Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mumbai's terror

The dark events of November 2008 are not directly related to the theme of this blog, but we are compelled to speak up against this outrage. Our country’s intellectuals would certainly have thought of several measures to pre-empt such strikes, but here are a few random suggestions which come to mind:
1. Our borders seem so porous that sneaking across seems ridiculously easy. I’m sure this porosity works both ways, so why not send covert operatives across to target terrorist camps surgically and destroy them? Create a crack force, furnish them with the necessary forged papers, and train them to disappear after the attacks, much like what the terrorists do. Declaring a war is pointless, and can incur huge casualties on both sides, and only the arms dealers and other commercial interests will profit. Our war on terror needs to be played using the same ground rules of terrorism, so that our losses are miniscule, and the gains immense.
2. Choke the fidayeen by choking their local logistics – the terrorists don’t mind dying, but the people who house, feed and transport them do. Reserve the death penalty for such supporters, and hang them (preferably in public) to instil fear in potential supporters.
3. Terrorists and their supporters on death row can be made to compensate for lives taken by harvesting their organs before execution – several lives may be saved with their kidneys, heart, liver, corneas, skin, etc. If their families object, tell them they are morally responsible for the terror deaths, and that they are welcome to trade places in the organ donation programme.
4. Most terror attacks see to involve Islamic militants, who perpetrate these crimes in the name of jihad, and as a guaranteed ticket to Jannat (heaven). Can the highest religious authority in the country, such as the main Imam in India, not publicly denounce these criminals, and issue a fatwa or religious decree that they will not ascend to ‘heaven’?
5. Terrorists seem to be still very fond of their families, and to ensure that their kith and kin get financial support after the suicide attacks. Can we not detain their family members and use them as leverage against the terrorists – put them up on national television, ask them to make an appeal to their son/brother/ward, ask them to surrender as they are fearful of their lives? Yes, they may be innocent, but their appeals could save hundreds of other innocents who may get killed/maimed in terror attacks.

B. CORRUPTION at all levels is a great ally of terror – just pay money to touts to get a birth certificate, ration card or election ID card, all these being documents which can help a terrorist pass off as a common citizen. Similarly, you could get a huge consignment of RDX through the legitimate channels, and the right incentives can ensure that the Customs people look the other way. Corruption at ministerial levels ensures that substandard armaments and equipment gets procured, compromising our security forces. A bullet went through Mr Kamte’s helmet, remember?


Why do our politicians need security? I don’t remember the Mahatma ever having a bodyguard, though he was a leader of immense stature. Yes, he did get shot, but people in public life need to accept attacks and death as an occupational hazard, as it is with our brave soldiers. If they don’t have the balls for that, let them relinquish their posts. Don’t bask in the glory of people-funded security – hire your own, as you have enough money to do that (check their balance sheets submitted to the Election Commission – our leaders are truly rich, even by the figures they declare!). This will free at least 50 % of security forces for their actual duty, i.e. that of protecting the country and her citizens.

D. ELECTORAL REFORMS are unacceptable to all political parties, because the existing system serves their interests well. Therefore, it will be an uphill task, and the likes of a Seshan are required in the Election Commission to change the ground rules. Here are some thoughts -
a. It is truly wonderful that we have a system of universal franchise, i.e. one vote per person, irrespective of their age, sex, education, social status, etc. Let’s pause to think here for a moment – has this ensured that good people get elected to rule us? NO!
This is because an educated, thinking voter is hugely outnumbered by the illiterate masses that are recruited in hordes to cast their votes by their local goons. For example, in Mumbai, the average middle-class voter is totally irrelevant in the electoral process, as the slum votes make the ‘leaders’. Slumlords use the carrot-and-stick approach to get voters to turn up and cast votes as directed. Money exchanges hands, and thinly veiled threats of withdrawing essentials such as water connections, or simply the roof over their heads, ensures that they do not default. Is it any surprise, then, that the average flat-dweller rarely gets a glimpse of the local candidate, as they are busy in door-to-door campaigns in their slums?
b. The way out? Well, at least in Mumbai, which is our financial hub, let’s have differential weightage for each vote. A tax-paying, educated voter should have more leverage over the slum-dweller who pays no taxes, survives on illegal land, illegal dwellings, and illegal water and electric connections. Tax-payers can be rewarded on a slab basis, i.e. the more tax you pay, the greater number of votes you are entitled to. A graduate or post-graduate gets more voting power than an illiterate/semi-literate voter. As a boost to the national population policy, debar those who have more than 2 children from contesting elections, or from voting in them. Reward those with one child or none with greater voting power.
c. Can we not have bare minimum standards for our politicians who wish to contest elections? Even a peon or clerk has to satisfy educational criteria to apply for a post. Our leaders need to have at least a graduate degree (earned, not forged), and an impeccable social record. Even a shadow of suspicion regarding involvement in a crime should debar them, leave alone the current scenario where several of them have criminal records as long as the arms of the law.
d. What about a probation period for all elected candidates, wherein they deliver good performance, or relinquish their seats for non-performance? In any job, that is the norm, so why should it be different for political jobs? The appraisals can be conducted by a non-political committee of eminent persons and/or an audit firm who evaluate them on the basis of transparent criteria – these criteria, in fact, can become a road map for any politician wishing to do his or her job well.


Why did the NSG perform their task brilliantly ? They have great training and equipment, and most importantly, they are unhindered to a greater degree from political pressures. Can our police forces not do likewise?
They need to become an independent central body, taking decisions based solely upon security considerations, and not out of fear of reprisals from the various ministers and ministries. Officers should have tenures of at least three years to enable them to do their jobs well, and no transfers should be effected prior to that, save in exceptional conditions. All posts need to be filled, and funding for the police should be a part of our defence budget (war, after all, is now in our cities too, not only at our borders).
A local state force can assist this central police in local liaisons and investigations, and can do non-critical stuff like ‘bandobust’ for rallies, processions, politicians’ visits, sports events and such.


I am a strong advocate of social equity, but reservations for the underprivileged cannot be carried to absurd levels where it endangers lives.
Give the traditionally oppressed sections support in obtaining good education, and give them economic support, but keep reservations out of jobs – a job well done needs capable people, not those who get employment through reservations. A doctor, architect, policeman, fire fighter, motorman, pilot, nuclear scientist and bureaucrat – all of them need to be capable, as they can make life-or-death decisions that can affect hundreds or thousands of people. Reserving jobs for candidates only on the basis of their caste amounts to being callous towards human lives – just another instance of how political expediency rules over the common weal.

Well, there is an adverse fallout of the terror attacks on the environment too – politicians of every fold have felt the need to express their sympathy and condole the deaths of the brave officers who died in the terror attacks. Some posters even have the mugs of the politicians grinning down at you, cheek-by-jowl with the pictures of the dead officers. Every street corner and other available space has been hijacked, and reams and reams of ‘flex’, a vinyl material, have been used to carry these messages. What happens to this non-biodegradable junk after a few days is anybody’s guess.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nannaj - getting high on grass!

What’s in a name? Much, if one were to go by the lament of the Great Indian Bustard. The poor bird lost out on the competition for the national bird by a vowel’s breadth, even though the winner had a ‘pee’ and a ‘cock’ working against him – some fowl play, perhaps!
Adesh wrote in that it was raining bustards and larks in Nannaj, and we jumped onto the bandwagon (viz. the Siddheshwar Express) which deposits you in the squalid town of Solapur. The town seems oblivious to the presence of one of the most endangered birds in the world in its neighbourhood, and the local celebrity is the ‘Shenga-poli’, a sweet peanut –roti.
A convoy of three jeeps led us from our digs towards the Jawaharlal Nehru Maaldokh Pakshi Abhayaranya, (a.k.a The GIB Sanctuary) at Nannaj. Enroute, a couple of Grey Francolins invoked a former cricket superstar (to the uninitiated, their strident calls of ‘Kapil dev…kapil dev…’), unaware of the equations having changed in favour of the Ishants and the Pathans. A small herd of Blackbuck saw us being herded out of our jeeps, but any notions of approaching them were precluded by the presence of one and a half Bishnois in our pack. Smoked Salman, anyone?
The persistent “quick-quick” calls were traced to a Rain Quail strategically perched on a rock. Nannaj is in a rain-shadow – while Mumbai was being drenched, it was bright and sunny at Nannaj, and thankfully so, as we would certainly have quailed in the presence of rain (while still on the subject, Yogesh to please note – we really had a fine glimpse of the Rain Quail when you were skulking amidst the reeds at Hipparga!)
Barring a few, most of us had a glimpse of a pair of Barred Buttonquail, while a Sykes’ Lark kept us and his mate entertained with his display flight. Closer to the sanctuary gates, a Shikra kept vigil on his shikar (anagrams, anyone?), but a more vigilant Adesh had zeroed in on something more spectacular – the first glimpse of the Great Indian Bustard!
Beyond a low stone wall outlining the sanctuary area, a small white speck bobbed in the grass, and the spotting scope revealed it to be the holy grail of grassland birds – a magnificent male Bustard, eyes heavenwards, perhaps praying for a mate who has become very hard to come by. Considering their fragile numbers, forget us seeing the Bustards, it’s probably been a while since one Bustard saw another!
We trooped into the sanctuary, and headed towards a roundhouse which offered a great view of the undulating grassland. On the 70 mm panorama, the melodrama played out – not one, not two, but six Bustards starred in the cinemascope thriller.
The dashing megastar, an alpha male, strutted his stuff, and it is only a female Bustard which would find his display sexy – an enormous pouch dangling like an embarrassing hydrocele, and a cocked-up tail resembling a large excrescence piggybacking on the bird. Beauty, truly, is in the eye of the beholder! We struggled to locate the females, who maintained a low profile, and blended superbly into the duns and the browns of the grassland. And prudently so, as a Lone Wolf appeared over the horizon, scanning the scenery for a mid-morning snack (a caramel bustard, perhaps?).
Several junior artistes played bit roles – a Southern Grey Shrike, having starred in many steamy blockbusters down south, adorned the sidelines. A Scaly-breasted Munia explored medical options (wouldn’t you, if you had a scaly breast?), and a flock of Large Grey Babblers derided the Munia’s decision with a clamorous chorus. Having said that, we were no quieter than the babblers, and the Bustards soon took a bow. Mr. Bhagwat Mhaske, a dedicated officer from the Forest Department, fielded some queries about Nannaj, and revealed that the Bustards’ diet comprises lizards, insects and small snakes. Some rumbling calls were identified as emanating from hungry stomachs, and we proceeded to ‘Nisarg’, a local specialty restaurant. Enroute, our lunch was delayed, and thankfully so, as a band of Indian Coursers performed a ‘rasta roko’, and we spent much time following their course along the scrub patch.
Aptly, a multi-course meal awaited us, and the sumptuous lunch meeting was presided over by the Chief-guest, the ‘Shenga-poli’, and ably supported by the ‘Dhapates’ and the ‘Khava-polis’, while the ‘Thecha’ was awarded the ‘Best actor in a Villanous role’. We exited as soon as our abdominal pouches started resembling those of the Bustards’, and wended our way to Kegaon.
A narrow canyon with precipitous walls greeted us, and Adesh explained that this was prime Eurasian Eagle Owl country. He exhorted us to scan the cliffs to locate the birds, which we did – i.e. we scanned, but no owls leapt into our field of vision. A pair of raptors circling overhead was put down to a Bonelli’s Eagle, and a Short-toed Snake Eagle. Since there was no snake in its talons, I was left to identify the latter by its short toes!
We returned owl-less from our foray, and were almost back at the road when Adesh gave out a screech – perched on a slender Neem branch, swaying in the light breeze, and caring two hoots for our presence, was a Eurasian Eagle Owl catching his siesta. A mad scramble at the restraining walls of the canyon caused much consternation to the owl, who opened one eye to investigate. Having judged that we were not prey, he prayed that we would leave him to enjoy his slumber. Adesh promised more Bubo bubo on the other side of the road, and we hastened thither. Two juvenile shikras indulged in some sibling rivalry, and had got to the stage of mutual destruction when our arrival stalled the mayhem, and they departed with noisy protests.
The grassland was greener on the other side, and this was borne out by the fact that the canyon across the road was far more picturesque than the first one. Adesh declared that since we had seen the EEO, and knew its habits and habitat, we should be able to spot one much more easily. Binoculars were pressed into service, and all the nooks and crannies were explored. Total Owl count: NIL. A sudden exclamation from the north-north-east corner yielded information on Spotted Owlets, which had hitherto lain, well, unspotted. Three Owlets clung to the cliff face, and one wise guy darted into his pigeonhole (?) when he found us staring.
While we lavished out attentions on the owlets, the Eagle-eyed Shivkar had quietly spotted the big daddy, and had trained his scope on it – we fell in line for the ‘darshan’, and the field of view afforded a glimpse of an EEO crouching under a Neem clump. It was far enough to be labeled as being in ‘Pandharpur’, Adesh’s euphemism for distant birds (a Vithal statistic, no doubt).
We continued our leisurely saunter along the path edging the canyon, and were rewarded with a pair of Little Minivets – this species chose to flaunt its specie amidst the dull-coloured habitat, in the manner of the nouveau-riche showing off their bling. One Swallow, which obviously did not make a summer, identified itself as a Red-rumped ( the earthy aphorism of ‘khud ka laal karna’ springs to mind), and a Wire-tailed one followed suit. The latter, evidently, was a more tech-savvy customer, as he had chosen to go wire-free!
A sloping path led to the base of the canyon, and I tiptoed down this to approach the aforementioned Neem clump purported to contain the Eurasian Eagle Owl. I must have made about 120 decibels of din, with my tripod clanging and keys jangling, which resulted in the Owl getting flushed out to escape the noise pollution. I admired its huge wingspan, and its silent flight, and its demeanour suitably chastened my thoughtless intrusion.
As dusk fell, we exited the canyon, where the disgruntled owl was again seen at the mouth of the canyon, and seen mouthing expletives directed at me.
The next morning saw us setting off to explore another facet of Nannaj, i.e. the rolling plains on the opposite side of the road. Near the sanctuary, a Fox was hounding a Blackbuck herd, and upon our approach, decided to pass the buck. Adesh suggested a short village walk through Nannaj village, which rewarded us with Grey Hornbills, Indian Silverbills, Prinias, Bayas, and lots of human droppings. A Tailorbird nest was spotted by Julius, and the female seemed to be getting hemmed in and needled by our presence.
Crossing the road from the sanctuary, a vast expanse of grassland and scrub stretched for miles, and seemed devoid of any fauna. To defy our perception, a flock of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse circled overhead, and soon disappeared into the distance. We also heard a Muttered Grouse about not being able to see the GIBs. Indian Coursers were seen as a matter of course, and the nest of an Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark was located. Adesh’s strong advice to stay clear of it (i.e. Laakh mana karne par) was heeded, and we circumvented it.
A post-lunch excursion brought us to a wetland called Hipparga, which yielded Grey & Purple Herons, Whiskered Terns, Ibises and Painted Storks, all of which were in ‘Pandharpur’. A quick mental calculation put the overall bird tally at around 85, and we realized our incredible luck for having spotted no less than seven Great Indian Bustards. With the impending denotification of parts of the sanctuary, these prized birds will face more pressure from human activities. We can only hope and pray for their wellbeing, as the human juggernaut rolls on.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Bagh ko do kaudi

Dear PC Sir,

My name is Bagh, and my stripes are fading. My extended family brings in millions of dollars in tourist money, and I was looking forward to your budget proposals for schemes to keep this golden goose ticking.
I managed to catch some parts of your speech on the 29th, somewhere between my frugal breakfast (thanks to a falling ‘deer-ness’ allowance) and my midmorning stroll to check my family’s physical deficit.
As Nani Palkhivala is not around any longer to decipher the budget, I had to do some hard thinking to figure out how it impacts me. These are my observations:

A. Farmers seem to have found lots of favour, with nearly 60000 crores ( Rs. 600 billion) of bad loans waived off. Just proves that farming is economically utterly unviable – why not just import food from other countries, and return some of the land to us? Forests disappear for farming, rivers are dammed for farming, groundwater is depleted for farming, pesticides poison everybody, so where’s the logic? Imagine the money saved – no subsidies, no spending on fertilizers and agrochemicals, no power wasted on pumps, no wastage of land, no dams, and most cost-effectively, no Agriculture Ministry!
B. Small cars just got cheaper, so I can expect more crowds at all our National Parks – they will, of course, blare their horns, play their loud music, and leave their mineral water bottles and plastic packets back for us. PC Sir, I’m getting a headache!
C. I’m sure you must have been updated on another alarming figure – the national tiger census. Shorn of all the window dressing going on for years, the actual figure stands revealed at around 1400. Like other sectors of our local economy, we are under pressure from the Chinese as well. I expected some serious protection, such as provided to our domestic industry for eons. The verdict – a paltry 50 crores (half a billion) rupees provided for a Tiger Protection Force. Assuming that this largesse is distributed over more than 25 tiger reserves, each gets about 2 crores (do kaudi?) , which is sufficient to meet just their ‘chai-paani’ expenses for 6 months.
PC Sir, I would rather make a deal with the Chinese and the poachers, assuring them of uninterrupted supply if they regulate their activities, in the manner of the Bakasura story. After all, we still remember the Sariska holocaust, and the culprits haven’t even been identified yet. My suggestion is, PC Sir, please keep the 50 crores – you may need it as petty cash for the coming elections. Why waste it on a segment which doesn’t have voting rights, us dumb animals?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

