By the campfire

Every season is marked by an event or a phenomenon that defines that season, and is so skillfully woven onto a timeline that it forms a periodic rhythm – the beauty of which lies in a meshwork of colours, scents, songs, and something that cannot be seen, smelled, or heard – a purpose, which I think comes close to what we humans call love. The purpose is but the only force that drives every plant or animal to display colours, release pheromones, and sing melodies.

What’s special about man is perhaps his way of appreciating nature’s mysteries and sharing it with others of his kind, and not in building bridges and airplanes; those feats were long conquered by nature.

What’s special is this: no bird can sing of an autumn sunrise or of sound of the crashing waves, although we and they equally feel it, and our lives depend upon it. Our greatest strength perhaps lies in understanding what gave birth to us, and to them – indeed to all of us – and in respecting that wisdom than manipulating it for devious purposes.

Man’s mark on human evolution, and the history of our entire planet, has so far been earthshaking. What creature would evolve to be as this? If there is a God, why would God create such a creature? If there is no God, why would nature carve a pathway for the evolution of such a creature, only to destroy itself in its pursuits?

And yet I carry a pessimist’s optimism, that man has a beautiful brain – as beautiful as an orchid or a bird of paradise, or a honeybee or a tiger, because, given a choice, he can understand that life is more than just man-made illusions. There are regions worth getting lost in to be found, should you decide to come out of the illusions which pretend to protect us. How else are we different with our beautiful brains, then, from the scorpion wielding a sting to hunt, or the ruminant with a specialized stomach?

