Thursday, 19 April 2018

Lost and Found:

Most ancient shamanic traditions, whether it’s the Peruvian, Maoris or Himalayan, believe that everything within this universe is made of energy; and we are all physical manifestations of that energy. According to one Himalayan shamanic tradition, we, each individual as well as the society, are the manifestations of our experiences, individual as well as collective - of past lives, ancestral experiences, and present memories and that current actions can energetically have impact over seven generations.

Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens says that animals live in and experience objective reality. Only homo sapiens (us) have the ability to create fictional (imaginations) reality like politics, religion, money, human rights etc. and accept that reality over and above the objective reality due to our ability to be flexible and cooperate in large numbers.  And now, we have almost lost touch with our objective reality.

Somewhere between these two narratives, we (humans) have lost our way.

So, who are you when you say you are a human? No, you are not the white privileged person from the rich west, or an Australian, or a Dalit, a Muslim, a CEO of a company, a teacher, a mother of two, a bored housewife, a miner, a writer, a photographer, a kabbadi player, a murderer, a hermit, a loner, a beggar, a feminist, a right-winger, a banker, a reluctant leader, a scientist, a child, a dreamer, a homosexual, a transgender, a terrorist, an African, a Buddhist, a tribal, an unsuccessful actor, a game-addict, an orphan, a runner, a trekker, a farmer, a rich man with two houses and two cars, a schizophrenic, a sad widower.

Who are you when you remove yourself from this ‘fictional’ life and definitions? Who are you when you strip yourself of your hair, skin, muscle and your bones? Who are you when you stand in front of your naked soul, when you confront your spirit?

When you come face to face with your spirit-self, then and only then, your journey as a human being begins.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

In the Mango Tree:

Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps the singing bird will come - Chinese Proverb (so says the internet)

It’s the time when the city is at its quietest and darkness is still heavy outside. A singular mellifluous eight-note song of the fantail in the almond tree outside my bedroom window signals that night is about to end and dawn break is not far away. And within the hour, a cacophony of birsongs bursts forth every single day in the limited trees that we have within our society compound.

In my arm-chair bird watching style, I have counted just over 20 species of birds in the one mango and one almond tree that dot my windows: from crows, sparrows, drongo, pigeons (dumb and forever fornicating just like humans!) to copper-smith barbet, golden oreole, purple rumped sunbird, common tailorbird, and even a single male paradise flycatcher.  It pains me sometimes to see so many birds in just a few trees, each struggling to find its own space (crows and pigeons mostly win). But somewhere I count myself fortunate to yet wake up to birdsongs in a city before chaos takes over for the rest of the day.

This became all the more discernible when I was travelling in Germany and Slovenia during fall last year. Though I missed the ancient beech forests of Germany, the ones that I visited in both the countries were second or third generation forests, carefully regenerated and then ‘managed’ for ecological as well as economic sustainability. In Germany, citizens have the right to walk inside any forest, private or public, but within stipulated paths and trails. Different from India, I felt breathless and lost in the beauty of these young forests: in myriad hues of yellow, orange, red and green, in colours more heightened when the slanting autumn sun filtered in through the transforming leaves, in forest floors layered with fallen leaves, and in the pervasive silence everywhere. Coming from a country where noise is the prime sensory overload, the silence of these forests was like going deep in meditation. So absorbed was I in this other type of sensory overload, that I did not immediately sense the forests were more silent than normal. Even in a more rustic Slovenia, surrounded by craggy mountains and limpid lakes, the forests were cruelly still. So were the trees in the cities and city-parks. The singing birds did not come here despite the green trees.

morning mist in a forest in Slovenia

Our cities, villages, parks, forests, rivers, lakes, hills, mountains, salt-pans are alive, despite urbanisation: insects, dragonflies, butterflies, snakes, frogs, birds, small and large animals, fungus, algae…everywhere still. Our forests have an ephemeral silence as well as a constant chatter, filled with a raw energy. This energy can still be found scattered in pockets across the country, even though successive governments have been changing policy to forcefully create plantations in the name of forest ‘management’.  The country’s forest cover surprisingly remains the same: dense forests are cut down while plantations (considered ‘forests’) take over its space. But then a time will come when our ‘forests’ will also become deathly silent.

