Author: TR Shankar Raman (page 1 of 8)

Deep Impact: Environmental History and the Human Footprint

This book review appeared in Current Conservation in 2011.

Something New Under The Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth- Century World by J. R. McNeill, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN:0-393-04917-5 (2000).

This book, which aims to present an ecological history of the 20th century, but which does more than that, is one of the first really comprehensive global environmental history books I’ve read. It is balanced, mostly neutral in tone, has a historian’s caution in interpreting past and recent events and prognoses for the future. While generally well written, it is a little less engaging in the beginning but becomes better towards the end.

The span is impressive: effects on soil, water, air, ecosystems, and biodiversity; themes of economic growth, industrialisation, farming of land and water and ocean and the so-called Green Revolution, dams and infrastructure, democratisation, coal, oil, and energy, globalisation, medical and public health changes, and, of course, environmentalism itself. Its pages encapsulate an amazing range of items and ideas: from the history of chainsaws and tractors to cars and nuclear power, from the history of chemical fertilizers and leaded gasoline to chlofluorocarbons (CFCs) and greenhouses gases.

Most fascinating of all are the accounts of the people responsible and the nations underlying these changes, and how people and nations have changed and been changed by the environment. There are some interesting sidelights to read here. How Fritz Haber, the co-inventor of the Haber-Bosch process that brought us today’s urea and nitrogen crisis, also spent World War I creating poison gas for the German military, which led his wife to commit suicide. How Thomas Midgely, the inventor of ‘freon’, the first of the ozone-depleting CFCs, and of the use of lead in engine performance, “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history”. Midgely later contracted polio and invented a peculiar contraption to get himself in and out of bed, which ultimately went awry and strangulated him to death.

The chapter on air pollution makes fascinating and compelling reading, highly relevant to today’s context. How a London fog of 1873 was so dense that people walked into the River Thames because they couldn’t see it. How air pollution killed as many people as were killed in the 20th century in both world wars combined, “similar to the global death toll from the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, the twentieth century’s worst encounter with infectious disease”. How, for people “… breathing Calcutta’s air after 1975 was equivalent to smoking a pack of Indian cigarettes a day. Nearly two-thirds of the population in the 1980s suffered lung ailments attributed to air pollution, chiefly particulates.” How “Coal soon signed its own death warrant as London’s fuel by killing 4,000 people in the fog of December 4—10, 1952. Chilly weather and stagnant air meant a million chimneys’ smoke…”. McNeill writes about urban smog and indoor pollution from burning coal and biomass in the domestic hearth, adding chillingly how air pollution only compounded the environmental crisis brought by water pollution in the twentieth century. “Indoor air pollution, particularly in the poorer countries where biomass and coal served as domestic fuels, produced the same ailments and probably killed millions more. That said, it is well to remember that polluted water caused far more death and disease than did polluted air in the twentieth century.”

Fascinating and manifold, McNeill recounts a range of events of great environmental import: the Dutch transmigration of 1905 in Indonesia, the Soviets ploughing into the steppes, the Brazilian push into Amazonia, waste management in Curitiba and Tokyo and Mexico, Peru’s anchoveta collapse and the assault on the world’s fisheries, the dam-building boom in the 1960s when at least one dam was being built per day on average in the world, the ecological footprint of cities from Delhi and Beijing and Singapore to others, the oil spills in Nigeria and the history of dependence on coal and oil, about medicine and public health and the impact of small pox and its eventual conquest until only “samples of the virus remain in freezers in laboratories in Atlanta and the Siberian city of Koltsovo” and so on and on. McNeill also has a quirky way of looking at world events. Writing about invasive alien species, he says: “So, in the tense Cold War atmosphere of the early 1980s, American ecosystems launched a first strike with the comb jelly and the USSR’s biota retaliated with the zebra mussel. The damaging exchange probably resulted from the failures of Soviet agriculture, which prompted the grain trade from North America: more trade, more ships, more ballast water.”

Writing about the environmentalism and the global fixation on a single-point agenda of economic growth, he also draws on the Gandhi—Nehru divide, quoting Gandhi: “‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West…. If an entire nation of 300 million [this was in 1928] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.’ Gandhi was exceptional: most Indian nationalists, like Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted an industrial India, locustlike if need be.” And how independence from colonial powers did little to transform the trend of human impact on the environment: “In environmental matters, as in so many respects, independence often proved no more than a change in flags.”

McNeill draws a brief history of the environmental movement and how it was fostered by effective communication of science and ideas, singling out the work of the author of Silent Spring. “Successful ideas require great communicators to bring about wide conversion. The single most effective catalyst for environmentalism was an American aquatic zoologist with a sharp pen, Rachel Carson (1907–1964).” Yet how has the movement fared in bringing change? Mc Neill writes: “When Zhou Enlai, longtime foreign minister of Mao’s China and a very worldly man, was asked about the significance of the French Revolution some 180 years after the event, he replied that it was still too early to tell. So it is, after only 35 years, with modern environmentalism.”

In the end, McNeill highlights how both ecology and history are highly integrative disciplines (as this book itself highlights) and that they need to understand and work with each other if we are to make sense of our environmental movement, past and future.


Article for download (courtesy Current Conservation, CC-BY 3.0)

Indira Gandhi: One Earth, One Environment, One Humanity

Fifty years ago, on 14 June 1972, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave a landmark speech at the plenary session of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm. Both the UN conference and her speech were significant events in modern environmental history. The significance of her speech was recently recounted by Jairam Ramesh in an op-ed in The Hindu and in some detail earlier in Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature, his biographical account of Indira Gandhi’s life and connections with nature and conservation. In this speech, pertinent then and prescient now, she addresses a number of concerns that are still with us: why poverty eradication through development is essential, why development should centre human well-being in multiple dimensions and not narrowly focus on economic growth, why equity in global environmental efforts is essential, why we should only take from the planet what we can put back and sustain, and how people can be motivated towards better alternatives.

Indira Gandhi (Credit: via Wikimedia Commons)

Although the speech is quite famous it is not easily available online from reliable sources or references. Her speech is available in volumes of her collected speeches, including Peoples and Problems (1982), Indira Gandhi: speeches and Writings (1975), and The Years of Endeavour: Selected Speeches of Indira Gandhi, August 1969 – August 1972 (1975). I have also made available an extract of the full text of speech from the pages of the latter volume here. The above versions differ in minor respects in punctuation and sentence construction (presumably to align the grammar from the spoken to the written word). I have referred to the above sources and present below the full text, with a few very minor text edits of my own, in order to make her speech more widely available. It is a remarkable speech and well worth reading or re-reading today.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressing the UN Conference on Human Environment on 14 June 1972 (Photo courtesy: United Nations)

Full text of the address by Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, to the plenary session of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 14 June 1972.

It is indeed an honour to address this Conference—in itself, a fresh expression of the spirit which created the United Nations: concern for the present and future welfare of humanity. It does not aim merely at securing limited agreements, but at establishing peace and harmony in life—among all races and with nature. This gathering represents man’s earnest endeavour to understand his own condition and to prolong his tenancy of this planet. A vast amount of detailed preparatory work has gone into the convening of this Conference, guided by the dynamic personality of Mr. Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the Conference.

I have had the good fortune of growing up with a sense of kinship with nature in all its manifestations. Birds, plants, and stones were companions and, sleeping under the star-strewn sky, I became familiar with the names and movements of the constellations. But my deep interest in this, our ‘only earth’, was not for itself but as a fit home for man.

One cannot be truly human and civilised unless one looks upon, not only all fellow men, but all creation with the eyes of a friend. Throughout India, edicts carved on rocks and iron pillars are reminders that twenty-two centuries ago, Emperor Ashoka defined a king’s duty as not merely to protect citizens and punish wrong-doers, but also to preserve wild life and the trees of the forest. Ashoka was the first, and perhaps the only monarch until very recently, to forbid the killing of a large number of species of animals for sport or food, foreshadowing some of the concerns of this Conference. He went further, regretting the carnage of his military conquests and enjoining upon his successors to find ‘their only pleasure in the peace that comes through righteousness’.

