In July 2013 I came across an article that said respiratory diseases were among the top five killers in Mumbai.
Deaths due to respiratory tract infections such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders (COPD) and bronchial asthma were rising steadily. Lung specialists said that one in 10 people in the city had asthma. There were many more deaths from TB and lung cancer.
Where, I wondered, was the source of the pollution that was causing this problem ? What I found was quite shocking.
We have mountains of coal in the heart of South Mumbai, just a few kilometres from Chatrapati Shivaji Station. RTI applications revealed that over 1.8 mln tonnes were stacked here in 2013. And the sea breeze carries this coal dust into the lungs of every Mumbaikar. This coal, is not even meant for the city of Mumbai. It is being stacked here for storage and transport to coal plants of MahGenCo in Bhusaval, which would be much better served by ports such as Surat.
This coal is being unloaded through open excavators, stored in the open and transported in uncovered trucks in violation of all pollution control norms, exposing our city and everyone who lives in Mumbai to growing health hazards.
Google earth photos show how an area that was completely green in 2000 had turned completely black by 2013. Mangroves in the area have been completely destroyed and the entire area of Haji Bunder is carpeted in a layer of black sludge.
In my 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, I therefore committed that I would work towards the removal of these Coal mountains, irrespective of whether I won or lost the election.
And so over the past few months, working with a team of committed citizens, I filed a petition in this matter. As the Pollution Control clearance to Mumbai Port Trust for the handling of coal was expiring on 30th September 2014, this was a matter of urgency.
I am very glad to share that the Hon High Court of Mumbai has heard our Petition. Their judgement, extracts of which are attached below, gives us confidence that the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board will not extend its permission to the Mumbai Port Trust for coal handling.
” PUBLIC INTEREST LITIGATION (L) NO.111 OF 2014
Smt. Meera Sanyal and anr. vs. Union of India through Ministry of Environment and Forests, New Delhi and ors.
Mr. Kusumakar Kaushik for Petitioners.
CORAM: MOHIT S. SHAH, C.J. & M.S.SONAK, J.
DATE : 25 SEPTEMBER 2014
Two public spirited citizens in Mumbai have moved this Court for challenging the consent to operate order dated 14 October 2013 granted by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) to Mumbai Port Trust (MPT), particularly, in the matter of coal handling at Haji Bunder or at any other place in Mumbai Port Lands. The said consent to operate order is going to expire on 30 September 2014 and the petitioners have therefore prayed for an injunction to restrain the MPCB from renewing/extending the consent to operate beyond 30 September 2014.
2] Having regard to the nature of grievances voiced in the public interest litigation, it would be just and proper to direct that MPCB shall treat the memo of this public interest litigation as a representation.
3] Accordingly, the public interest litigation is disposed of with a direction to MPCBrespondent No.3 to treat the memo of this public interest litigation as a representation and to take the same into consideration before taking any decision on the proposal of MPT respondent No.4 for renewal/extension of the consent to operate order. It goes without saying that the MPT will also be allowed to submit their response to the representation and such response shall be given within two weeks from today and thereafter MPCB shall consider the proposal of MPT for renewal/ extension of the consent to operate.
4] It is clarified that we have not gone into the merits of the controversies sought to be raised in this public interest litigation and it will be open to the petitioners to move this Court again, if and when required.
(M.S.SONAK, J.) ”
This is however only the first step in our battle to reclaim the PortLands for the city of Mumbai.
Please join me in this fight for a more livable Mumbai and share this post with your friends. Please also share any ideas and suggestions you may have on Mumbai’s PortLands at email@example.com
In my 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, the issue of reclaiming Mumbai’s Port Lands was central to my agenda.
Mumbai’s Port Lands, (comprising approx. 1000 acres of non operational land within the Mumbai Port Trust, on the eastern water front) represent a unique and perhaps the only chance to re-vitalise and re-imagine the city of Mumbai.
The Mumbai Port was once the fulcrum of our great industrial city from the 18th-20th century. However with rising costs, Industry migrated, with a corresponding decline in Port operations. Once thriving warehouses turned derelict and the area is now a dumping ground for coal (1.8 mln tonnes in 2013), a toxic ship breaking yard, (where the iconic air craft carrier Vikrant has been beached for scrap) and other polluting and undesirable activities.
