Monday, November 18, 2013

Indians born with Silverbills

 Indian Silverbills (Lonchura malabarica) are found throughout Indian subcontinent and mostly seen in groups. Quite an active bird that can be spotted foraging the undergrowth or gregarious group feeding on the ground. As they alight and swerve in the sky they give impression of sparrows in flight. In the first instance I was expecting Sind Sparrows (Passer pyrrhonotus), indeed the reason why I was back at Sultanpur bird sanctuary. I am quite adamant this time on Sind Sparrows.         

Gandhian technologist

On a mission to take sustainable technologies to common people

Prof Ravi Kumar is a man driven by passion and reminds you of what Aristotle once said ‘energy of mind is essence of life’. A practical man he has taken a step further, from creating awareness to creating actionable awareness. He is a pioneer of sort, when he was a Professor at NIE (National Institute of Engineering, Mysore), he initiated CART (Centre for Appropriate Rural Technology). There was a realization that there are many technologies available for rural development but the target group for whom these technologies are designed, namely the rural and the poor, were not getting the benefits due to a lack of proper implementation. Ravi Kumar firmly held Gandhian thought of technology as a means to empower and not to enslave, accordingly the Centre, under his aegis, took initiative to collect available information on rural technologies, compile them and methods to disseminate them to people needing technological assistance. He is known for his tireless efforts in Ecological Sanitation as also Rainwater harvesting and Biochar stove. The common feature being dissemination of technology in a practical and sustainable manner, using locally available materials and requirements that makes it affordable and easy to use. 

Ecological Sanitation or EcoSan is sustainable and environment friendly model for toilet which conserves water, prevents contamination and recycles human waste as sanitized manure. The objective being to protect human health and environment while reducing water use in sanitation system and recycling nutrients to help reduce need for artificial fertilizer in agriculture. EcoSan works on the principle of keeping the solid waste separate from liquid, consequently there is a separate exit for urine. Unlike feces urine is full of nutrients hence diluted and used as fertilizer. Sanitation is a major issue in India with staggering 65% people not having access to proper sanitation facilities. This has contributed to spread of communicable diseases. Lack of water is a major concern as also the cost involved in laying drainage system and so on. This is where EcoSan toilets gain critical significance. Further, even in areas where water tables are at comfortable levels the flush toilets and septic tank seepages tend to contaminate groundwater and thus are polluting and disease spreading. The case is worsened in water logged areas. EcoSan provides a perfect solution to these problems and has revolutionary potentials. It is a safe, sustainable and affordable sanitation solution. With increasing population and pressure on natural resources EcoSan provides an effective alternative model. There are roadblocks, the most important being, as Prof Ravi Kumar puts it “we have fecalphobia”, we as a society don’t want to talk about feces or matters related to toilet. “We just want to flush it down, literally!” This issue also has socio-historical baggage, and tends to excite extreme emotions among people. The reason why these are neglected at the policy making level, ironically with detrimental effect on common people. Thankfully with much determination and persuasion EcoSan is now functioning as a pilot project in three locations at Udupi, Bangalore rural and Raichur district through UNICEF intervention. As a community initiative EcoSan toilets have been adopted in Mosara Halla in HD Kote and Kurabara Kunte in Devanahalli as also by schools in Doddaballapur, Krishnapura, Moodalakoppal and Kempammanahosur.    

EcoSan toilet’s spin off benefit too is significant in terms of organic manure. “This will reduce the dependence on chemical fertilizers” asserts Prof Kumar. Many farmers are falling into debt because of deteriorating soil nutrient content due to intensive use of chemical fertilizers, they are trapped in a vicious attritional cycle. Ravi Kumar informs that “an individual’s feces produces 7.5 kg of NPK over a year, this is the manure requirement for cereals that is consumed by an individual in a year. Life is in a self sustaining cycle”. It is not that these are new knowledge; many communities have been practicing these since ages like for instance the Tibetans. Prof. Kumar points to Mahatma Gandhi as a source of inspiration, when he visited Wardha he found that Gandhiji practiced compost toilets. Prof. Kumar has also been instrumental in the creation of Nesara, an organic farmer’s community in Mysore with a motto of safe food at affordable price. 

Prof. Kumar took me to the porch of his house to show the model of Biochar stove, called Anila, he had developed that has earned him international repute. It is unique in its design as biomass fuel is placed between two concentric cylinders while the outer filling biomass undergoes pyrolysis thus produces biochar, these activated carbon helps in heat recovery and also negligible smoke. Biochar has appreciable carbon sequestration value and is a soil enhancer, these highly porous charcoal helps retain soil nutrients and water. Also, any size biomass could be added and therefore is not dependent on wood. “In villages there is a substantial bio-residues during agriculture related activities that go waste, like arecanut husk or coconut shell these can be turned into efficient biofuel and biochar manure” informs Prof. Kumar. Anila is a cost effective and efficient smokeless stove that is ‘carbon negative’. Though there is a demand for the stove in rural areas, Kumar is gloomy as he is not able to break even. There is a an institutional support needed for these efforts apart from ofcourse policy making that understands the needs of common people and sustainable development.                       

