5 ways to drive pharma companies out of business

Long years ago, in what now seems like a previous lifetime, I used to drive every morning to work, and listening to the radio was an enjoyable distraction from the crazy traffic and a way to keep up with the latest music. Now I work from home and along with driving, listening to the radio has become a rare occurrence! But this morning I was in my car driving after a long time, and switched on the radio. Every single advertisement had something to do with illness – ads for medicines conveniently delivered at home, ads for new super speciality hospitals opening up, ads which tell you not to ignore stomach pain as it might turn into cancer, ads for health insurance which will cover not only the cost of your treatment abroad but also fly you and a companion there by business class! Just listening to the ads is enough to make you sick.

Clearly ill health is big business. But the question is why do we have such an epidemic of illness around us and a whole lot of confusion and fear surrounding food and health? Why do we think of remedial measures only when we are dangerously close to the precipice and about to lose our good health? Instead of running around shopping for the best insurance, why don’t we make an investment in our health? Not through pills or fad diets, but through the choices we make on a daily and hourly basis.

I guess we all know that food and exercise are keys to good health. Why then does it seem like such hard work to be healthy? We drag ourselves reluctantly out of bed and masochistically force ourselves to hit the gym, where we torture ourselves while inhaling other people’s sweat. And as for food, doesn’t healthy equal boring? When confronted with a pizza enticingly dripping with cheese, who wants to think of that blocked artery ten years on? It’s simpler, isn’t it, to buy health insurance and push those uncomfortable thoughts out of our heads?

Those who’ve known me in the last 4-5 years, know me as a person who always eats healthy and exercises regularly. I wasn’t always like this, though! Until a few years back I was a typical corporate type engineer in a sedentary job with little exercise, spending almost all my waking hours in an air-conditioned office sitting in front of a computer (or in a car getting to work), eating unhealthy food, addicted to tea/coffee, taking conference calls at night, sleeping late and waking up tired. Lower back pain was a constant companion! It was only the passion for birding which kept me sane and took me outdoors – every weekend and every vacation was spent birding.

After I got out of my corporate job and switched careers, I’ve been consciously focusing on my health and fitness to get where I am today. It has been a continuous journey and I am still learning. I am no expert, but what I have learnt is that it isn’t about that 1 pizza or that 1 workout missed, instead it’s about being conscious of your choices and learning to listen to what your body is telling you. It’s about getting back the instincts that we seem to have lost in our attention to the weighing scale, nutrition labels and calorie counting. Here are the top 5 investments I’ve made in my health, in increasing order of importance:

5. Information: Michael Pollan’s award-winning book “Cooked” started me on the journey of reading about food and I soon moved on to a number of documentaries exploring the connection between food and health, food and the environment, most notable among them being “Forks over Knives”, “What the Health”, “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead”, “Fed Up” and “Cowspiracy”. These and many more are available on Netflix and make you think and rethink your choices.

4. Lifestyle: After moving out of a corporate job, I opted for a significantly different lifestyle and now work from home. My stress levels have dropped dramatically and quality of life has improved, since I no longer spend hours stuck in traffic. I’ve started enjoying making my own meals and trying out creative recipes when I’m bored at work. The window next to my desk looks into the canopy of a gorgeous eucalyptus tree, and the birds on it infuse entertainment into my day. Even with a busy lifestyle, sometimes all it takes is a shift of perspective and a conscious effort to devote a little bit of time in one’s daily routine to making wellness a priority.

3. Exercise: With any kind of exercise, enjoyment is key! If it’s a chore, it won’t help you in your fitness journey. Do what you enjoy – whether it’s long walks, playing badminton, dancing or yoga – but do it regularly. My current addiction is Ashtanga Yoga, in which the rhythmic movement coupled with the focus on breathing takes me into a meditative state and helps me get through anything that life may throw at me. What’s important to note is that it’s never too late to start! Never a fan of gyms, I started exercising at home (with Tony Horton’s Power90 and P90X series) only after I turned 40, and was amazed at how quickly I dropped excess weight and developed muscles I never had in my twenties!

2. What to eat: I was brought up as a carnivore, but six years back I turned vegetarian, and more recently vegan, for ethical[1] and environmental[2] reasons, and have since found that adopting a whole food, plant-based diet is in fact one of the best things we can do for our health[3]. Before you go out and binge on french fries and Pepsi, I should point out that this means more of fruits and vegetables, and to paraphrase Michael Pollan “avoiding any food that has a TV commercial”. If you’re addicted to your dahi and cheese, let me assure you equally tasty alternatives exist that are infinitely better for health (both ours and our planet’s). Sharan’s website[4] is my go to place for vegan recipes and alternatives. Adopting a vegan whole foods diet, even temporarily, is actually a great option for those trying to lose weight[5], as it forces you to opt for healthier options especially when eating out, and most desserts are automatically out of bounds! Worried about protein? You may be surprised to know that our protein requirements are actually much lower than what we think we need[6].

1. How to eat: going vegan can tell you what to eat, but actually the how and when can be equally important! Research has shown that agricultural produce today is less nutritious than it was 50 years ago[7], due to global warming, and most of us (and especially those who are overweight) may not be getting the mix of nutrients that we need, even if we are primarily eating vegetarian or vegan food! Raw and steamed food, and lots of fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts are key to providing the spectrum of vitamins and minerals that we need on a daily basis. A 3-day workshop I attended by The Health Awareness Center (THAC)[8] provided an eye-opening wealth of information on the link between nutrition and health (they conduct regular workshops in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore). Eating according to natural laws can get our body to function at its optimum potential, besides avoiding minor ailments and boosting our immunity for the long term. For me, an immediate short-term benefit was that I could go on an all-out mango binge without any of the negative effects (heat boils, stomach upsets) that used to come after mango gluttony. The realisation that mangoes (and indeed any fruit) should never be eaten as dessert but always on an empty stomach was only one part of the understanding of how our body acts upon food of various kinds. Remember the movie Piku? Psst: the answer is fruit and plenty of it, first thing in the morning!

