Sunday, October 14, 2012

On the edge - the Great Indian Bustard the edge-the great indian bustard

With a rapidly growing population, increasing pressures of development and unconcerned public authorities wildlife in India do not seem to have a chance. A recent list of most threatened species of animals, plants and fungi jointly compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Zoological Society of London includes four Indian species. Questioning whether these are “Priceless or worthless” species and, therefore, whether we have the right to drive them to extinction the two organisations have surmised that humans seem to care more for economic benefits that certain species provide if they are conserved. The rest, it seems, could be left to their native ingenuity to either adapt to the ever-changing environment or to perish.

The Great Indian Bustard
In India conservation is generally oriented to benefits that are derived from tourism. Hence, emphasis is on conservation of tigers, Asiatic lions, rhinos and elephants. As leopards and wild buffaloes are not glamorous enough for visiting dollar-toting tourists not much attention is paid to their conservation. Likewise, numerous other lower order animals and organisms have met with indifference accentuating their plight in the progressively increasing encroachment by humans in their territory.

Among the four listed Indian species is the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) that has been on threatened list of IUCN and yet no significant efforts were made for its conservation and revival. The GIBs lost out to human greed for land, trade and hunting and, of course, apathy and neglect towards their habitat despite their being declared endangered. They have become so rare that not many of us have ever set eyes on any of them.

Growing up in Gwalior, a city not far from Ghatigaon that then used to be a habitat of the GIB, some of our friends back in school after vacations would talk animatedly about the Son Chiraiya, the Hindi name of GIB, which they happened to have set their eyes on near their respective villages. Ghatigaon, in Gwalior District having significant numbers of GIB, was converted much later into the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary in 1981. As has been happening virtually all over the country, operations by the ubiquitous mining mafia and, of course, poaching saw the end of the bustards in the sanctuary.

 A similar fate awaited the Karera sanctuary in Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh. For more than sixteen years the bird has not been sighted in the Sanctuary and the lands notified for Son Chiraiya Sanctuary are now awaiting de-notification. MP government has even changed the name of the Sanctuary to Karera Bird Sanctuary, reconciled to the fact of disappearance of the GIB. Dr. Asad Rahmani, a leading ornithologist and Director of Bombay Natural History Society, happened to have observed “Karera Wildlife Sanctuary was established mainly for the Great Indian Bustard in 1981. Now it has got DFO, Forest Rangers, foresters and Forest Watchers but there are no Bustards”. A telling remark!

Eggs of GIBs
This seems to be true of the entire country. Formerly distributed in around sixteen states in India, the GIB is now struggling to survive in small scattered pockets against great odds. There are records of the Moguls being fond its flesh, the British finding it a challenging game-bird and, of course, its flesh was considered a delicacy all over. It used to be seen in sizeable numbers in Karnataka (Bengaluru, Bellary, Koppal and Gadag districts), Andhra Pradesh (Rollapadu Bird & Wildlife Sanctuary), Maharashtra (Nannaj near Solapur, Ahmednagar and Chandrapur), Madhya Pradesh (Shivpuri, Gwalior), Rajasthan (Phalodi, Pokhran, Baap, Diyatra, Mohangarh and Ramgarh in the Thar Desert) and Gujarat (in Kutch). It has since disappeared from 90% of its range.

Hunting, poaching, degradation of habitat, over-grazing and change in land-use continue to be threats to the bird’s survival, its numbers falling steeply over the years.  There are varying counts circulating among the wildlifers but it seems to be clear that there are not more tha the edge-the great indian bustardn 300 birds in scattered pockets, most of them in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In 2011, Bird Life International and International Union for conservation of Nature had to raise the status of the species from “Endangered” to “Critically Endangered”. Despite creation of a number of sanctuaries for the bird with all the paraphernalia and concomitants survival of the bird in good numbers has not be ensured. Dr. Rahmani’s hard-hitting remarks are, therefore, justified. In India impeccable systems are invariably put in place but they seldom function well enough to yield the desired results.

Tall, handsome and majestic in looks, the rare ground bird GIB thrives in open country with thorn, scrub and tall grass in arid and semi-arid regions with some cultivated lands. It avoids soggy regions and hence is not comfortable with irrigated areas. The major areas where they are known to breed in India are in central and western India – all arid or semi-arid regions. It has deserted the regions in Rajasthan where the new canal system has changed the dry landscape. The species is omnivorous and feeds on insects, rodents and reptiles as also berries and seeds. They may also feed on groundnuts and millets. Fertilisers and chemicals used for growing these crops may also have had adverse impact on their numbers.

