With Irreverence Towards All – A monthly column on the musings and rants from a Bay Area Indian American about all that ails, affects, or matters to desis here and across these fine United States. Many will disagree, and sometimes aggressively.
There is nothing cool, romantic, or brave about being a public health hazard. Many desis in the Bay area are unfortunately being just that. Yes, this is a rant. And it is intended to highlight this problem – if you see it happening in your circles, call it out.
A couple of weeks ago, more than 10% of those who received one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine have missed their second dose (per the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). This statistic is a huge concern. According to experts, studies have shown that the vaccines are much more effective against the Delta variant after the two-dose regimen is completed. Let’s not forget that the Delta variant is believed to be more transmissible and likely to cause more severe disease than other strains.
Folks, these are the facts. So wherein lies the problem?
The problem lies with the folks who should be leading and guiding people to do the right thing for public health; they are doing the exact opposite. It is disheartening when these are people from your own community that is often thought of as one that functions at a higher degree of awareness and is well-educated. Yes, I’m talking about desis in the Bay area who are engaging in downright irresponsible behavior.
Exhibit A – A tech company CEO and their spouse, who many look up to because of their otherwise spiritual leanings, are refusing to get vaccinated. They are, in fact, trying to convince others that COVID has been blown out of proportion and that we should avoid getting vaccinated. What they are doing is very dangerous. They seem to forget that it is not about the individual alone, and not everyone can or will be able to do what these two individuals do for their personal immunity. I believe their behavior is outrageously selfish. What makes it worse is that they have a child in their twenties – a demographic that is already slowing down vaccination rates. With parents like these, I don’t see this young individual racing to get vaccinated. I think this couple is among the worst offenders because they are signaling to people who look up to them that it’s okay to be irresponsible. It is reprehensible how they do this maintaining a holier-than-thou attitude. And, I’ve seen other desis pretend this is not happening. Will we only take notice when they become sick? It is their choice to not get vaccinated – which must be respected. But they should not expect to be treated on par with others who have been responsible for protecting the health of the community. It should be perfectly fine to shun their company till they demonstrate more responsible behavior.
Exhibit B – A rising tech star (in Texas actually, but can we assume this is not happening in the Bay area too?) agreed to abandon their vaccination schedule because their spouse was convinced by friends that vaccines were not safe! And the source of the information? WhatsApp. These forwards seem to have taken control of brains around the world because we are too lazy to look up credible sources of information. Whatever happened to personal due diligence and a mind that can discern what’s BS and what is solid science-based reasoning?
Exhibit C – A healthcare worker. Yes, a healthcare worker while administering a shot to a close friend of mine expresses doubts about the efficacy and illness preventing capabilities of the vaccine. Are you kidding me? If we have individuals like this in healthcare, it is a disaster waiting to happen.
All these offenders are desi and all of them are fairly well-educated and wouldn’t otherwise be suspected of being science naysayers.
In the Hindu faith, the concept of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” implies the whole world is a family. Which in turn means that co-existence ought to be a core belief. What does it say about you, as a Hindu, if you are tearing down a core principle – one of co-existence? In the Sikh faith there happens to be a beautiful principle – “Sarbat da Bhala” which literally means the welfare of all. In the context of this discussion, I ask, aren’t we adversely impacting the welfare of the community by setting a bad example when we shun vaccination and advocate against it? This discussion is not meant to be about faith. I bring this up to expose the hypocrisy of those who are hurting our common interest and endangering everyone around. I mention these two faiths specifically because the offenders in my 3 examples are self-professed and self-proclaimed diehard believers of these faiths; and mind you, they don’t hesitate to pontificate ad nauseam, espousing the virtues of being a good Hindu or Sikh.
The science is clear – the pandemic will not end until we get north of 70% immunity for the population. As a nation, we have missed the July 4 goal set by President Biden with respect to vaccination numbers. Can we pledge to do our part in trying to make up lost ground in the weeks ahead? Let’s push ourselves, our families, our friends, and all those sitting on the fence about getting vaccinated. The diehard anti-vaxxers I write off as parasites – they’ll benefit from our effort and dedication to public health – so, let’s not waste time trying to convince them.
One more thing. I tip my hat (figuratively speaking, of course – I’m not exactly a wearer of hats) to Khushwant Singh, a journalist of international repute who used to run a syndicated column in the Illustrated Weekly of India called, “With Malice towards One and All (many older folks in the desi community might remember). While I cannot hope to match his talent, savvy, and way with words, I confess I am inspired by his irreverent wit. I hope to keep that irreverence alive.
Darpan is a Bay Area artiste with a background in technology and finance. He shares his unfiltered views on a broad range of topics. He agrees to be restrained only by editorial diktat.
People of South Asian descent possess a set of genes inherited from Neanderthals that makes them more susceptible to hospitalization from COVID-19, according to a study published in Nature.
While certain risk factors affect the severity of COVID-19 – such as age and presence of underlying health conditions – the study noted that many still contract a severe case of COVID-19 without these risk factors, implying the existence of other risk factors in our genetics. Hugo Zeberg and Svante Paabo, the study’s authors, found a core haplotype (a group of genes inherited from a single parent) that increases the risk of hospitalization for COVID-19 to occur at a 50 percent frequency in South Asian people.