I spent a considerable amount of time in the countryside of Kanha Tiger Reserve this year, more amongst people who live with the forests than without, and as I sit by the campfire at the end of the year, I reflect upon the seasons that went by and what the seasons that follow will bring. I could capture some moments in pictures which I share here, some in writing, but most remain in my heart.
January | A mother and her daughter
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Winter is the season when the young are old enough but still too young to leave their mother’s side. I observed this Chital (Axis axis) fawn embrace its mother, and the doe, so very kindly, acknowledged by preening its neck one cold January morning.
January | The eyes that pity humanity
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Gondus was a Collared Scops Owl (Otus lettia) fledgling rescued from local hunters and taken care of for several days until he succumbed to its wounds from a broken wing. Its mother, Venus, was cared for until she could defend herself and was released back into the wild. Owls are heavily hunted in India for preposterous superstitious reasons.
February | Fields of gold
Kanha Tiger Reserve
While man digs for gold and diamonds underground, he so ignorantly ignores the treasure that lies in front – that which gives him life – the serenity of nature. Most pristine forests today rest over ores and oilfields, their very existence their doom.
February | A single antlered Barasingha
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The Hard Ground Barasingha (Cervus duvaucelii branderi), famed for its mighty branched antlers, is a subspecies found only in Kanha, and was driven to extinction because of rampant hunting. Thanks to stringent conservation measures, it is one of the success stories of India’s conservation movement. This stag probably lost an antler in a fight with another.
March | A herd of Barasingha against mighty Sal forests
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Barasingha move in herds dominated by a stag and include several females and fawns, and young bucks. The meadows of Kanha eclipsed by the giant Sal trees are the finest habitats for these vulnerable species of deer.
March | Flames of Palash
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Palash (Butea monosperma) is one of the few trees to give colour to an otherwise drab monochrome of the summer of the Central Indian Highlands. A set of flowers resembling oil lamps hangs from the lower branch along a perennial waterhole.
April | Spring of Kusum
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Kusum (Schleichera oleosa) explodes in warm colours by the end of March as it sheds leaves, and just as suddenly springs into shades of deepest reds as new leaves sprout. The spring of Kusum emblazes the forests of Central India during summer, and the sight of seeing one ablaze in the summer greens of Sal is a sight for sore eyes.
April | The scorpion hunter
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Weaver Ants (Oecophylla smargdina) are primarily arboreal ants, making nests on trees using leaves and tending to bugs that secret honeydew, but they are also fierce fighters and opportunists, capable of taking down a number of living things they can empower, including this bark scorpion.
May | The Chital congregation
Kanha Tiger Reserve
As temperatures soar over forty degrees and waterholes shrink, animals start flocking together and can be seen in huge congregations, a scene reminiscent of mighty migrations of African and American continents. A herd of Chital over 114 individuals strong trod over this hillock looking for sparse green grass one summer evening.
May | A graceful fight
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Male Indian Rat Snakes (Ptyas mucosa) engage in territorial fights during 
summer months when humidity slowly begins to increase, in preparation to secure 
an area to attract a mate and offer her a safe haven to lay eggs. This fight is 
often misinterpreted as courting pairs, and some people believe that it is a Dhamin 
(Indian Rat Snake) mating with a Nag (Cobra), and that the offspring of these are deadlier.
June | The might of Gaur
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Gaur (Bos gaurus) is the largest of Bovids of India, and a herd of these gentle giants is a sight to see. We came across a large herd of cows, calves, and young bulls in early June when the rains had cleared the dust off leaves, led by this giant bull with a wall of muscle, bearing scars on his face from many a battle.
June | Pseudoscorpions of Kanha
Kanha Tiger Reserve
There are many secrets the jungle holds beside the most magnificent, and most of these secrets lie hidden. Pseudoscorpions are one of the least known Arachnids and best kept secrets of Kanha that have found their own niche amongst the tigers and spiders, both supreme predators of their respective niche.
July | A courting pair of Millipedes
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Millipedes, although fairly common throughout the world, are one of the least appreciated groups of organisms, and play a vital role in the undergrowth. Their courtship is nowhere short of romantic. Here, a Polydesmid male gently climbs and holds a female, and using his modified pair of legs called gonopods, caresses the female in a graceful embrace.
July | Light of the lady Firefly
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Females in some species of Firefly (Family Lampyridae) retain their larval stage after maturity and attract males by flashing a fluorescent bottom. Large females such as the one coiled up in defense are a common sight on Kanha’s forest floor during monsoon months.
August | Kaans
Kanha Tiger Reserve
If there is one that defines the Central Indian Highlands, 
one that speaks of changing seasons, 
one that is graceful in its stature and inflorescence, 
and one of use to mankind in building homes, 
it is naught but Kaans (Saccharum spontaneum).
August | The mimicking assassin
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The Crab Spider, Amyciaea cf forticeps is one of the most specialized of spiders that mimic ants, 
exhibiting characters so cunningly of the Weaver Ants. What’s puzzling about its mimicry is 
that most predators mimic their model from head-to-tail, and those susceptible to 
predation usually mimic from tail-to-head (in that order) so that the tail-end resembles a head. 
Amyciaea, a predator, uses the tail-to-head mimicry, which is uncommon for a predator. 
In this picture, a Phoerid fly shares the hunt.
September | On the other side of web
Pench Tiger Reserve
Spiders of Central India are diverse in their size, shape, colour, and methods of hunting. 
The most conspicuous are the Giant Wood Spiders (Nephila pilipes) that adorn these 
ancient woods with their large orb-webs. A male can be seen trying to court 
with a female relishing upon a honeybee she caught on the other side of her web.
September | A young Indian Cobra
Kanha Tiger Reserve
One of the most common venomous snakes of Kanha is the Indian Cobra (Naja naja), also called the Spectacled Cobra. This young fellow sought shelter in a motorbike in the morning after sensing movement of people around, and was rescued from it after a whole forty-five minutes of searching.
October | Sunrise over Kanha
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The essence of sunrise or a sunset lies in simply watching it, no matter where you watch it from. Seeing the sun rise over the vast forests of Kanha creates an illusion of what I call the Endless Forest Effect. This landscape however is intermingled with villages, fields, pasture lands, and roads, waiting to encroach through the network of trees.
October | Marking her scent
Kanha Tiger Reserve
To see a tiger is to see everything an ecosystem stands for. 
Very rightly the epitome of an ecosystem, tigers are now more of an epitome of management. 
This beautiful Babathenga Mada tigress loitered around the famous Babathenga waterhole, 
marked her scent on one of the Sal trees, and vanished into the thickets, 
her call reverberating through our hearts long after she had vanished.
November | Trail of a Common Tiger butterfly
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The namesake of the Tiger, Common Tiger, Danaus genutia, also called Striped Tiger, nonchalantly flaps its wings to touch-base with one of the last flowering Crotalaria shrubs before the onset of the cold winter months.
November | A tangled trap
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The entirety of this web of a Pholcid spider contained tens of mosquitoes, a part of this in the photograph shows mosquitoes in the genus Aedes and Anopheles, both carriers of malaria, and several midges, craneflies, and a planthopper fallen prey to the spider. Kanha’s southern region is rife with malaria, and spider-webs serve as efficient traps for mosquitoes. In this picture, two Milichiid flies feast on the remains.
December | The dancing grass
Kanha Tiger Reserve
By the end of the year almost all the plants that grew through monsoon have produced seeds. During the cold and dry season of winter, they ripen and are ready to disperse. Some grasses, such as Heteropogon contortus, locally called Sukda Ghaas (in picture), rely on winds and sporadic rains to unfurl their seeds and be ready to latch onto any passing animal. A few drops of water send this bunch of seeds tangled by their awn into a spin, unraveling themselves as they dance.
December | A winter sunset
Kanha Tiger Reserve
My window offers a decent view of the sun setting over a crowded treeline. Every evening casts new shapes and colours, and performs sunset displays each different than the previous. Winters offer the best spectacle during the setting sun, and are a fine ending to a fine year, but also a fine prelude for what’s to come. The year – if it may end, if it should end – should always end with a spectacular sunset. 
I wish you all a very Happy New Year!