The area can and should become a green lung for the city offering much needed public utilities such as schools, colleges, vocational training centres, hospitals, libraries, playgrounds, sports facilities, arts & crafts zones and open spaces. It can also become an Educational cum sports hub, and an Innovation cluster with Incubation facilities and infrastructure for new age entrepreneurs.
Over the past few months, I was happy to see that many Mumbaikars shared this dream and even happier that the new Government picked up this idea, and invited citizen suggestions.
Working with a wonderful group of young architects, urban planners and Mumbaikars, we formed a citizens group called APLI Mumbai and proposed the attached vision plan to the Mumbai Port Trust.
Our proposal takes into account the historical, archeological and ecological characteristics of the Port Lands and proposes 12 neighbourhoods that can swiftly and economically transform our Port Lands into a beautiful, friendly, open and vibrant part of our city.
Strategically located between the Suburban harbour line and the eastern waterfront, most parts of the Port Lands are no more than a 10 minute walk from an existing railway station. The Eastern waterfront lends itself seamlessly to coastal water transport and with the 9 Passenger Water Terminals that we have proposed, the Port Lands can decongest Mumbai’s crowded arterial roads and provide much needed North-South and trans-harbour connectivity.
We have suggested certain core principles to the Rani Jadhav Committee in our Citizens Vision plan, namely :
We have also suggested an enabling Legislative framework and a financing plan, that envisages Mumbai’s industrial houses, investing their CSR budgets, for creating Public utilities and public spaces, that are much needed for the future of all Mumbaikars.
To ensure that this is truly a Citizens plan and that the Port Lands are not subjected to the land grab that our Mill Lands were, please share this widely with your friends and family and all who are passionate about the future of our city.
We see this as a living document and would be very glad to receive your ideas and suggestions.
Please share your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can incorporate your input and update the MbPT at regular intervals.
“The trains are very crowded and terribly delayed,” apologised my very punctual executive assistant, “I missed 7 or 8 trains, finally managing to get into one by the skin of my teeth”. It was the day of the Western Railway tracks’ AC/DC conversion. No one knew what the fault was. Some attributed it to a crow short-circuiting the wires.
I dwelt no more on it, till that afternoon, when I received a chilling phone call. A young member of our staff, working in our Nariman Point branch, had failed to come to work and calls to his cell phone had yielded no response. While his colleagues were still trying to trace him, his parents received a call at about 3 pm, from the police, asking them to identify his phone number. When they did so, they were informed that all that remained of their son was the sim card in his crushed mobile.
A few weeks later, we lost a second team member to a similar accident. These were not careless young people, but responsible and mature individuals. They died simply because their daily commute in a jam-packed compartment, with people spilling out of open doors, proved too dangerous.
To some, the annual death toll of approximately 4,000 Mumbaikars on our suburban rail lines is a rounding error— after all, millions travel every day. To the parents and families of these young men, as indeed to the families of every person who travels on the efficient but overcrowded Suburban train network, these unnecessary deaths are symptomatic of the failure of governance in our city.
In terms of human capital, Mumbai ranks amongst the best cities in the world. Its infrastructure ranks amongst the worst. There seems to be no thought or planning in terms of meeting the basic requirements of Mumbai’s citizens.
Why is this so and how can it change? Is there a constructive way forward? I believe there is. The choices and decisions we make can help either aggravate the problems or enable solutions. At a macro level, this starts with who we choose to govern our city, state and country. Despite decrying our leaders incessantly, Mumbai’s voter turnouts leave much to be desired. If we are absent during elections, it shouldn’t surprise us that our government functions in absentia. At a micro level, our individual choices can make a big difference to our collective life. How we consume, save or waste water is one example; how we dispose, recycle, segregate or compost garbage is another.
As far as public transport is concerned, there is no doubt that policymakers need to prioritise infrastructure upgrades. In the meantime, can we, as citizens, play a part in changing Mumbai’s transport landscape? Shared below are three thoughts that I believe can help make a difference :
1) Redefine the Work Paradigm: Mumbai is no longer a manufacturing hub. The majority of our people work in the services industry. Technology today makes it possible for us to work in our own time and space while being perfectly efficient and connected. If corporates empower and enable staff to work from home and measure them on deliverables and outcomes instead of hours spent in office, we could add hours of productive time to their day, reduce the pressure on public transport and save costs in addition.