Along with the rest of mankind, we in India—in spite of Ashoka—have been guilty of wanton disregard for the sources of our sustenance. We share your concern at the rapid deterioration of flora and fauna. Some of our own wild life has been wiped out. Vast areas of forest, full of beautiful old trees, mute witnesses of history, have been destroyed. Even though our industrial development is in its infancy, and at its most difficult stage, we are taking various steps to deal with incipient environmental imbalances. The more so because of our concern for the human being—a species which is also imperilled. In poverty, he is threatened by malnutrition and disease; in weakness, by war; in wealth, by the pollution brought about by his own prosperity.

It is sad that in country after country, progress should have become synonymous with an assault on nature. We, who are part of nature, and dependent on her for every need, speak constantly about ‘exploiting’ nature.

indira Gandhi

It is sad that in country after country, progress should have become synonymous with an assault on nature. We, who are part of nature, and dependent on her for every need, speak constantly about ‘exploiting’ nature. When the highest mountain in the world was climbed in 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru objected to the phrase ‘conquest of Everest’, which he thought arrogant. Is it surprising that this lack of consideration and the constant need to prove one’s superiority, should be projected into our treatment of our fellow men? I remember Edward Thompson, a British writer and a good friend of India, once telling Mahatma Gandhi that its wild life was fast disappearing. Remarked the Mahatma: ‘It is decreasing in the jungles but it is increasing in the towns!’

We are gathered here under the aegis of the United Nations. We are supposed to belong to the same family, sharing common traits and impelled by the same basic desires; yet we inhabit a divided world.

How can it be otherwise? There is still no recognition of the equality of man, or respect for him as an individual. In matters of colour and race, religion and custom, society is governed by prejudice. Tensions arise because of man’s aggressiveness and his notions of superiority. The power of the big stick prevails and it is used not in favour of fair play or beauty, but to chase imaginary windmills—to assume the right to interfere in the affairs of others, and to arrogate authority for actions that would not normally be allowed. Many of the advanced countries of today have reached their present affluence through domination of other races and countries, and exploitation of their own masses and their own natural resources. Their sheer ruthlessness, undisturbed by feelings of compassion or by abstract theories of freedom, equality, or justice, gave them a head start. The first stirrings for political rights for the citizen, and economic rights for the toiler, came after considerable advance has been made. The riches and the labour of the colonised countries played no small part in the industralisation and prosperity of the West. Now, as we struggle to create a better life for our people, it is in vastly different circumstances, for obviously with the eagle-eyed watchfulness of today, we cannot indulge in such practices even for a worthwhile purpose. We are bound by our own ideals. We owe allegiance to the principles of the rights of workers and the norms enshrined in the charters of international organisations. Above all, we are answerable to the millions of politically awakened citizens in our own countries. All these make progress costlier and more complicated.

We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?

Indira Gandhi

On the one hand the rich look askance at our continuing poverty, on the other they warn us against their own methods. We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters? For instance, unless we are in a position to provide employment and purchasing power for the daily necessities of the tribal people, and those who live in or around our jungles, we cannot prevent them from combing the forests for food and livelihood, from poaching and despoiling the vegetation. When they themselves feel deprived, how can we urge the preservation of animals? How can we speak to those who live in villages and in slums about keeping the oceans, the rivers, and the air clean, when their own lives are contaminated at the source? The environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty. Nor can poverty be eradicated without the use of science and technology.

Must there be a conflict between technology and a truly better world, or between enlightenment of the spirit and a higher standard of living? Foreigners sometimes ask what to us seems a very strange question, whether progress in India would not mean a diminution of her spirituality or her values. Is spiritual quality so superficial as to be dependent upon the lack of material comfort? As a country, we are no more or less spiritual than any other, but traditionally our people have respected the spirit of detachment and renunciation. Historically, our great spiritual discoveries were made during periods of comparative affluence. The doctrines of detachment from possessions were developed not as a rationalisation of deprivation, but to prevent comfort and ease from dulling the senses. Spirituality means the enrichment of the spirit, the strengthening of one’s inner resources and the stretching of one’s range of experience. It is the ability to be still in the midst of activity and vibrantly alive in moments of calm; to separate the essence from circumstances; to accept joy and sorrow with some degree of equanimity. Perception and compassion are the marks of true spirituality.

I am reminded of an incident in one of our tribal areas. The vociferous demand of elder tribal chiefs, that their customs should be left undisturbed, found support from noted anthropologists. In its anxiety that the majority should not submerge the many ethnical, racial, and cultural groups in our country, the Government of India largely accepted this advice. I was amongst those who entirely approved. A visit to a remote part of our north-east frontier, however, brought me in touch with a different point of view—the protest of the younger elements that while the rest of India was on its way to modernisation, they were being preserved as museum pieces. Could not we say the same to the affluent nations?

The feeling is growing that we should re-order our priorities and move away from the single-dimensional model, in which growth is viewed from a narrow angle and which seems to accord a higher place to things rather than to people.

Indira Gandhi

For the last quarter of a century, we have been engaged in an enterprise unparalleled in human history—the provision of basic needs for one-sixth of mankind within the span of one or two generations. When we launched on that effort, our early planners had more than the usual gaps to fill. There were not enough data and no helpful books. No guidance could be sought from the experience of other countries because their conditions—political, economic, social, and technological—were altogether different. Planning of the kind which we were innovating, had never been used in the context of a mixed economy. But we could not wait. The need to improve conditions for our people was pressing. Planning and action, the improvement of data for better planning and better action, all this was a continuous and overlapping process. Our industrialisation tended to follow the paths which the more advanced countries had traversed earlier. Throughout the ’60s, and particularly during the last five years, we encountered a bewildering variety of problems, some due to our own shortcomings, but many inherent in the process, and in existing attitudes. The feeling is growing that we should re-order our priorities and move away from the single-dimensional model, in which growth is viewed from a narrow angle and which seems to accord a higher place to things rather than to people. Such an approach increases our needs but not our enjoyment of life. We should have a more comprehensive approach, centred on man, not as a statistic but as an individual, with many sides to his personality. These problems cannot be treated in isolation but must be regarded as an integral part of the unfolding of the very process of development.

The extreme forms, in which questions of population or environmental pollution are posed, obscure the total view of political, economic, and social situations. The Government of India is one of the few which has an officially sponsored programme of family planning and this is making some progress. We believe that planned families will make for a healthier and more conscious population. But we know also that no programme of population control can be effective without education and without a visible rise in the standard of living. Our own programmes have succeeded in the urban or semi-urban areas. To the very poor, every child is an earner and a helper. We are experimenting with new approaches and the family planning programme is being combined with those of maternity and child welfare, nutrition, and development in general.

It is an over-simplification to blame all the world’s problems on increasing population. Countries with but a small fraction of the world population consume the bulk of the world’s production of minerals, fossil fuels, and so on. Thus we see that when it comes to the depletion of natural resources and environmental pollution, the increase of one inhabitant in an affluent country, at his level of living, is equivalent to an increase of many Asians, Africans, or Latin Americans at their levels of living.

The inherent conflict is not between conservation and development, but between environment and reckless exploitation in the name of efficiency.

indira Gandhi

The inherent conflict is not between conservation and development, but between environment and reckless exploitation in the name of efficiency. Historians tell us that the modern age began with the will to freedom of the individual. And the individual came to believe that he had rights with no corresponding obligations. The man who got ahead was the one who commanded admiration. No questions were asked as to the methods employed, or the price which others had had to pay. Industrial civilisation has promoted the concept of the efficient man, he whose entire energies are concentrated on producing as much as possible in a given unit of time and from a given unit of manpower. Groups or individuals who are less competitive and, according to this test, less efficient, are regarded as lesser breeds—for example, the older civilisations, the black and brown peoples, women, and certain professions. Obsolescence is built into production, and efficiency is based on the creation of goods which are not really needed and which cannot be disposed of, when discarded. What price such efficiency now, and is not the word reckless a more appropriate term for such behaviour?

