Thoughts on Lockdown

Bridling epidemics with the indigenous wisdom

R Ganesan

In the light of past experiences of epidemics such as cholera, smallpox, plague, in India, I revisited the situation following COVID-19. In the past, when viral diseases -smallpox or chickenpox- were experienced by a family member, the head of the family, the mother or grandmother (matriarchial wisdom in practice) in the house would bring in, or rather impose, unwritten rules at the household level and immediate surroundings. The first thing is the announcement from the household itself about the infectious disease in the house to the village; followed by 'self-quarantining and social distancing from the rest of the community, today, most of us would be worried about getting stigmatised. This is visually demonstrated to the society (flagging) by inserting a bunch or sprig of neem leaves in the roof right above the entrance. It is the same as today's poster pasting on the doors of those who are under quarantine or mapping of the household with GIS facilities. The house will have low roofing, and the person who intends to enter the house will have to see the neem leaves and be cautious. It is general knowledge that the 'sprig of neem leaf' at the entrance of a house during the non-festival season is an indication to be cautious. The visitor will avoid entering or will enquire after the family member from outside. The entire household will avoid mingling freely with the neighbourhood. The men in the family will also practice social distancing by not visiting the neighbours; this is the first level of social distancing. Surprisingly this is not dictated by the community, but exclusively by the older matriarch, followed religiously by her family. 

We may wonder about sourcing the resources to run the household, especially income generation activities. Generally, the household will have buffering resources to take care of food on their own to some extent. Here the community or 'friendly neighbours' come to the rescue. They provide the essentials like milk or vegetables and grains to the household, and they have been told generation after generation by the community that helping the ailing family is a way of appeasing the deity that guards the community against misdeeds. 

Let us take a peek into the household and the activities of the family that has a member with smallpox or chickenpox. The neem leaf placed at the entrance of the house is, in fact, omnipresent. The bedding (no mattress or pillow) is made of a spread of neem leaves with a raised wood plank as the headrest. The fan is again a bunch of neem twigs, with the grandmother or mother doing the fanning – an ordeal, only they seem equipped to perform. Lukewarm water with neem leaves and turmeric powder is used to cleanse the infected. The water is not heated on the fire but instead placed in the sun to give enough time for the neem leaves and turmeric leaf to diffuse into the water. The sun and UV rays are known for killing germs and are a natural disinfectant. Every morning, the person is given a dollop of the ground paste of young neem leaves with a pinch of turmeric. The diet is lean – largely porridge, rice and dhal mix with turmeric powder, buttermilk (butter removed to the extent possible).' Food is medicine and medicine is food' - yet another wisdom in the indigenous health practice, that shielded our ancestors. In extreme cases, the mother will not season or fry spice while preparing food for others in the family because the piquancy of the fumes following seasoning could induce coughing or sneezing- a discomfort to the patient; also, the droplets from a sneeze or cough could lead to others get infected. 

All the family members will be cautious in maintaining cleanliness. A container of water is kept at the entrance for family members to clean their feet, hands, and face. This is basically, not to bring in additional germs to the patient, whose immunity is low. If there is a rear entrance to the house, they use it for entry and exit purposes. 

The whole social distancing and the quarantining process is followed 'regimentally' under watchful matriarchial eyes until the person is cured. Following this, the family performs a 'thanksgiving' to the deity of the village by offering a paste of rice flour mixed with jaggery syrup. It is also a declaration to the village that the social distancing has come to an end following the successful recovery of the family member.

The 'yarns in the thread' in the described indigenous health practice to tackle infectious viral diseases, is the rigour with which traditional wisdom inherited over generations, is followed. They are knowledgeable about sanitation practices, antidotes – anti-viral drugs and immunity boosters, eating a well-composed diet, and social responsibility- quarantining and social distancing.

Above all these is the striking ingenuity, of embedding indigenous health practices in belief or taboo, creating the need and method to appease a female deity to ward off diseases. Maybe, the society then was in a situation where it needed to be bridled by fear of the wrath of a god to contain the viral infection at a household level and not to become an epidemic or pandemic (a minuscule chance given the limited commute).     

Today we think of social distancing as a stigma due to unwarranted fear and social elitism. Germs are part of the environment, and in fact, regulate our immunity level with a linear relationship to germ diversity.

 We take pride in saying 'friendly 'neighbourhood, but when the critical situation arises, we bring in all these filters and isolate ourselves.  

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India’s Savanna Grasslands: The Unsung Tale

Mridula Mary Paul & Abi Tamim Vanak

Close your eyes and think of the wilderness. What do you see? Chances are that you visualized a forest or a wooded area. While that is not incorrect, it does not present a complete picture. We live on an immensely diverse planet, with a range of environmental regimes or biomes. Biomes are distinct areas of the planet that support certain types of plants and animals based on the temperate, soil type, light and water available. Forest biomes cover a third of the Earth’s terrestrial area, but there are a number of other biomes including deserts, grasslands, freshwater, marine, and tundra. This is an important distinction to maintain, because conflating the environment with forests has dangerous consequences.

The Indian savanna grasslands are vast extents of grass-dominated landscapes, peppered with some trees, distributed across peninsular India. This biome came into existence 5 to 8 million years ago, although fossil evidence from central India date grasses back to about 60 million years. Preliminary studies point out that about 17% of India’s land mass is covered by savanna grasslands. However they are poorly understood and consequently undervalued. Grasslands were long believed to be the remains of forests degraded by humans, animals, and natural factors such as fire. These views, entrenched in popular as well as administrative memory, have implications for how grassland landscapes are managed and conserved, with impacts on the people and other lifeforms that live and depend on this biome.