Till that time, I am grateful for all the singing birds in my green mango tree.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Age of Awakening:

“Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffaloes are all slaughtered, the wild horses tamed, the secret corners are heavy with the scent of many men and view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires?....The end of living and beginning of survival.” ~ excerpts from Chief Seattle’s famous letter to the President of the US. 

In his book, The 12th Planet, Zecharia Sitchin provides meticulous evidence, if one were to believe, about the shocking origin of Earth and human beings. He argues that Homo Sapiens and the first great civilisations are an anomaly to the natural evolution process which has taken millions of years to actually shift from using stones to using stones as tools like blades, spearheads etc. According to his evidence, humans were created by beings belonging to a 12th planet in a genetic modification process which involved the genes of Homo Erectus and themselves. If one wants a bit more scientific evidence, then the theory of Panspermia says that life on Earth or the first organisms that started life was seeded from outside. This theory has the backing of eminent scientists such as Nobel Prize winner molecular biologist Professor Francis Crick and astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

The beauty of this theory is that it answers one critical question about humanity - in a well-oiled natural machine where every species and natural processes serve a purpose and are intricately linked to each other for survival, what role do humans play? Human behaviour so far, has been more parasitical than interdepending; like the alien weeds which invade local eco-systems and result in massive ecological changes. If you take humans away from nature, nature thrives just as it would if we were inherently not part of the original blueprint of Earth.

“For so long as man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, they who sow the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.”  ~ Pythogaros

In 2013, Nestle’s CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe declared that access to water is not fundamentally a human right and therefore it should be privatised. 

In about three centuries, the definition of nature changed to mean natural ‘capital’ and ‘resources’ – nature commodified to supply us with goods and services in a blatant disregard for other life forms on Earth. As per scientists, human activities and control over nature have resulted in the sixth great mass extinction of species even before we have been able to fully understand how nature works or known its many secrets. Not only that, we have systematically eliminated indigenous tribes and their ways of life for centuries simply because they speak the language of nature. 

As the famous naturalist E.O. Wilson mentions in his latest book Half-Earth, in order to save species from extinction, we have to leave half the planet untouched. In an increasingly violent space, his radically reimagined world is but a practical impossibility.   

“Shiva (male principle, the consciousness, the medium) denotes all things positive and virile…Parvati is the Shakti (female principle, the universal energy, the creator) or the force behind Shiva. Without Shakti, Shiva is impotent.” ~ under a statue in Dakshina-Chitra (TN) – a tantra philosophy.

A similar philosophy exists in the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang (female and male energies respectively) that are present everywhere in the universe. Though mutually exclusive, they complement each other and only together they form a perfect whole. The universe, solar systems, planets, Earth, nature, life and even humans - all function in tandem to this rhythm and balance. The ‘chaos’ of nature and cosmos is mathematically structured. Beauty, whether it’s found in a human face, nature or life, is the existence of this perfect balance.

War, conflict, violence, aggression, abuse, materialism, too much stress on the self – all point to a masculine world order, moving towards a hyper-masculine world order led by 56”chests and similar anatomical features. The evidence is that men are the perpetrators of violence and abuse towards fellow men, women, children, transgender, queer, nature and animals. The evidence is that nature and humanity are on the edge of a precipice.   

And yet, as his own death drew near, Sakyamuni turned again towards the north....“Come Ananda, let us go to Kushinagar”. Like the rest of us, perhaps he longed for home  -  Matthiessen in The Snow Leopard.

In the shimmering global arena today, our economic policies and technology are rapidly changing society’s way of connecting with each other and everything around us, bringing everybody closer, eliminating boundaries and interlinking destinies. But through psychological and social manipulation, emotions and values are being externalised by endless consumption, accumulation of affluence, external approvals and setting one individual against the other.

The result is an increasingly fragile and ephemeral understanding of ourselves and our environment. The result is that we have lost our connection with Earth. The result is that we are looking at Mars for a new home.

Whether we believe in Zacharia Sitchin or Darwin or some divine origin, the fact is that we are here. In this planet called Earth. This is our home. And to create a world order that’s in perfect harmony, we need to go back to the start, reconnect with our planet, our homeland, and relearn lessons from nature. As the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh rightly said, “Cherishing our precious Earth – falling in love with Earth – is not an obligation. It is a matter of personal and collective happiness and survival.”

