India’s environmental crusader

Five years ago, the Valley of Flowers National Park in India was in a shambles after sustained environmental abuse. Jyotsna Sitling, India’s first female tribal forester, arrived as director in 2002 with the aim of regenerating the area. Three years later the park’s ecosystem was flourishing once again and the site was granted World Heritage Status from UNESCO. Jyotsna, winner of the 2007 Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar prize, India’s highest environmental honour, explains how she did it

Jyotsna Sitling receiving the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar prize. Photograph: supplied by Neeta Lal

I was born into the ‘Lepcha’ tribal community of Kalimpong in West Bengal, a region bordering Tibet. My village Chibbo Busty, though a mere blip on India‘s vast geographic radar, was stunningly picturesque. Rugged ochre and dun-colored hills, an emerald green forest cover and children with beatific faces made it an idyllic place. I remember walking through the village’s misty woods with my parents, extremely curious about the region’s flora and fauna. “What is that tree called?”, “And that flower?”, “Where does mountain snow disappear?” “How do birds feed their young?” I brimmed with queries about nature.

After school, I enrolled at the Darjeeling Government College with botany as my major subject. Nobody raised an eyebrow when I chose forestry as a vocation. As India’s first woman tribal forester, I felt proud to join the Indian Forest Service (IFS) in 1987. My first assignment – as conservator of forests in India’s most troubled state (Jammu and Kashmir) – was a challenging one. There are still just a handful of female foresters in the Indian Forest Service, so in my career’s initial stages I had to work doubly hard to establish my credibility.

I was posted in Uttaranchal as the director of Nanda Devi National Park (NDNP) in 2002. This beautiful park was in a shambles due to rampant environmental abuse. Ensconced within the upper Himalayan ridges at 6,675 metres, the entire area had a cachet of conservation concerns. A shame really, considering the splendid Valley of Flowers National Park (VFNP) in Uttaranchal is one of the world’s most scenic alpine valleys, breeding exquisite floral and avian diversity: 520 species of flowering plants and rare avian breeds like the Scaly-bellied Woodpecker, Great Barbett, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Spotted Dove and the Blue Magpie.

Soon after taking over, I launched a vigorous movement to save the park from further degradation. We first planned to rid it of mountain-high piles of plastic and non-biodegradable waste strewn by pilgrims over three decades of visiting the Sikh religious site of Hemkund Sahib each year. To achieve this, a community-based waste management program involving the local populace was fleshed out. The highly irresponsible environmental behavior of the pilgrim traffic had totally wrecked the beautiful surroundings, resulting in accumulation of tons of putrescent garbage (plastic bags, bottles, rain coats, sundry packets) and non-degradable waste.

The 19km trek route was impacted further by some 400-odd shops illegally installed by locals. Their plastic waste had literally filled the whole area. The region’s verdant slopes, once a green canvas punctuated with sweet-smelling flowers, were transformed into junkyards through a mindless act of man. The fragile eco-system of the entire valley was under duress due to this pilgrim traffic.

Of course it was tough to motivate the local people for the unglamorous task of cleaning up the area, but we just plunged headlong into it. I made the Park staff understand the social and livelihood dynamics of the community which could be decisive in preserving it. This was followed by giving them focused training and mentoring them regularly to equip them professionally to handle community-initiated conservation processes. Being a woman, the male staff saw me as a role model to initiate such processes in the garbage-ridden VFNP.

For starters, we cobbled an eco-development committee (EDC) comprising the local people, especially women and hired garbage collectors who worked on a monthly salary of 1,000 rupees (about GBP11) with an additional commission of 5 rupees per garbage bag. After working tirelessly for 14 months, my team collected a whopping 44 tons of garbage in 14,000 gunny bags. The collected garbage matched the surrounding towering peaks in height.

This garbage was transported on horseback to New Delhi for recycling. The heaps also included tons of mule dung because about 500 mules go up and down this religious stretch from May to October each year – the main five pilgrimage months. Despite the garbage’s volume, we didn’t take any eco-unfriendly short cuts like burning, burying or draining off of refuse.

