Category: people (page 1 of 3)

Speaking Up Against Commercial Scientific Journals

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

Commercial Science Journals: A Luxury Market?

Publicação: 10 de September de 2021

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

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

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

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

Full interview:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SBMT: Would you like to add anything?

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

Original Blog Post at View from Elephant Hills:

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

Republished in The Wire—Science

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

The Passing of the Endlings

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

The Isha Upanishad proclaims,

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

Freedom in the Time of Covid

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.

This short piece appeared in the Economic Times today, 15 August 2021, on the occasion of India’s 75th Independence Day.

India’s Revenant Forests

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!

For the destruction of biologically rich forests such as these in the Andaman Islands, the compensatory afforestation will be carried out in 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.

Monoculture tree plantations are not forests: A panorama shot of a teak (Tectona grandis) plantation (Left) and moist-deciduous forest (Right) in a protected area in Karnataka, India. Photo by: Anand Osuri, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

This article first appeared in Outlook Magazine on 14 June 2021.

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

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 Guardian puts 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 charge nearly 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.

For almost every commercial journal, I retorted in an email to the Editor-in-Chief, there is a non-profit equivalent that achieves the same quality at a significantly lower cost. They also make all papers available free for readers after a period of 6 months or a year (for instance, the journal Science published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science versus Nature produced by Springer; the Royal Society journals and PNAS, say, versus some sub-journals in the Nature crop). Further, any profits made from the academy or society journals contribute to a scientific rather than a business enterprise like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, or other big commercial publishers.

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 (cropped)
Alexandra Elbakyan at Harvard University (Photo: Apneet Jolly, via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.)
A summary of my Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons contributions (2007 to 2021).

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.

§

Even if one accepts that the system of scientific publishing is unjust and broken, the responses to this so far (besides Sci-Hub, of course) seem like half measures. Boycotts like mine remain little more than tokenism. Deals arrived at by universities with publishers like Elsevier remain riddled with holes. Even the proposed “one nation, one subscription” policy that the Government of India proposes to negotiate where, in return for a centrally-negotiated payment to journals, all individuals in India will have access to journal articles, avoids the question of whether such huge payments should be made to benefit commercial publishers. As a nation, India’s science budget (R&D) is only 0.7%, much lower than most nations in our position, and a large part of that budget goes to the private sector (42%), defence and space (29%).

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.

Citizens of the Earth

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.

Bombax ceiba flowering in the Anamalai Hills (Photo: Srinivasan Kasinathan & Ganesh Raghunathan)

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.

Red silk cotton tree

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.

Red silk cotton in full bloom

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 Express Sunday Eye.

A Famous Place

This essay owes inspiration to Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), a powerful commentary set in Antigua, on tourism and colonialism and the lived contradictions of travelers and citizens.

February 26, 2020. If you go to Corbett as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you arrive by airplane at New Delhi, the glossy artificiality of the Indira Gandhi International airport will assail you. (Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, four times, and you may wonder whether she would have wanted an airport named after her, rather than a National Park, say, like the one named after a white man, Jim Corbett—your destination.) If you come by train, it is the grime and the smells and the city’s exhaled air that will accost you. You will step out of airport or station into the great old city snug in its world-famous smog, made infamous now by the smoke pluming into the skies, swirling black from homes and mosques, from fires lit and riots raged in the city’s northeast.

And you will want to leave it behind, soon, taking your bus or taxi on the roads and highways leading east out of the city. Your vehicle’s tyres churn the miles and the Lutyens bungalows and gardens, the old fort and India Gate, the tree-lined avenues, the markets and condos, and the broad highways looped with flyovers fall behind, and the throng of suburbs and the sprawl of conurbations pass, with fewer trees now and more buildings and more people and vehicles and you pass them without looking back, with only a sideways glance, for you are looking ahead all the time—to the promise of Corbett, to forests and grasslands and elephants and tigers—always tigers—to places not like this city where the houses and the mosques burn not too far to the north, where the cops may beat you and force you to sing the national anthem, where a politician of the party supposed to govern the nation can incite men to mobs to violence and the honorable courts can find it in their wisdom to look away… There is no looking back at a place that is only looking back to a time and a world and a blinkered idea of that world that should have been left all the way back there in the first place.