And perhaps then, only then can we progress from a struggle to survive to an age of awakening and love. 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The More I Learn, the Less I Know:

It was back in the year 2006, when I worked in a media house in Delhi. One day, a colleague randomly came up to me and said: “You are a Bengali; you must know tantra and black magic.”
Caught off guard and without any knowledge of the connection between Shamanism and Bengal, I had shot back: “If I knew that, don’t you think I would be somewhere else and not slogging my a** here?”

In one of the serendipitous instances when I randomly pick up the right books at the right time, I chanced upon a book at the Oxford Book Shop in Darjeeling a couple of years back. The subtitle of the book - ‘Life Lessons from the Himalayas’ – had caught my attention. Surprisingly (or not so), the story turned out to be about the author’s Shamanistic (Shaiva Tantra) journey in the mountains. Consciously or unconsciously, I was getting drawn to the mysticism around Shamanism and Tantra at that time. A slow read, the book opened up a whole new philosophy to me along with the realization that, way back in 2006, both the colleague and I were not only highly ignorant but also had fallen prey to the popular notion that Tantra was bad as it dealt only with black magic and sex.  

(Shaiva and Shakti) Tantra, as was followed in the East of India and Nepal, predates Vedas. Tantra is not a religion but a heterodox tradition which has been passed on orally by teachers to students chosen by them. Loosely translated, Tantra would mean expansion of your mind for liberation. None of the written materials found till now on Tantra really do justice to what it really is. Distortions to the Tradition started with the brahminical hegemony which saw Shiva (Tantra’s prime ‘deity’) as a low-caste uncouth being as opposed to Vishnu, a typical representation of a brahminical god, fair skinned, erudite and upper caste. But despite their efforts, Shiva remained extremely popular among the people. As a result, they had to incorporate him into the ‘Hindu’ pantheon of gods. Similarly, to show women their rightful place in an evolving patriarchal system and to tame their potency, all representations of Shakti were given secondary positions as wives of the gods. Vilification of the Tradition started perhaps due to its unorthodox philosophy and practices as against some of the ‘Hindu’ teachings, and also perhaps to bring people under the brahminical fold. Unlike other religions which put restrictions on people’s conduct and behavior by terming them good or bad, Shaiva Tantra allows people to experience everything (practical knowledge) but mindfully. The ultimate aim is to understand the self, the interconnectedness of things and balance of nature, and through that free ourselves from our self-created and self-focused rigid confines.

Paintings by Mira

Shaiva Tantra’s Aims of Life:

Dharma: Fulfillment of moral duty (to oneself first); to choose to think, say and do nothing to one’s or others’ detriment; to actively engage in living and loving fully and wisely; and not just for personal gains but to restore balance in oneself, family, society etc.

Artha: The greatest of Earth’s hidden treasure is self-knowledge. It aims to achieve prosperity in our material endeavors but within the confines of Dharma, that is, not for personal gains or through means which harm others. Worldly achievements are not separate from so-called ‘spiritual’ achievements as other religions emphasize; but to be achieved to sustain a society where all can flourish according to their own nature.

Kama: Embrace, heighten, and explore all pleasures accessible to our senses in everyday life. Touch, smell, sound, nature, music, art, dance, friends, alcohol.  And yes, sex! To be fully active in the world and not be enslaved by it. Because only a happy, healthy, and gratified body and mind can attend to other aims of life.

Moksha: To learn to find resolution to apparent contradictions – kindness and cruelty, light and darkness, beauty and suffering, compassion and indifference etc. To understand that all these play a part in the balance of our universe, to develop empathy and dynamic compassion, to realize that we already have all we need to be complete, to be all that we can be.   

Some of the Yamas (vows or restraints on personal conduct):

Ahimsa: The wisdom gained in learning to avoid causing harm to oneself or others by either thoughts or words or actions. Even personal gain at the detriment of another by whatever means – including at the price of your own self-respect and integrity – is considered a form of violence.

Alobha: The wisdom gained by learning to live without selfish ambition. Aspiration in every aspect of life is essential but not at the cost of inner violence of greed, pride, and jealousy. To discover that it is not in taking from others, but by giving to ourselves without thought of personal profit that we truly gain the most.

Asteya: The wisdom gained by learning not to steal – neither by body, nor intellect, nor word. To extinguish the desire to possess something that belongs to others – material wealth, social rank, talents, reputation, appearances etc.

