This book tips its hats to India’s environment warriors

Dharavi Rocks is a music band comprising children in Dharavi, who perform with instruments made of waste material they pick over the course of their day.

Minal Pathak is a senior scientist with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Rohan Arthur studies coral bleaching in Mysuru, the Andamans, and Lakshadweep.

Aparajita Datta is a wildlife ecologist working to conserve hornbills in Arunachal Pradesh.

What do they have in common? They are all part of Bijal Vachharajani and Radha Rangarajan’s book 10 Indian Champions Who Are Fighting to Save The Planet (Duckbill). The book, released on World Environment Day last week, tells the tale not only of people who have been creating a real ecological difference on the ground, but also on those working to bring environmental conversation into the mainstream.

Says Radha over a phone call, “We divided the interviews into two categories: climate change and wildlife. Bijal spoke to the former, while I spoke to the latter.” Needless to say their meetings and extensive phone conversations brought out some touching anectodes. One that stayed with both writers — “We kept talking about it for ages afterwards,” says Bijal — is that of Parineeta Dandekar, the woman behind South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). “She spoke about visiting a river in Assam, that was dammed. She spoke about how rivers have beautiful soundscapes to them, but this river was completely silent. It was a haunting thought, because rivers are such a vibrant ecosystem. What does it mean, for someone who works with rivers and writes so beautifully about the sights, sounds and smells associated with them, to come to this deafening silence?”

This book tips its hats to India’s environment warriors

There was a lot to learn for the authors, as there will be for readers who pick up the book. Some other people covered by the duo are Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, environmental journalist Jay Mazoomdaar and cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty.

“Rohan Arthur gave us a lot of insight into how the local communities have been affected, not only by overfishing but also because of reef bleaching. Once a reef gets affected, the reef fish are also gone. Those are the fish that the local people usually eat,” explains Radha.

Mutual understanding

The connections between local population, the wildlife and their ecology, is an unsurprising refrain that comes up in many of these conversations. For instance, Radha brings up ecologist Vidya Athreya’s work with farmers around Pune, as part of her leopard conservation efforts. “The farmers have been there for generations, and they have lived with leopards. She has very funny incidents to tell, about farmers taking selfies with a leopard sitting on a tank behind him. The leopard’s very chill, and the man’s very chill too. When they set up camera traps for leopards, they would often find villagers crawling in front of the camera traps and taking funny selfies. They are comfortable with leopards around them — they say, ‘They [leopards] have kids to feed and so do we’.”

And then, of course, there is Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology founder Romulus Whitaker, and his admiration for the Irula tribe that he works with. Radha still sounds a bit starstruck by that particular meeting, that had happened months ago. “He told me how the Irulas can identify if a snake that went by was venomous or non-venomous just by the markings on the sand it left behind. When I asked him how, he said, ‘I don’t know! They can do it, I cannot’.”

This book tips its hats to India’s environment warriors

There are dynamics of different kinds to be observed in each ecology. Bijal points out another kind of relationship, “Aparajita Datta has been working for hornbill conservation in Arunachal Pradesh since the late 1990s. She told us how hornbill breeding season was always in sync with the fruiting of the trees, so their chicks would have enough to eat. She told us how, as the trees’ fruiting cycles change because of climate change and global warming, hornbills are also breeding earlier in the year. This is something she has observed: the study is still underway and the corelation is yet to be established.”

Amid such diverse areas of work, what is the one thing that all their subjects had in common? Says Radha, “We had done our research and decided that their work is worth highlighting: but each of them was surprised at being approached. They all said, ‘Why me? There are so many others doing so much more!’.”

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Printable version | Aug 15, 2020 10:45:04 AM |

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