Life in the Woods

It is pitch dark outside as I sit and write this. The tree-line has dissolved into the empty space above, with only a few stars gleaming down upon the darkened earth. I am sitting by an incandescent light I switched on at the click of a button, and I plugged in my computer, turned on some music, and began to think.

There in this darkness that has set in at six o’clock in the evening is a village devoid of all that I possess right now. This village probably lies within a hundred kilometers around me, is devoid of electricity, is devoid of any form of artificial light save for the kerosene lamps hung from corrugated ceilings. This village is older than you and I, and dates back to the bygone era of our forefathers. Its houses have been surrounded by woods for eons, and the darkness that falls on this village tonight is no different from the one that engulfed it last year on this day.
Sharad Purnima is celebrated on a full moon, also called Harvest Moon, and marks the beginning of the harvest season
Every morning since the harvest moon hung low in the sky, men, women, and children alike have been hacking the damp spikelets of rice, maize and corn under the shadow of the forests, gathering them in heaps and waiting for the winter sun to dry them.
Shepherds herd cattle from every house in early morning hours, and take them to rich grazing grounds in forests
Every morning for the past many decades, they watch their cattle join the herd on their way to graze in the woods, with the shepherd leading the way.
Wood is still the primary source of fuel in most villages
This photograph was shot by a friend with due permission from another friend to whom this beautiful house belongs
Every morning for the past many centuries, they have been using wood collected from forests, which is the most efficient fuel-wood for boiling water, cooking, and for a hot cup of tea by the fireside.
Smoke rising from perforated roofs during early morning hours is a common sight
Every morning a cloud of smoke rises from their houses – like sprits from a long forgotten realm – gently settling upon the thatched roofs, slowly disappearing into the forests as sunlight warms the earth.
A workshop with wooden structures used in building bullock-carts
Wheel-trails of bullock-carts still dominate the village roads, and people chew on Neem stick toothbrushes.

