Apart from conventional teachers we have some unorthodox ones amid us now who must get recognition and appreciation
We have different categories of teachers, depending upon the stages in our lives and the vocations we pursue. So, we have school teachers, lecturers, professors, research guides, trainers, instructors, tutors, coaches, mentors and so on. However, we have another set of teachers who don’t qualify in the strict sense, yet impart valuable lessons. The most important among them are parents. The foundations of intellectual, emotional and ethical grooming in a child are laid at home by the parents. In a joint family even grandparents play a positive roles as guides.
Again, at workplaces, bosses, seniors, corporate leaders are another set of educators. Equipped with knowledge, skills, expertise and experience, they often act as advisors, counsellors or mentors and help their juniors and colleagues progress in their careers.
Then, we have religious and spiritual gurus who preach from the scriptures and holy texts and offer guidance to their disciples and others on how to lead life well. However, apart from these obvious ones, we have some unorthodox and unconventional teachers amid us now who must get recognition and appreciation.
Children: In the digital age, it is important to be familiar with new age systems, processes and apps. Be it the smartphone, internet, video-conferencing/chatting, video games and other modern gadgets, we need to learn their operations to use them. These learnings help in vital activities like money transfer, booking tickets, ordering food or non-food items, or viewing streaming channels, all of which are now increasingly done online. In adaptation to new learnings, age being a factor, children have a distinct edge. They quickly adapt and learn. Their aptitude, familiarity and knowledge of the digital and online platforms are now much in demand at home, all the more during the lockdown. As digital tutors, they offer lessons to their grandparents, parents and senior citizens to make them digital savvy. Indeed, without their hand-holding, many of the older generation find themselves handicapped in adjusting to the virtual space.
Social media: We have been used to learning the dos and don’ts from the traditional set of teachers, professional or otherwise. Now WhatsApp, Facebook and so on are potent learning platforms where we get free advice on topics ranging from money, health, nutrition, fitness, to culinary arts, home décor, farming to even immunity boosting during the pandemic. The medium being popular, all these tips and learnings are widely read, shared and followed. The social media platform, as a teacher, is helping us to learn and share information. The only caveat is the tips or instructions need to be followed by us with fact-checks, particularly in the matter of health.
Siri and Alexa: Digital Voice Assistants like Siri and Alexa are the new teachers in the digital sphere. Like a friend, kids can unhesitatingly ask anything they want to know from Siri and Alexa. Not surprising, devices with Digital Voice Assistants are being installed even in remote tribal areas to infuse fun and excitement in learning and improve school enrolments. In smart classrooms, the Digital Voice Assistants act as the teacher. In the future, such devices and AI-assisted humanoid robots, as smart, interesting and trendy teachers, are likely to gain more popularity among children and schools.
Nature: Mother Nature has always been part of our existence. But we have forgotten to look at nature as a “healer” and “teacher” up until recently. Now, with the adverse effects of climate change ravaging us, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, we are realising the hard way the critical importance of nature as our sustainer, healer and teacher. In the collective confinement, we found to our great relief how nature is our constant friend and can lift our hearts and give us so much joy. It would indeed have been much tougher to deal with the pandemic, hadn’t nature been around us.
Nature teaches us the rhythms and cycles of life, selfless giving, continuous growth and generation, and the essence of sustainability, harmony and oneness. It also teaches us to consume wisely and responsibly. Now in close communion with nature, thankfully, we have discovered a friend, philosopher and guide.
Pandemic: Life itself is a teacher and we always knew that. But now, a catastrophe unleashed by the Coronavirus is teaching us novel lessons in life. Starting from coping with crippled businesses, loss of livelihood to handling enforced loneliness, an emotional see-saw, topsy-turvy routines, we are learning unique lessons and reinventing ourselves. The crisis has taught us to appreciate nature, create new networks, leverage the virtual world, look for new engagements, explore new hobbies, pursue passions, experiment with new ways and ideas, act collectively for the common good, and, last but not the least, to have a better world view and perspective. Welcome to all these unconventional teachers.
(The writer is former General Manager, Bank of India, Learning and Development and an author)
When faced with an existential crisis during the pandemic, primary education for children inadvertently doesn’t make it to the priority list
Ankita Ramteke,13, who lives in Bhandara, a small district town in Maharashtra, waits for a text message regarding a fund transfer on her mother’s archaic Nokia 1100 every month, waiting for her share of happiness that would mean another month of remaining in school and learning the things she loves. But who is Ankita? As of now she is a blip in this world, an invisible demographic detail who sits like an ornament on all Grameen Foundation of India’s (GFI’s) endless pleas and presentations. As long as the benevolent donors continue to sponsor her education, Ankita and her needs won’t be looked upon as a liability by her family. But truth be told, girls like Ankita accumulate a growth and nutrition deficit in the formative years of their lives. By the time they reach adulthood, aspirational deficit is systematically inculcated in their psyche, leading to another much graver deficit: Ambition. Most of the families living on the margins of poverty in any part of the country are usually just one health shock away from being sucked into the poverty trap all over again. Traditional gender norms and the lack of a consistent income source in Ankita’s family have pushed her to become a full-time care giver leading to irregular attendance in school. If not addressed, it will lead to her eventual dropping out of school altogether. But Ankita is not alone. Today, 62.1 million children in India are out of school. For every 100 elementary schools in rural India, there are just 14 offering secondary and only six schools offering higher secondary grades. Not to forget that most of the secondary schools are private ones, with exorbitant fees.
