“My parents were Jamaican, wooed to this country by a similar coastline and weather”

reveals a Frangipani tree as it recounts how it came to Bombay or Mumbai, and more specifically to a suburban building, and made itself at home with its young residents and their families.

I came to this suburban Bombay building wrapped as a goodwill offering, designed to usher in auspicious tidings. Perhaps it was my reputation as the “immortal tree” that made it a suitable choice for the young residents and their families.

I got an optimal, road-facing location within the building compound and yet my lithe stems struggled to adapt to the urbane surroundings. You see, although I came from the local garden centre, I craved for the beachy air of the Caribbean. My parents were Jamaican, wooed to this country by a similar coastline and weather. Perhaps, now it makes sense to you why the concrete compound did not feel like home to me.

That is when this chaotic city, known for its large heart, stepped in with a giant embrace. It nurtured my tender roots and in return I grew tall, my branches offering respite on hot evenings, while staying low enough for tiny feet to climb on and sprouting flowers for the devout.

Years passed and my girth expanded, imbibing the city spirit of stoic resilience and unmatched revelry. The longing for the Caribbean was replaced by a love for the spring colours of Holi and wet Ganpati visarjans. My acclimatised roots spread under the building structure, our fates fused together for eternity, or so we thought.

Together we battled winds of change – subtle ones, watching the trams gave way to fast cars and irreverent trucks and the brutal one – the monstrous flyover arching across our eyeline, blocking us out.

By now, we were getting old and feeling it too. My concrete buddy was leaking and cracking in places and my rotting branches were becoming a nuisance. Soon whispers of “redevelopment” grew louder, sounding the death knell for many time-worn buildings in the area.

We learnt of our fate when the sign went up. The building was to be demolished to make way for an upmarket multi-storey residential complex. We fought hard, deriving grim satisfaction from watching workers grunt as they struggled to separate me from the building. They did not notice that the uprooted branches they’d flung aside carried buds and it astonished them to see the flowers the next day. That was why I was called “immortal”, for this ability to defy death. Yet, at that moment felt as if I was laying our own funeral flowers, a nod to a friendship lasting more than half a century.

A bellowing gust of wind soon displaced the flowers, and in doing so, scattered seeds of hope – to be born again, to reclaim my corner – a phoenix rising from its own ashes.

About the author: Asha Krishna writes short stories and flash fiction. She lives in the UK but spent her formative years in Bombay. She used to live in this road-facing building with the Frangipani flower tree in the front. She recently went back and saw that the building and the tree had disappeared.  That got her thinking what if the tree could speak…

This piece is a part of our series celebrating trees, and welcoming the summer. Read more about it here, and you can also find out how you can contribute to the series.

Photograph by Prerna Shah

“We too, as generations before us have done in literature, compared the strange shape of the flower to a parrot’s beak, a tiger’s claw, a new moon”

Says Nina Bhatt, in this beautiful retelling of a spring afternoon spent in the canopy of the Flame of the Forest tree – the celebrated spring-maker, also known by a myriad other names, from palaash to dhak among many others.

It was when we were in college. An excited whisper from a classmate drew my attention, “Something I’d like you to see. Grab your bag, we’ll go by cycle.” No questions asked if there’s even a slim chance of bunking class. And never on a fine spring morning. In no time at all we were paddling at top speed away from our Art ‘Practicals.’

As soon as we rode into the Girl’s Hostel complex and clattered into its cycle stand, my friend threw her head up and spread her arms wide, “Here are all your trees, the ones you spoke of the other day!”

The ground was littered with flowers. A rangoli of tesu blossoms – that celebrated spring-maker, also known as the Flame of the Forest. Flickers and flags in every shade from saffron to white lay around us. Yellows, whose names we have never found in any paintbox. Not only gamboge, ochre, lemon, Indian yellow but other, unnamed hues. All these brilliant dyes powdered underfoot by the comings and goings of five hundred hostel girls.

The university where we studied and its many departments squat along the banks of the Vishwamitra river which itself slices through the heart of the city. These banks are thickly wooded and support a variety of flora and fauna. Among other trees are some rare, slow-growing natives. Among these, the broad-leaved kesuda (what we also refer to as tesu, palaash or dhak), so dear to our city and state.

You can see a path lined by trees on both sides, and on the ground, you can see yellow blossoms scattered about...
Photograph by Prerna Shah. A part of the road adjacent to the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) campus. The blossoms scattered on the roadside pavement are not palaash flowers though.

Not just in Vadodara, but also at the other extreme of the country, in West Bengal, the palaash has been a pet of other university towns such as Shantiniketan. Gathering its flowers for Holi celebrations came to be a very important tradition in that institution, in keeping with its ideals of reviving Indian art and aesthetics, of re-looking at the use of natural dyes.

As we collected flowers the pile grew to the size of an anthill. Then, as there was still a hint of winter chill in the air we also felt the need to toast our hands over that imaginary bonfire.

We too, as generations before us have done in literature, compared the strange shape of the flower to a parrot’s beak, a tiger’s claw, a new moon. But how soft the petals felt when we held them, even the leaves and seeds seemed warm to the touch as the fur of an animal does, the single seed a pod, long, and incredibly soft, like the ear of a little calf.

Unlike us, high in the canopy, the birds had eyes only for the nectar bearing hearts of the blossoms. The annual nectar festivals of the dhak attracts every kind of creature, but I love to pick out three mischievous mimics among them, the drongo, the tree pie and the leaf bird.

For a birder it is fascinating to listen to the leaf bird make drongo-like calls, which are again an imitation of the shikhra, a bird of prey. All this in a bid to scare other competitors and predators. A case of one thug borrowing the tricks of another to outwit a third!

My own theory, uncorroborated by science of course, is that the sweet drink loosens the tongue and makes these three scoundrels even more inventive, more raucous.

But the dhak seems to turn a blind eye to all this. It pretends to be a symbol of renunciation. It also prefers to give the saffron dye it yields that same connotation. This is the uniform that men and women of learning put on, as if to disassociate themselves from worldly ways, from the mundane pursuit of wealth and fame.

Standing a little askance, a little crooked, on the margins of towns, in scrub and in wasteland, the kesuda wears its wisdom very lightly. This in spite of the fact that without its official seal of lac wax confidential documents would fail the test of authenticity. Lac is a red resin produced by insects reared on the tree and harvested on an industrial scale. Every single part of the plant lends something to the field of herbal medicine, its gum, bark, root and seed, not just the flowers and leaves.

For us classmates, the trees certainly proved to be the best antidote to bookish learning. The more time we spent under the flame trees, the more distant and unimportant seemed Art School. There was just so much at hand to study and exclaim over. The size of the leaves for instance. Trifoliate, as the botanical term says, each twig bears three leaflets, round and wide and slightly heart shaped. The khakhro, as tribals refer to the tree, points to a large roasted roti, it also hints at the fact that the fresh leaves are stitched together to make eco-friendly recyclable dinner plates.

As the afternoon advanced, the glory of the flame thrower grew. The sun shone its own powerful torch on the petals and the topmost blossoms seemed to shimmer in the heat. We were a little worried our trees might start a forest fire. So strong is the tree’s affinity with open space and sunlight, that it is said to be an indicator of disturbed forests. But where nothing survives, the tesu not only thrives, it soon starts a little jungle of its own kind.

There were tesu trees everywhere we looked that day, carrying the flame and passing it on, across the landscape and down the generations.

Yet, how few and far between the faculty members of the college of butea have become. They are immeasurably slow to mature, unkept in appearance and unwilling be called mere shade-givers. Instead, they delight in shedding leaves at the height of summer. Sadly, the tesu is a social misfit and couldn’t care less. It has forsaken our cities and is fast abandoning even small towns. Can this be because it is a tree that speaks about creativity, about the slow rumination and assimilation of knowledge, as against speed?

If ancient palaash trees could talk they’d tell us about the battle of Plassey (from Palaash), they would enact better versions of the Ram-Lila having done cameos in both epics, Ramayana and Mahabharat. They would sing to us about old tribal civilizations.

Verses of a Gujarati garbo (a song sung during the nine nights of the folk festival celebrated in Gujarat) telling of Radha and Krishna’s matching orange outfits certainly owe their origin to the flower’s dye, so much so that both Krishna and the tree under which he played share the same name. Listen to any Hindi film song and it will bear echoes of the Sufi sentiment of being ‘dyed’ in the colours of one’s beloved.

The tree envelopes us in colour, making us party to its affair with vasant ritu. It draws us into the sphere of dance that some call the circle of life, and others, garbo:

Mara kesuda no rang che, kesariyo,

Mari chunari no rang che, kesariyo,

Mara kesuda no rang che, kesariyo!”

About the author: Nina Bhatt writes, paints, and makes leaf compost as garden produce from her home in Vadodara. Her poems can be found in Wasafiri, The Caravan, IQ, La.Lit, The Hopper, Hakara, Antiserious. You can also find her writings at https://hedgecaper.wordpress.com.

This piece first appeared in 2018 in Chakmak, a popular monthly magazine for children, and has been republished here with due permission. It is a part of our series celebrating trees, and welcoming the summer. Read more about it here, and you can also find out how you can contribute to the series.

The lead/main photograph is from a painting by Nina Bhatt, titled ‘Khakhra ni khiskoli’, a watercolour on paper. (Khakra – another name for the Flame of the Forest tree, and particularly the one that people in tribal regions use. Khiskoli is the Gujarati term for a squirrel.)

Rest in peace, “Collarwali” supermom

On January 16, the nation woke up to heartwarming images of the last rites of a tigress being conducted by forest officials and locals in Madhya Pradesh’s Pench Tiger Reserve. Soon, social media handles were flooded with tributes and condolence messages from politicians, bureaucrats, wildlife lovers, and even those who had never met the tigress. The tigress in question was the much-loved showstopper of Pench, who was fondly known Collarwali as she was the first feline to be radio-collared at Pench in 2008. But the collar was just an accessory. What made her special was that in her lifetime she gave birth to 29 cubs — unheard in India and possibly the world – earning her the nickname of supermom. The entire family played an important role in getting Madhya Pradesh the tag of tiger state. After her demise at 16 due to old age, Pench will never be the same again, say those whose daily lives revolved around the Collarwali supermom.

Swati Subhedar

On January 14, T-15 (tiger number), or Collarwali as she was popularly known, came to the Bhura Dev nullah, her favourite stream, to drink water. At that time, there were more than 40 safari vehicles inside Pench Tiger Reserve, which is located in the districts of Seoni and Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh. That evening, all the tourists spotted the tigress and noticed that she could barely walk. Later, she was seen resting near the water body and did not move for two hours. Only her ears twitched from time to time.  

Something was amiss. Soon, forest officials arrived and took her in for treatment. The next evening, on January 15, at around 6 pm, the tigress breathed her last at the age of 16. The post-mortem revealed the cause of death as multiple organ failure due to intestine blockage resulting from old age.

The last video of Collarwali. Video credit: Twitter

Collarwali’s journey – from one of the cubs to supermom

The tigress was born on September 22, 2005, and was numbered T-15. Her mother, who was called badi mata (big mother), was also a famous tigress. Her father was numbered T-1 and was fondly known as Charger.

Collarwali was truly the queen of Pench as between 2008 and 2018, she gave birth to 29 cubs in eight litters. Twenty-five of these cubs have survived to adulthood. This earned her the nickname of supermom in English, and she was fondly called Mataram in Hindi.

