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:

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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!


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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

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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!

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“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.

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The Economics of Happiness

I watched a documentary last week called “The Economics of Happiness[1]”. A very thought-provoking film which talks about how the current global economic model is killing the planet, and the need for an alternative. An interesting discussion followed, and a question that came up during the conversation set me thinking – what are the top 5 things I can do, as an individual, which will make a difference. So I decided to pen down my personal top 5 things that I think are important if we want to move towards a more sustainable world.

1. Consume less

Contrary to what the expert economists would have us believe, our consumption as a community needs to go DOWN, not UP. For a more sustainable rate of growth, we need to slow down our consumption of the planet’s resources. This was a recurring theme in the film, and a direct way to impact this is to start with our own consumption, whether it applies to that next new brand of phone, that new pair of jeans/jewellery, or that new flat screen TV for the kids room. Think whether you really need it, try to buy second-hand where possible, sell the stuff that you don’t need any more. Buy “green” and “local” as much as possible, patronize farmer’s markets and green bazaars, buy organic produce, make a statement with the money you do spend. Buy less processed food, start a terrace garden and grow some of your own food, eat out less, cook at home more! Going vegetarian/vegan is another significant way to reduce the burden on the planet.

2. Engage with governance

This starts with being an active citizen, making informed choices, and voting in the elections, of course, but it doesn’t stop there. It extends to becoming active in issues that affect our lives and those of our fellow citizens, and it is easiest to start local, whether it is trees being cut down in the neighbourhood for the road widening project, or holding the local government bodies responsible for the services they deliver – electricity, water, roads, traffic control. Many areas have active residents welfare associations through which they engage with local governance, and many of the Govt agencies are trying to reach out to citizens in a meaningful way (BESSCOM is said to be very pro-active, Traffic police has a Facebook page etc). Find out the phone numbers of local authorities, engage with them when needed, join your RWA. Connect with and lend support to community struggles elsewhere in the country and the world (online activism is easy in this globalized world).

3. Engage with community

With the state of the world’s environment today, most intellectuals believe that the time for individual action is over, and we need to have community wide initiatives[2]. This means that it is not enough that we change our own actions to be environmentally friendly (refuse plastic shopping bags, avoid bottled water, recycle dry waste, compost wet waste, use water/electricity judiciously, etc) but we must engage with our immediate community to do the same. This is again possible through RWAs – connect with like-minded people to bring in progressive initiatives around garbage segregation and disposal, water conservation schemes etc. All it takes is a core group of two or three committed individuals, and you will be amazed at what changes you can bring about, rather than waiting helplessly for local government authorities to take action. Speak out when you see a problem, rather than accept status quo, whether it is someone chucking trash out of a train window, or your neighbour washing their front porch with a garden hose. Be respectful rather than confrontational when you have these conversations.

4. Make a positive impact in your workplace

For most people, workplace is where we spend most of our waking hours, and perhaps feel more of a sense of community here. So it makes perfect sense to engage within our work community meaningfully, and bring about progressive initiatives already discussed above. If you drive to work, join a carpooling group; if you take public transport or bike to work, tell your colleagues about it and encourage them to do the same. Create and support discussion within the work community, organize talks/film screenings to increase awareness and facilitate dialogue relevant to the state of the environment. In addition, one can attempt to drive positive policy changes like more teleconferencing to cut down on travel, supporting CSR initiatives, adopting ethical business practices etc. However, all these efforts are impactful only if you work for a company whose business and growth model you can support with a clean conscience. It’s no use working for McDonald’s and promoting healthy eating, or working for General Motors and pushing public transport!🙂

5. Make more time

Your time is the most precious gift you have, and it should be given wisely as each of us have limited time on this planet. Think about how you spend your time, and whether you could spend it better, right from your choice of workplace to your activities outside of work. Take a sabbatical from work, stop “leaning in”[3], make time for yourself – to read, think, engage. Take up a pet project you’ve been postponing – maybe a terrace garden, or a clean-up drive in the neighbourhood, or volunteering at the local Govt school. If your job doesn’t allow you to do these things, push your management hard, and if they don’t relent, find a lower paying but more satisfying job that allows you more flexibility. The best things in life are free – clean air, trees, forests, mountain streams. While we continue to work for money, the satisfaction obtained from volunteering for a worthy cause is immense indeed, and perhaps one of the keys to “happiness”[4].

Finally, it is up to each one of us to decide where we want to draw our personal line, and how we will align our actions with our beliefs, whether it is doing community work, finding a satisfying job that we love, purchasing organic produce or going vegan. The above is not meant to be a preachy list of things-to-do-to-save-the-planet but simply a list of things I believe to be meaningful. I would love to hear from others about their personal lists as well.

Thanks for reading,


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Connecting the Dots….

Ship of Theseus reminded me of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece, The Decalogue, each episode of which dealt with one of the ten commandments from a moral perspective and brought it into everyday life. Similarly, this film too delved into the moral conflicts faced by the characters, which relate to the way we lead our lives. The beauty of both films is that they manage to incite these questions without becoming self-righteous or didactic, and yet remain accessible in the way the subject is presented.

Watching Ship of Theseus was an intensely personal experience. It resonated with me at so many levels that I was unable to articulate initially. It says something about the movie that it needed to be mulled over for a few days before I could come up with a coherent response. Friends who watched the movie have pointed out the flaws…. It was too slow-paced in parts, editing could have been crisper, some stories felt contrived, etc. I agree with all those assessments. But those assessments in a way reflect the expectations we have from cinema as entertainment in the modern age. We find ourselves fidgeting if the camera lingers for a few seconds longer than it should on a subject, we watch the mainstream Bollywood fare without batting an eyelid, but in such non-mainstream movies we are unwilling to tolerate the slightest suspension of disbelief. In this case, I was willing to overlook the flaws as they did not detract from the film’s powerful message.