Eating the right kind of food actually can enable us to reduce and even eliminate cravings, and junk food no longer holds any temptation. Learning to recognize the signs that our bodies give us can help us remain healthy while avoiding medications. Amazingly, most lifestyle diseases can be easily reversed with diet[9], and Dr. Nandita Shah of Sharan runs a 21-day residential programme[10] which has had tremendous success helping people get off their medications for good[11]. I have a first-hand experience of the power of diet as my mother was able to get off her cholesterol medication in a month by simply replacing her dairy curd (the one animal product she had been unable to remove from her diet) with home-made peanut curd!

However, it is most often my engineer, physicist and mathematician friends who react with scepticism when I tell them that the best way to get over a cold/cough is to switch to a fruit and raw vegetable diet. I suppose it is hard for those of us who have put our faith in technology, to wrap our heads around the idea that the body can actually heal itself. It is instructive then to remember that old Chinese proverb – “He that takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the time of his doctor”. Don’t believe me or the Chinese proverb, though. Try it yourself next time you feel a fever coming on. You have nothing to lose but that paracetamol.

[1] How do I go vegan

[2] University of Oxford research on the environmental impact of food

[3] Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets

[4] https://sharan-india.org/healthy-recipes/

[5] Hungry for Change (trailer)

[6] The Protein Myth

[7] The great nutrient collapse

[8] https://www.facebook.com/thacmumbai

[9] Uprooting the leading causes of death by Dr. Michael Greger

[10] Sharan’s 21 day health retreat

[11] Sharan’s YouTube channel

This article was published in IIT Bombay’s Alumni magazine Fundamatics in July 2018.

Posted in travel | Leave a comment

More Balcony Birding

Our house is located on the 7th floor of a building in a large apartment complex in a busy locality in Koramangala, but we are lucky to be in a quiet corner which still has quite a few trees. My desk where I work overlooks a large eucalyptus tree (which incidentally was nearly chopped down, but that is another story!). A decade ago I had a fantastic view of an overgrown plot from my balcony, which used to attract an amazing variety of birds (as documented in my blog post from 2009), and was in fact responsible for my (renewed) interest in birding after moving to Bangalore. There is now a monstrously ugly half-constructed building that occupies that space, so I have to make do with the eucalyptus tree and a few more trees in the adjoining residential complex.

The good news, though, is that there are still quite a few birds that I see routinely from my balcony. The Indian Paradise Flycatcher made a brief appearance a few months back, but the Ashy Drongos and Indian Golden Oriole are regular winter visitors. I am often woken up at night by the screeching of the resident Barn Owl or the busy chattering of the Spotted Owlets. This year a Blue Rock Thrush seems to have adopted the neighbourhood, and taken a particular liking to the balcony railing just outside my window, and from this perch he sings his heart out every morning! (you can listen to his lovely song here)

But this note isn’t about them. This note is about one of the tiniest birds in India – the Pale-billed Flowerpecker, which is only 8cm in size and probably weighs a few grams. This bird is a frequent visitor to ‘my’ tree. I’ve made up a little story about him below (read the captions). There is so much beauty all around us – we just need to open our eyes and see it!

A flowerpecker once came to a eucalyptus tree

This looks like a juicy fruit, said he

And so he tried to take a bite….
But it wasn’t quite right…

Because it was a bud, not a fruit, silly!

This flowerpecker, though, he was really quite bright

He then sipped the nectar, this time he did it right

But alas! He went overboard…
And he poked and he poked…
Until the bud burst open and gave him a fright!
Posted in Around Bangalore | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Jewel of the mangroves

The jewel of the mangroves had been luring me since last year to make a visit to Bhitarkanika, a small mangrove sanctuary in coastal Orissa. The name itself had a lyrical ring about it – “bhitar” = interior and “kanika” = gold, and conjured up an image of a lush paradise with a hint of mystery and adventure. And so it was that 4 of us set out for a rendezvous with the Mangrove Pitta, a rare beauty that was resident at Bhitarkanika and was said to be ridiculously easy to see there. The only catch – we had to brave the summer heat of April as it was most active in this season.

The motley crew assembled at Bhubaneshwar one scorching afternoon – Rajneesh and me from Bangalore, my dad flew from Chennai, and the final member, Dr Abhinav from Himachal for whom it was to be the first birding trip south of UP. We had a few hours to wait before his arrival, which were effectively utilised in sampling the culinary specialities of the town – from Lingaraj Lassi to a sumptuous Oriya thali at Dalma. Dessert was had after picking up Abhinav from the airport, at a town called Pahala en route to Cuttack, which boasted of hundreds of rasgulla shops lining the highway. Orissa claimed to be the birthplace of the rasgulla, and the soft spongy samples we consumed did not disappoint.

Thus sated, we continued with the long drive to Dangmal village, where the forest dept had set up a tourist complex, with accommodation facilities as well as boating and walking trails through the mangroves. En route, we made some birding stops in the intense heat, picking off some easy birds for the doctor, who nearly jumped out of the car every time a lifer was mentioned. In fits and starts we took more than 5 hours to cover the distance of hardly 200 km (road conditions didn’t help) and reached Bhitarkanika well after dark. (On the way we passed by Garhimatha sanctuary, famous for the mass nesting of Olive Ridley turtles each year.) At Dangmal we were promptly informed by our guide that crocs like to frequent the grounds of the tourist complex at night, and we should be careful. At the rooms we were welcomed by a calling Large-tailed Nightjar, and a healthy population of mosquitos, and after an early dinner, were ready to hit the sack.

Grey-headed Woodpecker

Grey-headed Woodpecker

Next morning we were up bright eyed and bushy tailed, and were to spend the time along the mangrove trails on foot. En route from our cottage to the trail we encountered a great number of woodpeckers – Black-rumped Flameback, Greater Flameback, Rufous Woodpecker and Grey-headed Woodpecker, besides Brown-winged and Collared Kingfishers. Near the jetty, the loud call of Mangrove Pitta was heard and we found the singer in a tree right next to the road!