Tyaga: Wisdom gained by learning to release attachment to material possessions. It does not propose a state of poverty which would be unrealistic and miserable, but it encourages us to recognize that the desire to possess is a tireless cycle that can never be fulfilled, and to value only that which is necessary to live healthily and freely.

Brahmacharya: Not sexual chastity as commonly believed. But to resolve the deep conflict that we suffer due to the disparity between our true nature and the familial, social, religious expectations, and beliefs we keep conforming to. The wisdom learnt in seeking to live according to our true nature.

But what I liked the most about the Tradition, is its philosophy of the Shakti (female energy that is the Universe) and the place it accords to women in the society as a result. In the Yogini Tantra, women are encouraged to speak and act with the same social, familial and sexual liberties as the menfolk. Consider some of these excerpts from texts related to Tantric as well as ‘Hindu’ philosophies as it developed over the years.

“Respect and consideration for women mark the very foundations [of the Tradition]. All women are to be looked upon as manifestations of the Great Mother [Shakti]. An offending woman should not be beaten even with flowers. A woman of any age, even a girl, or even an uncouth woman, should be bidden a respectful farewell after salutations.” (Chapter 10 – Kaulavalinirnaya Tantra)

“Women are light-minded. They are the root of all troubles. Attachment towards them should not pursued by wakeful persons who desire liberation. [For] there is none more sinning and more sinful than women.” (Uma Samhita XXIV:3,16)

“One should approach [a] woman and invite her to have sex. Should she refuse to consent, [a man] should bribe her. If she still refuses, he should beat her with a stick or with fists and overpower her, saying: ‘I take away the splendor from you with my virility and splendor.” (Brhadarankyaka Upanishad VI.IV:9,21)

It’s therefore easy to understand why Eastern India, the mountain states and Nepal are societally so different from the rest of the aggressively patriarchal states, why women have a far more equal status and mobility still (even with a high patriarchal influence), and why men there don’t need to be macho to be ‘men’ or women docile and feminine to be ‘women’.  

In 2004, while backpacking in South India, my travel partner and I had come across a Shiva-Parvati statue in Dakhshina Chitra, Tamil Nadu. It had an explanation at the bottom: ‘Shiva denotes all things positive and virile. Parvati is the Shakti or force behind Shiva. Without Shakti, Shiva is impotent’. I had found this concept profound then, but little did I know it was sourced from Tantra philosophy and not from ‘Hindu’ philosophies as we know it.

The more I learn, the less I think I seem to know.

Disclaimer: A lot of the content of this blog post (the teachings and practices) has been taken directly from the book Limitless Sky by David Charles Manners. This is the only book I have read on Tantra, and I realize that I have barely scratched the surface of something far more deep and mystical than just what is in the book.

For those who might want to know more, check:

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Lessons from the Mountain Kingdom:

D: “So what do Indians think of Nepal?”

We were sitting at Almond’s, a restaurant frequented by the locals in lakeside Pokhara, and feasting on spicy momos and soul-satisfying hot bowls of thukpa. Looking down, the street lined with shops was abuzz with tourists and travellers of all kind; the sights familiar from many places in India, yet there was something distinctly different about it. It was our third day in Nepal, and I was unable to place this difference in my mind.

Me: “I don’t think we look at Nepal as distinctly different from India; more like an extension of our country.”
D: “Oh wow. That is the ultimate humiliation!”

D’s comment, however jokingly said, represents the changing attitude and growing aspirations of the youth of Nepal. Decades of political instability, insurgency, attempts at stabilizing democracy, lack of livelihood opportunities, economic dependence on India and its resulting ‘big-brotherly’ arm-twisting ways, and the recent earthquake coupled with almost a year-long trade embargo by India - all have been instrumental in shaping and reshaping the country’s societal outlook. Like India in the pre-90s and Uttarakhand in recent times, the youth and able-bodied men are moving out of the country in search of better work and life opportunities leaving behind villages with only older generation and women. Kathmandu is now a sprawling city growing by leaps and bounds as people continue to migrate here – some statistics say, almost a quarter of the country’s population live in this city alone. It’s a story which is similar to the burgeoning population in cities of India. The country is still struggling to put basic infrastructure and amenities in place with rural Nepal bearing its brunt, just as rural India continues to struggle even now. Similar traditions, culture, attire, food, religious practices, a caste system which might not be as complicated as in India, yet discriminating in nature, a multitude of ethnic groups and languages – all point to notions of semblance with India.