There is only one place, just one, where your glance is directed upward—above a hill, a seething tenebrous hill over which a great swirling mass of five thousand black kites mills and turns under a dour, smoke-stained sky devoid of blue. A hill of garbage, a great mound of filth rotting, rising daily with the offal of Delhi, a hill taller than the buildings, the roads, the overhead metro lines, and the thought strikes you that the Parliament in Delhi, the President’s home in Delhi, are on hills, too.

You are glad to pass, now, through the countryside, seeing the farms and dhabas, the winter-stricken trees, the sin-burdened Ganges, the low mist forming over the fields of mustard and wheat in the distance, even the fire burning in the sugarcane fields. This fire is just a fire, the smoke just smoke, the match that lit it just the match of a solitary farmer tending his field along a road that leads away from the city you, the tourist, can afford to leave behind.

Hours pass. It is evening. The sky darkens with cloud. Your vehicle leaves the open plains and the town of Ramnagar behind and climbs into the foothills. The vehicle swerves and slews up the curves, the headlights swinging a misty beam speckled with gold glints of falling rain. The forest is dark, rendered under purpled skies in sudden chiaroscuro by a great unseen flash. You feel the crash, when it comes, in the pit of your stomach, in the percussion in your chest, in the shudder of the vehicle. The vehicle does not stop, it hardly even slows, the frantic wipers clearing just enough of a view to keep going.

You keep going, past the roadside sign that warns Elephants Crossing Zone Go Slow but the driver does not slow, past the long string of resorts and hotels in the middle of the forest, each signboard flashing past advertising luxury with adventure in Corbett—in the dark forest split by them on either side of the road.

The rain abates. A chill descends. The driver says he will not return to Delhi tonight. The mussalman log have created a mess, he says. You do not want to confront him with the news you were just reading on your phone that it is the mosques that are burning—you are here as a tourist after all, and this man will go and you will never see him again and how can you be sure and who knows what news is true and what fake and what is the point of arguing anyway. The driver will stay tonight at Ramnagar, where a man with a name like his can be safe.

As for you—you will not stay at a lodge or hotel. They are too tasteless for you, perhaps, or you want to be the conscientious traveler, you who like to think you tread light. You stay at a home-stay-like place run by a couple, friends of friends. The proprietors love wildlife, believe in a different form of tourism. Beside the glitzy lights and walled-off, power-fenced compound of a nearby resort, their place is quiet, dark, full of trees, with paths that even a wild elephant may walk on. The modest, tasteful surrounds, named for a bird of the mountain rivers, becalms you. Tucked under thick blankets, you fall asleep to the soft hoots of owls. Tomorrow you will enter Corbett.

§

Dhangarhi Gate, Corbett National Park (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

If you go to Corbett as a tourist—and now you are actually there—you will enter the National Park through one of the gates, say the Dhangarhi Gate, which looks like the entrance to a fortress. You will submit the permit and the reservations you had already obtained to the forest guards and show your ID cards and those of your partner and your friend and you will wait at the gate to enter at the designated time in the morning (10 a.m.) in your designated vehicle, for you understand that the park cannot remain open to just anyone, to curious wayfarers, itinerant traders, anonymous riffraff, the Gujjar herders who used to graze their buffaloes here not too long ago, the people who used to live in one of the four villages located here not too long ago, the random photographers, the foreigners or citizens—the nation’s capital you left behind is still confused about who is who in those latter categories anyway—no, you convince yourself that it can’t be just anybody who enters this National Park that belongs to everyone and yet no one. So you wait.

Finally, the gate opens and the two waiting vehicles in front of you—one a small bus full of excited, uniformed schoolchildren in coats and ties, the other a jeep with tourists like you—rev their engines and zoom ahead. Then the guard at the fortress-gate waves you through and you are overjoyed. Your real journey begins now. Or seems to. You are so happy that the guard waved you in, you want to go beaming into his little room behind the small window by the gate and pump his hand in gratitude.

Forests, mountains, river, Corbett NP (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

You are happy to be on your way—you are happy that you are cruising in an open-top, 4-wheel-drive Gypsy with modified seats on which the three of you can sit facing forward, you are happy to see the sal trees with corrugated bark and bright, rain-washed leaves, you are happy at the pleasant morning, cloudy with a hint of sun, you are happy to listen to the conversation in Hindi between JP, your soft-spoken naturalist guide from Ramnagar, and the driver Harinder, you are happy that the latter has been thoughtful to fill just a tad less air in the rear tyres to make a more comfortable ride in the Gypsy, you are happy at the narrow unpaved, unsealed forest road where you have to drive so slowly that the basking snakes and lizards can escape the tyres, you are happy to glimpse the sparkling river and the rounded boulders in white, grey, and pastel colours jumbled along the raus feeding into it—you are happy happy happy.