COVID-19 has brought an unprecedented crisis with devastating consequences for the girls of the country. A survey of vulnerable households revealed that 60 per cent mothers, who either worked in the farms or as housemaids, haven’t earned any salary in the last five months and 67 per cent of the fathers, who worked as daily wagers, are not just struggling financially but are also feeling emotionally drained. As much as 33 per cent of the families talked about pressing mental health issues plaguing children as well as adults in the household. Under these trying circumstances, it is very difficult for families to focus on the education of their children, particularly the girl child. However, there are always some who break the mould. For instance, 12-year-old Shrawani Choudhari’s parents dipped into all of their savings to buy their daughter a smartphone, so that she could continue her studies. “Our collective income has gone down in the last six months. I am out of work, while my wife is now working in only two houses as a maid, as opposed to eight houses before the pandemic”, says Choudhari, a daily wage worker in Bhandara. While we are witnessing an avalanche of innovative ideas being tried in the rural hinterland to help such marginalised children continue their education, the cost of smartphones, aka “dream enablers” in the post-pandemic world, remains an uphill task.
Most of these households in Bhandara have witnessed reverse migration. Family members who were working in big cities had returned because of lack of opportunities owing to the lockdown. “I stayed back in Mumbai even after the lockdown was imposed because I thought that when this gets over, they will need people like me to finish their work. But they still haven’t opened the factories and most of the acquaintances from my village have now gone back to farming”, says 39-year-old Ramesh Banapurkar, a father of three. It is no surprise then that the situation of primary and secondary education in Nawada is abysmal. With Government schools shut, children in these schools haven’t seen a book since March. Some cash support from donors has helped some of these families to sail through in this time and others to revive their small businesses. Some have even used the money to invest in Personal Protective Equipment for the elders in the family, but none of these families have invested in their child’s education, yet. Simply because it’s not a priority. Nawada, located between the historical districts of Nalanda and Gaya, is one the poorest districts in Bihar. The per capita income of Nawada is Rs 9,560, which is one-seventh of that in State capital Patna. The Scheduled Castes, the forgotten people standing at the bottom of the economic pyramid, are facing an unparalleled struggle. Acute caste discrimination and the pandemic-induced unemployment have left them far more vulnerable. Agriculture is the mainstay for 78 per cent of Nawada’s population and a significant chunk of youth is forced to migrate to cities in search of livelihood. The reverse migration back to smaller districts like Nawada has put unprecedented pressure on these migrants, who are now living in their homes in extreme poverty and without even basic amenities. When faced with an existential crisis, primary education for children inadvertently doesn’t make it to the priority list.
(Bhattacharyya is Manager, Communications and Deo is Senior Programme Manager, Grameen Foundation India)
There needs to be a sustained campaign to spread awareness about water reuse, recycling and conservation
The provision of safe water is essential to protect humans from waterborne diseases. Sadly, more than 600 million Indians are facing high to extreme water stress and 75 per cent of households do not have drinking water, according to the NITI Aayog. At least 163 million people are without access to treated piped water and approximately 70 per cent of the water supply is contaminated, resulting in nearly 2,00,000 deaths each year. India ranks 120th out of 122 nations in the water quality index.
This disproportionate water access, especially in rural areas and peri-urban slums, demands the creation of drinking water security, especially for women and girls who are burdened with the responsibility of collecting water for their families. According to a report, Small Water Enterprises: Transforming Women from Water Carriers to Water Entrepreneurs 2019, which was released at the World Water Week organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) in Stockholm, women collect as much as 80 per cent of water consumed by households, in addition to their other responsibilities.
The report has been prepared by Safe Water Network India, an NGO working with USAID. The report further reveals that India has a dismal gender empowerment record and is currently ranked 108th out of 149 countries. Domestically, women are grossly under-represented in the Indian economy, comprising only 26 per cent of the workforce. It would be pertinent to note that globally, women spend over 200 million hours collecting water daily.
Under the Jal Jeevan Mission scheme, around 84.83 lakh rural households were provided with tap connections. Post the Corona unlocking, around 45 lakh tap connections have been provided so far. On an average, daily about one lakh households are being provided with tap connections across the country. Although the scheme promises piped water in every rural household by 2024, unfortunately most of the water systems are rife with operational issues due to poor maintenance. While the Government has set itself a target of providing treated and safe 24x7 piped water supply at 135 litres per capita per day (LPCD) in the cities, its efforts are hampered by raw water availability, a debilitated and old piped water supply infrastructure and the inability to create new infrastructure in slums.
The global decentralised water market is expected to grow to $22 billion by the end of 2021. Most community water players are currently focussing on the drinking water market as it represents the highest yield per litre compared to other end-use applications. According to Frost and Sullivan, smart Internet of Things (IoT) and digitised sustainable solutions will be the two major growth drivers in the water industry in the future.
For 2020-21, a sum of Rs 23,500 crore has been allocated for the implementation of the Jal Jeevan Mission. Under this scheme, rural women will be trained to test water quality, repair hand pumps and fix broken taps. Women will also be trained to test piped water for biological and chemical contamination and use field test kits to know the extent of contamination. The Ministry of Jal Shakti has tied up with the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Kendra for skilling women so that they can participate at all levels, starting from planning to implementation, management, operation and maintenance of the in-village water supply.
However, safe water is a collective mission. We need to recognise the role of Small Water Enterprises (SWEs), decentralised water treatment plants that provide 24x7 affordable safe water, also called Water ATMs, as integral sources to mitigate the issue of poor water quality while providing affordable safe drinking and cooking water reliably. We need to understand that SWEs are cost-effective and can provide customisable drinking water solutions specifically at places where flagship Government schemes such as the Jal Jeevan Mission cannot reach or are yet to reach.
Water is an integral part of our lives and SWEs should be recognised as a support to the Government. They not only provide livelihood but also save lives and contribute to the economy. The lockdown following the Coronavirus outbreak has hugely impacted operations of the SWEs located in rural and urban India. The inability to set up new plants, the reduced consumer footfall, affected distribution systems, delay in resolving technical issues due to restrictions on movement, and the consequent loss of revenue for local entrepreneurs as well as on-cost recovery on operations are some of the major challenges faced by SWEs.
Although, post-lockdown, footfall has increased, consumption has reduced, leading to sustainability challenges. Financial sustainability has become the most important determinant for the survival and scaling up of SWEs as water is priced within certain socio-economic parameters to reach all.
