Friday, 29 April 2016

Missing the wood and trees

This year marks the decadal milestone for two events in the recent history of forest governance in India. One was an act of the courts and the other an Act of Parliament. The first had its origin in 1996 and the other in 2006. Together, they have brought of the fore issues on conservation and democratic governance in the forests of India. MORE ...

Sunday, 17 April 2016

It is not just the Thrissur Pooram ...

During the Second World War my father travelled from Thrissur (then Trichur) to Mumbai (then Bombay) to buy silk. It was not for any wedding in the family, but for stitching the colourful parasols for Parmekkavu temple for the Thrissur Pooram. With the War continuing for years, commodities were rationed – including silk – and it required special permission and had to be obtained from Mumbai. My father, a young man then, volunteered for this difficult and adventurous assignment.

My father was a full-fledged Pooram aficionado. In Malayalam we call this Poora-kambam. Born in 1917, the year when the First World War ended in Europe, the agrarian economy and the Independence movement were the backdrop for his early decades. Till the time his health permitted, he participated in the Pooram, unmindful of the summer sun and the crushing crowds.

A file picture of Thrissur Pooram 2015 from
He obviously was/is not alone; there are hundreds of thousands like him. Poet and lyricist P. Bhaskaran had made the Thrissur Pooram immortal in his ever-popular song Mambazha koottathil … with the words “Poorangalil veccha Thrissur Pooram …” The girl to whom this serenade is directed is addressed as the Thrissur Pooram among poorams.

Many were shocked with the news that the Pooram could be curtailed this year. “What is Thrissur without Pooram?” asked Archbishop Mar Andrews Thazhathu of the Catholic Church.

Coming almost immediately after the fireworks accident at the Puttingal temple in Kollam, the Thrissur Pooram was to take the brunt of the restrictions. It came into the cross hairs because of two orders passed immediately after the Kollam tragedy – by the forest department restricting the parading of elephants under the hot summer sun, and by the Kerala High Court restricting fireworks display at night.

Through tripartite discussions between the Pooram organisers, the State Government and the High Court, a plan to have the Pooram with controls has been worked out.

The Thrissur Pooram is the biggest and the most visible of the religious-cultural celebrations in Kerala. Thus it also draws the strongest views – from those who want to have the Pooram unrestricted, and others who want the elephant parade and fireworks curtailed. And since it has been a prominent icon in the Kerala Government’s tourism promotion under the tagline ‘God’s own country’ anything to do with the Pooram invites national and international attention.

In 2015, Hollywood actress Pamela Anderson wanted live elephants to be replaced with dummies. She offered to pay for this transition, which was refused by the Kerala Government.

But is the Thrissur Pooram the only issue that needs to be discussed and debated? Or should it be the larger picture of celebrations in Kerala?

Today, as the Pooram gathers steam in Thrissur, I remember the time when my father retired from government service in 1975 and returned to Thrissur and bought our house in Punkunnam. The Vishnu temple had just been bought from a private owner and taken over by a public committee. Behind the temple stood acres of wide-open paddy fields. The temple festival was celebrated when the fields were dry, and the fireworks were lit away from habitation. 

In the 40 years since the early days of public celebrations for the deity, the paddy fields have been parcelled and sold off into colonies in this prime real estate location in Thrissur. With many middle class families moving into the area and also remittance donations from outside the country, the temple has become richer than those early days. Even as the space for the celebrations shrunk, the ambition of the temple committee expanded. One elephant became three, and the intent to make the celebrations bigger, brighter and louder than that of the other temples became stronger.

This has not been the story of the temple near my house alone. It has not even been the story of only temples. The believers of all gods, all religions have wanted their celebrations to be the best and the boldest.

If you take the road in Kerala, you can be surprised by some celebration marching through the highway or the smaller roads and blocking the passage for hours. It could be a political party, a religious or casteist organisation, or a religious institution that is taking its celebrations on to the roads. Or, as in the recent years, it could be a jewellery chain store celebrating the opening of its 151st showroom, with caparisoned elephants, panchavadyam and pushing crowds.

Celebrations require money, and the source from which this money comes has changed over the centuries and decades. In a feudal-agrarian society, temple festivals were funded through a combination of royal or feudal patronage, returns from the fields owned by the temple and contribution from those living nearby (this would have been more as grain rather than cash).

The Thrissur Pooram could rise to pre-eminence because it was supported by the King of Kochi himself, who at that time in the 1790s was Rama Varma IX also known as the Shaktan Thampuran or the strong king. The people of Thrissur continued this support and the festival never faded.

Today, the funding for the innumerous celebrations in Kerala is crowd-sourced. It is buttressed by hyperventilating the cause of the local pride and/or a focussed identity. If people at X could spend so much for their celebrations, why shouldn’t we?

Whatever be the occasion, the attitude of the organisers is the same: “We are celebrating, and your convenience and safety is least of our concerns.” Once this attitude gets internalised as a subtext for all celebrations, then taking a newer and bolder step is just an extension of the same argument. Thus, the organisers at Puttingal persisted with the fireworks even after there were protests from neighbours, disapproval from the district administration, and even after small incidents in the early stages of the fireworks indicated that there is possibility for a disaster.