All the ‘isms’ of the modern age—even those which in theory disown the private profit principle—assume that man’s cardinal interest is in acquisition. The profit motive, individual or collective, seems to overshadow all else. This overriding concern with self is today the basic cause of the ecological crisis.

Pollution is not a technical problem. The fault lies not in science and technology as such, but in the sense of values of the contemporary world which ignores the rights of others and is oblivious to the longer perspective.

There are grave misgivings that the discussion of ecology may be designed to distract attention from the problems of war and poverty. We have to prove to the disinherited majority of the world that ecology and conservation will not work against their interest but will bring an improvement in their lives. To withhold technology from them would be to deprive them of vast resources of energy and knowledge. This is no longer feasible, nor will it be acceptable.

The environmental problems of developing countries are not the side-effects of excessive industrialisation, but reflect the inadequacy of development. The rich countries may look upon development as the cause of environmental destruction, but to us it is one of the primary means of improving the environment, for living, or providing food, water, sanitation, and shelter; of making the deserts green and the mountains habitable. The research and perseverance of dedicated people have given us an insight which is likely to play an important part in the shaping of our future plans. We see that however much man hankers after material goods, they can never give him full satisfaction. Thus, the higher standard of living must be achieved without alienating the people from their heritage or despoiling nature of the beauty, freshness, and purity so essential to our lives.

The most urgent and basic question is that of peace. Nothing is so pointless as modern warfare. Nothing destroys so instantly, so completely, as the diabolic weapons which not only kill but maim and deform the living and the yet to be born, which poison the land, and leave long trails of ugliness, barrenness and hopeless desolation. What ecological project can survive a war? The Prime Minister of Sweden, Mr. Olof Palme, has already drawn the attention of the Conference to this in powerful words.

Will the growing awareness of ‘one earth’ and ‘one environment’ guide us to the concept of‘one humanity’?

Indira Gandhi

It is clear that the environmental crisis which is confronting the world will profoundly alter the future destiny of our planet. No one among us, whatever his status, strength or circumstance, can remain unaffected. The process of change challenges present international policies. Will the growing awareness of ‘one earth’ and ‘one environment’ guide us to the concept of ‘one humanity’? Will there be a more equitable sharing of environmental costs and greater international interest in the accelerated progress of the less developed world? Or, will it confine itself to one narrow concern, that of exclusive self-sufficiency?

The first essays in narrowing economic and technological disparities have not succeeded because the policies of aid were made to subserve the equations of power. We hope that the renewed emphasis on self-reliance, brought about by the change in the climate for aid, will also promote a search for new criteria of human satisfaction. In the meantime, the ecological crisis should not add to the burdens of the weaker nations by introducing new considerations in the political and trade policies of rich nations. It would be ironic if the fight against pollution were to be converted into another business, out of which a few companies, corporations, or nations would make profits at the cost of the many. Here is a branch of experimentation and discovery in which scientists of all nations should take interest. They should ensure that their findings are available to all nations, unrestricted by patents. I am glad that the Conference has given thought on this aspect of the problem.

Life is one and the world is one, and all these questions are interlinked. The population explosion, poverty, ignorance, and disease, the pollution of our surroundings, the stockpiling of nuclear weapons and biological and chemical agents of destruction, are all part of a vicious circle. Each is important and urgent but dealing with them one by one would be wasted effort.

It serves little purpose to dwell on the past or to apportion blame, for none of us is blameless. If some are able to dominate others, this is at least partially due to the weakness, the lack of unity, and the temptation to gain some advantage on the part of those who submit. If the prosperous have been exploiting the needy, can we honestly claim that in our own societies, people do not take advantage of the weak? We must re-evaluate the fundamentals in which our respective civic societies are based, and the ideals by which they are sustained. If there is to be change of heart, a change of direction and methods of functioning, no organisation or country—no matter how well intentioned—can achieve it. While each country must deal with that aspect of the problem which is most relevant to it, it is obvious that all countries must unite in an overall endeavour. There is no alternative to a co-operative approach, on a global scale, to the entire spectrum of our problems.

I have referred to some problems which seem to me to be the underlying causes of the present crisis in our civilisation. This is not in the expectation that this Conference can achieve miracles or solve all the world’s difficulties, but in the hope that the opinions of each nation will be kept in focus, that these problems will be viewed in perspective and each project devised as part of the whole.

It will not be easy for large societies to change their style of living. They cannot be coerced to do so, nor can governmental action suffice. People can be motivated, can be urged to participate in better alternatives.

Indira Gandhi

On a previous occasion, I have spoken of the unfinished revolution in our countries. I am now convinced that this can only be taken to its culmination if it is accompanied by a revolution in social thinking. In 1968, at the 14th General Conference of UNESCO, the Indian delegation, along with others, proposed a new and major programme entitled ‘a design for living’. It is essential to grasp the full implications of technical advance and its impact on different sections and groups. We do not want to put the clock back or resign ourselves to a simplistic natural state. We want new directions in the wiser use of the knowledge and the tools with which science equips us. And this cannot be just one upsurge but a continuous search into cause and effect, an unending effort to match technology with higher levels of thinking. We must concern ourselves, not only with the kind of world we want, but also with what kind of man should inhabit it. Surely we do not desire a society divided into those who condition and those who are conditioned. We want thinking people, capable of spontaneous, self-directed activity, who are interested and interesting, and who are imbued with compassion and concern for others.

It will not be easy for large societies to change their style of living. They cannot be coerced to do so, nor can governmental action suffice. People can be motivated, can be urged to participate in better alternatives.

It has been my experience that people who are at cross purposes with nature are cynical about mankind and ill at ease with themselves. Modern man must re-establish an unbroken link with nature and with life. He must again learn to invoke the energy of growing things and to recognise, as did the ancients in India centuries ago, that one can take from the earth and the atmosphere only so much as one puts back into them. In their ‘Hymn to Earth’, the sages of the Atharva Veda chanted:

What of thee I dig out, let that quickly grow over,
Let me not hit they vitals, or the heart.

So can man himself be vital and of good heart and conscious of his own responsibility.

The right shade of green

Early monsoon clouds, grey as elephant skin, span the skies over the hillock where we are planting tree saplings. From 500 saplings stacked in black plastic sleeves, I select and heave two over to nearby soil pits prepared to receive them.

These are not just any trees, I think, as I slit open the covers, without disturbing the roots. These are very particular trees. A korangupila or Cullenia exarillata sapling and a wild nutmeg or Myristica dactyloides , picked from the 120 tree species in the stack, all native to this very place in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats. A land of evergreens, a tropical rainforest, a place the great hornbills, lion-tailed macaques, and thousands of other lifeforms call home. As if echoing my thoughts, the loud bark of the hornbill sounds from the mist-breathing rainforest patch in the distance, where a 15-strong troop of macaques also lives.

It’s our 21st year attempting to ecologically restore the tropical rainforest. The slope we are planting on lies open to the sky with only a few trees — a rainforest in tatters. Like other such remnants in the landscape, it has had a long history of being logged, converted to plantations, abandoned, overrun by weeds, and suffering decades of neglect. Today, our team, a dozen strong, is getting its hands dirty trying to bring back the forests that once graced the land. Some are pitting with crowbars, one scatters organic manure on the freshly excavated moist soil. A few are removing invasive weeds like lantana, carefully retaining any native rainforest plant growing alongside. Others distribute saplings, or squat besides the pits planting, mulching, and tagging the plants with biodegradable flagging tape for later monitoring.

Rainforest restoration planting in progress in the Anamalai Hills

Hours later, we visit one of our older sites restored two decades earlier. Where previously deforested open land and smothering tangles of weeds sprawled, now diverse trees over 50 feet tall stand like columns. Some young trees are flush with clusters of bright red leaves, others sprout their first crops of fruit. The harsh chattering alarm call of a giant squirrel sounds from the canopy where a troop of dark Nilgiri langurs munches its way through the foliage — both species having returned to the site in the last few years as the rainforest reclaimed the land.