Although there is a provision for the private sector to invest in SWEs, this brings its own set of challenges such as delayed infrastructure delivery, complex institutional frameworks with multiple regulatory authorities, politicians offering free water leading to lower probabilities of recovering capital investment, and high operating costs. Reforms are required at the policy and implementation levels. There is an increasing need for holistic collaboration with the Government in terms of technology, monetary and resource-sharing partnerships, single window clearance and development of an ecosystem.
“There should be GST exemption on equipment and water delivery services for cost-effective operations. Further, Corporate Social Responsibility funds should be allocated towards strengthening decentralised community water systems,” says Madhu Krishnamoorthy, Head of Business Development, WaterHealth India. The critical role of SWEs in providing access to water needs to be acknowledged besides a sustained campaign to spread awareness about water reuse, recycling and conservation. The SWEs can make a lasting social and economic impact by improving health, creating jobs, improving vocational skills and bringing new technologies to bridge the existing gaps in the water supply chain.
(The writer is vice-president, Safe Water Network)
When it comes to making decisions related to the environment, babus are given preference over tribal communities, even though the latter are better at looking at the environment t than the former.
According to Niti Aayog’s report, ‘Composite Water Management Index, 2018’, 60 crore people in the country are facing “high to higher” levels of water shortage. Due to the lack of clean drinking water, two lakh people die every year. Further, the report stated that 54 per cent of India’s groundwater sources and wells are drying up and groundwater is expected to perish in 21 major cities by 2020. All across the country, around 11 States are already reeling under water disputes. Take, for example, the Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and the Narmada water dispute.
Topping it all, Delhi’s air is not at safe to breathe. Besides, 26 States believe that desertification is growing at a fast pace. Approximately 30 percent of the country has come under the scope of desertification where dust storms are rising at an alarming rate. Forests are being wiped out in the name of development and industrialisation. Not to forget, our rivers, forests and mountains are constantly being wiped out for economic development, even as Government policies are not up to the mark and will surely take us towards death.
It’s almost since ancient times that the tribal community have played a major role in forest conservation. It is a pity that they have been left out of the mix. Of course, laws are being formulated but we are certainly churning out our responsibilities. The question that then arises are many: Is it possible to preserve our environment/biodiversity by boycotting the tribal society? What is the purpose of the Indian Forest Law of 1927? Why was the Wildlife Protection Act enacted in 1972? And what was the motive behind creating the Environment Protection Act, 1976?
Further, who destroyed the forests and why? Who killed the cheetahs? Who is responsible for tigers reaching the brink of extinction? Hunting was a form of entertainment for the Rajas (kings), Diwans (Kings Ministers) and Zamindars (landlords). On the walls of their palaces hung trophies of tigers, cheetahs, leopards and antelopes. The communities living in the tribal belts or jungles are not the only ones to hunt for animals as a hobby. In view of protecting the social, economic and cultural rights of the tribals and other forest dwellers across the country, the Parliament formulated the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
This statute says that individual and community rights of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers who cultivate by acquiring first forest land before December 2005 will be recognised. The law says that during the colonial era and while integrating State forests in independent India, forest rights and their habitat were not adequately recognised on their ancestral land, resulting in those tribes and other residents living in the forest. Historically, injustice has been done to forest dwellers, who are integral to saving and maintaining forest ecosystems.
But the experience of 12 years of implementation of this law suggests that the State system has not felt the sentiments of this confession made in the law; rather it has wandered from the goal. This statute gives the right to use and conserve community forest resources to the Gram Sabha, ie the direct role of the community. At the same time, there is a provision in this also that the Gram Sabha has the right to set up a committee for conservation of wildlife, forests and biodiversity and take its responsibility.
On September 22, 2015, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs had written to the chief secretaries of all States and had stressed that there is a need to run a campaign to recognise community forest rights. Although, the process of recognising individual rights has succeeded to some extent, but this process on community forest resource rights is weak. These rights are very important because these resources play an important role in securing the lives and livelihoods of 20 million forest based communities.
Forest Rights Law explains the Residential Rights (Habitat Rights, which means, not only the right to housing, but also the right to a holistic environment). On April 23, 2015, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (Government of India) told all the State Governments that they should be used for residential rights of the most vulnerable tribal communities (traditional housing, livelihoods, social, economic, spiritual, sacred, religious and other works), and to make extensive efforts to recognise it. It is important to mention that the traditional tribal communities have been creating their own system in their respective realm. It is the responsibility of the state to preserve its surroundings.
The forest department established by the British Government in India believed that tribal communities only suffer the loss of forests, biodiversity and wildlife. They were not ready to accept the fact that the Vanvasi community had been living on the principle of ‘coexistence’ with the forest, within the forests for thousands of years. It is a good feeling for the community that destruction of natural resources means destruction of their own. They have been monitoring the forest like it is their God. Why would such a society destroy the environment? We all know that the list of the richest ten thousand people in the world will probably not be the name of one of the tribal families!
(Courtesy: Charkha Features)
Writer: Sachin Kumar Jain
Courtesy: The Pioneer
Yet another savage outcome of human-elephant conflict in Kerala must propel us to get our act together. If not, animals will perish along with the environment
The murder of a pregnant elephant, which died in the Velliyar river in Kerala’s Mannarkkad forest division in Palakkad district on May 27, must rank among the cruellest killings of animals ever. According to the post-mortem report, the immediate cause of her death was drowning. Before that, she could not eat or drink for nearly 14 days following an explosion in her mouth that inflicted major, incapacitating wounds in the oral cavity. “This”, the report reads, “resulted in excruciating pain and distress in the region and prevented the animal from taking food and water for nearly two weeks. Severe debility and weakness, in turn, resulted in a final collapse in water that led to drowning.”
