A Year in the Nilgiris

April’s a beautiful month in the Nilgiris; gentle showers caress the grasslands that are vast stretches of brown streaked with fresh green, and the canopies of the shola forests that are collages of ever-changing shades of red and green, brown and yellow.  The forest floor is a mosaic of colour too, with bright hues of fallen leaves and flowers tempered by the background brown and moss green.


Canopy of a shola forest in the Nilgiris

It’s time for renewal in the Nilgiris: there are cinnamon saplings in the forests, with young green and bronze leaves appearing almost translucent in the sunlight that shines through the canopy; the magnificent Syzigium trees are full of flowers and will soon be laden with sweet fruit; high up on a moss and lichen draped branch, pink and white orchids bloom, their ethereal fragrance wafting down with the breeze; the grassland herbs are flowering too, and there are strawberries near the swamps.


I was in the forest, and I just looked up…

In about a month, the monsoon will be here.  The sounds of incessant rain and strong winds slapping hill slopes and overlapping claps of thunder will echo through the mountains and merge together in a mighty roar.  Enveloped in a swirling mass of mist and clouds, the sun and the hills will be hidden to the world for a quarter of a year.  In September, the rains will wind down, and the curtains of moisture will rise to reveal the landscape in all its breathtaking splendour: full flowing streams, mushrooms of all shapes and hues springing up from soil and dead wood, animals and birds coming out to welcome the warming sun.


A stinkhorn fungus on the forest floor

Gradually, the rains will stop entirely.  Morning temperatures will plunge, and crystals of ice form on all surfaces: grass blades and herb leaves, swamps and windowpanes.  Cobwebs beaded with dew will shine amidst the vegetation.  The brown grasslands and green forests will again be waiting for the refreshing showers in April.



But it’s still April.  Leaning on a fence I’ve set up for my experiments, in a patch of grassland between two shola forests, I hear the haunting call of a sambar deer from somewhere deep in the forests.  I smile in solitude; it’s a year since I started field work in the Nilgiris!


One of my fences in the Nilgiris

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What’s the problem?

Buffaloes are bad for birds.

Shifting cultivation is bad for forests.

Everyone agrees these are ‘problems’ that need to be solved.  Cultivators and pastoralists are told to leave the forests, grasslands and wetlands alone.  Everyone waits eagerly for the ‘solutions’ to work.  The birds vanish; so do the forests.

What is it that went wrong? Answer: The problem.

Of Geese and Grass, a chapter in Madhav Gadgil’s book, Ecological Journeys, is a fascinating, but somewhat alarming story of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan.  The famous manmade wetland spanning 29 sq km, which used to be the hunting grounds of the Maharajahs of Bharatpur, is home to hundreds of waterfowl.  In the 1980s, about a decade after it was declared a bird sanctuary, the area was closed to pastoralists who had been using the region as grazing grounds for their cattle for centuries.  ‘Buffaloes are bad for birds’, said the scientists and the politicians.  With the grazers gone, grasses took over the wetlands; this was really bad for the birds.  Now, people are paid to do the job of the buffaloes – to cut the grass and keep them low, so that the birds don’t desert the wetland, while the buffaloes probably have nothing to eat.

In north-east India, shifting cultivation, or jhum, has been the mainstay of people for centuries.  But in school (in the city of Bangalore, where few really know what ‘forest’ or ‘farming’ is), they had taught us that shifting cultivation is ‘bad’; ‘They burn forests’, my teachers told me.  But bad for whom, bad for what? Not for the forests, I later learnt*, not for the birds or the bamboo, not also for the people…  Secondary forests that take over old jhum lands are home to a diversity of birds and bamboo; the people get not just the produce of their crop, but much more from their jhum lands, like raw material to build their houses.  But the people of the North-East are told ‘Shifting cultivation is bad for forests’; instead, the government actively encourages them to cultivate plantations of oil palm and rubber, permanently replacing forests with green deserts.

Accurate identification of the problem is essential for long-term preservation of our rich natural heritage.  For, ‘The misapplication of effort is a very serious matter. Just hard work is not enough – it must be applied sensibly’**.