Cleaning up the area was only part of the problem. A greater challenge lay in convincing the resident business population of about 76 families to demolish their 400 shacks and morph them into 76 shops; that is, one shop per family. This, I argued, would help in the management of the ecologically sensitive area. The entrepreneurs, adamant at first, finally relented and demolished their shacks to build well-equipped shops with proper infrastructure.

We struck upon a “participatory approach” for protecting biodiversity in the sensitive areas. The locals were educated about the benefits of making conservation a socially and economically self-alleviating experience. We worked in synergy with the local populace to hammer out economically viable and sustainable solutions to conservation versus development conflicts. The idea was to integrate livelihood and equity concerns in conservation practices for a sustainable, long-term solution.

Community training was imparted to harness local resources and generate eco-tourism activities. Growing and preserving of medicinal plants, exotic condiments and traditional crops were listed as a priority. This stimulated the avenues connected with the hill economy which helped prevent poaching and illegal removal of herbs from nearby forests. Communities were also encouraged to document and preserve their culture and folklore. Local youth were taught and became a skilled human resource on local bio-diversity, folklore and culture promotion.

The local populace were trained and linked with regulated tourism business opportunities to become beneficiaries and custodians of the NDNP. Years of hard labor started to bear fruit when the region’s ecosystem showed signs of regeneration. Our forest department received a state award and nominated the VFNP to the UN’s World Heritage list in 2002 by submitting a proposal to the World Heritage Centre (WHC). The UN evaluation team visited the VFNP and NDNP in September 2004 to assess its conservation status, its management strategy and the community interface in the conservation of the two parks.

On July 14, 2005, I got that historic call from UNESCO informing us about VFNP being granted World Heritage Status. It was an exhilarating moment. I still get goose flesh thinking about that call, which symbolised our triumph against such massive odds. Apart from bestowing a prestigious global honor, the WHS status has had other positive benefits as well – like attracting a lot more international tourists and global conservation funds. Our unique experiment has proved that there’s nothing that can’t be achieved if people choose to work together, even if the task is of ‘Himalayan’ proportions. Nanda Devi, the venerable Goddess of Uttaranchal, has every reason to smile.

• Jyotsna Sitling was speaking to India-based freelance journalist Neeta Lal. – From Guardian UK

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Commercial activity around Corbett threatens wildlife

A view of the Corbett National Park. Unhindered commercial activity around Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand is posing a serious threat to this eco-fragile zone and obstructing movement of animals. File Photo; The Hindu

 From THE HINDU

National Park: 70% of Corbett resorts host parties, races

NEW DELHI: Is Corbett national park, India’s best known tiger sanctuary, becoming a hunting ground for party animals at the cost of real ones? A study commissioned by the Union tourism ministry on Corbett has found that 70% of the resorts around the park are venues for weddings, rain dances, parties, bike races and zorbing rather than for visitors interested in wildlife.

There are 77 resorts in the area with 17 more likely to come up this year alone. Incidentally, the tiger reserve has a ceiling of a maximum of 600 visitors daily.

This rampant commercialisation and mismatch in numbers drawn to Corbett has set off alarm bells within the ministry that is now considering tighter norms for hotels and resorts coming up in ecologically-sensitive places.

The study conducted by the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa surveyed areas around the 10km periphery of the park in December last year.

“The findings are very worrying. We plan to bring this to the attention of the ministry of environment and forests before Corbett becomes another Sariska. There must be stringent guidelines for commercial establishments,” Sujit Banerjee, tourism secretary, said.

Besides indulging in activities like parties and rain dances, resorts keep bright lights on throughout the night. Turning a blind eye to environmental friendly practices, 31% of the properties dump their waste outside while 26% burn it.

About 94% of the properties are fenced or walled. This has resulted in two animal corridors connecting Corbett with Rajaji national park being blocked. The fencing aside, vehicles and encroachment by villagers displaced by the New Tehri dam have also contributed to choking the corridors that are a lifeline for the animals.

Another worrying point is the fact that of the 77 vehicles plying within the tiger reserve, 26 run on diesel. Among steps being taken to check this disturbing trend, officials said resorts and hotels in fragile ecological zones will now have to take the nod from the tourism ministry before they begin commercial operations. These zones – like national parks, hill stations and coastal areas – will be defined in the new set of regulations. The ministry also plans to conduct surveys around other important national parks like Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh and Kanha.