Between 1880 and 2010, India lost 26 million hectares of forest land. Widely acknowledged as a crisis, there are a number of policies, programmes, and judicial pronouncements in place to combat this.  During the same time, about 20 million hectares of grasslands were also lost.  Somehow this never made it to the front pages. The answer to why this is the case is tangled up in history and economics. For a colonial state that was looking to generate revenue, forests were a natural goldmine. Agricultural land, although not as lucrative, still presented the state with revenues in the form of taxes. These were classified as productive lands. Grasslands, with their nomadic pastoral communities who were hard to pin down and with no obvious income generation capacity, were categorized as ‘wastelands’, a terminology that continues into contemporary times.

Colonial forest regulations treated grasslands as sub-par forests, and pushed for their conversion to tree plantations and irrigated agriculture, while outlawing grazing. This posed a threat to the vast number of species that had adapted over millennia to grasslands, as well as many pastoralist communities that had sustainably used this landscape for their livelihood. Irrigation canals built in these landscapes eventually rendered the soil saline in some areas, rendering them unsuited for agriculture. Continuing to view grasslands through its wasteland lens, independent India’s land classification norms clubbed all natural areas under the umbrella of forests, regardless of the type of biome it was. For official purposes, if it wasn’t a forest, it must be made one.

The Wasteland Atlas of India declares vast tracts of grassland area as wastelands, seemingly oblivious to its unique and rich natural heritage, and in disregard of the livelihood modes of millions of pastoralists and over 500 million of their livestock. The repercussions of classifying grasslands as forests or as wastelands is that it leaves grasslands open to large-scale diversion to other uses. When treated as a wasteland, grasslands are used as empty spaces to site commercial and development projects, and when treated as an under-achieving forest, it is dug up for afforestation or land improvement programmes, irrevocably modifying the landscape.

Extensive portions of the savanna grasslands of central India have been subjected to the construction of trenches with the use of heavy machinery, as part of watershed development programmes.  Across the Deccan Plateau, grassland areas are diverted to forestry projects and bio-fuel plantations, irrigated agriculture, urban and industrial uses.  Renewable energy is a more recent claim on these landscapes, with large-scale solar and wind energy infrastructure being established in grassland areas, indiscriminately cutting through grazing tracks and wildlife habitats.  Over 4000 hectares of grasslands in Karnataka have been handed over to government and academic institutions to set up their campuses.

Nomadic pastoralists, with their specialized rotational grazing systems that ensure the measured use of available resources, are constrained to ever-shrinking pockets of grasslands left for their use. Ill-advised planting of trees such as Prosopis juliflora, in a bid to render grasslands more productive, have compounded the problem, as the species turned out to be an uncontrollable one that rapidly spread and encroached grassland areas. The changes to their habitat have negatively impacted grassland-specialist wildlife such as the blackbuck, Great Indian bustard, Lesser florican, and the Indian wolf.  Once dominant across the range, many of these species are critically endangered, while others are on the brink of extinction. 

With new research revealing the substantial potential of grasslands to sequester carbon and combat climate change, the true significance of grassland landscapes can now be conveyed using a vocabulary that policymakers respond to. Unfortunately, old prejudices still stand in the way of this understanding translating to political action. Global programmes that aim to reverse land degradation, such as the ambitious Bonn Challenge, are largely tree-plantation drives. During a recent meeting of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in September 2019, the Indian Prime Minister declared that 26 million hectares of degraded land would be restored by means of additional tree cover by 2030. This is also in tune with India’s climate commitments under the Paris Agreement to create an additional carbon sink of about 3 billion metric tonnes.

Plans to increase forest cover are met with resounding cheers. Where exactly these trees are being planted however, tends to slip from focus. Clarity is missing on what exactly counts as degraded land, and whether non-forested, but highly ecologically rich landscapes such as grasslands are being misguidedly coopted as potential afforestation sites. While forests are undoubtedly great carbon sinks, grasslands are not all that far behind. Studies reveal that restoring grasslands is an immensely effective and economical way to combat climate change, as these landscapes store large amounts of carbon below ground. When a nuanced and informed understanding of the importance of grasslands filters into conservation and climate change policies, it will be win-win for pastoralists, grassland biodiversity, and the planet. Until then, the survival of India’s savanna grasslands hangs by a blade of grass. 


A new species of wasp described from surveys

A new paper by A.P. Ranjith, Sergey Belokobylskij, and ATREE's Dharma Rajan Priyadasanan, Punnath Aswaj & M. Nasser in Zootaxa journal. They discovered and described a new species of braconid parasitoid wasp, Spathius himalayicus, from Mizoram, Northeast India. It is the second Spathius species from India with reduced wings. It has been published in the latest edition of Zootaxa journal. We are so grateful to Department of Biotechnology, Government of India for the financial assistance through a major research project on Bioresources and Sustainable livelihood in Northeast India. 

Akamai Accelerator Program for Early-Stage Innovations

ATREE is one of the innovators accepted as part of the Akamai Accelerator Program for Early-Stage Innovations in Water, working on a technology based innovation that strengthens citizen participation to help rejuvenate lakes.

The Akamai Technologies India Corporate Social Responsibility Trust was established in 2015 and since inception has been working relentlessly in the three key areas of education, inclusion, and community development. 

ATREE is building a citizen-centric platform that leverages technology to bring together communities, local bodies, and the corporations that play a crucial role in the restoration, development, and protection of lakes. Citizen groups are key to building communities and raising awareness, but they need a unified platform to actively engage and participate in a structured way for efficiency of execution on the ground. The platform will enable sharing and adopting innovative solutions that are developed successfully across various lakes. Bengaluru already has active citizen lake groups that have adopted close to 60 lakes in the city! ATREE also has an interactive 
platform that covers four lakes in Bangalore and provides data about the health of the lake. The solution being developed will consolidate these into a single platform and help scale to more lakes in the future. 

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