Tag Archives: environment

Hargila Stork, From Reviled to Adored: Part 1

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 2 part series on the striking endangered stork known as hargilas, or ‘bone-swallowers’, in one of their last homes – Assam.

In January 2019, graduate student Tracy Melvin traveled from Michigan State University to India to attend an annual meeting of the Women in Nature Network, a loose collection of women conservationists from around the world. The trip required multiple flights and many hours of travel, but Melvin was eager to join in on conversations about the successes and struggles of conservation projects in a supportive environment.

As the conference began, Melvin says she was impressed to hear what women were accomplishing, especially in low-income countries. But she was particularly interested when the host of the meeting, Purnima Devi Barman, got up to speak about her work with a gangly and obscure stork called the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius).

Once close to extinction, the bird has rebounded in Barman’s home state of Assam in northeastern India. And that success, according to widespread consensus, is primarily because of Barman, who has single-handedly transformed the species from a reviled nuisance to a beloved cohabitant among a surprisingly broad cross-section of people, including government officials, mothers, and people who pick through garbage dumps for a living.

Hearing Barman talk made Melvin want to get involved—an effect Barman seems to have on people. More than a year later, the two women and several colleagues published a paper that looked at how community involvement has helped to advance the conservation of the striking storks. Among her most successful strategies, Barman has created an “army” of women who care for injured storks, throw celebratory baby showers for the birds, and weave stork-adorned fabrics for sale.

In contrast with decades of top-down and high-cost conservation efforts, experts say, the driving principle behind Barman’s work is deceptively simple: Saving species requires buy-in from people. Women, in particular, can be powerful partners, even—or especially—when they don’t hold traditional forms of power in their cultures. By including women in conservation projects that have simultaneously changed their own lives, Barman’s work may hold implications for similar efforts everywhere.

“She not only brought the species back from the brink, but she empowered women in a way that they probably hadn’t been empowered before,” Melvin says. “She’s not just helping the birds. She’s also helping the people. She’s giving them something to care about.”

Purnima Devi Barman, biologist and founder of the Hargila Army (an all-female grassroots volunteer conservation effort), educates and empowers the Assamese community on the importance of Greater Adjutants. Cultivating personal relationships with villagers and raising awareness are key components to Barman’s successful conservation model, especially since many residents have Greater Adjutant nesting trees in their backyards. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

Gathering women

The greater adjutant is not a traditionally beautiful animal, and its lifestyle isn’t pretty either. A member of the stork family, it has skinny, knob-kneed legs, a relatively puny bald head, beady eyes, and an elongated orange pouch that hangs from its neck like a deflated balloon. It is awkward and large, standing about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall. It is also notable for its smell. Traditionally called hargilas, which means “bone-swallowers,” greater adjutants drag dead carcasses into tree tops, where they eat the flesh and then drop stinky messes of poop onto the ground below. The birds also spend a lot of time in garbage dumps, where they scavenge for food.

In the late 1800s, hundreds of thousands of greater adjutants lived in wetlands across much of Asia, from Pakistan to Cambodia. But habitat destruction, pollution, poaching, and the loss of their nesting trees pushed numbers sharply downward in the first half of the 20th century. A reputation as a bad omen in many places didn’t help them in the face of these threats. By the 1990s, there were an estimated 400 birds left. They have rebounded somewhat since but the International Union for Conservation of Nature still classifies them as Endangered, with only 1,200 to 1,800 birds confined to Cambodia and two regions of India—Bihar and Assam, where Barman lives.

An endangered Greater Adjutant is pictured amongst the garbage in the Boragaon landfill. The landfill has the largest year-round concentration of Greater Adjutant storks in the world. Attracting a variety of scavenger species and encroaching upon Deepor Beel wetland, the landfill causes pollution, habitat destruction, and wildlife deaths through toxic seepage. Once covering 4,000ha, the wetland has shrunk to an alarming 500ha. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

Despite the longstanding cultural disgust that surrounded the birds, Barman quickly began to appreciate the storks’ more appealing side. Raised for several years by her grandmother, who often took her outside and taught her songs and stories about birds, she developed a connection with nature that brought her solace during a period when her parents were away. Later, she studied zoology and wildlife biology at Gauhati University, where she earned an undergraduate degree and then a Masters in 2002. Eager to pursue a Ph.D., she gave in first to family pressures to get married and have children, giving birth to her twin daughters in 2005. She started her doctorate work in 2007, with a focus on greater adjutants.

Aware of the outsized conservation attention that goes to India’s charismatic megafauna like rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) and tigers (Panthera tigris tigris), Barman had started thinking about studying hargilas when she saw them in a wetland while doing fieldwork for her Masters. Why, she wondered, had she never seen them in her own village? As she began to collect data, she visited the few villages where they did live. While there, she would leave her phone number so people could call her if they had anything to report about the birds. One day at the end of the hargila breeding season in 2007, she got a call. A villager in the Kamrup District had cut down a giant tree on his property. The tree contained nine nests, filled with hargila nestlings.

Once at the scene, people gathered around and laughed at her. They jeered and teased her about her concerns. They were angry and mean. “Why are you lecturing us?” they asked her. Why should we care about such an ugly bird?  Would she pay them to care? Would she come live with them and clean up after the birds? Would she eat the birds on her way home? 

Trembling with embarrassment and dismay, Barman thought about her daughters, then just 2 years old. On the way home, she made a decision to delay her Ph.D. work. “I thought, ‘No, I won’t do it now,’” she says. “‘First, I’ll rope in all the people. I’ll win the hearts and minds of the people. We will start a people’s movement. And then, only if I’m successful with the birds, I’ll pursue my dream.”

Her plan was to start with the basics: Meet people. Build friendships. Try to understand community concerns. Remembering the comments from men in the village, she cleaned temples to earn trust and show she was listening. Her compassion ran deep. She recognized that these weren’t bad people. They thought they were doing the right thing: ridding themselves and their properties of a messy bird that was a bad omen. It wasn’t their fault that they thought poorly of hargilas. They just hadn’t learned about the value of wildlife.

Soon, Barman’s work coalesced around a single, if improbable, goal: Get people in the villages of Assam to incorporate the greater adjutant into their local culture and traditions. Since the birds spent much of the year nesting in trees on private property, she knew they were untouchable by government protections. Her only hope was to make people care about the birds like they care about their own children. That way, they wouldn’t want to cut down the trees anymore.

In 2009, Barman organized the first of what would become many hargila “baby showers.” She invited about 30 women to the event, and she made the celebration as traditional as possible. It included prayer songs, a cooking competition, and games that incorporated lessons about wildlife. Barman talked to the women about the birds and how vulnerable they are during the breeding season. She appealed to their identities as mothers, comparing the birds to women when they give birth. Acceptance came quickly, Barman says, and the popularity of the baby showers snowballed into a coalition of women who rallied behind the storks. Barman started to think of them as a “hargila family.” In 2014, she dubbed them the “hargila army.”

Since then, the army has helped rehabilitate injured birds. Using looms and yarn distributed by Barman, women have also started to weave traditional fabrics adorned with storks, which they sell to help support their families. More than 400 women take part in the conservation work on a daily basis, Barman says. More than 10,000 women and their families have participated in hargila-related activities.

Jonali, a member of the Hargila Army, is pictured sewing a tote bag with an embroidered Greater Adjutant motif to combat plastic bag usage. Members of the Hargila Army take great pride in protecting this endangered species. Greater Adjutant motifs are now sewn and loomed into their traditional textiles such as mekhala chadar and gamosas. In 2018, eighty sewing machines were donated by the New Zealand High Commission, further boosting the women’s livelihoods and source of income while advancing the conservation of Greater Adjutants. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

With Barman’s guidance over the past decade, the stork has become a symbol and way of life, says Ana Liz Flores, a conservationist and senior advisor for the LAC-Huairou Commission, a grassroots NGO in Argentina. Like Melvin, Flores attended the WiNN meeting in India in 2019. While she was there, she visited several villages, where it was clear to her that hargilas had become integral to the identity of the community. Women and children were leading the effort. “The schools and the women are the key pieces of the whole project,” she says. “It’s the first time I have seen a community that involved with one species. That, to me, is special.”

Barman has faced plenty of gender discrimination in her career, she says, and women in her culture are not usually included in decision-making. But women have power in their households, and by reaching them, she has been able to reach their children, relatives, and entire communities. “They are rural women. They are the homemakers,” Barman says. “I think the world should know about this huge force of women.”