According to Kumar Chellappan’s report in The Pioneer of June 6, the elephant was injured as she tried to eat a coconut that had been stuffed with explosives to kill wild boars that ate up crops. The report further stated that the police had arrested P Wilson, a tapper in a rubber plantation, the previous day and were looking for the plantation’s owners, Abdul Kareem and his son Riyazuddin, and had charged all three of them under various sections of the Kerala Forest Act and the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Wilson has reportedly admitted that he had filled a coconut with explosives and placed it in the plantation to kill wild boars that regularly devoured/destroyed crops. According to reports, Wilson, following interrogation, had taken police and forest department officials to a shed inside the plantation, where the explosives had been worked on, and some remnants were found. In the event, instead of a wild boar, an elephant bit into the fruit.
A word of caution. Before bursting into a round of applause for the police, one should remember that the accused are yet to be convicted and adequately sentenced. Since Indian elephants (Elephas maximus) feature in Part I (mammals), Schedule I, of the Wildlife Protection Act, their hunting “in a sanctuary or a national park” can lead to imprisonment of up to seven years and a “fine which shall not be less than ten thousand rupees.”
The award of the maximum punishment will depend on successful prosecution in courts, which, in turn, would depend on convincingly marshalling and weaving evidence into unfolding arguments. This implies thorough investigation and reflection thereon. This aspect needs to be emphasised as the Kerala Government’s and local bodies’ record in protecting animals and bringing their murderers and tormentors to book is by no means exemplary. In some cases, they are guilty of condoning or even sanctioning killing.
In fact, one wonders whether the Kerala Government would have ordered an investigation into the present case and made the kind of serious efforts it has to arrest the culprits, had the media not taken it up so strongly and waves of shock and anger not swept the country. Another female elephant had died in April in the Pathanapuram forest range area under Punalur division in Kollam district after trying to eat an explosive-laden fruit. It was, according to forest officers, treated adequately but in vain. The incident did not find any coverage in the national media until anger exploded over the pregnant elephant’s murder and was only mentioned in passing in a couple of reports even after that. An investigation has been ordered but nothing like the efforts made following the death of the pregnant elephant has been launched.
Poaching is rampant in the area. According to a report by Vinod Mathew in The Print (datelined June 5), 24 wild elephants have died of unnatural causes like poaching in the last five years in Kerala. If the Government was serious about stamping out the menace, it would have made recognisably determined efforts to bring the guilty to book in every case of elephant killing like the one in April. Besides, a telling commentary on the state of affairs in Kerala is the almost casual mention in several post-Palakkad death media reports that the explosive-laden coconut that killed the elephant was targetted at wild boars destroying crops.
Two points need to be made here. First, such savage killing of no animal can be justified. Second, the Kerala Government had permitted the killing of wild boars in May. The Print report cited above quotes Dr Asha Thomas, Additional Chief Secretary, Forest and Wildlife, Kerala Government, as saying, “There have been periodic demands from farmers that they be allowed to protect their crop and given the right to shoot wild boars. About a month ago, a Government order was issued that allowed the shooting of wild boars, subject to a number of clauses.” The clauses, according to her, included “certification by the local authorities that an area is suffering crop loss on account of sustained attack by wild boars and so on.” She added, “And once the permission is granted, only someone from an empanelled group of licenced firearm owners would be allowed to shoot. So far we have had only one such case.”
P Wilson, who allegedly stuffed explosives in the coconut that killed the pregnant elephant, as well as the two other accused in the case, Abdul Kareem and Riyazuddin, had, if the allegations against them are correct, either not heard about the conditions governing the killing of wild boars or thought these could be ignored with impunity. One needs hardly to be surprised if the latter has been the case. According to a report in the NDTV (June 5) by Sneha Mary Koshy (edited by Deepshikha Ghosh), villagers in the region often used firecrackers or explosives stuffed in food to protect their fields from wild animals like boar and the horrific practice had been widely condemned. Obviously, however, such condemnation had not led to deterrent punishments of the kind that would have halted the three accused in their tracks.
It is certainly important to protect crops. The need to do so, however, can also be cited as an excuse. A report by Adam Withnall in The Independent of the United Kingdom datelined June 5 quotes Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of the NGO Wildlife SOS, as saying that farmers continued to use “crude and inhumane” methods like fruit bombs “on the pretext of crop protection… despite crop compensation schemes available from the forest department”. According to a report by Shaji Phillips in The Indian Express of June 6, the Mannarkkad range forest officer, Ashique Ali U, in charge of probing the Palakkad killing case, said that the accused were in the habit of hunting wild animals and selling their meat. This, if true, would junk any claim that they were trying to protect their crops.
There are multiple reasons for growing elephant-human conflict. In many cases, humans are guilty of wanton provocation. This is clear from a report, datelined May 18, 2019, by Birdie Witten in the Mirror, the United Kingdom, which was brought to the notice of this writer by Sonia Jabbar, who runs a successful elephant conservation programme in North Bengal. The report is about a mother elephant, which had given birth near the dry bed of a lake, trying to get her newborn baby to stand, while a crowd of villagers watched and took photographs. Increasingly indicating her irritation through movements, she finally charged at the crowd as the latter started throwing stones at her and killed a 27-year-old man. Ten other elephants appeared in the area shortly afterwards, causing panic.
This incident happened in West Bengal. Kerala is not the only State where elephants are maltreated. In the last couple of days, three elephants were apparently poisoned to death in Chhattisgrah. Such crimes are becoming increasingly frequent throughout the country because human encroachment into animal habitats is growing, thanks to a swelling population. It is not just new farms and human settlements but the entire range of projects — roads, rail tracks, power transmission lines, mines, industrial plants — undertaken in the name of a skewed concept of development catering to advertisement-driven compulsive consumption. Animals will perish and the environment ruined if the process continues unreformed. Finally, with their supportive linkages of life forms gone, humans will face extinction.
