Thursday, February 18, 2010



2009 to 2010 !

What happened to the green drain, where water was able to seep into the earth, make it moist, grow the grass and allow groundwater to recharge? While we have 'projects' to harvest rainwater from 'each house,' alongside concrete is poured on the earth. As the drain in Defence Colony is being covered, to make underground parking and 'jogging tracks' and to rid those who live alongside of its 'nuisance value,' it is turning from 'green' to 'concrete,' I suppose this is what 'greening the city' really means. Lots of sloganeering, but little space for grass to grow any more.

Why do we need to pour concrete in the drain? Surely there are better ways of covering it and still letting the water flow on the bare ground below? After all these are also storm water drains, and make the network of a water system which is connected to the river. Only of late have they been turned into 'nullahs!' Maybe the 'engineers' are uncomfortable with the idea or maybe it increases the size of the contract. Who knows. Ultimately if we do not do everything differently than we have in the past, all talk of sustainability is only that. Talk! Nothing more.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Like it was!

Barren Roads, Missing Blooms

2008...2009... 2010?

Spring was over in a flash this year. February was uncomfortably cold, but March announced summer. Post Holi, Delhi is normally awash with orange Gulmohars, flaming coral Semuls and red and purple Jacranda trees, as if nature continues the festival of colour into the hot summer months. No longer so, as many tree lined avenues and groves have been axed for new passages, broader roads and metro lines by an unimaginative administration. As the number of vehicles cross the 30 million mark, with more vehicles here than all other Indian metros combined, and cars have become bigger and swankier, the city planners only seem to draw their imagination of urban spaces from Singapore or London. “They cannot be wrong,” a senior Delhi official remarked with child like glee, on getting a pat from the visiting mayor of London!

Over 2 lakh trees will be axed by the time the city hosts the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Half of them are already gone. Amongst them are some which were over 50 to 70 years old. For a city which barely has any playgrounds and where one sees a decreasing number of children playing any sport, this new enthusiasm for a sports event has to be about something else – like new projects, new investments, real estate. Trees do not figure anywhere on the agenda, and even heritage walls carry more leverage. The metro was forced underground near the Qutab Minar, but the forested Ridge was its victim instead. Aside from the few spirited citizens who try and create a ruckus each time any tree is cut, no one else seems to care.

Even as neighborhood trees are being lost, the PR machinery of the State has swung into action. The last survey claims Delhi has over 45 lakh trees in the city, so why should we complain? Only, sparrows and parrots have disappeared from neighborhoods, tarred roads steam in the sun, and everything sounds a bit louder with the green buffer gone. It is also not said that most of these trees are in the forested and protected Ridge area, while new colonies and developments remain tree-less. Infact on may roads some “avant guard” artistic planners have constructed stone trees, painted in brown and green! Alongside, all new compensatory plantation is carried out on the fringes of the city, far away from where they are cut, and even for that land is now unavailable. No plan, either for road widening, or for new construction has a provision for planting trees, or re-creating a tree line. Tree lined streets in colonial Delhi made the street walkable in the 45deg C summer and a place where water sellers parked their carts, or the Jamun pickers sold their fruity wares. This was not accidental but planned and executed with precision. Trees and the buildings had an equally important place, unlike the barren crossings and concrete horizons which we now encounter.

It must be said that the educated, affluent citizens are no better in this respect. Colony trees are brutally truncated in the guise of pruning. Resident Associations now hire contractors for a post-monsoon ‘trimming’, who gain by selling the wood!

April will be followed by May. Will we notice the Laburnums and Jauruls only by the missing blooms? Maybe Pradip Kishen’s fascinating book is already a ‘requiem’ to Delhi’s trees.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Public Art Expereince

The two traffic policemen on the motorcycle came and stopped near me. They were trying to control the traffic, almost futilely. My camera probably gave me away, and guessing that I probably had something to do with the installations, they came and asked me about them. In fact, they had already understood it.

“It is about the vultures, is it not?” one of them asked. I said yes and told them about their extinction in and around Delhi. “We used to see them aplenty around our village, but now they are gone.”

In a brief moment the uniformed traffic policemen had transformed and become like anyone else. They had shed their uniforms. This was the type of interaction I had with scores of people over the duration of the installations, from 12th to 21st December. It was a fascinating insight into the nature of the ‘public’ and how ‘art’ could help bring everyone to a very human level.

On the roundabout

As I stood on the Mandi House roundabout, the site for the installation for the ‘public art’ project, the evening traffic chaos was evident. Like every other evening, between 5 and 8 the roundabout was a filled with cars, tempos, three wheelers, cyclists, scooters, motorcycles, all trying to inch forward in the un-definable mass of traffic. This was probably one of the largest roundabouts in the city, and one of the busiest, since it was the transit point from Central Delhi to North Delhi.