In 2008, when she was just two-and-half, she gave birth to her first litter of three cubs, but they died of pneumonia. In the same year, she gave her second litter of four cubs.

Back then, the mother and her four cubs had managed to intrigue many. She became one of India’s best-known tigresses after starring in the BBC wildlife documentary Tiger: Spy in the Jungle which was shot over a period of two years starting in 2008. The documentary team came up with an innovative idea of fitting hidden cameras on elephants. Over the next two years, these elephant-turned-videographers captured endearing footage of the mother and her babies.

A radio collar being fitted on Collarwali. Image credit: Aniruddha Majumder. The image has been sourced from a BBC story

In 2009, a radio collar was fitted on the tigress to track her movements. From here on, she came to be known as Collarwali. The radio collar worked for two years but fell off in 2016. The name Collarwali stayed until her last breath. 

In October 2010, she gave birth to five cubs, in 2012 three cubs, in 2015 four cubs, in 2016 three cubs, and, in 2017, three cubs. Her last litter was in 2018 when she delivered four cubs, which took the total number of cubs to 29.  Collarwali’s mates were tigers named and numbered T-30, chhota male and Rayyakasa, who was her partner from 2012 until her death. She is said to have all her litters from these three mates. 

A practical mother, a fierce predator, a friendly beast

Generally, most tigresses keep their cubs with them for over two years, but Collarwali wanted her children to be independent from a young age. She would encourage them to venture into areas where they could hunt on their own. However, when the cubs were younger, she would make two kills a day for them, said Dr Akhilesh Mishra, a veterinarian, who has treated Collarwali several times.

“Whenever Collarwali would injure herself while hunting, she would simply lay out in the open so that forest officials could spot her and treat her,” he added. This is exactly what she did on January 14, when she knew she needed help. However, this time, her time was up. At 16, she was indeed very old. The average age of tigers who live in the wild is 10-12 years. 

The kind-hearted collarwali with one of her litters. Image credit: Varun Thakkar. The image has been sourced from a BBC story

In her 16 years of life, Collarwali spread much joy and was the most sought after by tourists, wildlife lovers, guides, and safari conductors. “The reason why she was so popular was that she was very comfortable around tourists and safari vehicles. She would mostly strut around the tourist-friendly areas and so it was very easy to spot her. At times, it seemed as if it was her duty not to disappoint the visiting tourists,” said Shivan Kumar, a Bengaluru-based wildlife enthusiast, who has ‘met’ Collarwali on several occasions.    

Collarwali helped Pench and Madhya Pradesh regain their lost glory. According to the 2018 wildlife census report titled ‘Status of Tigers, Co-predators and Preys in India’, at 526, Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of tigers in India. Collarwali’s progenies live in and around Pench.

The grand funeral

Collarwali’s death broke many hearts at the Pench Tiger Reserve. For decades she was the protagonist of Pench. So, the forest officials and locals decided to give her a grand funeral and hold a cremation ceremony. Conservation officers carried Collarwali’s body onto a funeral pyre garlanded with flowers. Shantabai Maryam, a popular leader of the local forest-dwelling adivasi community, lit the funeral pyre of the tigress.

The pictures went viral and hundreds of people, including the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, paid their tributes on social media.

Shantabai Maryam, a popular leader of the local forest-dwelling adivasi community, lit the funeral pyre of the tigress. Image credit: Twitter

Pench will never be the same again …

For years, the lives of people associated with jungle safaris revolved around Collarwali. Most of the incoming tourists were keen to know her story and the safari guides would happily take them to the jungle so that they could meet their beloved tigress. Some of the safari operators and guides we spoke to have been living in Pench for decades and have spotted Collarwali hundreds of times. They all unanimously agreed that Pench will never be the same again. Such was their love for Collarwali that two of them nearly broke down while talking about her.

Video credit: Subhas Bhore, a safari guide

“She was bold and brave, who fiercely protected her ilaka (area)”

An account shared by Subhas Bhore, a safari guide based in Pench

Since the day Collarwali has died, we have not had a single sighting in that area. There is disappointment all around. We all knew that she would go away some day, but now that she is gone, there is a huge void. People will talk about her for the next 10-20 years and, in a way, she will always be alive, as her enter lineage is present in and around Pench.

I have been a safari guide since 2004 and I have been sighting her since 2005. There is an interesting story. Collarwali’s mother handed over two very prominent areas of the tiger reserve to Collarwali and her sister and moved to Maharashtra. Collarwali was fortunate to get an area that was exactly at the center of the tiger reserve. Since then, she never left and has dominated her area. Many tigers, including one of her mates and her daughters, tried to snatch Collarwali’s area, but she, very fiercely fought every single time. In fact, just last month, in December, a fight broke out over dominance, and we could hear two tigers fight. It seems, Collarwali won, yet again. She was very bold and brave.

And her self-respect was intact until her last breath. In her last days, she was too frail, but she would hunt on her own. She never snatched other animals’ prey, something that tigers tend to do in their old age. The forest department never had to worry about feeding an old Collarwali. She was self-sufficient.

I will miss her whenever I will enter her area.

Collarwali was known to be kind and friendly. Image credit: Varun Thakkar. The image has been sourced from a BBC story

“It seemed as if the jungle and all the animals were mourning”

An account by Shourabh Ghosh, the owner of an eco-friendly boutique resort, Kohka Wilderness Camp, in Pench  

Collarwali was the most photographed tigress of Pench. The main reason was that she was very friendly and was never bothered about the tourist vehicles. It happens sometimes that people make a lot of noise out of excitement or if there are kids around, it’s impossible to contain their excitement. But Collarwali never had any problems with such disturbances. In fact, at times, she would come very close to the safari vehicles. Her passing away has created a huge void in our lives. All of us at Pench were extremely sad after her death, but what was unusual was that for the next three-four days, the jungle was eerily silent. It was so unusual that we all talked about it. It seemed as if there were no animals in the jungle. It seemed as if they were hiding in some corners and processing her death. Animals can’t speak or express themselves, but for those three-four days, it felt as if all the animals were dealing with Collarwali’s death in their own ways.

“The sooner we get over her death, the better for us.”  Image credit: Varun Thakkar. The image has been sourced from a BBC story

“She had immense love for her children and her partners”

An account shared by Raam Prasad, a safari guide in Pench

I was one of those who spotted her on the last day. She could not move. Hearts of hearts, we knew her end was nearing, but one is always hopeful.

I have been sighting her since 2005, since she was a newborn baby. I have seen her grow and become a mother to so many wonderful children. It was sad to see her getting old, because it meant she was going to leave us.

It’s a known fact that she was a friendly tigress. But here’s an incredible fact about her. Tigers usually are very territorial. But on some occasions, Collarwali surprised us when she was spotted along with her children from the old litters and the new-borns. Once, she was spotted with her present mate and children from her previous mate. This never happens in the case of tigers. This just proves how much love she had for her partners and children. 

Every morning, whenever we would venture into her area, there always was hope that she would pop up from somewhere. Now, with her death, that hope has died too. The sooner we get over her death, the better for us. 

Also read: The elephant story

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The ghost villages of Uttarakhand

People move their place of habitation because of social, political, or economic reasons. Often, natural disasters lead to sudden displacement of people. However, over the past few decades, large-scale human migration has been happening because of climate change. In India, a rise in extreme weather events like droughts, floods, heatwaves, and hailstorms is fuelling climate migration and it’s the poor who are forced to abandon their homes, land, and livelihoods. The Global Climate Risk Index 2021 puts India among the top 10 countries most affected by climate change. Today, on International Migrants Day, we kick-start a three-part series that will look at various aspects of climate change migration in the country. In the first part, we take you to Uttarakhand, home to several ghost villages, to understand why people, especially farmers, here have been migrating.

Swati Subhedar

On February 7, 2021, a disaster struck Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. A devastating flash flood ravaged through three valleys — Rishi Ganga, Dhauliganga, and Alaknanda. It swept away the unfinished Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Project and severely damaged the Rishi Ganga Hydropower Project.

The state administration requested a geotechnical team’s visit to the site of flash floods for assessment. The team’s finding concluded that the cause of flash floods was the collapse of a hanging glacier — 15 football fields long and five across — breaking off high in the mountains. A hanging glacier is a body of ice that breaks off abruptly.

In the Himalayas, about 10,000 glaciers are receding at a rate of 100 to 200 feet per decade as global temperatures rise. The glaciers in Uttarakhand are very sensitive and susceptible to climate change. Supra-glacial lakes are formed on the surface of glaciers when the snow melts, and the state has 809 such lakes. The Geological Survey of India has found 13 of the 486 glacial lakes in the state to be vulnerable. A glacial lake can breach and cause floods like the one in Chamoli due to avalanche or cloudburst, a major quake, or other geological factors.

A disturbing video of glacier melt in Chamoli.
Video credit: From the Twitter handle of journalist Shiv Aroor

More than 70 people lost their lives in the Chamoli flash flood tragedy and later the government declared 136 persons who were reported to be missing as “presumed dead” so that the affected families could get early compensation. The year 2021 has turned out to be the second-worst in terms of loss of lives in such calamities after 2013 when the Kedarnath flash floods had taken thousands of lives. According to data with the State Operation Emergency Center (SEOC), nearly 300 people died, 66 were reported missing and over 100 people sustained injuries in weather-related calamities this year that include events like flash floods, cloudbursts, avalanches, landslides, and mudflows.

A recent study, titled ‘Locked Houses, Fallow Lands: Climate Change and Migration in Uttarakhand, India’, conducted by the Germany-based Potsdam Institute for Climate Research (PIK) and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) mentions that Uttarakhand’s annual average maximum temperature may increase by 1.6-1.9 degrees Celsius between 2021 and 2050. The study focuses on how climate change impacts — like rising temperatures, increasing glacial melt, and changing rainfall patterns — could affect livelihoods and thereby shape migration patterns in Uttarakhand.

The report identifies three main areas of action for policymakers — preparing for demographic changes resulting from migration, creating alternate livelihood options in the hill districts to revitalize the economy and revisiting the state’s climate change action plan as well as the state’s agricultural policies in the wake of out-migration from hill districts.

Rescue workers looking for missing people at one of the hydropower projects after the Chamoli flash floods in February. Image credit: From the Twitter handle of Affinity Magazine

Migration and the ghost villages of Uttarakhand

The state has 6,338 village panchayats and 16,500 villages. However, it’s common to find abandoned villages where no one lives. These villages are known as ghost villages. All one can find here are locked doors and hints of civilization that once existed. The eerie silence makes you wonder what must have led to families leaving lock, stock, and barrel, never to return.

As per the data revealed in 2018 by the Rural Development and Migration Commission set up by the state, the hill state has around 700 ghost villages and more than 3.83 lakh people have left their homes between 2007 and 2017. Most of the migration to the plains in Uttarakhand is of young people. The data shows that 29% are 25 or younger, 42% are between 26 and 35 and 29% are over 35 years.

A Right to Information (RTI) query filed by Hemant Gaunia, an activist based in the Nainital district, revealed in January this year that a total of 1.18 lakh people have migrated out of Uttarakhand permanently, while 3.83 lakh have migrated in search of work and better life but keep visiting their native places in the hills. It also mentions that people living in 3,946 villages have migrated ‘permanently’ which implies that these villages also fit the definition of ghost villages.  