BHIGWAN - A small ode to the big one

I had heard of Bhigwan way back in 1986 from my buddies in Pune, and true to my nature of prompt and timely action, I visited the place in 2008! I must thank MBC (The Mumbai Bird Club) for flushing me from my perch, and giving me a short toe-hold on the Bhigwan bus for the trip on 2nd / 3rd Feb 2008.
The long, bumpy bus ride lasted all of 7 hours, by which time, had I been indifferent to my carbon credits, I could have been in the Antarctic observing the Emperor Penguins shuffling to work! The motley group grew closer through the journey, thanks to the narrow aisle of the bus, if not anything else.
After a sumptuous meal where several domestic fowl were consumed, we oozed back into the bus to head for Diksal, our first waterbody. On a road designed for two motorcycles to pass each other with caution, we hurtled down with abandon, forcing a fair number of locals into the acacias, and occasionally into the gaggles of geese (though our final checklist didn’t record any ganders).
The expansive waterbody, the backwaters of the Ujani dam, was bristling with quills (ducks and waders, actually), and Adesh gave us ample scope to identify them – what I would have previously dismissed as “Oh, just some ducks”, metamorphosed into wigeons, garganeys and gadwalls. Plovers and sandpipers patrolled the shores, while glossy ibises ensured that their sheen doesn’t rub off. Several yellow wagtails approached us and, well, wagged their tails, while the grey and purple herons chose to put some nautical miles between us. A pipit came in close, and requested us to help find its identity, as it was confused after reading the Grimmett. A distant line of pink turned out to be a large congregation of flamingoes, each greater than the other, and only us lesser mortals vying for a glimpse. A male Brahminy Duck was seen making lascivious advances towards a female Ruddy Shelduck, and she had to remind him that she was Brahminy too.
Adesh, the MBC co-ordinator, crawled on his belly towards some wary waders, and was successful in going up to a pair of Little Pratincoles and tapping them on the shoulder. We chose more normal means of locomotion to advance on the aforementioned road, and were privy to a Brownheaded Gull snatching a huge fish the size of a whale shark (OK, maybe slightly smaller), and flying off towards the sunset.
Some of us caught a glimpse of a Common Kingfisher in the fading light, and Adesh promised to show a Bottled Kingfisher back at the hotel for those who couldn't.After photographing a pair of Great Tits hanging around (serious!), we elected to return to our roost at Baramati, and proceeded for our bird-baths.
The next morning, the sun was well up by the time we reached Kumbhargaon, as we were detained at a small waterbody enroute by a White-tailed Lapwing. Adesh and Dr. Vaibhav, the expert from Alibag, squealed with delight and did some fine displays, and we learnt that this bird has probably never been sighted here before, hence the hoopla (not as in Upupa epops).
Kumbhargaon has a large wetland on one side, and an interesting scrub patch on the other. It was in the latter that we saw a Short-toed Eagle being rudely asked to leave the area by a Falcon, evidently a redneck. Lesser Whitethroats and Ioras flitted about, and a Bay-backed Shrike looked for thorns to impale his lunch. A lark was out for an, um…. lark, and resisted attempts to be photographed. A pair of owlets was spotted, and they were Spotted.
We moved to the wetland to catch a glimpse of a Wooly-necked Stork looking sheepish, and a pair of Openbills ruing the slip between the cup and the lip. A large flock of swallows had us gulping, and we developed cervical spondylitis trying to distinguish the red rumps and the streaked ones.
Dalaj was further ahead, and we bumped along a dusty road (?) for a while before sighting open water. Painted Storks fed in a phalanx, picking fish at will. Somebody sighted a White-browed bulbul which was far enough to be in Kerala, and a large brown fruit on an Acacia on the far side turned out to be a Greater Spotted Eagle.
A juvenile Brahminy Kite waited patiently by the water’s edge to become an adult, and some adults in our flock had to be reprimanded for behaving in a juvenile fashion. Dalaj gave us the best glimpse of the Greater Flamingoes, and to our utter delight, many of them did a flypast in our honour. However, they seemed to be dogged by controversy, just as their cousins at Sewree in Mumbai.
Our last halt was for seeing the roosts of several hundred Painted Storks – our guide Maruti led us on what seemed like an hour’s trek through scorching terrain, and we had a fine bird’s eye view of the colony. A couple of Malabar Crested Larks posed for our trigger-happy mob, and soon, the mob itself posed for a mugshot. Some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations revealed that we had seen nearly 135 bird species in less than 24 hours, and a few more imaginative ones which had to be struck off the list.
This unassuming wetland had proven to be a surprise package, and I wish that human pressures will not alter its character – we did see lots of human fishing activity, and a Long-legged Lady washing clothes. Bhigwan is an unsung haven, and a Big One, and I hope it doesn’t succumb to small minds.