(Writer: Hiranmay Karlekar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)
Wildlife parks across India have been told to keep a close watch on tiger clusters and report any abnormal behaviour
As if the human dimension of the crisis was not enough, turns out the zoonotic Coronavirus is now affecting the animal world and is jumping from its human host. Sometime ago, Hong Kong had reported the case of a dog owner passing on the virus to his pet which died. But reports were contradictory, claiming that the dog could have also died of old age. Be that as it may, the virus strain, which has been traced genetically to a pangolin at a wildlife market in China, is now jumping from humans to other animals. Following reports that a tiger at Bronx Zoo in New York tested COVID-19 positive because of his asymptomatic handler, India, too, has kept its zoos, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves on the “highest” alert, asking authorities to watch the big cats on a 24x7 basis for any abnormal behaviour and take “immediate preventive measures to stop transmission and spread of the virus from human to animals and vice versa.” With 2,967 tigers, India is currently home to 75 per cent of the global tiger population. Of course, the national lockdown has meant that there is no tourist traffic at our sanctuaries but forest and zoo staff would have to be particularly careful about not spreading the virus in case one among them is remotely affected. Just two days ago, there were reports of how inmates of the Delhi zoo were feeling spirited and free without human spectators. Reports have come in of how penguins had been let loose to meet their other aquatic friends at a US water park. Perhaps, this is a reminder for us that we need to leave the animals in the wild as our proximity to them now is threatening their existence. In fact, the rapid inter-species jump of the virus in such a short time indicates how lethal it can become in threatening existence as we knew it.
This news has predictably sent alarm bells ringing across the globe, especially among pet owners, wondering if they should stay away from their furry friends in case of an infection. The standard distancing protocols hold good for animals as well. But then there is another fear of pets getting infected somehow externally and transmitting the virus to their owners, which has already resulted in a lot of pet abandonment in the US. The Bronx zoo went so far as to say that there is “no evidence that animals play a role in the transmission of COVID-19 to people other than the initial event in the Wuhan market, and no evidence that any person has been infected with COVID-19 in the US by animals, including by pet dogs or cats.” The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has also claimed that there is no evidence of a pet anywhere in the world transmitting COVID-19 to a person, a fact corroborated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), too. The outbreaks happening now are the result of people passing the virus to one another. Also, various pets have reacted differently to an infection of their owners. Turns out it was in Hong Kong again that one pet was infected by his owner but another dog living in the same home didn’t. More pet cats have been affected though. In fact, they might be more susceptible to COVID-19 than dogs, according to one study conducted in China. As part of experiments, researchers placed infected domestic cats next to cats that were not infected. The researchers later found that one of the previously healthy cats caught the virus after being near the infected felines, most likely through respiratory droplets. Dogs in the study, on the other hand, seemed to be more resistant to the virus and did not pass it to one another. There was no evidence that the cats shed enough of the virus to give it to people. But the study has not been reviewed and had a very limited sample size. Besides, they were given high doses of the virus and all the human-transmitted cases of pets have shown a weakened strain. These are not real life scenarios, according to virologists. At the moment, it is only us who are posing a threat to the animal world. Looks like the animals we claimed and confined on our terms need to be freed from ourselves.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)
Wild animals straying into city streets during the lockdown show how we have stifled our biodiversity
They say the Coronavirus is Nature’s way of reclaiming its space on its terms for all the degradation of its splendour and resources by humans. So cities across India, that are at a standstill, with no vehicles or people across vast swathes, are witnessing unfamiliar sights of wild animals straying from the natural sanctuaries they have sought out around the peripheries. From Italy to Japan to Thailand and even in India, the roads, that perhaps were once their transit corridors, are now part of their return journeys. In Japan, herds of sika deer, that you got to see only at the tourist hotspot called Nara Park, were seen wandering the streets. In Italy, one of the worst-hit countries by COVID-19, people spotted sheep and horses wandering around without a shepherd or rider. In Spain, more wild boars are having a free run in quiet, deserted streets. Back home, too, there are plenty of videos of animals frolicking on city roads. In Punjab’s Chandigarh, a sambar deer was seen walking on a zebra crossing. And in northern Kerala’s Kozhikode, the critically endangered civet, a species not seen since the 1990s, casually strolled past police patrol. Closer home, in Noida, nilgais are literally wandering the street in front of an otherwise busy mall. In the mornings, the twitter of the heron, the mynah and unseen birds soothes our souls.
While the wild animals may be testing newer territories, most of the urban species like street dogs, cats, monkeys and stray cows are not having it so good. Dependent on food waste generated by eateries and restaurants and home clearances limited in a time of crisis, these creatures are going hungry. Except for some samaritans, city animals and birds have been forced to fend for themselves foraging in garbage dumps. They are also a vulnerable lot as they could get the virus from humans instead. We cannot ignore them as they are part of our eco-system too. This is our wake-up call, for co-existence, co-dependence and the dire need to reverse our relationship with the sentient world. We care little for the natural world though ancient texts tell us about protecting and nurturing every creature or jiva, not exploiting them selfishly. Can a Coronavirus-free world ensure that endangered species do not go extinct? Can we limit indiscriminate human action that is causing much damage to the entire ecosystem and biodiversity? Can our cities develop mini sanctuaries and forests within them so that the animal world can thrive? Predatory food chain behaviour is not working, we must change that to accommodating the lesser species for our well-being.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)
As India aims to acquire better global rankings, policymakers must develop regional centres of excellence in education based on local trends, proclivities, resources and history
British educationist Alick Maclean undertook arguably one of the earliest attempts at producing a university ranking system. Maclean’s study Where We Get Our Best Men (1900), which betrays the late Victorian England’s obsession with its own laurels, remained unnoticed outside the university circuits in England. However, more than a hundred years later, the context, connotations and the scope of such rankings have changed dramatically. With the inclusion of higher education as an “internationally traded” service in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), universities have become commodities that must sell to sustain themselves in a globally-competitive education industry. Rankings are loudly advertised and have become the very touchstone of marketability. Even in a welfare State like India, where the bulk of higher education is Government-aided and therefore beyond the pale of market vagaries, there has been, of late, a near-feverish fixation with rankings. And while (because) Indian universities weren’t performing too well at Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) or Webometrics world rankings, we introduced leagues of our own in the form of National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). To many of the stakeholders, “ranking” is an unwarranted western import which puts the institutions of developing countries at a natural disadvantage.