Rakesh Juglal, Kalawati Devi, Anju Devi and Goli Devi … the last four residents of Bhel Dunga village. Image credit: From the Twitter handle of Tanmoy.

These ghost villages can be commonly seen in the Pauri Garhwal district where 186 out of 298 villages have been totally or partially depopulated. For instance, Thalda village in the district once had around 52 houses and a population of 175. However, today, less than 30 families remain in the village and the population has shrunk to lower than 100. There are many villages where the population ranges from eight to 10, and in some places only two-three people are residing.

“I have been to some of these ghost villages. In most villages, all the families have migrated, never to return. In some villages, you can find 3-4 elderly people. It’s common to see locked houses, collapsing structures and farms full of weeds and shrubs,” said Robin Chauhan, a journalist based in Uttarakhand.

He added: “There are many reasons why people here have been migrating. The primary reasons are unemployment, lack of medical facilities and lack of schools and educational institutions. Some people returned during the lockdown, but a majority have gone back. Life is tough on the hills. People don’t want the next generation to suffer. They migrate so that their children have more avenues of earning money. The farmers, however, have been gradually migrating because of things that are beyond their control. Erratic rainfall, drying water bodies and lack of irrigation facilities have turned the land barren at an unprecedented rate.”   

The farmers living in the hills have mountain-sized problems”. Image credit: Aanand Mani, a farmer

Farmers, climate change and migration

“It’s for everyone to see that the climate is changing, and the Himalayas are melting. However, it’s the farmers who are getting impacted and are forced to migrate. If steps are not taken today to stop this large-scale migration, that day is not far when the government will have to give money to farmers to stay back and do farming,” said Aanand Mani, a farmer based in Bhimtal, a town in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand. It is situated at an altitude of 1,370 meters above sea level. “My farm is in the foothill, yet it gets difficult. The farmers living in the hills have mountain-sized problems,” he added.

The PIK-TERI study mentions that climate change in the state will increasingly force farmers to abandon farming at high altitudes and move to the plains over the next 30 years. The state government’s action plan on climate change identified three ways climate change may impact agriculture — increased water stress, increased risk of floods and changes in crop yields. Other factors include changed crop season, shifting cultivation zones for certain crops, and drying up of perennial streams.

“The monsoon pattern has changed for sure. It rained so much in February this year. I have not seen so much rain in February in the past 15-20 years. Yes, our agriculture is monsoon fed, but so much rain damaged our rajma (kidney beans), tamatar (tomato), pahadi kheera (cucumber) and mooli (raddish) crop. We used to cultivate kathal (jackfruit) in March-April. Now, we are cultivating it in October-November,” said Anil Pandey, a farmer based in Nainital district. He has his own farm, but he is also into organic farming and is part of a network of 1,200 farmers who have switched to organic farming as it is economically more feasible.

He added: “We are still better placed. Those living in higher altitudes do step farming. Their farms are smaller in size, and the problems manifold. They usually grow potatoes and ginger but could never switch to cash crops. They eat what they grow, so they can’t rely on their farms for a living, and there is nothing else to do on the hills. Water scarcity is a big problem. The spring-fed rivers are drying because trees are being cut to make dams and roads. These rivers used to be a source of irrigation. Rainfall is not sufficient anymore, or it rains a lot. The extraction of groundwater through borewells has impacted the water table. Constant drilling of mountains for tourism is leading to landslides.”

While the previous generation of farmers is not willing to give up yet for emotional or sentimental reasons, the younger generation has made up their minds. “Ninety-eight per cent youngsters want to go out. Their parents are not stopping them. They have suffered enough. They don’t want their children to touch farming. Can you imagine how disastrous that is?” asked Mani, the Bhimtal-based farmer.

Farmers in the hills eat what they grow, so they can’t rely on their farms for a living, and there is nothing else to do on the hills. Image credit: Aanand Mani

As per Narendra Mehra, a farmer based in Haldwani, both central and state governments have launched various schemes for irrigation and are taking steps to contain migration, but the results are not visible. “There is so much corruption that the schemes that look so fancy on paper are not even reaching the beneficiaries. The officials distribute seeds very randomly. They themselves don’t know the crops and their production patterns. Wild boars and monkeys destroy our entire produce. The problems that I am listing are not even related to climate change. The government and the farmers have no control over the climate. But why can’t we focus on manmade problems and find solutions? What about compensation? The October rains ruined paddy worth Rs 100 crore in Udham Singh Nagar district. Last I heard a committee was formed to evaluate losses so that compensation could be given. If you are asking me if the government is taking any concrete steps to stop migration, the answer is no,” he said.

What farmer Mani from Bhimtal said about his brother shows how the problem of migration is altering the social fabric of the state. “My brother is 36. We have not been able to find a girl for him. Likewise, there are many youngsters in the state who are facing similar problems. They are earning well but marriage is still an issue. People from the hills who migrate elsewhere, work in hotels and earn Rs 2,000-3,000 and are all settled. That is the unfortunate truth. This could become a big problem in the state in the coming years,” said Mani.        

(This is Part-1 of our three-part series on climate change and migration) 

Also read: Ladakh is sitting on a ticking time bomb.

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

Pandemic roadblock: The uphill task of reviving mountain tourism

International Mountain Day is celebrated on December 11 to create awareness about the importance of mountains to life, to highlight the opportunities and constraints in mountain development, and to build alliances that will bring positive change to mountain people and the environment around the world. In India, mountain tourism thrives in the Himalayan region. However, the pandemic has created a crisis of livelihoods for mountain communities. Aptly, the theme of this year’s Mountain Day is sustainable mountain tourism. The Good Story Project ‘visits’ the northern states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and the Union Territory of Ladakh that border the mighty Himalayas to understand how the pandemic has affected communities living here and how difficult revival of mountain tourism is going to be.

Swati Subhedar

The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) is spread across 13 states and Union Territories — Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Assam and West Bengal. It stretches across 2,500 km and nearly 50 million people reside in this region. The IHR extends from the Indus River in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east. With its towering snowy peaks, majestic landscapes, pilgrimage destinations, rich biodiversity, and cultural heritage, the IHR has been, for decades, attracting tourists from India and across the world.

Tourism provides financial and employment opportunities for people residing in these mountain regions, and it brings revenues and profits for state governments. In the past few years, tourism in the IHR has got impacted due to natural calamities or safety and security reasons, however, the prolonged pandemic has dealt a massive blow. Unfortunately, it’s the local people and communities living in these mountain regions – most depend on the inflow of tourists for survival – have suffered the most.

While two lockdowns in two years brought tourism in the Himalayan region to a complete standstill, sporadic episodes of revival were followed by dampeners. The latest one that has shaken the tourism industry is the new variant of the virus – Omicron – that is threatening to ground airlines, and it may lead to people putting their travel plans on hold for now. In such a scenario, revival in tourism is going to be an uphill task.

Keeping the many challenges in mind, the theme of this year’s International Mountain Day is sustainable mountain tourism. The United Nations Environment Program and United Nations World Tourism Organization define sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.

The Good Story Project speaks to various stakeholders living in the mountains of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. These destinations are popular among a range of tourists … adventure-seekers, pilgrims, families, solo travellers, and those who often run to the mountains for the much-desired peace of mind. However, the communities here have been facing a unique set of challenges. The pandemic has just added to their woes.

With its towering snowy peaks, majestic landscapes, pilgrimage destinations, rich biodiversity, and cultural heritage, the Indian Himalayan Region has been, for decades, attracting tourists from India and across the world. Image: Swati Subhedar

Ladakh: A ticking time bomb

Ladakh is a cold desert in India, which lies in the Great Himalayas. It has the mighty Karakoram range in the north, and, in the south, it is bound by the Zanskar mountains. Several rivers flow through Ladakh, which form deep valleys and gorges and many glaciers are found in the region. Life here is harsh, but historically, Ladakh has always been a self-sustained region. People grew their own food and there were enough resources for people to sustain themselves.

This was until Ladakh was opened to tourism in 1974.

As per the Tourism Ministry data, while 16,449 tourists visited Ladakh in 1994, it saw an inflow of about 2.79 lakh tourists in 2019. The rise in the number of tourists has pumped in money in job scarce Ladakh, but it has also had a detrimental effect on natural resources.   

“Today, Ladakh is literally sitting on a ticking time bomb. The rapid growth in unregulated tourism over the years has put tremendous pressure on natural resources. In the early nineties, there were only around 80 hotels and guest houses here. Today, there are more than 1,000 registered and unregistered hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfast (B&B) set-ups just in Leh (town),” said Vilayat Ali, who runs a sustainable tourism company called Pristine Ladakh.

He added: “Almost all hotels are pumping out water through bore machines for their daily use. Some big hotels pump out additional water for their swimming pools. The glaciers which are the main source of recharge for the groundwater are depleting at a very fast rate. The Khardong glacier – the main source of stream water for the Leh town — has almost vanished. The level of water in the Indus Rivers too has gone down to more than 50% in the last decade. The day is not far when there won’t be any groundwater left.”

Depletion of natural resources is not the only problem. Every summer, Leh generates more than 60 tons of garbage. “Earlier, as there was no waste management system in Ladakh, it was dumped in an open area abandoned by the Indian Army called ‘Bombguard’. The garbage was burnt every night and every morning one could see a thick fume of smoke in and around Leh. Today, even though Leh has a solid waste management plant, the unwanted garbage still gets burnt at Bombguard. Both, tourists are locals are to be blamed for waste generation,” said Ali.     

Every summer, Leh generates more than 60 tons of garbage. Image credit: zerowasteladakh.com

From primarily being an agricultural economy, Ladakh’s economy is now heavily dependent on tourism. Many of Ladakh’s residents, especially the young, draw their income from these activities. As a result of the shift to tourism, locals are gradually giving up farming – their traditional source of livelihood.

“Before pandemic, everyone was making money. The tourism business was lucrative, so everyone jumped into it. Some opened hotels, some drove taxis, and some became guides; practically everyone switched to tourism. Gradually tourists became our primary source of income. The pandemic hit us hard. Suddenly there was nothing to fall back on. The only good part about the pandemic was that there was no pollution,” said Tashi Tsange, owner of Tukchu Homestay in Leh.

The homestay and hotel owners are keeping their fingers crossed for next summer and soon Ladakh, like earlier, will be full of tourists. So, what is the solution?

“Tourism should be encouraged as long as it’s sustainable, benefits the local communities, and does not harm the environment. The present-day Ladakh does not meet any of these criteria. Unregulated tourism has made Ladakhis rich, but it has done irreparable damage. Ladakh needs to regulate tourism. Bhutan has done it. We need to direct tourists to other less explored destinations so that locals living there can benefit too. Lastly, homestays should be promoted, prominence should be given to organically grown fruits and vegetables, and we need to find eco-friendly alternatives for plastic,” said Ali.   

In the early hours of June 17, 2013, a flash flood came down upon the overflowing banks of the Chorabari lake in Uttarakhand. Carrying huge amounts of silt and rocks, it destroyed lives, houses, and everything else that came its way. Thousands lost their lives. Image credit: The Indian Express

Uttarakhand: Needed desperately … a concrete plan to sustain tourism      

Most of the northern parts of Uttarakhand are part of the Greater Himalayan ranges and are covered by the high Himalayan peaks and glaciers. Eighty-six per cent of states’ geographical area is mountains, and there are several famous peaks in the Garhwal and Kumaon regions of the state – like, Nanda Devi, Trishul, Chaukhamba, Shivling, Bhagirathi, Neelkanth, Gaumukh etc – that are preferred by tourists.