* Largely from conversations and talks, and essays (like this, this and this) by T R Shankar Raman on his research in the jhum landscape of Mizoram.

** Richard Hamming, in his talk ‘You and Your Research’, 1986, Bell Labs, USA.

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Science and caution

‘Ignorance is not an option’ declared the title of a recent Editorial in the journal, Science.  The Editorial starts with a hypothetical scenario where one country’s action, implemented in the face of seemingly insurmountable crises, puts other countries’ people and economies in jeopardy.  The author (Chair of the Geoengineering Climate Committee of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, and also the Editor-in-Chief of Science), cautions against premature attempts at artificially increasing the fraction of solar radiation reflected back into space (by spraying particles into the stratosphere, inspired by what naturally happens during volcanic eruption), as a quick-fix for global warming. It is a local action that can have global impacts: impacts that we cannot entirely foresee because we do not understand enough of the complex interlinked mesh of interactions of climate and the geophysical and biological world; and of science with politics, economics, society and law.

The same issue of Science carried a News Feature on the celebrated Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA.  Twenty years back, gray wolves, Yellowstone’s key predators that were hunted down to zero about a century ago, were reintroduced.  The effects of the reintroduction were rapid and immense: The population of elk that had taken over the ecosystem plummeted.  Willows that had been grazed to the ground by the elk resprouted.  With the willows, the beavers came back, with the beavers their dams, and the dams changed the hydrology of the region…  But before the reintroduction, all that was known was, as a scientist quoted in the Feature says, ‘ecological theory and how the bits and pieces are supposed to work’.  In other words, not much was known about the ‘complex interlinked mesh of interactions’ before the gray wolves were brought back to Yellowstone – the same situation as we are when we contemplate artificial cooling of the earth.  In fact, ecologists disagree about what exactly is happening even after the consequences of the reintroduction have played out, or indeed, if the ‘consequences’ were the result of the reintroduction!  One might argue that ignorance in this case was all right, because the wolf reintroduction affects just Yellowstone.  But even as scientists argue about ‘just how restored Yellowstone actually is’, predator reintroductions a la Yellowstone are being planned in other parts of the globe.

Early last month, there was a talk at NCBS by Arian Wallach, the Director of the Dingo for Biodiversity Project.  Dingoes in Australia have been persecuted for very long, very much like Yellowstone’s gray wolves.  Like the native elks in the US, Australia suffers from the impacts of introduced foxes and cats that are threatening populations of several native animals.  Currently, there is large scale killing of foxes and cats in a desperate attempt to conserve what is left of Australia’s native fauna.  Arian advocates an alternative method of reintroducing the dingo, like the wolves were in Yellowstone.  The hope is that the dingo will control fox and cat populations, and the native species will come back, like the willows and beavers did in Yellowstone.

It is amazing how much of an impact a good story can have.

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‘On nobody’s word’

Consider the following verses from Sanskrit and Halegannada (old Kannada) texts written in India about a millennium ago (translations mine):

If cucumber and ash gourd plants coated with honey and ghee are tied with a rope and smeared with cow dung, they will become one plant.  If their respective root and stem are cut off, the cucumber shoot that remains will bear fruits that resemble those of ash gourd. [Surapala’s Vrikshayurveda (10th century CE), verses 285-286]

Hmm… Interesting.  Doesn’t this remind one of grafting?

In a land where plants like sesame and black gram are sown and removed after they are full of flowers, in a land which is flat and beautiful should one sow seeds of trees. [Surapala’s Vrikshayurveda, verse 63]

 [And in another text, three centuries later]

 Sow black gram and sesame in a land that is even and well ploughed.  After they have grown well, uproot them and sow seeds of your choice. [Sharngadhara’s Upavana Vinoda (13th century CE), verse 50]

Well, that’s strange.  At least black gram has the goodness of being a legume, and may be beneficial to other plants grown in the same soil.  Why sesame?