The same haplotype is almost absent in those of East Asian descent, occurs at only a 16 percent frequency in people from Europe, but occurs at a 63 percent frequency among Bangladeshi people in the United Kingdom, Zeberg and Paabo wrote. They said Bangladeshi people in the UK also have double the risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to the general population, indicating further disparities in healthcare that are compounded by the genetic predisposition identified in the study.
The study comes as COVID-19 cases in India are on the rise and hospitals struggle to maintain the resources to deal with the onset of new cases. Despite being one of the world’s biggest producers of compressed oxygen, the country has dealt with a shortage of supplies due to delays in oxygen storage and production, which in turn exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis.
“With respect to the current pandemic, it is clear that gene flow from Neanderthals has tragic consequences,” Zeberg and Paabo wrote.
The study states that the fact these genes have endured over the course of history to the present day indicates they must have been beneficial to human survival at some point in time.
“Thus, although this haplotype is detrimental for its carriers during the current pandemic, it may have been beneficial in earlier times in South Asia, perhaps by conferring protection against other pathogens, whereas it may have been eliminated in East Asia by negative selection,” the study states.
However, Zeberg and Paabo found that the haplotype is notably absent in those of African descent because gene flow from Neanderthals into African populations at the time was “limited and probably indirect.”
“It is currently not known what feature in the Neanderthal-derived region confers risk for severe COVID-19 and whether the effects of any such feature are specific to SARS-CoV-2, to other coronaviruses, or to other pathogens,” they wrote. “Once the functional feature is elucidated, it may be possible to speculate about the susceptibility of Neanderthals to relevant pathogens.”
Cutting-edge research, like the one Zebery and Paabo conducted, is an important reminder that diversity in research and medicine provides a more comprehensive understanding of diverse populations and how to address their needs.
Isha Trivedi is a journalism student at George Washington University. She enjoys reading and listening to podcasts in her (limited) spare time.
Father, in this contemporary sketch of a place in the world where giants roamed, warrior-like you entered tall, confident, and armed with science and humanity.
A profile of courage and integrity.
Into this wild, untamed Kenya, on the east coast of Africa, you marched in, in step with the raw power and magnificent bearings of the lions, the towering herds of elephants, the elusive cheetahs, and a superabundance of the wild creatures of this natural world.
Born and raised in Hiran, Punjab, trained as a medical doctor, you, Dr. Amar Nath Bowry, embraced the Hindu philosophy of ‘Karma Yoga’. At 23, you and Lila Wati, your young bride of 17, left your beloved families behind to sail across the Indian Ocean.
Soon you discovered that because of the inhospitable living situation for the native populations in Kenya, death and disease were common occurrences. Along with poverty and lack of resources, the scattered rural populace was preyed upon by a plethora of diseases like Malaria, Sleeping Sickness, Bilharzia.
Ready to face the challenges head-on, with a fervent zeal, you embarked on a mission to help and heal this land. Undeterred by hardships, to fulfill this noble mission, you dedicated 35 years of your life to Kenya. While accomplishing your goal brought you unlimited satisfaction, it all came at the cost of pain and separation for your young family.
Respect All. Love All – was the Mantra that propelled your compassionate heart.
India was always Home. After 35 years, you returned, finally, to be part of that revered Indian soil.
Sixty years! Time must be playing some tricks!
Father, I cannot believe, you have gone sixty,
I still know you as being around me
You are still with me!
Your joy in being alive; your healing, nurturing soul
That won over a vast array of patients and admirers.
Your serene, calm composure, your engaging smile
You truly knew how to listen.
We just spoke.
We told you of our unfathomed lives
Our brow-creased misgivings.
In your bright, knowing eyes
Read safety in a protective gaze,
A guidance, a gentle nod of approval.
There, and then, I vowed never to disappoint you.
You perhaps knew you were dying!
We were with you for the last four months
Watching and rejoicing in your company;
Your fun and games with Nishi and Achal
Your youngest grand-children.
We did not know you were in pain
You looked frail, yet so dignified
With a mischievous twinkle in sunken eyes.
Your pale lips said a lot; only if I knew how to read them!
But you did not let a shadow cast.
The luminosity of your eyes, deep blue!
The doctor asked if they were always
That intense, ocean blue!
Was it ‘The Brightest Flame before It Extinguishes’?
My heart knows: The sparkle of my life
Still is enkindled by your gentle, joyful nurture.
Your Love has encompassed
My whole being!
In my new beginnings with Dhruv
You launched my life on a personal journey
Of Wellness, of Abundance
I thrive in your blessings.
You will be twenty and a hundred, in two months.
The world is richer, the earth full of loving warmth
For you journeyed through it once
Sowed and nourished seeds of life
With an eternal spring of joy!’
— Usha Dhupa
Usha Dhupa (Nee Bowry) was born in Kenya to Indian parents and has lived across Four Continents. She studied English Literature at Delhi University and a published author of ‘Child of Two Worlds’. She loves to write poetry and stories in English and Hindi.
Engage – Discussions on active involvement in personal health and global wellness.
This two-part series highlights the emerging relevance of our microbiome in human health. In this first part, we discuss the establishment of the microbiome from infancy to adulthood and the highly responsive nature of these trillions of cells to the environment. The geographical diversity of microbiomes in various cultures, and the mandatory nature of the acquired living situations of immigrants are of immediate relevance. The second part, which will be published in June, will focus on the effects of the microbiome on human health and disease.