Rainforest recovery in the Stanmore restoration site: from 2004 (top, site with weeds removed) to 2018 (below, after restoration with rainforest trees growing).

A million trees

Ecological restoration involves the careful planting of the right species in the right places in the right mix and right manner. Unfortunately, many large-scale tree planting programmes carried out today ignore each of these vital criteria even as they make headlines for having used hundreds or thousands of volunteers to plant lakhs or millions of saplings over hundreds of hectares, sometimes in a single hour or day.

A case in point is Telangana’s Haritha Haram programme that aims to plant 2.3 billion tree seedlings in four years. The programme also adopts the recent fad of lobbing seed balls (seeds embedded in balls of soil) across the State, one district vying for a record of 20 million. Telangana has a diverse range of natural ecosystems including grasslands, tree savannas, dry thorn forests, and deciduous forests, with hundreds of native plant species, from grasses and shrubs to trees. Yet, the official website of the project lists just a hundred tree species, including many invasive alien species such as Prosopis juliflora (mesquite), acacia wattles, casuarina, and ornamental trees. These species are not just inappropriate for Telangana, some are downright harmful. Yet, millions of seedlings are being planted and millions of seed balls tossed around, unmindful of whether the right species are being planted or even whether trees should be planted in that ecosystem at all.

Large-scale record-breaking tree planting makes news, not forests. Which explains why politicians, bureaucrats, and celebrities throng these events, while botanists, ecologists, and indigenous people are conspicuously absent. Besides failing to monitor or nurture the large numbers planted, such tree planting can cause more harm than good.

Across India, tree planting efforts suffer from five main problems: planting trees in the wrong places, planting the wrong species and species mix, planting too few species, failing to consider seed provenance, and planting without considering the rights of local people.

Rich deserts

The most egregious harm comes when people plant trees in areas that do not naturally support many trees: open natural ecosystems (ONEs). India has a remarkable diversity of ONEs from the hot desert dunes of Jaisalmer to the cold desert steppes of Spiti and Ladakh; from the thorn scrub and savanna woodlands of the Deccan Plateau to the ravines of the Chambal; from the dry grasslands of Banni to the wet grasslands of Kaziranga; from the montane grasslands of the Western Ghats to the alpine meadows of the Himalayas. ONEs span about 3,29,000 sq.km. or 15% of India’s land area, according to a recent study by ATREE, a Bengaluru-based NGO, and maps by scientists M.D. Madhusudan, Abi Vanak, and Abhijeet Kulkarni.

These open natural ecosystems, mislabelled ‘wastelands’, are ecosystems in their own right, home to many specialised and endangered plants and animals. Two of India’s most endangered bird species — the great Indian bustard and Jerdon’s courser — are birds of open drylands. When tree plantations, including alien or introduced trees, smother open grassland and scrub, native plant and animal species decline and disappear.

Trees planted inappropriately in chinkara habitat, destroying a grassland ecosystem (Photo: Abi Vanak)

Tree planting in ONEs can also affect local hydrology and reduce water availability. Native grasses and dryland plants are adapted to use little water in keeping with local rainfall patterns and infiltration, while helping recharge groundwater. But tree plantations in such areas can increase water uptake and transpiration, depleting the water table. For these reasons, open natural ecosystems deserve protection, including from tree planting. The ATREE study estimates that about 6,452 sq. km. or half the ONEs in Telangana could suffer from inappropriate tree planting. Across India, 51% of ONEs are similarly threatened.

Tree planting in forests can go wrong, too, as best seen in India’s flawed compensatory afforestation, where plantations are established ostensibly to compensate for forests destroyed for development projects. A November 2017 report by Community Forest Rights–Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA), a group working on forest rights issues, examined 2,479 compensatory afforestation plantations in 10 States listed in the Government’s E-Green Watch website, and found that 70% were on forest lands instead of non-forest lands. This signifies a double-loss: the original forest is wiped clear for built infrastructure, while double the area in a new ‘afforestation’ site is scoured by earthwork, trenches, and concrete structures, only to introduce alien and inappropriate trees neither native to the original destroyed forest nor to the ecosystem in the new location. In effect, three times the area of some of India’s most remarkable forests are being destroyed or disturbed at taxpayer expense in the name of compensatory afforestation.

Monoculture eucalyptus plantations are not forests and can be harmful in many ways to natural ecosystems. photo by Kalyan Varma, see his full photo essay here.

Planting the wrong species and species mix is legion in tree planting programmes. The species planted are often alien, such as eucalyptus, mesquite, senna, and wattles, or include naturalised species such as gulmohar or neem. Even where planters claim to use native species, they are generic native species found widely elsewhere in India (such as amla, banyan, or jack) rather than those native to the ecosystem at the planting location.

Worse, the seeds or seedlings are not sourced from local ecosystems or appropriate seed zones, but randomly sourced and trucked in from whichever nursery or market happens to sell them. Only a few tree planting programmes take the required care to identify the correct natural ecosystem and vegetation and bother to ethically source seeds or raise seedlings in local, native plant nurseries.

Without people

In afforestation sites, State forest departments and implementing agencies also plant a pitifully small number of tree species, usually less than 10, often as few as two or three. One study found that more than half of the 2,35,000 ha afforested between 2015 and 2018 used five or fewer species. To take just one random example from 2015, to offset the diversion of 103 ha of forest land for the trans-Arunachal highway, the State planned compensatory afforestation in 310 ha of land in a village forest reserve. Both the original forest and the village reserve would have had hundreds of plant species, but the afforestation, according to details published online, planted five unnamed species at a cost of ₹28 lakh.

Tree planting programmes often fail to consider the roles and rights of local communities, enshrined in the landmark Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. The CFR-LA report found that of 52 compensatory afforestation plantations in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha, all were established on community forest lands vested in the village gram sabhas by the FRA, but all were carried out without gram sabha permission. Even during the pandemic in 2020, States such as Chhattisgarh and Odisha continued such afforestation on lands belonging to and used by indigenous people, excluding them by building fences and walls. Under rules framed by the present government in August 2018, the requirement for gram sabha consent has been done away with, violating local rights and compromising traditional land use, such as for fodder and grazing. Crucially, it also fails to empower communities as agents of restoration.

Meanwhile, destructive development projects are poised to destroy millions of native trees in some of our best forests. A science college in Dehradun set to fell over 25,000 trees, the Buxwaha diamond mine in Bundelkhand set to hack over 2.15 lakh trees, the Ken-Betwa river-linking project slated to destroy 23 lakh trees, the proposed trans-shipment terminal on Great Nicobar island that will kill untold millions in some of India’s most extraordinary forests, and the list goes on and on. Efforts to protect these existing trees in our forests could do a lot more good than misguided tree planting.

A rainforest returns

Back in the Anamalais, I mulled over our own small-scale tree planting for rainforest restoration. Over two decades, we had planted around 70,000 trees to restore about 100 ha of highly degraded rainforest, working hectare by hectare, chasing neither targets nor records, but aiming to bring back a semblance of the original rainforest ecosystem as best we could. Three local plantation companies, Parry Agro Industries, Tata Coffee, and Tea Estates India, had also stepped up to protect over 1,075 ha of existing rainforest patches within their tea and coffee estates.

Taken together, our work was an attempt to show that protecting remaining forests was the first priority and tree planting could be done and done well, when and where it was really needed. We hoped it would serve as a model of ecological restoration that would motivate others to plant ecosystems and not just trees. Ecological restoration of the appropriate ecosystem — whether grassland, desert, savanna, or rainforest — is preferable to blind tree planting.

For us, there was another salient reason to plant rainforest trees, year after year, decade after decade. If all went well, one day, a few decades hence, from the nearby rainforest patch, descendants of the troop of macaques would comb the canopy of the Cullenia, and future hornbills would whoosh onto the Myristica to feed on the fruits of the very trees we had planted.

This article appeared as the cover story in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 8 August 2021. Available online under the title Why frenzied tree planting is no answer to ecological restoration.