Kapittha and bilva trees treated with ghee, jaggery, milk and honey and sprinkled with water will yield fleshy, seedless fruits, sweet as elixir, all the time. [Sharngadhara’s Upavana Vinoda, verse 156]

 That sounds fantastic.  Maybe they think the fruits will be sweet if the tree is treated with honey, just because honey is, you know.

 If new seeds of brinjal are deposited in an ash gourd fruit, and if the ash gourd seeds are collected and sown once the fruit ripens, surprisingly, the new ash gourd creeper bears brinjal fruits. [Chavundaraya’s Lokopakaram (11th century CE), verse 55] 

This is utterly impossible! Anyone with even a little common sense can immediately see such statements have no scientific basis whatsoever, and it’s our collective duty to trash them.

But wait a minute…  Let’s just ask ourselves how much time we have spent assessing the truth or otherwise of these verses. The answer, as far as I know, is zero.  A decade ago, Prof. K N Ganeshaiah asked the same question in his critique of an Editorial in the journal, Current Science. (The Editorial had appealed to Indian scientists to unite in opposing a move to introduce astrology in college curricula.)  This, of course, provoked a volley of letters where other Indian scientists expressed their anguish and incredulity at Prof. Ganeshaiah’s suggestion to ‘consider the possibilities of salvaging anything that may be of worth from these areas’ before we ‘hit the last nails on the coffins of these subjects’.  Most of these letters complained that the ancient Indians were ignorant of the modern scientific method, or that some of the things they said were ‘clearly’ improbable. Some plainly reflected the (rather insular) mentality of ‘Which self-respecting modern scientist would spend time testing the veracity of what ancient Indians had to say?’  To my mind, branding something as unscientific just for these reasons is itself rather unscientific.

The Royal Society of London, one of the most respected institutions of science, has as its motto ‘Nullius in verba’: ‘On nobody’s word’.  Ancient Indian knowledge must not be relegated to the bin without due experimentation and testing, based only on what a few modern scientists believe.

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Children of the Forest

The oxymoronic ‘one-day field work’ I’ve ended up doing in the Nilgiris for my PhD gives me a legitimate excuse to escape from the monotony of the lab in Bangalore, twice a month.  I never get tired of being in the refreshing, ever changing, magnificent bit of the Western Ghats where I’ve set up my experiments, or of listening to the non-stop chatter of my 20 year old field assistant, Susilan.

Susilan is a Kani tribal from Karayar; his village is embedded in tropical rainforests near the Kalakkad-Mundanturai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) [as an aside, here’s a lovely essay on KMTR].  Growing in the vicinity of forests has given him the uncanny ability to ‘know’ forests very quickly; within a month of coming to the Nilgiris to assist in my work, he already knew the location of many fruit trees, streams and hives full of wild honey, and the shortest route from one forest patch to the other.  From his stories, I‘ve gathered little bits of knowledge about many plants and animals, his people, their way of life, their relationship with the forest…

When I was in the Nilgiris a few days ago, Susilan had another set of stories to tell me.  He had just returned from their yearly ritual of trekking up Agastyamalai, through 100km of thick forests, to offer prayers at Sage Agastya’s shrine at the peak.  During the journey, the older members of the group narrated to him the legend about the origins of their tribe: The first Kanis were made by Lord Shiva to guard the forests in the southern end of the Western Ghats.  On the occasion of Shiva’s wedding with Parvathi, the daughter of the Himalayas, there were so many guests arriving at the bride’s home in the northern frontier that the subcontinent began to tip under their accumulated weight.  To re-establish balance, Shiva asked sage Agastya to travel to the south; he came to the land of the Kanis.  Now, the Kanis were a fun-loving sort, and they enjoyed playing pranks on Agastya, like bouncing sticks off the meditating sage’s head!  The infuriated sage reduced the first Kanis to ashes – all 38 of them.  Lord Shiva heard of this; he sent word to Agastya that he was planning to come to the south to visit his children, the Kanis!  The worried sage then re-created 38 people to replace the Kanis he had destroyed, just in time for Shiva’s arrival.  ‘So that’s why we now consider Agastya as our Father, and visit him every year’, Susilan said.