Traditionally, our interaction with microbes has been focused on how deleterious they can be. Viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms have been responsible for several contagious diseases, including typhoid, cholera, mumps, smallpox, polio, malaria to name a few, some of which we take credit for controlling with medicines and vaccines.
However, emerging knowledge of the human microbiome is informing us that an entire army of microbes including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other fauna coexist in symbiotic (meaning mutually beneficial) and commensal (meaning neutral coexistence) relationships with our bodies, and are beneficial in that they play an important role in maintaining homeostasis and optimal functioning of the body. Comprising of at least an equal number of cells as the human body itself, the microbiome constitutes what is termed a newly discovered organ in our bodies – one that is dynamic, diffuse, and very different from what we conventionally think of as a discrete human organ (liver, heart, brain or lung).
Microbiota colonize the entire surface of our bodies and the specific niches within. Several studies have tried to describe the species that are found in various locations, and these descriptive studies paved the way to deeper ones aimed at understanding how they are established, maintained, and function. We are learning that the establishment of these populations occurs from the earliest days of one’s existence, and their effective maintenance throughout one’s life is as important as having a healthy heart.
Infants are exposed to the maternal microbiome during the process of birth, and differences in the complexity of their microbiomes are seen in normal birthing situations versus cesarean sections. During their early days out of the womb, colonization of microbes within their bodies and also on their skin is associated with good overall health, in the immediate and long term. Taken a step further, this intergenerational transmission can be extended to envision a co-evolutionof humans with their microbiomes as a discrete ecological unit. Members of a family, or people who occupy the same household, are known to share similarities in their associated microbiomes. A linear study of 6 large Indian joint families also indicated changes in microbiome with age.
Further afield, one can well imagine that geographical and cultural differences will lead to variations in associated microbiomes. Most of us are aware that microbes exist in the intestines and mouth, and there is an immediate and important influence of diet on these populations. While different species of bacteria have been found to be the dominant population in different geographies, one study reported that the African diet was associated with the most gut microbial diversity. In general, a lack of microbial diversity is associated with urbanization and developed countries, and some factors thought to be related to this outcome are increased consumption of processed foods, increased use of antibiotics, reduced sleep, and loss of natural habitat. This lack of microbiome diversity is directly related to human disease. We are learning that diet can lead to changes in the microbiome in a matter of hours, not days, and can regulate the secretionsof the bacteria in addition to the populations of the bacteria themselves.
Even within the same geography, different lifestyles and ethnic groups showed differing gut microbiomes. In a cross-sectional study in Malaysia, the gut microbiome of Malaysians of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Jakan descent varied principally by ethnicity of the subjects, who were of the same socioeconomic status and geographic location. Perhaps more relevant to this discussion, studies conducted to compare gut microbiomes in rural and urban groups in Thailandand India suggested that urban populations have reduced numbers of bacteria that can produce beneficial anti-inflammatory molecules. In most cases, researchers associate these reductions and changes in gut microbial diversity with dietary preferences of urban and rural settings- urbanites tending to include less natural foods, vegetables, and whole-grain in their diets.
Pioneering studies in immigrant communities were conducted in Amsterdam and Minnesota. The Amsterdam study analyzed six immigrant ethnic groups including Moroccan, Turkish, and South Asian Surinamese, and as with the Malaysian (non-immigrant) study the gut microbiome varied principally by ethnicity. Southeast Asian immigrants from Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand were sampled in Minnesota, and it appeared that their gut microbiome assimilated to their new homeland. It took about a decade for this group to substantially transition to the US-associated gut bacterial profile. Although diet would play a big role in this, it is thought that other lifestyle changes, medicines including antibiotics, and other as yet unexplored variables may play a role in this remarkable change. An unfortunate correlation among these immigrant populations is the onset of obesity and diabetes.
Our understanding of this complex and dynamic organ continues to develop, in tandem with our understanding of its involvement in human health. These aspects will be discussed further in the second installment of this article.
L. Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. A scientist by training, she enjoys experiencing diverse cultures and ideas and writing.Her short story will be included in an anthology showcasing a group of international women writers, to be published in 2021 by The Nasiona. She can be found on Twitter at @l_iyengar. www.liyengar.com
This article is intended as an appreciation and a tribute to America, our adopted country, for its unusual penchant for inventions and innovations which have left a deep impact worldwide and for the future.
I was suddenly given to ponder over which peoples’ innovations, thinking outside the box, had the greatest impact the world over and were most unique. I quickly realized that history is in the eyes of the beholder.
To the ‘sophisticated’ among us, usually drenched in the Eurocentric classics, the world’s progress seems to have been greatly stunted after Greece and Rome.
Then there are the Anglophiles who think everything significant started in England: the parliamentary system running parallel with royalty, the English language which ‘civilized’ the world from Africa to India to the Americas to the computers, the steam engine, the railways, and the judicial system (innocent until proven guilty!). They also gave us cricket and possibly football (soccer) and tennis. Of course, they also invented color prejudice.
The Chinese gave us paper, gunpowder, and noodles.