A pair of GIBs
Every species has some ecological role. The Great Indian Bustard is considered an “Umbrella Species” for the Indian grassland ecosystems. In fact, the GIB’s presence in them is indicator of their health and many other grassland species that they host. Perhaps, because of its utter decimation the Government of India has woken up to the possibility of the species’ extinction in the near future. It has initiated a Recovery Plan and Maharashtra government, which has around 25-30 GIBs in the state, has been asked to prepare site-specific plans. The Centre is also reported to be mulling formulation of a project to save the species on the lines of Project Tiger. If it is done it would be none too soon, as the GIB, with its numbers down to 300 or less, is more critically endangered than even the tiger.

While efforts are under way for recovery of the species in various states a special mention needs to be made of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Gujarat government allotted 1500 acres in Kutch district in late 2011 for developing a habitat for the Great Indian Bustard. The area is located close to the existing GIB Sanctuary spread over 2 square kilometres in Nalia “taluka” where a nest of the bird was observed last year. Likewise, having been persuaded by conservationists, the district administration of Ajmer in Rajasthan has decided to set apart a large chunk of wasteland in Shonkalia (where sizable numbers of GIB were sighted recently) for working up a conducive habitat for the bird. Most encouraging is the willing cooperation of the villagers to protect and conserve the bird – a reaffirmation of Rajasthan villagers’ conservationist tradition. In the process, another threatened bird, the lesser florican, a seasonal visitor to the region, may also receive protection.

Obviously, there is still hope for the Great Indian Bustard. A rare combination of sincerity and commitment of all concerned might still be able to bring the beautiful species back from the edge.

Photos from the internet

Friday, October 5, 2012

Eulogy for radios of yore

The other day while listening to a noisy programme on the fm of Radio Mirchi my mind travelled back long years to 1948 when we got the first radio in our house. My late second brother got a first division in his intermediate examination. The examinations were held then by the Ajmer Board of Secondary education to which a number colleges in Rajputana, United Provinces, Central India, etc were affiliated. With thousands of candidates competing, getting a first division in those days in any board or university examination was no ordinary matter.  Elated by the distinction achieved by him, my father went and bought a radio as a gift for him – a small one, of five valves made by Phillips of Holland. Its price was Rs. 350/-, an amount that was more than my father’s monthly salary. 
A radio of early 1940s

Radios were a, sort of, rarity those days, more so in a small town like Gwalior where we grew up. Not many people owned one. I remember our entire family walked quite a distance to a Bengali family’s house to listen to the broadcast of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose from Singapore. This must have been around 1942 when I was a small kid. Amid a lot of disturbing noises like those of lightning and thunder I just heard somebody speaking out. But I remember the radio which was a boxy type, something like the one that Tom tunes in to in Walt Disney’s “Tom & Jerry” cartoons.

One could easily make out who all had radios in the town. The tell-tale sign was a pair of bamboo poles sticking up into the skies from the terrace, joined by a wire that came down to a lower floor and entered the house through an available inlet. These were the antennas that one had to have to receive broadcasts and were also indicative of the family’s financial wellbeing. Radios being uncommon, one would find them, maybe, on top of one or two houses in a locality. Consumerism was far, far away. While salaries were low, the prices were constantly rising. Even in those early post-independence days Nehru would frequently harangue people about tackling the “monster of rising prices”. Were he to re-appear today and check out the prices, he wouldn’t know where to hide.

Although there were only very few broadcasting stations in the country – mostly in metro and other bigger towns – one could roam all over the world with the receiving set. The air waves were free and, unlike the TV or fm transmissions, one could tap them to tune in to the fare offered by any station in the world that one fancied. It all depended on the power and capability of the set one possessed. 

Our five-valve, three-band radio, one medium and two short-wave bands (many of the current generation may not have heard of these bands, fed on fm as they are), had limited capabilities. Yet we could tune in to, apart from Indian stations, distant broadcasts from, say, Radio Australia, on 16 or 19 metre bands to listen to the running commentaries on cricket test matches played there. Likewise, when cricket was on in England we would tune in to BBC, again, on the 19 metre band. I clearly remember the disastrous second Indian innings at Headingley, Leeds in the summer of 1952. India lost four wickets for no runs on the board, the new young speedster Freddie Truman knocking off three of his four wickets in the innings in the first two or three overs. The din that the Indian debacle raised at distant Headingley was carried over the air-waves to us through the radio. 