Check in next week for the conclusion of this series!


Emily Sohn is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis whose stories have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Nature, NPR, and many other publications.

Carla Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer. Formerly a ventriloquist, she brings a plethora of unique skills to her new career. Photographing with passion and a sense of humor, her published work includes pieces for SmithsonianMag.com. Ultimately, she aspires for her photographs to educate viewers while inspiring positive change. You can see more of her work at carlarhodes.photography.


This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences. 

San Jose’s Ash Kalra Gets An ‘A’ On Climate Change

San Jose Asemblymember Ash Kalra (CA-27) got an ‘A’ from the California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV), winning a 99% rating as a climate change champion when CLVC released its annual California Environmental Scorecard this year.

Unfortunately, the state of California got a dismal C.

The Scorecard is a comprehensive analysis of where the state’s leaders stand on the environment and climate change.

Kalra was named Nature Defender  by CLVC for championing AB 3030 in the state assembly, to preserve biodiversity and access to nature. He  was recognized as “someone the environmental community can always count on to be the progressive leader and environmental champion that California needs.”

Kalra’s  track record supporting a range of environmental bills on the assembly floor (buffer zoners for oil and gas safety, clean cars, and transparency within the Department of Toxic Substances Control), earned a 100% rating for two consecutive years (2017 and 2018), and a 99% in 2019.

Most recently he co-authored AB 1289, with Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), to help smaller family farms stay in business by transitioning from animal agriculture to sustainable plant-based agriculture.

Kalra stated that CLCV was his ‘go-to group “ for environmental leadership because they were helping combat the climate crisis with new, innovative proposals designed “to strengthen clean air and water for our communities.”

Mary Creasman, CLCV CEO, said that though California had a reputation for being progressive, 2020 was largely a year of ‘climate change inaction.’

Only 11 (nine Assemblymembers and two Senators) out of 120 legislators scored 100%.

Governor Gavin Newsom earned a score of 87% despite California’s poor track record on climate change initiatives last year, only because he issued executive orders  at the year end to conserve biodiversity and boost climate resilience

CLVC said that the climate crisis took a back seat in Sacramento last year. For the first time, the annual Scorecard revealed that 70% of the California Legislature accepted campaign contributions from oil companies and major oil industry Political Action Committees (PACs). According to their analysis, 60% of Democrats and 100% of Republicans took these dollars.

Even though Kalra and a small band of legislators fought for climate justice, they failed to convince a majority in the legislature to pass bold policies. In reality, corporate interests are still calling the shots in Sacramento when it comes to the environment and public health, added Creasman.

“Corporate polluters continue to have an outsized impact on policy in Sacramento.”

With less than nine years left to address the most severe impacts of climate change, the California League of Conservation Voters is calling for renewed action in Sacramento and, in particular, the development of a comprehensive climate action plan for the state.

Mike Young, Political and Organizing Director at CLCV urged the Governor and the legislature to work together to renew their focus on the climate crisis. He pointed them to the Biden Administration’s climate action plan, with justice, jobs and public health at its center, nothing that “We need a vision for the future that centers the health and safety of Californians.”

CLVC called for California to create a clear climate action plan of its own, because “the country and the world is looking to California for leadership.”

California’s Overall Score: 74%

Governor Newsom’s Score: 87%

Assembly Overall Average Score: 71%

Senate Overall Average Score: 73%


Meera Kymal is a Contributing Editor at India Currents

Treasure the Environment with Family-Fun Activities In the Bay Area

Any day is a good day to learn about protecting the environment, but this month, especially so. Earth Day takes place on April 22 every year and in “normal” times we would participate in a myriad of activities and events to help protect, preserve, and improve the planet we all share. This year has been a bit dystopian, but as we spring forward our hope is that slowly we will get back to normal and enjoy all that the Bay Area has to offer. So, whether you are looking for something to do with the family or by yourself, something quiet, or an outdoor adventure, we’ve got you covered! 

Wildlife

The Marine Mammal Center, Sausalito

The center offers daily guided and audio tours, a great way to raise awareness of environmental issues. There are also many interesting exhibits and on clear days, you’re rewarded with stunning vistas of the city.

Getting there: The Marine Mammal Center is located at 2000 Bunker Road, Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito, CA 94965.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey

From jellies to penguins to sea otters and sharks, over 200 exhibits and 80,000 plants and animals that call the Monterey Bay Aquarium home. The first museum to have a living kelp forest, the array of exhibits is sure to enthrall tots, from watching marine mammals swim about in humongous tanks that imitate their natural habitats to watching them being fed.

Member days: May 1-14, Open for all: May 15

Getting there: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940

Curiodessy

A science museum and zoo for children and families where visitors see wild animals up-close and play with kid-friendly science exhibits. CuriOdyssey is home to nearly 100 rescued animals, most native to California, that cannot survive in the wild.

Getting there: 1651 Coyote Point Drive, San Mateo, CA 94401

Gardens

Golden Gate Park

The 55-acre “urban oasis” with more than 9,000 plants from around the world is always beautiful, but, for obvious reasons, is the most magical in the spring when so many flowers begin to bloom. Pack a picnic to enjoy on the grounds or wander through the gardens and visit flora from Australia, Chile, South Africa, and more, all in one afternoon. April is a good time to see magnolias in bloom, but there are always really cool plants to check out no matter when you go.  

Getting there: 501 Stanyan St, San Francisco, CA 94117

Japanese Gardens San Mateo 

This Japanese garden is designed by landscape architect, Nagao Sakurai of the Imperial Palace of Tokyo, and features a granite pagoda, tea house, koi pond and bamboo grove. Visit during spring/summer to feed the koi and catch cherry blossoms in full bloom. There’s also a mini-train that’ll delight kids, tennis courts and many picnic areas.

Getting there: 50 E 5th Ave, San Mateo, CA 94401

Japanese Gardens Hayward

The garden was designed by Kimio Kimura. It follows Japanese garden design principles, using California native stone and plants. No stains were used on the wood constructions. Nails and fasteners are recessed, and all wood was notched, and aged, to simulate the appearance of a traditional Japanese garden.

Getting there: 22373 N 3rd St., Hayward, CA 94541

San Francisco Botanical Garden

Visit this beautiful garden at the peak of its bloom in spring. Situated within Golden Gate Park, the garden showcases over 8,000 species of plants. There are several different collections within the garden, such as Mediterranean and Tropical.  

Getting there: 1199 9th Ave., San Francisco, CA 94122

Boat ride along Stow Lake

Take advantage of spring in full bloom by renting a paddle, electric, or row boat to tour this hidden gem. Situated in the middle of Golden Gate Park, the lake includes a 110-foot artificial waterfall, colorful Chinese pavilion, and a 125-year-old Stone Bridge. During springtime, visitors will also get the chance to see ducklings and goslings hatch! Rentals start at $24/hr.

Getting there: 1 Stanyan St, Unit 2, San Francisco, CA 94118

Places to Visit

Soar to new heights on Golden Gate Park’s SkyStar observation wheel

The giant Ferris wheel in the Music Concourse brought in to celebrate the park’s 150th birthday will stick around for longer than planned because it wasn’t open for most of last year.  

Getting there: Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse, 1 Bowl Drive

Hiller Aviation Museum

An AvGeek’s Nirvana. Beautifully curated exhibits show the past, present, and future of flight. Aircraft are beautifully restored and displayed with exciting angles and exceptional lighting. The museum has more than 50 aerospace vehicles along with companion descriptive displays concerning the history of flight.

Getting there: 601 Skyway Rd, San Carlos

Immersive Van Gogh

Step into the world of Vincent Van Gogh at this trippy exhibit with over 500,000 cubic-feet of illuminated projections of his work that will make you feel like you’re literally inside of his paintings. The “experiential journey” has been modified for COVID times, but still promises to be one of the most unusual and/or cultural things you’ve done in a very long time. The exhibit runs through the beginning of September.

Getting there: 10 South Van Ness Ave, San Francisco, CA 94103

Mission-Driven Nonprofits

Planterday: The Mission-Driven Mobile Plant Shop

 Dedicated to destigmatizing mental health and promoting mental health resources. As official sponsors of Crisis Support Services of Alameda County, they donate a portion of their monthly proceeds to suicide prevention services in the local community.

The Bay Area Ecology Center

A list of Bay Area environmental/sustainability-related classes, workshops, exhibits, tours, films, and other events. Events posted are directly related to Ecology Center’s main topic areas and located mostly in the East Bay. 