Cover story in The Hindu Sunday Magazine

Wildlife Photography: Gujarat Model

Re-posting this book review from over a decade ago, which appeared in the Deccan Herald’s Sunday Herald on 4 September 2011.

Gujarat’s Vibrant Wildlife: A Pictorial Journey by Diinesh Kumble, Commissionerate of Information, Gujarat 2011, 192 pages, Rs 1,495.

With its ‘mouth’ opening through the Gulf of Kachchh, a neck set in the hills of the Dangs, and a curved ‘jaw’ housing the most populated districts dangling over the Arabian Sea, the shape of Gujarat looks like the head of an animal, and a smiling one at that. Within the limited geographical scope offered by the administrative boundaries is, however, a surprising diversity of landscapes, ecosystems, and wildlife.

With a rich array of photographs and a notable paucity of text, Kumble’s book aims to take the reader, or rather the gazer, on a journey through this state in this book published with the support of the Government of Gujarat. It has the blessings of no less than its Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, with whose message the book opens on a page opposite a photograph of, of course, a lion.

The book is organised rather loosely as chapters on five major habitats: grassland, wetland, forest, marine, and desert. Within each, there is about a page of text, the rest is all photographs and captions. As an introduction to Gujarat’s wildlife (names of species are also accompanied by Gujarati names, although not in Gujarati script), the book has some limited success, and some extraordinary failures.

The book is redeemed in part by many colour photographs, and the printing quality is excellent. The images, mostly of mammals and birds, are mostly those taken by the author, with some by his wife Chris Romila Kumble, and a sprinkling from other photographers: Devesh Gadhvi, Umeed Mistry, and Sumer Verma.

Most photographs are crisp portraits — close-ups of the sort that one gets with vibration-reduced large lenses with wide-open apertures — with the background and foreground fuzzy. The images captivate, but lack depth, literally and figuratively, on the living landscapes and plants that sustain animal life. The chapter on forests, for instance, lacks photographs of any forest type. Adding a few such images to accompany each chapter would have helped.

Transcending the field-guide type portraits that the book is filled with are a few images that stand out in terms of composition, inspiring a touch of awe, a sense of nature wild and free. Such are Mistry’s underwater shots of turtle and whale shark, Gadhvi’s image of lesser agama, and a few photos by the author and his wife, such as the sepia-toned spread of wild ass, flamingos in flight, and a pan of a jackal running.

Where the book really stoops low in quality is in the text. Almost uniformly poorly written, it includes some blandly-stated incomprehensibles such as “Forests are veritably the laboratories of life where co-operation and zero-sum games are seen in the raw” and “When it finally appeared but for a fraction of a second before disappearing behind the rocks, it was definitely worth a thousand words”.

The captions of the images again read like field-guide material, often repeating the colours of the animal self-evident in the photograph. Captions for a few full-page images appear to have been overlooked. There is little on ecology, and even less on conservation in the book, to provide an interpretive context. The book would have benefited if the photographic skills of the author were combined with the knowledge of a field biologist who could also write well.

Were all the photos taken in Gujarat and of free-ranging animals? The portrait of a lion that the book opens with looks suspiciously like a much-photographed individual from an enclosure in Gir. Seeing images of foxes and hyenas photographed near dens, and of a leopard running in broad daylight, one also hopes that the photographer used due diligence to minimise disturbance to animals.

There is also nothing worthwhile about conservation in this book, although the introduction claims that conservation is a ‘living ideology’ in Gujarat, epitomised by its lions. The sorry state of the Asiatic lion, reduced to a spectacle for tourists inured to the sight of habituated and hustled lions lying about their vehicles in a small area of Gujarat, a fraction of its original range, is not discussed.

Still, the book, published by the State Government, can hardly mention the blinkered intransigence of Gujarat to allow the establishment of another population in an identified reintroduction site in Madhya Pradesh, can it? In today’s context, lions are no more the pride, they are the shame of Gujarat.

Similarly, there is nothing about the Dangs and forest loss and fragmentation, nothing about pollution and bleaching threatening the coral reefs, and certainly nothing about Gujarat’s race to urbanise and industrialise and its consequences on the environment within which its people live.

To be fair, conservation is not the main theme of the book, but by ignoring conservation, peoples, and land uses in Gujarat, the book is one among many that succeeds in conveying an impression of wildlife and nature as objects, as colourful curiosities that one goes out to see, and constrained to remain within protected areas ordained for them (the maps in the book only show Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks).

Metaphorically speaking, the book succeeds in capturing this feeling and message through its images. Stilt and stork, gharial and hedgehog, nightjars and sandgrouse, they are all clipped, snout or beak to tail-tip, as tight portraits. There is little space, no vista. The images suggest a circumscribed view of wildlife in Gujarat, like closeted jewels in a locked jewel box.


[Article for download]

A rough draft of conservation history

Newspapers, as someone famously said, publish the first rough draft of history. If this is right, then the book under review can be said to provide a first rough draft of the conservation history of India from the mid 1990s to the present. Conservation Kaleidoscope: People, Protected Areas and Wildlife in Contemporary India by Pankaj Sekhsaria contains a selection of news items from mainstream media and accompanying editorials that first appeared in the bimonthly newsletter Protected Area Update (or PA Update) edited by the author and published by the environmental organisation Kalpavriksh. PA Update, still in publication, typically focuses on news and issues concerning India’s wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, tiger reserves, conservation and community reserves, and surrounding landscapes. The newsletter began publication as the PAM UPDATE News on Action Towards Joint Protected Area Management in September 1994 and matured over the years into its present 24-page bulletin form. The book covers the period from around 1996 to the present day, bringing out conservation news, issues, and opinions, kaleidoscopic in their diversity.

Distilled yet diverse themes

The period covered by the book was marked by a huge churn in India, as conservation moved from its protectionist origins to grappling with diverse challenges and threats, some old — such as dams and human-wildlife conflicts — and many new — such as linear infrastructure intrusions and mining. The foremost among these trends is the rise of the neoliberal state and the trampling of environmental and livelihood concerns under the iron wheels of untrammelled economic and industrial growth. This juggernaut rolls on, watering down or whittling away environmental laws and regulations, and obliterating sections of protected areas (PAs) or entire PAs denotified, to make way for destructive development.

The period also stands witness to the tension of shifting from exclusivist ideas of pristine and inviolate protected areas to more inclusive views of people as partners in conservation. Another landmark in this period was the Forest Rights Act of 2006 that created new opportunities to redress historical injustice, park-people conflicts, and empower forest dwellers to challenge destructive development in their lands. The increase in protected area coverage in some parts of India and the establishment and growth of vibrant civil society organisations focused on research, on-ground efforts, and community-based conservation, must be counted on the positive side.

The cover of the book Conservation Kaleidoscope. The book is organised in 14 chapters that distill the news and what sets the tone of the book are the accompanying editorials that present these in the immediate context, while linking them to wider currents and cross-cutting issues in conservation.
The cover of the book Conservation Kaleidoscope. The book is organised in 14 chapters that distill the news and what sets the tone of the book are the accompanying editorials that present these in the immediate context, while linking them to wider currents and cross-cutting issues in conservation.

None of these larger issues are dealt with in great depth in this book, yet all find some place in it among a tapestry of landscapes, waterscapes, and lifescapes. The book is organised in 14 chapters that distil the news and editorials into thematic (Law, Policy, and Governance; The Developmental Threat; Tourism), species-oriented (Fate of the Elephant; Tigers and Tiger Reserves), and ensemble chapters (A Colourful Mosaic; Specific Geographies). The coverage is inevitably selective. What sets the tone of the book are the accompanying editorials that present these in the immediate context, while linking them to wider currents and cross-cutting issues in conservation.

Protected areas and beyond

In these editorials, Sekhsaria speaks up for wildlife not just inside PAs, but for the wildlife outside PAs. He talks about involving people living inside PAs in their management, and on sensitising people outside PAs, including city dwellers and urban conservationists, into the realities and needs of conservation. He decries the focus on a few charismatic species or reserves, and champions the cause of diversity in species, landscapes, and conservation strategies. Often, the editorials accompanying each chapter devolve into a series of probing questions triggered by the news: questions that must be asked by and of policymakers, conservationists, and other citizens.