Along the trail, several more pittas were seen and photographed as they went about displaying and staking claim to their territory. Several were paired up already and it was a treat to watch these beauties hopping about unconcerned and undisturbed by our presence. As the heat built up, we headed back to our breakfast, following which some brave souls decided to try their photography luck in the relentless heat.

Brown-winged Kingfisher

Brown-winged Kingfisher

We had planned for a boat ride in the creek in the afternoon, and set out at 4pm once the heat had reduced a bit. The ride yielded numerous salt water crocodiles of varying ages and sizes – these were the most famous residents of Bhitarkanika which the tourists came to see. We also encountered several waders, many in breeding plumage – including Pacific Golden Plovers, Lesser Sand Plovers and Common Redshanks. Other highlights were 5 sightings of Slaty-breasted Rail, a lone Ruddy-breasted Crake and a Lesser Adjutant. Brown-winged Kingfishers were very confiding and offered very close approach, but Collared Kingfishers were not so cooperative. A Brown-winged Kingfisher was seen chasing a Mangrove Pitta, a fantastically colourful sight!

Oriental Scops owl

Collared Scops owl

In one day, the lifer list of the Himachali resident had already well exceeded his expected number, but he was determined to make use of every moment of daylight productively. The next morning after a desultory boat ride in which no new species were added to the list, we set out birding on the trail. The resident Scops Owl (Collared, though Oriental was also seen) was seen inside a clump of trees near the jetty, and was the focus of much attention, from us and another group which had arrived that morning. (The group was fully outfitted from head to toe in camo gear when we left for the boat ride, but by the time we returned in the heat at least one of them had given up on the effort and stripped down to his white undershirt!)

Mangrove Pitta

Mangrove Pitta

After breakfast we decided to try our luck with some pittas, and soon enough had a close encounter with a pair nonchalantly feeding along the edge of the mangrove trail. I called it quits soon after, opting to retire to the shelter of the guest house and the luxury of a fan, but the others continued to seek better photographs valiantly. The good doctor was especially persistent. Lugging a camera more than half his size, we worried that he would get heat stroke, unused as he was to the heat and humidity of the plains. But he returned triumphantly just before lunch displaying stunning photographs of a Mangrove Pitta eating a crab.

Pacific Golden Plover

Pacific Golden Plover

The boat ride post lunch and next morning’s birding brought a few more coveted lifers to the doctor and soon it was time to head back to Bhubaneswar. En route an impromptu stop at a sweet shop of the famous Bikali Kar (legendary sweets maker of Orissa), in his home town of Salepur, where we consumed singhadas (the East’s version of samosa) par excellence and gigantic kheermohan (rasgulla with caramelised sugar). At Bhubaneswar we met up with Panchami, who treated us to an exquisite oriya meal at a restaurant at hotel mayfair, over stories about a nesting colony of skimmers, providing a fitting close to a productive birding trip.

Thanks to Wayfarer for organizing the trip. Here are some more images from Bhitarkanika:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Posted in travel | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Paradise Found – A trip to the beautiful Nicobar islands – Part 1

Where does one start to describe the trip of a lifetime? In December ’15 I spent 12 days between Great Nicobar and Central Nicobar enjoying the pristine, untouched beauty of the islands (a selfish thank you to Govt of India for not allowing tourists into this paradise). There was amazing birding with many new birds (18 for me), great birding company, beautiful forests and beaches (mostly inaccessible with hardly any roads).


Andaman Masked Owl, Port Blair, 12 Dec ’15

It started with a phone call discreetly informing me that Shashank, along with Gaurav Kataria, was organizing a 2 week birding survey to the Nicobar Islands in December. I lost no time in signing up but permissions took several months to come through, after diligent follow ups at the highest level by Gaurav. Finally I arrived in Port Blair on 12th along with Alka where we joined the rest of the group and promptly proceeded for evening birding at Chidiyatapu. Our first bird was a Crested Serpent Eagle (Andamans ssp) and at the beach (Bada Balu) we had a bumper sighting of 2 Beach Thick-knees in the dying light. Night birding added 3 species of owls to our kitty, including Andamans Masked owl, and the two hawk owls (Andaman and Hume’s), while the 2 scops owls proved elusive, though we heard their calls.

13th Dec – Port Blair, South Andaman


Black Baza, Kalatang, 13 Dec ’15

With this auspicious start, the next morning was spent at a forest called Kalatang, where I added Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike to my life list, and everyone enjoyed great views of the Andamans specialities like the woodpecker, treepie, drongo, cuckoo dove etc. The highlight though was a spectacular sighting of 3 Black Bazas perched in a tree right above our heads. We spent several fruitful hours there and finally left for Shoal Bay. En route, a halt in a field revealed a pair of White-breasted Woodswallows as well as around 20 Pin-tailed Snipes. Shoal bay itself was disappointing but that was to be expected as we were there at the peak of noon. Returning to Port Blair, we stopped at Sippighat to look at the flock of Andaman Teals, but our guide Gokul was super excited by 3 Garganeys that were in the group. Some bitterns, waders and reed warblers later, we headed back to Port Blair for an extremely late lunch, and in the evening set out again for more wader watching.


Daurian Starling, Port Blair, 13 Dec ’15

This time we had excellent views of Broad-billed and Curlew sandpipers, a lone Eurasian Curlew and several stints of questionable identity, which were hesitantly IDed as Red-necked and Long-toed. An excellent day of birding was rounded off by watching the roosting spectacle and cacophony of hundreds of Purple-backed Starlings (with many more Common Mynas) which would descend noisily into a group of trees and promptly disappear from sight.