350 Bay Area

Building a grassroots climate movement in the Bay Area and beyond to eliminate carbon pollution and achieve a clean energy future with racial, economic, and environmental justice. San Francisco Bay Area residents building a grassroots movement for deep CO2 emission reductions.

They have local groups in most every county. They have hundreds of volunteers, supported by a small but mighty staff, working since 2012 to:

Raise awareness & urgency for the climate crisis; Mobilize to demand action at the speed & scale required to protect us all from the worst impacts; Support the voices of young people calling for a livable planet; Dig into policy options to get real emissions reductions actions passed

Stop and smell the wildflowers! Spring is when the landscape is alive with carpets of colorful wildflowers. Check out some of the best wildflower displays on the Peninsula and in the South Bay. 

Hikes

Arastradero Creek Loop (Pearson Arastradero Preserve)

3.7 miles Flowers peak: Late-March- Mid-April

The rolling hills in this preserve create a range of habitat types offering refuge for a great diversity of wildflowers. You’ll find the biggest patches of wildflowers along the sunny, southern-facing slopes.

Getting there: 1530 Arastradero Road, 1/4 mile north of Page Mill Road.

Bald Hills Loop (Calero County Park)

8.5 miles  Flowers peak: Late-March- Mid-April

Enjoy a large outcropping of serpentine soil, offering big, showy HALF displays of native wildflowers. You’ll also enjoy views of the southern Santa Cruz Mountains and nearby Diablo Range.

Getting there: 23205 McKean Rd San Jose, CA 95141

Año Nuevo Point Trail (Año Nuevo State Park)

1.5 miles Flowers peak: April

Best known as the destination to see 5,000-pound elephant seals, Año Nuevo is also home to a spectacular display of spring wildflowers. This easy, gentle trail is good for all ages and abilities. 

Getting there: 1 New Year’s Creek Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060

River Trail (Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park)

2 miles Flowers peak: April

Giant redwoods tower over the cool waters of the San Lorenzo River in this park. It contains one of the largest stands of old-growth redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and an abundance of spring flowers add to the beauty of this landscape.

Getting there: River Trail (Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park)

Arrowhead Loop (Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve)

4 miles Flowers peak: Late-March- Mid-April

Just a short drive from downtown San Jose, this preserve offers phenomenal views of Coyote Valley, the Diablo Mountain Range, and a plethora of spring flowers. You don’t have to

complete the full loop to get your fill of spectacular flowers.

Getting there: From Highway 101, take Bailey Avenue west, Turn left on Santa Teresa Boulevard, Turn right on Palm Avenue. The preserve is at the end of Palm Avenue.


Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: mona@indiacurrents.com


 

Indian Artists Confront Fast Fashion in Desi Communities

One cotton shirt uses up to 3,000 liters of water to make. One denim jacket takes 7,500 liters. That’s enough drinking water to last one person for six years! The fashion industry is the world’s second-largest polluter. The fast fashion industry, particularly, wastes around 93 billion cubic meters of water every year, which is enough to meet the needs of around 5 million people.

Recently, seven Indian artists and graphic designers came together to create specially commissioned artworks and comic strips that underline water consumption by the fashion industry. The participating artists—Priyanka Paul, Aditi Mali, Manasi Deshpande, Mehek Malhotra, Vinu Joseph, Param Sahib, and Sonali Bhasin—launched their artworks on their social media handles. The artistic intervention was organized by The ReFashion Hub, a collective working to bring together multiple stakeholders—including fashion businesses, textile bodies, industry leaders, young designers, artisans, and consumers—invested in wastewater reuse and management in the textile industry with long-term positive climate impact.

The aim was to raise awareness around the pressing issue of wastewater stewardship with a focus on bringing climate action to fashion.

Talking about the initiative, The ReFashion Hub’s Divya Thomas says, “By 2050, fashion will become the second-largest water polluter. It’s imperative for us as consumers, to come together to talk about the consequences of fashion on climate, as well as what each of us can do to make fair fashion choices.”

The artists were invited to design comic strips that capture a sarcastic take on producing a T-shirt, and the resources that it drains, with a key focus on water wastage. The resulting works showcase the absurdity of the industry, hoping that viewers take note and make responsible decisions.

As a child, Pune-based webcomic artist and freelance animator Aditi Mali fondly recalls being more excited to receive clothes that her cousin sister would outgrow than buy new ones. In fact, she finds reusing what she has so therapeutic that she has pretty much stopped buying new clothes. “I would like to revamp my T-shirts into cute tops and make them into bags instead of buying new ones,” says Mali.

Comics by self-taught illustrator and poet Priyanka Paul and Mumbai-based designer and visual artist Mehek Malhotra (Giggling Monkey) bring attention to the amount of water that our clothes consume. Through the project, Paul explored the ethicality and constant tryst we have with capitalism and fast fashion in terms of everyday practices and the functionality of clothing, the rise of thrift shops, and what makes up eco-consciousness. Malhotra’s artwork was made to start the conversation around the grim reality of the fast fashion cycle. “We can afford a 300 rupee T-shirt but we can’t afford to repair the damage it does to the environment. Buying responsibly and investing in the right fabrics is the key to being more understanding of the environment,” she says.

Political satirist, independent journalist, and video storyteller Vinu Joseph’s main objective was to make his audience aware of something they might have taken for granted all this while. “It’s challenging to convey something this serious in a funny comic video without losing the essence of the original subject,” he says about the experience. Designer and mixed media graduate Param Sahib agrees that millennials need to know that the damage is being done. His series is a fun take on how things are being made, and where we are going wrong—with a plea to start looking out for sustainable options.

Mumbai-based artist Manasi Deshpande’s sarcastic comic addresses the issue of greenwashing in the fast fashion industry. The ironic comic portrays a garment worker making a ‘Save Water’ T-shirt. The idea, according to her, was to show the hypocrisy of the fast fashion industry, the environmental cost, and the water pollution that tags along.

Further, Delhi-based cartoonist and illustrator Sonali Bhasin’s amusing piece has polka-dotted frogs narrating the cause of the loss of their aquatic habitat—a comment on the impact that wastewater from dyeing has on our natural environment. “What if nature talked back? What if you could see the impact of every impulse buy you’ve ever made, and how would that feel?” she asks.

The artworks are part of a series of dynamic, youth-focused programs and initiatives to raise awareness about water usage, including public video projections, installations, and the Fashion Forward Fellowship, India’s first fellowship focusing on wastewater stewardship. The five-week fellowship program ends in April with one winning sustainable capsule collection.

The next project by The ReFashion Hub and YWater launched a photo series by photographer Prarthna Singh to inspire young fashion-conscious people to rethink fast-fashion consumerism with more fair and sustainable choices. It will continue to promote traditional crafts and support local artisans through its textile exhibit Karkhana Chronicles.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 


 

Dharmic Environmentalism

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

The environment is a universal concern.

Universal environmentalism, however, is myopic, monopolistic, and hegemonic. It overlooks native and Indigenous solutions and, as such, is a recipe for disaster. 

We all relate to our surroundings differently. Present-day environmentalism, however, is based on the Western anthropocentric approach. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, anthropocentrism as a religious and philosophical doctrine holds that “human life has intrinsic value while other entities (including animals, plants, mineral resources, and so on) are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind.”

The destruction of ancient paganism was a turning point in environmentalism. Before the advent of Christianity, both as a religion and as a political power, there was no distinction between nature and the divine in the widespread pagan societies. Pagans believed in God’s transcendence in the elements of nature. The notion of the ‘sacred grove,’ however, is an alien concept in the West. Moreover, Marxism, Liberalism, neoliberalism, etc., too are an extension of the same anthropocentric ideology. They regard humankind as central and the most important in the world. 

What is considered modern and scientific in our day-to-day lives today, is based primarily on Christian theology. Implicit faith in perpetual progress dominates our lifestyle, our habits of action, and our planning for the future. Man’s destiny, within this paradigm, is to be hopeful of a future affected by science, technology, a promise of more progress, and doomsday prophecies. 

Modern technology too ends up being a means to an end. As the attitude and the will to exert dominion over nature becomes all the more urgent, the more technology threatens to slip from human control. We end up empowering our political class as they promise to make things better with newer progressive technologies as well as with catchy phrases and slogans.