Of course it was all the better for the large installations on and around the roundabout. 4 large photographs, 20ft x 15 ft were located on the verges around the roundabout, lit by spotlights. The vultures which the city had lost stared back at the city – reclaiming the space. In the centre of the roundabout, and about 30 ft above it, were three large floating tensile structures, made of fabric, shaped in the manner of bird’s wings. Two were lit up with fluorescent light, whilst the third had the video ‘extinct?’ projected onto it. The video had been a challenge, since just finding the vultures took over 6 months, and that too in two small flocks of 30 and 9 birds. When I thought of the ease with which I found them even 20 years ago, just by traveling to the nearby ridge forest, the fact of extinction hit me very starkly.

Inside the Natural History Museum – the last two vultures, stuffed!

In side the Natural History Museum there were other installations. The Museum itself is in a building owned by FICCI, the large federation of the biggest industrial houses in the country. Built in the 1970’s the building itself is like a fascinating relic of the past, and announcing India’s encounter with modernity in its Bauhaus style of architecture. The entrance to the building has a beautiful overhung canopy anchored at one end with two pillars and floating beyond it. The lobby is messy, since it is unkempt, and full of banners which announce the various accounting tutorials which take place in the auditorium each day, The museum itself is approached through a staircase, and has displays which belong to a time past. Charming yet somehow ancient. In the centre of the building is a shaft around which spirals the staircase which leads upto the 5th floor.

The original plan to set up two large light boxes in the entrance lobby was soon abandoned, since it was just two messy. Hence these were located on the first floor, in the lobby to the museum itself. One installation was a large light box table, like a museum display, and with photographs of my old bird watching diary and photographs. From there floor signage took one to the central courtyard which has another fabric tensile running through it. Every evening this came alight with the video of ‘extinct’ being projected onto it. On the second floor, the signage led to the diorama of the stuffed vultures, which had a video of two nesting birds placed next to them. Here the group Desire Machine had recreated a multi channel forest sound, which brought the whole floor alive for a few days.

Readings on Ecology and Extinctions – public event at Max Muller Bhawan

The readings, I organized was an opportunity to think of extinctions and ecology in our lives, and what they meant. Salil Chatruvedi read his poems. Sheeba Chachi talked about memory and extinctions. Rana Dasgupta read on the extinction of identity, and Professor Vikram Soni spoke about the linkage between critical mass and extinction. It was a fascinating evening, and unearthed many thoughts and ideas about the interconnectedness of ways of thinking about loss.

The Public and Public Space - ours to reclaim!

I went and saw other works by fellow artists, over the days. Everywhere there were curious people. Complete strangers would come up, gather around the works and have a conversation. Suddenly the public space was not a place solely to transit across. It was also a place for community. As i have always felt, it is in the public spaces that community is formed and that citizens are created. It is these spaces which have the potential for openess and liberation. For democracy and sharing.

Place two chairs on the pavement and their will be a conversation, between complete strangers!

The public space is completely usurped by the state. We have allowed it to be so. It is like a natural law. If you will not occupy it, something or someone else will. This is true here as well. We have let go and let it go.

The festival to me brought home this realization. From the difficulties of getting clearances to the point where it was possible to put up public projects and activate the latent publicness around these objects told me clearly that this place can be reclaimed. It is only a matter is doing that, and of believing that it is important to do so.

If we do not then it is lost in the discourse of security and terror, and of divisive identities rather than of "creating a community."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In the Shadow of the Vulture

The Docile Dead Keeper
It is true, we all seem to be going somewhere. Very fast, and quick. The question is where? All around us, there are extinctions, as things get blurred and we cannot see what we step on, all sacrificed for the sake of the journey. But where does the journey lead to – what would we have learnt during it, that will form our future. It may be said that the barrenness will be fertilized with new dreams, new hopes and new possibilities. Yet, is that true? Do we really believe in this idea, or is the speed of the present so exhilarating that we cannot make sense of the landscape any more, since it is so very fuzzy? Maybe we are scared to see that it may be barren, very, very barren.

For one species, which came upon this planet, probably over a 100 million years ago, there is no journey left. Almost. The vulture is increasingly no more. Wiped out, from the staggering tens of millions in number in the sub continent, even a couple of decades ago, to less than tens of thousands. Over 95% of them have died, in the largest mass extinctions ever known in the recorded history of mankind. All killed, amazingly by one innocuous pill!

Maybe, it is a sign of times. Maybe, the wise vultures have departed on their own. Decided to withdraw from the cycle of evolution. After aeons of changing, adapting, evolving, co-existing, it may have become just too much to cope with. The world is no longer possible to survive in, and hence there is no future in it. What the biggest earthquakes, volcanoes, meteorites could not do, has happened in the time when we, as the human race, claim as a time of ‘civilization.’