However, the four most economically lucrative peaks are Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri and the holy pilgrimage to these four mountains is known as the Char Dham Yatra. The yatra provides employment opportunities to lakhs of people living in these mountain regions, and also tour operators and yatra organisers spread across the country. It also forms an economic ecosystem that benefits the shrines, the areas around these shrines and generates significant revenue for the state.

Picture this. In 2019, the Kedarnath Yatra broke all the previous records and generated a revenue of Rs 400 crore. The other three destinations – Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri – too earn revenues to the tunes of several crores every year. Those who benefit from the inflow of pilgrims are porters, palki and pony service operators, owners of hotels, lodges, dharamshalas, dhabas and small restaurants, guides, tour operators, temple committees, self-help groups that sell pahadi food, prasad and other products and private helicopter services.   

In 2019, nearly 38 lakh pilgrims visited the shrines. In 2020, the yatra was put on hold and in 2021, the route was open only for two months after which the Uttarakhand government postponed the pilgrimage till further orders. “The locals were really happy when the yatra started. They were, to some extent, able to mitigate the losses incurred last year. However, looking at the inflow of tourists, the state government postponed it. Though we have started getting enquiries for next year, the past two years have been tough for the locals who were dependent on the Char Dham Yatra to make money,” said Suryaprakash Kothari, who is associated with the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN).

While the official loss numbers have not been released, one can only imagine how badly those dependent on the yatra must have suffered. There are people who wait for the yatra to begin every year as it helps them make enough money for the rest of the year.

The Char Dham Yatra sites. Image credit: http://www.jagran.com

“The unfortunate fact is, it’s always the poor who suffer. No one saw the pandemic coming, and no one could have imagined that the Char Dham Yatra, a mode of survival for many, would get cancelled for two consecutive years. Only those who were in a position to quickly innovate their business models or could find other avenues to earn money did not struggle during the lockdown and thereafter. However, say, a dhaba owner or a tea stall owner, the poorest of poor, who did not have any other option, are still struggling, and will continue to struggle,” said Umesh Pandey, a travel expert, who is associated with the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN).    

In July this year, to compensate for the economic loss due to cancellation of the Char Dham Yatra for the second consecutive year, the state announced a relief package worth around Rs 200 crore, set to benefit over 1.63 lakh people in the state.

“How will this one-time payment help? And the government has not taken into account people who are not registered. The pandemic is not the first, and it’s not going to be the last disaster that is going to impact people living in the mountain areas. Disasters related to climate change are already on the rise. If we talk about sustainable mountain tourism, then the primary task is to find permanent solutions to at least some of the problems faced by people living in the mountains who are associated with the travel and tourism industry so that an unprecedented event like a pandemic does not empty their bank accounts. The government has talked about sustainable mountain tourism but has never shared what concrete steps it plans to take,” said Pandey.  

The stunning Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh. Image: Swati Subhedar

Himachal Pradesh: Reaching out to shepherds, artisans

“Total nuksaan ho gaya. Business hi thapp ho gaya (We suffered massive losses. Our business went bust),” said Sukhbir Singh, who runs a manufacturing unit and a store in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh. Singh, like many others in the state, is a part of the small-scale industries that manufacture and sell the world-acclaimed Pashmina shawls.

Pashmina refers to animal-hair fibre forming the downy undercoat of a domesticated variety of goat called the Changthangi goat. These goats used for pashmina shed their winter coat every spring. One goat sheds approximately 80–170 grams of the fibre. These goats provide the wool for Kashmir’s famous Pashmina shawls that commands huge demand worldwide.

If you visit the northeren region of Himachal Pradesh; in particular the cold desert mountains of Spiti and a few remote villages in the mountain regions of Lahaul and Chamba districts, you will come across many nomadic shepherd tribes who herd sheep and goats and move from one place to the other. The pashmina wool used in manufacturing units in the state also comes from these shepherds.   

However, since the 2020 pandemic, the entire end-to-end chain of Pashmina manufacturers and sellers has got affected. “Our artisans who used to weave Pashmina shawls are mostly from Nepal and other remote villages of Himachal. They went back to their native places just ahead of the 2020 lockdown and have not returned since then. In the absence of these artisans, manufacturing of handmade shawls came to a standstill and because of fewer tourists, the business has got affected,” said Singh.

The Pashmina shawls manufactured in Himachal are also exported. “Our business is not entirely dependent on the incoming tourists. Usually, the machine-manufactured shawls are exported and the ones that are weaved by local artisans are sold in the domestic market. However, the lockdowns affected both the business avenues and we are staring at huge losses,” said Gurcharan Singh, a manufacturer of Pashmina shawls, who has his manufacturing unit in the Bashing village on the Kullu-Manali highway.

He added: “Every manufacturing unit has 30-35 artisans and not all owners could afford to give salaries during the pandemic. In the organized and unorganized sector, nearly 12,000 artisans are working in the state and the government has not given the artisans or manufacturers any compensation.”

“It’s a good sign that the government is now also thinking about the forgotten lot, like the shepherds”. Image: Swati Subhedar

In a welcome move, the Himachal Pradesh government announced in June 2020 that from 2021 fiscal, it will provide 638 goats of the Changthangi and Chegu breeds to families in the Pashmina producing snow-bound areas in Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur districts and Pangi in Chamba district under the National Livestock Mission. Under the mission, 29 units, each comprising 10 does and one buck of both Changthangi and Chegu species will be provided.

Each unit will cost Rs 70,000. Ninety per cent cost will be borne by the Central government, while the state and the beneficiary will share the remaining cost in equal proportion. The hill state records about 1,000 kg Pashmina wool production annually at present and aims to double it in next five years.  

“This won’t solve all our problems, but it’s a good move. Presently, we are importing Pashmina wool from Kashmir, which is costly. This way we can buy wool from Himachal, save that cost and manufacture more Pashmina products, or pay our artisans more,” said Singh.   

One of the aspects of sustainable mountain tourism is that it is a way to preserve and promote local art, crafts and high-value products. The state government’s planned move to boost Pashmina wool production in the state will help people in the mountain regions of Himachal who are into Pashmina business, including the shepherds who fall under below the poverty line (BPL) category.  

“When tourism started booming, local people, irrespective of what their original professions were, switched to the tourism industry. I know for a fact that many Pashmina artisans switched to tourism because they were not earning enough. It’s a good sign that the government is now also thinking about the forgotten lot, like the shepherds or Pashmina artisans. This is also one way of sustaining mountain tourism,” said Jitendra Bharadwaj, who is associated with the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC).

Also read: Lockdown and the hauntingly beautiful Spiti Valley.

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

“It is tragic that people make elephants run like rats by throwing fireballs at them”

Between 2015 and 2019, 62 elephants were killed by trains in India and more than 1,700 people and more than 300 elephants died in encounters with each other. The human-elephant conflict is real, and, in most cases, humans are to be blamed for it. In the name of development and wanting more coal mines, factories, railway lines and wider highways, we have entered the homes of elephants and we blame them for coming out and destroying paddy fields and harming humans. In one of the chapters of her recently published book Wild and Wilful, Neha Sinha, conservation biologist and author, has documented many heart-breaking stories of elephants and their calves falling into mine pits, getting crushed under trains or sustaining burn injuries because of fireballs thrown at them. On this World Elephant Day, The Good Story Project co-founder Swati Subhedar interviews Neha Sinha to understand how deep-rooted the human-elephant conflict is and challenges of wildlife conservation.

In her book, which came out in February 2021, Sinha has documented stories of crisis involving iconic species found in India – the Indian leopard, the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger, the great Indian bustard, the white-bellied heron, the amur falcon, the Ganges river dolphin, the king cobra, the tiger butterflies, the rhesus macaque monkeys, the rosy starlings and the magarmach – and how development has been and will continue to be a silent killer of these iconic species.  

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The elephant is our national heritage animal, yet, today only about 27,000 wild elephants remain in India, as opposed to a million a decade ago. We have entered the homes of elephants in the name of development. How can we undo the damage already being done?

There is a lot of conflict between people and elephants in India. Other than the elephant conflict that happens in terms of people and elephants encountering each other and getting hurt, there is another kind of conflict. A lot of planning has been done in areas where elephants live and many mines, industries, factories, railway tracks and highways have come up in these areas which is detrimental to them. The elephants must walk to find food and water. But, with their habitat shrinking, they have to walk through and around the obstructions made in the name of development. This leads to disasters. Let me give you an example. In 2015, the elephants near Kaziranga in Assam encountered something novel – a wall meant for a township and a golf course. The wall was a part of the elephants’ walkway. For days, they made attempts to cross this barrier. Many photos emerged and in one of the pictures, a calf was seen trying to break the wall with his tiny head. The calf was later found dead next to the wall having suffered a haemorrhage.

In another instance, in 2019, villagers in Naxalbari in North Bengal tried to push off a herd of elephants from their paddy fields by throwing fireballs at them. Scared, the herd moved towards a railway line. The entire herd crossed the line, but a young calf could not as there was a steep incline. The calf scrambled down the slope and got hit by a train that came rushing towards it. His mother Ganga – an extremely loving and caring mother figure to the entire herd – died saving her child.

There have been many instances where elephants have sustained injuries or have died because of people chasing them with sticks or throwing firecrackers and fireballs at them to shoo them away. It’s tragic. The elephant is our national heritage animal, and we make them run like rats. They are very emotional animals. They have long memories, and they remember tragic incidents. They are also sharp enough to pass on this information to their young ones. The elephant chapter in the book is the longest one. It was difficult for me to write stories so full of tragedies.

Ganga and her calf. Both were killed by a train in 2019. Image credit: Avijan Saha

Last year, during the nationwide lockdown, there was outrage when an elephant died after consuming a cracker-filled pineapple. People could express their anger because the incident was reported. Many elephants die a silent death, and we don’t get to grieve for them. What should be done to keep the human-elephant conflict debate alive?

There was outrage because the elephant was also pregnant. We must understand that at any given point in time, a female elephant is either pregnant or is a caregiver. They have long pregnancies and because they are big animals, the young ones stay with their mothers for a few years. So, a female elephant dying is extremely tragic. It was terrible the way that pregnant elephant died after consuming the pineapple which was a bait bomb. People reacted the way they did was because everybody likes the idea of a mother and the mother being a caregiver.

People should understand that elephants are not trying to harm them. By entering their fields, all they are doing is trying to survive. They enter the fields because it’s easy nutrition for them and because their habitat has shrunk. There is no need to kill them or be so unkind to them. However, instead of merely saying that farmers should not harm them, we need to have a system in place. For any kind of conservation, we need political will as well as support from people. We need to take some hard decisions. To begin with, we cannot have more highways and coal mines in elephant areas.

Author and conservation biologist Neha Sinha and her book

Your book – Wild and Wilful – documents stories of conflicts involving some of the iconic species found in India and how they are on the verge of extinction. Tell us more about your book which you started writing during one of the gloomiest chapters of our lives – the pandemic-induced lockdown. How difficult was it to a write about wilderness while being confined to four walls of your home?