Yet, as I travelled, observed and conversed with people there, I realized the differences are not only numerous but stark and glaring. There’s a particular strength and equanimity that I sensed in the people here, just like that of the sublime mountains. Despite years of hardship and instability, the people have found ways to grow and better their condition. Like the owner of the shared jeep that we took from a village in the Annapurna region who mentioned that when the government do not give any budget for roads, the villages will still pool in and built kaccha roads. Like the youth groups, individuals etc. who are helping rebuild villages in Gorkha which fell like pack of cards during the earthquake. Unlike India where poverty is worn on the sleeves, there’s a quiet dignity even in the poorest people here. Unlike India, where people are overtly friendly, meddlesome and inquisitive, Nepalis are friendly yet reserved giving you the space that you require. Unlike India, where societal violence towards women is right on your face, it was liberating to travel around without fear. Unlike India, where cleanliness if just an abstract notion and streets are littered with garbage and plastic, Nepal seems to be largely a clean(er) country.  Beyond Kathmandu, the landscape is exquisite – with heavily forested green slopes, blue-green free-flowing rivers and villages with traditional architecture. A landscape and a way of life that many mountain states of India have lost, forever.  A landscape and a way of life that I so desperately yearn for.

Nepal is at a stage where it can chose to go the India route; that is, chose the western model of development and destroy everything natural. Or it can build on its strengths and traditional knowledge and show the world an alternate model of development with environment and people at its core. And I believe it can.

Lying on the overgrown grass in a park in Pokhara, lost amongst the mountains, the blue autumn sky, the lazy drone of dragonflies, and with nobody to disturb you, I realized what an amazingly beautiful country it was. On the last day of our stay, a gloriously silent Diwali night, we walked all the way to Patan Durbar Square through bylanes decorated with rangoli and diyas. Windows of the old houses were lit up with these diyas where women stood and prayed in the dim earthy light. The Durbar Square was surreal, with stunning architecture, some fallen, some still standing, lit by mellow yellow lights and full of people getting ready for a candle march. In that moment, surrounded by the mountains and history and holding on tight to my friends P and G, I knew I was truly and absolutely in love.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

An Ecosystem called FORT:

The clock chimed the half-hour past seven in the evening; it was a medieval sound, made more so by the empty streets and a constant drizzle. The Rajabai Clock Tower in the University Campus at Fort was lit up with a purple light; the building’s gorgeous and ornate pillars, sculptures, motifs, arches, towers etc. sharply visible even in the dim light. A group of night heritage walkers stood outside the building huddled under their umbrellas listening to their guide. Beside this, the Bombay High Court with its softly lit passageways looked pretty and romantic. Well, nostalgically so.

I had forgotten what a joy it is to walk and discover the Fort area of Mumbai, especially at night. With empty roads and yellow lights, it’s easy to let time rewind to a few centuries ago. In the daytime, it gets transformed into a totally different world, buzzing with the energy, sights and sounds of today that are constantly shifting. I believe that one can come here for 365 days a year, and can still find something new each day.

Rajabai Clock Tower as seen from Oval Maidan. Photo credit: Amita Pitre

Beyond the obvious famous buildings, it’s a veritable treasure trove for people who have any interest in architecture, history, or arts. The buildings are an amalgamation of various styles - from Gothic, Victorian, Art-deco, and Indo-Saracenic, and with Roman, French, Dutch, Mughal, other Indian influences. You just have to look at the now dilapidated Esplanade House (right in front of Fabindia) made of cast iron, the ornate motifs of the Standard Chartered Building, the medieval-castle-like LIC building right next to it, the Parsi Agiaries, Knesset Eliyahoo Jewish Synagogue, St. Thomas Cathedral, and the Asiatic Library to even get a sense of the variety that can be found here. The happy mix of arches, spires, turrets, steeples, the cast iron weather vanes, sculptures, wooden balconies, spiral staircases, tree-lined streets, all probably brought forth the character that continues to define Mumbai.  