Friday, October 25, 2013

Happy bevy of White-rumped Munias

The migratory season is well underway, first indication was a surprise call of White-browed Wagtail, a local migrant, outside my window about a month back. I am quite lucky to see atleast a dozen species from my window early morning ranging from nesting Brahmini Kites, Red naped Ibis (occasionally Black Headed too, I am yet to see the Glossy this year), Sunbirds, Prinias, Tailorbirds, Bulbuls…so on. On morning walks, these days are, compelling sights of Baya Weavers weaving their nests. There are hundreds of them precariously perched along the irrigational canals and rain soaked green fields. Very meticulously choosing the long stranded grass and zipping back to weave it. And yes the early arrival migrant Common Sandpiper likes to startle me all the while.  Exactly two weeks back I spotted Blue tailed Bee eaters, since then have been attempting to click it. Not a success, today though I manage to get White-rumped Munia. First I thought they are Black-throated Munia, the one I used to see quite often on my daily walks in Western Ghats, it is much later I realized that I haven’t clicked them. I realized Black-throats are endemic to high altitudes of Western Ghats, on a closer look confirmed it is White-rumped.    

From boodhan to jeevandhan, saving endangered native trees

My apologies to the felled tree for the table’s four legs, wrote Wislawa Syzmborska, my all time favourite poet. It is much interesting to read about people trying to save endangered native trees. I was at the temple town of Melukote to meet Surendra Koulagi, an octogenarian closely associated with dramatis personae of Indian history.  He was secretary to Jaiprakash Narayan in late 1950s, those were initial days of JP movement and young Surendra Koulagi had landed in Mumbai (then Bombay) in search of employment and as fate would have he got the job of an assistant at Dr.Dinshah Mehta’s clinic. Those well versed in Indian history will recall Dr.Mehta, who professed nature cure therapy, as the personal physician of Mahatma Gandhi. The correspondence between the two suggest their relation was more than that of just doctor and patient (those who want to follow-up on this may read the book Mahatma Gandhi: The Beloved Patient, compilation of letters between Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Dinshah Mehta, edited by Sundari Vaswani). Through Dr. Mehta young Koulagi got personally acquainted to ideas of Gandhian practices. It was while he was employed with Dr.Mehta that JP visited for treatment of some ailment. Mr. Koulagi reminisces “JP began as a communist and turned into a socialist but having observed remarkable success of Vinoba Bhave’s boodhan andholan he realized the importance of Gandhian methods as a way to achieve socialistic goals. JP evolved it further and declared Jeevandhan for the cause of the nation”. This was the critical juncture at which Mr. Koulagi joined JP and became his confidante. This was much before JP movement had caught the imagination of the nation and ensuing emergency period.  Carrying the idealistic flame in the cause of service to the nation Mr. Koulagi returned to his hometown Melkote and started Janapada Seva Trust in 1960, inspired by Gandhian ideal of Sarvodaya. Initially he focused on women empowerment later extended to weaker sections; they now have child adoption centre and also a thriving organic farm that supply to Mysore. A weaving centre is also functioning that use natural organic dyes and provide skill training and employment to local community. Finished organic khadi cloth products are sold through retail shops. 
Significantly Janapada Seva Trust has also taken the initiative to conserve endangered native trees. Mr.Koulagi explained about importance of native trees and its significance to not only the biodiversity but also to our culture “many a times a tree is centre of folklore, with the vanishing of native tree we lose part of our culture. It is a collective lose to the humanity” he asserts and adds “take for instance Banni maraa (Acacia ferruginea), the leaves of this tree was once distributed among people during diwali as a message of peace and goodwill”.  Santhosh Koulagi, son of Surendra Koulagi who now looks after the affairs of the Trust and is eminently known for translating the much acclaimed Masanobu Fukoka’s book One Straw Revolution into Kannada titled Ondu Hullina Kranti, took me to the huge Alale maraa (Terminalia chebula) in the premise and explained the medicinal importance of the tree as cure for digestive ailments. The extract from the nut is also used as a natural dye. The dyes are also produced from extracts of areca nuts, betel nuts, pomegranate, indigo and rust. On the way back I bought a shirt from their retail shop. These cloths are comfortable to wear and look trendy. I request readers of this blog to please encourage cloths made from natural dye by sustainable means. It is our choices that sustain these efforts. 

From my scribble pad…

The I in me

The I in me is in constant prowl 
sniffing possibilities, calculating the increase.
Whenever an opportunity poses
the I makes a slick deal as me look the other way.
The immediate gain is what keeps its attention.
Shoving others out of the way
and reach early is what keeps it going.

When me extends helping hand to the needy
and volunteer for a cause
the I baulk, raise an eyebrow, twitch the nose, 
and firmly stays away.
As me makes pacts with conscience,
express regrets and ask for forgiveness 
I keeps a safe distance.

