other creatures from their point of view, and term termites as pests. But termites have a huge role to play in nature. They are nature’s best recyclers. Termites feed on cellulose and hence break down dead plants and put nutrients back into the soil. They burrow and aerate the soil, allowing rainwater to trickle in and enable the mixing of nutrients. Their sticky excretions hold the soil together, preventing soil erosion. Without all this, the cycle of life would not go on.

We marked Environment Day last week. A good time to remind ourselves of the role of every living creature in the complex web of life, and that they were not put there to be of use to us. Each has a purpose and meaning, beyond their roles in our puny lives!

Having said that, we can still smile as we read Ogden Nash’s verse:

Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it, and found it good!
And that is why your Cousin May
Fell through the parlor floor today.

–Meena

RIP Sundarlal Bahugunaji, Sentinel of the Slopes

The story of the Chipko Movement was one of the examples that was held up to the youth of the ‘70s and ‘80s, to inspire them towards caring for the environment, and to urge them towards peaceful activism.

Deeply rooted in the Gandhian philosophy and the Sarvodaya movement, Sundarlal Bahugunaji and Chandiprasad Bhatji were at the forefront of this, one of the first people’s movements in the country which saw the connection between the degradation of the environment and the well-being and livelihoods of people.

For decades, Bahugunaji had been working in the Tehri Garwhal area of what would become the state of Uttarakhand, organzing people along Sarovdaya lines, addressing issues of livelihoods, women empowerment and ecological protection.

These years of work prepared the ground for what would become the Chipko Movement.

The story begins in the monsoon of 1970. The Alaknanda, along with other Himalayan rivers was in flood and swept down the valley, leaving behind a wake of destruction. The people in the area could clearly see that the extent of the havoc was linked to the destruction of the thick forests that had once covered the mountain-sides. For many years now, trees were being cut by contractors, and the wood taken away to the cities. This left the slopes exposed, unstable and vulnerable to floods like this. Not only that, while the contractors were allowed to cut wood, the communities who had lived in and around the forest for generations and depended on them for food, fuel, medicine, timber  and other forest produce, were denied these. The forests were originally of oak, and the people knew these trees and used them in a number of ways. But now, contactors were not only destroying the oak forests, but they were also replacing them with chir pine which was not suited to the area, nor useful to the people, but whose wood was prized commercially. All this led to an increasing sense of frustration in the people.

The spark was lit on a March morning in 1973. A group of people from a sports-goods factory in Allahabad reached Gopeshwar village in Chamoli District. They had come to cut ash trees for the manufacture of cricket bats.

The villagers were in no mood to let these people cut their trees. They requested the axemen to go back, but they were under orders to cut the trees, and so refused. The villagers spontaneously decided that they were not going to let a single tree be touched even at the cost of their own lives, and rushed forward shouting ‘Chipko, chipko’ (roughly, ‘hug the trees’). They clung to the trees. The axemen, not knowing what to do, returned without cutting a single tree.

It was a battle won, but the war continued. Two months later, the contractors got permission from the local forest officer to cut the trees in a forest near the village of Rampur Phata, about 60 km away.

News of this reached Gopeshwar. The people were incensed. The entire village—men, women, old and young—set off in a procession to Phata. They carried drums and trumpets and banners with messages like ‘Chop me, not the tree’. The marched to Phata, singing and shouting slogans. People from other villages along the way joined them, and ‘Chipko’ was on everyone’s lips.

The huge procession reached Phata. The axemen were once again forced to flee by a peaceful crowd ready to give up their lives for the tree.

Confidence grew in the communities that they could protect their forests and environment.

But the contractors were worried. They were plotting and planning. Once, when they knew that the menfolk of Reni village would be away, they sent their men to the forests there. But the news of this reached the village, and a procession of women and children led by the fearless Gaura Devi walked towards the forests. At first the contractor’s men were not worried, as they thought here was not much the women could do. But they were wrong! Gaura Devi made it very clear that they would hug the trees and not let them touch a single one. ‘Shoot us first. Shoot us, only then can you cut this forest which is like a mother to us.’

Once again the axemen had to return empty-handed.

Not only did the women make the tree-cutters exit this once. They saw that the men had to cross a path to reach the forests. But this path on the steep mountain route had caved in during a landslide. A cement slab had been placed across it to allow people to cross from one side to the other. This was the only access to the forest. The women had a brainwave. With a strong stick and their combined strength, they managed to push the slab into the deep gorge below. The path could no longer be crossed!

And so the Chipko movement took root, impacting not only that area, but the environmental consciousness of the country and the world.

And this is the legacy left to us by Sundarlal Bahugunaji. The troubling question is whether we are living up to it.

–Meena

Save the Paradox!

An impossible creature like the platypus cannot but fascinate.