Large woodshrike (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The road swings along a rau and you see a flicker of birds in the trees and stop. Half a dozen large woodshrikes—plumaged in greys and browns, a streak as of thick mascara through their eyes—chatter and flit from branch to leaf expertly harvesting caterpillars that you didn’t even know were there. They keep company with a dark-winged and dark-hooded maroon oriole whose eyes gleam bright, whose voice screeches out to his mate across the forest. A small flock of Indian white-eyes, cheeping softly and probing the flowers, rides the bird wave as it sweeps tree to tree. And you can watch them and wonder how here in Corbett like elsewhere in India—save yesterday’s rioting city—birds of many-a-feather can flock together, too.

Mugger, by the river (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

You can take your time, now that you are past the gate, watch the eagle quartering over the canopy, the woodpeckers hammering on tree trunks, the blackbird perched in the shrubs, the mugger crocodile placid by the river viewed from High Bank—one of the few spots where you can get off your vehicle, stretch your legs, put your feet on the earth, take in a view of the mountains, the forests, the unsullied river below. Take a few selfies, too, if you must.

Road through sal forest to Dhikala (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Onward again and you near your destination and the road takes an older, grander feel with sal trees rising, curving, vaulting the road, and you feel like you are entering a cathedral, a grand hall of pillars in a place of worship, sensing perhaps if you pause a bit that it is this ambience, this kinship with and among the trees in a forest that those places of worship are trying to evoke. By the side of that vaulted, famous road, a nonchalant muntjac, impervious to fame, indifferent to worship, grazes and fades into the forest as your vehicle clatters past. You click and click trying to capture the deer, the trees, the grand avenue of this grand National Park, but you’ve captured nothing. The deer and the trees are still there. They are still there as you pass, eyes on the road to Dhikala.

The forest breaks suddenly into a large expanse of grassland. This is the famous Dhikala chaur you’ve heard so much about, admired so many photos of on Facebook, surely, and seen plastered across the pages of travel magazines and tour pamphlets promising adventures, thrilling experiences, close encounters with wildlife—yes, this is that famous place, that unparalleled Indian wilderness you’ve always wanted to visit and you see the row of buildings ahead hiding in the open behind charged fences and gates and that is where your rooms are in the new Forest Rest House (FRH) not far from the old FRH and you take it all in as your jeep rattles along, the grassland, the buildings, the line of trees along a dip in the land that promises a Himalayan river but is not a river that flows and is actually a reservoir—yet it is the river, the grassland, the forest, the elephants and the tigers—always tigers—that you will choose to identify with this famous place.

A Pied Bushchat keeps watch in the grasslands near Dhikala, Corbett NP (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

You have arrived. There you are deep in the Indian wilds, in the most famous spot in this famous Park named after Jim Corbett, the famous wilderness writer—a long dead white hunter with a rare affinity to the India under the Raj, a writer whose books still fly off the shelves especially the ones he wrote about man-eating leopards and tigers—always tigers—and how he shot them and saved the lives of natives, a writer whose bust, a slightly misshapen bust under a tent-like shelter, faces every single visitor who enters through the Dhangarhi gate, a writer and sahib still remembered by some of the older mountain folk, a shikari who was a white hunter but also wasn’t really one, a man followed later by many who aspired to be white hunters of a sort, but weren’t really.

Check-in. You are happy that in this famous place, this Indian wilderness, you have clean, newly-furbished rooms with electricity and a large clean toilet and piping hot water and a room boy who promises you bed tea the next morning at 6 a.m., a porter who will haul your luggage upstairs from the jeep and not ask you for money because he knows, just looking at you, how you must be a good person, a fortunate, privileged person to have arrived in this famous place and that happy as you are to be here, you will doubtless give him a good tip. You are the guest, after all, you reserved the room with your money, and he is here only to serve. You settle down in the room, pull the curtains aside, take in a view of the trees, maybe even open the glass windows to let in some of the air and the bird calls and peer contentedly at the beautiful welcoming world through the mesh that keeps the not-so-beautiful, not-so-welcome world of flies and mosquitoes and macaques out—out where they belong. This is your room. The view framed by the window is your view. You can take photos to remember it by.

