Conversations in the time of pandemic

We're not scaremongering
This is really happening, happening
--Idioteque, Kid A, Radiohead, 2002

The once-in-a-few-generations calamity of pandemics has become all too frequent. Zoonotic – species jumping – pandemics are more recurrent in the last few decades irrespective of their origin in domestic or wild animals – or labs. The generation under 35 itself has seen or been through more than three pandemics – the H1N1 flu, the swine flu, and covid-19, in addition to outbreaks of Ebola, Nipah, and avian influenza that is still considered to be a highly infectious disease.

We’ve witnessed a lot in a span of a year; from revitalisation of nature to our increasing intolerance towards wildlife, from a 17% drop in atmospheric CO2 levels and two rare cyclonic events followed one after another up the warming Arabian Sea, from protests against the recent farm law amendments to protests against mining operations in areas of rich cultural and natural heritage, from flooding in the plains to crippling Himalayan river systems – we’ve been witness to all of these even as we tried to comprehend this calamity of proportions not seen in our lifetime: from miscalculated attempts to stop the spread to the discovery of a vaccine in record time, from countless deaths to concerted efforts of strangers saving many lives, from sanctimonious preaching to international call for aid. We’ve seen it all: the warfare that never took place and the aftermath that will be felt for generations, the children who bid goodbye to their parents too soon, the parents the children could not meet, half-tendered farewells and short-cut rituals, all within one year.

This is a conversation with myself, someone who belongs to the 65% of India's population. It is time to look at the world without rose-tinted glasses after this blip. It is time to become uncomfortable. It is time to act. And there are reasons for it. Through this devastating pandemic, there are many lessons to learn from. It is time to initiate conversations around them so that we don’t repeat this in the future, and if it comes to it, we are better prepared than ever. From all that we’ve witnessed, I present seven conversation-starters from what I've learned – am learning, and should learn, for someone working in the field of resource use, social welfare, wildlife conservation/biology, natural history - and everything in-between.

#1 Collaborations improve science. At the heart of it all is nature and our relationship with the natural world. Understanding nature is science. One major takeaway from this unfolding calamity is this: collaborations improve science. It isn’t rocket science, I know; some of you might even say it isn’t simple, it is not. Reaching out helps, what helps more is being on the receiving end and reciprocating. I cannot think of a bigger and better circumstance than the production of the vaccine in record time. Multiple government institutions, pharmaceutical corporations and interested businessmen came together to make this happen – there was competition as much as there were different ways to beat this disease. Nature requires collaborations to understand it, to protect it, and to revive it. If I could end my conversation at this, I would, for the future is collaborations within the sphere of competitive environments that look at bigger, better, impactful directions we want to steer our world in, and the chronic disease we face is of man-made climate change. Just as rebuilding this world again will require collaboration, reviving and restoration of nature will be possible only with collaborations. India still has a lot of work to do to become collaborative – science has been such a cut-throat field of competition and, if I may take the liberty on my own blog, of leg-pulling, even collaborations are looked at as divisive. In order to become comfortable sharing our tiffin box the way many of us did in schools (can you think of a better collaborative example? – school projects were a disaster, especially for me), someone needs to lead by example. And this is up for grabs, even today.

#2 Natural calamity contingency plan is prudent. Speaking of climate change, collaboration is not the only way forward. These often come with long-term end goals. The second wave of the covid-19 pandemic caught us off-guard in spite of the threat we faced in the first wave. I might even go so far as to say that, sans certain layers of government, we were better prepared in the first wave than the second, for the way the citizens spun into action to provide shelter and food to the migrant labours, should be looked upon as a peoples’ movement at national-scale. We are all witness to how social groups including individuals, cooperative housing societies, social institutions and organisations mobilised own resources as soon as the pandemic and the mismanagement hit. Natural calamities are exactly the second wave of this pandemic. Disaster relief plans are not prepared with apocalyptic point-of-view, but with a view of healing as soon as possible. A plan at all levels of organisation – the governments (police, health, rescue, water, electricity, and social-welfare departments generally move first, but these plans need to be transparent to be accountable), the non-governmental organisations (although not mandatory, institutional-level preparedness goes a long way in welfare work), the academic institutions (for student support) and the cooperatives (local support such as loan-lending, food provision, transport), need to be discussed and ratified to strengthen the resiliency in a rapidly changing world. This natural calamity contingency plan puts in place protocols for mobilization of resources – financial and on-ground support – for disaster relief at local and regional levels. I was especially inspired by how social organisations moved to help those in need – most were ad hoc, these need to be made more robust. Again, examples should be set up for others to learn.