2) Be Pedestrian: Think for a moment of the thousands of commuters who exit VT and Churchgate every morning in the monsoon. After a harrowing train ride, they have to dodge potholes and traffic while struggling to keep dry. If instead, they had air-conditioned underground or elevated walkways, how much more comfortable this would be and how much more productive they’d be at work.
3) Think Flexible: In the foreseeable future, fuel prices are headed only one way—upwards. Car pools for those of us who need to drive have long been a sensible way to optimise costs. Communication technology now makes it possible to widen the pooling community across the city, making it possible for strangers to share cars effectively.
Much is said about the spirit of Mumbai. Through hell and high water, through bomb blasts and floods, Mumbai continues unflinchingly. The work ethic of our city surpasses that of any other city that I have lived or worked in. In and of itself, the fact that our children resume school and their parents go to work, despite the disasters that other cities have nightmares about, speaks volumes about both the character and courage of every Mumbaikar.
It is time that our city’s infrastructure is upgraded to match up to its spirit.
The above article was published in the July 9 2012 issue of Outlook magazine with the cover Who Killed my Mumbai and is shared with their consent.
“Don’t worry,” said Daniel, our soft spoken driver, as we drove towards our destination, “these are political matters, but no one will trouble tourists or students. There is so much that has improved here, but no one talks about it”.
Reading press reports on tensions in the region, and recalling the deforested hill slopes, ravaged by land slides from my previous trip 19 years ago, I had almost cancelled my trip to Darjeeling last week.
However, as we navigated the steep bends of the scenic Punkhabari route, on our way back from this Queen of Hill stations, I recalled Daniel’s words, and was so glad that I had continued with the trip. In addition to the lovely cool weather that was such a welcome respite from the heat of the plains, Darjeeling was cleaner and greener than I had remembered.
The overwhelming impression, was that there was someone thoughtful, in charge of the small things that make a city beautiful and welcoming – something that is sadly lacking in many of our cities today. Shared below are a few of the things that lifted my spirits :
The Tea : It is said that there is more tea sold as Darjeeling leaf, than is produced on the slopes of Darjeeling. However from the very first aromatic cup that I tasted, it was clear that there was both intent and investment on re-establishing the Darjeeling brand as the most premium tea in the world. There were small boutiques selling both regular and exotic teas, and also a few tea houses, where one could sample teas from different estates, including the delicate first flush teas which had just been produced.
Following in the lead of Rajah Bannerjee of Makaibari tea estate, most Darjeeling tea estates have gone organic. Rajah has set the lead in more ways than one, most notably in empowering the women working on his estate, through the innovative Hum Tera Homestay Eco- tourism program, where visitors to Makaibari stay as paying guests at the homes of villagers. Given the stress that had existed between planters and locals not so long ago, it was very nice to see an example of enlightened management. In Rajah’s words : “The new mantra for the future is holistic partnerships not ownership”
The Trees : At an average height of 6700 ft Darjeeling is a part of the Eastern Himalayan zoo-geographic zone. Flora in this region comprises semi-evergreen, temperate and alpine forests. In the past century, dense evergreen forests of pine, sal and oak surrounded the town, where a wide variety of rare orchids were found. Over the past several years, deforestation due to increasing demand for wood fuel and timber, had denuded the slopes, and landslides as a result, were frequent.
It was therefore a real pleasure to see Darjeeling green again – clearly the bulk of the credit must go to the Forest Department for a systematic and sensible afforestation campaign. However as was clear from the simple hand painted signs on tree after tree, citizens have played their part too. Trees have been planted over the past 15 years by senior citizens and school children, and the girth of the trees is testimony to the fact, that they have been carefully nurtured.
The Plastic : In 2009, the Darjeeling Municipality, like many others across the country declared a ban on plastic bags. Unlike in other cities however, this ban seems to have been enforced. Experiencing this first hand in the Bata shop at the Mall, I was somewhat bemused to be handed my purchase wrapped in newspaper !