  • It has the beak of a duck; the tail of a beaver; the feet of an otter.
  • It is a mammal but it lays eggs.
  • It is bio-luminescent–a rare charecteristic for a mammal.
  • It is a rare venomous mammal–the males of the species have a spur on the hind feet which can deliver venom.

No wonder early scientists thought it was a hoax—that the preserved specimen they were shown had been made up by sewing together parts of various animals.

It was certainly an animal which changed world views.

It shook up the scientific world. Robert Persig, the American author and philosopher thought this pointed to the inadequacy of scientific thinking, when he said, “…when the Platypus was discovered, scientists said it was a paradox. But Pirsig’s point was it was never a paradox or an oddity. It didn’t make sense only to the scientists because they viewed the nature of animals according to their own classification, when nature did not have any.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

It also shook up the world of religion, with anti-evolutionary theory proponents using it to cast doubt on Darwin and his theories.

The animal is found in Australia and Australia alone. Till recently, the overall conservation status of the platypus was not a matter of very deep concern. But recent reports are throwing up some red flags. Platypus habitat is reported to have shrunk by almost 25% in the last three decades. In the last decade or two, they have not been sighted in some of the areas which they traditionally inhabited. The reasons are not difficult to find—urban sprawl encroaching upon creeks and waterways which are platypus habitats; land clearing; disruption of the natural flow of rivers; building of dams and weirs; erosion of river banks; and unstable climate and increased droughts due to climate change.

Fortunately, conservation scientists don’t think the situation is beyond repair, but feel it is time to sit up and take steps. And let us hope they do! The world cannot lose this creature, for then, where would be our sense of wonder? Where the hope of a world which still holds secrets waiting to be discovered? Of the sense that ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’?

The platypus has inspired its share of lore, legend, stories and poetry. My visit to an aquarium in Australia was the only time I ever saw a platypus. And a story from Native Australian lore re-told there inspired me to write ‘Who Will Rule’, a children’s book brought out by Tulika and translated into many languages.

And to end, a classic platypus poem:

THE PLATYPUS

by: Oliver Herford (1863-1935)

A sad example sets for us: From him we learn how Indecision

Of character provokes Derision.

This vacillating Thing, you see,

Could not decide which he would be,

Fish, Flesh or Fowl, and chose all three.

The scientists were sorely vexed

To classify him; so perplexed

Their brains, that they, with Rage at bay,

Called him a horrid name one day,–

A name that baffles, frights and shocks us,

Ornithorhynchus Paradoxus.

–Meena

Toilet Travails

Last week we marked World Toilet Day. Continuing on the theme, I thought I would share some experiences of constructing and running urban public pay-and-use toilets. Never a dull moment in this game, I assure you. But the stories about operations I shall keep for another occasion. Here I would like to share some feedback from a survey we did of women in Hyderabad, as part of our planning exercise before we took up construction of toilets when the city decided, for the first time, to open up this activity in Public Private Partnership mode. The survey is over a decade old. But sadly, most of the challenges we found still probably stand.

Here are some of the findings from a survey of close to 400 women:

  • About a fourth of the respondents were not even aware that there are Pay-and-Use toilet facilities for women.
  • About half the respondents reported that they wait till they reach home even if they feel the need to use a toilet when they are out. 
  • Women in higher economic strata, non-working women and students use these facilities significantly less than women from lower economic strata and working women.
  • 64.2% of those respondents who used public convenience had a bad experience. The reported major reasons for the  ‘bad experience’ were:
ReasonPercentage
1. Unhygienic Conditions92.5
2. Insufficient water availability69.2
3. Bad smell62.8
4. Caretaker being male57
5. Joint infrastructure (both male and female facilities in one building, with a partition)53
6. Feeling of insecurity36.4

The respondents also made several valuable suggestions:

  • About 53% women suggested that there should be exclusive toilets for women.
  • Around 57% women opined that the caretaker of the public toilet should be properly trained and should be gentle, and he/she should be educated and middle-aged.
  • Respondents also expressed that the following facilities are needed by women in  public toilets; dustbins for disposable things; small shelves for women carrying things; mug and bucket provision; mirror; good lighting and alternative lighting arrangement in case of power fails.
  • Indian and western toilets both to be provided for convenience of various types of users.
  • Security is paramount.
  • Proper maintenance, cleaning at regular intervals and supervision.
  • In some cases, men are using the space around the toilets as the toilets! This not only leads to bad smell but also a feeling of embarrassment on the part of women who want to enter.
  • In many toilets, there is no proper indication for “gents” and “ladies”, which creates problem for women in using public toilets.

Public toilets are definitely more prevalent today than a decade ago. And the maintenance is not as bad as it was. But I think some of the survey findings and recommendations are still very relevant to those concerned about public sanitation, and about making the most basic of facilities accessible to one half of humanity!

–Meena