Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Late night thoughts of an environment minister who never was

·      The concept that wilderness is not directed or controlled by man does not fit the scheme of things as envisioned by this cabinet. These fools cannot understand why cranes are seen now and then in certain habitats, and not always, or why they do not hurry thither when needed. Cranes are not subject to censuses, as humans. They cannot be ordered to stay put because census officials are going to drop in. Their absence does not mean they are non-existent, or have abandoned the area just because they are not present when required! A census of cranes has to occur during crane time, or it is bound to fail.
·      These morons cannot comprehend why a small population of cranes matters, or why a place of their intermittent occurrence is as important as that of so called iconic species. That an entire world can exist amidst an ecologically interrelated environment is beyond their ken, whose myopia restricts their vision to a world created by man and fuelled by the dread of the bottom-line; by the balance that weighs success or failure annually rather than in cycles of years that suit the longer, ecological view of our lonely planet. Tragically, such visionary, long views are in short supply.
·      My colleagues have intellects that are hard wired to the short-term view. That is the limit of their horizon. The longer view, one that considers earth time—that believes in the cycle of seasons that modify landscapes—in its constant tick towards ecological stability, is, well, Greek and Latin to them. Now, if even the babus, those with the sharpest intellects, bend towards the dangerous concept of measuring the worth of wilderness areas, and what that wilderness should ‘serve’, there is something seriously wrong with our education system for one, and with us, as humans, for another, for lucre is the maya that blindsides us from rationality.
·      These people need to understand that the environment cannot be restarted, like some sick industry, with a dose of capital. It cannot be restricted to a five-year development cycle. Artificial time limits cannot govern natural time cycles; artificial inputs do not easily return predictable results from ‘natural’ applications.
·      And, unlike capital, land cannot be created, for one cannot print topsoil, mint water, or write a cheque to substitute trophic diversity; but protect these judiciously and the country’s natural capital will boost her commerce among the nations of the world.
·      How do I drill it into their thick skulls that the natural wealth of a country is a gigantic fixed deposit fund that is self-perpetuating. It has come free to us and therefore needs to be assiduously protected and thriftily allocated.
·      In the country’s balance sheet, its environment health is its primary intangible asset. If only governments monetized it and weighed its annual loss, they would see the one-way drain on the exchequer. Once this reaches a tipping point, no amount of restorative packages will salvage the economy.
·      Wilderness works without leave or license from mankind, and even despite us. Nature cannot be forced to work to our time schedules. Look to our children; are we able to make them adults before two decades? If we allow them that time, then surely we can plan an environmental revival that spans at least that time span as an incontrovertible investment in their future.

·      By now you must have got the hint why I never made it…

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A plague of pigeons

It is difficult to imagine our iconic symbol of peace, the dove, metamorphose into an emissary of death. That’s just what’s happening in our burgeoning and congested urban areas. This is not some Hitchcockian vendetta. Indeed, the birds are innocent and ignorant, but they have help—from us.
I am talking of the apparently innocent, slyly endearing feral Rock Pigeon Columba livia, aka ‘kabootar’, or ‘pavuram’ (in Telugu). Before elaborating upon my seriously accusatory beginning, let me fleetingly touch upon antecedents of pigeon-human interactions. These birds originally inhabited rocks, and cliffs, where they nested, and eked out their lives. But their association with mankind has evolved over aeons. They’ve been a part of the weave of worldwide civilizations and cultures.[1] With the formation of towns and cities, they became our commensals, adapting to the facilities our clustered environments provided them. It was a more involved relationship in the past when we used them for sport and pastime, for service (pigeon post), and as food. With the advance of our civilization, and the diminution of leisure, kabootarbazi has all but disappeared; technological advance in communications has retrenched the messenger pigeons; and the poultry industry has removed the roast squab from our menus.
Our spiritual inclinations too have fanned expansive pigeon colonization. The Prophet Mohammed (AD 570–632) is thought to have received divine messages from a dove sitting on his shoulder; the pigeon / dove is mentioned in the Rig Veda (1500–2000 BC); for the Sikhs it is a bird of peace, always depicted with Guru Gobind Singh, symbolizing amity and peace in fractious times; and had the dove not returned at eventide with a fresh sprig in its beak, poor Noah would have had a hard time of it [Source:]. Rationality has seldom been religion’s strength. The nuance and symbolism of religion and history have become gospel, and human acts related to them, even if irrational, assume the invisible sanction of communities at large, and the faithful in particular. In a world torn apart by fractious sectarian strife, we ‘worship’ this symbol of peace, pandering a mere icon, and ignoring the message in real life situations. Such misguided whims radiate through communities and congeal into deceptive folly. Blind faith can be a Trojan horse. The explosion of rock pigeon populations in our cities is a direct result of this conundrum.
The compassionate act of feeding pigeons has become an overzealous absurdity that supposedly imparts spiritually elevated feelings of benevolence. In our religious fervor we feed feral pigeons vast quantities of grain. We strew it charitably in public places and enjoy emotions of well being from this act of ‘piety’, but spilt grain brings not peace, only huge quantities of poop from booming pigeon populations! No scripture desires the faithful to feed pigeons enmasse, though they warn of the folly of excess, which we conveniently forget.
Meanwhile, the birds have become emboldened beyond redemption. Their Pavlovian instincts are easy to train. With an unending, year-round supply of grain, and water, they need only breed and perpetuate their kind. Our beehive-dense urban agglomerations provide a plethora of ideal nesting places where pigeons breed unhindered. Their traditional predators, Peregrine Falcons, are migrants to India, preferring to patrol coastal areas. Few come inland. Their resident cousin, the Shaheen, is a forest dweller. Feral cats are simply too few, and have easier food available to them, from our garbage, to bother expending energy hunting pigeons. Feral pigeons prosper in this heavenly urbania.

