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)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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’?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wild and free: in one sense of each word, to be wild is to be free. In nature, each life form is free to grow and flourish, free to confront every peril, with the wisdom of survival encoded in genes, volitions guided by intelligence, thwarting vagaries of contingence. But to an ecologist, such freedom remains axiomatically entangled in a web of relationships. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” wrote John Muir famously.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought this home: humans are a part of nature, even if as people—imbued with culture, cloaked by modernity, amped by technology—we imagine we rise apart from nature. It just took a tiny virion, 100 nanometres in diameter, a hundredth the size of a pollen grain, to shake the planet. No Trump, no Bolsanaro, no Modi, no Putin comes even close—in a tenebrous way that is strangely reassuring, too. Our freedoms remain vulnerable to intersecting crises worldwide: the climate emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic, the sixth extinction, and the assault on democracy. Each breath we take is our own, but the air we breathe is from a shared atmosphere. Individual freedoms depend irrevocably on collective actions.
For me, the forced distancing from parents, relatives, and friends, and inability to travel have been the most unbearable curbs on freedom. It deepened how I valued my relationships and my travel. Being alive, I also realised I am among the fortunate ones.
Leonardo DiCaprio may have a lesson or two for India’s ministry of environment, forest and climate change. The Hollywood actor, as protagonist of a 2015 Oscar-winning blockbuster, plays a character who is attacked, gravely wounded and left for dead, but who nevertheless recovers to live on as The Revenant of the film’s title. Now, imagine a Bollywood version: with an actor like Naseeruddin Shah in DiCaprio’s role, acting alongside co-stars like Ratna Pathak, Nandita Das, Rajkummar Rao and other talented artistes playing complex character roles. And imagine now that Shah plays a character who is beaten, mortally wounded and left for dead, but comes back to life. Except, in this Indian version, it is not the wounded and recovering Shah himself, but someone altogether different: say, a Salman Khan or an Akshay Kumar who returns with Kangana Ranaut in tow, both hero and heroine predictably hogging almost every scene. Would the latter character, co-stars and film still be a revenant representative and worthy of the original? Or would it just be a completely artificial replacement, bearing no resemblance to the original in appearance, artistry or talent?
India’s environment ministry appears to favour the latter form of transformation if we go by recent trends affecting India’s forests and other natural ecosystems. Take, for instance, the plans to bring so-called development to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (A&N), which involve destruction of about 20,000 hectares of forest. The A&N forests are ecologically unique and rich in biodiversity, with a large number of species, many of which are endemic and found nowhere else in the world. To offset the kind of damage that will result from such projects, India has a system of compensatory afforestation that involves regrowing an equivalent area of forests in non-forest land or double the area in degraded forest land. The compensatory afforestation planned for A&N involves about Rs 1,480 crore to regrow forests in…wait for it…Madhya Pradesh!
Thus, biologically rich forests will be destroyed in a unique island ecosystem and a false replacement—probably using just two or three totally inappropriate species not native to either ecosystem—will be created over 2,000 km away in the middle of India in a totally different bio-climatic zone. Instead of the beautiful performances and uplifting music in the original movie, we will be treated to the usual tired masala and inevitable item number in the replacement.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of India’s compensatory afforestation programme, helmed by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority or CAMPA. The CAMPA programme is founded on the belief that natural forests and other ecosystems can be severely damaged or destroyed in one place and then regrown elsewhere using money shelled out by those implementing the destructive projects. In 2018, a fund of Rs 66,000 crore had accrued over the previous decade from payments for forest destruction in the belief that the destroyed forests can be ‘compensated’. In August 2018, the Central Government notified rules under the 2016 Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act to unlock these funds ostensibly for this purpose.
The compensatory afforestation law is now channeling a huge pot of money for afforestation through state bureaucracies and private parties and businesses. But it is a fatally flawed programme suffering from at least four major problems: planting trees in the wrong places (including grasslands, wetlands and deserts), planting the wrong tree species in forests, planting just one or a handful of tree species, and planting in lands of local and indigenous people without their consent and involvement. Almost all compensatory afforestation involves one to all of the above damaging practices.
Compensatory afforestation in principle and practice is regressive, but it is now a programme with deep pockets and a greatly enlarged potential for wreaking more damage to India’s forestlands and non-forest community lands and commons. It needs to be urgently replaced by an approach that recognises the importance of retaining all existing natural and undisturbed forests, protecting non-forest ecosystems such as deserts, grasslands and savannahs from ill-advised tree planting, and reviving the roles and rights of local communities and gram sabhas. Where forests have been already degraded or destroyed, there is a need to change focus from ‘afforestation’ to ‘ecological restoration’.
Ecological restoration has been defined as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed”. Key to this is the concept of (‘assisting’) natural processes of recovery rather than installing by brute force a replica or replacement ecosystem. It involves working with nature rather than against nature. Restoration involves bringing back the original ecosystem—not just forests, but also savannas, grasslands, wetlands or deserts. Restoration requires careful attention to landscape, the right species mix, and appropriate methods that minimise further disturbance, foster natural recovery, and employ ecologically informed interventions.
Ecological restoration fosters recovery of diverse species native to specific ecosystems by working with nature.
Restoration allows the recovery of species native to local ecosystems at a site-specific level, not forcible planting of saplings from some bundled list of species blindly applied to entire states or regions. It would also require stripping away the bureaucratic obsession with infrastructure creation and concretisation (check dams, trenches, waterholes and such), and replace it instead with minimising alterations to landscape and terrain to nurture a greater degree of naturalness. It mandates a close focus on natural vegetation types and how much of each type remains and in what condition, rather than on generic measures of green cover, forest cover, tree cover or density classes that is the present obsession of the forest bureaucracy. Finally, ecological restoration offers an opportunity to empower local communities and stakeholders as participants, because local people are far more knowledgeable and intimately connected to nature than the forest bureaucracy, external contractors or private sector plantations will ever be.
Still, the larger question remains: can an ecosystem such as a river or a forest—once damaged by destructive development, deforestation or pollution—be helped to recover to its original state or some reasonable approximation of it? Can the diverse set of native species, the unruly, wild character of the original ‘jungle’ or river or grassland be brought back? Contemporary research suggests this can happen only partially, and only when ecological restoration is carried out with a great deal of care and effort. And that is an additional reason to be far more cautious than we are at present with how we treat and manage the little that is left of India’s forests, rivers and other natural ecosystems.
A few weeks ago, a message pinged into my inbox asking if I would peer-review a manuscript submitted to a reputed scientific journal published by Elsevier. I was tempted. The topic of the manuscript was related to my own research on what happens to wild plants and animals when previously forested landscapes are transformed into large plantations of a single crop species. A quick look at the journal website showed that the journal published quality research and a bunch of academic grandees sat on the editorial board. Their request to me indicated a recognition of my expertise in the field. By accepting to review the paper, I could learn something new, share my expertise and comments with the authors and editors, and add a notch on my academic belt, so to speak.
And yet, I refused.
Scientists track their credentials and calibre by how many papers they manage to publish in such peer-reviewed journals and how often they are called upon to review manuscripts for them. In brief, here’s the good, the bad, the ugly of it. The good: the process of independent and anonymous peer review serves as a crucial quality-check and enables authors to hone and rectify their work before it is published. The bad: peer review can be a flaming hoop you are forced to jump through, more difficult if you are not a native English speaker, if you are from a less-privileged background, if you are from a relatively unknown institution in the Third World. The ugly: the process can degenerate into a situation where jealous peers and conniving editors disparage your work and obstruct publication, or simply display how racist, sexist, and patronizing they can be from their positions of power or anonymity. If I did the review, I would not be paid for it—that’s how scientific peer review works—but I could include the journal in a section in my CV listing all the national and international scientific journals that I had reviewed for. I could even register on a commercial website where academics track and showcase their journal peer review and editorial contributions. Still, it was not my skepticism over the peer review process, nor my lack of interest in counting review-coup that brought me to refuse.