The consequences are visible on the streets which are noticeably not just free of plastic, but also remarkably clean, given the rush of tourists. There are segregated waste bins everywhere and I was reminded by the courteous young man serving me an ice cream cone, to make sure I disposed the wrapper correctly ! Perhaps it is the sense of ownership and pride that permeates the residents, or just simply the pleasure in having a clean environment that has led to this result – either way it was very good to see.
The Schools : Having been the summer retreat for the British in Eastern India, Darjeeling became the place of choice for the establishment of public schools on the model of Eton, Harrow and Rugby such as St. Paul’s School, St. Joseph’s (North Point) and Loreto Convent. In the years of strife many of these institutions suffered. It was wonderful to see how they have been restored and how many of them have reinvented themselves. Under the guidance of Father Tshering Kinley, for example, St Joseph’s North Point, started a program during the winter months, when the school was otherwise closed, to open it’s doors and offer its excellent facilities to the poor children of the tenements around the school.
As I walked through the precincts of these beautiful institutions, listening to teachers exhort their students to “pay attention to clear enunciation”, I was struck by the debt of gratitude generations of Indians, including myself, owe to the missionary nuns and fathers, who gave us our education.
The Sights : Given that a major contributor to the economy of our Hill Stations is tourism, in most places little thought is given to making local “places of interest”, interesting.
On my past visit to the Darjeeling zoo, I recall the same sad feeling that one experiences in many zoos across India – crowded and dirty cages & enclosures; insensitive visitors teasing and tormenting animals and litter everywhere. Though the zoo had a host of interesting and rare animals not found in other zoos in India, such as a Siberian tiger and a Peruvian Llama, I was glad to leave after a short visit.
It was a delight to have an altogether different experience this time. Starting with the ticket counter (where one paid Rs 40 for a beautifully printed entrance ticket offering joint admission to the Padmaja Naidu Zoo and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute) till the well appointed Internet cafe on the premises, it was clear that both institutions had adopted best practices from tourist destinations across the world. The facilities were spotless, attendants were courteous but firm, sign boards provided interesting information and there were flowers everywhere.
The small but well cared for selection of native Himalayan animals (such as the Red Panda, Himalayan wolf, Snow leopard to name a few) were part of a Scientific Conservation breeding program. In the HMI, the quest to conquer Mount Everest, initially by Mallory & Irvine, and finally by Hillary & son of the soil, Tenzing Norgay was beautifully detailed.
At many times during the visit, I found myself smiling with the pleasure of learning something new and unexpected – and walked out feeling I had spent a wonderful morning.
Were there areas that needed attention and improvement ? Yes.
The roads were in worse shape than I have seen anywhere else on my journey so far – including some remote village roads. The tax of this on the taxi operators who ply tourists up and down the Himalayan foothills must equal at last 50% of the life of their cars. For a city that relies on tourists, this seems to be an area that needs urgent attention.
The water situation was grim. For ordinary residents of the city, long waits with jerry cans, and carrying these heavy loads to their homes is a daily occurrence. Given the heavy rainfall in the Darjeeling area it is inexplicable that there is not more focus on water harvesting.
Notwithstanding the greening of the slopes, it does appear that town planning is under stress, and the pressure of construction, much of it haphazard is taking its toll.
And of course, there is the simmering tension of unsolved political matters, that lies beneath the surface…
Nevertheless, all said and done, this was, on reflection a cup that was more than half full, and one which many of our other cities could do well to savour !
As I have travelled through the country, it has been rare to find anyone who speaks positively about the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) colloquially referred to as the Sau Divsi (100 day) scheme.
Passed as an Act of Parliament in September 2005, the NREG Act aimed to provide for the enhancement of livelihood security of the households in rural areas of the country by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual labour.
In order of priority, the Act encouraged a focus on :
1) Water Conservation & Water Harvesting
2) Drought proofing through afforestation and tree planting
3) Irrigation canals ( micro and mini irrigation works)
4) Provision of irrigation facilities to SC/ST households
4) Renovation of traditional water bodies including desilting of tanks
5) Land development
6) Flood control and protection works
7) Rural connectivity to provide all weather access
Well conceived, the Act provided for a series of checks and balances to encourage decentralisation and prevent abuse and mis-appropriation of funds such as making Gram Panchayats accountable for identifying projects and executing and supervising work; direct credit of wages to the beneficiaries’ bank or post office account; distribution of wages ideally on a weekly and no later than fortnightly basis; and providing for an unemployment allowance if work could not be provided within 15 days of the request for work.