Wild elephants crossover at Kaziranga National Park. Photo by Mashanka/ Wikimedia Commons.
Wild elephants crossover at Kaziranga National Park. Photo by Mashanka/Wikimedia Commons.

Case studies in a staccato rhythm

Built as it is largely on news on conservation that manage to appear in mainstream media, the picture that emerges from the book of India’s conservation history is more like a series of rapidly-projected slide photographs rather than a moving film with a clear beginning, a narrative flow, climax, and denouement. This staccato presentation of news and opinion can be unsettling and difficult to read or grasp as a coherent narrative. And yet, while it presents no grand panorama, the book is nevertheless revealing in its particulars, in the details that emerge from a focus on myriad individual cases: a reserve forest denotified in Andhra for industrial use; a road cleared through a PA in Uttarakhand; mass bird deaths in a Rajasthan lake; police firing in Wayanad, Kerala; a conference on bees in Tamil Nadu; human-elephant conflict in Jharkhand; and so on.

A reference for wildlife history in India

Where the book inevitably falters is in providing depth and completeness. A news event on a threat in a new area is flagged, but the reader is often left with little idea of what came later. The section on the Forest Rights Act is insubstantial: with little news or analysis of cases where the FRA has been implemented or deliberately disregarded. Another major gap in the book is the paucity of reports or editorials about wildlife research in and around PAs. In India, there has been a remarkable growth of institutions and scholars engaged in wildlife research since the 1990s, with better understanding on wildlife conservation issues, numerous new discoveries and findings coming to light, and increasingly brought to the public by excellent science communicators and journalists. Recent issues of PA Update do carry a section about research, but this very significant aspect remains a dark patch in the otherwise colourful conservation kaleidoscope. Despite these limitations, this book is a worthwhile read and reference for a wide spectrum of people concerned with politics, development, wildlife and environment in India.


Banner image: Jim Corbett National Park. The author Sekhsaria speaks up for wildlife not just inside PAs, but for the wildlife outside PAs in his book. Photo by Shashwat Jha/Wikimedia Commons.

This book review was first published on Mongabay India on 19 April 2022 under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

After a hiatus

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here and this is just a little note presaging stuff that’s coming. I’ve a couple of new posts in store, which I hope to publish in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the last few weeks have not been word-less, so to speak. There’s been articles and book reviews I’ll post here as well, with links and pics, some bells and whistles. Meanwhile, since you’re reading, here’s a photo of mine, a tropical rainforest at dawn: from Hala Bala, Thailand. Dawn sounds, too, for you to listen along.

On the Green Lit Fest Longlist

My book The Wild Heart of India is on the Green Lit Fest longlist of general fiction and nonfiction. It’s in some really good company as you can see below (cover images courtesy Green Lit Fest via Twitter).

The Green Lit Fest is a relatively new lit fest and the 3-day event planned from 8-10 December 2021 appears to be their first major event, although they have had some online events earlier. They have picked the longlist from from books published in 2019 and 2020. It has a bunch of interesting speakers and writers in conversation with other people. The full schedule is here. Check it out. Registration is free, but you are welcome to donate as well.

Speaking Up Against Commercial Scientific Journals

My interview with Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (SBMT) on scientific publishing:

Commercial Science Journals: A Luxury Market?

Publicação: 10 de September de 2021

Most of the research produced in the world is still accessible to a few, while rivers of money drain from public safes to large publishing corporations

An article published in the science section in the blog The Wire, entitled “Why I Won’t Review or Write for Elsevier and Other Commercial Scientific Journals”  exposed the issues related to conflicts in the scientific articles market, which creates a [prestige] economy, allowing major journals to charge what they want, in addition to getting free labor from scientists eager to associate themselves with their brands as reviewers or editors. It is a market in which the taxpayer pays to have science produced, pays to have it published, and pays to subscribe to the journals that publish it. The system could easily be reformed if it weren’t for those scientists who insist on laying down rules so attached to the high-impact publications that have led them to the elite, and the new ones so obsessed with following the same path.

To learn more about the subject, the Communication Office of the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (SBMT) interviewed Dr. TR Shankar Raman (also known as Sridhar), a writer that became a wildlife scientist. As a writer, he writes creative nonfiction and reflective essays on nature and conservation for newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as occasional book reviews and opinion or featured articles.

Scientific journals on a university library shelf (Courtesy Vmenkov, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Full interview:

SBMT: In your article, you mention racism, sexism and patronizing. What is your opinion about the ethics of peer review?

TRSR: Peer review is considered an essential part of science. It serves a gate-keeping function in scientific publication. Yet, principles, good practices, and ethics of peer reviewing are not often taught to researchers as an essential part of their academic training. Many of us first get to see peer reviews as comments on our first manuscripts and do our first peer reviews when invited by a journal or editor. Partly because of this and partly because scientists are humans who can be subject to the same biases and prejudices as other people, peer review often falls short of being the totally objective appraisal it is touted to be. Journals do provide generic guidelines to reviewers, but nevertheless, racist, sexist, or patronising reviews do get past editors. I have linked to articles about this on my blog post. Researchers and scientists, especially non English-speaking, from less developed countries and less well known institutions are often at the receiving end of such peer reviews. For examples, I know cases where reviewers have asked the author to include as co-author an experienced scientist from a western institution for their paper to be competitive or good enough; told authors from India who are native English speakers to get their paper read and vetted by a native English speaker (without pointing out any problems with English in their manuscript); and so on. Double-blind peer review tries to address some of those issues, but has its own problems. I personally think that transparent, signed peer reviews are the way forward as a norm.

SBMT: Are there ethical principles in peer reviewing scientific articles?

TRSR: Certainly. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines could be taken as a benchmark of the kind of professionalism, integrity, honesty, and courtesy expected in peer reviews. Also, declaring competing interests and conflicts of interest is vital. Confidentiality during the review process is another important principle—no one wants their ideas stolen or plagiarised from an unpublished manuscript by an unscrupulous and anonymous reviewer.

SBMT: Do you believe there is corruption in the peer review process? If so, would this process be corrupting the scientific ethics of neutrality?

TRSR: As far as I know, fortunately, I myself have not suffered so far from corruption in the peer review process. From my limited experience, I would not be able to state how widespread it is and whether reviews and publication are used either as a form of patronage or to discriminate against rivals. To some extent, both probably occurs. But you mention neutrality. I feel that neutrality can be an aspiration for each of us when we do reviews, but it is probably more realistic to accept that none of us are truly neutral or unbiased. It is equally vital that as a reviewer, we reflect on and understand what our own biases or prejudices could be and how they may have affected our impressions of a paper and our reviews. Journals rarely ask reviewers to consider this or to provide an explicit statement based on reflection on their neutrality or prejudices—the focus is on the reviewed, rarely on the reviewer, although the latter is important, too.

SBMT: In your opinion, why are the most reputable journals all too expensive to publish or to access?

TRSR: First off, I want to contest the notion of what is a reputed journal. Too often it is based on Journal Impact Factor (JIF). There is now sufficient evidence to show that JIF is a very poor metric of quality in science. JIF is not some magic number: it’s just an index negotiated between journals and the company that provides the analytics calculated as a mean rather than a median and subject to all sorts of problems and biases. Besides its the quality of a paper that we are interested in and not some artificial metric of the journal itself. The JIF of a journal tells you nothing about the quality of any particular paper in that journal. In fact, there are more retractions, falsified data, and errors in these so-called high impact journals (for studies on this, see this recent post). Unfortunately, a false connection is drawn between quality and successful publication in such journals, and that is then used to decide on jobs and promotions in academia. As a result, a rush to publish in these journals has been induced, which is exploited by commercial scientific publishing companies like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature and a few others who have cornered the market, so to speak, and charge exorbitant article processing charges. Based on the estimates from one recent study, it appears that these publishers are charging anywhere from 5 to more than 10 times the actual cost of publication of a typical scientific article. It is the prime irony of our times: scientists who pride themselves on their objectivity have been hoodwinked by a very subjective and flawed system into publishing in so-called reputed journals, while the commercial publishers laugh their way to the bank with their huge profits.