Our conversation then drifted to the present day Kanis, and his home in Karayar.  ‘A few years ago, there were some forest officials who promised us 10 lakh rupees if we went away from the forest; they don’t want us to live in the forests any more.  They said they’ll also give us some place to stay outside the forest.  But we refused.  What do we do after the 10 lakh is spent? Our people only know to use firewood for cooking; where’ll we find firewood in a city?’ Susilan asked.  Yes, and where will they find the fish, the plants and animals they’re used to? What will happen to their intimate knowledge of the forest, accumulated over time that goes beyond history?

Back in Bangalore, I am still thinking about Susilan’s story… Can one really claim to preserve the beauty of an epic intact, after tearing out the characters whose story it is?

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Preserving the preservers

Last week (early March 2015), science journals, both professional and popular, decried the funding cuts to Kew Gardens, considered the largest botanical repository in the world.  The Kew Gardens houses more than seven million plant and fungal specimens, and has been a Mecca of sorts for botanists around the world for about two and a half centuries now.  Budget cuts have led to cuts in many science posts, though this has not discouraged the Kew scientists from charting challenging and exciting plans for the next decade.

How important are places like Kew?  Repositories and museums, I think, have a two-fold utility: one is their function as preserves of knowledge (in terms of specimens, documents, artefacts, songs… anything!), that are important, rare or endangered in some way, and as places to create new knowledge building on the treasure trove of old preserved knowledge they have.  The other is their function as sources of inspiration – both to professionals already dedicated to the field and to others waiting for a spark to be lit.  There may be some intangible roles such institutions play as well.  The specimens preserved in these repositories may each have a story of their own – sometimes these are known, and the repositories indirectly preserve the stories for posterity as well.  And as the repositories grow older, they weave a history of their own around them, and this becomes a source of national pride and inspiration.  It then becomes all the more important to preserve them.

But ‘repositories’ need not necessarily be concrete buildings sheltering specimens.  The term could equally be used to signify a village with a certain skill, a forest, an individual tribe, or even a single person who holds some rare knowledge – maybe of plants, a certain language, or an art form…  ‘Preserving’ such repositories is often less thought about; languages and arts die with the last people who know them.  Investment of thought, effort and resources on preserving such repositories is, I think, extremely important.  One way to preserve such intangible cultural heritage* is to make sure the oldest form of preservation – where the older generation teaches the younger – continues.  Modern day education may have a role to play in this, by encouraging students to learn traditional art forms, by inculcating a sense of pride and ownership in them.  Another is to document such knowledge in as great detail as possible, and preserve them with the hope that someone in the future might help revive it. Preserving the preservers, or creating new ones, will go a long way in enriching knowledge, culture and, indeed, all humanity.

 * Thanks to Revathi Sampath Kumaran for this input.

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The ‘Wow!’ factor

Ants running treadmills, plants that can ‘strategize’, fungal cheats…  There is a kind of science that amazes anyone who encounters it: through the sheer ingenuity of the methods, the novelty of the results, and the mind-altering nature of their import.

Consider this for instance: some plants produce toxins to kill insects that chew on their leaves; but some species of insects have somehow learnt to circumvent the poison.  So these insects can do very well feeding on the plant, despite the toxin.  Right? Wrong! Prof. Ian Baldwin (in his talk at NCBS on 22nd Feb 2015) showed us videos of caterpillars on two wild tobacco plants, one that produces the toxin, and the other that has been genetically disarmed for the experiment.  A PhD student in the video, mimicking a predator, picks up the caterpillar from the genetically detoxified plant; the caterpillar fights back – a valiant warrior 3mm long, 1mm thick.  She does the same with the caterpillar on the toxin producing plant; the caterpillar goes limp, a picture of pathetic resignation.   It has spent all its energy detoxifying its food, and cannot fight back.  So though the caterpillar has very little competition for lunch, it has a very high probability of becoming lunch itself! You can imagine the plant laughing in the background.