#3 Community stakes are raised. The above conversation is so that we are better equipped to help everyone in dire times, and what I discuss here is something organisations and future investors should take into consideration, that in a particular region, the local communities are the main – not just major – stakeholders, irrespective of whether it is a mine, a dam, a protected area, a resort, or a swimming pool in your resort, but in your research too. There must always be a voice where resources – whether air (eg. pollution), land (eg. conversion), or water (eg. consumption) – are shared with the marginal. That’s a larger issue we still need to work on. Here, we need to talk about independent, often isolated and non-people centric projects. In research, even as small a project as understanding wild animal movement through a matrix of human settlements and wilderness areas, results should reach to those who share the landscape, in the language they understand. It is often not feasible for the lack of funds or logistics, but getting it out there in a public platform is vital to any and all studies we undertake, for as much as publications are important, so is translation of one’s findings in a language the stakeholders understand. Paper conservation (read publications) is growing manifold, hardly trickling down to the grassroots. It is a challenge for individuals, institutions, and stakeholders that needs to funnel the findings into communities. With the seeds being sown slowly by journalism, research communicators need to take the lead, too – and this needs collaborations.

#4 Independence, transparency, and advocacy are ‘in’. I started this with ‘collaboration’ – that is, interdependence. Here, independence does not mean working in cubicles, it means something else and is tied with the second word that follows it – transparency. Independence means being free of strings – having no conflict of interests – and being transparent about it. It also means making your stand clear against justice and injustice – perhaps not in a political way – but in a way that makes your voice heard. That’s how we can advocate for the greater good. For instance: so long as people talk about ‘tiger farms’ and not ‘battery farms’ as a whole, we will be lacking hopelessly in our advocacy to ban tiger farms. Advocacy is often out-of-question if there is no concerted, collaborative, yet independent voice that advocates for a ban on tiger farms (or wet markets, or battery farming) with transparency. This is especially a cause of concern as we move into the next decade – for which dialogue today is necessary. Do I mean to say that if you eat meat, you shouldn’t advocate ban on animal farms? No, I mean you should be upfront (transparent) when you advocate for one – there is no harm in saying I am non-vegetarian, I eat meat that largely comes from battery farms, but I am against tiger farming - there (this applies to organisations more than it applies to individuals).

#5 Resource reduce, reduce, and reduce is the only mantra. That time in school when we were taught the three R’s of a sustainable life, reduce, reuse, and recycle, is behind us. We missed the bus. Today, consumption in the form of consumerism is rising exponentially. The duration of how-many-times-one-can-reuse has reduced and upcycling and downcycling just can’t keep up anymore. This pandemic saw a boom in e-commerce, that is online shopping, with the country soon to be back to normalcy, there will be a further boom in e-commerce – and that means increased consumerism, increased resource-us, and increased discards even as we sit at home. That ‘footprint’ of us traveling to the mall and back still pales for the transport of the package we ordered online. The only way forward now is ‘reduce, reduce, and reduce’: consumption, not population; consumption, not average person’s personal travel; consumption is the bane of our generation. If you ask me where to start, we can start with food. But the dialogue is open for an array of consumables – from bonanza sale of TVs to discardable phones to excessive packaging. Some consider this to be a personal choice, but that choice is not personal anymore without privilege. This pandemic has shown us the true face of privilege – in dire times, it doesn’t work. Taking cues from it, we must come to terms with our consumption addiction – it applies to all those who’re reading this (including the one writing it), that if privilege can afford us a choice, it also puts a responsibility that we pick the just one.