And we, Indians, did not stop after the Vedas. We gave the world Yoga and the all-important ‘zero’. If you are of the Hindutva bent of mind, you surely like to think Indians were into aviation and guided missiles several millennia before the Wright Brothers – our Puranas say so. Of course, Indians were pioneers in plastic surgery, as proudly proclaimed by our beloved PM Modi in a session of the Indian Science Congress, citing the example of Lord Ganesh’s replaced elephant head.
But to me, all this pales in comparison to the acumen for inventions and innovations of the Americans – ushering in a paradigm shift in the world we live in today. All this happened, more or less, within the last one hundred and fifty years or so. Americans’ penchant for inventions seems to defy all boundaries starting from Edison’s light bulb to the gramophone, airplanes, telephone, television, computers, and IT. The present addiction to the small screen seems to have originated in America. So also for the most part, big screen a la Hollywood was America’s gift to the world. And who else would have thought of a 102-story building all the way back in 1934? Or a glitzy gambling mecca in Las Vegas?
Henry Ford and his Ford Motor Company gave the world the concept of assembly–line manufacturing. The result was the vision of a car for every family, which revolutionized our ideas of travel and transportation and ushered in the Automobile Age. The Automobile Age provided the inspiration for the development of high-speed motor travel along with a web of freeways for hundreds of miles, complete with road signs, motels, gas stations and, let us not forget, highway patrols.
The computers and the revolution in communications and information technology are examples of American innovativeness – from the early days of Hollerith and card punching systems to the development of the microchip capable of storing tons of data in a thimble. Starting with the iconic IBM, American companies like Hewlett Packard and Microsoft have become household names. Developments seem to come by leaps and bounds, branching off in different directions from computers with immense computing power and the ability to store humongous quantities of information to small chips ushering in convenient desktops and laptops.
Thanks to Google and other search engines, we have all the information we need with a click of a button, allowing us to dispense with big libraries and stacks of books and other documents. Word processing has spelled a death knell on the typists but opened up much for the rest of us. Everyone seems to have a little cell phone these days, even little kids and texting has become so common. Letter writing has given way to e-mail.
Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter have become household names and have caused quite a dent in our daily lives. Now we can order groceries and other merchandise through the computers and get delivered at our doorsteps. We were afforded added admiration for these developments in the recent lockdown for Covid-19 which has been with us for over a year now. Thanks to all the developments many could work on the computers from home avoiding a major calamity all over. One dreads to think where we would have been if the Covid-19 hit us twenty years earlier when much of these developments were not yet in place. Incidentally, the huge presence of persons of subcontinental origin in computer, information technology, and related industries cannot be missed. Many have made huge contributions in the field. And some have made it to the highest levels like Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft and Arvind Krishna, the new CEO of IBM.
Americans, I am sure, were the first to think of fast foods and franchises – MacDonald’s was such a seminal idea followed by other icons like Burger King and KFC. And who else could have thought of exploiting a commercial angle to amour and bring about Valentine’s day or to parental relationships, bringing about Father’s Day and Mother’s Day? Thank God (or whoever) that at least twice a year, the children are reminded of their parents. And with all that and their predilection to excessive usage of natural resources, they gave birth to the realization that our planet’s natural resources need to be protected and nurtured. Thus was born the environmental protection laws, idea of recycling, discouraging the usage of fossil fuels and the penchant for clean air and clean water.
And that brings me to my favorite: Sports. Basketball and volleyball were both invented within American shores and are popular today the world over. So was baseball, their national pastime, which is slowly getting popular outside: in Japan, Korea, and Latin America. And American Football too was their invention; forget that it has some vague roots in the English game of rugby. Who else could have conceived of twenty-two huge fat men banging ‘systematically’ on each other in an effort to advance a funny-shaped ball to the end zone? The game is interspersed with timeouts to accommodate the TV ads. But may be the biggest innovation in the game is the cheerleaders: skimpily yet colorfully dressed dancing girls dazzling the arenas and the TV screens. Many of my friends new to the country and to American Football got first attracted to the game because of these cheerleaders. And finally, how many of you are into WWF wrestling? I was once quite a fan and my young nephew in India, an otherwise intelligent man, is addicted to it. There is fighting, faking, shouting, drama – what not? It may be America’s greatest innovation of all.
Makes one really wonder what today’s world would have been like without the last one hundred and fifty years of American innovation.
Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write.
One of our seven beloved grandchildren asked the other day, “How do you say ‘reception’ in Indian?” She needed the information for her school paper, Growing up in a Multicultural Family.
A few months ago, another granddaughter had asked, “Has anyone in our family invented something?” for her high school paper.
The significance of Indian American heritage can be decoded through an understanding of “reason” and its limitations.
The renowned eighteenth-century philosopher, Immanuel Kant would say, “All knowledge flows from the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”
The world continues to subscribe to the philosophy of Kant.
Science, six sigma, policies, laws & regulations, and the like are products of reason. America excels in the products of reason. Most Nobel prizes go to Americans and America is home to top-notch technologies, products, and services.
In spite of these incredible accomplishments, why then has America not been able to tackle racial disharmony for over a century?
The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery in 1865 and a host of newer laws, policies, rules, and regulations have been adopted since then, including the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.
Racism persists because the nation is limiting its pursuits to the products of reason, but the solution is not to be found there.