Instead, here’s what I wrote to the Editor-in-Chief, copied to all members of the editorial board:
Dear Dr _____ and other members of the _____ editorial board,
Greetings for 2021 from India! I trust the year has begun well and you will all have a productive, healthy, and peaceful year ahead. I recently received an invitation… to review a paper for [_____ journal]… I am writing to you to explain why I am declining to review (or submit for consideration) any paper to [_____ journal]. At the outset, I would like to state that I have great respect for the work that the journal publishes and for all of you on the Editorial Board. My decision is based on the fact that the journal is published by Elsevier.
You are doubtless aware of the concerns already raised by many in the academic community and the media on the business of scientific publishing, particularly the role of companies like Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature. You may recall that many editors have resigned en masse from these journals as well in the past to protest against their practices.
Recently, Elsevier along with others (including Wiley) filed a lawsuit in an Indian court against Sci-Hub and Libgen. Leading Indian scientists and researchers (and a group of over 2000 signatories) have protested this highlighting how Sci-Hub has greatly enabled access to scientific research in India and other countries. Sci-hub struck at the heart of the oligopoly of purely commercial publishers, which includes Elsevier and Wiley, who run scientific publishing like a fiefdom, charging exorbitant subscriptions or publishing fees, making exponential profits, and treating the intellectual output of scientists and institutions as if it was all their personal property. This is the case although the research published in these journals is funded by public agencies or other funders, and the papers are written, reviewed, and edited by scientists who seek no compensation for their intellectual inputs and time. 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.
To the argument that shunning such journals will compromise science, I can only point out to many journals of repute published by scientific societies and academies worldwide (such as the Indian Academy of Sciences) that make all their published papers free (diamond/platinum open access) and are able to run their journals with modest subscriptions and advertisements. There have also been initiatives like Amelica and Coalition-S. The alternatives are there for us to adopt as scientists and scholars if we wish.
I realise that, for early-career scientists, publishing in some of these journals is still important because of the undue importance still given to them by academic institutions in their scientific recruitment and recognition policies. I, too, have published in these journals and realise I am implicated in the perpetuation of this system. I will respect the views and needs of students and others I collaborate with on where they seek to publish in or review for. But as a token of protest, I declare that where it concerns my own work I will not submit a paper to these journals or review a paper for them, until such corporate predatory practices end. I do realise that my action is a mere token and not enough. There is more I myself need to do to make science universal, free, and accessible.
I hope you do not see this as an attack on your or the journal’s credibility but consider it in a more progressive spirit. If you have read this far, I thank you for taking the time. Kindly accept my regrets once again.
Best regards, Shankar
It was a rant, a polite one, but a rant, nonetheless. As you can imagine, the Editor-in-Chief was not too happy about it.
Before the Editor-in-Chief wrote back, another member of the Editorial Board—the person handling the manuscript—wrote me appreciating my email and agreeing that scientific publishing had a lot of room to evolve, but personally preferred, as an editor, to engender small and positive changes from within. (Another member of the editorial board, a leading woman scientist from India, wrote saying she was not on the board as far as she knew. It turned out she had been invited a while back and had agreed to be on the board, but the journal had never involved her in its work, so she wrote again indicating that she would prefer her name to be removed. Why a woman scientist from India was on the editorial board but never involved in it is another story perhaps.)
With the Editor-in-Chief himself, a back-and-forth exchange of emails ensued, which I will paraphrase here. [I have tried my best not to misrepresent anything and have chosen to leave out names of the concerned people and journal as I have no issue with them individually and prefer to keep the focus on the issue of commercial scientific publishing rather than any individuals or particular journal. I have rearranged the discussion slightly for clarity and placed my interjections and asides, like this one, in square brackets.]
He started off by partly agreeing with me. He then said that Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature are no more predatory than many other businesses that one has to deal with these days. He said that as academics we clearly have a duty to try to find alternative models, and emphasized that his journal was an open access journal, for which the authors had to pay USD 1650 to publish in, unless they were from a World Bank low-income country where they could ask for a waiver. [Actually, the current rate is USD 1820 for a paper of 12-15 published pages, which is about as much as a Masters student would need for a 5-6 month field research project in India.] He wrote about how they receive a large volume of papers and how many scientists they approach to provide their peer review. They needed over 1000 volunteer reviewers he said in one email, changing the figure in a later email to indicate they had more than 1000 authors and over 2500 reviewers each year.
Then he wrote that if every paper had to be reviewed by 2-3 scientists, every scientist who wants to publish in these commercial journals are also obliged to review 2-3 papers for every paper they intend to publish, otherwise the system would not work. He said that if I did not want to publish in such journals, I should then also not read these journals or allow my students to do so.
That last bit got my goat. I wrote back respectfully disagreeing with him. I said readers have a right to access the research (which is publicly funded or funded by other agencies) irrespective of whether they personally support commercial publishers. I did not need to stress the importance of enabling wide access in the case of socially relevant studies or conservation research as the editor himself was doubtless aware of it. It also struck me later that the published research itself would have referred to other earlier research in various journals. In papers related to my field of work that may have included my own work or those of colleagues. Saying I cannot read a paper in this journal was just as absurd as saying the authors have no right to refer to my work or any other research published in non-commercial journals. Science simply cannot work that way.
The Editor-in-Chief raised a number of other valid points. He said that there was a suite of publishing options available for authors these days and another member of the editorial board was planning to launch a new conservation journal that addressed some of these issues. He named one journal that offered a reader-pays alternative for authors who cannot pay the Article Processing Charge (APC), and another that was open access and “provides competition” to his journal. So if you don’t like a journal for its policies you can find another one that better suits you. But, someone has to pay, he emphasised. Non-profit publishers don’t have to take a large cut for shareholders but, according to him, they did not achieve the same efficiencies as the large commercial publishers. He noted how most society-owned journals, earlier published on a non-profit basis, have shifted to Wiley and other commercial publishers and been forced to charge huge fees because it costs too much to publish a journal. As far as the journal he edits was concerned, he pointed out that authors retain copyright alongside scholarly usage rights and Elsevier is granted publishing and distribution rights. Authors are paying Elsevier for publication and distribution only, which to him was reasonable. Furthermore, the articles were released under a Creative Commons license so people could use and re-use them in different ways (with attribution), so what was I complaining about? I should be reviewing for them since they are not doing any of the terrible things I was accusing them of.
There was stuff I agreed with and yet, much I still disagreed with. If someone has to pay and the authors are forced to pay to publish it is still an absurd payment in some ways, if you think of it, I wrote back. Companies like Elsevier rake in profits of 30-40% every year through a business model that appears unique to scientific publishing. Based on the figures the editor gave me, just this one journal he edited had more than 3000 highly-qualified scientists voluntarily contributing each year to Elsevier’s extraordinary profits. Imagine that! As a 2017 article in The Guardianputs it:
Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.
It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill. Outside observers tend to fall into a sort of stunned disbelief when describing this setup.