With their emphasis on measuring research output in terms of publications in English language journals, the global system of accreditation perpetuates the dominance of Anglo-American and to a lesser extent, European institutions. Besides the system of peer-review and mutual-referencing aren’t the most transparent of academic practices. Since the Government appears keen on incrementally linking an institution’s domestic and international standings with the volume and the manner of funding, some even suspect that the entire hoopla is a decoy for privatisation. And then there are those critics who believe that at a time when the majority of university graduates, as highlighted in the Government’s own findings, are unemployable, our pursuit of global stature reeks of waylaid competitive nationalism, hollow chest-thumping and the general lethargy of a stagnated eduction sector. They argue, with some merit, that it would profit the universities more if the staff are mobilised towards research and teaching instead of tedious report compilation. Till a few years ago, before the launch of NAAC and NIRF, many believed that better rankings accrue from user-friendly websites and perception management.
Under the circumstances, quality becomes a procedural casualty and our estimation of a university’s true worth, based on a set of universal parameters, remains delusional and misleading. For example, in several assessment paradigms, the share of international faculty and foreign students substantially propels an institution’s ranking. While this may not be the strength of Indian universities, not many countries of the world can boast of a higher education system which is more committed to affirmative action and social inclusion, than our own.
The massification of education and steep rise in enrollment rates may not deliver immediate dividends but these steps will see India rise as a leader in research and development (R&D) in times to come. Fortunately, the NIRF identifies an institution’s inclusivity at the levels of region, class, gender and physical disability as a parameter in quality assessment. But there are, as yet, no points for diversity in faculty.
As India aims to overhaul its higher education infrastructure through a New Education Policy (NEP), creating world-class institutes of eminence (IoEs) and acquiring better global rankings appear to be two of the priorities. It is expected that resources generated through public private partnership (PPP) and introduction of industry-centric courses will provide stimulus to these enterprises. The Ministry of Human Resource Development’s (MHRD) pitch for IoEs encourages international outreach. Under the scheme, the 16 designate institutions have been empowered to collaborate with foreign universities and recruit up to 25 per cent of their total faculty strength from outside India.
The success of the much-touted ‘Study in India’ campaign, too, is largely hinged on our ability to create IoEs and secure better ranking. The campaign, if successful, will not only bring revenue but the increase in the number of offshore students would also improve our global stature. The degree of internationalisation of higher education, which is partly consequent upon global ranking, will certainly augment India’s soft power. The Government’s website on the initiative lists instruction in English medium, the size of India’s market, recent start-up culture and pluralist campuses as our strengths. But when we leverage our educational infrastructure to entice the global student community, we need to ask the following question: who are we inviting to study in India and what do we have to offer? Given India’s financial constraints and our social commitment to bring the majority into the fold of higher education, planners and policymakers will have to make a series of difficult choices. They will have to choose between scaling a few hand-picked institutions to global stature and making the majority of Central/State universities competitive with respect to education infrastructure in Asia and Africa. Let us not forget that as of now, Indian universities cater mostly to students from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries.
In some cases, to the wealthy South Koreans and Africans, too. In terms of their preferred academic destinations in India, these foreign students choose mostly institutions located in metropolitan centres. Therefore, we also need to choose between buttressing the existing patterns of student-inflow and creating regionally diverse centres of learning. Further, we have to decide between promoting subjects which feed the local industry and those that are most sought after in the target countries. If we are to invite students to study in India, when the domestic expectation itself is of a cosmic proportion, we must think of ways of marrying the two prerogatives. A balance must be struck between the strategic need to invite foreign students and delivering on the moral imperatives of the State.
Policymakers need to think of developing regional centres of excellence based on local trends, proclivities, resources and history. Delhi is nearly saturated, so are Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune. India needs to create more hubs, showcasing local strength and areas where Indians excel. To that effect, here is a modest proposal. Institutes based in the north-eastern States can be developed into hubs for training in cottage and small-scale industries. Maharashtra and Gujarat can become centres of commerce and trade education. South India could be developed into India’s science hub while Bengal and Bihar can shine as regions catering to humanities and social sciences. Haryana can do exceptionally well in sports and physical health and Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha can lead global research on tribal knowledge systems and sustainable human ecology. At the same time, we must also think of capitalising on domains of knowledge to which we have had privileged access and that have traditionally been our strength. In subjects such as ayurveda, yoga and mental health, with an untapped global market, we have a lot to offer even to the most advanced countries of the world. There is an ayurvedic medical college in my own nondescript village in Bihar. But over the years, instead of attracting students from other States, let alone from other countries, the institution has shrunk both physically and in terms of footfall. Instead of investing in disciplines where global competition is stiff, the MHRD should think of promoting a few institutes dedicated to indigenous knowledge systems as IoEs. In these areas, the chances of becoming a world leader are bright, realistic and hugely rewarding.
But as we draw these schemes, we must never forget that a lot will depend on the quality of teachers employed at these institutes. Paradoxically, as things stand today, students studying outside India, with their international experience and exposure, are being projected as key to the success of the ‘Study in India’ initiative. We have to put in place a robust system of attracting and retaining talented students and teachers. Given the current state of affairs, appointment of teachers would be a good beginning point. Unless we engage and strengthen our workforce, these schemes will be reduced to corporate style weekend workshops on capacity building that offer nothing but a distraction from monotony. That too on a weekend.
(Writer: Gautam choubey; Courtesy: The Pioneer)
The Finance Commission must be lauded for including forest cover in the mix for allocation of tax resources. States must respect this and do their bit in conserving it
One of the keys to improving Centre-State relations and ensuring development is even-handed and judicious distribution of tax revenue and other forms of earning between the federal and State Governments. The Finance Commission of India is a unique constitutional body that is periodically set up under Article 280 of the Constitution to define financial relations between the Central and State Governments. It lays down a set of principles that determines the method and formula for the distribution of tax proceeds between both Governments.