Such thinking was unknown either to the pagan Greco-Roman antiquity or to the indigenous civilizations of what came to be known as the Orient. Indigenous care for nature goes much beyond the shrill of environmentalism. Such care is deeply rooted in culture, “religion,” and spiritualism. Native cultures, such as Hinduism, have a long history of living in harmony with their surroundings. They are mindful of ecological limits, constraints, and boundaries of nature and do not take from nature more than what is needed. There is an element of reverence towards the earth and other elements of nature that guides them. Native cultures have developed a complex system of using and preserving the ecology. Native American communities’ use of low-intensity controlled burns, regenerative harvesting, etc are examples of native environmentalism. 

Bishnoi Woman (Image from Permaculture News)

As for Hindus, much before any modern-day environmental protocol was ever signed, it is the Bhoomisuktam (hymn of the Mother Earth) of the Atharva Veda that provides a framework for environmentalism. Composed more than 3,000 years ago, Bhoomisuktam is considered the oldest environmental protocol. The Sukta is composed of 63 verses. These verses provide a framework of understanding as well as respecting Mother Earth and her environment. The Sukta recognizes the Earth for all her gifts such as plants and herbs; rivers and cultivable land for food; and animals for milk, honey, etc. But going a step further, the invoker of the verses declares that despite availing all those boons, he does not intend to hurt Mother Earth in any manner whatsoever. The Sukta gives to Mother Earth an assurance of rational utilization of her resources. 

Much of our interaction with the elements of nature, according to Hinduism, is guided by Dharma: the rules of ethical behavior. Such behaviors are guided not by rights, but by obligations. Pankaj Jain in his book Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities describes three communities in India that have actively and consciously worked to preserve and protect the environment as part of their cultural and religious ideology. Those communities include the Swadhyayis, Bishnois, and Bhils.

The Swadhyayis disavow environmentalism. Their mission is “to generate and spread reverence for humans, animals, trees, earth, nature, and the entire universe in general.”

Similarly, the Bishnoi community was founded by a 15th century Guru Jambheshwara who spread the teachings of conservation and living in harmony with nature. Bhils, on the other hand, have protected their sacred groves for generations. 

According to Indic environmentalist and the author of the book Good News India, DV Sridharan, “one doesn’t restore nature, one just keeps a vigil against interruption of Nature’s relentless act of creating the fair and rightful balance.” Hindus believe that when the imbalance reaches a critical point and equilibrium is broken beyond redemption, an avatār ‘unburdens’ the Earth.

Unless the ecological concerns do not empower individuals and communities worldwide to find their indigenous solutions at a more local level, the answer to such concerns will always evade us.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He writes frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.

Educational Challenge For Kids – Win Cash Prizes!

Towards the end of the year 2016, I started searching for things that looked like the symbol in nature and in manmade structures. As you may already know,, which is pronounced “Om”, is a very sacred symbol for Hindus.

Initially, I did not find anything natural or manmade that looked like , but my search trained my eyes to recognize other patterns that looked like art. As I walked on paved surfaces, I started noticing art-like patterns in areas that looked a bit dirty, the kind of areas that people normally walk around or unintentionally step on and keep walking. Using the camera in my smartphone, I started taking pictures of these art-like patterns and started showing the images to people I knew.

The collection of photos that I called “Art That People Step On”, because people tend to step on these art-like patterns while walking, started to grow and I was able to exhibit some of the photos in four solo exhibitions. My photos have also been displayed in some juried group exhibitions so far. 

 In the month of February, on a particular day, many people in the United States give and receive greeting cards to express their affection to others who are close to them, such as good friends, relatives, and their teachers.

Do you know what that day is called? Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to show appreciation to those you love. 

In case you are interested, I found the featured image in the photograph on a walkway. To me, it looks like the wear and tear of the paved surface created the image. Does the image look like a heart?

I have a challenge for you:

  1. Find an image in your environment or online that reminds you of the people you love. 
  2. Using crayons or paint and brush, add to and make changes to the image and create a greeting card with your own message. 
  3. Your greeting card can be one-sided or two-sided and can be as small or as big as you want it to be.
  4. If you have the necessary software, you can also create the greeting card on your computer.
  5. Take a picture of the greeting card that you created. Take pictures of both sides if your greeting card is two-sided.
  6. Submit the picture(s) to the challenge via email to editor@indiacurrents.com
  7. The deadline for submission is Sunday, February 28, 2021.
  8. After you submit the picture of your greeting card to the challenge, give it to the person or persons that you like.   

There is no entry fee! Cash prizes will be awarded to winning entries: 

First Prize: US $50 

Second Prize: US $30 

Third Prize: US $20

India Currents Magazine will feature all prize-winning entries and a few other selected entries. Adult supervision is strongly recommended when using scissors or other sharp objects. Have fun, and be creative!


Dr. Mandayam Osuri Thirunarayanan was born in Madras, India. He became a citizen of the United States and currently lives in Miami, Florida.

2021 is A Hangover & We Are Facing the Repercussions

Hey, the New Year 2021 is here! Yay! There were a lot of private parties and a few public parties, with both masking and unmasking happening, for sure. A lot of cake was eaten and quite a bit of champagne was drunk. 

Unfortunately, the new year started with a heavy hangover from the previous one. What with the COVID-19 virus mutating and becoming even more contagious, there wasn’t a lot to cheer about. About the transition of power in Washington, the lesser said the better. In fact, why say anything at all here? We are all watching it on TV on a daily basis.

Where I live in South India too, the new year is beginning on a weird note. It is raining a lot, when it should actually be sunny but cold. In Coorg, Karnataka, where we have a small coffee plantation, people are very worried. The unseasonal rain is causing the coffee berries to drop and rot on the ground, reducing the yield. Those that have been picked have had no time to dry and may rot on the drying yard, if they aren’t washed away by the water, that is. Paddy harvest too may be affected.

Indians are certainly waking up to the unwelcome realization that global warming and climate change are no longer just subjects for scientific debate, but the reality on the ground. Farmers are seeing it first hand, while consumers are suffering when prices fluctuate wildly due to the unseasonal weather. Onions at Rs. 120 a kilo? Enough said.

Meanwhile, the United States is seeing its share of natural disasters as well. Forest fires decimating large swathes of land and swallowing up neighborhoods, and hurricanes and tornadoes wreaking havoc with barely a pause between successive ones, are impressing the concept of climate change among the people far better than any Government initiative to educate them.

However, the big question is: how are the two countries responding to it and trying to change their behavior? And what are individuals doing? Well, here is a layperson’s perspective.

In my decidedly uneducated opinion, both the US and India are responding identically to the climate crisis. They are spending billions of dollars and rupees having conferences and putting out white papers and other colored papers on the subject. But not one of them is doing anything real or major on the ground that may have the slightest effect on reducing emissions, reducing dependence on fossil fuel, and cleaning up the environment that they have laid waste. 

In India, new cars are flying off the shelves. All the money that couldn’t be spent during the lockdown days is being splurged on new and fancy cars. So much for reducing dependence on fossil fuel. 

Public works are still being conducted for the welfare of PWD contractors and not the public – in short, resources being wasted on shoddy work, such as water pipes that break and bleed hundreds of gallons wastefully into the earth. Water wastage and electricity theft is rampant, and there is no earnest effort to clean up invaluable water resources, even after the shocking water crisis faced by Chennai city. 

And forest management is absolutely non-existent. If you are a wild animal, or a human whose land is being encroached by wild animals (many parts of South India are seeing an unprecedented number of people being affected by the entry of elephant herds into cultivated land), or a tribal whose very livelihood is at stake, you are on your own. Meanwhile, blocks of flats keep appearing and land is being cleared to build new townships. 

In short, very little is happening on the ground to actually combat the climate crisis. 

As for the trend in the US, I had an opportunity to observe a few things when my husband and I visited the US this August. And what I observed was shocking, especially after having become used to the Indian way of life.

Again this is my humble opinion, but I think the US is seriously over-consuming. During our stay, we were stunned by the amount of trash we ended up generating each day…and this was mostly non-recyclable stuff. We stayed at a motel for an extended period, so we bought a bunch of silverware and some microwavable plastic and porcelain dishes. We had to depend on microwavable food from grocery stores, as eating every meal at restaurants was neither to our taste nor feasible due to COVID. We found that the frozen dinners were packaged in plastic that was of such durable quality that we actually washed a few and reused them as microwave bowls. 

Every store used plastic bags. At large chain stores especially, they would literally put just a pack of socks in one bag and a t-shirt in another. It was as if they’d never heard of limiting plastic. I dearly love the US and am nuts about the stores, but I wanted to weep when I saw the sheer amount of plastic waste that was being generated.