#6 Vegetarianism shouldn’t be mocked and ethical animal care should be talked about more. There are swathes of farmlands in the Americas feeding livestock that are then eaten by the populace. In India, growing fodder crop is not a priority – grown only by commercially-owned dairies, most of the fodder comes from hay, husk, and forests. Imagining an India that grows fodder at agricultural-scale is a nightmare for any conservationist, for the land will come from forests, and forests that still survive free-ranging grazing will be converted into resource intensive farmlands. Luckily, this scenario is less likely in India because large-animal meat is not largely consumed. Meat consumption will face the test of times in the coming future as a low-impact vegetarian lifestyle unites with animal welfare against battery farms unites with climate change. Like I said in #4, you don’t have to be vegetarian to advocate for tiger farms, but you do have to be honest with yourself – after all, it is only perhaps humans who can weigh one life for another: tiger for a chicken, fish for an egg. In these desperate times, when community rights to culture – including diet – as well as animal welfare – ethical animal keeping – are finding a voice, it is only imperative that this becomes a more mainstream talk of the town. Animal welfare is intimately related to how we approach conservation. It is denial, not reason, to say domestic animals are cared-for well in India than the western cultures. Animal keeping, particularly poultry and fishery, is picking business fast. The more you cram in small spaces, the more money you make. The days of traditional ‘desi’ chicken and ‘samudri’ fish are gone – our plates are full of battery cage animals that are not only questionable in their ethics, but also to the environment: they give out emissions and pollute in multitudes of what traditional poultry and fisheries does. This, too, is a personal choice, some might argue. And it is. I just wish to park it here so that when you decide upon your eating habits the way I did a few months ago, you talk to yourself first and then to others.

#7 Water scarcity is the coming catastrophe. Amidst the tragedy, a small community became aware of something: India is not a rain-fed agrarian society, it is groundwater-fed agrarian economy. Green Revolution did not come merely with seeds, it came with irrigation – irrigation did not come from the clouds, we tapped the water below us. Over half-a-century later, the revolution has been successfully feeding the world’s second largest population, as well as exporting food. Today, many of the wells are running dry well before their time, the subsurface water levels have alarmingly fallen. Don’t call me a scaremonger, look at Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia that is sinking because of overextraction of groundwater that literally once acted as a cushion to keep the city above the surface of the ocean. Delhi’s recurrent tremors are linked with increased vacuum beneath the surface left behind by overextraction of water as well. Agriculture is not all to blame. Human habitations, particularly urban areas, have increased rapidly. Better living standards means higher consumption of water. Rapid development often means poor planning – no reservoirs to tap, nor water tanks to store surface water. The cheapest mode is tapping the groundwater. Many have said, most subtly, that water will be the next expensive commodity. Some have even argued against the next war, initiated, already, by mass migrations of water refuges. It is time we talked about water the way we talk about land. It is time water conservation and wise-use becomes a part of manifestos of political parties. It is time we meter water for industrial use. It is time we discuss all of this as citizens. As conservationists, it is time to heed the water question – wherever relevant, especially in socioecology (hydrosocioecology?) – as much as it is important to discuss land tenure, land sharing, and terrestrial wildlife conservation.

I’m only scratching the surface. There are some conversations you’d agree with, some you wouldn’t – in spite of it this dialogue needs to take place openly. To the 65% of Indians, we’re all at a certain level of life where we can – finally – take decisions. More importantly, we’re at a stage in our lives where we take ours and the future of our world more seriously. Well, there are bigger problems we must converse about – man-made climate change, the economy of the country, the constitution, everything is tied to one another. For our generation, we have more questions to answer and more problems to address than we thought the technology would solve for us (that’s another debate). It’s a fact that pales in front of what we’re going through today. Uneasy times make for uneasy conversations. This is a conversation with myself that many have thought of or are already working on. We have a lifetime left (less than two-thirds?), but with a lot of the ‘undoing’ that remains, this darkest time of our generation will lead us to an intelligible light.

(I may be paranoid, but not an android)
--Paranoid Android, OK Computer, Radiohead, 1997


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