A majority of the taxes such as Customs duty, income tax, service tax and Central excise are collected by the Centre. States were given the mandate to provide economic and social services to the people. They are empowered to levy income tax on agricultural earnings, professional tax, value added tax (VAT), State excise duty, land revenue and stamp duty. Hence, the Finance Commission was created to address issues of vertical and horizontal imbalances of federal finances in India.
The 15th Finance Commission, which was established to decide on the devolution of taxes and other receipts to the Centre and States for the next five years beginning April 2020, submitted its recommendations before the Central Government last December. The Commission used the population data of 2011 while making its recommendations and for the first time, in addition to income distance, population and area and forest cover, it used two additional factors — demographic performance and tax effort — to determine the tax pool of States.
The Commisson’s usage of the 2011 population figures gave rise to considerable controversies. While the 14th Finance Commission had taken the 1971 census as the base with a weightage of 17.5 per cent and assigned a weightage of 10 per cent to the 2011 population figures, the present one has kept the weightage of 2011 population at 15 per cent and has given additional 12.5 per cent to demographic performance. The use of 2011 data has benefitted some States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar while others have been disadvantaged.
Most States in southern India, except Tamil Nadu, feel that they are suffering because of their policy of population control. They believe they will get a smaller share of the pie if the population dispensation is applied. However, according to the Economic Survey, 2016, inter-State labour mobility averaged 5-6.5 million people between 2001 and 2011, yielding an inter-State migrant population of about 60 million and an inter-district migration as high as 80 million. Apart from the southern States, Assam, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab and West Bengal, too, saw a dip in population compared to the 1971 census. The 15th Finance Commission was critical of the Union and State Governments’ tendency to finance spending through off-budget borrowings, too. On this front, it called upon both to phase out off-budget liabilities.
Irrespective of the surrounding controversies, the Commission made it clear that it wants to play a key role in fostering sustainable development. It must be noted that the 14th Commission had accepted it as a criterion to determine the share of taxes to various States. This is why “forest cover” was assigned 7.5 per cent weightage. The 15th Finance Commission sought to raise the area cover to 10 per cent in order to reward States that have “provided ecological services” to the country.
However, it is distressing that none of the States has been liberal in granting funds to the forest department commensurate to the contribution the forests have made in getting funds. The enhancement of funds to States — from 7.5 per cent to 10 per cent — if implemented, can go a long way in protecting the country’s ecological frontiers. This can also lead to the economic well-being of the people and the country and help consolidate forest resources as well.
The importance of the maintenance of forest-like buildings and roads was first recognised by the 13th Finance Commission, which earmarked Rs 1,000 crore and called upon the States to manage ecology, environment and climate change, consistent with sustainable development. This fund was kept at the disposal of the Government of India and was released to States on a project basis. This helped a great deal in maintaining forests across the country.
However, the actual spending on forests by States, after the 14th Finance Commission grants, has not been very encouraging when compared to the intention of the criterion to strengthen forest cover base. The State of Forest Report 2019 released by the Forest Survey of India recorded a marginal increase of 5,188 sq km in total forest and tree cover in the country. However, it gave a dismal picture in tribal areas (where the forest cover has gone down by 741 sq km). With regard to the disappearance of higher girth class trees in forests due to poor regeneration and protection, the report, if examined critically, indicates the urgent need to spend money on natural forests. Yet another important issue that needs to be dealt with is to address the concern of States, which have less forest cover. We need to step up efforts to cover more areas through agroforestry, farm forestry, block plantations, urban and peri-urban forestry among other efforts.
Efficient fiscal management goals of the Commission cannot be achieved unless we have an effective monitoring system in place. The 15th Finance Commission should follow the pattern of the 13th Finance Commission, which recommend inter alia that a portion of the divisible pool of tax within the forest criterion should be retained with the Government of India to be sanctioned by the Ministry of Finance and Environment, Forest and Climate Change, for the maintenance of forests.
It would be appropriate to ensure third-party monitoring of the use of the grant to States so that misuse or arbitrary or unauthorised use of the funds can be checked. Further, for monitoring and evaluation of the works undertaken through the Finance Commission Awards, States should opt for certification of forests. This can help promote sustainable forest management and at the same time provide space for international markets for procurement of forest products.
Further, the Commission should put a complete ban on the freebie culture of politicians, who are more interested in votebank politics. If need be, it must ask the Government to amend the Constitution. The Prime Minister must think about curbing the freebie culture sooner than later. At the same time, the Election Commission must ensure political consensus on this. A group of retired forest officers had sought time from the Chairman of the Finance Commission to submit a memorandum on these issues so that the Commission’s own recommendations lead to desired effects on the country’s economy and on conservation of forests, water and bio-diversity. A forest governance policy must pay attention to the multiple ways in which our green cover is valuable.
(Writer: VK Bahuguna; Courtesy: The Pioneer)
With shrinking habitats and a reduced prey base, translocating this cat species isn’t a good idea
Following the green signal by the Supreme Court, India will soon be reintroducing cheetahs into the wild by flying in the carnivore from Africa, over 50 years after the animal was declared extinct in the country in 1952. That it was a tragedy and a big loss to our biodiversity that we hunted and caged the beautiful animal into extinction, is undisputed. But the fact remains that the cheetah is the only big cat to have gone extinct in India. What is lost is lost. Now we need to focus on the other large carnivores that we still have and try and save them the best we can. And given our meagre resources, can we really afford to take on this project? We have 20 species that are on the brink, with the Asiatic lion, tigers, Indian wolf, the great Indian bustard, the Asian wild buffalo, Jerdon’s courser and the red panda being among them. Except for 50 reserves that come under Project Tiger, the allocation for all wildlife habitats and 21 endangered species was a mere `497 crore between 2017-20. Over 10 years ago, the cost of the cheetah project was estimated at `300 crore. So, where will we get the funds to conserve the cheetahs from? Will we rob the snow leopard of its chance of survival to pay for the cheetah’s reintroduction? Also, what is the guarantee that the exotic, yet very vulnerable cat, will be able to survive in India?