Come to think of it, everything in this village has fallen into place, like a jigsaw puzzle – every human,  tree, and animal, a small piece in the larger canvass of the five elements of Earth – fitting in perfectly. Everything is in-tune with the rhythm of nature, pulsating and proliferating slowly and steadily like blood gushing through veins – veins of its human residents, and of the trees and the animals they share this ground with – intermingled into one superorganism.

The village has a school brimming with students – girls in their braided ponytails and boys in their summer-bleached attire drown the surrounding sounds of birds and bees in a chorus of English alphabets and numbers and nursery rhymes every morning. They are the future of this village: torchbearers of the dreams of their parents and their forefathers.
A curious calf that will soon be old enough to venture into the outer world and graze alongside its mother
Some kids are “left behind”, as some people put it; they have been out since before the sunrise with their cattle, herding them in search of richer feeding grounds. They do not spend their time remembering numbers and alphabets. They do not know how to read and to write.

But they know how to see and to hear, and to smell and to feel. They know the life in the woods.
They have seen a tiger take away their cow, and a leopard injure a calf. And they have seen a deer give birth to a fawn, and a python eating a full-grown stag.

They have heard the call of the mother tigress, and they have heard her roar. They know the chuckle of Langurs and the barks of Chital when a tiger is near. And they know the sound of the wind, when it sings of rain, and when it does not.

They know the smell of the earth, the smell of seasons, and the smell of the unseen smoke that smites the forests in summer.

They know things that are not taught in schools – things that will never be taught through books.
A nylon fishing net, bamboo fish-traps, and a traditional umbrella, Phumdi, made up of bamboo and Bauhinia leaves
They know how to hunt, to fish, to cook and to enjoy a meal under a towering canopy of trees.

They are the last remaining children of the earth living a life in the woods that is rapidly changing. And their knowledge of the life in the woods is rapidly eroding.
A farmer examines his crop prior to harvest season; threat of crop raiding from wild animals is common in forest villages
The village elders have always been wary of wild animals threatening to devour a hard work’s pay; rather a hard year’s pay, as they encroach upon agricultural fields and prey upon anything edible: elephants, gaurs, deer, and boars. They have seen people lose their lives while protecting their crop.
A Wild Boar rummages through leaf litter
Wild Boars are one of the commonest crop raiders and a farmer's worst nightmare.
There are people in this village that know people who were killed by tigers, leopards, and bears; and people who lived to tell the tale.

And there are shamans and healers, owl-hunters and magicians who pretend to maintain the pace of fortune and fate and life and death.
Sunrise over one of the many woodlands of India that man and wildlife inhabit
What I pictured this evening is very much a reality even today. And I am proud of it if I completely exclude the socio-economic complexities of India’s countryside, and as long as the people choose to live in the woods by their own decision.
Traditional varieties of corn are still commonly grown and used to prepare soup (paej) and roti for winter
With all the natural and social calamities that have denied this village of chances of prosperity, all that is needed is a tiny spark of unhappiness to truly mar the quintessential harmony that exists here. And that unhappiness, if it ever comes, will come from the materialistic world that lies beyond the forest.

In my little time in the cities, and with the littlest experience I’ve had in the woods, I have come to realize that the doom faced by our environment comes not from villages dependent wholly upon forests, but from the materialistic society ignorantly hacking at the sociological and ecological integrity of our forests.
A temple looking over mist-filled groves in one of Central India's prime habitats shared by man and tiger
Our countryside and the life in the woods are on the brink of extinction; it is as vulnerable as the tiger. The very problems that push tigers to extinction are pushing an entire culture towards obliteration.

Environmental degradation, climate change, global warming, and the total and hapless collapse of natural ecosystems, will arise not from the forest-dependent communities, but from cities, and with it will come the socio-economic tensions of famine and flood, wars and mass migration. And all of this will either hit the villages I talked about the hardest, or they will likely become the most resilient models that urban planners have been searching for all this while in the name of sustainable development.