Corbett National Park is becoming a party zone, posing a hazard to the environment. Besides indulging in activities like parties and rain dances, resorts keep bright lights on throughout the night.

Turning a blind eye to environment friendly practices, 31% of the properties dump their waste outside while 26% burn it. About 94% of the properties are fenced or walled. This has resulted in two animal corridors connecting Corbett with Rajaji national park being blocked. The fencing aside, vehicles and encroachment by villagers displaced by the New

Tehri dam have also contributed to choking the corridors that are a lifeline for the animals.

Another worrying point is the fact that of the 77 vehicles plying within the tiger reserve, 26 run on diesel. Among steps being taken to check this disturbing trend, officials said resorts and hotels in fragile ecological zones will now have to take the nod from the tourism ministry before they begin commercial operations. These zones — like national parks, hill stations and coastal areas — will be defined in the new set of regulations.

From TOI

Chennai: Guindy park woos fewer migratory birds

CHENNAI: The northeast monsoon last year did bring above average rainfall in the city and the storage reservoirs have enough water to tide over the summer, according to authorities. However, denizens of the Guindy National Park, the country’s only such facility within a city, may not be as lucky as Chennaiites. The park has water to last only six months.

This is due to the late arrival of the monsoon and availability of less water in the Appalankulam tank in the reserve area, say park authorities. The tank serves as a favourite spot for nearly 132 species of migratory birds. So far during the migratory season (October to December), the park, spread over an area of 2.82 sqkm and having five natural ponds, has attracted fewer than the usual number of birds.

“Although there is minimum water in the Appalankulam pond, we are still hopeful of more birds coming,” says G Kamaraj, biologist at the park. The annual rainfall the park receives is not adequate for migratory birds to stay for a long period, he points out, adding: “Winged visitors from far-off places drop in here for short stays, on their way to Vedanthangal and other nearby sanctuaries that are bigger. During the season, they look for algae formations in the Appalankulam pond as a sign of welcome, and stop over for a while to feed on the fish. The open billed stork, rare painted stork, night heron, pond heron, little egret, dab chick, common teal, whistling teal, gargany and pink-tail duck are some of the regular visitors here.”

After park authorities deepened water channels, four tanks are now brimming with water, enough to take care of the park’s water needs for the next six months. However, the Appalankulam tank, located at one end of the park, depends on surplus water from the other four tanks. The National Park has more than 350 species of plants and 14 species of mammals, including the black buck, spotted deer, jackal, small Indian civet, bonnet macaque, black-napped hare, hedgehog and Indian pangolin. The park attracts an average of 3,000 visitors daily.

From TOI

Eco-Tourism: Karnataka a Tourist Paradise

Both nature and human efforts have combined to make Karnataka a Tourist Paradise. Its long sea shore has silvery beaches. The tall Western Ghats have lush green forests full of varied fauna, flora and a number of east and west flowing rivers emanating from the Ghats, enrich the soil of the land and contribute to State’s agricultural prosperity. The rivers create many water falls which are a feast to the eyes of the on lookers. The plain area is renowned for its beautiful river banks and projecting wonderful stony hills looking like rock parks that are natural creations. The hilly tracks have many Wildlife sanctuaries. The Gangas, Kadambas, Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Hoysalas, Vijayanagara

Rulers, Bahamanis of Gulbarga and Bidar, Adilshahis of Bijapur, Wodeyars of Mysore, Nayaks of Chitradurga and the Keladi rulers have raised wonderful forts, beautiful temples with impressive plastic art in stone and magnificent mosques and mausoleums of Indo-Saracenic style. The advent of the Portuguese and the English introduced European Renaissance architecture imitation of both gothic and Indo-European styles. They built imposing churches and captivating public as well as private buildings in Karnataka. The National Parks, the Animal and Bird Sanctuaries can provide the tourist the sight of wild animals like elephants, tigers, bisons, deers, blackbucks, peacocks and a variety of animals in their natural habitat. The National Parks also acquaint the visitor with a rich variety of flora like tall trees, bushy plants and creepers that try to entwine him. Karnataka is known for its aromatic sandal wood and broad beautiful trees of pipal and banyan with their hospitable  road shade. If one is spiritually inclined, there are living seers, whether Hindu, Christian or Muslim who can provide one with spiritual solace. There are also tombs of great religious leaders of Hindu,  Muslim, Christian, Jaina or Veerashaiva. In the precincts of these tombs even today people seek spiritual solace.