14th Dec – Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar

The next day was the much awaited start to the Nicobar trip, with a helicopter ride to Campbell bay on the island of Great Nicobar. Before we could board the helicopter, everyone had to get on the dreaded weighing scale and pretend to be lighter than they actually were. Our bags were weighed as well (5kg limit!) but luckily noone seemed to notice that we had slung our heavy cameras and binoculars around our necks to prevent them from being a part of the baggage weight. Waders on the runway at Car Nicobar (refueling stop) provided a momentary diversion until we were reprimanded for the use of binoculars in a restricted area. The view of the pristine and dense forests of the Nicobar Islands was enough to set the pulse racing with anticipation of the avian treasures that lay within. We were received at the ‘airport’ by Atul and Shashank, sadly in a ‘normal’ car (Atul had been picked up a few days back in a fire engine!) and regaled with stories of a Hooded Pitta that sat like a ‘gulabjamun’ and a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler that Shashank heard and saw (while Atul refused to get out of the vehicle confusing it with Pale-footed Bush Warbler which he had already seen and hence relegated to the ‘kooda’ bin). En route from the airstrip we ticked off Collared Kingfisher and a flock of Yellow Wagtails (possibly Eastern). True to expectation, the culinary highlights of Campbell bay had already been identified and we were led directly to Suruchi restaurant for a quick breakfast of puri bhaji topped off with excellent gulabjamuns (real ones) to which we would return again and again for our sweet fix. The APWD guest house was to be our home for the next 3 days while we waited for the others in the group to arrive from Port Blair (since only 2 of us could get tickets for the helicopter each day), and from its porch Pied Imperial Pigeons, Glossy Starlings and a Chinese Sparrowhawk were quickly added to the list.


Nicobar Jungle Flycatcher, 14 Dec ’15

The island of Great Nicobar had two roads running through it – a North-south road which extends to 35 km from Campbell Bay, and an East-West Road going to Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve, where people of the Shompen tribe reside (and make a daily trip in a Govt vehicle to Campbell Bay where they receive “rations” of rice, dal etc). Campbell Bay itself was a one-street town with the PWD guest house the only place to stay, which also provided dinner to various local officials, including a jovial lady teacher from the Govt school nearby.


At the ‘birding point’, 14 Dec ’15

The weather was hot and sultry, and it was late afternoon when we set out on the East-West Road for a birding session. In the Biosphere reserve, Shashank quickly identified a Nicobar Jungle Flycatcher singing, which subsequently gave great views in a dark bamboo grove. We soon checked off a resplendent male Crimson Sunbird, the ubiquitous Black-naped Monarch, and sat on a bench at the ‘birding point’ enjoying the view. Soon after dusk, a Brown Hawk Owl started calling right above our heads and was joined by another individual. We decided however to postpone our owl quest till after the others had arrived, and made our way back to the guest house.

15th Dec – Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar

We left from the guest house at the unearthly hour of 3.30am, aiming to scope out a possible active nest of Nicobar Megapode, one of our main target species on this trip. A heavy downpour at 3am turned into a steady drizzle as we drove in the dark to forest guard Prem Kumar’s house, who was to lead us to the nest. [A side story: Prem was later nicknamed ‘LK’ for reasons that shall remain undisclosed, but apparently he had been the recipient of a solid earful from his better half a couple of days back, as witnessed by our intrepid duo A and S, for suggesting that she make tea for them. He reportedly was subsequently seen meekly preparing and serving tea for the guests himself.]

We arrived at Prem’s house at ’35 mile’, which was the southern end of the North-south road (there are plans and work under way to extend this all the way to the southernmost tip of Great Nicobar, also the southernmost tip of India, called Indira Point, though the road would be cutting through pristine forest and destroying habitat for no good reason). He then led us on foot up and down a slippery shortcut which left us drenched in sweat and woke up my muscles in a jiffy. Through the shortcut we made our way down to the beach and from there into the adjacent forest where we soon found the nest and settled ourselves behind our hide to wait for the bird to show up. The Megapode, though, had other plans, and several hours later with countless mosquito bites and severely cramped legs we made our way back dejected. This time instead of the shortcut we took the longer route along the road under construction, which was just a river of slush thanks to the downpour. A sardar in charge of the road construction provided Atul with a more amenable target (rather than yours truly) on whom to hone his Punjabi speaking skills. On the drive back we encountered a Serpent Eagle (verdict awaited on its identity) and a Honey-buzzard soaring in the thermals. Back at the PWD guest house we met the next two arrivals of the group, and decided to start for the birding session only after lunch once the heat of the day had reduced.


Long-tailed Macaque, 15 Dec ’15

Afternoon birding at the Biosphere Reserve revealed the usual suspects – flocks of Glossy Starlings, Long-tailed Parakeets and Pied Imperial and Nicobar Imperial Pigeons, with a family of Long-tailed Macaque (also called Crab-eating Macaque) posing near the birding point. A Hooded Pitta was particularly vocal but never showed itself in the dense undergrowth, while the familiar “one-more-bottle” or “kaifal-pako” of the Indian Cuckoo could be heard in the distance. Suddenly, a pair of large pigeons flew across the valley, and the prominent white tail led to a collective whoop of delight – Nicobar Pigeons! On the way back we heard a Cuckoo call that sounded unfamiliar (and was recorded), while just outside the forest checkpost, the chattering of Nicobar Scops Owls made us tumble out of the vehicle in time to catch a glimpse of two individuals calling and chasing each other.

16th Dec – Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar

We decided to spend our final morning at Campbell Bay birding at the Biosphere Reserve, since all our sessions there so far had been in the evening. Walking past the birding point, we encountered the usual suspects – Black-naped Monarch, Imperial Pigeons and Glossy Starlings, in addition to the very vocal Racket-tailed Drongos and Hill Mynas. We had heard the Asian Koels calling on every single visit, and wondered whose nest they might be parasitizing in the complete absence of crows on the island. While the others got up close and personal with a Nicobar Jungle Flycatcher, I admired a far-away Nicobar Parakeet through my binoculars. A bird flew across the path, and was seen hopping away in the undergrowth – Orange-headed Thrush. It did not have the black face stripes of the peninsular subspecies, and indeed the species found on Nicobar islands was distinct from both of the mainland subspecies. However, none of us could manage a photograph. The birds here were generally quite skittish, and we guessed it might be due to prevalence of hunting among the tribal communities on the island.