In India, plenty of plastic waste is generated too, especially with Amazon, and Flipkart, Big Basket, and Swiggy, Zomato, and other food delivery companies. But a lot of it does get reused at least a little. Plastic containers are washed and used to store food. Many use cloth bags for shopping, and as for the plastic bags that are used for things like rice, dhal, etc., they get reused too. Small kirana shops use these to package their goods. Milk covers are given to kabadiwaalas who resell them to recyclers. Newspapers are also sold to recyclers, or used to package things or used around the house, or even to wrap used sanitary pads before discarding. 

Some cities like Mysore where I live also force citizens to segregate their waste into dry and wet waste. Some apartment complexes like ours have their own composting units, and give only their dry waste to the municipality. 

Of course, in India, we have the overwhelming problem of public cleanliness – what garbage we have is usually in plain sight. Now after COVID, there might even be less will to clean up the country. Everyone feels that it was our daily exposure to all kinds of pathogens bred in our own neighborhoods that gave us lower susceptibility to COVID-19 virus. So God knows what will happen to the Swachh Bharath initiative.

The New Year has dawned. We’ve had to change a lot of our habits and behavior last year. Hopefully, we will change our behavior regarding many environmentally-sensitive practices so that 2021 will see a healthier planet emerging from shadow of COVID-19.


Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana, USA, to Mysore, India, and inhabits a strange land somewhere in between the two. Having discovered sixteen years ago that writing was a good excuse to get out of doing chores, she still uses it.

Cycles of Destruction and Renewal

As 2020 inexorably moved to a close, the world watched as the global COVID-19 pandemic affected every aspect of our lives and livelihoods. Personally, my mindset moved between fatalism and cabin fever driven anxiety that this virus would dictate our lives for a much longer period than would be satisfied by short-term adjustments.

Indian mythology talks of cycles of destruction and renewal of the universe; one cycle of creation is but a blink of the eye of a creator. Indian philosophy also speaks of negating the very concept of time – it is just a mind-made construct. So, it might be wise to push all these thoughts aside, and just live in the present, after all the current situation just brings the point home that this is all we have to play with.

A new government took the helm in the USA on January 2021, and the events surrounding this hard-fought contentious election eclipsed preoccupations with a global crisis at times. It is definitely a source of comfort for some of us that this government will not be headed by an ‘outsider’ but a dyed-in-the-wool politician whose actions will hopefully be geared towards what we normally think of as good governance. This brings hope, as we can now focus on forward momentum to solve national issues, and potentially even contribute to global solutions. 

We can look forward to a creatively modified life as we align our priorities towards intelligent survival. If history is a stern teacher, we have learned that it took about 2 years for the 1918 flu pandemic to quieten down, so if one needs a projection this is as good as any.

Namaste as a greeting instead of handshakes and hugs, limiting larger social interactions – which includes physical congregation in the workplace – and curbing unnecessary shopping should easy for those who are familiar with the Indian ethos. A successful vaccine will definitely contribute to our arsenal, but it will only work in concert with a compliant global population.

Changing lifestyles and work mandates will inevitably result in the waning of some industries. The immediate fallout is in our neighborhood restaurants and businesses, but the drastic downswing of local and global travel over the past 9 months has already benefitted our 21st-century environment. An upsurge in the exploration and development of clean energy sources as an alternative to fossil fuels is underway, and while each source comes with its specific benefits and challenges it could emerge as a strong global contender if it is appropriately prioritized and funded. This positive shift in lifestyle could emerge as the proverbial silver lining to what is otherwise being experienced as a global life-threatening event, and we could transform the unavoidable destruction of aspects of life as we know it into the creation of a potentially better environment for all of life.

Ducks on Schuylkill River

As species shift their ecologies and relate more to a lifestyle that is unencumbered by human occupation and pollution, a positive outcome appears to be an emerging clean environmental slate. While wind and solar energy seem to be the most developed alternative energy options at present, exploration of other sources including geothermal and hydrokinetic to harness power from the earth and oceans would add to renewable energy options.

Resources need to be constantly provided to make these initiatives a success. While working in a ‘tier-1’ city in India in 2014, I purchased a car that was fueled by CNG (compressed natural gas) as a cleaner fuel option. My good intentions were limited by the availability of the fuel. I learned that waiting in line at selected gas stations at 6.30 am could result in a full tank of CNG in my car. However, too many failed attempts after seemingly endless waits led to the increasing need of choosing a car that ran on petrol. My upfront investment in paying a premium for a CNG car was burnt at the gas station so to speak.

The development of technologies for renewable fuels has seen steady progress over the past two decades, and current estimates for renewable technologies producing electricity vary between 10-20%. The unexpected impetus for a better environment provided by COVID-19 could be a boon, but other studies suggest that a rebound in carbon dioxide emissions could easily be conceivable when the pandemic is controlled. Lasting change in preventing increasing global temperatures and a continued positive environmental change post-pandemic will continue to require effort from us at an individual and global level.

Being woken up to the squawking of ducks on the Schuylkill River – where parent birds breed, babies grow up, and fly away to start a new cycle of life – is gratifying. The hope is that this will continue for years to come.


L. Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. A scientist by training, she enjoys experiencing diverse cultures and ideas. She is the author of White Blackmail, a work of fiction, and can be found on Twitter at @l_iyengar.

Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 3

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing the last in a 3 part series on Chennai’s restoration of its marshlands. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story! 

(Featured Image: Mylapore Tank holds water even during the dry season, but only because its bottom has been paved over.)

Temple tanks

As in most Indian cities, Chennai’s piped water supply is available for just a few hours a day. And many parts of the city have no water connection at all. So many people pump groundwater, either on their own property or from government wells on the street. Others hire tanker trucks to fill their cisterns with water that has also been extracted from underground. “A huge quantity, almost 200 MLD [million liters daily] of water, is being shipped every day,” a water utility official told me. But surface and groundwater are not separate sources; they are linked by gravity and hydraulic pressure. So when people pump groundwater, they are ultimately depleting surface water as well, and near the coast, they are turning their water salty. 

With little monitoring and few restrictions, the city’s groundwater table is dropping by some 10 to 20 centimeters (4 to 8 inches) every year. That’s why finding creative ways to recharge groundwater within the dense, paved city is a critical step toward having enough water for people and for nature. And that’s where many small projects come into play. Recharge wells are becoming more common around neighborhoods in Chennai, their round perforated covers, a little larger than manholes, pocking city streets and sidewalks. Those covers lead to wells averaging 4.5 meters (15 feet) deep that simply give water a path into the permeable subsurface, and eventually into the aquifer. 

Through water as leverage, Madras Terrace, a local architecture firm, has proposed another approach to getting water into the ground across the city: temple tanks, a remnant of the eris system. In the past, “you cannot find a village without a temple, and you cannot find a temple without a water body,” says KK. Lots of those villages and temples have now been subsumed by the city.

One bright, blue-sky day, just before I leave India, I meet with Sudhee NK, an engineer and financial planner with Madras Terrace. We rendezvous in charming, bustling Mylapore, a neighborhood centered around Kapaleeswarar Temple, marked by a 37-meter-high (120-foot-high), pyramidal tower intricately carved and painted with some of Hinduism’s more than 3,000 gods. Vendors sell flower offerings, clay cups meant to be broken after drinking, and small deities. One of Chennai’s most notable tanks, occupying a city block, sits alongside the temple. With its top at street level, an inverted, stepped pyramid descends into the ground so people can continue to access water as the table falls.

Sudhee explains that, historically, the tank bottoms were unpaved so that groundwater replenished the tank from below, and rain and runoff from above helped to recharge the water table. Temple tanks were connected to larger eris systems and also served ritual purposes. Today the Kapaleeswarar tank holds water—ducks swim along the side and turtles bask in the sun—but only because the bottom was paved about 10 years ago to retain water for religious ceremonies. This water is effectively a mirage, says Sudhee.

To show me the true status of the water table here, he leads me across the street to another temple tank, Chitrakulam Pond, believed to be more than 2,000 years old and not cemented. Its bottom is carpeted with a mat of fresh grass, sprouted from recent rains, but the water has descended deep underground. “This is the real situation,” says Sudhee. Too much pavement and too many borewells are to blame for water levels more than 18 meters (60 feet) below the surface, he says.

Tanks that have not been paved over reveal the true state of Chennai’s water table, which, during the dry season, often lies dozens of feet below ground.