From a policy perspective therefore, the Act seemed to provide a good framework to meet its objectives.
However feedback in village after village, across all the states I have visited, was negative. Where job cards were available, no more than a few days entries could be found. Villagers complained of payments delayed by several months. In many areas there were allegations of corruption at the VCDC or Gram Panchayat. Level. Some villagers even stated they had received payment for doing no work – adding that Panchayat members withdrew 3-5 times the amount they received for facilitating such payments.
As for outcomes, other than village roads (which I have to say, have by and large been excellent) little was to be seen in the form of durable assets or water harvesting structures. Given that this was the flagship Poverty alleviation program of the Government with a budget allocation of Rs 40,000 crores in 2011-12, I began to actively search for success stories under NREGS.
It was therefore very encouraging to come across an excellent implementation of NREGS in Bankura, West Bengal.
The district of Bankura, located on the eastern edge of the Chhota Nagpur plateau, can be divided into the semi arid and relatively poor western region, and the fertile relatively richer Eastern region. The population of Western Bankura comprises more than 50% of Scheduled Castes & Scheduled tribes (SC/ST), predominantly Santhals. Over 50 % of the families are classified as Below Poverty Line (BPL) and the literacy rate is below the national average at 54%.
The area is almost entirely rain fed, with subsistence agriculture being the main occupation. 65% of farmers are classified as marginal, with land holdings below half a hectare, and 32% as small, with land holdings below 1.5 hectares.
Originally a densely forested area, (21% of the area is still classified as Forest land) growing deforestation has led to a steady decline in soil fertility, due to soil erosion. The Adivasi tribal inhabitants of the region also report that rain patterns seem to have changed. Now classified as a highly drought prone area , migration eastwards from Bankura in the dry season, to the Burdhwan and Hooghly districts of W Bengal, but also to other parts of the country, traditionally exceeds 50% of the adult population. The saying in the region is “like our water, our people flow each year to the east “
Should they be unable to migrate, the only other livelihood option, (typically undertaken by women) is scouring river beds for stones, breaking these into smaller pieces and selling them for road construction work @ Rs 5 per “jhudi” (small bunch of stones – typically in a circle of diameter of 3 ft).
In short, a region inured to tremendous hard ship and back breaking work.
The success of the NREGS scheme in Bankura (now also extended to the districts of Purulia and West Midnapur), viewed in the above context is all the more remarkable.
For the first time on my journey, I was able to see job cards that reflected close to 100 days work and bank accounts that reflected corresponding payments. More importantly, in all the villages I visited, there were water bodies that had been constructed by local villagers under NREGS : large village ponds, smaller village tanks (Hapas) and tiny seepage tanks – as a consequence of which farmers were undertaking SRI cultivation of paddy, and growing vegetables and lentils on land, which otherwise would have lain fallow.
Most inspiring of all, was the very innovative scheme of Mango orchards and Social Forestry, whereby landless women formed Self Help Groups (SHGs) to lease barren land for 25 years, under a crop sharing scheme, and used NREGS funds to treat the land and plant orchards and timber. The pride on the face of these women as they showed me their orchards, was testimony to the fact that proper execution and a focus on Outcomes, can convert an Employment guarantee scheme into a meaningful program that creates Durable Assets which provide sustainable Livelihoods for the poor.
Much of the credit for the Bankura experiment goes to the NGO Pradan, who have been working in the region since the mid 90s on Integrated Natural Resource Management (INRM) and Livelihood enhancement.
Through their bi-partisan and apolitical approach they had won the trust of not just the local communities, but also District, Block and Village level Govt officials, as also the elected representatives of the various Panchayati Raj Institutions (Gram Panchayats, Panchayat Samitis and Zilla Parishads).
In 2007 with the assistance of an enlightened Block Development Officer (BDO) by the name of Babulal Mahatao, and the blessings of the local PRIs, they conducted a pilot, to combine the power of NREGS, with the principles of INRM.
In the Hirabandh block of Bankura district, they selected 3 villages under the Gopalpur Gram Panchayat, for comprehensive water conservation and harvesting works. To achieve lasting results works were planned to suit the topography of the land.