Himalayan Cuckoo, 16 Dec ’15

We returned back to the guest house early (ostensibly because we wanted to meet the final two arrivals, but in reality the dosas planned for our breakfast were on everyone’s mind), on the way we again saw the Himalayan Cuckoo and Common Kestrel in exactly the same place as the previous day. At the guest house we finally met up, in full strength, and some people welcomed the new arrivals by the unique ritual of holding up their smelly socks to their unwitting noses. The dosas were par excellence, and effusive compliments to the women cooking in the kitchen were speedily delivered. We now had a few hours to kill until lunch, and everyone made use of the time to do laundry or to catch up on sleep. I made my way down to the beach nearby, which turned out to be a lovely little patch, totally secluded but well-maintained by the forest department, where I met an elderly Bengali forest guard who had actually accompanied Ravi Sankaran and Sivashankar on their early birding expeditions for the Megapode!


Pied Imperial Pigeon, 16 Dec ’15

We started out soon after lunch, back towards the Biosphere reserve, but on the way we stopped to photograph the handsome Pied Imperial Pigeons and Glossy Starlings that appeared to be nesting in the tree stumps along the road. Our party of eight now made a conspicuous sight on this island where no tourists were generally seen, and we were soon approached by two plainclothes policemen demanding to see our permits, which were duly produced. Attempts to find the Pale-legged Leaf Warbler proved futile, but before the forest checkpost we got good views of a distant Nicobar Parakeet. We failed to add anything new to our lists, and settled down to wait for dusk for an attempt at the Nicobar Scops Owl. We found an individual near the forest checkpost again, and Shashank got busy trying to record its call, while Atul and I tried yoga poses on the road under the guidance of Sumathi, in an attempt to provide relief to our still-severely-cramped muscles, yet to recover from our Megapode scramble the previous day. Recording done, we headed back to the town, where we tracked down some more Nicobar Scops Owls and made purchases of essential supplies such as chocolate to prepare for our camping sojourn the next day.

To be continued… up next… Camping at Galathea Bay!


Posted in travel | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Travel eco-friendly

Travel is one of the joys of life. The thrill of going to a new place, meeting new people, having new experiences, cannot be described. India is a great place for a traveller, with a variety of cultures, habitats, climates and unique experiences to choose from, and the increase in disposable incomes means that people in India are travelling like never before. Travel to remote places is also becoming easier every day, with the improvement in roads and infrastructure, not to mention information about transport, accommodation and so on. However, this spike in travel for pleasure also means that tourist spots and attractions are under pressure like never before. How can one be a responsible traveller and still enjoy the experience? As a compulsive traveler, I try to minimize my carbon footprint as much as possible, without having to give up travel altogether. Here is my personal list of good practices:

freshwater lake at Tsokar, Ladakh

Mode of travel: Your footprint starts from your choice of transport. Whenever possible, I take trains/buses and avoid air travel. Train travel is great if you don’t have a time crunch. I find that I have started enjoying solo train journeys, as I get time to read, to think, to write (in fact this piece was written on two long train journeys!). With a group of friends, train journeys become even more fun. If you can’t plan in advance, try Tatkal – tickets often get confirmed even if booked at the last minute. Train travel is much more eco-friendly than taking a flight. Last year I did a ten day long “rail yatra”, covering bangalore-mumbai-delhi-pathankot-haridwar-dehradun-agra-nagpur-bangalore, and the carbon footprint of the entire journey was less than that of a single flight from bangalore to mumbai! Air travel is the worst offender in terms of carbon emissions. You can find a simple carbon footprint calculator here. Sometimes flights are unavoidable. In such cases, opt for direct rather than hopping flights and try and look into public transport options at your destination, to get you to the hotel or into the city. There are excellent airconditioned buses operating from Bangalore airport, Kolkata airport, and also between the railway station and airport at Guwahati.

Smallsteps_The bag_0-001Plastic bags: Just like at home, carry a cloth bag with you when you travel and refuse plastic bags for your shopping. I carry my trusty small steps bag everywhere which folds into a small pouch. You’ll be surprised how often you will end up using it, and every time you do, you are saving one more plastic bag from coming into circulation. Another problem is plastic packaging, which is not so easy to solve, as it is ubiquitous. To avoid this, I make it a policy not to buy any snacks that are packaged in fused plastic/metal packaging (which is non-recyclable). This automatically rules out all of Haldiram’s, Lay’s products, and even most biscuits and cookies. I buy copious amounts of fruit instead, the more local the better (on a trip to the easternmost road in India, a group of 4 of us consumed 300 oranges in 3 days, fresh from the orange orchards in the area!). If in the mood to eat junk food, I opt for snacks from a local bakery which are usually packaged in transparent plastic (which is recyclable). This is also a great motivator to dig out local specialties wherever I travel, by asking the locals (try Ellora bakery biscuits in Dehradun, Bhuira jams in Himachal, “petha” in Agra, etc).

North Sikkim

Water: Finding clean water is important for all of us when we travel, and the terror of contracting water-borne diseases makes us buy bottled water wherever we go. However, nowadays, clean drinking water is easier to find than we think, as most restaurants and hotels do have a filter installed. When I travel, I always carry my water bottle and refill it wherever I find filtered water. When traveling by train, I refill my bottle at the platform, as all stations have a supply of drinking water. I also avoid beverages that come in plastic bottles, and ask for glass bottles if consuming aerated drinks. Quite often these are not readily available, and I then opt for tetrapack drinks – Amul buttermilk, badam milk, fruit juices. A side benefit – these are healthier! On a recent trek in the Himalayas, our guide carried a small bottle of chlorine drops, and we simply drank from the high altitude streams after sterilising the water. Discarded plastic bottles are the scourge of many a Himalayan town and hillside, and this one step will ensure you don’t add to this problem. oko bottle