I have always believed that it’s not the GDP that keeps our economy going, but food. If you need evidence, well, a visit to this area is a must. There is food for every taste and every pocket! From road side vendors selling breakfast items, parsi bakeries with freshly baked bread and cookies, to swanky and elite restaurants, all exist almost cheek by jowl along with numerous Khao Galis. Poha for Rs.20, a plate of crunchy vadas and soft idlis for Rs.30, chicken sandwiches for Rs.45, Pongal for Rs.70, Parsi chicken dhansak for Rs.150, muffins of Rs.15, pizzas made on tawa for Rs.20, road-side chicken biryani for Rs.50 (which gets over in one hour!), kheema pao for Rs.120, south Indian lunch thali for Rs.80, berry pulao in Britannia for Rs.400, the baked yogurt at Food for Thought for Rs.180, the list here is endless. If you are a food adventurer, you will love to roam the streets and experiment with your stomach and taste buds here.

Cafes and Book Shops:
Forget the GPS. The romance is in wandering the lanes and by-lanes and chancing upon cafes and book stores tucked away between shops and buildings. Two of my favourite bookshops are already here – Kitabkhana and Strand. The fairly new one Wayward and Wise is a bookshop where you can browse for hours like that in the old days, their range of books being fairly eclectic and different. There are also other tiny bookstores which make you feel good that e-business hasn’t taken over all small businesses yet. As for cafes, whether they are stand alone or part of a bookstore, quaint or quirky, I’m terribly glad they exist despite Starbucks. All of them perfect places to catch up with friends over a nice cup of tea or coffee. Need I say more?

Shopping and People:
Once I saw a man setting up some bottles in the corner of a lane. A few women quickly gathered around him, some of them in burqa. He was selling itar. An hour later, on my return I found him and his business gone. Another time I wanted to find somebody who could repair my daypack. I asked a shop selling bags who gave me precise directions to an old Bohri Muslim man called Hassan Bhai. Sometimes there is a terrible flurry of activities, vendors rushing to wrap up their businesses before the police arrived. In one hour’s time and with the police gone, it’s all back to normal business once again. Like food, one can find almost everything here. Fruits, grocery, mops, photo developers, printers, coffee grinders, gifts papers, raw and boiled eggs, cobblers, vendors selling shirts and belts, coconut water, tea stalls, watches, pen drives, mobile phones, mobile phone covers, saree, soaps, masala. Despite competition, there’s a place for everybody and everybody looks out for everybody else. It does not matter if you are a Parsi, Jew, Muslim, Christian or Hindu. That’s how and why this ecosystem continues to thrive, and not just survive.

In the many tiny park, corners, and main roads, one can find life size statues of erstwhile Bombayites. Many of the names are new to me, but whenever I pass one such statue, I do look up and say a silent thank you. For making Mumbai, the amazing city it still is today.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

India’s Biggest Environmental Scam:

A google search on companies/polluters in India fined for polluting will throw up just a handful of results which does not even cover the first page. This can probably give you an indication of how dismal the state of our environmental safeguards and justice is in. Most of our environmental laws and policies including those related to wildlife were constituted on strong principles way back in the 70s, 80s and 90s (even though some provisions allowed conservation and management of forests to move away from communities to the Forest Department like that in the British Era). The Indian Judiciary, especially the apex court, in the past has upheld many of these laws, made relevant changes, and forced government departments to act in their judgements; however some of the orders which went against the environment, basic principles of law and people have managed to do a lot more damage than the goods done by other orders. Some orders, which were meant to maintain a balance, managed to create that ‘loophole’ which has been fully utilized by corporations/governments to further destroy forests and eco-systems and alienate communities.

Even then, there was hope because we had the laws.

In the past two years, the current government has systematically gone about changing/adding/deleting/rewording the various acts/rules/notifications and even particular clauses to create loopholes, ambiguity, and opportunities for misinterpretations. New bills and draft policies have been outlined (some carried forward from the previous government) with such alacrity that it’s difficult to stay updated. (Atleast you get to know that the government mechanisms can be fast and efficient if it chose to be). But the best part of these new bills, policies, alterations etc. is that they are so beautifully worded that lay people like me would almost swoon because of the department’s ‘concerns’ about the environment and climate change. It requires a slow detailed reading to understand that once you string these changes together, collectively, they are leading to India’s biggest environmental scam.

Some examples: from notices I have read; there could be more which I might have missed.