Man and his doings are as natural as they can be, for we do not use godly powers to shape the earth but harvest what power is already available to us. What man is doing is using more and more of it. We are advancing too rapidly over that which already exists. Escaping from these grappling arms of urbanization today is inevitable – they will reach even the remotest corners of the world sooner or later, and they will pursue the indigenous peoples who want to stay away from them, as they have done so in the past and which Ishmael has recounted.

In Thoreau’s words (Walden or Life in the Woods, Chapter 8: The Village, pp. 146);

“But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society. It is true, I might have restricted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run “amok” against society; but I preferred that society should run “amok” against me, it being the desperate party.”
A modern road - a symbol of modernization - weaves through a seemingly endless stretch of forests...
... finding its way to another city waiting to expand.
Is there really a way out from the grappling arms of urbanization? Is urbanization, hiding in the guise of sustainable development, viable? How much is enough to sustain? How much more must we develop? Nobody has answers to these questions. Sustainable development does not draw a line; it only keeps the flicker of hope alive for a little longer. A hundred, or maybe even a mere fifty years from now the talks – the very hope – of sustainability would be gone…

What then?

The Last Wave by Pankaj Sekhsaria: a review

I have always wanted to visit the Andaman Islands, and I had written to Pankaj nearly half a decade ago about it, but I didn’t intend to visit the islands as a tourist, especially after the tsunami. The trip however never materialized and years later, today, Pankaj helped me visit the great islands through “The Last Wave”, and I learnt much more about the island than I would have if I were to visit as a mere tourist. Simply put, the book is relevant to those who have been to the islands as it is to those who wish to.
Cover of The Last Wave: An Island Novel by Pankaj Sekhseria,
Published by Harper Collins
The Last Wave’s cover is outlaid on a mellow shade of green, with sights and signs distinctive of the Andamans: a Jarawa standing on what appears to be the Andaman Trunk Road, a fish and a dinghy signifying the basic livelihood of the island, a mugger basking near the base of the book, and between the title and the name of the author rests the flower of Papilionanthe teres. The back-cover, in continuation of the front, shows a Leatherback turtle along the sea, a Narcondam Hornbill that appears to be contemplating its future, and what appears to be the aftermath of the tsunami silhouetted against the colourful design of the book: a reminder of the third deadliest earthquake of the world in the last hundred years.

At 290-pages long, the book is divided into three parts and sub-divided into several chapters each containing a wealth of knowledge skillfully woven with a story of people exploring and discovering the social and ecological aspects of the islands. It starts with a very revealing excerpt from “A History of our Relations with the Andamanese” written in 1899. Every chapter has snippets and facts about the islands, whether in reference to the location, the people of the islands, or its wild denizens – from mangroves and its inhabitants to the virgin tropical forests. It takes one on a trip around the islands led by its main protagonists, with a map guiding the reader of the whereabouts of the stories of the novel. Set in the backdrop of real events, the book slowly and interestingly binds you to its tales – both factual and fictitious, that fiction seems indeed real. Its stories build up one upon another – like brick upon a brick – hinting only subtly where it is all headed – where you know the story ultimately leads to – that singularity event by which the book is aptly titled.

The novel aims to put several pieces together, with the focus on the “first-borns” of the islands – the Jarawas, and the unwarranted, unorthodox notion of the mainlanders towards this mystical community of India. It raises issues of utmost urgency in the real world, and it seeks to answer questions that shall aid in the attitude-shift towards the visitors to the islands as well as those who have simply heard about these people. Although counted in the “fiction” genre, this novel is a startling wake-up call to the real world towards the plight of the Jarawas and other vulnerable communities of the islands.

Pankaj crafts his ideas by showing us both the sides of the coins. The harsh facts lie on the ugly side, and the beautiful and seemingly mystical facts which lie on the beautiful side of the same coin. In this novel, the ugly side reigns over the beautiful – but this is a necessary evil to come to appreciate the beauty of the other side of the coin which lies in its rarity and vulnerability. From the history of the first-borns of the islands, to the local-born and immigrants, to the coming and going of the Japanese and the British, to the changing landscapes of the islands, this book raises issues that are reflective of the mainland India; but in context of this rather isolated ecosystem, it is more expressive and disconcerting. For those with a greater curiosity, the author has also given a list of references at the end of the book.