§

Shoot the tigers—always tigers. There is dawn talk. A tiger, Paro, with her two grown cubs, is about, goes the buzz, spreading from jeep to idling jeep behind the closed gates, the drivers alert, their eyes on the forest officer who has brought a chair out and a mobile phone to check the time and make sure no one leaves for the safari until the exact designated moment. He checks the time. He picks his teeth. He checks again. He raises a hand. The gates swing open. The tyres spin, kicking dust. The convoy of jeeps zooms ahead, carrying their jacketed and blanketed loads of camera-burdened tourists, you among them, and before you know it, you are cruising along the river, heading into sal forests where there is a good chance of catching a glimpse of Paro.

Garland of langurs (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

Alarm calls of chital. Harinder kills the engine and you wait. You are glad that there are only six other jeeps waiting here for the tiger who is somewhere in the forest, up the slope, away from the trees whose canopies are festooned with a garland of langurs but you have little time for them because you cannot miss your only glimpse of the striped cat in the bushes. But the cat does not show.

Grassland, Corbett NP (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

You are now before a grassland. A mesmeric sweep of waist-high and knee-high grass spreading away, away till where, you have no idea, it could spread all the way cleaving past the Himalaya to Tibet and Mongolia and beyond for all that you or the Siberian stonechat sitting on the bent spear of a grass blade know. The grassland is sliced by safari roads and the hunters, you among them now, sit in the jeeps, triggers cocked, to shoot the tiger if she crosses, to collect her head and her beautiful striped skin and pin them up, later, on your digital walls. But the cat does not show.

Gharial and cormorants (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)

You now have a view of the river. A braid of grass and smooth boulders and land, shining and sparkling in evening light, topped by the flame of a tall silk cotton tree abloom on which a Pallas’s fish-eagle sits, his eye absorbing the landscape and the waters and the life beneath the waters with a level of detail and discernment you can only aspire to. The tiger and her cubs had walked across this braid of land and water. Someone had seen them less than an hour ago. And so you scan and scan with your binoculars and telescope, past the eagle and the sambar doe with her fawn grazing by the river, past the turtle and cormorants and gharial basking on the banks, past the black-winged kite and crested kingfishers stalled as if by an invisible hand in mid-air, wings aflutter, one over the grass the other over the water seeking their suppers, past them all to where the river takes a bend and disappears, onto the Ganges, into the ocean and who knows where else. But the tiger does not show.

Turtle basking, Corbett NP (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

The tiger does show, to someone else. Someone who is ready with their cameras just at the moment when Paro is licking her paws reclining on the ground as her cubs rise on their hind legs, face each other, and swat playfully at each other in a sparring match in full view and good light, captured in a series of hundreds of photos, one of which has already been uploaded, shared, captioned, liked, commented, praised and plussed, bounced and rebounced, phone to laptop to tablet, until it pings in your own phone, in whatever you feed on, the virus arrived at your door, and you look at it, nonplussed, saying how did I miss that.

§

It is time to leave. You pack your bags as the world is shutting down because someone far away shot or killed an animal they shouldn’t have, because they had caught more than just the animal, and because now a person’s cough in Wuhan, China, can reverberate around the world.

One virus put out by the man in the next room, a photograph flitting from server to server around the world before arriving in your hand, received eagerly in your phone, and another virus out there that you will have to evade all the way back home and learn to keep avoiding. You are glad to see the porter and room boy when they come to help carry your heavy luggage down the stairs to the waiting jeep. As the jeep departs, they watch you leave and you realise you do not know their names and the thought strikes you that you are leaving while they will stay on, and that all the while they have had the better reason to be there in this famous place, earning a livelihood assisting people unknown to them and it is you, ultimately, who will remain forever anonymous.

Time rolls the forests and grasslands past, under your wheels, and the grim visage of Corbett’s bust watches you exit the gates of his park. You have had your happy moment, but it seems to be already receding there behind the closing gates, and ahead is Delhi, city of strife, city of pollution, city of pain. Corbett, Delhi, home. Yet, there is something you can take with you: something that arrives as a wisp of elation. In a moment of reflection and clarity you see what you came to Corbett to see. And what you remember and what you forget do not just happen to you but are of your choice.

This essay first appeared under a different title in The Wire on 16 August 2020.

The Idea of Justice: A review

This post just pulls in my review of Amartya Sen’s 2010 book The Idea of Justice, which I had originally posted on Goodreads in 2011 soon after I finished reading the book. It had picked up a few ‘likes’ but little discussion, so I thought I’d post it here again. I’ve added a few links for context.

