The Northeast, one of the richest regions in the world in terms of biological and cultural diversity, is an environmental nightmare today. Do we still have the imagination, and the insights, to reclaim it?

There is something about coming home to Assam. When the vast, dreary brown fields of the Gangetic plains are left behind and the landscape turns green over those low hills, I can sense that I am already home. Years before I became a wildlife biologist, all the greens of my State were beautiful to me. The breezy lime green of the paddy fields. The uniform bottle green of the tea estates and the stringy olive of the shade trees. The mottled green of the short grass in those big fields in front of the old government schools and namghars. The swaying bamboo and coconut green in clumps around every house. Even the green algal blooms on the village ponds. The different jade and emerald forest greens, of course. But the stretch that caught my imagination was the Burapahar stretch at Kaziranga. How could something be so blue-green? In those hills that I have never climbed, that to my eyes stretched all the way to the end of the earth to the south, there was blue-green mystery, layers of geology and history, clear whooshing streams, bird-song and wild animals. Even the name — I imagined it was a wizened, bearded Old Man Hill, who, if I could somehow reach him there high on top, would sit me down on the gnarled root of a big Ficus and tell me elephant stories.

Haunting landscape

Strangely, somewhere along the way during my education, as I learnt my alphabet, crammed my facts, and mostly acquired somebody else’s knowledge, I began losing my imagination. A doctorate in science officially divested my psyche of its last airy-fairy wanderings, so that when I see what I see around me, I have no escape. I feel an odd despair when I see those deep gashes in the earth at Khanapara. The endless, smoking jhum hills of Nagaland. The white dust of the limestone mines of the Garo Hills. Or the coal-blackened, barren earth at Ledo. The decaying stumps of the butchered trees in the Upper Assam forests where I work. And the bloodied pieces of the elephants hit by a train at Bogapani, white eyes upturned and forever frozen in fear, not accusing even in death. But I feel accused. Mea culpa. Because I belong to that one species here on earth which assumes that it has inherited the earth, to do with it as it pleases. With what arrogance we presume to carve out plots of land on this earth in our names. And deign, sometimes, to allow a tiger its “reserve” or an elephant, a “corridor”. Sometimes, we go the extra bit to put out a press release saying the Baiji — the Yangtse Kiang river dolphin —after 200 million years of evolution, is finally extinct this year. That’s all.

A monsoon evening a few years ago, I am driving through a tea estate labour “line”, on our way out from one of my forest research sites. Ahead of our jeep, a couple of men stagger about drunk, trying to drown misery that knows only too well how to stay afloat. Slowing to let them get out of the way, I see a skinny girl — she couldn’t have been more than 14 — clutching a tiny baby to her bosom and slapping at mosquitoes with her free hand. She is standing at the broken bamboo gate of her house, incongruously framed by a row of tall orange flowers along a twisted wire fence. She sees me too, with beautiful, bleak eyes. Last year, feathers flew as wildlife conservationists and tribal rights activists made impassioned arguments over the Forest Tribal Rights Bill which envisaged giving land rights inside forests to tribals and “other traditional forest dwellers” who had used those lands historically (occupied since before 1980, later amended to December 2005). Of course, all the checks and balances have been duly incorporated. To be duly flouted. I’d be naïve to believe otherwise. So there goes another ostensibly well-meaning bill. Another set of smug politicians. And another casualty — this time the last 20 per cent of the country’s land area which are our forests. Out of the blue, the tea girl’s image appears unbidden to my mind as a mocking poster girl for 60 years of India’s much-touted social justice system. Either way, this Bill will make no difference to her, or to those sisters she left behind a hundred years ago in the forests of another land. That evening, she couldn’t have known that I was in the midst of some truly exciting, fulfilling work. Just married, I was also on the threshold of a family life. At 14, her life was already over. Clearly, even as members of the top species, we do not inherit the earth equally.

This brings me back to the greenery of Assam. Now that I know better, I see the green for what it is. As they say, I was missing the wood for the trees. The so-called deep jungles of the infamous Lakhipathar forest — site of a deadly battle between the ULFA and the security forces several years ago — are actually quite anti-climactic in daylight. A few trees stand like so many snags among the weeds. The weeds love the open sunlight, snaking about in festive green, smothering everything in sight, even those remaining trees. The bright, rained-on green of the tea estates that was once so soothing to look at, now chokes my consciousness with its monotony. Monoculture. Pesticides. Silenced birds. 14-year-old child-mothers. Even our sustenance, our rice-paddy, has taken on a urea-tinge. The new green is synthetic. The ground beneath has hardened.