Karnataka is blessed with many waterfalls and the tallest water fall in India is at Jog (Shimoga District) where the river Sharavati jumps from a height of 293 mts. into four cascades of everlasting beauty. Presently the falls will be active with full zoom only during one month following the rainy season (July- October).The Cauvery at Shivasamudra falls (in Mandya district) has twin jumps,

For More Information – Bangalore Orbit

Nagpur: Greens aye Vidarbhawith forests intact

NAGPUR: Will Vidarbha be a viable state? Greens say yes, but feel that a lot will depend on how it is projected. The past experience has been bad as leaders have lacked vision and courage. The statehood demand has been fuelled after Congress green-signalled Telangana. TOI talked to leading conservationists and environmentalists who were cautious whether the new state would be self-reliant. They said experience of new states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh showed they were overexploiting natural resources. This was dangerous, they said.

Kishor Rithe, president of Satpuda Foundation, said Vidarbha’s forest richness and not just mineral richness would have to be considered in view of climate change concerns. Rithe thoughtlessly sanctioned mining and dam projects in the new state would make it lose forest cover which was not advisable. Green technology and some better irrigation alternatives could actually provide power and irrigation respectively.

Some states import raw material and produce finished products for sale domestically or overseas. “I see no wisdom in this,” Rithe said. The conservationist said Vidarbha no doubt had many strengths. It was famous for oranges and cotton. It held two-thirds of Maharashtra’s mineral resources, three quarters of its forest resources and is a power-surplus region. The region always remained calm during communal troubles. Yet, it is economically backward compared to rest of Maharashtra.

If Vidarbha gets separated, its 11 districts will have geographical area of 96,097 sq km with a population of over 2.06 crore. Of this, 37,251 sq km will be forest cover. Vidarbha’s Nagpur and Amravati revenue divisions presently occupy 31.6% of the total area and hold 21.3% of total population of Maharashtra.

Vidarbha would be a viable state only if leaders and policy-makers, who were forcing urban and rural ‘development model’ on tribals in forested districts for the past 60 years change their vision. The rigid policies have resulted in migration of tribal youths to cities to such an extent that tribal development department was now unable to spend its budget, he said.

Prof Nishikant Mukherjee, managing director of Tiger Environment Centre (TEC), a global NGO working for environment and tiger protection, felt Vidarbha could be a successful state if projected properly. Today, tourism was the second biggest industry in the world after oil and energy, he said. Vidarbha was a tiger country with a large number of sanctuaries and reserves. “The region can earn Rs 7,000 crore annually if it markets tourism potential. Last year 6 million foreign tourists visited Taj Mahal and India’s tiger destinations. If we managed to get 10% of them, Vidarbha can be self-sufficient. If small states like Kerala and Chhattisgarh are doing ok, why can’t we?” he asked.

“If you look at the value chain of Vidarbha. It supplies cheap labour and raw material to entire state. It’s like a colony which gives everything to rest of Maharashtra but gets meagre benefits in lieu for its big support,” said Prof Mukherjee.

Vidarbha had rich forests that are non-performing assets as of now. It did not mean that development should be at the cost of forests but they should be converted into economic assets, specially as carbon sinks that world values. However, important point is vision, strong leadership and courage, he added.

Conservationist Prafulla Bhamburkar, assistant manager of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) felt, there should be a debate on statehood and mass public support should be rallied. Both things were lacking now. The region had 56% of the state’s forest and in a separate state, forests should not become target of new development.

Vidarbha’s forests should be used to get carbon credits and should be encashed through eco-tourism and not given away for mines and dams. “It shouldn’t happen that while state is carved out, leaders will retain 33% of forest cover as per the National Forest Policy 1988 and divert remaining forests for mining and other detrimental projects,” he stressed.

Bhamburkar wanted Vidarbha state but by keeping forests intact. He was cautious about the demand as leaders did not look beyond self-gains and lacked vision.