SBMT: Why are the “diamond/platinum” journals the least valued by editorial metrics and funding agencies?

TRSR: I have no idea why this should be so. It feels like the academic community has just painted itself into a corner. There are lots of excellent diamond open access journals. The journals published by Indian Academy of Sciences  are a good example (although they have a weird co-publishing arrangement with Springer Nature, the journals and papers can be freely accessed via the Academy website and there are no charges for authors to publish either). Of course, the number of papers that a diamond open access journal may be able to publish may be lower and many are in niche areas of science rather than multi-disciplinary in scope and hence their reach may be lower than what big-budget commercial journals can achieve with their resources. But this only means that diamond open access journals should be supported more to achieve better reach, not shift to commercial publishers. All public and philanthropic funding for science has everything to gain by supporting and mandating publication in diamond open access journals.

SBMT: How to design a policy in defense of Southern science through the promotion of “diamond/platinum” journals?

TRSR: As individuals, we can each take a stand, as I have tried to in my post—that I will not review for or publish in commercial journals, but will especially do so for diamond open access journals. Particularly, senior scientists and leaders in their fields must set an example by publishing, reviewing for, or accepting to be on the boards of diamond open access journals. But this will not go far unless we also collectively work to change overall policy. As a community, we must petition our academies, funders, and science administrators to change policies to give greater recognition to papers published in diamond open access journals. This can trigger a big change: especially if it begins to count towards jobs and promotions in academia. Impact factor should be trashed as outdated, harmful, and retrogressive. Recipients of public funds should be mandated to publish in diamond open access journals published by nonprofit scientific societies as this is the most cost-effective way to spend the available (limited) funds to achieve publication that is freely, openly, and widely accessible, while supporting and advancing science. Other initiatives such as Gold Open Access, self-archiving of submitted final versions, or pay-to-publish APC models are all half measures or discriminate and exclude large numbers of scientists around the world, who cannot pay the large fees involved. Policies should support membership fee support for scholars and new and tenured faculty to join learned academic societies that publish diamond open access journals so that the funds are kept within the community and to advance science rather than feed the profits of commercial companies.

SBMT: Would you like to explore further the concept of predatory science publishing?

TRSR: Predatory science publishing, I feel, is just a perversion of the normalisation of pay-to-publish models that we have allowed to happen and which most so-called reputed journals are using today. If money is taken out of the equation by recognising pay-to-publish models as disreputable for science, and by mandating publication in diamond open access journals, most predatory journals will disappear. I also have a different take on the idea of predation in scientific publishing. As I write in my post:

With exorbitant subscriptions, steep open access publication fees or paywalls for each article, companies such as Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature are profiteering from an enterprise that generates knowledge which really belongs to all and which should be truly open and free for anyone in the world to access. To me, this is also a form of predatory publishing: unbridled corporate predation on captive academic prey.

SBMT: Is it correct to say that today science is better evaluated by the continent (the journal) than by the content (the article itself)?

TRSR: Yes. I often wonder whether scientists sitting in powerful positions, during proposal appraisals and job interviews, read the articles to assess a candidate and the quality of their work or just go by the fame and JIF of the journals their papers were published in. If as scientists we believe that it is the peer review process that is important, why not keep peer review and dispense with journals altogether? Find ways to have papers reviewed and accepted by peers, organise them by subject or theme, published with just a DOI and findable via a global database search? Some interesting new publishing models are already being implemented. The Peer Community In  model—where scientists come together in communities to openly review and recommend preprints that are freely and openly accessible—can be taken as equivalent to diamond open-access journal publication.

SBMT: Do you believe that there is a planned effort by rich countries to keep developing countries scientifically backward?

TRSR: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. But there is certainly a blindness or an obtuseness towards the plight of scientists in developing countries and all lower and middle-income economies. A recent paper highlights the colonial roots of many of our present academic practices and issues a call for decolonising science. Decolonising access to scientific literature is a crucial part of that. Scientists in the west, in richer countries and in elite, well-endowed institutions in all countries, need to decolonise their minds and scientific practices to enable science to flourish globally and equitably.

SBMT: Would you nominate Alexandra Elbakyan, from Sci-Hub for the Nobel Prize. If so, how to start a global movement for this?

TRSR: I am not a fan of the Nobel Prizes, given they have their own biases and have failed to adequately acknowledge scientific contributions of women, for example. But given that its stated purpose is to award those who have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind, Alexandra Elbakyan certainly qualifies. I stand by what I wrote in my post:

Alexandra Elbakyan, a scholar and computer programmer who created and runs Sci-Hub, is probably the one person who has contributed more to global dissemination of science and access to scientific literature than any other person in human history.

Science academies from Brazil, India, and other countries, including western nations, could get together and nominate her, perhaps!

SBMT: Intellectual recognition of authors from tropical/poor countries in collaboration with authors from large institutions in rich countries is a big problem. Who has more value in a North-South collaborative scientific publication: one who conceived it, one who collected the data, one who analyzes it, or one who conducts the sophisticated experiments inaccessible to scientists from the Global South?

TRSR: This is again an issue that the paper I mentioned on decolonising science  goes into in better detail. I would simply urge everyone to read it. It sets out the problem and proposes changes in the way we do science: such as going past ‘parachute’ science to actively involve collaborators from the poorer countries as equal or better knowledge partners (not as tokenism), have reciprocal exchanges rather than one-way travel of students and scholars, and so on. Some journals have adopted policies that publications should include authors from the countries where the work was carried out in and so on, which is welcome, but there is more to do.

SBMT: Are science agencies in the Global South repeating the model of evaluating science based on editorial metrics and harming their own countries’ science and scientists?

TRSR: I don’t know about other countries, but in India, certainly. Journal Impact Factor is routinely used as a metric in assessments of scientists and their work. The Science and Engineering Research Board of India privileges publication in international journals over national journals and asks for journal impact factor to be provided as well. The UGC norms for academic performance of faculty actually scales their index by journal impact factor. This is very retrograde and harmful. Other aspects such as publication in diamond open access journals, making datasets also openly available, other forms of public engagement for science are all ignored in this system of evaluation. Instead of these flawed metrics, we need to move to new systems of evaluation that consider other aspects such as mentorship, diversity and inclusion, quality of work and so on. Alternative ways in which this can be accomplished have been proposed.

SBMT: Do you believe that the Global South remains colonized from a scientific and cultural point of view? Why do you think so?

TRSR: I think I have already answered this above with reference to the decolonising science paper.

SBMT: Aren’t scientists from the South themselves biased?

TRSR: As I mentioned before, all scientists are human and are likely to have their own biases. However, there is a huge asymmetry in power, privilege, and influence when compared to scientists in the Global North. The South is disadvantaged on many counts and that needs to be recognised and offset through thoughtful policies and actions.

SBMT: How can scientific journals from the Global South acquire international respectability?

TRSR: I don’t think I have the experience to offer an answer to that one. Perhaps it is something for all of us to deliberate on as a community. Bring editorial boards of different diamond open access journals published from the Global South together to start off the conversation. Good and practical ideas may emerge.

SBMT: How to increase South-South scientific collaboration? India and Brazil have a significant scientific production. Wouldn’t it be time to start an alliance between southern countries?

TRSR: Yes, certainly. As I mentioned above we have not done this as much as we perhaps can or should. For instance, by conducting joint conferences on tropical ecology, medicine, and conservation, for instance. Those conducted today tend to have few voices of scientists who are actually based in tropical countries. Famous names from institutions in the Global North predominate in the line-up of speakers: that should change, too.

SBMT: Tropical forests are very dangerously threatened. What is the role of scientists from the Global South?