When you play with fire, the line between glory and disaster is a fine one. It is as fine as the line between cautious confidence and bravado. And when you train a wild elephant to stand still for hours, and you fatigue him with multiple parades, there could be times when his instinct takes over and he hits back.

In my father’s time there were lesser number of celebrations and thus being aware of this fine line was easier. There are far more celebrations today as my son’s generation takes charge. It is easy for the critics to pick on the Thrissur Pooram because it is an icon among celebrations. If we change our attitude towards celebratory excesses during the year and take abundant caution, the Pooram will be safe and enjoyable.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Otters return to revitalised Kerala river

When otters return to a river it is akin to tigers returning to a forest. They are the apex predators of the riverine ecosystem and their return signifies improved ecological health. A sustained community effort has resulted in the return of otters to Thoothapuzha in Kerala. MORE ...

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Dry-land birds wing it to 'wet' Kerala

At least 36 species of dry-land birds are being seen in Kerala, which was famous for its sultry weather. Does this indicate climate change? MORE ...

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Leonardo DiCaprio, the Oscars and climate change

Leonardo DiCaprio packs energy into his acting. Remember him as he runs to catch the Titanic, or as the ambitious young stockbroker Jordan Belfort in The wolf of Wall Street. When DiCaprio spoke after receiving his Oscar award on his sixth nomination on February 28, he infused his energy into the cause of preventing climate change.

“Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating. We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big corporations or big polluters but who speak for all of humanity,” urged DiCaprio.

By talking about climate change at a globally watched platform, DiCaprio re-energised the discussion
(Pic: S. Gopikrishna Warrier)
Interestingly, DiCaprio spoke at a time when world attention on climate change is flagging. It is ironically so, especially so soon after a climate agreement was carved out by world leaders at Paris in December.

DiCaprio is not the first celebrity to take climate change to international platforms. Former US Vice President Al Gore took his concerns on climate change to the world stage with his film An inconvenient truth, and shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for this effort with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Robert Redford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jessica Alba are among other names that have supported the movement to protect the world climate.

By talking about climate change during his Oscar acceptance speech, DiCaprio ensured maximum resonance from a global platform. With a reported 440,000 tweets per minute, it was the most tweeted Oscar event ever.

DiCaprio’s acceptance speech was also the first time that a celebrity was bringing international attention on climate change after the Paris Agreement was announced in early December 2015. At Paris the international community drew up an agreement that had been elusive for years. The closest that the world came to an agreement was at Copenhagen Conference of Parties in December 2009.
Copenhagen failed to deliver an agreement. However, what it ensured was that everybody talked about climate change and worked to disentangle vexatious issues. Paris delivered an agreement that was in the nature of a common minimum programme, where all countries – rich or poor, developed or developing – went back with a sense of having achieved something. Unfortunately, the Agreement was so common and so minimum that it was hardly a programme.

With emission reduction targets volunteered through the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) and no internationally-mandated targets, the Paris Agreement left behind a clutch of mishmash ambitions, which at best could help hold the global temperature increase to 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 from the start of the Industrial Revolution. Ironically, in its preamble the Paris Agreement had raised the bar for the global aspiration for 1.5° C from the 2° C that was set at Copenhagen.

Further, by involving every country to meet its INDC targets, the Paris Agreement effectively took away the differentiation between the developed and developing countries. Benin, Gabon and Bhutan are as bound by their INDC as the US, EU, China and India to meet emission reduction ambitions. This effectively emasculated the concept of common but differentiated responsibility for countries to meet the targets for global greenhouse gas emission reduction, which was the guiding principle for the Climate Change Convention since 1992.

"Let us not take this planet for granted."
What the Paris Agreement effectively did was that it found some space to echo the most important sound bite from every country. Thus, India was satisfied that there was mention of “sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption and production.” This happiness amongst the countries about the Paris Agreement has generated a complacency, which in turn has resulted in a silence on climate change discussions since December.

Leonardo DiCaprio broke this silence at the Oscars, even though at 34.3 million viewers the 2016 event had the third lowest viewership since the time Nielsen started its rating in the mid-1970s. But then this year it was not him alone who had used the platform to make an activist appeal, and DiCapiro’s statement is being played over and over again after the event.

It is a time when the US is going through pre-election process that is bringing the climate deniers out of the closet. The availability of cheap oil prices and discovery of alternate fossil fuel finds have strengthened the sense of complacency. And with an agreement in Paris, there is a feeling that it is comfortable to forget about climate change for the moment. 

DiCaprio broke this reverie with the words, “Let us not take this planet for granted, I do not take tonight for granted.” That was an appropriate reminder for the cause of protecting the world.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Amaravati site floods thrice a year

Amaravati, the new capital city being planned for Andhra Pradesh, is at a site which alternates between floods and dry season. In this it shares the characteristics which Chennai, which went through devastating floods recently. The difference, however, is that the Krishna is a larger river when compared to the Adayar. MORE ...

India's new state capital on prime farmland

Amaravati, the new capital city, that is being planned for Andhra Pradesh is being designed as a climate smart city. But its location could eat into prime agricultural land, and thus affect the climate resilience of the new state. MORE ...