I did a lot of fieldwork for this book and started writing it in the end of 2019. I wanted to finish it by mid-2020 but the pandemic happened, and things became difficult. I wanted to visit many more places while writing this book, but that did not happen. I am a wildlife person and I need to be outside. It was tough writing this manuscript sitting at home!

This book is about the wild and I have been to deserts, mountains, rivers, woodlands, lakes and political capitals to bring you the stories of India’s wildest citizens, along with some remarkable people who share insights on, and their lives with, these animals. In the book I have written about the Indian Leopard, the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger, the great Indian bustard, the white-bellied heron, the amur falcon, the Ganges river dolphin, the king cobra and the spectacled cobra, tiger butterflies, rhesus macaque monkeys, the rosy starlings and the magarmach or the Mugger crocodile. The book loosely follows the structure of Earth, Sky, Water and Heart. It is divided further into the places where the animals are found. Under ‘Earth’, we have political capitals, deserts, woodlands and forest, under ‘Sky’, we have birds and butterflies that spend days migrating between countries or states. Under ‘Water’, we have ponds and rivers. Under Heart, we have urban jungles, the places many of us live in.

A leopard seen in a tea garden in North Bengal. Image credit: Avijan Saha

Which chapter of your book is your favourite and why?

The elephant chapter is the closest to my heart as I felt very emotional while writing it. However, I also like the butterfly chapter. The butterflies are so whimsical and mysterious at the same time they are so beautiful and fragile. Their stories are so fascinating! For instance, the black and orange-coloured monarch butterflies, found in America, migrate not just over countries but continents! They start from Canada, avoiding the cold, and reach Mexico where they cover fir trees in millions. A single butterfly cannot complete this intercontinental journey. On the way southwards, the butterfly lays eggs, caterpillars emerge, and new butterflies are born. Hence, the butterflies that reach Mexico from Canada are third or fourth generation butterflies!

Which species mentioned in your book requires our immediate attention?

It would definitely be the great Indian bustard (GIB). There are about 100 remaining in India and that’s the entire global population. Over the years, their habitat has shrunk considerably. Earlier, they were found all over Central India, the Deccan Plateau, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. Now they and found only in Rajasthan and Gujarat. However, the solar and wind energy plants that have come up in the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat are the latest threat to them. The plants are not a problem, the real problem are the wires that carry the power to energy grids. The GIBs never evolved to dodge these wires. They are the heaviest flying birds on earth, so they lack the speed and manoeuvrability that other birds have. The Supreme Court has directed the governments of Gujarat and Rajasthan to lay high voltage power lines underground in the habitats of the bird to aid in its conservation efforts. We should have implemented this yesterday. We cannot afford to lose more GIBs. In 2019, a centre was set up in Rajasthan. Here, birds are hatched from eggs, chicks are raised, and ultimately, they all are released back into the wild. This is a good first step.

The Great Indian Bustard. Image credit: Dhritiman Mukherjee

India had 1.2 million snakebite deaths from 2000 to 2019. Hence, there is a tendency to attack and kill snakes. However, there is also a section that worships snakes. We have a similar love-hate relationship with elephants and monkeys. Does this make their conservation difficult? 

Yes, we do have a bipolar perspective on many animals. We kill cobras, but we also kill the rat snakes, that are not even poisonous. We worship elephants and keep them in temples, which is incorrect. They are wild animals, and it takes years of beating before they become the way they are seen in temples. All this is done in the name of culture. However, culture should be progressive and not stuck in a time capsule. Having said that, there are genuine problems and conservation cannot happen if we ignore these problems. There is a reason why people kill snakes. So instead of blaming them, there is a need to create awareness. Just like the covid vaccine is not an option, having an antidote (drug, chelating substance, or a chemical that neutralizes the effects of another drug or a poison) available in places which have snake bite is not an option. However, at many primary health centres, these antidotes are either expired or not available. These problems need to be solved and not pushed under the carpet.

A King cobra. Imamge credit: Jignasu Dolia

We love discussing politics, current affairs, cricket or our Olympic wins over chai, coffee and drinks. However, grave issues like climate change, environment-related issues, human-animal conflicts and wildlife conservation are topics that don’t come up for discussion frequently. What should be done to change this?

A report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently mentions that India may see more heatwaves, landslides, droughts, rainfall, cyclones and agricultural and ecological droughts. There has been an increase in extreme events like excessive rainfall in the Himalayas and frequent cyclones. We are going to suffer financial loss and loss of livelihood because of these extreme events. Climate change is going to affect all of us, and we must take it seriously. Henceforth, our development plans should not disregard climate change. We shouldn’t be blasting the mountains in the Himalayas to make roads. We are aware. Acceptance is not a problem, but lack of action is. We want to continue to function like we have been functioning. We are already experiencing climate change, but the government is pretending as if it does not know. We are still planning dams in the Himalayas even though every year people are dying because of floods and landslides. We need a greater citizen movement. Societal pressure will lead to the government acting. But for that to happen, people need to start talking and discussing.   

A mugger crocodile. Image credit: Neha Sinha

How should we train our children so that they start taking issues like wildlife conservation and climate change seriously right from a young age?

This is a good time. There are a lot more eco clubs than there ever were before. People are using Apps to identify birds, plants and insects. People are reading a lot more and taking up conservation and wildlife as serious hobbies. As for the kids, they need to be taken outside. I can not stress this enough. It does not matter where — in the wilderness, deserts, forests, grasslands. Seeing is learning and nature is very interesting. Something is constantly happening. Our children need to touch the soil, they need to feel the texture of the leaves. If we get them to do this, half the battle is won.  

“Our children need to touch the soil, they need to feel the texture of the leaves”. Image credit: Swati Subhedar

A million-dollar question. Can development and wildlife conservation go hand in hand?

Development is important. However, there has to be social and environmental conscience as well. If you are opening an industry that pollutes the water table, then find options for people living there and the wildlife. Don’t make things worse than they already are. There is lot of scope of sustainable development in India so we must start walking the talk now. We wanted to clean the Ganga and the Yamuna, but we have not managed to achieve that. The Ganga and Yamuna Action Plans are in place for years. We must act now. We must keep the eco-system intact. The more we disturb it, the more difficult life on earth is going to be.

Neha Sinha is an award-winning wildlife conservationist. She has studied biodiversity conservation at Oxford University, after winning an INLAKS scholarship, and works with the Bombay Natural History Society at present. She is also a noted columnist and has taught environmental politics at Delhi University. Wild animals are her favourite, followed closely by books.

Spotting tiger pug marks, gazing at Himalayan peaks and savouring ‘Neembu Saan’, a Kumauni delicacy … Winter diaries from Almora

Eating only home-grown organic vegetables, looking after cows and consuming fresh milk, breathing in the fresh air, connecting with your roots, spotting tiger pug marks in your courtyard, and spending most of your day playing with dogs and pups and shooing monkeys away while working from home and fulfilling your professional commitments … if this sounds like an exciting life, writer, director, and filmmaker Kanchan Pant is actually living it

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In July 2020, as the world was coming out of a long and painful lockdown, Kanchan Pant, a writer, director, and filmmaker, took a brave decision. She, along with her husband and two-year-old daughter, moved from Bangalore to her 100-year-old ancestral home in Almora, a town in Uttarakhand … lock, stock, and barrel … to live a peaceful and stress-free life. Along with setting up a professional base in Uttarakhand, her routine now includes feeding the cow, gardening, and shooing the monkeys away. She is completely enjoying connecting with her roots; for instance, learning to make ‘Neembu Saan’ – a winter delicacy savoured in the Kumaun region during winters and letting her daughter play in the dirt. While her life may have changed, her dreams haven’t. She wants to give talented youngsters in Uttarakhand a platform so that they don’t have to flock to Mumbai, as creative people usually do, to showcase their talent. The idea is to help them create a niche for themselves so that they can dream big while living in small towns. In this interview, she talks to The Good Story Project co-founder Swati Subhedar about the big shift and life after.       

These days, the biggest pull for the family to come back home is that it gets to pick fresh vegetables from the garden

What motivated you to move back to your roots? Was the decision triggered due to the lockdown and the choices made available by the Covid-19 work-from-home options? How difficult was the shift?  

We moved to Uttarakhand in early July. Our ancestral home in Almora is about a 100-year-old beautiful building. My husband and I were always aware that at least one of us would have to eventually come back. We kind of knew that it would be me. I almost shifted to Almora a couple of years back. But then I became a mother and it felt wise to go back to Mumbai for some time. So, I wouldn’t say that we came back because of the pandemic, but it was certainly a catalyst. There are many things one needs to consider while shifting with a two-year-old … the climate, health facilities, schools etc. But once we finally decided to move, there was no looking back. It was as easy (or difficult) as it is to shift from one society to the other. The locals were extremely warm and welcoming although most of them still don’t get the point of us moving here. Many still think that we will go back as soon as the pandemic is under control.  

The family woke up to this view one winter morning. They could see the fresh snow on the Himalayan peaks

Having lived/worked in big cities, was it difficult to start living in a small town? Talk about the initial days.

I moved to Delhi right after my graduation. I was only 19. It has been almost 15 years since. I have lived in metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and even Tokyo. When you live in such big cities, you get used to a certain kind of lifestyle and comfort. You have machines and devices to help you with the daily chores. Good hospitals and schools are within your reach. These things change after you move to a small town. Soon after we moved, the family who used to take care of the house had to leave because of some personal reasons and we were left with a cow and a calf. We had absolutely no idea about what to feed them, in what quantity. We found a lady to milk the cow, but we had to learn everything else. On top of that, we were in quarantine, so we couldn’t go and buy basics like vegetables. But we were getting plenty of milk every day. So, we learnt to use milk in different forms in every meal … paneer, curd, cheese, sweets. We also utilized this time to clear the land, remove the weeds, and to make a part of the land fertile again. Those days were very exciting!

Spotting tiger pug marks in the courtyard in the morning

What are the advantages of living in a small town? How challenging it is to live in a secluded house like yours?

For me, the biggest advantage has been that I was able to get rid of the unnecessary stress and noise from my life. While living in a city, the noise becomes a part of your life and one gets used to the chaos. We breathe in fresh air now, we eat non-toxic, organic vegetables, and drink pure milk. The cost of living has come down substantially. These are some of the visible changes, but subconsciously, many things have changed. When you live in big cities, you are just a face in the crowd. You don’t get to meet your friends often. You are practically non-existent if you don’t have a job and a distinguished identity and you don’t fit in if you don’t have a fancy home or a big car. In small towns, these things matter a lot less. That gives a deep sense of security.

My house is my most favourite place in the world. I enjoy the greenery and the open space around it. But, living in a secluded house has its own set of problems. On the third day after we moved, we were baffled by a strong stench. It was as if someone was burning something. We later realized that there was a tiger around. It’s pretty normal here. It has become our morning ritual to look for tiger pug marks. We now know that a tiger crosses our front yard at about midnight and then early in the morning it returns. Then there are leopards. We have to let our dogs in the house after sunset as that’s when leopards usually attack. Spotting snakes is also normal. The first time I saw a baby snake inside my house in the middle of the night, I froze. I spent all night researching how to keep snakes away, how to identify poisonous snakes, and the immediate steps to be taken if somebody is bitten by a snake. During the monsoon, we spotted snakes in our courtyard almost every other day. It’s not that we don’t get affected by their presence anymore, but we have now started accepting their existence. To realize that the earth does not belong to just the humans and all the other creatures have an equal right to live was a humbling experience. If their presence is an inconvenience to you, it’s your problem, not theirs.   

Neembu Saan is a Kumauni delicacy that is savoured during winters in the hills. Rich in fiber, antioxidants, and Vitamin-C, it’s made using lemons (or any other citrus fruits like Malta or oranges) and bhaang (hemp seeds). Watch this video to know how Neembu Saan is prepared

Do you miss going to malls and multiplexes, dining out or the convenience of ordering food via apps, meeting friends over a cup of coffee, or other luxuries and conveniences of city life?

I lived in metros for nearly 15 years but didn’t really become a city girl ever. I always enjoyed having my evening tea sitting in my balcony, alone, rather than going to a coffee shop. Parties, multiplexes, shopping … these are the things I can live without. To be honest, small towns are not so small anymore. The options are limited, but many online shopping websites operate in Almora as well. I was surprised to see that a few restaurants do home delivery of food too. 

How does your normal day look like?  

It’s been almost six months since I moved here and believe me, I have not had a single mundane day. There is so much to do on a daily basis that even 24 hours seem limited. Our work keeps us busy, but we spend a lot of time gardening. I feel so proud that we turned around an entire area in just 5-6 months. Also, our family members now include two dogs, a recently adopted four puppies, two cats, a cow, and a calf. There are interesting problems. Like, one dog hates sharing the house with the cats, so we have to be attentive all the time so they don’t get into a fight! The other dog loves to tease the calf. A family of special guests – monkeys — keep visiting multiple times in a day! They keep us on our toes!

How has your lifestyle changed?

We have transitioned into consuming non-contaminated, non-toxic food. Junk food and beverages are completely out of our lives. We eat what is available to us in our surroundings and not the ‘branded’ food. These days, the biggest pull to come back home is that we get to pick fresh vegetables from our garden. Apart from potatoes, onions and some other occasional ‘change-of-taste’ vegetables, we haven’t really bought any vegetables from the market in the past three-four months. We have planted many medicinal plants and now I want to plant fruit-bearing trees as well. I was always into gardening but it mostly meant buying plants from a nursery. Now I preserve seeds for the next harvest, make new plants from the old plant cuttings … it’s really satisfying. We have started mushroom farming and the first crop is due anytime now. Water is a scarce commodity here so we restored an old water tank for rain water harvesting.

Pant is loving connecting with her roots. On Diwali, we per the tradition, she made a mud temple and placed a deeya inside it

Do you miss having a friend circle? Do you sometimes yearn to have meaningful conversations?

Yes, I miss my friends, the care-free conversations, and informal gatherings, but I am not completely disconnected from them. Most of our friends are fascinated by the hills, so, I am planning to create a getaway for them so that can spend some quiet moments. Creative people can work from anywhere and they connect irrespective of where they live.

Your daughter is still very young. What does this shift mean for her? Won’t she miss the city exposure?

Probably this dilemma stopped us from moving earlier. Talking from my personal experience, growing up in a small town laid the foundation of who I am today. I have interesting stories to tell, I am not dependent on material luxuries to get entertained, I connect with nature and find strength in it. But it’s also true that I grew as an individual while living in cities. So, I have no intentions of cutting all my ties from city life. Our work is rooted there, most of our family members live there. So, we are not going to be depriving our daughter. We want her to have the best of both worlds.

You are now trying to set up a professional base in Uttarakhand. Usually, creative people flock to Mumbai, but you came back. Talk about this reverse journey. 

Mumbai is an amazing place to work, but I had realized long back that I would not be able to keep up with the pace. I don’t want to be a part of the ruthless competition. For me, life is more than work and money. As far as creating good content is concerned, it can be created from anywhere. The only challenge that I am facing in Uttarakhand is to start everything from scratch. It is exhausting, but I am thoroughly enjoying it.

There isn’t a functioning entertainment industry in Uttarakhand. Pant’s dream is to set one up

The young people of the region must be immensely talented, but do you think not having the right connections and exposure can deter their prospects.

Exposure and connections are important. I faced these problems 15 years back when I had started out, but things haven’t changed much even today. That’s the precise reason why I came back. I know that most of the talented youngsters here will never get access to the film industry. Even if they do, it will take them years to rip off the self-doubting image of themselves and to accept themselves as equal to the people they are going to be competing with. I am trying to help them create a niche of their own so that going to Mumbai is an option and not a necessity. I have met many writers, artists, singers, musicians, and cinematographers in the past couple of years who didn’t or couldn’t go to Mumbai. They lack professional exposure, but they are raw and fresh. Since they don’t know the set pattern, they don’t follow it, which makes them unique. I am trying to create a platform for them. We don’t have a functioning entertainment industry in Uttarakhand. My dream is to set one up.

Pant’s two-year-old daughter has adapted very well to her new life

How has your daughter adapted?

Not long ago, I used to show pictures of animals to her. Mosquitoes were the only insect she knew and occasionally she would spot street dogs. Fast forward a few months, she now recognizes the sun, the moon, the stars … she even points at Mars and Jupiter. How many city kids have the advantage of learning things by looking at them, touching them, and not from the books? She plays in the dirt, scares off (at least she thinks she does) the monkeys and pigs, she knows the difference between a pebble, a stone, or a rock. She tries to climb trees and feeds the cow … and she is not even two! Every time I see her do all this, I know I have made the right decision.

(Image and video credit: Kanchan Pant)

The coronavirus-induced lockdown and work-from-options have encouraged many people to try connecting with their roots. But Bangalore-based Harini Srinivasan, who describes herself as a natural farmer and children’s writer, made the shift to a rural, farm-based life much before the lockdown happened. Read her story here.

Two sleepy villages, two very special Banyan trees, and a manmade miracle

What does it take for two Banyan trees to live again? It’s a magical formula of social media blitz, genuine efforts, and quick action by politicians and concerned authorities. If you need to save one tree today, this is the story you must read. And share

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Swati Subhedar

This is a story about two Banyan trees. In the month of July and August — just when the country was gradually “unlocking” itself after a long, coronavirus-induced lockdown — these trees were counting their last breaths. One had almost died a natural death, and the other was all set to be guillotined to satiate human greed. But they survived to pass on their stories to the next generation. What’s extraordinary is that the protagonists of this survival story are people living in two sleepy villages in Maharashtra and Goa. They were at the forefront of rescuing these very special Banyan trees.

The efforts by these local people show that if people are willing, if they persist and if they get help from social media, authorities, and politicians, an effort could be made to save the trees that are on the verge of being cut down in the country. Picture this. Between 2014 and 2019, 1.09 crore trees were cut in the country for development purposes.

And that is why, the stories of these two Banyan trees need to be told.

Location: Bhose village, Sangli district, Maharashtra
The giant Banyan tree in Bhose village in Sangli

A 400-year-old Banyan tree in Bhose village in Sangli district of Maharashtra – 375 kms from the state capital Mumbai – has been silently witnessing one generation giving way to the other for centuries. It has been silently guarding the village for nearly 400 years, just like an old and protective grandfather.

People living in Bhose village sprang into action in the last week of July when they learnt that the tree, whose canopy is spread over 400 sq m, stood in the way of a service road, which was a part of the Ratnagiri-Solapur highway, and was going to be chopped off.

“The contractors, who came to carry out a survey for the highway project, kept us in the dark for almost a year,” said Rahul Ganeshwade, a primary school teacher, who lives in the village. “We were told that the Banyan tree, and the Yellamma temple next to it, would be spared.”

The villagers were blissfully unaware until they saw a picture of the tree in a local newspaper. The caption mentioned that the tree was counting its last breath. “I felt so bad that I wrote a Facebook post saying the tree has given us so much over the years so we should not let it die,” said Ganeshwade. He added: “The post went viral. Many local journalists and environment activists took note of it and joined the cause. On July 24, 2020, we organized a ‘chipko andolan’. Many villagers and nature-lovers participated in the day-long andolan. The local media covered it and the news went viral on Facebook and Twitter.”   

The presence of the media helped the cause immensely

Ganeshwade gives full credit to Aditya Thackeray, the state environment minister, who not only reacted to this news but even got in touch with the Sangli collector and requested him to look into the matter. “We met the collector. We made him understand that the tree could be saved and only a small diversion to the highway was needed. The collector gave a positive response to the environment minister. He got in touch with Nitin Gadkari (the Union Minister for Road Transport and Highway), who immediately asked a survey team to reach Bhose village.” It took five days of sustained efforts to save the 400-year-old Banyan tree.

But the tree could not be saved entirely. Some branches had to be chopped off. Monkeys, langurs, and many species of birds that had made the tree their home for decades were petrified the day the branches facing the highway were trimmed. Ganeshwade is also upset that not many villagers – especially those who benefit from the tree the most– turned up for the andolan. “The fact is that we don’t value trees. The next generation will not even get to see such big and beautiful trees,” he said.  

The Banyan tree, and the Yellamma temple next to it, are of great significance to the Warkaris — pilgrims who march on foot from various locations in Maharashtra to the Vithoba temple in Pandharpur on a particular day every year. The tree and the temple are en route Pandharpur, and in that period, many Warkaris visit the temple and rest under the Banyan tree.

Despite best efforts, the tree could not escape the chopping and pruning of many of its branches

There is an interesting story about how the temple came up next to the tree. “In the early 1970s – during the drought years – there was a plan to build a pond in the outskirts of the village. Originally, that’s where the deity was kept. To save the deity, the villagers shifted it next to the tree and made the temple,” said a 70-year-old environmentalist, who is fondly known as Papa Patil. He was also a part of the mission to save the Banyan tree.

While the mission was on, some people questioned if the Banyan tree was indeed 400-year-old. When asked over the phone to comment on this, an infuriated Patil said: “Maybe it’s not a 400-year-old tree, maybe it’s just 100-year-old, or 50, but it’s still a tree. Lakhs of trees are being cut in the name of development. If we are trying to save one tree, why do people have a problem with that? Every tree is important. It’s never about just one tree.”

His sentiments are beautifully echoed by the residents of Arambol village, which is nearly 225 kms from Bhose.  

Location: Arambol village, Goa
The Banyan tree at Arambol village in Goa. Image: Living Heritage App/Facebook

A 200-year-old Banyan tree in Arambol – a fishing village 35 kms from Goa’s capital Panji — is not just a tree, it’s an experience. The locals believe that The Beatles meditated under the tree when they had visited India in 1968. It is said that in the 1960s, Arambol was at the center of the Hippie movement. The giant Banyan tree, lovingly called ‘The Source’, was a source of happiness for the hippies who visited then and continues to be a hub for the foreigners who visit now.

On August 4, when Sabastiana Fernandes, a resident of Arambol village, stepped out of her house, she was heartbroken. The mighty Banyan tree in front of her house had fallen and its roots were uprooted. It had rained heavily the previous night. Every day she would sit under the tree – it stood in Fernandes’ land — and sell tender coconuts.

The Banyan tree is a popular spot in Arambol. Many tourists, local and visiting, assemble here post-sunset and dance under the tree … popularly known as ‘The Source’ (of happiness). They plug speakers and lights to Sabastiana house post-sunset and disperse by 10 pm. She charges a small fee for this, but her main contention is that people should respect the tree and they do.