The problem
The problem with feral pigeons is that they produce major antigens from their droppings, feathers, and blood that cause diseases in humans. This is a known historical fact amongst pigeon fanciers—those who indulge in ‘kabootarbazee’. People who have dovecotes, who race pigeons, or once used them to carry messages, are prone to the malady called ‘pigeon-fancier’s lung’; a pulmonary condition. Pigeons, along with other birds like parakeets, and ducks also cause a number of other zoonotic diseases: Histoplasmosis (caused by the airborne fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, which grows in the bird’s droppings.), Cryptococcosis (another fungus, Cryptococcus neoformans); Psittacosis, Toxoplasmosis, etc. When pigeons are concentrated in large numbers, and live in close proximity to us, the chances of infection increases alarmingly.
The grave concern about the relationship between feral pigeons and human health is the bird’s unrestricted population explosion in congested urban built up areas. We live in dangerously close contact with them, given the number of diseases they cause. We pamper them with food and water, we accept them as neighbours, we tolerate their droppings, their feathers, the mess of their nests, and their vocalisations. We accept all this because living in unsanitary surrounds does not seem to bother us. We are a tolerant lot. As long as the garbage is outside our homes, our compounds, it’s not our problem. We don’t also complain to civic authorities for the result of that is, invariably, a series of unwanted headaches; not the desired remedy. We also tend to ignore the fact that epidemics explode in congested areas in which the causative antigen-producing agent is also included.