Sudhee and colleagues want to restore temple tanks across Chennai to their natural, unpaved state, to move water underground. The city government, Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), is connecting stormwater drains to temple tanks wherever possible to allow for groundwater recharge. And Sudhee’s team is also helping to raise the water table by collecting rainwater from buildings via vegetated ditches, called bioswales, placed strategically along streets, on hotel properties, in backyards, and in schoolyards. The Mylapore project is expected to provide on average 4 million liters (1 million gallons) of water per day. Replicating the project across 53 other temple tanks in Chennai could result in 60 million liters (16 million gallons) per day of recharge, according to the Water as Leverage team’s projections.

Reconnecting with culture

Despite stated government support for these slow water projects, getting utility engineers to embrace green solutions is difficult, says Balaji Narasimhan, the hydrologic engineer who is also involved in the Dutch-local partnership. That’s in part because the systems are more complex than concrete-lined drainage channels, levees, and dams. Slow water projects usually have a biological component, such as plants that may require soil amendments to achieve the chemistry or filtration they need. Silt traps must be cleaned. Also, because such projects tend to cover a larger area than concrete solutions, the public is more likely to come in contact with them, so project managers need to cultivate community support. But that requirement can be a benefit, says Narasimhan, reconnecting people with their water. 

KK tells me, “Even 200 years ago, people used to worship rivers as goddesses. Because of that, we were preserving water. Now we’ve lost those cultural values; we forgot.” When water “magically” arrived via centralized distribution, people stopped caring for their water bodies. In North Chennai, parts of which remain somewhat rural, Jayaraman, the activist, has witnessed that loss in a single generation. “Among the older people, there is a far more intimate knowledge of hydrology, of seasons,” he says. “Among the younger people, that is eroding quite quickly. It erodes with the landscape. Your culture goes with the landscape.”

But the reverse may also be true. As government agencies and NGOs hold and reclaim space to reestablish slow water, and as people harvest some of their personal water from local supplies, Narasimhan says he hopes they will become newly motivated to keep them clean and replenished. 

One project is directly targeting the next generation. On a warm, partially overcast day in early December, I grab an autorickshaw to Tholkappia Poonga Eco-Park, a 24-hectare (58-acre) green oasis in the heart of the city, near the mouth of the Adyar River, which bisects Chennai. Separated from the beeping traffic outside by concrete walls, the tree canopy is thick here, and the peaceful walking paths and the air above are bustling with butterflies, beetles, blue-and-yellow grasshoppers, crane flies, lizards, lorikeets, and other birds. 

Despite the significant loss of wetland habitat, an astounding array of native biodiversity clings to life in and around Chennai.

Years ago, an area creek feeding the river was filled in for development and this place became a dump, piled high with garbage and human waste and used for illegal activities. To counteract pollution and biodiversity loss, local NGO Pitchandilkulam Forest Consultants and city agency Chennai River Restoration Trust began restoring the area’s former river and estuary habitats 12 years ago. 

My guide during this visit is K. Ilangovan, an ecologist and wetlands specialist who has overseen this project from the beginning and has himself planted thousands of trees, including mangroves and 250 other species of plants. Since forest restoration here began, he’s observed snakes, mongooses, mice, and even jackals that feed on crabs and fishes. “We didn’t introduce anything here,” he says. After the replantings, “everything came.”  

People from nearby neighborhoods were involved in the planning and planting so that they would better understand the area’s purpose, and some still have jobs here taking care of the plants. During the monsoon, the whole park becomes flooded, storing water, says Ilangovan, and the surrounding neighborhoods have seen higher water levels in wells and reduced flooding, including during 2015, when they were spared the worst of the flood. The microclimate has also changed, keeping it a little cooler than the concrete jungle elsewhere in the city. The third phase of restoration is now underway; ultimately 145 hectares (358 acres) will be restored. 

Aside from offering homes to a variety of creatures in the middle of the city and mitigating water problems, the Eco-Park is a favorite field trip destination for school children, who come here and are blown away, says Ilangovan. Living in the city with little exposure to nature, “They are so happy to touch and feel the plants. You can see the brightness in their faces.” That outreach is critical to changing the direction of society, he says. “We can’t go and change the people with 40 or 50 years’ age,” he says. “So I focus more on the kids.”

Amidst growing environmental awareness of the general public and the government, four of the seven projects proposed by the Dutch-local partnership are moving forward, says Jayshree Vencatesan, including the Mylapore tank and Muttukadu Backwaters. Separately, her nomination of Pallikaranai as a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance, is under consideration by the central government in Delhi. But development pressure remains intense. “We as a country are trying to become more of a wealthy nation,” says Vencatesan. “And if we assume that people don’t want that, we are wrong.” 

Back at Pallikaranai Marsh, walking down a muddy path at the edge of shallow open water, we pass trees planted by Care Earth Trust, trunks wrapped in cuttings of an unpalatable plant to deter nibbling cattle. Bee-eaters and kingfishers whiz by, and a fan-throated lizard darts under a rock. The sun glints off an iridescent green jewel beetle with black spots, bumpily navigating stems and leaves. Antennae waving about, it suddenly flips, revealing a bright orange undercarriage. There’s still plenty to amaze here.

Educating people about the value of water systems and biodiversity is a long-term process, says Vencatesan, one that she’s been working toward with her characteristic persistence for decades. Near the spot where I was stuck in the minivan, she is planning to reroute traffic away from the marsh and build a pedestrian “ribbon walk,” where people can interface with nature. “They should see a value in it,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s not going to last.”

Go back and read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story!


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 2

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 3 part series on Chennai’s relationship with water. Find Part 1 here!

The Eris System

The people of Chennai don’t have to look far for inspiration on how to work with nature to finesse water cycles. Starting at least 2,000 years ago, ancient Tamil people ensured that they had water year-round by building a series of connected ponds on a slope from the Eastern Ghats (“mountains” in Hindi) east to the Bay of Bengal. These eris, the Tamil word for tanks, are open on the higher side to catch water flowing downhill, while the lower side is closed with an earthen wall called a bund. An overflow divet in the top of the bund gives excess water a path to continue on to the next eri downhill. “System eris” were built off of rivers and creeks to capture their peak flows, while “non-system eris” were dug in areas without natural waterways to capture rainfall in a series of connected depressions. Eris were described in early Tamil literature and temple engravings, says Krishnakumar TK, an amateur historian and local travel writer who works in information technology and goes by the name KK.

The eris system is the opposite of modern development’s tendency to move water off the land as fast as possible. The early Tamils understood that, by slowing water’s flow, the eris reduced flood peaks and prevented soil erosion. They gave water time to seep underground, filtering it and keeping the water table within reach of wells. The eris also served as visual indicators of water availability because they were connected to the water table, says Vencatesan. Seeing the water level in a pond signaled to farmers when to sow their crops. Cultural rituals dictated system maintenance and water sharing. Tanks were also part of every temple complex, bringing water into the heart of religion and culture.

And because many eris were connected to creeks, rivers, coastal wetlands and freshwater marshes, they provided natural waterways their due along the way. Even eris not directly connected to rivers helped to feed the local hydrology because underground aquifers are extensive, so water absorbed in one place could feed a river some distance away. The words “lake,” “tank,” and “water body” are interchangeable here because, after so many generations, no one remembers whether a particular water body is natural or human-made. 

British engineers in the 19th century were amazed by the scale of the eris system—reportedly more than 53,000 bodies of water across southern India—and the deep knowledge of topography and hydrology required to build it. Alas, British respect had limits. Their centralized management supplanted the traditional system by which villages managed their local eris themselves, removing accumulated silt each year and using it to fertilize fields. The British neglected this maintenance and the eris fell into disrepair, making it easier to justify filling them in and building on top of them—a pattern that continued after independence.

As they built roads, the British obliterated the flow pathways that had linked water bodies, says KK, giving the rainwater nowhere to go. “They did not understand our system,” he says. Today, many famous city landmarks and neighborhoods—Loyola College, Central Chennai Rail Station, T. Nagar, Nungambakken—sit atop former tanks and lakes, says KK. Street names such as Spur Tank Road and Lake View Road commemorate ghost water bodies that once sustained and protected their neighborhoods. Fewer than one-third of the 650 water bodies that KK has documented in and around Chennai remain. The surface area of water decreased from 13 square kilometers (5 square miles) in 1893 to less than 3 kilometers (1.1 square miles) today, so in heavy rains, water floods into city streets, homes, and businesses.