As it is, the number of cheetahs is on the decline globally with just 7,100 left in the wild, having been driven out of 91 per cent of their habitats. Asia has been the worst offender where its decimation is concerned. India’s last spotted cheetah died in 1947. There are less than 50 of them left in Iran and now the majority of this shy and secretive feline lives in six southern African countries. Have all the proponents of the idea of bringing the cheetah back thought why the animal is on the verge of becoming extinct elsewhere? It’s because this cat is hard to protect. Being the fastest animal in the world, cheetahs need a very wide range for hunting prey. So according to researchers, an estimated 77 per cent of a cheetah’s habitat would be outside protected zones, making it difficult to keep them safe from poachers, vehicular traffic and rural populations. This is also a very big impediment to monitoring its progress and well-being. This problem is further compounded by the man-animal conflict. India certainly doesn’t have the prey base or the ranges required for the survival of a translocated species. Unless we want the cheetah to die here, this idea doesn’t seem good enough.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)
At a time when there’s a drought of good news in the country, a report from Jharkhand that the construction of an airport has been halted to ensure the jumbo corridor isn’t affected is welcome
At the time of a drought of good news in the country, there comes one to celebrate. The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has halted the construction of an airport at the site of an abandoned World War-II airstrip near Jharkhand’s Dhalbhumgarh town. The reason? It would disrupt an elephant corridor used by 200 pachyderms.
The airport near Dhalbhumgarh was to be the first of 400-of-its-kind, which the Airport Authority of India proposes to build throughout the country. Its halting represents one of the rare occasions when a concern for animals has won out against a grandiose plan for so-called development. The disruption of the corridor would have forced the elephants to look elsewhere for passage, including urban and semi-urban areas, thus taking them to new places and creating new dangers of elephant-human conflict.
The resultant casualties would have had an adverse impact on Jharkhand’s elephants, whose numbers have been declining. From 772 in 2002, the figure came down to 624 in 2007. It increased to 688 in 2012 only to come down to 679 in 2017, according to the elephant census titled, ‘Synchronised elephant population estimation India 2017’, released on August 12 (World Elephant Day), that year.
The causes, related to conditions created by continuing human encroachment upon and activity in elephant habitats, include habitat loss, electrocution by contact with sagging and/or low-hanging high voltage transmission wires, running over by trains, conflicts with humans besides poaching, poisoning and old-age related medical problems. According to a report in May, 2017, 32 elephants had been killed by electrocution and 22 in train accidents in Jharkhand until then.
One hopes that the decision to stop the construction of the airport will not be reversed under pressure and will prove to the precursor of many similar decisions concerning all animals. Elephants, doubtless, need particular attention. They have been listed in Schedule One of the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972, which gives them the highest level of protection. Project Elephant was launched in 1992 to protect the Asian elephant (the category to which Indian elephants belong), its habitat and corridors and address the human-elephant conflict. The elephant was declared India’s National Heritage Animal on October 22, 2010.
Yet serious challenges remain. Almost all the factors adversely affecting elephants in Jharkhand apply to the species throughout India. The most important of these is habitat loss, caused principally by continuing human encroachment. This is clear from the Elephant Task Force’s report, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India, submitted on August 31, 2010. Dwelling on how various elements contribute to habitat loss and the latter’s impact, it states, “Large developmental and infrastructural projects when not planned or located with adequate care are fragmenting habitat[s], while other local pressures degrade them.” It further states, “The physical presence of the roads and railway lines in the habitat creates new habitat edges, alters the hydrological dynamics and creates a barrier to the movement of elephants and other animals, leads to habitat fragmentation and loss, apart from death due to train and vehicular hits.”
It adds, “Rail and an increase in road traffic operates in a synergetic way across several landscapes and causes not only an overall loss and isolation of wildlife habitat but also splits up the landscape in a literal sense. Various developmental activities also come up on either side of the highways and railroads, thereby further fragmenting the habitat and increasing biotic pressures.”
With shrinking habitats, elephants searching for food raid cultivated areas, devouring and destroying crops. Attempts to turn them away constitute an important cause of human-elephant conflict, which is taking a growing number of lives. Replying to a question, Babul Supriyo, Union Minister of State for MoEFFC, told the Lok Sabha on June 28, 2019, that 2,398 people had died since 2014. According to other official statistics, a total of 1,465 people were killed between the years 2013-14 and 2016-17. In turn, people kill 40 to 50 elephants every year, apart from those slain by poachers for the ivory of the tusks.
Habitat loss also forces elephants to move into other areas. They are now seen in States like Manipur, Mizoram, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, where they had not been present earlier. Other factors have also contributed. A major drought in Tamil Nadu had caused herds of elephants to cross over to Andhra Pradesh where they had no presence for over two centuries. The result is an extension of the area witnessing human-elephant conflict.
The impact of habitat loss is compounded by that of elephant corridors, which account for much of the rail and road accidents. According to the report, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India, train accidents had killed as many as 150 of these behemoths since 1987. According to a Ministry statement in the Rajya Sabha, 49 elephants were killed in railway accidents between 2016 and 2018.
The Elephant Task Force’s report has recommended several measures to protect habitats and prevent elephants from being killed in road and rail accidents. These include the announcement of principles of forest area, railway track and highway management, the grant of mining licences and rules governing the drawing and maintenance of power cables through forest areas.
Besides these, attention has to be paid to nurturing elephant reserves as the basic management unit for their conservation in the country. At present, there are 32 of these across India, covering over 69,000 sq km. The problem is that more than over 40 per cent of these is not under Protected Area or Government forest. Hence, the main emphasis has to be on managing land use patterns in the areas outside the preserves to reduce human-elephant conflict. Also, the havoc bush fires continue to play in Australia reminds us of the need to be ready to cope with such calamities which have been taking a severe toll in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and may occur in other parts of India thanks to climate change.
All this will require huge expenditure and effort. The Government must not balk from either. Besides, it needs to reach out to organisations like Wildlife SOS, TREE Foundation and Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, which have been doing outstanding work in rescuing and nurturing elephants.
(Writer: Hiranmay Karlekar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)