The disease
In recent years it has been established that pigeons are one of the causes of a somewhat mysterious lung disease, Hypersensitive Pneumonitis (‘HP’), which is one of the several forms of Pulmonary Fibrosis. HP suggests itself on a chest X-ray and produces a distinctive pattern on a CT scan. The threat is so serious, that Pulmonologists frequently advise their patients to rid their environs of pigeons, or even change their neighborhoods!
To be fair to the bird, there are nearly 150 other identified causes for Pulmonary Fibrosis, related in one way or another largely to moldy substances, or the presence of dust in the various forms of work that men and women do. Contaminated water, extremely humid work conditions, and various chemicals are also suspect. Given this variety of causes, implicating the pigeon may prove difficult—and indeed, seem a tad extreme to some people. Yet, it cannot be denied that the pigeon is one of the commonest offenders in the propagation of HP, and doctors find it difficult to ignore such a patently obvious aetiological agent—especially one that can be ‘eliminated’ easily (see below).
We don’t know yet why Pulmonary Fibrosis strikes, and we don’t know yet how to cure it. Till a cure is found, we need to tackle what’s known: Whether this involves giving up some habits, curbing irrational pseudo-religious activities, or reducing unnaturally burgeoning wild animal / bird populations. Our addictions, even to vague religious sentiments, make us overwhelmingly selfish. We crave satiety at any cost—until the addiction catches up with the addict, or a loved one. (Tobacco ravages mankind like a scourge; yet it is sustained by the economies it spawns.) But the feral pigeon is no longer a commercial option. It merrily thrives on our gullibility.
Meanwhile, Pulmonary Fibrosis is making rapid and catastrophic progress in our urban areas. People working in certain professions, or atmospheric conditions, are more prone to it historically. But the urban pigeon problem has now created a ‘new’ source of the disease, which now strikes unchallenged across the spectrum of our social orders. A majority of its tragic victims remain unknown, but there are some it has struck, or felled that we have held in high esteem: Marlon Brando, Nawab Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Laurance Rockefeller, James Doohan (Star Trek), Peter Benchley (author of Jaws), and many others.[2] Once afflicted,[3] a patient is prescribed cortico-steroidal drugs, which have the potential to suppress the natural immune defenses of the body. The soft tissue of the lungs gradually stiffens like cardboard, effectively dying, shrinking the tissue that helps absorb the life-giving oxygen into the blood.[4] Breathing becomes an ordeal for the patient. Simple actions like talking, sitting down, standing up, sleeping and turning in bed, eating, drinking, all result in erratic levels of breathlessness, becoming moments of discomfort and adversity, and indeed, even fear and apprehension. Gradually even the personal dignity of privacy in toilets is compromised. No one should suffer this if we can help it, or even mitigate it.

A solution
All is not lost. There is at least a partial solution to the problem. We have encouraged and allowed the feral pigeon to expand its populations without bounds. It is in our hands to reduce its numbers. The remedy is simple; it involves no action, and saves money all around, a win-win situation really. Let us resolve to stop feeding pigeons. Stop scattering grain in public places, in open spaces, on rooftops, on pavements, in compounds, and around places of worship (disease knows no religion). Pigeon populations will automatically collapse. Let us make the feeding of pigeons in public places a punishable offence (by imposing fines), as has been done with resounding success around Trafalgar Square in London, and in several other cities, including San Francisco, Venice, Albuquerque, New Jersey, Ontario, etc. The Municipal Commissioner of Greater Hyderabad should take action under Section 565 of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation Act, 1955.
Without food pigeon populations will crash. The birds will not breed. They will gradually thin out, and disperse into an increasingly wider geographical area. The processes of nature will take over, forcing them to forage for themselves—as it should be.
Human suffering will reduce, lives, and money will be saved—no more expense on grain, on sanitation, and no more filthy buildings. Those with charitable inclinations might even reorient their largess towards destitute and poor people. Let us restore this fallen dove of death to its rightful place as an icon of amity and goodwill.

[1] Cocker, M., & Tipling, D., 2013. Birds and people. 1st ed. London: Jonathan Cape.  Pp. 1–592.
[3] Statically data is lacking, but anecdotal impressions of pulmonologists indicate scores of new cases of ILD every week just in Hyderabad. Projections for the country boggle the mind. There cannot be a more compelling reason to tackle the pigeon problem swiftly and resolutely.
[4] ILD affects the interstitium, a lace-like network of tissue, which is a part of the lungs’ anatomical structure. This gets scarred, causing, what is called, Idiopathic [=the cause of which is unknown] Pulmonary Fibrosis [=scarring].

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Delayed flight doodling

In the lap of nature

The old man and the sea

The title is, of course, borrowed [with profound apologies] from that of Ernest Hemingway's Nobel-clinching novella. I've conceptualised a man at sea, perhaps fishing, but away from his world, immersed in himself. Far out at sea, out of sight of land, it must be another world altogether. But the terrestrial home that he inhabits, exists all the same, looming in the background, or in his thoughts.

There be worlds out there we know not of

El-Nino: a concept

Doodling, is fun, relaxing, and can become meditative for it stills the mind with repetition. Here I conceptualise the El-Nino phenomenon of unpredictable weather conditions, and the human condition.

Friday, July 17, 2015

'Quandaries': A blog post by Nimesh Ved, and my response

Nimesh Ved's ruminative blogpost, "Quandaries along a journey on wildlife conservation", started a chain of thought in my mind, about the importance of the written record. I wrote him a letter, that I wish to share with you, and again, hope for a larger dialogue. Do make time to post your thoughts. Both, Nimesh, and I will benefit; and who knows, who else might!