A sign of animals and birds sensing a tsunami much before we can?

The vulture is carrion. It is seemingly dirty, large and scary. It feeds on dead flesh. Why on earth should we bother for it? What we fail to recognize, in the age of abattoirs and incinerators, is that the vulture is also on top of the food chain, doing nature’s job of ensuring that all dead are disposed of safely. It is also an unusually caring bird, nesting and bringing up its young with great devotion and tenderness, besides the fact that it only feeds on dead animals, but normally does not hunt.

It is the docile dead keeper of the planet. Only doing its job, and helping nature complete its ongoing cycle.

The Pill
Surprisingly, in the end, all it took was a simple pill. That pill proved more powerful than all the vagaries of nature such a species must have faced over millions of years. This pill was meant to reduce pain in ones muscles, especially in livestock, so that they can produce more milk, more often. Livestock as industry. A simple drug, which helps animals like cows and buffaloes, become better machines to produce more milk – not to feed their young but to feed the dairies, which feed us. For unknowingly the cows and the buffaloes became the bait, the poisoned bait, which took the vultures out. But coming back to the cows and buffaloes which meant no harm to the vultures except they offered themselves as food once they were dead. No big armies here. Just a pill, diclofenac, like aspirin, which we fed to the vultures through the carcasses of the cows and other slaves, and silently destroyed the kidneys of the vultures. First their neck would droop, then they would salivate, and then finally fall from the tree – dead. Perfect. Like nerve gas. Chemical warfare.

But no one is really asking why was such a pill necessary in the first place?

For over a century now human beings have been making and synthesizing chemicals for the benefit of human - kind. Over a hundred thousand such chemicals have been put out already. But no one knows what other harm they do to our lives and life forms which have inhabited this planet for millions of years. These are all considered safe till proven otherwise. While diclofenac did reduce body pain, it also made extinct a life form which had evolved over maybe a billion years – who knows from the beginning of time itself. Such is our intelligence and sensitivity and belief in our industrial systems. Such is the nature of the industrial systems we have created, and the methods of science we encounter.

It was in 1962 that Rachael Carson wrote the book ‘Silent Spring.” The observant scientist, reviewed thousands of papers, and predicted that chemicals like DDT are destroying the ecology of our planet. DDT and similar chemicals, she stated is causing the extinction of eagles, or leading to the genetic distortion of fish and other marine animals, which are continuously exposes to them, even in very minute quantities. Similar impacts have also been detected in human beings now. Through bringing home the increasing impacts of chemicals in our lives and the unintended and /or the unstudied impacts they have on our lives, she drew attention to the need of ‘precaution.’

However the market based economic systems do not have any place for such approaches. If it is good for the market, it must be good. The chemical and pharmaceutical industry has fought regulation, information transparency and independent research for over a centaury. Their financial and political clout makes us believe that everything that is introduced on the market is benign. The onus of the burden of proof is on us. Hence the drugs are safe, unless proven otherwise. “Prove it!” is the motto. It is not by accident that it took over a decade to ban ‘diclofenac.” This ban is also only for ‘veterinary’ use, and not for human use. It is not uncommon to find the drug being diverted from human to veterinary use.

The story of the near extinction of the vulture is also the story of the fiscal and political power of our economic and industrial processes It is indeed a reduced life we inhabit, and the loss of the vulture is evidence of that.

The Lengthening Shadow
The vulture did well, over time. It did well enough for the Egyptians to equate it with mother (Mut), or Cleopatra to wear them on her thrones and crowns. It also did well to be the great Garurda, king of birds which was faithful to the mighty Rama, or the winged warrior of the American Indians. It did well with everyone who saw life in its entirety and respected all they did not know and did not fully understand.

It was killed in a time when ‘knowledge has substituted the ‘knowing’ of things.

Simultaneously it is harder to see sparrows, or rose ringed parakeets flying home every evening around our homes. Tales of tigers dying, elephants being killed, rhinos being poached, saras cranes disappearing are descending all around us. Maybe this is the age of man-made extinctions! Or maybe man has always led to extinctions – like the cheetah, the bison, the great American eagle, or now even the disappearing honey bees!

How does a species which has survived for millions of years, just die out in a matter of a years? In the past too, there have been mass catastrophic extinctions- the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, or the extinction of the dodo. The dinosaur died seemingly as a result of a massive meteor collision with Planet Earth, which blanked out the atmosphere with dust, blocked the sun, and essentially snuffed the pre-historic and some massive creatures out. The dodo was hunted to extinction, unable to fly away from the arms bearing humans.