Beside the vast information about the islands, the personal touch and a sense of belonging comes from the two protagonists of the novel – Harish and Seema, and the other critical characters of the novel. They are the fictitious embodiment of all of us in some way, and this breathes fresh air into what could have otherwise been a factual report of the islands not many would be interested in. And herein lies the best asset of this book: this book is for those who want to be initiated into the web-of-life of the islands: and that must be all of us. Today, the world needs this book; the world needs to know the history, the present, and the out-of-sight yet straight-and-narrow future akin to the Andaman Trunk Road, of our long-lost neighbours of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

A must-read for backpackers, wishful-travelers, as well as budding explorers to the Andamans. 

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You can visit the author's Facebook page: The Last Wave - An Island Novel
You can buy the book on Amazon and Flipkart.

Sewri: the perfect picture?

by Vishal Rasal

I have visited Sewri only twice, and on both occasions I’ve asked myself: what on Earth are these birds doing here? There are answers that are quite startling. In this article, Vishal talks about Sewri and its renowned visitors, Lesser and Greater Flamingos, the plausible reasons why they chose this place, and what we can deduce about their future from recent updates on the conservation-versus-development debate on Sewri. In Vishal’s words…
Flamingos against the rising sun in Sewri, Mumbai
The city of Mumbai is never short of surprises. From skyscrapers cluttering the precarious coasts of the Arabian Sea to the forest fringes of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, this city is one of the handful few to harbour great biodiversity sandwiched between a large human population. And just as Mumbai proudly boasts of whales off its coasts and leopards in its forests, it is also peculiarly famous for its purple-winged migrants – flamingos.
A city of flamingos against the city of Mumbai
Not long ago Sewri was just a bleak and drab railway station on Mumbai's harbor-line rail route. With giant oil tanks on one side exhaling the stingiest petrochemical smells, and a fish market on the other side infamous for its strongest organic scents, Sewri railway station is not a place you would want to get down at unless you have a specific purpose. Past the station and westwards is a view reminiscent of steampunk scenes from science-fiction movies: with roads, trees, and everything in-between, smeared with a thick layer of dust and oil. Alongside its pot-holed roads are queues of a hundred trucks, half-full or half-empty with petroleum products. But if you are patient enough to walk past the squalor, you will be blessed by the view of the mouth of Sewri Bay opening into the Arabian Sea, its waters black as night.
A Black-headed Ibis and Reef Egret feeding in the ruins at Sewri mudflats
An amalgamation of various ingredients makes this coastline interesting to look at. Leave aside the giant dysfunctional oil tankers that have been marooned for decades along the Sewri harbour, the most common ingredient of this black soup are tyres – hundreds of them, mixed with plastic, glass, broken furniture, and remnants of idols. And if you look closely, you might spot a few hardy mudskippers, fiddler-crabs, mollusks, and birds scraping out a living from the junk.
A flock of flamingos flying against power cables
A few decades ago (speculated to be from the 1970s to the early 90s) someone noticed pink-coloured birds in these dark, uninviting waters. Slowly, birdwatchers started flocking to this lesser-known place, and today it has became a pilgrimage site for birdwatchers of Mumbai and neighbouring cities between the months of December and May. It took several years for the general public to realise that our city is being visited by these rather exotic birds. Who would have thought that a bird such as the flamingo, that seems other-worldly, would visit Sewri of all the places? And before we knew it, Sewri was transformed into a tourism hotspot, and people now spend their time here learning and earning by watching these birds.
Tourism picked pace in Sewri, however boating so close to flamingos was later banned.
Although thousands of people gather here every year, nobody really knows how, or why, these birds favour this spot. Were they driven away from their original feeding grounds, or were they an example of pioneering explorers, the Scott and Amundsen of India? Or did they just appear out of thin air? Nature follows an algorithm, controlled by many factors. Everything happens for a rational reason. Every new organism in its habitat is an indicator of something. Something might have attracted them. I searched around a little to answer the how and the why, but it seemed as though nobody has concrete reasons for their yearly visits to Mumbai.
Lesser Flamingos sifting through the Sewri mudflats
A friend of mine, who is an ornithologist, told me that these birds feed voraciously on Cyanobacteria, called blue-green algae, and the algae is the reason behind their pink plumage. Flamingos are also known to eat small organisms such as diatoms found in the mud. Let’s assume that food is why these birds are here, perhaps because their earlier feeding grounds were destroyed. The food these birds eat is microscopic, and thus they are required to eat a lot of it to maintain their body weight. Their presence in Sewri perhaps implies that there is a large quantity of algae and microscopic organisms, and a large quantity of algae generally indicates heavy organic pollution.