When the tree fell after a heavy downpour, Fernandes’ heart broke. When the word got out, people came to see the tree. They took to Instagram and Facebook and posted pictures of the tree lying helplessly on the ground … its branches spread out. When tourists spread across different parts of the world and in the country, who had danced under the at least once tree, saw the pictures, they promised to help. What followed was out of the ordinary. Heartbroken local people, tree lovers and tourists raised around Rs 2 lakh through crowd-funding to help in the rescue of the Banyan tree.

After a few hectic hours, by 3 pm, amid much cheering, the tree stood up again. Image: Living Heritage App/Facebook

Looking at the enthusiasm it was decided that an attempt had to be made to resurrect the tree. The old tree had died but new roots were spotted which meant there was hope. When the word got around, Goa-based Marc Francis from Living Heritage Foundation, an outfit which undertakes conservation of bio-diversity, and Sanobar Durrani, an environmentalist and convenor of the Banyan Tree Project in Goa, connected and reached out to Uday Krishna of Vaata Foundation, a tree expert based in Hyderabad. All the experts brainstormed for days to come up with a resurrection plan.

After planning, came the implementation part. If the tree had to be resurrected, heavy machinery was needed. The money pulled in through crowd-funding was put to use. The fallen bulk of the tree and the roots weighed more than 100 tons, so 40 tons of canopy was clipped. As the tree was dead, it didn’t make sense to put it back where it stood. After much deliberation and many permutations and combinations later, the experts and environmentalists, who had landed in Arambol just for this, decided to dig a pit and place the Banyan tree in it so that it could grow all over again.

August 19 was the D-day. In the morning, Group Seon, which provides construction and related services across a wide range of industries and sectors, arrived at the spot with three excavators and the Bull Backhoe loader. Many anxious and curious locals and foreigners were present there too. After a few hectic hours, by 3 pm, amid much cheering, the tree stood up again.

“The tree is fine now,” said Fernandes when this reporter contacted her in September for the story. The network was extremely sketchy and the call went through with great difficulty. But when she said: “It’s standing. I am happy”, there was a sense of relief in her voice. 

Local people took along with them the fallen parts of the Banyan tree. They said they would plant them somewhere close to their homes. Image: Living Heritage App/Facebook 

“After the tree was successfully raised, we got many messages from people around the world as the story had really inspired them,” said Anna Marsy, a Russian dance conductor, who witnessed the resurrection of the tree. “The Banyan tree story has managed to awaken the trust in the power of the community, trust in a deep belief that everything is possible if we are united and committed for one common cause,” she added.

Marsy is one of the many who has attended the most wonderful yoga and dance practices under the majestic Banyan tree. After every session, people would express their gratitude to the tree which reminded them about the beautiful connection between humans and nature.

“People from all over the world have danced under the Banyan tree and experienced the most unforgettable moments of life — freedom, health, joy and happiness. For all of them, the Banyan tree is a significant part of their memories,” said Marsy.

What’s also significant is that the day the tree was resurrected, local people took along with them the fallen parts of the Banyan tree. They said they would plant them somewhere close to their homes. 

“It is just the beginning of a new era. Humans are finally acknowledging that they are not separated from nature, but are one with the environment. It’s high time we think, act and take responsibility for what will our children inherit,” said Marsy.

* The image on the left in the lead picture has been sourced from the Facebook page of ‘Living Heritage App’

“We had a wonderful time driving around within a 50 km radius of Bangalore, looking at land. A year of picnics!”

says Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan, who describes herself as a natural farmer and sometime children’s writer. In this interview with Prerna Shah, she talks about how she made the shift to a rural, farm-based life and if, inspired by the choices made available by the Covid-19 work-from-home options, you want to consider a shift too, read on…

Harini, if you could tell us a little about yourself, also about your life in Bangalore before you moved to your farm?

I’m part of that bad generation, the baby boomers. Grew up in the 60s, came of age in the 70s, lived all over the country (my father was in a transferable central government job), and loved being rootless. The consumerist lifestyle crept up on us unawares in the late 80s, but within a decade I had its measure and began to make conscious decisions. I think of myself as primarily a homemaker. I taught briefly in a school, and edited for an academic journal for many years, but it was always part-time. I liked to reserve so much time for my family – usually including an animal or more. I also wrote a few books for children. That got squeezed into the busy schedule somehow, and I remember them as fun times with my daughters, who participated enthusiastically in whatever I was writing. Once they grew up and moved away, I lost the motivation and the momentum.

What motivated you to look for a piece of farmland and to then make the move from Bangalore to your farm?

I’d always dreamt of living on a farm, leading an outdoor life, having a lot of animals. My husband and I also love mountains and, for a long time, we thought we’d move to the Himalayas someday, live in an apple orchard with a view of snow-covered peaks. But ‘someday’ seemed far off, and by the time we were both in our fifties, we realised we wanted to live close to our daughters. So we decided to compromise — do what we could here and now. 

We had a wonderful time driving around within a 50 km radius of Bangalore, looking at land. A year of picnics!

How did you find the land that you now call your own? How does one go about finding a piece of land to own and (then) farm or cultivate?

Each state has its own laws regarding agricultural land. Early on we realized we could not own farmland in our state, Karnataka. Fortunately, Tamil Nadu was within easy driving distance. We answered ads, talked to people, met brokers. We wanted land with a view. At last, we were lucky to meet a retired state government revenue officer, who was very knowledgeable and reliable. He helped us buy our land, and also became a good friend. We bought our land (in 2011) with three friends. (And built our house there by the end of 2013). That’s a nice thing, to have good friends for neighbours. Though only one of them so far has built a house there and visits regularly.

One piece of advice for anyone buying land: Make sure the papers are good, of course, but also make sure that the people around are friendly.

One piece of land we looked at was lovely – huge old trees, good soil, sloping down to a lake. But the minute we got there several scowling men turned up to say the land was under dispute. On enquiry, it turned out the people in that village were very quarrelsome. We’re glad we stayed away. Where we live, we are lucky to have generous and friendly people around and don’t have to waste our energies in protecting our property.

In your blog, you talk about keeping a lot of things in mind while designing your house, the well, and a number of other things around the farm. What were the thoughts and ideals that guided you to take these decisions?

We didn’t know a thing. If we had known half as much then as we do now, we’d have done many things very differently. We were scared to death and the house reflects that. We were told not to have glass windows as people would throw stones. So, we have wooden shutters. Our younger daughter insisted we should be able to make a quick getaway in case we were raided by elephants, and that was built into the design. Then we were sure leopards would eat our dogs, so we built a high-walled courtyard. Now we know: the villagers don’t throw stones, you can’t get away from a herd of elephants, and there are no leopards in the adjoining forest (at least for now).

The main thing we got right was deciding to be off-grid. We didn’t want electric wires going across our land and electrocuting elephants. And, of course, there was a kind of romance about the idea. Anyway, it makes us self-sufficient and not at the mercy of an unreliable power supply, especially as we are so isolated. Our house is built of stabilized mud blocks and has recycled windows from a demolished 100-year-old British-era school. It’s quite a small house, considerably basic. When people come to stay, which isn’t very often, it’s a bit of a crush. Fortunately, the two bedrooms and bathrooms are spacious, and we can be outdoors all day. We have a solar-powered water pump and a solar water heater, and we now have rainwater harvesting and a large tank to store the rainwater. These were all good decisions.

Can you also tell us a bit about your efforts in minimizing the use of plastics in your daily life — from food in plastic packaging to cleaning products that come housed in a plastic bottle or container.

This is such a long and boring story, I’m sure no one wants to hear it in detail! Suffice it to say that I have for many years now been dedicated to cutting out plastic – products as well as packaging. I buy groceries, fruits and vegetables in cloth bags for choice, and occasionally in paper bags. I use natural toiletries, laundry powder and housecleaners – things like shikakai, reetha, besan and neem-twig toothbrushes. Many are homemade or homegrown, and some bought from organic stores, almost all with no packaging. I’ll trudge miles to avoid a plastic bag, driving everyone around me nuts. My partner in crime is the Navadarshanam CSA.

What do you grow on your farm? And what grows wild and uncultivated that you find useful as well?

We grow the traditional crops in our area – ragi or finger millet, avare or bush beans, peanuts, and small quantities each year of different things like moong, urad, tuvar dal, til or sesame. We have 22 mango trees, about 10 papaya trees and a few guava and sapota trees that bear fruit. Not yet bearing, but tended lovingly, are several coconut trees, banana, custard apple, jackfruit, lemon, orange and sweet lime, gooseberry, avocado, breadfruit, mulberry, moringa, etc.

The main trees that grow wild in our farm are non-edible species – honge or pongamia, Malabar neem or melia dubia, palash, laburnum and a kind of thorny acacia. They provide much-needed shade, mulch, firewood, and food and habitat for non-human critters. They also add beauty to the land and, when they are flowering, the perfume is intoxicating.

The author with Punkin, her tomcat

Tell us about a typical day at your farm, a day in your life if you please.

Wake up at an unearthly hour, get breakfast and laundry out of the way, potter around looking at how the plants are doing. Once it’s light enough to see an elephant if one is lurking, we go for a long walk. The views are as nourishing as breakfast! From about 8 am to noon I slog – digging holes for saplings, making new beds, planting, watering, weeding, mulching, pruning, picking vegetables. propping up climbers, etc. In non-Covid times I also used to make breakfast for our farm hands and anyone else who was helping out. I have cut that out in the last couple of months. My work is easier for that, but I also miss the daily chats and the happiness of seeing them enjoy the snack. In non-Covid times, we also had friends dropping in for a chat, to exchange seeds, saplings and goodies like pickle or cake. Life is rather lonely at present. At noon we knock off. Bath, lunch, and a few hours of lazing. I spend a lot of time on a lounger under a tree, reading, snoozing, and watching the birds that flit to and fro. Then a couple of hours of light work before dinner. We are in bed by 9 pm with our books and music.

The author with her husband at their farm

Do you spend all your time, most months in a year at the farm or do you divide your time between Bangalore and your farm?

We planned on one week a month in the city to meet family and attend to business things, but it’s been pretty erratic, what with interstate passes and lockdowns.

Do you miss anything about city life at all? 

Not at all when we’re there. But when we come to the city, after the initial culture shock, everything is an exciting novelty – shops, restaurants, newspapers, and TV!

Are there any stereotypes that we may have about life on a farm, and about villages and village folk? Did you learn and unlearn a few things about the rural way of life when you moved to the farm?

Well, they are better informed than you might think, but as superstitious as you’d expect. What I found surprising was that they are all there by choice. Almost all of them have spent some time in the city learning a trade or doing odd jobs. And everyone will tell you how much they couldn’t stand city life, the noise, and traffic, the lack of food security, the commercialization of everything, the polluted air, and water. Here in the village, they say, no one starves. We’re always losing money, but there’s enough to eat, and people will help you out.

I know this is contrary to the reality of farmer distress and suicide elsewhere in the country, and I can’t explain it. Among the farmers of the current generation, the 30-50 group, there is an entrenched belief in the high risk-high return model. They invest large sums of money in a single crop for the market and, if that fails, they lose it all. I hope in time they’ll realize the value of the old model of subsistence agriculture, and grow enough of everything for their own needs.