The first story in the film deals with a blind photographer who relies on her senses of touch and hearing (and assistance from a supportive boyfriend) to create amazing images but is bothered by the question of whether she is being appreciated on the strength of her talent or because of her handicap. A long-awaited cornea transplant comes through, but it upsets the delicate balance she has maintained so far with her environment. In the process of gaining ‘sight’, she loses her intuitive ‘vision’. This story is inward looking compared to the other two, and while it features a fantastic performance by Egyptian actress Aida El-Kashef, in my opinion it was somewhat tangential to the central theme of the film as an exploration of moral dilemmas in the modern world, except in the last scene where the photographer seems finally ready to embrace and engage with the world, as opposed to simply documenting it on camera as an outsider.

The second story is perhaps the most powerful, as several reviews have already pointed out. There are many aspects brought out so beautifully in this story that it could have been made into a full length feature on its own and expanded further. The monk Maitreya, while driven by his beliefs, comes across as an immensely likeable and non-preachy character, one who is pragmatic as well as humorous in his outlook. The main theme is of course the abhorrence of violence in any form – from being vegan to opposing animal testing by pharmaceutical companies. But there are so many secondary sub-texts in this rich and layered story.

All of us in the modern world lead lives that are often at great variance with the beliefs we hold, and sometimes we are not even aware of it. We worry about global warming, yet we don’t think twice about taking flights or taking the car out for an unnecessary trip. We want others to reduce their carbon emissions, but are unwilling to compromise anything in our own lives. We complain about traffic in our cities, yet we drive long distances to work in single occupant vehicles. We want our cities to be clean, yet we throw out our own garbage which often ends up in landfills in the countryside. The list is endless.

Many a times we do not connect the dots, we do not see the big picture of how our daily actions relate to the bigger issue, we do not realize that we are part of the problem, and unless we change that, the problem will never go away. Yet there are many people who constantly strive to bridge this divide between what they believe and how they lead their lives. Take this idea to an extreme and you have the monk Maitreya, leading his life unflinchingly in accordance with his beliefs, to the extent of wanting to give up his life rather than compromise on them. In the end he too must compromise, but not without an intense battle with himself.

The young lawyer (representing Charvaka or hedonism) provides the counterpoint to the monk’s beliefs, and the arguments between the two exemplify the conflicts each of us face in this daily battle between our beliefs and our actions. In the modern world, it is impossible for us to live like Maitreya, and compromise we must. We rationalise our choices, telling ourselves (as the disciple tells Maitreya) – what does an individual matter in the larger scheme of things – the same argument many of us use to justify our own inaction. What does it matter if I segregate my waste when my neighbour is not, if I conserve water while the community as a whole uses it wastefully. We forget the whole is the sum of its parts, and our daily actions have a deep consequence.

Neeraj Kabi is utterly convincing as Maitreyi, delivering loaded dialogues with a twinkle in his eye. The sparkling conversation between the monk and his disciple is certainly one of the high points of the story. I also enjoyed the subtle nuances like Maitreya looking distinctly uncomfortable when his fellow monk exhorts the audience to make good their promise of donations to the cause. But the lasting image from this story for me was the visual of the group of monks walking through a surreal landscape surrounded by giant windmills and electricity transmission towers. The scene is slow and languid, giving one ample time to reflect on the fast-paced dialogue between the monk and the disciple that took place in the previous scene. The monks reach their destination, a remote monastery, and spread out their meagre piece of cloth to lie down for a rest, leaving the viewer with the question – how much or how little do we really need for a meaningful life?

While the first two stories feature somewhat larger-than-life characters doing extraordinary things, the third, in contrast, is about an ordinary, run-of-the-mill character. Sohum Shah plays a stock-broker who, according to his grandmother, chooses to live in his own money-centric universe, giving back nothing of value to society as a whole. The grandmother’s exhortation to engage with society is one that many of an earlier generation might relate to, while lamenting the rampant materialism and consumerism in the young working class. The stock-broker lashes back at this harsh assessment of his character, and points out that despite all her talk, she hasn’t managed to achieve much by way of her so-called activism either.

A chance encounter leads him to step outside his comfort zone to investigate a kidney-stealing racket, which he follows halfway across the globe to seek justice for the victim, in a somewhat far-fetched and contrived scenario. Some twists and turns later, he is back at his grandmother’s bedside, which leads to the sub-text of this particular story – the conviction that every individual action does matter, no matter how seemingly insignificant the outcome. The world is a better place because you tried to engage with it, instead of looking away. The message is one of hope, of taking responsibility for one’s actions.

The three stories come together in the end, in a somewhat predictable manner. However, this is much more than a film about organ donation. The conundrum implicit in the title is perhaps also not relevant or important. The stories loosely tie in to the so-called Theseus Paradox, but I personally choose to view the Ship as this living, breathing planet we call home, encompassing something larger than the sum of its parts but suffering the consequences of the actions of each of its myriad units. Perhaps you might view it differently. But this, then, is the hallmark of truly great cinema – to make the viewers reflect and interpret the film in their own way, coloured by their personal experiences. Anand Gandhi has accomplished that beautifully.


PS: The movie has been made available for free legal download for Indian viewers! It can be downloaded here:

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