Swami Vivekananda was an Indian monk revered in his native land and widely respected in the United States. Asserts Vivekananda, “Indian thought dares to seek, and successfully finds, something higher than reason.”
Swami Vivekananda’s wisdom can be proved.
Intuition is immediate cognition without the benefit of the five senses and the rational mind. Perfect intuition translates into the capacity to discern truth from falsehood. We all have a certain level of intuition, but the accuracy is generally too low to be of any practical value.
How does one discover something higher than reason? Obviously, one cannot use reason itself for such an inquiry.
Seers have left behind clues in the form of discoveries over millennia that couldn’t have been sourced from previous knowledge, and in every case, the process used is meditation, known for thousands of years.
As an example, the four Vedas are the most ancient scriptures of humanity. Their knowledge and wisdom couldn’t have been sourced from previous knowledge as there was none. This is why they are referred to as “revealed” (Shruti).
Another example, physics realizes that the universe came into existence pursuant to a big bang moment 13.8 billion years ago when it was an incredibly small energy phase (10-33 cm in diameter), unbelievably hot and immensely dense. Physics realizes too that on the other side of the big bang, there was absolutely nothing, a void.
How did “nothing” transform into the energy phase of the big bang? No product of reason has an explanation, and the explanation they do have is fraught with inconsistencies and paradoxes.
Inspired by Indian wisdom, my friend and associate physician turned theoretical physicist, Jim Kowall found the answer: “Consciousness of the void created the universe”.
How did seers know that meditation is the route to progress? They cite their Guru as their source, but how did their Guru know it? If you keep going back, you will eventually run out of Gurus, and then the question is, where did the first sage get the knowledge?
This is where the inquiry comes to an end, and the belief in God exponentially increases.
Meditation also brings about a rise in internal excellence, inducing positive changes from within. And this hypothesis can be tested as internal excellence can be measured.
Internal excellence has nothing to do with race, religion, gender, political affiliation, or national origin.
A rise in internal excellence is accompanied by a rise in positive emotions (love, kindness, empathy, compassion) and a fall in negative emotions (anger, hatred, hostility, resentment, frustration, jealousy, anxiety, despair, fear, sorrow, and the like).
So, society needs to do meditation to bring about a rise in racial harmony and a fall in societal discord. Who would have thought?
The ancient contributions notwithstanding, science is the appropriate body of knowledge to use when the system fundamentals are well understood. When they are not, but measurements are available, data-driven methodologies such as six sigma are appropriate. When system fundamentals are not well understood and measurements are not available, then enhancing one’s focus of attention as with meditation, remains the only route to new discoveries. Take care though, discoveries made this way must nonetheless meet the rigor of logical scrutiny.
Remember, transcending reason may well produce new knowledge, but once produced, it is subject to all the constraints reason imposes on all knowledge.
This in a nutshell is the significance of Indian American heritage. American heritage provides the best products of reason, while Indian heritage suggests that transcending the bondage of reason is the only route to further progress and teaches how.
Indian American heritage has the capacity to make a substantial contribution toward a better and more peaceful nation and world. These ideas should be front-and-center in the conversations to further strengthen US-India strategic partnership.
Pradeep B. Deshpande is an Indian-American academic in America for fifty-five years. He has interacted with Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P. V. Narasimha Rao, a friend and associate of his late father in the freedom struggle.
Acknowledgments. This article is written with the blessings of H. H. Gurumahan, Founder, Universal Peace Foundation, Thirumoorthy Hills, Tamil Nadu, India.
Legends of Quintessence – a Science Fiction column with a South Asian twist.
In a tiny house by the outskirts of Fresno, the morning was very quiet. Twenty years ago such a lull would be constantly interrupted by the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of the windmills. Today, the windmill farm had been replaced by an energy farm that used a combination of solar fields and wind tunnels to maximize energy output. Quiet, efficient, and as ugly as could be. This stretch of California had stayed virtually untouched by the development frenzy that had gripped the state for as long as one could remember.
The silence was broken by the phone
She jumped at the sound.
Her hands shook as she picked up the phone, not saying anything.
“Yes, who are you?”
“I am Vink Bhatia from the Center for Disease Prevention: CDP. We are calling from the Richmond center. We would like to call you in for a meeting to advise us.”
She panicked, trying to breathe normally, “Do I have to come? My case is closed and I have not been involved with the CDP for 26 years now. I have no new information or anything for that matter.”
“No ma’am,” said Vink “We need your help. We have no other hope for what is staring us in the face. Please come and see us this afternoon and I will explain everything.”
Once she put the phone down, she sobbed fiercely as all the memories she had suppressed came flooding back.
Twenty-eight years ago, she had graduated from Strafford University, ready to save the world through research on vaccines. She joined the Center for Disease Prevention (CDP) Research Center to work on the development of vaccines for targeted assignments. It was the perfect time to be in a perfect world. The political upheaval of ten years ago was far behind and they finally had a president that came from California.
A woman of mixed ancestral background was voted into Presidency and led the country to financial success and stability through her political tact and focus on science, international relationships, and trade. It was just as well since the world was moving faster towards space exploration and travel. All eyes were shifting from regional and national boundaries to planetary and galactic boundaries.