TRSR: I think not just scientists, but people and communities from the Global South need to step forward to lead conservation efforts. Scientists should also acknowledge the traditional knowledge systems of indigenous people, recognise the roles they have played as stewards of their lands and forests in effecting conservation. The biggest threats are often from large-scale destructive development projects such as mining, roads, powerlines, large-scale green or renewable energy projects, dams and so on. Scientists have a key role not just to study these and document the wide-ranging impacts on ecology and society, indigenous people and their culture, but to share their findings widely with the public in all local languages to foster widespread public awareness and engagement with conservation. This can help combat the loss of tropical forests and also create enough momentum among citizens to push for political changes with the urgency and at the scale at which they are needed.

SBMT: Would you like to add anything?

TRSR: I think I’ve already said too much. There’s a lot to do and we should act as individuals, as part of our local scientific communities or societies, and also as larger collectives that push for changes in policy and practice globally.

Original Blog Post at View from Elephant Hills:

Why I will not review or write for Elsevier, Wiley, and other commercial scientific journals

Republished in The Wire—Science

Why I Won’t Review or Write for Elsevier and Other Commercial Scientific Journals

The Life of a Small Bone Hunter

My brief review of The Night Country (1971) by Loren Eiseley, a writer I greatly enjoy reading.

Loren Eiseley has this to say about nature writers such as Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies, and W. H. Hudson, but the words apply equally to himself:

Even though they were not discoverers in the objective sense, one feels at times that the great nature essayists had more individual perception than their scientific contemporaries. Theirs was a different contribution. They opened the minds of men by the sheer power of their thought. The world of nature, once seen through the eye of genius, is never seen in quite the same manner afterward. A dimension has been added, something that lies beyond the careful analyses of professional biology.”

Loren Eiseley (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Eiseley’s writing is lyrical, deeply reflective, even melancholic. The essays in this book defy a simple description. Are they examples of nature writing? Memoir? Reflections on archaeology and anthropology? Ruminations on the external and internal worlds of the human? Essays on education and what it means to be a teacher? The essays are drawn from all this, gain synergy, become something larger and memorable. It is rare, I feel, to find emerging from the pen of a scientist, educator, and thinker, prose of such grace and humility.

Still, there are those who would complain of such writing, flay his ornamentation of ideas, rubbish his reflection as mysticism. It is difficult to imagine Eiseley himself being able to publish some of these essays in the literary and nature magazines of the present day. Where are the details? the editors may ask. The specifics, the hook, the motif, thread, conflict, and denouement? Or they might return his manuscript, advising him as one of his colleagues did, in all seriousness, to ‘explain himself’, perhaps ‘confess’ the state of his mind and internal world in the pages of a scientific journal. In Eiseley’s words again:

No one need object to the elucidation of scientific principles in clear, unornamental prose. What concerns us is the fact that there exists a new class of highly skilled barbarians—not representing the very great in science—who would confine men entirely to this diet.

Fortunately, Eiseley does not join the ranks of the barbarians, even as he admits in “Obituary of a bone hunter”, with due humility, that his own scientific career is marked by “no great discoveries”, that his is but a life “dedicated to the folly of doubt, the life of a small bone hunter.”

(Review originally written on 3 October 2013. You can read the book here.)

The Passing of the Endlings

Two bullets passed through three brothers and killed them as they sat side by side.

The secretary wrote, “The first bullet killed one and… the second bullet after having gone through one struck the other, which was behind it, and killed it also.”

Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo pulled the trigger in 1947. In Surguja District in central India, he shot them by night from a vehicle. It was his private secretary who later chronicled the passing of the last cheetahs shot in India.

The last cheetahs shot in India (Photograph courtesy: Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, Vol 47, 1948)

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When the three men arrived by boat at the island of Eldey in Iceland on June 3, 1844, they found the Great Auk pair standing side by side tending to the last egg.

Jón Brandsson “crept up with his arms open” to the female who moved to a corner. Sigurður Ísleifsson followed the other, who walked to the edge of a cliff. He said, “I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.”

Ketill Ketilsson found the egg on a lava slab. He picked up the egg, saw it was broken, and put it back. Some say he crushed the egg under his boot. It would have made a squelching sound.

The sound would have been drowned by the waves battering the cliffs, as the ocean currents passed the desolate cliffs of Eldey.

Great auk from Birds of America by John James Audubon (via Wikimedia Commons).

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The epitaph for the last male reads: “Male near Baghownie… 21st June 1935”. Charles McFarlane Inglis, the Englishman who had shot the bird in Darbhanga, Bihar, in India, does not say more in his journal article. He does not say whether the last bird was rushing overhead, wings gusting the air, or pedalling glassy waters among reeds and swamp, swimming quietly and alone, when the bullet struck. The article was published five years later. Scientists now know this was the last confirmed record from the wild of the Pink-headed Duck.

The Englishman himself died on February 13, 1954, aged 84. Months later, someone wrote in the pages of another journal, like an epitaph at the end of his obituary: Molliter ossa cubent. May his bones rest softly.

People still look for the duck. Their bones and feathers rest softly in museums around the world.

Pink-headed Duck by Henrik Grönvold (via Wikimedia Commons)

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The last Carolina parakeet, Incas, died on February 21, 1918, a year after his mate Lady Jane’s passing. They both died in the same cage in Cincinnati Zoo. The writer J Drew Lanham imagined an epitaph for Incas. He thought it would serve as the “final rites for the passage of one of the most unique birds ever to sweep across the skies of the American psyche.”

John James Audubon’s “Carolina Parakeets” (via Wikimedia Commons)

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, too, had died in the same cage on September 1, 1914.

A century had passed since 1810, when Alexander Wilson had observed during his own passage between Frankfort and the Indiana Territory, a single flight of migrating pigeons that he estimated to number two billion two hundred and thirty million two hundred and seventy two thousand birds. In 1947, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology erected a bronze monument to the passenger pigeon in Wyalusing State Park. Aldo Leopold said, “But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts, like the bronze pigeon, will have no wings.”

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon (via Wikimedia Commons).

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But another stone is inscribed and mounted in the Bronx Zoo, New York, on a memorial wall to many species that have passed for ever. I recall the words carved in stone, which said that the Jerdon’s Courser, a “quiet bird” that “stretched up on tiptoes to look for predators”, went extinct after 1900.

Memorial to the Jerdon’s Courser in the Bronx Zoo (Photo: P Jeganathan, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Nearly a century had passed when the bird was found in Andhra Pradesh in 1986, with the help of bird trappers. The Sri Lankamalleswara Wildlife Sanctuary was established as a refuge and a canal partly rerouted to save their habitat. The biologist, P Jeganathan, saw the bird in 2008 and caught images in a field camera. He once heard three birds calling by night. A two note call, neither cackle nor lament, just one urgent note following another, ringing through the long night.

The Isha Upanishad proclaims,

Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
How can the multiplicity of life
Delude the one who sees its unity?

The Upanishads, by Eknath Easwaran (2nd edition, 2007)

I think of all the species in all their unique perfection and voices irredeemably gone and lost to the screaming bullets and machines and pillage but thrill to know that the night can yet carry the clear, poignant, plaintive, astonishing, exhilarating voice of one quiet bird.

The Jerdon’s Courser (Photo: P Jeganathan, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

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Now India aims to bring back the cheetah. A rewilding project plans to bring new life to the grasslands and savannas where the cheetah once roamed and coursed behind antelope. And yet, in the grasslands and savannas lives another tall, stately bird, the Great Indian Bustard, in great peril. Down to the last hundred or so, the birds continue to lose their habitat to solar and wind farms, concrete and road, their lives colliding with the power lines humming with the currents now passing through their landscape. One great effort trying to bring back a species driven extinct. And one great power driving another to the edge of extinction.

If we can find it in us to offer remembrance, epitaph, memorial, and long for what we have lost, we can find it in us to cherish what we have and keep it from passing from this earth. And we can stand for it side by side and our thoughts can once again have wings.

Great Indian Bustards against wind turbines in the Desert National Park, Rajasthan (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman).

This essay was inspired by Brian Doyle’s essay “Leap” (2001). It appeared in the Indian Express Sunday Magazine Eye on 22 August 2021.