Then there is the question of the APC that is levied by commercial journals that use an author-pays model (in journals that are not fully open access, an extra charge has to be paid to make it open access.) The APC is typically imposed without any transparency as to the real costs incurred by the publisher. Studies indicate that commercial publishers chargenearly 3 times more than similar non-profit publishers of reputed standalone journals. One can ask whether the huge profits made by the publishers under the guise of “efficiency” or “scale” are not better ploughed back into scientific societies (and nonprofits that support science) rather than to the pockets of wealthy companies and their shareholders. The commercial publishers appear to call all the shots. As Brian Nosek, a Professor at the University of Virginia and Director of the Center for Open Science, said in an interview to Nasdaq, academic publishing is
the perfect business model to make a lot of money. You have the producer and consumer as the same person: the researcher. And the researcher has no idea how much anything costs.”
Even where learned societies had failed to run the journals on their own and had succumbed to handing it over to a commercial publisher to handle, as the editor pointed out was increasingly the case, most fail to disclose the terms of the arrangement with the scientific society. For instance, one of the leading societies in the field of nature conservation is the Society for Conservation Biology, whose flagship journal Conservation Biology is (unfortunately) published by Wiley, which levies a charge of USD 3000 for publication as open access. Fortunately, the society enables authors to publish their work at a reduced rate or ask for a waiver if they cannot afford the page charges: although such articles would be held by Wiley behind a paywall (about USD 42 per article, at present rates, for online access and PDF download). The journal website hosted by Wiley claims that “payment of article publication costs furthers the work of the society and conservation worldwide” but gives no indication as to what their deal is or what fraction of the profits are actually shared with the society.
Take, for example, the journal Human Ecology, a Springer journal that paywalls its articles or publishes as open access after you cough up a cool USD 2780, every dollar of profit going to Springer’s coffers. Contrast that with a superb journal in a similar field, published from the global South, like Conservation and Society published by the Indian non-profit and think-tank ATREE. This fully open-access journal, which recently was forced to go from diamond open-access to an author-pays model, has a transparent ownership and publication policy and levies an APC (only on authors from higher middle-income and high-income countries) of USD 600—just one-fifth of Springer’s rates. Another Indian journal, Ecology, Economy, and Society-The INSEE Journal charges nothing to authors and readers for open access. For a comparable non-profit or society journal published from the West, the Resilience Alliance publishes a fully open access journal Ecology and Society levying an APC of USD 975, or just 35% of Springer rates.
In the Indian context, there is also this absurd situation where Springer republishes many diamond open access journals, such as through their republishing agreement for the journals of the Indian Academy of Sciences. The journals are entirely edited, printed, published, and distributed by the society or academy imposing no page charges on authors and making the publication freely available to readers on the academy’s journal websites. Springer does zero editorial or publishing work but still charges the academy (for what? hosting on their online platform) and then paywalls the same papers at >USD 30 per paper. Just for parking it on their website! [Correction: Springer paywalls the papers, yes, but apparently does not charge the Academy.]
Another example is the journal Tropical Ecology published by the International Society for Tropical Ecology, which was diamond open access with no page charges until 2019, when they unfortunately succumbed to the ‘efficiencies’ and enticements of Springer. They now levy an APC of USD 2780 to authors who wish to make their paper open access, failing which they impose a paywall to each reader of ~USD 42 per paper.
Still, on the charges levied by commercial journals, the editor I was corresponding with had a different take. Like many things in life, you get [what] you pay for, he wrote. Journals like Nature have open access publishing charges that seem outrageous, but they were justified by the editing services of full-time professionals and unmatched quality they provided, and the citations the papers generated. If he had the money and his students produced something worthy of such attention, he would scrape it together to pay up.
This left me stupefied. If the publishing charges seem outrageous, it is perhaps because they are outrageous. Instead of figuring out a better way to make their work openly and freely accessible and appear on global databases and platforms, if leading scientists and academies worldwide subscribe to the costly vision of payment and efficiency and impact sold by commercial publishers, there is definitely something broken in the system. As a scientist from a non-profit organisation in a lower middle-income country like India I somehow could not countenance such sums of money being shelled out ostensibly to advance science. Have these journals come to command such power and clout that top scientists in the world will simply pay up unquestioningly? Do we still believe that counting citations is the way to build reputation in science? Can scientists who are so meticulous in preparing their papers and so generous with their time in reviewing them for free, in order to contribute to scientific growth and the growth of their community, not find better ways to advance science, academia, and community than relying on profiteering journals? Could we not invest more as a community in society-run, non-profit, open access journals and enhancing the list and quality of free journals, of which, as one can see from the Free Journals Network and the Directory of Open Access Journals, there are many?
According to a 2021 survey, at least 29,000 diamond open access journals are published around the world. While diamond open-access journals face many operational challenges, 70% of them manage to produce the journal at an annual operational cost of under USD 10,000. In other words, the amount of money a scientist pays as APC to Elsevier/Wiley/Springer or similar publishers for just 3 or 4 journal articles can be more than enough to support an entire journal for a year and produce science that is freely accessible worldwide. Even now, about 356,000 diamond open access papers are published per year compared to approximately 453,000 papers where the scientists have shelled out the APC (453,000 x average APC of USD 2000 implies ~1 billion USD). Imagine if those funds can be routed to support scientific societies and their journals, produce free and better academic community resources and databases (rather than the tyranny of science citation indices and Clarivate Analytics, for instance). Imagine if that money could be used to provide free, open, and easy access to all scientific publications!
Free, open, and easy access to all scientific publications is what Sci-Hub provides. In our email back-and-forth, the editor and I never discussed Sci-Hub, which was why I started off on my rant in the first place. And yet, the exchange had made me acutely conscious of my debt to Sci-Hub and of my own failings as a scientist.
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. Sci-Hub offered a way to access scientific publications, including those behind paywalls. One just had to put in the link to the paper or the DOI and Sci-Hub delivered it online (in PDF) almost instantly for free. In recent years, it has been invaluable for scientists in countries like India who have no other access to these journals.
Before Sci-Hub, if I wanted to read more than just the abstracts of pay-walled papers (or more than just the titles of papers that had no abstracts), I would have to ask friends in some (usually foreign) university to download it via their library access and send it over, or write emails directly to author after author and wait for them to respond with PDF soft copies. Neither did that work all the time nor was it even remotely an ideal way to do research.
It should hardly come as a surprise then that open access papers are more likely to be read and cited. In fact, a 2021 study published in a Springer journal (some poetic justice there), found that papers downloaded via Sci-Hub were cited 172% more often than those that were not. I am no fan of citation counting, but irrespective of whether scientists want greater readership, open access, or more citations, they must acknowledge Sci-Hub does a service. There are other points of view about Sci-Hub, but after the last few years as an admirer of both Sci-Hub and Alexandra Elbakyan, I know on which side of the fence I will stay.
Sci-Hub is not just for scientists. It provides access to everyone. It is also particularly valuable to journalists and science communicators who often have no direct access to journals and find scientists both difficult to reach and reticent to communicate with journalists on a deadline. Take what the journalist and writer, George Monbiot, had to say, for instance:
After definitively disrupting the status quo, Elbakyan soldiers on, while commercial publishers who feel threatened by her keep filing lawsuits. The recent case filed in a Delhi court by Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society (ACS) brings charges of copyright infringement and asks for a dynamic injunction to block internet access to Sci-Hub nationwide. These three are among the top scientific publishers in the world, with ACS, despite being a scientific society and one of the wealthiest in the world at that, being opposed to or a laggard in supporting open access. The Delhi case —a David versus Trio-of-Goliaths case, if ever there was one—is still in court. Legal experts indicate a strong basis in law, ethics, and equity, going for Sci-Hub. One prays the court rules likewise.