Provoked by 'Road to perdition' by Sinha & Shankar Raman

My friends, Neha Sinha, and T. R. Shankar Raman wrote a thought-provoking piece called Road to perdition, in Fountain Ink

"The central government has started relaxing norms that protect the environment in favour of industry and development projects, leading to loss of forests, habitat, and wildlife".

I wrote back to them, for I felt strongly about the topic. I am posting my letter here, because I would like a wider discussion on how we write about environmental conservation in India. I hope it begins a dialogue. You are welcome to widen the conversation with your comments here.

"In the spirit of taking the conversation ahead," here is Sridhar's must-read response: 'Writing about the environment'.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Far from the madding crowd

Two images from last week are stuck in my mind. Both involve cats trapped in crowds. One was a moving image, the other, still, but both revealed something about the hostility of such gatherings.
The short film, posted on Facebook, was about the fate of a lioness trapped upon a small rock, surrounded by a multitude of very angry Cape buffalo. The film did not show how the lithe feline came to that predicament. It just concentrated upon the herd mentality of the buffalo as they closed in for the kill. The lioness was tossed around like a rag doll; and stomped upon by half a ton each worth of milling hooves. Her defiant roars and snarls were barely audible above the thunderous lowing of the bunched up bovines, their hoof stampings, and the sickening thuds of their massive horns. Towards the end, the cat’s cries sounded piteous. She did not escape.
This was a natural encounter in the wild. To kill and be killed, to eat and be eaten, are the unwritten laws of wild creatures. They don’t know this, and they are none the worse of it. We do, but our opinion does not matter to them. Survival, and natural selection have their task cut out. Emotion is not part of the process.
The static image was of a leopard, lynched from a tree by a mob in West Bengal []. I was naturally drawn into the action on the African plain, but repelled by the murder of the leopard. The prequel to the hanging was a familiar story. The leopard was spotted near some fields. Given chase, it took refuge inside a hut. The hut was locked from the outside, and the authorities informed. Meanwhile the crowd of onlookers began to swell. The identity of the prisoner was known, so all were armed with lathis, iron rods, and sharper stuff. Upon arriving, the person of authority went straight to the hut and unlocked the door. All hell broke loose. From the depths of that confining human abode, the petrified cat sprang towards freedom. All it wanted was to escape that madding crowd and return to its haunts. But frenzy was at fever pitch. A bull-headed mob mentality kicked in and the cat was beaten, clubbed, and stabbed to death. However, the mob’s pent up fury, or its fiendish frustration, wasn’t satiated. The mobsters cut off its paws, and docked its tail. Then they swung its carcass from a tree.
It was a depraved state of utter senselessness. Those that are hanged unto death, are graphic messages to the living, of an impending fate if the prevailing law of the land be violated. Onlookers comprehend the deathly image, and spread the word. But who was this sign for? Were there leopards in that milling multitude, or just craven chest-thumpers who found joy in the message hanging from the tree, “fear not this one, it’s done for.”
Frenzied mobs have an ancient history that’s remained static through the march of civilisation. Amok, they return to the anarchy of the uncivilised. The cerebellum shrinks, the upright stance disintegrates into a crouch, the club is hefted in the hairless hand, and manic sounds emanate from quavering throats, bolstering one another’s puny angst. A mob may wrest the license to kill, unto itself. It may be absolved of the crime too, especially when the victim is not even considered a fellow citizen. But will the mobsters be able to absolve themselves of the cowardice of their act? Cowardice is an inherent element of a rampaging human mob. Individuals that comprise it would not act thus if they were not in a group, surreptitiously ignoring each other’s wrongdoing, mutually drawing courage from each other’s hubris, slyly complicit in the horror of their act.
The hanging was dastardly because the men could have left the animal alone. Prudence is a human prerogative. It was foolhardy in that the spotted one may have been an invisible vigilante protecting the fields of its murderers, from hungry hooves.
Though it’s best to stay far from a madding crowd, the buffalos seemed the saner in this instance, compared to the psychopathic dementia of the berserk humans.
I hope there is an inquest into this crime. The law of the land is clear, but do the enforcers have the will, and the teeth?