Land in the Bankura district is locally classified as upland (Taand), Medium upland (Baid), Medium lowland ( Kanali) and Lowland (Sol). Generally the higher the land, the poorer the soil quality, and therefore the poorer it’s inhabitants.
In order to ensure the buy-in of the entire village, including richer and more powerful farmers, but also to address water conservation on a long term basis, Pradan recommended a comprehensive Ridge to valley, water conservation and harvesting process. However work was prioritised from Upland to lowland treatment (i.e poorer to richer).
In the Uplands, the land lease scheme for orchards and timber described above, was implemented along with water conservation treatment to reduce the velocity of water run off. Described as the 30 : 40 model, 30 feet bundhs were built along the slope, and 40 ft bundhs were built across the slope thus ensuring water velocity was reduced. The area that was dug out to provide mud for the bundhs, became a water reservoir. Soil erosion was thus reduced, and moisture content of the soil increased. The Orchards and timber plantations, further helped to bind the soil in addition to creating a durable asset for the women who leased the land. Until production started, women practised inter cropping between plants growing vegetables that were an additional source of income for them. A win win on many counts !
For the Midlands they conceived the widespread implementation of the 5 % Individual Benefit scheme. Recognising that small and marginal farmers could rarely afford the cost of pumping and transporting water from the village pond to their small plots, they planned the construction of several water tanks (Hapas) dug on 5 % of the farmers own land. As the soil in the region is rocky, water retention is good, and rain water is stored in these tanks. While all those who work on digging the Hapa are paid under NREGS (@ Rs 136 per day), the farmer on whose land the Hapa is dug, acquires a permanent and valuable irrigation source. As a saturation approach was planned at the outset, villagers had clear sight of when their plots would be covered and there were no tensions or jealousies in the community. As workers were also owners of the asset, the quality of work that I observed was uniformly good.
In the Lowlands, small seepage tanks were constructed, which filled through seepage of ground water resources, providing farmers in the lowlands with a small but almost perennial source of water.
The success of these schemes, and the buy-in of villagers, ensured that the pilot started being replicated across the district. Pradan was chosen as the facilitating agency for NREGS in Bankura.
The results have been impressive. From 2008 to 2012 a total of Rs 150 million has been spent on INRM related NREGS work in the Bankura district. Over 5500 ST families, in 119 villages, have been provided with 8.3 million man days of work. Equally important 3600 small water bodies (Hapas and seepage tanks) have been constructed. In the Hirbandh block alone approx 100 hectares of mango orchards have been planted.
More impressive than these statistics, is the impact on the villagers of Bankura. Though still very poor, there was a sense of deep pride and dignity, about the women I met. As they welcomed me into their homes and offered me their hospitality, many shared the same stories. Just 2 or 3 years ago, they said, they would not have had the ability to offer me anything. Today the combination of NREGS wages for works in their own village, in addition to the incremental income generated from vegetables, mangoes, etc had made it possible to offer a stranger hospitality.
As they shared their dreams and fears, several said that all that they wished for, was not to have to leave their homes again, in search of water, food or employment. In 2010, when the region faced a major drought, a mass scale migration was feared. Instead, due to the availability, howsoever limited, of water, and the employment guarantee under NREGS, there was almost no migration from the District.
The Bankura experiment has filled me with hope. It proves that NREGS can be successfulm and is worthy of emulation across the country.
It also shows that there is scope for Innovation : if the demand for work can be combined with projects that are optimised to meet local needs, then Sustainable livelihoods, Durable assets and Water security are all Outcomes that are possible.
Language is a powerful thing. The words we use to describe our relationships, often acquire a power of their own, and in many ways determine our attitudes.
For example we talk of exploiting natural resources, harvesting nature’s wealth, extracting, mining, digging, prospecting … all of which seems to give us a sense of ownership and the feeling that these resources belong to us, for us to use as we please.
It was therefore a refreshing experience to spend a few days with the winners of the 2011 RBS Foundation Earth Heroes Award – a group of people whose attitude to nature is defined by the name they have given their organisation Aaranyak : the Sanskrit word that indicates a sense of belonging to the Forests.
This is the story of Aaranyak, and of the villagers whose lives they have touched on the fringe villages of the Manas World Heritage Biosphere.