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When an author as distinguished as Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in economics and acclaimed polymath and thinker, writes on the issue of justice, one expects great insight into an aspect central to human life and democracy. With more than 400 dense pages of text and footnotes, over 30 pages of notes, and a long preface, Sen’s book tries to take the reader through a labyrinth of ideas and literature from ancient times to modern days. Indeed, in proposing an approach that is philosophically and morally relevant to human freedom and capability, and that integrates well with modern views on democracy and openness, Sen makes a stalwart contribution to the literature of our times.

Sen’s essential thesis is simple. He sets up a contrast between two views of justice. The more paradigmatic traditional view, which Sen calls transcendental institutionalism, based on John Rawls‘s A Theory of Justice is set against a more realization-focused comparative approach developed by many thinkers and espoused by Sen himself. The former depends on a social contract among individuals that will ostensibly evolve in a hypothetical ‘original condition’ of impartiality where everyone is free of their vested interests due to a ‘veil of ignorance‘ that separates them from what they will be in the real world. This is then supposed to lead to two fundamental principles of justice (liberty, equality and equity) and determine the right institutions and rules governing justice, after which we are home and free on the road to perfect justice. In the latter view, Sen questions whether perfect justice is either attainable or required, and if creating institutions and rules are sufficient to see that justice is actually achieved in the real world. The answer, rather obviously, is no. We are mostly not interested in what perfect or ideal justice is in a given situation; mostly, what we have are two or more options that we need to assess to see which would be more just. Such assessment, should be based on reasoning, preferably public reasoning that is open, impartial, and democratic and leads to the best social choices and actual realization of justice among people in the real world. The contrast between the two concepts is also presented by Sen as the distinction between the concepts of niti and nyaya in Indian thought.

This overarching message of the book and the additional weight provided by someone like Sen in pushing it, is a valuable one. It suggests that in a world rife with problems and conflicts, citizens and the media have a more central role in engaging with issues, learning about them, reasoning publicly over diverse choices, and arriving at rational and better courses of action.

In the end, however, the book disappoints more than it edifies, it frustrates more than it clarifies. To be fair, this is not because Sen’s reasoning is defective or that the approach to justice he espouses in the book is vague or poorly reasoned. It fails partly because Sen is not really saying anything new in this book that he and others have not already said earlier. More important, Sen buries his simple and highly relevant thinking and his effort to pull ideas together under a cloud of pedantry and repetition. Only a diehard reader willing to suffer some poor, laboured writing in order to grasp some really rich ideas can plough through this book.

Does a man who knows so much about the economy of the world, know so little about the economy of words?

Early on, Sen describes the essential features of Rawls’s theory briefly, with the apology that

…every summary is ultimately an act of barbarism…

and his counter-view and reasoning. This, along with other related ideas on the importance of reason and impartiality, is then repeated many times (easily over a dozen times, but one loses count) throughout the book. Not only does Sen repeat the basic idea of justice (often in more or less the same words) in the text, he repeats himself in the extensive footnotes, and just in case you haven’t caught on, he obligingly marks in numerous additional footnotes that this same point was already made by him in an earlier chapter. It becomes rather more than a passing annoyance when he repeats his expression of what Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ means thrice in two paragraphs (pg. 197-8). If summaries are an act of barbarism, then how does one describe such verbiage: vandalism? To quote Sen himself (pg. 73):

Words have their significance but we must not become too imprisoned by them.

Or even better, if only Sen had heeded the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein quoted in the first sentence of the first chapter of his book:

What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

Reading Sen’s repetitive work, one feels for his editor, Stuart Profitt, who Sen says in the Acknowledgements made “invaluable comments and suggestions… almost on every page of every chapter”, mentioning his “relief” at the end of this book, which we come to understand well. Still, one wishes Sen could have ‘Profitted’ more from the editing. Sorely tempted, at the end of the 400+ page book to commit a barbaric act myself, I summarised his tome into a single sentence:

John Rawls’s theory that perfect justice can be derived by creating the right institutions and rules based on principled social contracts among people in a hypothetical original condition where everyone is ignorant of what they will be in the real world, is untenable; instead, the idea of justice requires open, impartial, and public reasoning to arrive at more just and democratic solutions through social choices made by comparing actual available alternatives, while being mindful of process and outcome on people in the real world.