It is easy enough to point a finger at greedy Goliaths, but what about the other fingers curled inward, biting into my fist, pointing to me? What had I done, as an individual scientist or as part of the scientific community, to make science free, open, and accessible? The floodgates opened. My thoughts and mortification came pouring out. I could barely keep track of the list of personal failures and all that I myself needed to do. I made a list.
Many of my own scientific papers were in pay-walled journals. I had shared them as much as I could earlier, but I could do more to ensure that every one of them was accessible.
A boycott of journals published by companies like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and Sage was one thing, but there were positive contributions I needed to make. I could do more reviews for diamond open access journals and also serve on their editorial boards, if invited. My record in this remains miserable. After turning down two such invitations in the past, I had served on the editorial board of one diamond open access journal (Current Science), only to resign after about three years giving workload as an excuse. I am one of the editors of a new diamond open access journal, Hornbill Natural History and Conservation, but I have done almost nothing for the journal so far. A society-run journal invited me to their editorial board and after the Editor-in-Chief assured me they were planning to make it open access and also bring a diverse editorial board with better gender representation, I have agreed to join, but am yet to contribute anything of significance.
Instead of paying outrageous sums to journals, I could donate instead modestly to Sci-Hub itself or other individuals and non-profits supporting open science (such as the Center for Open Science, for instance). I could become a member of one or two scholarly societies relevant to my work, which publish open access journals.
Even if scientific papers are accessible, they are rarely intelligible to the wider audience, beyond our peers, that we are often interested in reaching: journalists, science communicators, policy makers, and interested citizens. I could put more time into sharing relevant research in more accessible avenues, especially Wikipedia, where my contributions have been minuscule so far. An encyclopedic review on a bird species, could be contributed to something like the online Birds of the World (which has made all species accounts open and freely accessible in India, although requiring a sign-up), rather than to any pay-walled journal, however reputed.
As a naturalist and biologist, I only have contributed a small fraction of my species observations to citizen science portals like eBird, iNaturalist, and India Biodiversity Portal. I have stockpiled thousands of useful and educational photos and other media, but shared only a tiny fraction so far where it can be used by the wider community, such as on Wikimedia Commons. There was a lot more I could do.
As for my scientific datasets, I have sat on most of them for years. I could easily share them on open repositories like OSF and Data Dryad, with CC-BY or Public Domain licenses, so other scientists have access to the data and could do more with it than I myself can by clutching onto it as personal intellectual property. Technical reports (grey literature that academics typically consider less worthy than journal publications), too, often contain valuable information and material unavailable elsewhere and I could upload mine to public archives like Archive.org with free licenses. I can make academic presentations and talks available, too, through suitable repositories.
I could re-do my CV to highlight public contributions to science and open access rather than try to pad it with an impressive list of publications in so-called high-impact-factor journals. For instance, the following summary of my contributions to Wikipedia should be in my CV. Although it only catalogues how little I have done so far, it should be at least as important to chronicle this as any other scientific work and publications of mine. (A bonus: as a regular editor I can gain access to scientific publications and digital libraries like JSTOR through the Wikipedia Library.)
8. Finally, I can ensure that in our own hiring and assessment practices, we do not privilege publication in the so-called high-impact-factor journals of these commercial publishers. If the scientific community does not privilege these journals, it will take the wind out of their sails and curtail the power commercial publishers currently wield. For an academic appointment, if publications are an aspect to consider, then the quality of the person’s work, motivation, and aptitude should matter more than any journal they have published in (or are yet to publish in). We have applied this rationale as far as possible in our research and it has paid rich dividends by attracting people with excellent capabilities in basic and applied conservation science.
In a way, each of the above half-measures is a lost opportunity to shake the system loose of its existing anchors to sail on new voyages in the sea of science. We need a far deeper commitment to and more active engagement with free and open access to science and scientific knowledge in all its various stages and shapes. If science itself has the innate capacity to shake free of old paradigms and shift to new realities, perhaps it can happen in the system of scientific publication, too. And the time for that is now.
The scarlet dome erupts over the rainforest canopy. On this cool, clear January morning in the mountains, the tree emerges like a flaming island in an ocean of green. The leafless branches hold fiery red blooms on twigs lined with thousands of thorns, like flowers strung on razor wires. In resplendent minority, the deciduous tree stands flamboyant over the evergreens, whose flowers, if there are any, remain modestly concealed among millions of leaves. The splayed branches of the great emergent twitches with movement and pulses with song like the flicker and crackle of sparks in a fire. The silk cotton tree, Bombax ceiba, under which I stand, is alive and alight. I sense a portent of something unexpected.
Across the backwaters of the Lower Sholayar or Ambalappara dam in neighbouring Kerala, across an imaginary border drawn on the waters of a river named for the rainforests, from the midst of a vast forest tract, looms the red dome of another silk cotton tree. From the Tamil Nadu side, peering through binoculars, I see life flickering on that far tree’s branches. Called ilavu or elavan by people—including Kadar forest dwellers—on either side of the border, the trees seem rooted to place. And yet they are linked by tendrils of language and life that I barely begin to discern.
Shrill squeals pierce the morning air and I look up. A dozen jet black birds with golden leathery wattles on their heads frolic among the flowers, dipping their orange beaks into the red corollas. Hill mynas. Sated after a swig of sugary nectar or disappointed that someone got there before them, the birds fly from flower to flower in a squeaky, whirring beat of wings. They are not alone.
Bell-like clangs announce the arrival of a pair of racket-tailed drongos, dressed in glossy black and sporting audacious tails tipped with wires and black spatulae. I barely glance at them before a buzzing see-see-see draws my eyes to a little green blur whizzing onto a neighbouring twig. The vernal hanging parrot perches, pulls his tiny matchstick leg over his wing to scratch the side of his face, his wings falling partly open to reveal a red rump set against his parrot green. After his scratch, he sidles over to the nearest flower. Below him, on a stout branch, a thrumming mass of rock bees covers a large U-shaped pendent hive. On a nearby branch, a jungle-striped squirrel walks gingerly over the thorns nosing and nibbling at flowers en route. And there’s more. A flourish of black and yellow arriving with a screech: golden oriole. A flutter of reds and olives: common rosefinches, males and females, migrants from the Himalaya and further north now here to make the best of winter blooms and seeds. A tree top violinist fiddling fast and high pitched: a tiny purple sunbird singing his heart out, the energy of his notes falling like rain around the tree. A party of birds winging back and forth: Malabar starlings, leafbirds, and bulbuls. Darting about, chattering, diving for a drink from deep red cups, they even look like they are having a party.
It’s a party thrown by the silk cotton trees. Come, partake of this prolific nectar, they seem to say—a generosity hiding an agenda of its own. For when the birds and bees, and, too, the bats by night, visit the flowers, they are dusted with golden pollen to carry onto flowers of other silk cotton trees, ensuring cross-pollination. Each flower produces over eight million pollen grains from its ring of about eighty to hundred anthers, but pollen falling on the stigma of the same flower or of another flower on the same tree will fail to result in fruits. For reproduction, cross-pollination is vital. With crimson cup offerings, the trees entice animal vectors to do the job for them.
Weeks later, by April, many of the cross-pollinated flowers—those not eaten by macaques or dropped onto the forest floor to be munched by muntjacs—form oblong capsule-like fruits that are silk-stuffed cocoons of seeds. The capsules burst open in the hot, dry weather, letting the seeds, each with its little wispy parachute, fly with the winds. Silky white carpets form in the forest floor in the vicinity of silk cotton trees just as the pre-monsoon thunderstorms arrive to trigger the germination of the lucky seeds downed in the right spots. On the branches, new leaves sprout and splay their fingers to catch the light as the trees flush green again in sync with the rains, as if following a ticking clock of the spinning earth.