She joined the team headed by Professor Braun. Her work was a combination of genetic engineering and cloning to develop vaccines. What had become clear to space agencies and companies contracting space missions was that, without vaccines that could trigger the immune system to mirror and overpower microbes in space, humans would be defenseless. In the last two years, there had been seven outbreaks of diseases brought back to Earth by space travelers. They had been hard to contain and three of them had had very sad conclusions with entire communities being quarantined till they were wiped out. Never had the CDP felt the heat like it did then.
The whole world unanimously agreed on the need for accelerated research to develop potent vaccines to protect humanity. Money poured into top research institutes and whole departments sprung like wild mushrooms in monsoon. There was enough funding to last for decades of research and development.
She worked on some very bizarre and strange microbes that took a lot of effort to clone, control, and conduct tests on. More than once she and her team had to quarantine themselves, as they worked to contain the aggressive multiplication of microbes.
The worst were the ones that came from the outer asteroid belt beyond the solar system. That part of the belt was where space mining companies really wanted to go for expensive and rare elements. The outer belt was rich in both elements and pathogens due to the increased gravitational forces in that part of the galaxy.
In her line of work, she would often assist astronauts, lifting planetary dust off of their gear before they went into the sterilization chambers. She knew the frequent travelers by name and they joked and shared stories each time they met her.
This winter when Salas came back he was hurt. The official story was that his communication link with base had snapped due to a magnetic storm and a tiny piece of asteroid debris had hit him with moderate speed. When they were alone she looked at him, “Hey man, this time you lost it”, she said as she winked with a smile.
Salas looked up and she recognized the fear in his face.
“Can you shut off the recording for a couple of minutes?” he said.
”What’s up?” she was puzzled and not taking her eyes off him as she used suction to lift off the dirt from his clothes into five separate partitions within the sampler.
“I need to tell someone. They told me on the base not to say a word. But someone has to know …they may be coming to earth?” He paused and then looked up at her, pleading with tears in his eyes, ”Please, can you just give me five minutes?”
She paused and then turned the room to reclaim mode: they had seven minutes before all processes would kick back on, including monitoring and recording. She knew she would have to sign tons of paperwork and instantly regretted doing it.
Salas gripped her hand and started blurting, “They know that there is some form of life in the outer asteroid belt. They have known for a long time and are hiding it. They have destroyed evidence many times.”
“Hang on there buddy, who’s they, and what kind of life?” Now she was genuinely interested, even if Salas had gone completely cuckoo.
“The mining companies…They think that they understand the aliens and that they can control them. They do not want to abandon the asteroid belts. I met him”, he paused, “I met it while leaving Base 3, which is at the remote end and is not manned. It was flowing fast and at first, I thought it was a gas cloud but then it hit my shoulder here”, he said showing the back of his right shoulder. “It was hard as a rock and I fell off and I reached out with my gun. I must have hurt it since I felt deep vibrations through my organs and then it flowed away very fast.”
“Look at my suit here,” said Salas, pointing to a part on his right side that had a splatter of grey almost rock-solid matter. “I think this came out of it”
She jumped up at his confession. Did he mean that he had alien microbes on his suit?
“Don’t move,” she said urgently and reached for a mini sampler and scooped up the hard substance from his suit. “Salas, who else knows about this?” she asked.
“The controllers on Base 2. I told them about the encounter and they did not seem surprised at all. Instead, they told me to not tell anyone, else they would come after me”.
She told him to take some time off to rest and get his nerves back and promised to not tell anyone.
She did not report the alien matter as she should have. She worked on it on her own. She divided the amount into two equal halves and experimented with one half – attacking it with earth microbes to see how they would impact the defense mechanisms of the alien matter.
She used the second half to develop immuno-adaptive vaccines for humans when attacked by microbes from the alien mass. She worked non-stop, knowing that there was no end to the greed of the mining companies. Very soon Earth would be facing aliens without knowing if they were friend or foe.
She wanted to be ready…for people, for humanity…for a future where Earth could protect itself against the aliens that mining companies were aggravating.
Completely unaware of what was happening in parallel, she worked on her own and was able to create the two medical safeguards with which she could arm the world if the need arose. She was almost done and had to conduct the last tests for replication and vaccine stability.
“Just a couple of days more,” she said to herself as she entered her lab on that fateful day.
They were waiting for her at the lab entrance. They had quarantined her work and she was escorted to a remote intelligence location. During her interrogation, she realized that Salas had cracked and told his team leader that she had taken alien matter from his suit. When she asked what happened to Salas, they gave her blank looks. She knew then what could happen to her. But if she told them everything, there would be no hope for humanity.
No matter what happened to her, she would not tell.
She had stored her work in two places by then. One, in the lab where her tests had failed, and the other where the vaccines had worked. She gave up the location of samples where the vaccines had worked on alien mass. She did not tell them the location of the molecules that had the potential to invade alien mass. She was not going to give up the last line of defense!
They made an example out of her for the other researchers, calling her a traitor for developing vaccines to protect aliens. Her trial and sentencing was one-sided, military, swift, and ruthless. Eleven years in a military prison in Kansas and they ensured that they found every reason to throw her into solitary confinement as often as possible.
She imagined during these spells that she was the trunk of a twisted old tree, with each solitary confinement increasing her rings. Her branches held the weight of future children that wanted the freedom to be born. And close to her roots lay Salas in a resting position. She would often comfort him and let him know that it was ok.