From TOI

Andaman Island: A tryst with corals

Even a rookie can revel in the underwater delights of the Andamans. Ask me. Playing in the shallow waters of the Cauvery hurtling down near my grandparents’ home is the closest I’ve gotten to a water body. Compared to that, the Bay of Bengal is mind-boggling. It stretches till what seems like eternity, varying shades of turquoise and azure.

UNDERWATER DELIGHTS: Elephant Beach. PHOTO: SUBHA J RAO

And, even if you know nothing about swimming or snorkelling, which is the thing to do here, slide into a life buoy, bob about in the aquamarine waters, and know that all is well with the world!

But, first things first. We set off from oh-so-picturesque Havelock, where everything seems so photogenic — dead coral fragments swept onto the shores, and half-broken molluscs in shades of pink you haven’t seen outside your box of watercolours — and head to Elephant Beach, perfect for amateurs to indulge in snorkelling. Our motor boat, handled by two confident lads, leaves behind wisps of petrol fumes as we embark on a 45-minute journey across the middle of the ocean.

Water, water everywhere

As you look around at the schools of flying fish, the nursery of sorts where the waves take shape before lashing the shore, and the horizon in the far distance, Nature takes over in all her splendour.

The profusion of water can overwhelm you, but don’t let that prevent you from focussing on the little things that make the boat ride interesting — experienced snorkellers gliding in the water like they were meant to be there, small dinghies dropping off divers at spots known for their marine life, and birds swooping down on their next meal.

Finally, Elephant Beach is upon us, and we hurriedly get off from the boat and into the cool inviting waters. The boatman allows us three hours here, and we wonder if that’s too much time on a secluded beach, peopled by just tender coconut sellers, a couple of tourists, and trees, rendered barren by the tsunami, that almost touch the waters.

How wrong we are! Casting aside any remaining urban hesitation, we join the other families, in the ocean. The first hour is spent frolicking in the waters that are so clear you can see the sand and pebbles underneath. We grudgingly get up when it is time to snorkel.

The son, all of six, is raring to meet his brother Nemo (yes! there are loads of clown fish frisking about pretty anemones), but one look at the equipment, and he chickens out. Now, snorkelling works on a simple principle — forget that the nose exists, and breathe through the mouth.

Easier said than done. Many of us sputter our way to the surface after fighting the equipment. Not a foreigner couple, though. They don their snorkels, and with graceful strokes, wade into the ocean like they belong there. The friendly local diver talks to us as if we were difficult children, and teaches us the right technique time and again. When you finally figure it out, you wonder what the fuss was about.

The world of Nemo

The first couple of strokes out into the ocean are nothing special. But, once the eyes get used to the silent, dimly-lit world underneath, it’s like you’ve got a free ticket to Nemo’s universe! You struggle to take in the riot of colours — fish coloured sunshine yellow, electric blue, vibrant orange… phew!

Even as you resist the temptation to gape wide-mouthed, the diver gently leads you along deeper coral reefs.

Down below, in the fathomless depths, the corals stand in all their glory, in myriad shapes and sizes. As the diver points out to the various fish, sea cucumbers, star fish, anemones, and the occasional sea-horse, all you feel is an urgency to lock within your eyelids a world you’ve never seen before, and then, a primal fear— that you are after all, a land animal!

Evidently, I am alone in my thinking — our foreigner friends are but blips on the ocean now.

I beat a hasty retreat to the safe confines of the beach, and partake of refreshingly sweet tender coconut water. There’s a thatched hut where you can change clothes, and the branches of the stricken trees double up as clotheslines.

But, then, they say that about snorkelling — one smitten, never shy. The next day, we head to the well-preserved Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park in Wandoor, about 30 km from Port Blair (for details, visit http://tourism.andaman.nic.in). After a 45-minute ride on a packed boat, we reach Jolly Buoy Island, a pristine, plastic-free stretch with an exquisite beach and near-white sand. A ride in a glass-bottom boat later, we resist, and then give in to the temptation of snorkelling.

We now possess a day’s experience, and are more confident and venture a little deeper. Clown fish, angel fish, butterfly fish, parrot fish and more frisk about unmindful of human presence. My eyes go click, click, click, and Waterworld is forever etched in the recesses of my mind.

Subha J Rao from THE HINDU