My thoughts swing to other flowering silk cotton trees that I had stood under across India in years past. I recalled the stately semal trees in Teen Murti Bhavan, New Delhi, welcoming birds of astonishing diversity in the national capital. I thought of the trees in the far northeastern forests of Dampa in Mizoram, bordering Tripura and Bangladesh. There, one January, I had watched birds feasting on nectar on a tree spiring over bamboo forests. Across another river and another border, this one not just imagined in maps but sliced on land by ugly fence and razor wire, were other silk cotton trees, whose pollen would be carried by birds and bats and bees and whose seeds would fly with the wind across states and nations. There, the tree was called bochou by the Bru, sinigaih by the Chakma, and phunchawng by the Mizos at that territorial trijunction.
It struck me then how absurd it is to affix territorial tags to these trees: could the silk cotton trees be Tamilian or Keralite when all that separated them were seamless river and air? Could the tree in Mizoram have sprouted from a seed blown from Tripura by the winds of time, growing over decades to stand tall and free? Would we deprive it a record in our national registry of trees because it was spawned by a pollen grain winged over from Bangladesh by an unwitting myna or starling? The trees remain rooted but are not isolated, immobile individuals. They are active, mobile, and complex living beings connected to hundreds or thousands of other plants and animals, in what the novelist John Fowles once described as a ‘togetherness of beings’.
At the turn of every new year, as silk cotton trees erupt in red across India’s forests, they signify neither flags of territory nor salutes to freedom. They celebrate a togetherness of beings who know how to live as citizens of the earth.
On 8 March 2020, while the citizenship protests in New Delhi were ongoing, an edited version of this article appeared under a different title in the Indian ExpressSunday Eye.
I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.
Speak, Memory (vladimir Nabokov)
The pandemic came from nowhere and everywhere and grounded us. Grounded us to place and to a renewed appreciation of our joint and earthly vulnerability, our collective insouciance to planetary health. Perhaps it will all change: the destruction of nature, the desecration of land for profit, the dissembling of reality to concoct a narrative of progress that hides multiple spirals of decline. Meanwhile, in the sudden and welcome quiet, a quiet that may presage a dawn or a storm, there are moments to reflect, to read, and to speak. To speak of what we have seen, what we have done, what we could still do for ourselves and for the world that we may yet wake up to.
Over the last year, from our home here in the Anamalai Hills, Divya and I have participated and spoken in a few online events, podcasts, and interactions, and had one documentary feature our work. The topics are as scattered as our interests and work have been: books and reading, hornbills and civets, rainforests and restoration. Nothing world-changing here. Just our plodding pursuits and local efforts to do what we can, where we can, because we’d rather be doing this than anything else. I am just parking it all here for you to watch or listen at your leisure. In reverse chronological order, here goes… and take your pick.
Valley of Words Literature Festival online session on The Wild Heart of India
My book The Wild Heart of India made the English nonfiction shortlist of the 2020 Valley of Words Award, along with four excellent titles.
The literature festival, meant to be held at The Savoy, Mussoorie, was held online during 20 – 22 November, 2020. While the award itself went to Ankur Bisen’s book Wasted, as part of the litfest I had the opportunity for a discussion with Dr Malvika Onial, Scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), and Dr Dhananjai Mohan, Director, WII. The recording of our discussion on my book, on conservation, and on writing about the natural world was streamed online on the 22nd.
Valley of Words Podcast on The Wild Heart of India
This conversation with Manoj Nair on my book The Wild Heart of India, which aired on 15 November, meanders through writing about the natural world, my personal journey in conservation, nature deficit and reconnecting people and nature, and where we are headed… do listen!
Restoration and Ecosystems
On September 25, 2020, Divya joined a panel of leading scientists on the Biodiversity Collaborative in a session on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,where she spoke on restoration, afforestation, and our experiences from the Western Ghats.
Such a lovely conversation: Do scientists give enough love to individual trees, the role that botanical gardens can play in conserving plants and spreading information, is it time for us to push harder for a different view of trees—one that recognises trees for their intrinsic worth, can illustrations capture trees better than photographs? Especially loved the part where Divya, Sridhar and Jonathan talk about how we can judge the health of a society by looking at how it treats its trees. Beautiful—thank you for this!
Carl D’silva Memorial Lecture
On August 30, 2020, Divya and I spoke at a lecture in memory of Carl D’Silva, an outstanding wildlife artist and illustrator who died in 2015. We then joined the discussion with Dr Madhura Niphadkar on forests, reforestation, and conservation.
On the Malabar civet
And Janaki Lenin interviewed Divya on her work on civets and the strange case of the Malabar civet as part of her #WildWomenInterviews series on 24 October 2020.
A Dream of Trees
And last on the list, but the first for us in the year past, was this stunning documentary about our work in the Anamalai Hills, made by the remarkable Sara and his team at Evanescence Studios. The film appeared on YouTube on 8 January 2020.
This film tells the story of the ecological restoration of degraded tropical rainforests in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats, India. It shows how Divya and I have been working with our team to restore degraded patches of rainforest in the Anamalai Hills in partnership with tea and coffee plantation companies since 2001. It speaks of the extraordinary values of rainforests and how restoration helps revive forests, bring back wildlife, and pull carbon down from the atmosphere in a time of climate crisis. An instructive story of challenge, limitation, and hope, A Dream of Trees is also an inspiring tale of restoration, of reviving the connections between plants and animals and between people and rainforests in a shared landscape. Do watch!
Note: This post was updated on 8 January 2021 to include the Valley of Words recorded video session of 22 November.
Last year, it was for a billboard carrying an iPhone advertisement. Seventeen trees poisoned, thirteen more with branches chopped off, “so that a billboard of an iPhone advertisement is clearly visible”.
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.
Before they were felled, the trees stood along the streets of Bangalore, a city that goes by the name of Bengaluru these days. Bengaluru, capital of the state of Karnataka, a city of over twelve million people and the third most populous city in India, where nearly one percent of the nation’s 1.3-billion-large population is packed into 2,196 square kilometres at a density of 5,700 people to a square kilometre. Bangalore, the garden city, now become Bengaluru, city of traffic snarls, burning lakes, glitzy billboards.
The loss of trees is not new. Between 1973 and 2016, according to one study, the area under paved and concreted surfaces in the city increased over tenfold while vegetation or green spaces declined by nearly nine-tenths. With just around 1.5 million trees remaining, Bengaluru has only one tree for every seven people, although there are even fewer—one tree for every thousand people—in densely populated wards such as Shivaji Nagar and Kempapura Agrahara in the heart of the city. The trees are not enough even to sequester the carbon dioxide breathed out by the city’s citizens. In the run up to the 2018 state elections, in April alone, around forty trees were chopped in various parts of the city. Many more may have gone unnoticed, unreported.
The forces that swept away the trees are many: urbanization, suburban sprawl, road widening, paved parking lots, cement-smothered compounds, built infrastructure, and a warped aesthetic that prefers lawns to trees. And billboard advertising, which thrives on spectacle and grabbing attention, which tolerates nothing that curtails the human gaze.
Cutting trees to make billboards visible is not a new trend either. In 2014, in the heart of the city along the road named for Mahatma Gandhi, apostle of non-violence, 15 trees were axed for a better view of a hoarding, a billboard within a walled compound. It was a “ridiculous and mindless” act, driven by “unbridled greed”, reported one newspaper. It left behind “mutilated stumps, standing lifeless sentinels”.