Disappearing fast

In 2003, I watched with dismay a GIS (Geographical Information System) presentation comparing satellite images of the Sonitpur forests between 1991 and 2001. A huge, green swathe, at the flick of the expert’s finger, had become red. When the Sonitpur forests disappeared, it barely made the news. Although Assam’s single largest deforestation event in recent memory, it was just another small statistical nail in the coffin — over 73 per cent of the Brahmaputra river watershed forest was already gone by then. In the remaining fast-disappearing valley forests, hanging on with difficulty, are one of the more significant Asian elephant populations, as well as the world’s largest populations of the greater one-horned rhinoceros, tiger, and wild water-buffalo. Three different biogeographic realms meet here in Northeast India — the Indian (Afro-tropic), Himalayan (Palearctic) and Indo-Malayan — making these forests among the richest terrestrial regions in the world in terms of biodiversity. Over 240 ethno-linguistic groups of humans meet here too, creating matchless cultural diversity. What a quirk of nature that living amidst this wealth, we have been given neither the eye to appreciate it, nor the heart to care, nor even left with the memory of our collective inheritance.

So what of all that — the forests, the animals, the great floods of the great river, the alluvium, the rain-clouds and us? It is that the delicate web of life is giving way. A way of life is past, and in our modern conceit, we have crushed the essence of life itself. It is said that the first step in intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts. We have not only tampered with the connections in the natural world, we have also lost the parts. Snatches of words from a purported Red Indian Chief’s letter, 1854, responding to a white settler’s offer for his land, echo in my mind.

“The perfumed flowers are our sisters, the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For, whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man”.

What price nature?

“How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?” When nature extracts her price, we will never be able to pay. “The earth is our mother?.Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth”. With the forests gone, the rains will wreak their fury — tearing away not only livelihoods and lives, but the very soil that is our sustenance. And what of the water? “The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.” What will hold the water? I read with irony about the dust kicked up when reports surfaced of China planning to dam the Brahmaputra, leading to fears of drought downstream. We don’t need foreign help there. We are our own enemy.

Every once in a while, I witness something that makes me believe redemption is not impossible. Here among our people, there is still compassion. At the Bogapani train accident, women walked miles from the surrounding villages and wept openly over the dead clan of females and their baby elephants. When I stopped there the next morning, over the buried elephant family the earth was strewn red and yellow with hibiscus and marigold flowers. In a distant village on the banks of the Buridehing, an old Moran woman — bare-shouldered, her mekhela knotted high under her arms — tells me that the hoolock gibbon is not a monkey, it is manuh lekhiya, “just like us”. She could not have had the education to know the scientific definition of ape, but she had something as valuable — insight.

Hanging in balance

Our lifeline will be that same human instinct for survival that has made us the most successful of species (second perhaps only to cockroaches). The instinct to protect the children we beget. In Kahlil Gibran’s poetry, life’s longing for itself. A lot of the innovation and enterprise are already out there — the green energy sources, the organic crops and hybrid cars, biological pest control and oil-eating bacteria, even biodegradable baby diapers. But the key will remain in the human mind. Back in our power to imagine. Imagine how each action we take, like the proverbial butterfly’s wing-beat, will stir the web of life. Switch off the light. Imagine you just closed down the Subansiri dam. Walk where you can. Imagine the polar bear bounding out on to the ice you have just frozen. Refuse the plastic. Imagine the 50,000 years it will take to degrade. Imagine that wood on your chair was once a tree where green magpies conferenced on hot afternoons. Or a tigress stopped to sharpen her nails on its bark. Plant a native tree — imagine you are single-handedly bringing back the world from the brink.

When you are tempted to speed on the 20 kmph stretch of highway that passes through Kaziranga, imagine, just for a moment, that you are truly your own keeper. That even when nobody is watching you, you are watching yourself. Slowing down may give you pause to look out to the Burapahar, and imagine your own story, differently.

Kashmira Kakati is a wildlife scientist who has worked extensively in Assam. Email: kashmirak@hotmail.com

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