Draft Wetland Conservation and Management Rules – 2016: The detailed definitions/categorisation of what constitutes wetlands and the list of activities that should not be allowed around them have either been removed or made limited in scope. The states have been given the power to define what may constitute as Wetlands according to their process of identification. This draft Rules completely waters down the objective of conservation and preservation and puts more emphasis on the principle of 'wise use' of Wetlands (no definition given), its conservation, ‘regulation and management’, ‘integrated management of land, water and natural resources’ which converges with existing state development plans that 'promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way'. There is no mention of Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), monitoring of implementation, or process of appeal to a court (NGT) in case of violations. There is no mention of what should be strictly prohibited; instead it opens up the Wetlands to opportunities for various ‘wise uses’.    

Draft Environment Laws (Amendment) Bill - 2015: This amendment deals with penalties for damage to environment – which here has been limited to air, water and gaseous pollution only. Though the Bill increased the fine for polluting from a mere Rs.1 lakh to upto Rs.20 crores, it has created ambiguity by defining pollution vaguely as ‘minor violations’, ‘substantial damage’, and ‘non-substantial damage’ and capping fines accordingly. What happens when the environmental damage is irreparable like a nuclear disaster or another Bhopal gas tragedy? These provisions allow for corporations to pollute, pay and get away with it. Instead of overhauling a decaying or an already dead system of pollution control, the Bill merely focuses on penalties for pollution with no provisions for preventing future damage. The biggest issue in this Bill however is creation of another vague Adjucating Authority which will bypass NGT thus reducing its power over such matters.

Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification - 2016: This is one of the most hilarious drafts. As well as one of the most damaging. Hilarious because it copied word for word from a US environmental policy. Damaging because it attempts to legalise violations made by corporations on environmental clearances. Currently, EIAs are the only environmental check which allows for taking crucial and sound environmental decisions on ‘development’ and any environmental clearance violation is regarded as a criminal offence. However, this Notification allows a violator to continue with the business if they agree to pay a sum of money as compensation for the damage already done, and also implement an Environmental Supplement Plan to restore the environment. This notification goes against all basic principles (precautionary principal and polluters pay) of environmental laws across the globe and will allow corporates to violate, pay and operate.

Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) & Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act – 2016: This is where the laws become deadly. This is also an example of how a supposedly good judgement created a loophole which can go down in history as one of the deadliest for India’s environment. In order to deter parties (user agencies) from cutting down forests, the apex court asked the government to create a central fund, put a value to our forests and use the money collected for compulsory afforestation. The government (previous) helpfully put such a low value to our forests, that most of us can easily afford to buy a hectare or two. The idea of preserving green cover by first chopping down trees and then afforesting them itself is bizarre. If one needs to conserve natural, virgin forests, why cut them down in the first place? The Bill drafted by the current government allows for private parties to pitch for tenders for afforestation projects. Though the Act mentions afforestation includes regeneration of degraded forests and conservation of natural ones, it also mentions afforestation using plantation for timber. This Act has absolutely no mention of tribals and other forest dwellers, protection of their rights over their land and/or their involvement in the conservation process. Given the history, one can easily see how this Act will unfold - private parties grabbing land, forcing eviction of tribals from their land, planting single species of trees which will further destroy eco-systems and wildlife, and making profit by again cutting down these trees and selling them for timber.

Draft National Forest Policy – 2016: The MoEF had invited comments from public on this. But it took me one whole day of extensive search to find this draft hidden in one corner of the MoEF’s website rather than its home page. That in itself tells a tale. Because of a furore in media and elsewhere, the draft policy was quickly removed and a notice sent out that it was not ‘the’ draft policy and was put up on the site by mistake. Beautifully worded, the draft policy (in other words forest governance strategy) aims to give back all control of forest land to the Forest Department and divert forest land for plantation (forest industry) purposes again through a PPP model as mentioned in CAMPA. The interesting part of this ‘policy’ is that in all of its 40 pages, again there is not a SINGLE mention of tribals and other forest dwellers. As if these indigenous communities don’t exist in India.  

String all these together and you can see a pattern emerging – instead of putting actual efforts in protection and conservation of nature, the laws are being twisted to help grab/use more of our limited natural resources for business, making it easier for polluters and violators to continue, transform natural forests and other eco-systems into plantations, and not even acknowledge the existence of communities whose lives depend on forests and natural resources, so that they don’t get a chance to demand their rights.

If these changes are accepted, we are all set for not only an environmental crisis but also a human rights crisis as well.


PS: Two more laws have come up for revision as I write this – Wildlife Protection Act and Indian Forest Act. This might mean that even the Forest Conservation Act will be reviewed soon.