60 Minutes | Environment

I felt like a child in a toy store in that forest: Kamaljit S. Bawa

It’s sometimes difficult to tell myself what I am working on. I have worked on so many things: Kamaljit S. Bawa.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Kamaljit S. Bawa distinctly remembers the day he decided to study ecology for the rest of his life. He was in his early 20s, pursuing a Ph.D in botany at Panjab University (P.U.) in Chandigarh. One afternoon in May 1962, his research put him on board West Bengal’s famous narrow-gauge train from Siliguri to Darjeeling. After passing through a series of tea estates, the train entered a rich tropical forest. “The train moved very, very slowly. You could see different trees and plants and very colourful epiphytes. You could see birds of spectacular colours making different kinds of sounds,” Bawa tells me during a chat. “And you felt like a child in a toy store.”

There were several reasons why the forest was a revelation to the young botanist. “I grew up in the dusty plains of Punjab, far from the centres of biodiversity,” he says. For his Masters, Bawa had studied orchids in the western Himalayas. It was only during his Ph.D that he travelled to the eastern Himalayas, which boasts of a far greater diversity of plants, birds and animals. That train ride opened his eyes to this abundance. “I became so interested in the richness of life in this tropical forest that I wanted to do nothing other than study biodiversity,” says Bawa.

A busy life

In the following years, he carried out a lot of high-impact research in a range of subjects, including plant reproductive biology, population biology and conservation. In 1996, he teamed with agricultural scientists K.N. Ganeshiah and R. Uma Shaanker, both from Bengaluru’s University of Agricultural Sciences, to found the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). Few organisations in India were doing interdisciplinary research in biodiversity at that time — something Bawa believed to be of critical importance. From its humble beginnings in the 90s, when it was run from Ganeshiah’s home in Hebbal, Bengaluru, ATREE has now 205 employees. In 2016, it was at No. 18 in a global list of environmental think tanks.

For his research and his role in building ATREE, Bawa has won several awards, and the Linnean Medal in Botany that he received last month is an added feather. Today, at 79, he shuttles between his base in the University of Massachusetts in Boston and ATREE’s Bengaluru head office, where we met. He continues to publish papers. It’s a busy life; so much so that when we begin talking about his research journey, he says, “It’s sometimes difficult to tell myself what I am working on. I have worked on so many things.”

One of Bawa’s key early contributions was his study of dioecy in plants. Dioecy is a phenomenon in which flowers with male reproductive organs, such as stamens, and flowers with female ones, such as carpels, occur on different plants. This is in contrast to monoecy (male and female flowers on the same plant) or hermaphroditism (male and female organs in the same flower). The date palm and papaya are two examples of dioecious species.

When Bawa began his work, dioecy was thought to be rare in the plant kingdom; it wasn’t clear how the production of seeds by only half of a plant population could benefit a species. In a highly-cited 1980 paper, published in the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Bawa argued that dioecy was far more common than previously thought. He also suggested how dioecy helps plants pollinate efficiently and escape predators. “Some of the arguments he proposed were hidden between the lines,” Ganeshiah tells me, but other researchers propounded the same arguments later in greater detail.

Bawa describes the decade of the 70s, when he developed these ideas, as a “very, very exciting time of my life”. He had finished his Ph.D at P.U. and joined the University of Washington in Seattle. The university had a large programme in tropical biology in Central America, which Bawa joined. This took him to Costa Rica, a magnet for top North American field biologists. “Somebody was studying birds, somebody bats, somebody insects. They were all asking different questions, enriching each other’s knowledge,” he recalls.

Triple revolution

The 70s-80s saw a resurgence of research interest in three key fields of biology, Bawa says. The first was species interactions (predator-prey interactions, for example), and how such interactions shaped ecosystems. The second was sexual selection in plants; and the third was biodiversity conservation. Bawa’s work spanned all three areas. “I was fortunate to be part of all three revolutions,” he says.

Bawa first met Uma Shaanker at a conference in Sydney in the early 80s. They shared an interest in parent-offspring interactions in plants. This was the beginning of a long collaboration, eventually leading to ATREE. Initially, Bawa, Uma Shaanker and Ganeshiah worked on the socio-biology of plants, but change was afoot in the world of ecology. Scientists were growing increasingly aware of the need to protect the environment they were researching. “Those working in the tropics saw tremendous deforestation. Costa Rica had the highest rates,” recalls Bawa. “We would see our field sites disappear overnight.”

Ecologists across the world were realising that this problem had to be tackled not through a pure science approach, but through a mix of sociology, economics and ecology. This sowed the seeds for the third revolution — biodiversity conservation.

Revolutionary road

As luck would have it, Bawa had just won a Pew Scholarship with a $150,000 grant. It gave him the boost he needed to pursue the kind of research he wanted to do in India. “That was a huge step in getting us going,” he says.

One of the group’s earliest projects involved the Soliga tribals in the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple wildlife sanctuary (BRT), some 175 km from Bengaluru. These former hunter-gatherers have survived on forest resources like fuelwood, fruits and honey for centuries. Conservationists were concerned that, over time, these practices could deplete the forests. To tackle this, Bawa and his collaborators helped Soligas add value to the forest produce they sold. For example, the researchers collaborated with a local NGO to set up facilities to process honey and to turn amla fruits into pickles. They also helped Soligas harvest sustainably, by leaving some fruit on the trees, not lopping off entire branches, and by removing parasitic growths. The idea was that as Soligas earned more, they would harvest less, and forest biodiversity would be conserved. This was one of the early examples of interdisciplinary work in which ecological sciences were combined with economics to conserve biodiversity. And it’s something ATREE continues to focus on.

I ask Bawa if focusing on interdisciplinary research can take attention away from the basic sciences (such as plant biology or taxonomy), given that the resources available for both are finite. This subject is the source of much debate between Bawa and Ganeshiah. Bawa responds that the most pressing issues today — whether conservation, water management or climate change — need an interdisciplinary approach. “It’s not clear to me how you can walk away from these problems, and say I am only going to do my basic research,” he says.

Besides, these two kinds of research aren’t mutually exclusive, he argues. He points out and in 2016, he published two papers around the same time. The first was on kin selection in plants, which counts as basic research. The other explored the question of whether India would meet its emission targets. “I was not trying to send a signal to people,” he laughs. “But I can cite this as an example. It’s possible to do both.”


Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 15, 2021 6:53:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/i-felt-like-a-child-in-a-toy-store-in-that-forest-kamaljit-s-bawa/article24532489.ece

Next Story