Even the news bulletins broadcast at night were worth listening to. Among the English newscasters was the legendary Melville De Mello with his impeccable English delivered in his deep baritone. He was the one who gave non-stop running commentary from a moving van for around hours while accompanying the funeral cortege of Mahatma Gandhi. He was also handpicked by the British Government for broadcasting running commentary on Queen Elizabeth’s coronation procession in 1952.  It’s such a pity that his 95-year old widow has had to fight for her measly pension. 

The medium wave-band broadcasting those days was of low power hence the weak signals of distant stations like Cuttack or Patna would only be faintly audible. The short wave broadcasts, capable as they are of reaching any part of the earth, were clearer and largely devoid of atmospheric disturbances. Good for receiving musical programmes, we would tune in on short-wave to the Delhi station for various musical programmes. Most of the ustaads (maestros) of Indian classical vocal or instrumental music were given breaks by the government-owned All India Radio (AIR).

For us the most attractive programmes used to be of Hindi (non-film) songs of Pankaj Mullick, Talat Mahmood, Jagmohan, Hemant Kumar as also the weekly programme of film songs “Aapki farmaish”. We would even tune in to Radio Pakistan, Dhaka to listen to Firoza Begum sing Tagore songs, a favourite of my father those days. Around the early 1950s Radio Ceylon literally gate-crashed into the Hindi film-music listening audience. The broadcasts available right through the day, they remained a great favourite for a very large section of the people who were light music enthusiasts until AIR’s Vividh Bharati, a film-songs based programme commercialised on the pattern of Radio Ceylon, gave it a run for its money. By then, of course, Radio Ceylon’s disc jockeys (DJs) Amin Sayani and, later, Sheila Tiwari had become household names in India.

 Western music has virtually disappeared from the Indian airwaves. In our times we could tune in to Delhi to listen to chamber and dance music, a programme of Western orchestras, and “A date with you” anchored by Ms Preminda Premchand every Friday night. She played on demand popular Western light vocal and instrumental music. Bing Crosby, Jo Stafford, Patty Page, Nat King Cole, Perry Como etc., the trumpet of Eddie Calvert and the numbers of Billy Vaughn and his orchestra were favourites of most of us. Radio Ceylon, too, used to broadcast Western light music and its DJ, Greg, was very popular in India.

Because of the growing clutter of broadcasting stations on short waves at 16, 25, 31 and 41 metre bands radios with band-spreads for accurate tuning of closely spaced frequencies became available. We acquired in mid-fifties an 8-band radio with a more powerful speaker. The music flowing out of it was sheer pleasure. Much later, the tuner-amplifiers with fm band made their appearance with a bank of 10 press-button tuning knobs, detached speakers and stereophonic sound system. I was sold one by Philips in Chandigarh in 1975 in beautiful rosewood-finish with the assurance that stereo broadcasts were to commence soon. AIR, with the monopoly that it had, however, took around 10 years to bring fm broadcasts on stream and, that too, for very limited hours. Nonetheless, even in mono state the big powerful speakers produced delectable sound of music.

In the meantime, advances in technology radically changed the scene and democratised the radio, taking them even to the villages. Invention of transistors made it cheap and portable – shorn of the heavy and fragile valves and powered by dry battery cells. In the early sixties the Mall of Mussourie lost its quietude, with tourists walking around with battery-powered transistor radios slung from their shoulders, film music blaring out of them. These also became powerful means of dissemination of information to the remotest corners of the country where electricity had not reached.

Samsung Smartphone
Though millions are still in use, their popularity waned with miniaturisation and advent of portable cassette players. Nonetheless, in the later avatar of bulky radiograms that combined a valve radio and a gramophone, radios used to feature in much smaller early two-in-ones or three-in-ones which even had a cassette deck. Then, in the ‘80s radio lost out to the TV that combined audio and video broadcasts. Admittedly, a mere audio receiver could have had no chance of survival in front of a medium that could also receive live and vibrant pictures.

Fm broadcasts came along in the early nineties and soon the government broke its monopoly over the radio waves. Privatisation of fm broadcasts enabled controlled increase in the number of broadcasters. Arrival of cheap radio-enabled cell phones has kept fm broadcasters busy but today what one gets is mostly a mix of loud music and gibberish. Doing even better, smart phones have gone ahead and put in the pockets of people not only a radio but also a television and a computer with internet connectivity.

No wonder radios of yore in beautiful shiny wooden cabinets with their illuminated dials capable of tuning on to any station in the world have had to make a quiet, unobtrusive exit from Indian homes. Young India hasn’t seen them; those who are curious can find them only in museums.

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...