When will it stop? When will it be the turn for the billboards to fall?
* * *
When the trees fell, citizens took to the streets in protest. In April, residents of the RR Nagar locality voiced their protest with placards:
Hug Me, 30 years I have been. Help me re-grow. Here silently cleaning your environment… Speak up for me… be my voice.
In May, at Bellandur and Iblur, other residents lamented that the trees that had been cut had been planted four years ago and were twelve feet tall. They protested on the street with placards declaring the values of trees. One held by a child said simply:
You cut a tree, you kill a life You save a tree, you save a life You plant a tree, you plant a life.
It was not just that growing trees had been cut. Lives had been planted: deliberate acts of nurture, looking to a future with promise, for a flourishing that was now no more. The anguish came not just from looking back at the loss of what had been, but from a sense of longing for what they could have become, for the lives never lived. It stemmed from a vision in which street trees are integral to life in the city of the future.
Gardeners are good at the business of waiting, they are in tune with the rhythms of the earth, which are slow. There is no anxiety in this kind of waiting, only anticipation.
Anuradha Roy, ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’
In response to the tree cutting, small groups of concerned citizens do what they can. They attempt to revive the hacked trees with the help of conservationists, tree doctors. They coat the stumps with a traditional concoction of coconut oil, Indian wormwood extract, and bees wax to prevent wood rot. They make collars around the roots to add a reviving panchagavya mixture to the soil. They wait and watch for the tree to sprout again.
And they fight. This year, when trees were cut for billboards, citizens lodged complaints with the authorities to pull the billboards down and take action against the advertising agencies. For the trees should not have been cut at all. The anti-corruption ombudsman of the state, the Karnataka Lokayukta, had declared in 2017:
No one will cause any damage to trees or any branches of trees. It is the duty of the forest wing of BBMP [Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike or the Greater Bengaluru City Corporation] as well as BMTF [Bengaluru Metropolitan Task Force] to take legal action with the assistance of jurisdictional police. If any ad agency or representative of such agencies cause any damage to the trees, BBMP is required to remove the hoardings [billboards] and cancel the permission/licence granted to such agencies.
The Lokayukta’s order clearly placing tree protection within the mandate of the BBMP and BMTF was welcomed by the city’s tree conservationists. Yet, there’s a long way to go. The BBMP presents on its website, under citizen services, only how to apply for and carry out tree cutting, not how to source seedlings of appropriate species from local nurseries, how to nurture and protect planted trees, or how to raise and pursue complaints when they are illegally felled. The BMTF’s online complaints portal, meant to register complaints for any destruction of government property, lists only “Property/Building/Site”—there is no mention of “Tree(s)”.
In June, I travel from the mountains of the Western Ghats to Bengaluru, with Divya Mudappa, my partner, arriving at Bengaluru’s international airport one afternoon. Among other things, we have come to work with Nirupa Rao, an artist and botanical illustrator based in Bengaluru, on a book about some remarkable trees of the Western Ghats—a book that we had dreamed up years ago but which had taken shape only over the last two years. Trees on our minds, we pass through the automated glass doors at the arrival exit that leaves me wondering how one can arrive and exit at once. Shouldn’t the door be labeled ‘EXIT’ on the outside for those going into the airport and ‘ENTRANCE’ on the inside for those arriving? The swanky airport holds many charms, no doubt, but it is just a building, an air-portal, ultimately it is this city, this place, we come to or leave.
At the airport curbside, a few trees give us pause. They are fig trees, a few metres tall, planted and growing in small, constrained spaces in the sweeping expanse of tiled floor under the airport’s high, curving, metallic roof. There’s a pair of Ficus benjamina or weeping fig with small shining leaves modestly hidden under a patina of dust. Three other trees, identified later by Sartaj Ghuman, another artist friend working on the book with us, are Ficus lyrata or fiddle-leaf fig whose leaves are shaped like lyres or the bouts of violins.
We leave the fig trees to their weeping and silent music and take a taxi from the airport, watch the airport’s gardens rush past. Lush lawns, colourful ornamentals, the airport’s retinue of tamed trees and palms transplanted by mechanical crane. Plants from as many countries, perhaps—befitting such an airport—as the airplanes arrive from. And yet, the native plants and trees of this destination, this landscape, this place, are scarce. The gardeners must have grubbed out any wild vegetation with their mechanical arms.
Along the highway leading out of the airport, exotic palm trees and bougainvillea bushes with pink and white flowers are packed tightly into the median. Further south, into the city, the median peters out into strips of straggly, dust-encrusted ornamental plants along and under mile upon mile of overhead roads, above which the airplanes fly into and out of the international airport or nearby airfields. Roads above roads, flyovers above flyovers. Against the highway’s flanks, billboards blaze by day and night, angled to catch every arriving, passing, or departing eye—some flaunt Government schemes with portraits of the Great Leader, others advertise homes and phones and the chattels of city life, wants and dreams and personal status. One billboard even advertises a block of apartments as a rainforest. And no trees block the view.
A clutch of monsoon clouds hangs in the rain-washed sky blue as a bird’s eye. The taxi driver is playing a Hindi film song on an FM channel on the car stereo. Soon, the song ends, a string of ads begins. The driver pushes the buttons, changing channels. Ads. More ads. He leaves it playing on a channel where the endless banality of chatter and ads is punctuated by music in constrained chunks. For some reason to do with traffic, the driver takes a short detour off the highway through Doddajala, ‘big lake’, a village being devoured by the city’s conurbation speeding north along the airport highway. It is pleasing to travel by a smaller road, with views—and time for views—of the landscape, even as we move faster than the vehicles creeping through highway traffic. Amid tessellated fields, houses, and shops crowding the road, stand neem, Eucalyptus, tamarind, jamun, and Ficus trees—over a wayside temple looms a great banyan, rooted in its place. Passing Doddajala, and back on the highway, Chikkajala, I see no lake big or small—I must have missed them or they have withered like the lakes around the airport or been built over like other lakes in the city.
It strikes me that this landscape would have looked very different in the past, a past that would have had no billboards, certainly, but also fewer buildings and even fewer trees.
* * *
When Bengaluru was founded in 1537 CE by Kempe Gowda of the Yelehanka Nada Prabhu dynasty, it was already in a landscape peopled for millennia. The city lay at the interface of the hilly malnad landscape to the south and west and the gentler, meadowed maidan terrain to the north and east. As Harini Nagendra notes in her book on the ecological history of Bengaluru, Nature in the City,
The landscape was shaped by its topography, with agricultural settlements irrigated by wells and lakes in the undulating terrain to the north and east, and pastoral communities in the dense scrub and jungle of the south and west.
Kempe Gowda expanded the city, creating the Kempambudhi and Dharmambudhi lakes, reinforcing the city’s fort and surrounding pete or markets with a mud wall and moat, bolstered by a ring of thorny shikakai climbers. Over the next two centuries the city continued to be transformed through the reigns of the Bijapur Sultanate, Hyder Ali, and his son Tipu Sultan, and the establishment of the British colonial administration at the end of the 18th century. As the city grew in population and expanded, slowly swallowing the surrounding villages, the string of rulers and administrators developed new lakes and markets and gardens and roads. Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan’s ‘Cypress Gardens’ established in the eighteenth century, remains as the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens in the city today.
Yet, in the eighteenth century, Bengaluru city was mostly treeless, embedded in a countryside that was open.