Another thing that fascinates me is that their brains seem to work differently from city-bred brains. Is it that their spatial intelligence is greater? I love how local and rooted are their memories and stories, their excellent mental maps of places, and their instinctive understanding of natural processes and creatures, which is different from mine at any rate – so much of my knowledge of farming is from books. Of course they are sometimes wrong, but it’s still impressive!

In a blogpost you address this question about ‘after the honeymoon’ and I ask it here again. Has your commitment to the farm and the way of life sustained and grown? 

Yes and no. I love being close to nature and the idea of growing our own food. But I am 62, and Srini, my husband, is 68. I am beginning to realize that we can’t sustain this amount of work as we grow older. It’s deeply satisfying, but certainly not easy. I am committed to work at it until we can really live off our land. Then I shall sit back and let someone else do the maintenance.

‘Anilodharani’ – their home at the farmland

And what were some of the biggest challenges that you have overcome?

Ignorance, poor soil, an inhospitable microclimate. Being at the top of one valley and the foot of another hill, we get a wild raging wind most of the year, sun radiating from the rocks in summer, and not enough rain. We are working hard to improve our soil and capture rainwater. We read a lot, experiment a lot, and talk to the local farmers as well as permaculturists elsewhere. We still have a long way to go, but the journey is fascinating.

What piece of advice would you have for someone who is a novice but has a keen desire to move to rural India and try and live the way you do?

Just do it!

Have you found it useful to document your journey in your blog ‘The Long View’ and how does your writing (not just the blog but your work as a children’s author) come about or is helped by your life on the farm.

I haven’t written a thing since we moved more or less full time to the farm. I have neither the time nor the inclination right now. But that’s not to say I won’t sometime in the future.

And if you could tell us about a native tree or two that grows in your part of the farm or around it and the joy it brings you.

It’s amazing how many trees growing wild around us are NOT native! One beautiful tree that is, is the silk cotton, bombax ceiba. I was thrilled to find two growing on our farm a couple of years ago. The flowers are beautiful, and I love the softness of pillows and mattresses stuffed with its cotton. I’m eagerly watching them grow!

The villagers keep introducing me to interesting new trees. I’ve recently got to know the naarve, with citrussy, rough leaves that are traditionally used to scrub vessels; the jaalaari with scented flowers that, in the season, perfume the whole forest; and the taare (terminalia bellerica), which has nuts almost as good to eat as cashews, but which I later discovered has ‘mind-altering’ properties!

(You can read more about Srinivasan’s life on the farm at her WordPress blog)

For them, dealing with floods is an annual affair. What’s worse, there is no way out

This year, flood fury battered many ‘smart cities’ across India. Horrific pictures and videos of inundation and infrastructure-collapse shared on social media platforms and shown on news channels left us in shock and awe. However, there are many who deal with floods year after year, but their stories never become headlines and hashtags. When a fellow-journalist was visiting a few flood-hit villages in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, I tagged along to listen to the stories of these villagers. A first-person account

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Swati Subhedar

Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh

I met Bramhadin, 11, on an unusually humid afternoon in August when I visited Sanaya village along with a friend, also a journalist. The village is in Barabanki district, about 28 kms from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow. He was sitting on a charpoy, his temporary ‘house’, and was trying very hard to shield himself from the sun. But the black tarpaulin sheet that was carelessly flung over the charpoy, and doubled up as the roof of his ‘house’, wasn’t helping much. He was holding a steel tiffin box in his hand. When I asked him if he would share his lunch with me, he hesitated. “Kuch khaas nahi hai,” he said. (Nothing interesting).

He opened it. There was some rice mixed with watery daal (black lentils) in it. His mother had prepared this on the roof of their house — his real home. There was waist-deep water in his house. When the Ghaghara river — the largest tributary of the Ganges by volume — started swelling, the villagers had very little time to shift some very basic belongings onto the roof of their houses and send their children and the elderly to the embankment — a wall or bank of earth or stone built to prevent a river flooding an area — in boats. Bramhadin had not seen his mother for five days, but she would diligently send lunch and dinner for him and his grandfather. When I started clicking his pictures, few more kids, who were playing close by, joined him. Giggling, they all huddled for the picture … no masks, no physical distancing even though coronavirus cases were going up at an alarming rate in the state during that time.

Bramhadin (right) having his lunch. Image: Swati Subhedar

For these villagers living in Barabanki, dealing with floods is an annual affair. Many villages in Barabanki, and the neighbouring districts, get flooded every year after Nepal — which shares its border with the state — releases water from its barrages into the rivers, or when it rains heavily in the mountain regions, said some of the villagers we met in Sanaya village.  

In the first week of August, as many as 666 villages were affected by the floods across 17 districts of Uttar Pradesh, and major rivers were flowing above the danger mark. When we visited some villages in Barabanki on August 4, the situation was quite grim.

We left Lucknow at around 11 am, wearing our masks, carrying bottles of sanitizers, and constantly reminding ourselves to maintain physical distancing. I was looking forward to this reporting trip as I was stepping out of my house after being locked up for five months because of the coronavirus-induced lockdown. The first three-week-long lockdown was announced on March 24. It was extended twice and finally ended in May. Though the country gradually started ‘unlocking’ itself in June, the coronavirus cases were going up at an alarming rate. I was a little apprehensive about this visit, but I tagged along because I was desperate to step out of the house.

The usual buzz was missing on the roads, but once we hit the highway connecting Lucknow and Barabanki, we were surprised to see police vehicles lined up on the highway and there was nakabandi at each checkpoint. At first, we thought they would stop up and ask us to go back, but later we realized that security was beefed up for the mega event lined up the next day (August 5).  

Prime minister Narendra Modi, state chief minister Yogi Adityanath and other important dignitaries were expected in Ayodhya — about 100 kms from Barabanki — for the Ram temple bhoomi pujan. Luckily, the police were stopping only the four-wheelers, so we could quickly move towards our destination — Tikait Nagar town in Barabanki district. The only hindrance, however, was the unbearable humidity. We had to take breaks in between to relax a bit.

The temporary accommodation. Image: Swati Subhedar

When we entered Tikait Nagar, there was no hint of any pandemic. People were not wearing masks and the markets in the town were buzzing with activities. We felt as if these people in small towns and villages were living in some other world where there was no threat of the virus. When we started nearing the embankment, people living in the villages seemed more worried about the constantly rising water level in the river and less about the pandemic.

When we reached the embankment at around 1 pm, we met a few people who were sitting beneath a tree facing the ‘river’. Only after I saw some submerged boats did I realize that it was, in fact, the flood water that had reached all the way to the embankment, washing away many small villages on its way. These men directed us to the spot where displaced people were staying in temporary accommodations. The government provides tarpaulin sheets to people so that they can stay on the embankment for a few days, not very far from their homes. It probably saves the government the hassle of providing them temporary accommodation or relocating and rehabilitating them.

We drove along the embankment for half an hour. Soon, we started spotting the temporary shelters. Many charpoys were lined up and families, mostly elderly and children, were sitting looking hopelessly at the gradually, but constantly, rising floodwater.

The fields were submerged in flood water. Pic: Swati Subhedar

We parked our bike and went to a spot where some boats were anchored and the boatmen were resting. A few men were anxiously waiting for the boats to arrive. I stepped into the water. It was cold. I splashed some water on my face and regretted it instantly. It was flood water and I was on an assignment. Full of guilt, I turned around. The men gathered there had been waiting for two hours. Some wanted to go home, the others were waiting for their belongings that were shipped from across. “How deep is it?” I asked to no one in particular. “kaafi gehra hai. Hamare ghar doob gaye,” said a man. (Quite deep. Our houses are submerged).

Mohan Singh, a farmer, pointed at his submerged fields. “This happens every year. When Nepal releases water from its barrages, our villages and fields get flooded. My half year’s earnings got washed away. I was depending on this crop,” he said. Two other men standing in the group, also farmers, pointed at their fields. I could see only water. When asked if they ever considered moving from here as the floods had become an annual affair, there was silence. “kaha jayenge. Hamare ghar aur khet yahi hai.” said Mohan Singh. (Where do we go? Our homes and fields are here). They said they were stuck. “The government is not finding a permanent solution to our flood problem even though the tragedy hits us annually. The authorities are not giving us alternate accommodation. What’s worse, they don’t even compensate us for crop losses. Every year, each farmer loses one entire crop, which is equivalent to half a year’s earning,” said Puttan Lal, another farmer.

We went to meet some people who were sitting on the charpoys. I met Bramhadin here. He was having his lunch. He pointed at his home where his parents were living, and his school that was completely submerged. When asked if he missed going to the school, he said: “School to kab se band hai corona ki wajah se. Jyada nahi miss karta kyoki jyada kuch hota nahi hai school me. Ek hi teacher hai”. (The school is closed because of corona. I don’t miss my school much. Nothing much happens as there is just one teacher). When asked if he remembered what he studied the previous year, he thought for a while and said, “no”. When I asked if he knows about coronavirus, he said: “Some people came and said we have to cover our mouth, wash our hands and not sit very close to each other,” said Bramhadin.

There was water everywhere, but the villagers were not getting clean drinking water. Image: Swati Subhedar

“We are not getting clean water to drink. How do we wash our hands regularly?” asked one elderly gentleman sitting close by. “Many journalists and officers come here. You people at least talk to us. The government officials don’t even step down from their cars,” he added.

It was 3 pm. I could feel my skin burning. The humidity was sapping my energy. I had always associated floods with inundation. This flood-situation was different. On one hand, the water level was gradually rising, on the other, the extreme humidity was making people sick.

Little Seema, all of five, was quietly sitting on a charpoy close by. When I went to talk to her, her grandfather joined us. He told me about the snakes that pop up at night, and how badly the children were suffering because of humidity and mosquitoes. Not many women were around as they had to stay back. So, mostly, it was these elderly gentlemen who had to look after the kids. Seema’s five siblings were playing close by.

I asked Seema’s grandfather if he was aware that a huge temple was being built not very far from there, he nodded. When I told him that a budget of Rs 500 crore has been allotted for the construction of an airport in the temple town of Ayodhya, he said: “We don’t  mind that, but the government should also set aside some budget for us so that we don’t have to go through this year after year.”

Seema will probably grow up dealing with floods year after year. Image: Swati Subhedar

My colleague was still interviewing some people, so I went and sat next to Seema. The tarpaulin sheet wasn’t helping much, but I felt better here. I wanted to throw my mask away. I took out my fancy copper water bottle to drink water. Seema curiously peeped inside my bag. I kept the bottle inside. Both of us were looking at the muddy water in front of us. While I understood what this tragedy meant for the people living here, god knows what was going on in that little girl’s mind. In all likelihood, she will grow up dealing with floods year after year. Just then, a boat arrived from across. A bicycle was unloaded with great difficulty and while doing so a man lost his balance and fell into the water. Seema found it to be funny and giggled.

Seema, Bramhadin, and the other kids waved at us while we were leaving. While returning, we took a shortcut so that we could reach Lucknow faster. We crossed many submerged fields. On one muddy stretch, a dog was standing in the middle of the road. When we neared, we realized it was a pup (baby fox). It was lost. Probably its home was inundated too. When I reached home, I realized my skin was not just tanned, it was peeling off from my nose and forehead. I took a shower, switched the AC on, and while applying aloe vera gel on my burnt skin, I thought about Seema, Bramhadin, and the other kids who have no option but to sit in that brutal heat all day long.