Ironically, given KK’s passion for finding and documenting historic water bodies, the IT company he works for is in a special economic zone built atop Pallikaranai Marsh and the neighboring Perumbakkam wetland. He chuckles ruefully, showing me the area on a map. “We used to have hundreds of thousands of migratory birds visiting this marshland some 20 years ago. I have seen [it] getting destroyed in front of my eyes.” With just 10 percent of the marsh area remaining, “Even I can’t [see] the water from my workstation, and I’m on the fourth floor.” But as the title of Krupa Ge’s book invokes, Rivers Remember. This area hasn’t forgotten it is a marsh. During the 2015 monsoon, it flooded to the second floor.

Kids bird watching at the Marsh.

Wetlands = wastelands

Another British legacy that facilitated the destruction of wetlands was their official designation as wastelands. To Jayshree Vencatesan, the notion of wetlands as wastelands is anathema. “I grew up in the hinterlands, where this notion of waste doesn’t exist,” she says. “To us, nothing is a waste.” That attitude was once widely shared across southern India. Many areas the British saw as “waste” were shared-use commons, called poromboke in Tamil and dating back to medieval times. The ethic surrounding the use of the commons is even older, says Vencatesan, rooted in Tamil scriptures, which described the resources that wetlands provide—fish, seasonal agriculture, fodder for animals, medicinal plants—as well as the requirement to protect them, including penalties for those who didn’t. People understood and accepted that wetlands and other ecosystems were multifunctional habitats, supporting not just humans but other organisms as well. As a common property resource, water was subject to rules regarding how it was allowed to overflow from one water body or wetland to another. “This is essentially upstream-downstream equity, you know?” she says.

As she learned more about wetlands throughout her career, in part by working with Indigenous people who continue to live close to the land and water, Vencatesan internalized those values of multipurpose landscapes. She also learned that it’s critical to allow certain wetlands to follow their natural rhythm and go dry part of the year, to support the natural life cycles of animals and plants, including crops. “All of our melons and gourds and stuff like that used to be grown when the moisture is retained, but the surface flow is not there.”

In contrast, the British viewed land as property, so the commons, which could not be bought, sold, or built upon, “presented a very peculiar problem for them,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, who goes by Nity. A local community activist with a collective called Vettiver Koottamaippu, he works in North Chennai, where industrial facilities like coal plants are displacing fishing communities. “From a revenue point of view, it was wasteland.” As surrounding lands were developed, tension mounted over these two sets of competing values. “Of course, the old values lost,” he concludes. “And what we have is a disaster called Chennai.” 

The lost values are arguably as significant as the declines in sustainable subsistence and healthy, functioning ecosystems. People’s identities are entwined with their place. When development annihilates a place’s natural heritage, people also suffer cultural loss—loss of identity. For example, Pallikaranai Marsh is home to neithal (Nelumbo sp.), an endemic, striking, blue-violet water lily, one of the earliest flowers described in Tamil literature, says Vencatesan. Other beloved creatures of the swamp include the glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and, perhaps surprisingly, the hump-nosed viper (Hypnale hypnale), one of India’s four venomous snakes. “Snakes are revered in Tamil Nadu,” says Vencatesan, who grew up in a neighboring state. “They think it’s a god, so, yeah, they have no problem with snakes.”

Today Chennai’s wetlands are still officially classified as wastelands, which has made Care Earth Trust’s progress thus far, conserving 620 hectares of Pallikaranai Marsh, all the more remarkable. The organization is also working to restore numerous other “wastelands” that are, or were, connected via water pathways to Pallikaranai. On a visit to a few of these sites with Care Earth staff, I see candle flower (Senna alata), a medicinal plant whose flowers exude a milk that soothes skin injuries, as well as bronze-winged jacanas (Metopidius indicus), fish eagles (Icthyophaga humilis), black bazas (Aviceda leuphotes), northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), and many other native species.

At Thalambur Lake, we walk along a new levee that they pushed up with a bulldozer to keep water in the lake longer so that fish can lay eggs once again. The levee is pocked with young saplings of peepal and native bamboo. Looking down into the lowland, I can see the small islands they built and planted with trees to serve as nesting sites for birds.

At another spot just off of Mahabs Highway is a dock where you can rent paddle boats to explore Muttukadu Backwater, south of Pallikaranai. Dozens of pelicans sit on the water, bobbing on its calm surface. Here and in other neighborhoods near the ocean, excessive groundwater use has allowed seawater to push in, turning aquifers salty. Muttukadu has grown too salty for some of its native fish, and water levels have dropped. In response, Care Earth Trust has begun educating local people, petitioning the government to regulate water extraction, and restoring pathways to allow fresh water to flow into the wetland and replenish it. They’ve also started replanting mangroves to improve breeding habitat for fish.

To be continued next week…


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 1

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 3 part series on Chennai’s relationship with water. To reduce flooding and bridge droughts, India’s southern coastal metropolis is using ancient knowledge, community action, and wetlands restoration to better harness its monsoon rains.

Half the story

From a minivan on the shoulder of Old Mahabalipuram Road on the south side of Chennai, hemmed in by honking trucks and autorickshaws, we watch a painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala) move with studied dignity through the long grasses of Pallikaranai Marsh. With each step, knee flexing toward the rear, the webbed foot closes, then spreads open again to find purchase on the soft land. As it tips toward a fish, striped white-and-black tail feathers spread, flashing a surprising red whoosh. Nearby an endangered spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) swirls in for a landing, green-backed herons (Butorides striata) fish, and gray-headed swamphens (Porphyrio poliocephalus) tend to young among cattails and sedges—just a few of the 349 species of flora and fauna found here. We are watching from the vehicle because, with the traffic hurtling by, it’s not safe to get out. It’s a claustrophobic feeling—for myself, but more so for this delicate ecosystem. Just across the marsh, not far away, a network of power lines, buildings, and roads stretch beyond view.

In the last 50 years, this marsh has been literally decimated, losing 90 percent of its area to malls, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and information technology firms. It’s part of a global problem. Over the past three centuries, 85 percent of the world’s marshes, sloughs, swamps, fens, and bogs have been drained, filled in, and built or planted upon. The relatively new IT corridor here is an echo of California’s Silicon Valley, where Google and Facebook squat on filled-in marsh. Over the past few decades, Chennai has sprawled into India’s fourth-largest city, from 48 square kilometers (18.5 square miles) in 1980 to more than 426 square kilometers (165 square miles) today.

And that development has not just harmed Pallikaranai Marsh. The natural landscape on which Chennai was built is particularly rich in water. Pallikaranai is linked hydrologically with a complex system of rivers, backwaters, coastal estuaries, mangrove forests, and ancient human-built lakes in a mosaic of movement—freshwater, brackish, salt—that once covered 186 square kilometers (72 square miles). But an assessment by a local NGO, Care Earth Trust, found that Chennai lost 62 percent of its wetlands between 1980 and 2010. That destruction has depleted habitat for wildlife and spawned dueling water problems for the people of Chennai.

In summer 2019, Chennai grabbed international headlines when it ran out of water. Government trucks made deliveries to roadside tanks, where people queued with vessels and occasionally brawled, resulting in at least one death. When I visited in mid-November, water trucks still plied the streets. But 2019 wasn’t an anomaly. Over the past two decades, Chennai has regularly run out of water during summer months. That’s because paved surfaces throughout the city prevent rain from being absorbed and replenishing groundwater that could be used during the dry season, says Balaji Narasimhan, a professor of engineering who specializes in hydrology at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. The simple fact is, Chennai shouldn’t be running out of water at all. During its few months of monsoon, the city actually receives 1.5 times more rainfall than it consumes annually. But today’s water managers do their best to rush rain away in stormwater drains and canals, moving it rapidly out to sea. When they need water later, they turn to dwindling groundwater, distant supplies, and desalination plants.

During monsoon rains, water often floods vast swaths of the city. Among Chennai residents, more emotionally and politically jarring than routine water scarcity was the 2015 flood that killed at least 470 people, displaced hundreds of thousands, and left many stranded in their homes for weeks. Ironically, it was likely the local mindset of water scarcity that made the flood more deadly. As writer Krupa Ge documents in her book about the flood, Rivers Remember, reservoir managers were reluctant to release stored water ahead of the monsoon rains; when they finally recognized the threat, they discharged too much, too fast.

In addition to poorly planned development, climate change is also exacerbating these water swings. The city has seen increasingly frequent and intense cycles of both flooding and drought over the past two decades. As moderate rain fell early last December and streets began to flood, one local aptly captured Chennai’s dysfunctional relationship with water in a tweet: “till last week, the residents were booking water tankers and from today they will book rescue boats. What a city!”