Bengaluru’s reputation as a garden city was not passively gained, it was actively cultivated: all sorts of people—from citizens to satraps—planted trees, nurtured gardens, and protected them to form the city’s tree cover and greenery. As Harini Nagendra notes in her book, multiple influences and aesthetics dictated the transition from open countryside to a city with tree-lined streets, parks, bungalow gardens, and lakes. The English colonial influence, certainly, but also those of earlier rulers, all built upon the abiding, deep, and old relationships that India’s peoples have always had with trees, viewing nature as a source of livelihood, as alive and sacred, at once.
Across Bengaluru, in groves and gardens tended with care to vacant lots running wild, from slums to sacred spaces thronging with people, trees stand testimony to those relationships. To the city’s northeast, in the Nallur grove, great, gnarled, aged tamarinds, two to over four centuries old, sprawl their branches amidst the ruins of an old fort. Near temples, alongside railway tracks and stations, and along congested and otherwise treeless city roads, there still stand massive banyan and peepal trees rising from raised platforms or kattes—platforms that serve as places for meetings, markets, shrines, or simply for resting in the shade, present in almost every town and village in the Karnataka countryside.
The neem and champak and jack will continue to reside in the city in the names of places—Margosa Road, Sampige Road, and Halasur (Ulsoor)—whether the trees remain in these places or disappear with more buildings, widened roads, or billboards. In their sample survey across 328 home gardens in the city, Harini Nagendra’s research team found people nurturing 91 tree species, from petite henna and spindly coconut to sprawling mango and jack that gave of their shade and sweetness through the summer. In the city’s crowded slums, where each family has just a few square metres of floor space to itself, people still made space for trees around their homes and in common areas where children played, people washed clothes and dishes or socialized with each other, and vendors set up stalls to sell tea and snacks, or flowers.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, as the city mushroomed, trees were planted by government authorities, too, chiefly the Forest Department or the Forest Cell of the BBMP. One forest officer, S. G. Neginhal, is credited with spearheading the planting of 1.5 million trees in Bengaluru in the 1980s, in areas like Indiranagar and Koramangala that are now expensive residential and commercial spaces embedded in the city. The Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, enacted in 1976 and amended in subsequent years, created a framework for regulating the planting and felling of trees overseen by the appointed ‘Tree Officers’. Along sidewalks and parks, around government buildings and lakes, sprung up numerous trees that grace the city even today, both native species such as mango and neem and jamun, and exotic ones such as the Madagascan gulmohur, African tulip, Australian silver oak and Acacia wattles, and the Tabebuia, jacaranda, and mahogany of tropical America.
The trees waft coolness over surroundings baking in urban heat. In the afternoon, the ambient temperatures in tree shade are a good five degrees Centigrade cooler than over shadeless road, and 20 degrees cooler than the blistering tarmac. The value of shade itself is inestimable for people on foot or on two wheelers, street vendors and residents. The trees trap dust and freshen the air. They shelter birds and squirrels and monkeys and butterflies and bats, and provide fruits and flowers and firewood and fodder. They bring an uplifting aesthetic amidst glass and metal and tar and concrete. Rooted in place, they share their goodness as the world passes by.
Bengaluru once occupied a landscape with few trees. But without its trees, the city would be unimaginable today, and unlivable in the years ahead. The trees that remain stand, yet, as contingent markers of place, aesthetics, utility, and history.
* * *
Our book is nearly done. We had settled on the title, Pillars of Life, taken from an essay Divya had written years ago, when the book was still a seed of an idea in her mind. We tack on a subtitle, Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. The rest of the text is ready, the beautiful artwork—painstaking botanical illustrations by Nirupa and evocative sketches by Sartaj—has been digitally scanned and corrected for colours. An attractive layout has been chosen. Only the page for the dedication is blank, but Divya comes up with one that we instantly know is apt:
To the trees ~ the original landscape historians
In Bengaluru, street trees tell their own history of the city. Between our friend’s home in Judicial Layout where we are staying and Canara Bank Layout near Sahakara Nagar where our organisation, the Nature Conservation Foundation has its small office, the landscape around the University of Agricultural Sciences is a transformed one. From open and thinly populated a few decades ago, it is now a crowded suburb burgeoning with homes and apartments and shops, new ones cropping up every month. Along the roads, the trees that grow—pongam and mahogany, beach almond and kadam—are thick as a thigh to stout as a waist with canopies reaching only a few metres, dwarfed by the apartment buildings.
In older parts of Bengaluru, as in Malleswaram, Indira Nagar, Sanjay Nagar, and Halasur, and along wider roads, stand commensurately older trees: especially, rain trees of giant girth splaying their stout limbs over the roads, filtering out sunlight by day, letting in what starlight and moonlight they can through their folded leaves by night, obscuring even the multi-storey buildings that huddle along the roads.
One afternoon, I head downtown to M. G. Road and Church Street, in search of books, coffee, and trees. Named after Mahatma Gandhi, M. G. Road had few trees even in the past and is now a throbbing highway of concrete, tarmac, and traffic with overhead metro to boot. The few trees one can see are hidden on the northern side behind the metro, constrained within the bounds of the Cariappa Memorial Park.
At Church Street, I pause to consider my urban priorities: books first, coffee, or trees? Coffee, of course, at the Indian Coffee House, then trees, then books, then coffee again with books-in-hand. Easy.
The Indian Coffee House and Gangaram’s bookstore were old haunts of mine when they stood on M. G. Road, until both were forced to shut shop and move. Fortunately, the transplanted café and bookstore still survive in Church Street. The café retains its modest streetside ambiance, white-caparisoned waiters, and eclectic snacks. In price and flavour, its distinctive coffee, made from a strong decoction and served in plain white cups and saucers, beats the brews concocted in the swank café-turned-lounges with plush seats down the road. The Indian Coffee House’s existence remains tenuous, though, as its takeover by other café chains seems imminent. The Gangaram’s bookstore, too, survives with others down the same street: Bookworm, Blossom, and Goobe’s. I say survives, because two other famous Bengaluru bookstores that used to be nearby, the venerable Premier Book Shop and the Strand Book Stall, have already shut shop—their spaces swallowed by other commercial imperatives. Not transplanted. Axed, like the trees on M. G. Road in 2014 that stood in the view line of a billboard.
Opposite Blossom Book House in the compound of Falnir House—an old building standing like a marker of vanished time—stood large mango and jack trees. Along the street, a few trees spilled out of compounds and small spaces by the sidewalk: Araucaria, tamarind, peepal, and monkeypod. I stand under their branches in a light breeze for a while. The soft susurrus of tamarind leaves and the gentle patter of quaking peepal leaves against each other are barely audible in the noise of passing vehicles and the chugging of an electric generator at a construction site nearby. Further down, a cluster fig slants from the sidewalk near Coco Grove hotel and someone has parked a bicycle beside it. Opposite the Highgates Hotel stand peepal, false ashoka, camel’s foot, and rain tree, in which a pair of common mynas chuckles and a lone rose-ringed parakeet screeches. A bit further down, near Koshy’s looms a large mahogany, holding brown pods like arboreal eggs packed with seeds waiting with wings.
“You don’t have to stare at every single tree, you know?” Divya chides me as we drive back to Judicial Layout after she and a friend picked me up from Church Street as evening fell over the city.