Three other aspects I found wanting in this book are (a) the lack of discussion of real cases and choices on burning issues of justice, (b) the paucity of discussion on how his idea of justice naturally translates into important consequences for debates on global environment (e.g., climate change, wildlife conservation issues), and (c) his rather limited use of Asian philosophy, literature, and ideas. A few lines about each of these below.

Sen makes passing mention of some real cases: a line about the Iraq war and the role of the US (which he calls “this country”, on pg. 71, giving away the readership he seems to be writing for), mentions of famines, the French Revolution, and rights of women and slavery. There is some empirical data and discussion on famine in Chapter 16, but again based on old material he has covered in his 1981 book Poverty and famines. When Sen does discuss a case in greater depth, it is rather frivolous invented examples, about personal freedom and choices when sitting on seats in airplanes, or three children and a flute. These are alright to introduce the nuances of choice in justice, but in all this mad, chaotic world could Sen really find no real cases where the same dilemma for justice is present? He talks so much about realization and consequence in the real world, but the real world of cases is strangely absent in his own book. Real injustice and the failure of institutions could be well illustrated and discussed in many cases: for example, the Bhopal tragedy, the Holocaust, or the case of global climate change.

My greatest disappointment with the book was, however, more personal. As someone interested in the environment conservation movement—including issues of global justice, social choices and sustainability, and the expansion of human ethical horizons to include nature and the interests of animals—I expected more from this book than I perhaps should have, given that it is, ultimately, written by a Harvard economist. Sen deals with sustainable development and the environment in a little over 4 pages (pg. 248-252), bringing mainly two points to the fore. One, that development should not be seen as antagonistic to environment as it could lead to benefits, for instance through empowerment, female education and reduction in fertility rates. Second, that conservation can be based on our sense of values and our freedom and capability to hold and pursue those values is sufficient substantive reason to pursue conservation goals: a sort of freedom to conserve, indeed.

When Sen speaks of social choices, rationality, and other aspects of people such as sympathy and sharing, he seems oblivious, at least in this book, about the rich literature in anthropology and biology (including evolution and animal behaviour and psychology), and ethics (including environmental ethics and animal rights). Arguably, these have more contemporary relevance to the issue than Adam Smith‘s early and other economists’s recent speculations, uninformed by biology and anthropology, on these matters. The ideas of various thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Nagel, Adam Smith, and Mary Wollstonecraft, have been discussed extensively in the light of recent scientific research on human and primate behaviour, and moral philosophers have extended the ethical principles underlying human rights to issues of animal welfare and rights and environmental conservation. These are relevant, but missing, in the otherwise valuable chapters ‘Rationality and Other People’, ‘Human Rights and Global Imperatives’, and ‘Justice and the World’. This may seem harsh, but until Sen can integrate these views of economics and justice with the stellar advances in fields of biology, anthropology, animal behaviour, and moral philosophy, he remains, not a polymath as some have called him, but like most other economists, mostly a ‘math’.

Finally, Sen brings Asian philosophy to bear rather sparingly in the book. This includes, besides the niti-nyaya gradient, description of some essential ideas from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the famous debate between Krishna and Arjuna on duty and consequence in the Bhagavad Gita episode of the Mahabharata, about Akbar and Ashoka, and sound bytes from the Buddhist sutta nipata. That’s it? That’s all that thousands of years and billions of people have to contribute to the idea of justice? Or is this a deliberate choice by the author to keep the focus on the John Rawls and Kenneth Arrows of this world? I can’t really tell.

In sum, this is an important book for the core idea it contains. For those who don’t wish to wade through the whole book, four chapters are still worth reading that present the essentials: the Introduction, Chapter 4 on ‘Voice and Social Choice’, Chapter 11 on ‘Lives, Freedoms, and Capabilities’, and Chapter 15 on ‘Democracy as Public Reason’. There are some interesting books and literature cited in the bibliography that can lead one to a wider reading (e.g., Jonathan Glover, Barry Holden, Jon Elster). One wishes, however, that Sen will enlarge his view and shrink his text in his next offering.

So it goes.

Conversation Biology: Eight Reasons I am a Silent Scientist

In a recent email exchange with a journalist I greatly respect, I wrote:

I am personally ashamed at how little we (as scientists) have done to either study carefully or explain the issues or even share our experiences in the public domain. The op-ed was just my small attempt to get some of those thoughts out for public discussion and criticism.