“You have done your part. You can rest. I am the one that failed and my branches feel heavy with this burden.”
On release, she was only allowed to work non-medical, low-income jobs. She chose to be a hairstylist. Given her record, the only place that employed her was a minimum wage salon in Fresno. Routine: wake up, breakfast, get to work, end at 8 pm, back home, eat and sleep. 7 days a week including Christmas and New Year. It kept her sane, it kept her going for 16 years until the phone rang that morning.
She opened the door before the bell rang and walked to the car they had sent for her. The 3 hours drive was heavy with silence and she kept imagining in her mind again and again what awaited her at the CDP. As she stepped into the CDP building, a flood of memories hit her and she shivered involuntarily.
A man standing inside came rapidly to her and dragged her away by her arm to a room in the back of the two-story building.
“I am Vink,” he said as he hastily seated her in a chair.
She nodded, “What do you want?”
“You were experimenting on alien matter and developing vaccines for it?”
She felt her anger rising, “I was not. I have served a long sentence for a crime that I never committed.”
“Oh, you don’t understand?” he said, “ We will need your help now. The mining companies have been exploiting the outer asteroid belt for a very long. We did not know that they were aware that some of these asteroids hosted an alien form of life that can survive in very harsh conditions. A lifeform so evolved that they can move from being fluid to hard as rock. When they die, they become a rock, almost unrecognizable as a living form.”.
He took out some pictures and showed her, “Look, here is one in the process of transforming from a solid rock form to fluid.”
“So what do you want from me?”
Vink looked at her, “They are sick of being driven out of their homes and have entered earth using our own spaceships. Earlier, we thought that we had managed to contain them within the transportation base, but news from across California and Texas has me convinced that they are out there in these states.”
“Did you guys keep my experiments and materials in my lab?” She jumped up, “We will need to find it back and I need you to give me a lab and any alien mass you might have collected from the transportation base.”
“What had you developed besides what we found?” asked Vink.
“Well….you see some of Earth’s microbes can cause a lot of damage to them and are hard to create vaccines against. How many types do we have?” she motioned.
“We have three types: two from combinations of flu and a very old skin plague against which all humans today have immunity and one that impacts their external layer”, Vink replied.
“Let’s work with the two combinations and forget the skin diseases…we need lethal diseases, not tame ones.” She stopped and turned sharply to him, “You don’t understand do you?” Vink stared at her.
“Look, they are able to change their form from fluid to solid by diffusing liquids and gases. But when they have to change from solid to fluid form they need to absorb these gases through their outer layer. If that outer layer malfunctions, they can no longer change back to fluid form and are rendered immobile. That is when we can infect them with our microbes”.
“Stop staring at me and let’s get to work. We have a lot to do…first I will need to replicate these microbes at a mass scale and once we have done that we will need to distribute the vaccines as well,” she said, exasperated.
Vink looked excited and confused at the same time, “We have not been able to develop vaccines yet. We are working on it but need more time. I am afraid we will lose some people but we are looking to quarantine the two states if needed.”
She looked up from the table and spoke slowly as a matter of fact, “Yes, I know that. I have the vaccine ready. I had it ready before they took me to prison. All we need to do is mass produce it.”
Vink sat down and took a few moments to absorb this. “So you did? Where did you?…They sent you to prison…And all the time you were….”
She stood up restlessly, “Vink, take me to a lab. We can’t waste time chatting!”
Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.
Tell A Story – a column where riveting South Asian stories are presented like never before through unique video storytelling.
Genetic Engineering has always been a promising field of science right from its inception, but to advance to a level where babies can be designed before conceiving is definitely fascinating to note.
Known as Designer Babies, their genetic makeup is pre-selected and altered to serve a purpose as needed. Using pre-screening and gene editing, many such babies have been created so far to save families. Conceived to save siblings from rare genetic disorders, they are also termed as savior siblings.
It’s been 20 years since the first designer baby was born to the Nash family from Denver, Colorado, but the news is still a miracle to many. Adam Nash was conceived for his stem cells from the umbilical cord, which was later used for the life-saving treatment for his sister suffering from Fanconi’s Anemia. The controversial decision though saved his sister from the rare genetic disorder, it triggered an ethical battle and the family still continues to fight the backlash.
Many questioned them for the motive of conception and few demanded explanation for challenging Darwin’s theory of evolution. Scientists continue to fear the consequences that may evolve in the future as the technology develops and gets adopted by the masses.
The success of the first designer baby opened doors for many families that have a legacy of rare inherited genetic diseases. Since 2000, many countries have emulated the technology to save families. India had its first savior baby in 2018. Kavya Solanki conceived to save brother Abhijit from a rare blood disorder, thalassemia major.
This powerful technology involving alteration of DNA sequences and modification of gene function is known as CRISPR technology. In-vitro fertilized embryos are genetically screened using preimplantation genetic diagnosis to find the one embryo that would be a potential bone match for their older siblings. Following this, the genetic makeup is selected or altered, often to include or remove a particular gene or genes associated with a disease that runs in the family.
Though benefitted a few, scientists fear the rise of an elite class of genes created with illegal intentions. Gender diagnosis, trait preferences, the endless list of alarming consequences goes on; that may pose a major threat. Few scientific researchers have also raised concern over the health risks to human species with such creation of future generations.