These bifurcated water disasters are all the more tragic because early Tamil people, whose cultural and linguistic heritage continues proudly in today’s residents, developed an elegant system for capturing the precipitation that fell during monsoons, saving it for the dry season. Their method also replenished groundwater and minimized erosion from heavy rains. And it supported rather than devastated wetland habitats. 

Back to the future?

Beneath the peepal (Ficus religiosa) and tamarind (Tamarindus indica) trees, amongst the flower stalls and idli restaurants, greater Chennai’s 11 million people go about their business as cows and dogs wander and nap at will, and jungle crows (Corvus culminatus), Oriental magpie-robins (Copsychus saularis), and dragonflies swirl above the fray. Chennai is more chill than the northern megalopolises Delhi and Mumbai, but it shares that quintessentially Indian sheen of chaos that, upon longer observation, reveals an innate order. An unspoken dialogue of push and pull among countless beings following their individual paths somehow manages to keep the whole in a constant state of flow.

Image of Oriental Magpie in Chennai by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

Non-human lives, though, have less and less space to exist across India, where 1.4 billion—with a “b”—people jostle to survive and thrive in a land area one-third the size of the United States. Even so, solutions to this inherent tension don’t have to be an either/or. Reclaiming some of the ancient ways, restoring flow paths and space for water on the land, could provide greater water resiliency for humans and other organisms alike. Today a loose team of people in government, academia, and NGOs are working toward that vision.

The 2015 flood forced the city to acknowledge that poor development planning played a role in amplifying its water disasters. The Dutch office of International Water Affairs advised officials on flood recovery, underscoring that message. The following year, it offered them the opportunity to participate in a multi-year design and development program, called Water as Leverage, in partnership with local water experts and communities. Together they produced two reports that linked existing projects and laid out new ones that would conserve and restore natural and human-built water systems across the entire watershed. The aim was to harness nature, because protecting and restoring natural ecosystems and organisms is a way to also provide resources that people need. 

This concept is part of a “slow water” movement that’s beginning to take hold around the world. Generally speaking, modern humans have forgotten that water’s true nature is to flex with the rhythms of the earth, expanding and retreating in an eternal dance upon the land. In our many attempts to control nature, we’ve sped up water, channeled it, and rushed it away. We’ve forgotten the fact that when we give water a chance to linger on the landscape, floods are softened, water is stored, and natural systems are sustained. Champions of the slow water movement think that the key to greater resilience, particularly in the face of climate change, is a kind of de-engineering that reclaims space for water to pause on land, supporting natural and human-made communities. 

Although it may seem like an unimaginable challenge to restore space for water within a densely inhabited city, many experts think it’s possible. It requires thinking differently. Unlike standard gray infrastructure—dams, levees, stormwater tanks—slow water approaches typically involve many small projects scattered across a landscape that each absorb and hold some water. This dispersed approach is similar to the way that solar panels on every house can add up to a significant amount of electricity generation. 

That any natural water arteries still remain in Chennai is thanks in significant part to Jayshree Vencatesan, a 50-something biologist who founded the NGO Care Earth Trust in 2001 to protect Pallikaranai Marsh and other bodies of water around Chennai. When she began, “people said it was the stupidest thing anyone could do,” she says. “But if people challenge me, saying you cannot do a bit of work, I will take it up.” Based on her years of accumulated knowledge, in 2014 Vencatesan documented the cascading system of 61 wetlands and ancient human-built water bodies across the watershed that drain into Pallikaranai and later juxtaposed them with time-series maps showing what’s been lost. Catalyzing public awareness, her findings were the basis for a ruling by the Honorable High Court of Madras to prohibit further encroachment on wetlands by development, and to implement a state plan to restore some of these ecosystems.

Vencatesan and Care Earth Trust have been heavily involved with the Dutch-local Water as Leverage initiative. Initially, she says, “the government was amused” by the groups’ presentations, given the officials’ general bias in favor of the more typical development approaches of desalination plants, dikes, and filling in wetlands to “reclaim” land. But “when they looked at the final proposal, they were taken by … the in-depth understanding about the city and its hydrology,” she says. This initiative, the court ruling, and other recent events have put the city on course for change. “Until now, nature has been treated in Chennai as an externality, never factored into urban planning.” As this revolutionary shift takes shape, she predicts that sand dunes, marshes and other wetlands, and remnant patches of dry forest will once again become “the natural buffers to the city’s shocks.”

To be continued next week…


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Fatal Fallout of Fossil Fuels

At the Front Door: Renewable and Carbon-Free Energy –  a column on climate change in our lives

Renewable and carbon-free energy is cheaper than fossil fuels!

Don’t believe me? Look at your energy bill.

San Jose has a program called San Jose Clean Energy, which is one of 23 Community Choice Energy (CCE) programs in California. In fact, the vast majority Bay Area communities are part of CCE programs. These programs provide “competitively priced clean energy options to customers” and reinvests any revenues into local communities. The majority of San Jose residents were automatically enrolled in this program in 2019, and once enrolled your power bill would have gone down. That’s right, the default option from San Jose Clean Energy provides consumers with 45% renewable energy at a cost that is approximately 1% less than what you would pay for traditional energy generation (which is currently about 29% renewable). For $5 more a month you can opt for a plan with 100% renewable sources. All it takes is the click of a button on your PG&E account.

But money isn’t the only way we pay for our fixation with fossil fuels. An article published in Nature in 2017 stated that “all energy production has environmental and societal effects.” Another way to term ‘effects’ is to say ‘costs’. But what, exactly, does that mean? 

To calculate the true cost of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, we must factor in the social and environmental cost of their carbon emissions. Let’s take coal as an example. In 2011 the perceived cost of coal was 3.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. However, a report by the National Academies of Science noted that each kilowatt-hour also cost 5.6 cents in adverse health impacts.

Another study put the cost of coal’s ‘externalities’- meaning releasing carbon dioxide – at between 9.4 to 26.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. They averaged their guess to about 17.8 cents, this may not seem like a lot but that puts the cost of the United States coal addiction at “a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually” in unaccounted for costs. And it turns out that these numbers are likely too low. Recent research has indicated that the costs of carbon are more severe and one of the study’s authors noted that a higher number is more realistic. 

And some countries will pay much, much, more than others. A paper recently released in Nature Climate Change used recent climate model projections and economic and social damage estimates to devise a country-specific social cost of carbon (CSCC). The CSCC is, in short, the projected “economic damages from carbon dioxide emissions” by country – and it highlights that the consequences of carbon emissions will fall unevenly across the globe. And it turns out that India, struggling under a cost of $86 per ton of carbon, will pay the most. In fact, the next closest country is the United States, which will end up paying just over half of what India will pay at $48 per ton of carbon. 

The non-monetary costs of fossil fuels have already become apparent in industrializing countries like India. A study published by the Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust found that “[a]s many as 115,000 people die in India each year from coal-fired power plant pollution, costing the country about $4.6 billion.” The number of fatalities includes 10,000 children under the age of five.

India’s demand for energy, and thus its coal use and subsequent negative health impacts, will likely continue to rise. Despite its reliance on fossil fuels, the Indian government has placed a tax on coal with the aim of spurring developments in renewables. If India is able to take this initiative, why can’t we?

The money that comes out of our monthly budget isn’t actually what we pay for energy. We pay with our health in the form of lower air quality, higher asthma rates, and higher COVID-19 mortality. We pay social costs with environmental degradation, increased social inequality, and a reduced quality of life. In short, we pay with shorter, sicker, less-equitable, and less-enjoyable lives. And worst of all, we pay with the lives and the future of our children. 


Erin Zimmerman is trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2019 by the Climate Reality Project, but has been active in the environmental movement for over a decade. Erin holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Adelaide, where she focused on environmental degradation and its impacts on country and regional stability in Asia. She is currently the Chair of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Santa Clara Chapter of the Climate Reality Project  and an active member of the Legislative and Policy team.

Image credit: Hermina Oláh Vass

Bibliography

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Greenstone, M and Looney, A. (2011), “The Real Costs of U.S. Energy.” Brookings Institute. URL: https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-real-costs-of-u-s-energy/

Gres, E. (2017). “The Real Cost of Energy.” Nature, URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-07510-3 

Harvey, C. and Gronewold, N. (2019). “CO2 Emissions Will Break Another Record in 2019.” Scientific American. URL: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/co2-emissions-will-break-another-record-in-2019/

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