Recently I bought this bottle with an advanced filter (originally developed for NASA): Oko water bottle. You can put water from any source into it – you can even pee into it!! (I hope it never comes to that though 😛 ) and the filter makes the water drinkable. This was being sold at a Diwali mela, and the person at the stall had a bottle filled with coke, and what came out of the filter was water! And it is easy on the pocket too – a 1-liter bottle costs Rs. 2500 (~ $20 if bought in the US) and lasts for 100 gallons (378 refills). That’s less than the cost of buying bottled water. PS: Found that there are others too: Aquaguard bottle; Lifestraw water purifier

roadside sign on Triund trek

– Garbage disposal: If you are going to a remote area, be aware that most small towns in India simply do not have a mechanism for proper garbage disposal. So even if you responsibly throw trash into a dustbin, it may still end up dumped on a hillside or in the ocean, or burnt indiscrimately releasing toxins into the air. It is depressing to see Himalayan slopes full of plastic trash, and pristine beaches in the Andamans littered with chips packets and plastic bottles washed up from the sea. (Watch this video to see the far-reaching effects of plastic trash on the marine environment). The only way to be sure that your plastic trash doesn’t end up the same way is to carry it back home with you or dispose of it in a big city, where it is much more likely to get recycled. Biodegradable waste can be simply chucked into a bush or on the ground where it isn’t an eyesore. It will decompose in no time (if the cows/goats dont get to it first!). In addition to collecting the plastic trash I generate, I usually carry a ziplock bag with me where I collect my used sanitary pads for disposal back home.

Tour operator: If you’re going on an organized tour, be careful to choose a responsible company. Ask them questions beforehand about how they dispose of the non-biodegradable garbage generated on the trip, and satisfy yourself that you are comfortable with their practices. This is especially important while trekking in sensitive areas like the Himalayas. The last thing you want to do is leave behind trash and a messy campsite for the next person. Happy eco-friendly travels!

east Arunachal landscape

Posted in travel | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A journey to the Easternmost road in India

Since the report last year of Black-browed Tit and other rarities from Walong in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, I had been itching to go there and when a chance presented itself in January 2014, I grabbed it whole-heartedly. So at the end of a productive trip to Dibru-Saikhowa NP and Jeypore forest, we set off on the trip to Walong – Rajneesh Suvarna, my father Jitendra Bhatia and myself, with our Tinsukia guide Binanda, and driver Bittu.

image006Birding along the route from Parasuram Kund towards Hayuliang was quite productive, after starting the
ascent from P. Kund. We encountered good activity and saw flocks of Beautiful Sibia and others but decided not to linger so that we could reach Hayuliang around 3pm. It took a few hours to obtain the permission to stay in the inspection bungalow there, where there were already two officials staying who had come to inspect NREGA. The next morning we left early for Walong, a distance of roughly 100km from Hayuliang. It so happened that our visit to Walong coincided with the visit of the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, on a tour of border areas in Arunachal. So we were pre-warned that we would not get a place to stay in Walong, and should plan to return to Hayuliang to the IB. image004We birded along the way to Walong, getting several good sightings like Flavescent Bulbuls, Rusty-fronted Barwings, Silver-eared Mesias, Grey-chinned Minivets and Dark-breasted Rosefinch. The route was well forested, with a few small villages with scattered cultivation, and extensive army camps every few kilometres.
There were a few small shops at the village areas, but on enquiring we were told that noone served tea, but we could buy a bottle of wine if we desired!

image001At Walong the landscape changed from mixed deciduous to coniferous pine forests, and the road sloped downhill. Fifteen km beyond Walong, we reached a meadow with very tall conifers, but very little bird activity under overcast weather conditions. We decided to bird there for some time, and our patience was rewarded with a sighting of a bunting, initially presumed to be Rock Bunting, but later identified as Godlewski’s Bunting. At the same time, a flock of small birds flying overhead with a shrill chirping sound, settled high in the conifers, and to our delight, turned out to be another rarity, Black-headed Greenfinch.

image005Continuing on along the road, we reached an area where the slope fell sharply on the right towards the river, with tall conifers on the slope and low bushes next to the road. A number of small birds feeding high in the conifers turned out to be a mixed flock of Black-browed Tits and Lemon-rumped Warblers. Playing the call of the tits briefly brought the birds right down to the bushes at eye level, and we enjoyed a close encounter with these rare birds. A lone Green Shrike Babbler in the bushes, and a Rufous-breasted Bush Robin were the only other species that we saw.

image003By this time, it was already late afternoon, and an attempt to get back to Hayuliang that night would have been pointless. Our driver went on a scouting mission further down the road, where his brother-in-law worked in a Govt office, and came back with the news that there was a basic “guest house” of the Central Water Commission where we could get accommodation, and an army camp which would lend us some sleeping bags for the night. On a high after getting 3 lifers in quick succession, we quickly agreed as it was a matter of only a night.


However, the sight of the “guest house” made our hearts sink – it was a bare room with no furniture, no electricity and a rattling asbestos roof. The Central Water Commission office consisted of an adjacent building with a large piece of equipment to record water levels through sensors inserted in the river nearby. Three employees lived there, doing nothing but babysitting the equipment, and they insisted on giving us their rickety cots and threadbare mattresses for the night. Chatting with them, we discovered that on paper this “guest house” was furnished with beds, mattresses, TVs, all of which had been siphoned off to some senior official’s house. Subsequent surveyors and inspectors had all certified the “facilities” at the guest house to be commensurate with what was on paper, but the reality was there for us to see.
image007After a mostly sleepless night, we bid farewell to our hosts who had so generously shared with us everything they could offer – their beds, their food – without expecting anything in return. After returning the sleeping bags at the army camp, we took the right fork in the road leading to the last point on the border, Kibithu. The road quickly deteriorated into a surface of jagged rocks and stones, and we soon decided to turn back, but not before we had seen a flock of Godlewski’s Buntings by the side of the road. Back at the fork, a thrush crossed the road in front of our vehicle and unfortunately disappeared before we could identify it properly, but most likely was a long-billed thrush. Returning to the same point where we saw the Tits the previous evening, our guide Binanda started jumping with excitement at hearing the call of a Spot-breasted Parrotbill. There was a flock, skulking in the grass high above the road, and eventually we got a good sighting of one bird which came out in the open.