Prof. Baldwin’s talk reminded me of another fascinating talk I attended a few years ago, by Prof. Bert Holldobler.  Among other things, Holldobler’s group explores the chemical language of the ants.  They find out which among the millions of mixed chemicals elicits certain behaviour among the ants; ants following a trail towards a food source for instance.  Prof. Holldobler showed us a video too: after much extraction, purification, short listing and further purification of chemicals, the researchers make a paper highway for the ants, and spray the suspect chemical on it.  The ants walk the paper highway like they were hypnotized.  Well, clearly, the chemical was telling them ‘Breakfast this way’!  He showed us how scientists had poured tonnes of concrete into an ant colony, and excavated it to reveal the giant structure in all its mind-blowing, intricate beauty (Yes, I feel sorry for the poor ants, but it was fascinating all the same!).  He showed us another experiment where ants walk a treadmill and lightly step on a tiny circle that records their weight before returning to their colony in the lab.  There was a hushed chorus from the audience, ‘Wow!’.

What makes these experiments so magical? Perhaps it is the simplicity and elegance of the methods, the clarity of the results, the many further questions that spring up in thinking minds because of them.  But the ‘Wow!’ factor is hard to get; the real story of the experiments – the failures, struggles, many hours of patient toil – are hidden, untold.  As Prof. Holldobler says in an interview, ‘When you hear me talk, it sounds all so straightforward. This is always deceiving. If I would tell you how we came to do this experiment, it would be very boring for you’.

But it is these stories of passion, drive and wonderful discovery that inspire people to devote their lives for science.

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Thoughts on Indian university education

The lady sitting next to me was very upset.  Prof. Balaram’s first slide in his talk on ranking institutions (at the Indian Institute of Science on 21st Feb 2015) had headlines from various dailies screaming that the Indian Institute of Science had slipped by over 100 ranks in global university rankings.  The lady is just one more in a long line of people, including the President of India, who are dissatisfied with Indian higher education.

Many things make rankings dubious, as Prof. Balaram pointed out.  There are commercial interests. Universities are compared outside of the social, cultural and economic matrix they are embedded in.  The formulae for institution rankings include other indices (such as impact factors of publications) which may not necessarily reflect the merit of the academic output from the faculty and students.  Some locally relevant and critical research conducted in these institutions may not be included in the calculations…

But why is there so much discontent about university education? There is the normal human tendency, fuelled by vanity maybe, to always want ‘ours’ to be considered the ‘best’ – everyone complains that Indian universities do not feature in the top 100 (how these calculations are done, whether it is fair to compare Indian institutions to those in the US, and whether Indian institutions rank highly in some areas like chemistry, do not bother the majority).  Then, there is dissatisfaction within the institutes themselves: the faculty are not happy with the administration; the students are not happy with the faculty…  Even the best ‘ranked’ Universities are often just places to hold exams, ‘degree granting devices’.

But just over 50 years ago, Universities in India were very different places – students learnt under ‘stalwarts’, dedication and a certain commitment to perfection were considered essential, they were ‘happening’ places.  Prof. L. S. Seshagiri Rao’s description of Central College in Bangalore during the 1940s and 50s (in his interview in The Hindu on 20th Feb 2015) is an example.  Such places did not have to be ‘ranked’; everyone somehow knew they were great, everyone was satisfied.  As I read Prof. LSS’s description of his student days, what came to my mind was Tagore’s famous poem – ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…’; fifty years hence, maybe Indian Universities have somehow got stuck in the ‘dreary desert sand of dead habit’.  Fifty years hence, what is so different?  I asked Prof. Balaram.  He wrote back, ‘Even as the pool of dedicated and talented teachers has shrunk with each succeeding generation, the number of institutions providing higher education has increased exponentially. There are too few inspirational teachers, distributed across a very broad range of different institutions. It is improbable that today’s students will have an educational experience that will match Seshagiri Rao’s.’

So which way should Indian higher education go? Perhaps, as Prof. Balaram says, the way out is for young, dedicated people to choose to teach.  But, as the Cheshire cat says to Alice, the way also ‘depends on where you are going’.

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