The story of Aaranyak is really the story of its founder Dr Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, and his colleagues – a remarkable group of Environmental scientists, researchers & community workers, educators, and environmental legal specialists, who are using scientific techniques, public advocacy and goodwill with communities, to preserve the eco systems and wildlife habitats of North East India.
Aaranyak was set up by Bibhab in 1989, when he was an MSC student at the University of Gauhati, studying zoology. At the time he intended it to be no more than a student run nature club under the aegis of the WWF.
In 1990, when searching for a topic for his doctoral thesis, he discovered that Govt was leasing out lakes in the Dibru Soikhya wildlife sanctuary to fisheries. These lakes were the home of the White winged wood duck, which was becoming highly endangered as the fisheries were poisoning the ducks to preserve their catch. So the students, with the help of a local advocate filed a PIL against the State Govt. To their surprise, the Govt responded swiftly, withdrew the leasing order and subsequently went on to declare the White winged wood duck the state Bird of Assam. (Bibhab also went on to complete his PhD thesis on the White winged wood duck !)
In 1993, the Assam Govt decided to de-reserve 3 Reserve Forests. Though official records show Assam’s forest cover as high as 30 %, ongoing agricultural encroachment and illegal felling of trees has effectively reduced this to 16-17%. The Aaranyak team, fearing the worst, called a Press Conference declaring “De-reservation would be a bonanza for encroachers“. Justice UL Bhatt, Chief Justice of the Guwahati High Court, took the report in the next day’s newspapers as the basis for a PIL – which Aaranyak gladly supported.
Six years later in the year 2000, the Guwahati High Court issued a landmark judgement in response to this PIL, stating that :
– No reserve forests could be de- reserved
– Encroachers on forest lands should be removed
– forest lands should be re- forested.
The judgement provided good forest officers with a powerful tool to act against vested interests in protection of the Forests.
During this period Aaranyak acquired an institutional shape and attracted a talented team of full time staff. Today it is a registered society and recognised as an SIRO (Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation) by the Department of Scientific & Industrial research, Govt of India. As a Member of National Wildlife Board and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature & natural resources) it ranks amongst the foremost Conservation NGOs in North East India.
This journey is all the more remarkable because it was undertaken at a time when Assam was reeling under the combined impact of the Assam & Bodo agitations. The mission of the Aaranyak team is simply to protect the North east which is a biodiversity hot spot. They are going about this in a highly scientific and organised manner, through 6 main programs :
Net scope : North East Threatened Species Conservation Program : which addresses
1) Rhino conservation & translocation ( 22 rhinos have been translocated from Kaziranga to re- populate Manas),
2) Saving elephants by empowering communities through ecotourism, protection squads, replenishing degraded habitats, and the Aweleys Red Caps program to reduce man animal conflicts
3) Tiger research & conservation : monitoring , camera Trapping in Orang (where 12 tigers have been identified), Kaziranga (68 tigers), and Manas(12 tigers)
4) Studying the hereptofauna of the North East : particularly frogs, turtles, tortoises, and the gharial
5) Studying and protecting the highly endangered Gangetic dolphin in the Brahmaputra
6) Reviving and protecting habitats of Avifauna particularly the endangered Bengal Florican & Greater Adjutant stork
7) Studying the Primates of the North East
Education outreach & capacity building : Working to build awareness amongst children around national parks, and capacity building of volunteers in Bodoland which is home to the Manas & Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuaries.
Legal & Advocacy : continuing to file Public Interest Litigations as well as training forest guards on procedural aspects of filing FIRs against offenders (as procedural lapses often lead to dismissed convictions)
Water, Climate & Hazard watch program : to monitor and assess the impact of climate change on fragile Eco- system habitats
Geo-spatial technology program : A complete biodiversity related GIS database MANTRIS (Manas Tiger Reserve Information system) has been compiled for the Manas bio-sphere.
Wildlife genetics : Noninvasive genetic techniques of individual identification from dung and scat samples have been developed to map the population genetics of the Greater one horned rhino (Rhinoceros Unicornis) and Royal Bengal Tiger (panthera Tigris Tigris). This helps validate census data for these endangered animals.