Near the meadow, we encountered a Chestnut-eared Bunting, and a flock of Black-chinned Yuhinas and White-browed Fulvettas. Further on, a small overgrown (but motorable) path to the left of the main road, leading to some army camp, proved to be extremely productive. The grassy patch between this path and the main road appeared to have been burnt, and we saw Crested Buntings there. Walking down the path, some tentative phishing brought out a Grey-sided Bush Warbler, Rufous-breasted Accentors, a White-browed Scimitar Babbler, and later a flock of Spot-breasted Parrotbills showed up in the same place. The birds were incredibly responsive to playback, thanks to being free of birders so far (but not for long, I expect), and it made me cringe to watch the Parrotbills trying to locate the source of the calls being played by Binanda. Here we had a really good sighting of the Parrotbills, and really no playback was required…


Having gotten really late birding at Walong, our driver was very anxious to start the journey back to Hayuliang, and so we left reluctantly, but needed to refuel ourselves first, not having eaten much by way of dinner or breakfast. Surprisingly, the small shops in Walong refused to serve us, claiming that lunch was “over” while we could see some locals sitting there eating noodles. They were so unfriendly that we couldn’t even get hot water to make cup noodles which we had brought along. Further on, we decided to ask at an army camp if there was a canteen where we could get food, and after some interrogation by the army officers, they invited us in and served us a most welcome five course meal!

Back in Hayuliang, and the next day we had to get back to Tinsukia to catch a train, but we spent a few hours this time birding the stretch before P. Kund. Very rewarding birding, with a large flock of White-browed and Black-headed Shrike Babblers, Grey-throated Babblers, a Red-headed Trogon, and an Asian Barred Owlet on a hunt. This stretch certainly deserves more attention, perhaps on a future trip!

Posted in travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Not In My Backyard”

The defining moment in Satyamev Jayate’s episode (16 March ’14), in my mind, was the interview with waste-picker Saru Bai, and the respect and gratitude conveyed by Aamir Khan to her and to other waste-pickers like her. This is a huge step in our country, where “garbage” is considering a dirty job, traditionally done by the lower castes who were categorized as “untouchables” or dalits. These mindsets still continue in a large section of our population, whose attitude is that of “Not In My Backyard”. We put our garbage into a black plastic bag, so that we can’t see the mess that is inside. Once it leaves our house, we don’t want to know what happens to it, and it becomes someone else’s problem. We never consider the possibility that the garbage strewn about in our cities may be because of us. We have become part of the problem.

How do we change this? Can we become part of the solution? The answer is a resounding yes. However, it involves getting our hands dirty! Waiting for the government or municipal authorities to fix things may take too long. It is time we citizens took matters into our own hands. The first step is to understand what happens to our garbage once it leaves our home, and to take responsibility for the garbage we generate. Currently, the garbage we throw from our homes often goes to a landfill (usually in a village on the outskirts of the city) for disposal. This causes myriad problems for the people living in the vicinity of the landfill. Apart from the stench, many diseases spread through unscientific disposal of garbage, and the chemicals released from the mix of biodegradable and plastic waste contaminate the ground water, rendering it unusable for drinking or household purposes.

Changing this cycle requires changing our mindset towards garbage. Actually, nothing that we discard is really “waste” but something of value that we are throwing away. Food waste that we throw away can be turned into high quality compost for our gardens. Plastic and paper that we discard can be recycled for various purposes, but if it is mixed with food waste, then it becomes soggy/soiled and cannot be recycled easily. Garbage segregation then is a necessary step that we must take if our garbage is to be disposed of responsibly. While it sounds fancy, it is really quite simple. Instead of one dustbin in your kitchen, keep two – one for the biodegradable waste (ie, vegetable peels, scraps, leftover food waste) and another for the dry waste (paper, plastic, metal foil, food packaging).

Once the segregation habit is set, it becomes second nature and is very easy to follow. Beyond this, there are numerous steps that can be taken to dispose of segregated garbage in a responsible manner. Below I list some actions that an individual can take easily, as well as steps that a community can take to make an impact towards reducing garbage in our cities and towns.

On individual action:

In our daily lives we need to adopt the mantra of “refuse” and “reduce” first, before we think of reuse or recycle. Lets take plastic as an example. While being convenient in many ways, plastic packaging has turned out to be the scourge of our modern life. Statistics show that an average plastic bag is used for just 12 minutes, but can take upto 500 years to degrade. Yet, we use it indiscriminately and it ends up being thrown on the roadside, where it gets eaten by cows who could suffer painful deaths due to plastic ingestion. If thrown in a landfill, the chemicals in plastic can leach into the groundwater and are highly toxic as they cause all kinds of diseases. Plastic can choke the storm water drains which provide a safe outlet for water in case of heavy rains. The list of problems goes on. In fact, the Supreme Court of India recently declared plastic waste as a “ticking time bomb”, urging cities to look at solutions.

In our own small way, we can change this, it is very simple – just carry a cloth bag everywhere for shopping, especially do not accept the flimsy plastic bags given our by the vegetable/fruit vendors as they are some of the biggest culprits. If you don’t have any, it is easy to get a tailor to stitch one from waste material. There are also some very convenient foldable bags available, which are not only good for the environment but also look good, and benefit rural women. One such is Small Steps, an NGO operating from Pondicherry, which makes cloth bags that can be folded and slipped into your purse, or attached to your belt by a convenient hook. I always keep these in my handbags and at home, including a few in my car, so that I am never caught without a cloth bag. They also make great gifts! In addition to using cloth bags, try to buy less processed foods (which are invariably packaged in plastic), don’t buy bottled water but refill your own water bottle wherever you go. These simple steps will reduce a lot of needless waste.