I smile. I was obsessing over every tree. Teak trees covered in a creamy fuzz of inflorescences; Indian cork trees putting out bunches of white pendant blooms; the African tulip holding aloft clusters of large, crimson flowers. Trees with brush-strokes of colour in their leaves: the yellowing leaves of pongam and jack, the moon flash below silver oak leaves in the wind, the senescent leaves of beach almond in scarlet and burnt umber falling, returning to the earth. And the roadside Markhamia whose branches held long, twisted hanging pods and sprigs of yellow flowers like little trumpets playing a music now drowned by traffic noise; the Tabebuia flowers bunched in soft pink against dark green leaves forming a contrasting backdrop to the metallic colours of the vehicles strung along the highway; the wayward fig trees stretching their trunks and limbs out over the road through gaps left considerately in compound walls; the fruit-laden Jamaican cherry trees that flicker with flowerpeckers by day, bustle with bats by night. And every standing, swaying, sighing neem and mango and whatnot. I really didn’t need to stare at every tree.
Yet, what if the next time I came to the city that tree wasn’t there?
* * *
The city is changing. Fast. Harini Nagendra writes:
In the twenty-first century, the city has entered a technologically driven era where topography is subservient to real estate. Across the city, marshy wetlands are filled and granite hillocks are razed to the ground for construction. …The clearing of trees and desiccation of lakes has impacted the microclimate of the city, leading to urban heat islands that trap heat and exacerbate pollution. Bengaluru’s survival and resilience in the decades to come will depend on the future of nature in diverse spaces of the city.
Narrow roads, usually in congested residential neighborhoods, have fewer trees, smaller sized tree species, and a lower species diversity compared to wide roads. Since wide roads are being felled of trees across the city for road widening, this implies that Bangalore’s street tree population is being selectively denuded of its largest trees. Older trees have a more diverse distribution with several large sized species, while young trees come from a less diverse species set, largely dominated by small statured species with narrow canopies, which have a lower capacity to absorb atmospheric pollutants, mitigate urban heat island effects, stabilize soil, prevent ground water runoff, and sequester carbon. This has serious implications for the city’s environmental and ecological health.
Although the city boasts of 1,200 neighbourhood parks today, they occupy less than 0.1% of the city’s area, and many are gated with restricted access, depriving sections of the community that need them most. Of the wooded groves and urban commons, the gunda thopes, that were once scattered about the city, most have disappeared, too. It is only along roads that many people have daily, public access to trees, but tree cutting isn’t sparing them either.
Bengaluru’s citizens are not taking all this sitting down. Groups organise and lead campaigns to protect trees. They hold festivals to celebrate trees. They try to map trees in the city. And they protest. In 2016, over 10,000 citizens took to the streets to oppose a state government project to build a six-lane, 6.72 km long, steel flyover in the city at a cost of around Rs 1,800 crores or 18 million rupees. The project, touted as one that would improve connectivity to the airport, would have entailed the cutting of 812 trees according to the proposal, although field survey by citizens showed 2,244 trees would face the chainsaw. Facing sustained protests by thousands of citizens on the streets, an online petition signed by 35,000 people, over 100,000 missed calls made to a designated number, written petitions to bureaucrats and administrators, and a string of critical media reports, the government scrapped the project in 2017.
Bengaluru was not alone. In June 2018, more than 1,500 people in the nation’s capital, New Delhi, poured into the streets to protest a planned cutting of over 14,000 trees for a housing redevelopment project. Pradip Krishen, author of Trees of Delhi, who was to write the foreword to our book, was caught up in the protests that erupted and wrote to us saying he could only send the foreword later. After citizens approached the Delhi High Court and the National Green Tribunal, both courts stayed the felling of trees, although the former has since modified its order to restrict tree felling in only seven redevelopment projects. Citizen petitions to the Central Information Commission, under India’s Right to Information Act, wrested disclosures by the State Government on its website, placing on record the number of trees already cut or slated to be cut by builders, contractors, and state agencies. For a city suffering the worst air quality of any major city in the world, the figures are sobering. Between 2005 and 2017, over 112,000 trees had been cut in Delhi, mostly for the Metro, roads, and other construction projects. One tree cut, for every hour of day or night, for thirteen years. And that’s just the official record.
These urban victories secured from the courts signify a surging public awareness on the values of trees in cities. They also serve as a synecdoche for a new environmentalism: one that melds the personal actions of individuals, the community efforts of groups, and the political activism of an empowered citizenry. The gardener planting a tree by slum-home or apartment-block or watering sidewalk trees demonstrates individual commitment. The communities, from apartment residents associations to civil society organisations, which lead street protests, petitions, and activist campaigns, signal the strength of the collective. And the coming together of individuals and groups to trigger political action—upholding the tenets of law, seeking justice from the courts, and demanding accountability and transparency from the government—heralds what an informed and empowered citizenry can achieve. The motivational roots of individual and community efforts toward nature conservation extend back into India’s old traditions and examples abound from India’s forests and rural areas. It is in their manner of joining forces and their form of political engagement that one sees a glimpse of something new. A contemporary and effective environmentalism that can be inclusive and diverse, aspirational and inspiring, that builds and deepens connections from person to person, people to place, and humans to the rest of nature even in the midst of our most crowded cities.
For as long as they are alive, trees remain where they are. This is one of life’s few certainties. The roots of trees go deep and take many directions, we cannot foresee their subterranean spread any more than we can predict how a child will grow. Beneath the earth, trees live their secret lives, at times going deeper into the ground than up into the sky, entwined below with other trees which appear in no way connected above the ground.
Anuradha Roy, ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’
Bengaluru’s billboards case is, however, still in court.
* * *
I think that I shall never see A billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.
Ogden Nash, Song of the Open Road, 1933 (in ‘The Face is Familiar’, 1941)
The billboards are falling. It is early September and Bengaluru is transformed. Back again for a conference, I can hardly believe my eyes. I am astonished at the hundreds of empty metal frames and structures along roads and highways, each of which earlier had garish vinyl flex advertisements stretched across them. Once again, the courts had stepped in.
At the ‘Nature in Focus’ conference, a gathering of nature photographers, filmmakers, and conservationists, Divya and Nirupa have a session on our book Pillars of Life that was published in July. Nirupa speaks about what it took for her to depict the beautiful rainforest trees—botanical illustrations made with accuracy, blending science and art, detailing bark and branch and every leaf. Later, participants compliment us on the artistic work, on the evocative yet brief text. Their kind words are gratifying, yet we hope the book will evoke greater appreciation and wonder towards grand trees, whether they stand by roadsides or in rainforest fragments, along city streets or winding hill roads. The conference photo exhibition showcases dozens of spectacular images, yet trees, if they appear at all, are only backdrops to animal portraits or lost in landscapes. Nirupa took up to a week to paint a single tree, but the trees themselves took a century or more to draw themselves from earth to sky: isn’t every tree a piece of art, too?
Will the billboards rise again like earlier, or will citizens reclaim the city and its trees for themselves? And yet, ads are still omnipresent. Spanning the cover pages of newspapers, filling radio and TV channels, crowding the pages of magazines, blipping into our phones, squirming into our email inboxes, flashing on our browsers, plastered across airports and railway stations and bus stands, and occupying place after public place where they have no business to be. With the fall of the billboards, perhaps the day will come, too, when all commercial advertisements will be constrained within print and online catalogues, shopping malls and complexes, yellow pages and directories, where people who need them can find them and they don’t arrive unannounced and unsolicited to stare you in the face.
With the vinyl flex gone or hanging in shreds, Bengaluru’s billboards frame views of buildings and trees and open skies. Flyovers of pelican and cormorant flocks in formation sweep through the sky to nearby lakes. As black kites and crows perch on the billboards’ metal bars, clouds drift through the billboards, as do mynas and sparrows and parakeets flying to the trees behind. Now, rain trees and eucalypts, mango and jack, shades of lime and jade and emerald, flicker into view. A few branches even poke their way through the emptiness of the billboard.
As the billboards fall, the people and the trees rise into the world and open their arms.