Algae are highly opportunistic, and require the least amount of basic nutrients to thrive: nitrogen, phosphorous, and certain levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Algae grow very quickly in nutrient-rich environments, consuming all the nutrients that are available (they grow especially well in highly organic sewage), and then die off. This eutrophication process is then taken forward by other microbes which consume the dead algae, and use up all the little remaining oxygen in the water, which results in hypoxia and can kill all organisms in the vicinity. Such oxygen-deficient zones are called dead zones.

What’s happening in Sewri is probably not as extreme, or else the stench would be far worse than the petrochemical smells that literally sting your nose, but the situation is rather grim.
Flamingos feeding near Sewri harbour
I came across a study titled “Characteristics of Sewri-Mahul IBA, an important Flamingo habitat along Thane Creek” by O.R. Arun Kumar. The study reports high levels of heavy metals like lead and copper in the mud and water samples he collected from Sewri. These heavy metals, due to their easy mobility in aqueous ecosystems, are toxic to all organisms at certain levels. Their concentration goes on multiplying as they move along the food chain, magnifying their toxicity from microscopic algae to a large animal such as a flamingo that feeds on microbes. Studies have shown that absorption of higher quantities of heavy metals can cause cancer, mutations, and genetic damage.

If Sewri is heavily polluted, the flamingos of Mumbai are consuming a large quantity of toxins, and if these birds are breeding with other healthy populations, the possibilities of deformities in future generations substantially increase.
The vastness of Sewri mudflats as seen from Sewri Fort
Sewri’s problems do not end here. The proposed Nhava Sheva-Sewri trans-harbour link is considered as a great threat to this fragile flamingo habitat, and several conservationists are against it. According to media reports (Mumbai Mirror, July 2014), the Forest Department of Maharashtra is about to declare 1,500 hectares as a Protected Area, assigning another route for the Nhava Sheva-Sewri trans-harbour link. Conservationists believe that this move will be crucial for the conservation of flamingos.

The newspaper article further reports;

“Sanctuary status will mean fishing will be banned in the mudflats, which is popular with local fishermen. There will also be regular patrolling by the forest guards, which environmentalists said will put an end to illegal activities, including hunting of migratory birds. An officer of the rank of conservator or deputy conservator will be given charge of the sanctuary.”

Although this is welcoming news after the long debate about Sewri’s fate – which could have ended up like that of Uran – there are some basic facts which might have been overlooked.
A sea of pink against Mumbai's skyline
While we are declaring 1,500 hectares of an area as a Protected Area (PA) we are ignoring a very fundamental fact. When it comes to aquatic ecosystems, we cannot treat a piece of an aquatic ecosystem with a special status, we have to consider the entire watershed or at least a micro-part of it.
As far as I know, PAs should aim to protect the entire ecosystem and food-web, which we also form a part of. Declaring a small stretch of the creek as a PA will not help in the conservation of the ecosystem or even that of flamingos in the long run if there are heavy metals in the water polluted from effluents released upstream in areas which do not fall inside the PA. Efforts should therefore be made to reduce the pollution of the entire watershed – Thane Creek in this context.

The steps taken towards conservation of flamingo habitat in Sewri are far from picture-perfect, and we mustn’t look at the future of these pink birds and their wintering grounds through rose-tinted glasses. It is crucial to look at this PA not only as a site for flamingos, but also for the plethora of life-forms that flourish here, and definitive steps should be taken to curb pollution.
Sewri mudflats and its countless visitors
If all things fall in place, Sewri will be the perfect example of how crowded cities like Mumbai, with all its people and all its industries, protected a wetland and its denizens for its intrinsic ecological value.
Lesser Flamingos preening in the early morning sunlight
Talks of Sewri being declared a full-fledged Protected Area/ Sanctuary (Downtoearth, December 2011)/ Ramsar Site (Hindustan Times, February 2013), have been in the news since 2011, with recent reports from July 2014. Some of the rules and regulations governing wetlands in India were drafted by the then Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010, which are worth looking at while thinking of Sewri.
Highlights of Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 (pdf):
Ø  It calls for the constitution of a Central Wetland Regulatory Authority, Chaired by the Secretary, MoEF and, as expected, members from various Government ministries like Agriculture, Water Resources, Tourism, Social Justice, Central Pollution Control Board as well as four experts from the fields of hydrology, limnology, ornithology and ecology. Some of these experts nominated by the government for a three-year tenure through a no- transparent process, do not seem reliable.
Ø  It seeks to regulate wetlands which include Ramsar Wetlands, and what it calls ‘Protected Wetlands’ which include ecologically sensitive wetlands, wetlands in protected areas, UNESCO sites or wetlands near UNESCO sites, wetlands above the elevation of 2500 meters with an area larger than five hectraes or, wetlands or wetland complexes below the elevation of 2500 meters, but with an area larger than 500 hectares or any other wetlands suggested by the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority.
Ø  Restrictions on activities within wetlands include reclamation, setting up industries in the vicinity, solid waste dumping, manufacture or storage of hazardous substances, discharge of untreated effluents, any permanent construction, amongst several others.
Ø  Regulated Activities (which will not be permitted without the consent of the state government) include hydraulic alterations, unsustainable grazing, harvesting of resources, releasing treated effluents, aquaculture, agriculture, dreading, etc.
Ø  The major functions of the authority include identification of new wetlands for conservation, ensuring that the Rules are followed by local bodies, issue clearances, and others.
Ø  The State Governments are to submit a ‘Brief Document’ about the wetlands in their state which qualify for protection under the Rules. The Authority will then assess the wetland and if accepted, the Central Government shall notify it as a ‘Protected Wetland’.
Ø  Any appeals against the decision of the Authority can be made to the National Green Tribunal.
Lesser Flamingos feeding on the algae and diatoms of Sewri Bay
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References:

          O. R. Arun Kumar. 2013. Characteristics of Sewari-Mahul IBA: an important flamingo habitat along Thane Creek, Mumbai, India. MFSc.  Thesis. Central Institute of Fisheries Education.
          Van Dolah, Frances M. 2000. Marine algal toxins: origins, health effects, and their increased occurrence. Environmental health perspectives. 108 (1): 133.
          Ali, Salim. 1979. The book of Indian birds. Bombay Natural History Society.

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About the Author: Vishal Rasal

Vishal is a Research Fellow at the Central Institute of Fisheries Education (CIFE), investigating the natural and artificial radioisotopes in aquatic ecosystems of Chutaka in Madhya Pradesh. He is currently pursuing his PhD by investigating the ecological services of urban wetlands for the well-being of a city.


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This work is © Vishal Rasal and has been published with his permission. All the views expressed in this article are that of the author. No part of this article can be used without prior permission of the author. Please visit the author’s website for more information.