Another example of easy individual action is that of dealing with wet waste at home. One of the most significant ways in which each of us can help the planet and do our bit to protect our immediate environment as well, is through home composting. Composting is nothing but the process of converting organic or biodegradable waste (ie, food leftovers, vegetable and fruit peels, scraps, chicken/fish bones) into nutrient-rich compost that can be used in our plants and in our gardens. Composting is a natural process which happens on its own, over time, aided by micro-organisms in the vegetable matter. In home composting, this process can be carried out in a large pot (if you live in an apartment) or a compost pit (if you have an individual house with a garden) or a sealed bin placed right on your kitchen counter. One of the simplest and most popular home composting units has been pioneered by a group called Daily Dump, based in Bangalore, which makes and sells “khambha” units for composting. These are large earthen pots, beautifully painted to make them look attractive, in which you can compost your biodegradable waste, right in your apartment. Managed well, there is no smell, plus you get the satisfaction of doing something good for the earth. I have been home composting for 7 years now, which has saved more than 1 ton of waste from going to the landfill! In the process, I have harvested roughly 50 kg of rich compost which provides nutrition for the plants in my balcony. Our individual actions can make a huge impact!

Community wide initiatives for waste management:

There are several initiatives that can be started as a community, if there is a committed group of 3 or 4 people who can guide the effort. Depending on the size of the community, a group of houses or apartments can come together to start community composting of segregated wet waste. The dry waste can also be recycled successfully, especially if the number of apartments or houses is sufficiently high. In the apartment complex where I live, there are more than 800 apartments, and we have a weekly collection of recyclable dry waste. That includes any paper, any kind of plastic, aluminium foil, even tetrapacks, milk packets etc. Residents are asked to rinse any soiled plastic items like milk packets and dry them before keeping them in the collection bags for a week. Our housekeeping staff collects the dry waste on Saturday and sorts them into different categories, which are picked up by the contractor, who pays for the waste on the spot. The money is distributed among the housekeeping staff.

ITC is one of the companies which has a program called “Wealth Out of Waste” (WOW in short), which collects household dry waste from apartment complexes. The paper they collect is recycled for their own purposes, while plastic is sold to another company which creates tar roads from waste plastic. Imagine if all our plastic waste strewn in the cities could be used so beneficially!

In my neighbourhood, we have also done several “spotfixes” to clean up streets where garbage was being dumped indiscriminately. These have been inspired by the anonymous group “The Ugly Indians” whose motto is “Munh Band, Kaam Chaloo” and who shun publicity of any kind. We received suggestions and guidance from them, but the cleanup programmes have been completely driven by the residents, from planning, organizing, doing publicity, cleaning and beautifying the area and putting in place the mechanism for it to remain clean. It is like reclaiming ownership of your own neighbourhood and making a commitment to keeping it clean ourselves. In many cases, the municipal authorities also extend their help, but even if they don’t, it is doable by residents as long as there is a committed core group of 3 or 4 individuals. Videos of the cleanup campaigns are available on Youtube.


Other kinds of Waste:

In addition to wet waste and dry waste, there are other kinds of waste which were briefly touched upon in the Satyamev Jayate episode, which are quite hazardous if disposed carelessly. One of them is electronic waste or e-waste. This includes any electronic items (laptops, pen drives, adaptors, old TVs, mobile phones etc), CFL bulbs, tubelights, CD and DVDs, floppy disks and so on. This category of waste is significant for two reasons – firstly, the large number of electronic products we use and discard nowadays, and secondly, this waste contains highly toxic chemicals (like lead and mercury) which are deleterious to health, and cause all kinds of problems including birth abnormalities in children. Therefore, proper disposal of this waste is extremely important. Some cities do have NGOs and organizations which run recycling programs for e-waste. At the household level, you can make recycling easier by ensuring you do not throw e-waste along with your food waste but give it to a recycler. We can also cut down on e-waste by using solar lamps and torches which don’t need batteries, or using rechargeable batteries which need not be thrown away.

Another important category of waste is sanitary waste which includes sanitary pads and diapers. By average estimates, a woman uses 125 kg of sanitary pads in her lifetime. That is a huge amount of waste that goes to a landfill or is burnt, releasing harmful chemicals. In fact, sanitary pads are made almost entirely of plastic, and a single pad can take 500 or more years to decompose in a landfill! Today there are hygienic as well as eco-friendly options available. Eco Femme is a group in Pondicherry that empowers village women by producing washable and reusable cloth-based sanitary pads. Another company, SheCup, makes menstrual cups that are also friendly for the environment as there is no throwaway product being used.

I should also briefly mention thermocol, which is one material that is not biodegradable nor can it be recycled easily. The correct way to deal with thermocol is to not buy thermocol disposable plates and cups, which are extremely harmful for the environment. And when we buy electronic or consumer products which come packaged in thermocol, it is best to return the thermocol on the spot after delivery of the product, as the consumer goods manufacturers do have ways of dealing with thermocol which the regular waste collectors do not.

Many of these topics were mentioned on the episode, either in detail or briefly touched upon. Aamir Khan and the Satyamev Jayate team have done a tremendous social service by screening such a well researched episode on a critically important issue like waste management and presenting it in such an insightful yet simple manner. Changing entrenched attitudes in society is not easy, and this episode was a significant step in the right direction. Hopefully, it will help to generate more awareness and interest in this subject, and encourage more and more citizens to take moral responsibility for the garbage they generate, and make efforts to dispose it safely.

An old proverb says – “we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children”. Every little action of ours has an effect on the earth and its future. For the sake of the next generation, we must make sure that we also help to solve the problems created by our own generation. In the words of well known American scientist Margaret Mead – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Other Useful Links/Resources:

Join the FB group on segregation & recycling!

If you must use disposable plates, avoid thermocol and use biodegradable areca nut plates instead.

For safe disposal of conventional sanitary napkins and diapers, check in your neighbourhood for facilities authorized to dispose of biomedical waste. One such is Maridi in Bangalore.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments