“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 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 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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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

…..

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.