The op-ed I referred to was titled The Culling Fields. In it, I wrote about the recent notifications issued by the Central government and some states in India to list certain wildlife species—nilgai antelope, wild pig, and rhesus macaque—as ‘Vermin’ under the Wildlife Protection Act. The notifications were spurred by a belief that populations of these animals had boomed and were responsible for serious damage to crops in rural areas, coupled with a perceived lack of better management options for what has been labeled ‘human – wildlife conflict’ involving these species.

Moving species that earlier received protection in the Wildlife Act into its Schedule V (V as in five, for V as in Vermin!) allows anyone to kill those species in the respective states. Already, hundreds of animals have been killed by shooters, often from other states, in a manner that has no scientific basis, design, or monitoring. Videos also suggest a distressing lack of attention to basic humane norms to prevent animal suffering (see this IndiaTV video episode around 0:55 – 0:60 and 1:30). This is no scientific ‘culling’ or research-based wildlife population management. This desperate measure unleashed on unsuspecting animals is simply slaughter.

As a debate on culling emerged, I wrote about why the ongoing killing may not just be the wrong answer to the conservation issue, but a consequence of framing the wrong question. I do not intend to repeat those arguments, or what Sindhu Radhakrishna and I wrote in another piece, here. Nor do I intend to respond here to other articles or the few thoughtful demurring responses I received from people who had written in support of culling. Nor is this the place to discuss why widespread killing of wildlife in other countries, such as coyotes in the US, for example, makes little sense and is evidently less effective than non-lethal methods.

What I would like to do here is talk about another concern: the silence of scientists. Why have scientists in India—particularly conservation biologists and social scientists—for whom human – wildlife conflict is today a major area of research, hardly joined in the discussion to support or rebut or provide nuanced perspectives on culling as a solution? Leave alone participating in the debate, scientists are hardly even part of the backdrop.

As expected, the space is then taken up by well-meaning animal welfare groups and activists, who adopt a more immediate task of resistance, alongside the task of questioning. When activists in India queried the states where culling was allowed under the Right to Information Act (RTI) on whether the culls were based on scientific research studies, they learned that the orders were not based on any scientific studies. When the central government was asked, under RTI, how culling could be permitted without scientific studies, the activists were informed that no new research was required on the issue of conflict. Even with culling underway, questions asked on whether there was any monitoring of number of animals being culled, elicited only this response from the central Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change:

No such information available in the Ministry.

All this should have a sobering effect on the dozens of scientists and students I know across the country (and possibly many more that I don’t) who have spent months and years in the field studying human – wildlife interactions including conflicts. Some of them have spent years engaged in scientific research and efforts to reduce conflicts, often successfully, by working with local people and forest departments. My own work in this field has been relatively minuscule, but I have tried to keep up with the research and approaches to conflict mitigation because they have a direct bearing on wildlife conservation and human welfare. And yet, many of us have hardly spoken up in public to share our learnings to inform or influence policy, practice, and public opinion. One environmental journalist went a step further in analyzing this and wrote that perhaps wildlife conservation scientists don’t really care:

…while the animal welfare lobby has been quick to cry foul, there has been an ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community. This is where the wildlife scientists must step up to the challenge. The truth is that most wildlife biologists would rather spend their time doing pure science, that is studying species deep in the forest and learning new aspects of their behaviour. There is no charm in ‘managing’ human-animal problems. It’s also true that since most of the animals listed are not endangered, most conservation biologists have little or no concern in saving them.

I disagree with much of what that says and the way it is said: the pigeonholing of people who may have real concerns on animal welfare into a “lobby”, the oversight that many wildlife scientists now work outside reserves and in human-use landscapes, and the failure to note a growing scientific concern over common species as much as the rare and endangered. But what I do agree with is what the writer calls the “ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community” (leaving aside my personal opinion that those concerned with animal welfare are part of the same community).

Why are the scientists silent? And why is it important to ask this question? Not because science and scientists are infallible or represent the sole arbiters of truth—or other absurd claims on those lines. Not because I believe that science should form the bedrock of policy and governance—there are other aspects of society, politics, and asymmetries of power at play that are probably equally or more relevant. It is because one can envision a supportive role for reasoning—public reasoning—within the framework of any democracy. For citizens of a democracy facing various complex and shared problems that have no single or simple cause or solution, an atmosphere of open reasoning presents various possibilities, ideas, and information, and has the potential to cultivate collective—yet diverse and evolving—consciousness, attitudes, and actions.

I believe this is a discussion worth having because this is not the only issue in which the silence of scientists, including myself, rings louder than the gunshots.

So here are my “eight reasons I am a silent scientist”. These are reasons I have said out loud, just given myself, or heard expressed by colleagues. Instead of expanding on each, I am just going to toss this list out there with a brief line each, hoping that it will provoke you to go right down to the comments box and

  • add your voice and thoughts in the comments to say yay or nay or go take a f.f.a.a.r.d. (Vonnegut 1969) OR
  • add other reasons in your comments that I’m sure I’ve missed in this post.

Eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

1. My research does not address the relevant issues and places

This could be read as a polite way of saying I don’t really care or This doesn’t concern me as it ain’t in my backyard. Still, I wonder, if we study or teach population theory or political ecology or ungulate habitat use somewhere else, say, is it really irrelevant to the issue?

2. I don’t have enough data—my study is not good enough—to say anything yet

Don’t we love this one? Read it as you will, as humblebrag or a noble call to arms issued to one’s peers. But how many of us have not slipped this in at the end of our papers: we need more research?

3. I cannot make statements given the scientific uncertainties

All research is beset with some level of uncertainty. But isn’t dealing with, and reducing, uncertainty integral to science? Climate scientists have led by example on how to acknowledge uncertainty while communicating scientific findings and advances. But are we as conservation scientists content, instead, to say we need even more research until the level of uncertainty becomes acceptably low before we speak up?

4. All I have to say, I say in my peer-reviewed papers and technical reports

In other words, I’d rather not write or speak in public. As something I am culpable of and sympathise with in others, this raises the issue of access to our scientific findings. What have we done to make our research findings, data, publications more openly and publicly accessible?

5. I have spoken up—in government committees that I am a member in

Why bother with the messy and contentious public domain, when I can pick up the phone and call an influential person, a politician or government officer perhaps, or sit on a powerful committee and tell them that this is what science says must be done? (Of course, I asked for the minutes of the meeting to be made public, its not my fault that they haven’t been transparent about it.)

6. It is time to hear other voices, other world views

This one has a lot going for it, if it means actually shutting up in order to listen to other voices, especially of people affected by wildlife. Yet, complete silence on our part could be a lost opportunity for a conversation, for a dialogue or discourse, to share what we have done, learned, and what science, warts-and-all, has to reveal. This could, however, simply degenerate into Let them vent their problems, although they really don’t know what they are talking about, better listen to me instead.

7. This is not about science, it is about politics

A dirty business plagued by environmental illiteracy, corruption, and cronyism, isn’t that what politics and politicians are all about? Heck, if it was about inter-departmental wrangling, squabbling for funds and tenure, or seeking credit over other scientists and institutions, I am an expert on politics. But this is  real world politics in India’s villages, towns, and cities. So let me not say anything to reveal any more of my ignorance.

8. I am a scientist, not an advocate or, heaven forbid, an activist

The tension between science and advocacy persists in conservation biology, with at least one case of an editor-in-chief of a leading conservation journal being ousted due to her position on “removing advocacy statements from research papers”. Yet, if one reads advocacy as giving voice to the voiceless aren’t conservation scientists committed to conservation by default? And if action and resistance can be achieved through non-violence, can inaction perpetrate violence or perpetuate oppression? I don’t want to be an activist, but what does that make me: an inactivist?

What Aldo Leopold wrote in the Round River is  probably as true of science as it is of the ‘harmony with the land’ he wrote about:

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.

Aldo Leopold, Round River

 References Cited

Vonnegut, K. (1969). Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

This article appeared on my blog on the Coyotes Network on 16 September 2016 and was published in Scroll.in on 20 September 2016 under the title The silence of India’s wildlife scientists, including myself, rings louder than gunshots.

Why Mizoram must Revive, not Eradicate, Jhum

There is something extraordinary about the cheraw (bamboo dance) performed during Chapchar Kut. The dance is unique, elegant, and spectacular, but it carries a deeper connection to the land and lives of the people, particularly to the remarkable practice of shifting agriculture (or jhum) which subtly encapsulates the dance of the bamboos themselves on the mountains of Mizoram.

I first watched the grand cheraw performance at the Assam Rifles stadium in Aizawl in Mizoram’s Gospel Centenary year. Although the state had seen great transformations in religion, traditions and economy over the last century, the cheraw itself had been retained as a deeper marker of culture.

This article first appeared in the Chapchar Kut special issue of The Frontier Despatch and in my blog on the Coyotes Network on 4 March 2016. Read more in the The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.