Tell-A-Story sheds light on this unique technology and its prospects while sharing the experiences of those families who have had designer babies, as they talk about the backlash, the need, and question of consent of the newborn. The video story also addresses the legal framework, future implications, and what lies ahead!
Suchithra Pillai comes with over 15 years of experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading media publications in India and the United States.
(Featured Image: Mylapore Tank holds water even during the dry season, but only because its bottom has been paved over.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Radha Rangarajan, CSO of a medical devices company, and healthcare journalist Sujata Srinivasan, interviewed Advait Badkar, a Senior Director in Pfizer’s Drug Product Design and Development organization. Badkar is leading the efforts on the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine program with respect to the formulation and process development, scale-up, technology transfer, and registration across global markets. The team Badkar heads specializes in novel delivery technologies with emphasis and expertise in nanoparticle-based modalities.
IC: Are there any differences in immunogenicity in subpopulations?
Pfizer and BioNTech’s Phase 3 clinical trial data demonstrated a vaccine efficacy rate of 95% in participants without prior SARS-CoV-2 infection (first primary objective) and also in participants with and without prior SARS-CoV-2 infection (second primary objective), in each case measured from 7 days after the second dose. Efficacy was consistent across age, gender, race, and ethnicity demographics.
IC: Participants enrolled in Pfizer’s clinical trials were known not to have been infected previously with COVID-19, for obvious reasons. But now that the vaccine is publicly available, it is not possible to test every person before vaccinating. In India, 70%-80% of people have the asymptomatic disease and are unaware of their COVID-19 status. Are any studies planned to assess the safety and efficacy of the vaccine in previously exposed populations?
Yes. Immunity after vaccination is a question we continue to explore in our research. The duration of immunity after COVID-19 requires observing a large number of people who have had the disease once until some get it a second time. Because the first known cases of COVID-19 only occurred in December 2019, there hasn’t been enough time to observe a significant number of second illnesses to know the duration of natural protection.
We will better understand transmission when we have data on protection for those who were previously exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or infected with COVID-19, asymptomatic disease and severity of the disease. Our trial will continue to study those areas to determine the full protection and potential of the vaccine.
IC: Even though the science behind mRNA vaccine is not new, some fear that it might alter the genetic makeup, or cause other irreversible side effects. How is Pfizer’s outreach arm dispelling these myths?
There is no evidence to support that notion. To the contrary, the mRNA platform is well suited for a pandemic response on many levels.
First, one aspect of safety – unlike some conventional vaccines, mRNA vaccines are non-infectious, and there is no need for a viral vector to deliver the mRNA vaccine. Second, because no viral vector is used, mRNA vaccines pose no risk of an anti-vector neutralizing antibody response, thereby permitting repeated boosting, which may be important if additional vaccinations are recommended in the future. Third, speed, mRNA technology enables rapid development if the vaccine needs to quickly adapt to potential mutations. mRNA vaccines have an efficient, fast production process, without the need for complex mammalian cell systems.
IC: Is there any plan to simplify the vaccination protocol to one dose?
No. Pfizer and BioNTech’s Phase 3 study for the COVID-19 vaccine was designed to evaluate the vaccine’s safety and efficacy following a 2-dose schedule, separated by 21 days. The study concluded that the two doses are required to provide the maximum protection against the disease, a vaccine efficacy of 95 percent.
IC: What are your thoughts on how to choose between the different vaccines?
At Pfizer, we understand that mitigating this global pandemic will require more than one vaccine and more than one company’s efforts. In March of 2020, Pfizer announced a 5-point plan calling on the biopharmaceutical industry to join the company in committing to an unprecedented level of collaboration to combat COVID-19. The industry responded. We are rooting for each other’s success and are confident that science will win.
IC: What is the plan for a global supply? How will these be administered?
Pfizer and BioNTech are firmly committed to equitable and affordable access for its COVID-19 vaccine for people around the world. That commitment includes the allocation of doses for supply to low-income countries at a not-for-profit price. We are actively working with governments all around the world, as well as with global health partners to work towards fair and equitable access to our vaccine. We are also partnering with global health stakeholders to provide expertise and resources that can strengthen healthcare systems where greater support may be needed to deploy COVID-19 vaccines.
Radha Rangarajan, Ph.D., is Chief Scientific Officer at HealthCubed Inc., a medical devices company. Prior to this, she was the founder and CEO of Vitas Pharma, a drug discovery and development company focused on novel drugs to treat multidrug-resistant infections. Radha has also worked in the Drug Discovery division of Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories. She received her bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, her Ph.D. from Rockefeller University, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health before moving back to India in 2003.
Sujata Srinivasan is an award-winning, independent business and healthcare journalist with the nonprofit Connecticut Health Investigative Team, whose grant-funded, data-driven reporting is carried by media outlets statewide. Previously, she was the Connecticut correspondent for Crain’s Business, business reporter at NPR’s regional station WNPR, U.S. correspondent for the Indian edition of Forbes, editor of Connecticut Business Magazine, and Interim Chief of Bureau at CNBC-TV 18, Chennai, India. You can follow her on Twitter @SujataSrini
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.
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.
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.
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.