Our ecologies are changing. In the way we relate to the city, or the manner in which our network of relationships functions. The extinction of natural systems, of a biodiversity of ideas and connections, the discourse is reduced. Development seem to need an unnatural unipolarity and focus, but what lies its counter charge? In fact what is ‘development’ and how do we understand that term which seems to drive all our energies today?

In the shadow of the vulture we live. When wisdom passes, maybe the wise pass on too.

The Vulture is dead. Long may we live.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Is something moving?

The morning papers reported that the Metro had "after protests that the practice of cutting trees disturbs the ecological balance,has adopted a new policy to plant one tree in the vicinity of every tree that has to be cut for construction of the Metro. This is in addition to planting 10 trees in different locaions for each tree that is cut."

If that is true, then maybe something may shift. But on the ground, the cutting went on! (pics: Priti Mahesh and Pragya Mazumdar)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

On Killing A Tree

Gieve Patel

It takes much time to kill a tree,
Not a simple jab of the knife
Will do it.
It has grown
Slowly consuming the earth,
Rising out if it, feeding
Upon its crust, absorbing
Years of sunlight, air, water,
And out of its leprous hide
Sprouting leaves.
So hack and chop
But this alone won't do it.
Not so much pain will do it.
The bleeding bark will heal
And from close to the ground
Will rise curled green twigs,
Miniature boughs
Which if unchecked will expand again
To former size.
The root is to be pulled out
Out of the anchoring earth;
It is to be roped, tied,
And pulled out-snapped out
Or pulled out entirely,
Out from the earth-cave,
And the strength of the tree exposed,
The source, white and wet,
The most sensitive, hidden
For years inside the earth.
Then the matter
Of scorching and choking
In sun and air,
Browning, hardening,
Twisting, withering,
And then it is done.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

appeals all around: silence abounds

A petition to the chief minister has been signed by over a thousand people, many of which are well known. The media has carried stories about the problem. The designers of the HCBS have been met and they have promised to help revise the plans. Citizens have done actions on the ground. (pic by Jaya Iyer above). Only nothing has changed. As if the driver in the bulldozer is so high up and so deafened by his own machine that nothing can stop him. It is a sign of the times. Projects carry the way. There is too much money involved. Too many intertwined interests. The scale of change is direclty proportional to the scale of capital. Humans are mere tools in its hands it seems, both who have the capital or those who only suffer from not having it. Unfree, bound.
Date:26/03/2007 URL:

Front Page
Spare the trees, plead Delhi's leading lights

Staff Reporter
NEW DELHI: Former Prime Minister V. P. Singh, writer and columnist Kushwant Singh and journalist Pranoy Roy have pitched in along with environmentalists and concerned citizens of the Capital to appeal to the Delhi Government to spare the green cover currently under threat from the High Capacity Bus Service corridor and widening of roads for more lanes.Top academics, experts, journalists, activists and students have signed an appeal to be submitted to Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit asking her to stop and review the onslaught on thousands of trees lining the Capital's roads.

The ongoing petition has been initiated by Trees for Delhi, a coalition of non-government organisations and citizens of Delhi, expressing anguish over this move.

The petition urges a review of the entire plan, while emphasising that merely broadening road and felling trees to claim space for more vehicles cannot resolve the issue of traffic congestion.

"The entire process of planning for the project had been carried out without engaging in any public consultation and the petition poses several procedural issues, besides casting doubt on the very wisdom of our transport planners,'' said Ravi Agarwal, member of Trees for Delhi, at a press conference here over the weekend along with representatives from other non-governmental organisations World Wide Fund-India, Kalpavriksha, Toxics Link and Youthreach.

The petition notes that in recent months thousands of healthy trees have been cut or dug out in the name of traffic decongestion and projects including Delhi Metro and the High Capacity Bus Service corridor. "But this is not just another story of urbanisation in conflict with the environment. It is also the story of the loss of voice that people feel especially of those who have called this city their home for generations. About 30,000 trees have been cut for Metro Phase-I, National Highway Project, High Capacity Bus Service corridor, flyovers, underpasses, subways, and general road widening and we have to ask the Government to re-look its policies,'' added Mr. Agarwal.

Said Ajay Mahajan from Kalpavriksha: "Citizens and non-government organisations should be consulted before making crucial decisions and if trees continue to disappear at this rate then more than half a lakh trees will be lost before the beginning of the Commonwealth Games. Also, efforts should be made to integrate existing trees with the development plans and ensure that there is space for future plantations.''

© Copyright 2000 - 2006 The Hindu

Displacing the poor

The HCBS has displaced over 50 gypsy blacksmiths from their pavement abode for over 25 years. "What have we done? We do not beg or steal, only make things which people buy and like. Where should we go?" Currently they are hugging the only piece of land they can call 'home' on planet earth. Transport for the poor, or just "transport corridors?" Everthing in the way goes. Trees or people!

(pics Dorothea Rickear)