Me is adorable and a constant guide
but it is the I am in love with
and pander to its whims all the while.    


Monday, October 7, 2013

The immensely excited Himalayan bird

 I don’t know what the reason for excitement was, was it the recently caught grub –that he had in his beak, or is it the general nature of this’s a sunny day in the hills what more you need? Whatever maybe the case this bird was immensely excited. Spotted this Himalayan Black-lored Tit on an afternoon walk at Chakrata, about three hours from Dehradun. I got so concerned that I was looking around for snakes that I assumed got this one excited.

Himalayan Black-lored Tit (Parus xanthogenys) has black band in front of the eyes hence the name, it looks stylish, with yellow mascara, punk hairdo like on the forehead and macho black going down the chest makes it to the top competitor on debonair list. Not a lifer for me but surely first time on camera.  

Save the rice campaign 

During the late 1960s India had serious foodgrain problems; the Malthusian predictions were coming true. And then green revolution happened. It was a tremendous success (Norman Borlaug was man of good intention) but slowly it is getting clear that it has brought in crisis of magnitude still unfolding. The water intensive fertilizer dependent hybrid seed was not only creating its own problems like siltation of water source, disease resistant pests, loss of soil fertility and pesticide poisoning of sources (thus cancer), it also pose serious threat to biodiversity as also traditional wisdom and culture, indeed to the way of living that is sustainable and comprehensive in its outlook. It is in this context that rice, the staple of many communities across Asia, and its biodiversity loss gain significance. Also this is an urgent matter since the green revolution initiated gains are now sought to be consolidated and monopolized through genetic engineering. There is a sinister attempt to evict farmers from the field and make them parasitic to agribusiness conglomerates.  Accordingly in Penang, Malaysia, “Five Pillars of Rice Wisdom” framed in 2003 as a precursor to an Asia-wide “Save Our Rice” campaign, specific objective being:

  1. To raise awareness about local Asian rice culture among societies and to facilitate a sharing of experiences among rice farmers.
  2. To highlight farmers’ knowledge and community wisdom by encouraging factors such as intuition, spirituality and ethics in rice cultivation.
  3. To promote chemical-free and productive biodiversity-based ecological agriculture, aiming towards community self-reliance.
  4. Awareness building among farmers and consumers about the threats that “high input varieties” and genetic engineering will bring to their livelihoods.
  5. Community empowerment and support of the resistance against the impacts of globalisation and trade liberalisation on Asian rice cultivation.

It is believed that there were over 1.5 lakh varieties of rice in India once upon a time. There is a serious loss of rice diversity due to market driven hybrid seeds. This campaign is an attempt to bring in and network everyone interested in sustaining rice cultivation - farmers, consumers, NGOs, students, children, teachers, leaders, policymakers, media, academicians, scientists and in a broader sense, the general public – to explore the chances of sustaining rice and rice-culture. Indigenous rice varieties are being identified, popularised and conserved through seed banks and cultivation and sharing of experiences and seeds. India has a plethora of traditional paddy varieties which are nutritious and developed over centuries. Some of the traditional strains are more resistant to drought and could be an answer to the climate change. The matter is so significant that UNGA observed 2004 as international year of rice (incidentally this year it is Quinoa). 

I interacted with the NGO Thanal that is spearheading the campaign in south India. They are trying to identify those people who are collecting the seeds of the traditional varieties and sustaining rice cultivation. The hope for the future of rice diversity is from the work of paddy seed savers. During the “Save our Rice” rally sometime back I happen to meet some paddy seed savers. Later I went to Mysore (Malavalli to be specific) and met Ghani Khan who has conserved over 500 varieties of rice (as also about 80 varieties of mangoes). Conservation means he is cultivating these varieties on his land and not just preservation, indeed he has laboriously created a museum of paddy seed variety on the first floor of his modest house, it need be pointed out that he had studied to be a museum curator but due to personal reasons couldn’t pursue. It was quite an incredible experience, as Mr. Khan showed amazing varieties of rice of different shapes, colour and scent. He is also trying to revive the lost legacy of traditional paddy plants through organic method of farming. So if you are passing on Bangalore-Mysore highway, about 30Km before Mysore is located Malavalli, you may drop into his museum, rudimentary but interesting.    

Tail piece: this blogger tries to mostly use organic and natural ingredients, places like Delhi is quite uncivilized on these  matters, so had to travel all the way to Delhi Hatt at Navadanya. Places like Bangalore, Mysore etc are relatively sophisticated and aware, so you will find lots of organic outlets. Unfortunately for me since I travel a lot so end up eating all kinds of crap in the name of food. On matters of culinary concern, taste is necessarily subjective and means healthy, wholesome and produced by sustainable means but that is not what American led market understands. These crudeness are then spread as part of freedom of expression. I guess there is a misconception on what is taste, it seem to be class and market driven.