The Manas Tiger Reserve, comprising 2837 sq km, which is a World Heritage site, became a focus area for Aaranyak, due to the tremendous damage it suffered during the Bodo agitation. As poachers and encroachers had a free run of the park, the entire Rhino population was wiped out, ungulate populations were decimated, the elephant population was depleted by approximately 300 numbers and several tigers poached.
Working with the BTC (Bodoland Territorial Council) and Khampa Borgoyari Executive member in charge of Environment & Forests, Aaranyak have introduced their scientific Program approach, to protect and revive the Park. The husband and wife team of Dr Bibhuti P Lakhar and Namita Brahma are the scientists responsible for the Manas project. As they went about their task, they began to feel that no sustained protection was possible without involving the village communities that live on the fringe of the Park.
Manas is unique amongst wildlife nature reserves in India, in that it is contiguous to the north, with the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan which itself comprises over 3000 sq km. This provides the animals of Manas a large protected forest area comprising a variety of habitats ranging from the grasslands of Assam to the alpine meadows of Bhutan. More importantly it provides secure corridors for animal movement across international boundaries.
To the south, the Reserve is bordered by 62 fringe villages. There are also 210 villages within the precincts of the Reserve, some of which are settlements dating back to Colonial times (for the extraction of timber) and some of which are more recent encroachments. These villagers depend on forest products for their livelihood, thus placing pressure on the forest and giving rise to man animal conflicts.
Namita, who is presently working on her doctoral thesis on the endangered Bengal Flourican and a Bodo herself, felt strongly that if women in these villages could be provided with alternative livelihoods, they would become as passionate about the conservation of Manas, as she was.
After conducting a base line analysis of local skills and market linkages in the fringe villages of Manas, Namita identified 2 groups of women who seemed to have the drive and spirit she was searching for. The first a group of housewives in the Mazrabari village, who were good cooks and keen to try their hand at food processing. The second a group of talented weavers in a neighbouring village, who were willing to experiment with contemporary designs and market their products to a wider audience. Thus, in 2010, were born the Maidangshri Self Help Group for food processing and the Sonali SHG for weaving.
The food processing group is led by Krishna Bhusamatary. An energetic housewife with 3 children, who formerly went into the reserve forests everday to collect thatch, fire wood and wild herbs, she participated in the Aaranyak training program for making making jams, jellies, squashes, sauces and pickles. She then organised a group of 9 of her neighbours and in turn trained them. Helped by Aaranyak with bottles and labels, and guided by Namita, Krishna and her friends started with a range of 7-8 products that found a ready market in the weekly bazaar.
Encouraged they participated in the Assam state level fair and won the 2011 prize for best SHG. More importantly all their products were sold out ! Beaming, as she shared this story, Krishna said to me, “Now we don’t have the time to go to the Forests – we don’t even need to. We are business women !”
Sunila Musahari President of Sonali SHG, is an elegant lady who has chosen not to get married yet as she has not found the right person. She and her Group weave the traditional products worn and gifted in their community, but are also experimenting with new motifs – such as the endangered species of Manas. They too have participated in state level fairs and won awards for their work. Smiling gently Sunila said, “We are doing good business – personally this means I am independent and no longer subject to family pressures”
Separately Bibhuti, who had been working with local volunteers on awareness and capacity building programs, was approached by a group of Bodo youngsters who were keen to start an Eco-tourism project. He assisted them to formulate a plan and approach the WWF and the BTC for seed funding.
Starting with tents, this young group that calls itself MEWS (Manas Ever Welfare Society), has now set up 6 very comfortable Eco- tourist cottages overlooking the Manas National Park, a few hundred metres away from the Manas river. Trained by Aaranyak they are capable guides for the park and have just acquired a jeep to take tourists on Park Safaris. Musicians and Dancers from the neighbouring villages are encouraged to stage performances for guests thus widening the positive eco system impact. Last but not least, they are training local village children on the flora, fauna and habitat of Manas, so that a young generation of conservationists is created.
In the time that I spent with the Aaranyak team at Manas and with the villagers they are working with in the Baksa district of Bodoland, I saw how powerful a sense of belonging can be. It has created a paradigm where growth and development are moving hand in hand with the protection and rejuvenation of a fragile Eco system.
Perhaps more of us should take a leaf out of Aaranyak’s lexicon, and start talking of belonging to our villages, cities, countries and to our Planet itself.