Archive for the 'Environment' Category

India’s Dying Beaches

I almost feel as though I am in Pondicherry.  The vicarious excitement and stress of trying to keep up with the sudden barrage of media stories and activities initiated by NDTV’s coverage of “The Death of India’s Beaches” has my adrenelin pumping as I try and support our colleagues at PondyCAN.

On 28 May, 2009, Probir Banerjee, PondyCAN’s President, was interviewed by Prannoy Roy of NDTV, fulfilling a promise Roy made months before to take up the issue of coastal erosion.  Realizing the magnitude of the problem, Roy initiated a state-by-state coverage of the issue in a series called “India’s Dying Beaches.”

Continue reading ‘India’s Dying Beaches’

Bike Valet

Bike Parking at Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Bike Parking at Vancouver Folk Music Festival

As preparations were underway for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival that took place this past weekend in nearby Jericho Beach Park, I wondered at the rows of metal barriers set up at the entrance to the Park on West 4th Avenue.  Were they meant to funnel festival goers through ticket lines?  On the afternoon of the 18th, it all became clear – the barriers were set up for supervised bicycle parking.  How wonderful!  If last year’s travel patterns are indicative of this year’s 10,000 daily festival attendees, 32% will have walked, ridden bikes, or been passengers in automobiles. (Last year, 17% took the bus, and 51% drove.)

Celebration of Light - Canada

Celebration of Light - Canada

Yesterday, I learned of Bike Valet, a secure bicycle parking service being offered free at several festivals and special events in Vancouver this summer by BEST (Better Environmentally Sound Transport).  This year, BEST is providing Bike Valet at a total of six events and festivals in Vancouver, including at two viewing locations for the Celebration of Light, a fireworks competition that takes place in Vancouver every year.

Celebration of Light - Canada

Celebration of Light - Canada

This year’s competitors for the Celebration of Light are Canada, the U.S. and China.  Yesterday, Canada started off with a spectacular display based on the theme:  Attack, with Godzilla featuring prominently in the beginning of the show.

Random Acts of (Climate Action) Rebate

On July 1, 2008, subject to approval by the legislature, British Columbia will begin to phase in a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

The purpose of the carbon tax is to encourage individuals and businesses to make more environmentally responsible choices, reducing their use of fossil fuels and related emissions. The tax has the advantage of providing an incentive without favouring one way to reduce emissions over another. Business and individuals can choose to avoid it by reducing usage, increasing efficiency, changing fuels, adopting new technology or any combination of these approaches. BC Climate Action Secretariat

In addition to and separate from the carbon tax, every resident of British Columbia will receive a Climate Action Dividend of CD$ 100 in June to facilitate their transition to a “greener” lifestyle.

It is the government’s hope that British Columbians will apply the funds toward purchases that can help reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and, by doing so, also reduce the amount of carbon tax they would otherwise pay.

Polls indicate that most British Columbians will use their dividends for beer or gas. However, members gathered at a Victoria Sierra Club Cooling Party saw more potential in the hundred bucks. They have decided to pool their funds to perform “Random Acts of Rebate” for households that may not have the resources to reduce their carbon footprint. So, they are offering The Great Rebate Ecochallenge and inviting people to contribute their dividends to a Climate Action Fund that would go to the Random Acts of Rebate.

Here’s what they are planning with the pooled funds:

Install clotheslines for 5 families, buy and distribute light bulbs, buy Gordon [ Cambell – Premier of British Columbia ] a vermicomposting bin
All of the above + car share co-op membership for one family
All of the above + compost pick up service for a school for one year
All of the above + electric bike, bicycle, large appliance, compost pick up service for a household
All of the above + organic food delivery for one year for 2 families in need
All of the above + a brand new hybrid car for a family in need

British Columbia’s 2008 budget focuses heavily on environmental issues. In addition the the carbon tax and dividend, it includes CD$ 1 billion in funding over 4 years for climate change initiatives, including funding technology and provide incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy use.

Even with these initiatives, most Canadians do not believe that BC will be able to meet its emission reduction goal to reduce carbon emissions by 33 per cent below 2007 levels by 2020.

However, BC is the only province that gives individuals the choice and means to reduce their personal carbon footprint.

The Destruction of Ousteri Lake

Boating on Ousteri Lake
Motor launch on Ousteri Lake

10 February 2008

The boat ride was idyllic – the new motor quiet, the winds calm, the lake beautiful. It would have been a perfect day, unless you knew what I now know.

Ousteri (or Oussudu) Lake is the largest lake in Pondicherry, located approximately 12 miles west of the town. For over a decade, environmentalists have tried to get the lake protected as a sanctuary, to no avail. The Bombay Natural History Society, a member of Birdlife International, has designated Ousteri an Important Bird Area (IBA) of India – over 20,000 birds belonging to over 40 species used to reside or winter at Ousteri. The Asian Wetland Bureau declared Ousteri one of 93 significant wetlands in Asia; and many of the birds recorded at Ousteri, including Spot-billed pelicans, Eurasian Spoonbills, Darters, Painted Storks, and Black-headed (or White) Ibis, are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. This lake was one of the largest breeding sites for the Common Coot in South India, and many of the resident birds, such as the Purple Moorhen and Little Grebe, nested amidst floating vegetation present in the lake.

Paddle boat on Ousteri
Paddle boat on Ousteri Lake

When boating was first contemplated by the Pondicherry Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC – a Government undertaking) about 10 years ago, professors and students at the Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, NGOs and concerned citizens protested – nesting birds would be disturbed and may not breed. At that time, the Tourism Department compromised to allow only paddle and row boats in a specified area, cordoned off by buoys. At some point, the buoys were taken out, allowing paddle and row boaters complete access to the lake. And a couple of weeks ago, PTDC began its motorized launch and boat service. For Rs. 50 (approximately US$1.28), you could ride either the launch, which seats 35 passengers and a crew of 5 comfortably, or an eight passenger boat.

The launch takes picnicking passengers (who more often than not, throw their plastic and other wastes into the water) around a small island and skirts the opposite shore for 45 minutes before coming back to dock. Sadly, there were very few birds in sight. A few egrets, a handful of individuals of a couple of species of ducks and some pond herons – all of which scattered at the approach of the launch. Certainly not the thousands of ducks that people who have been coming to the lake for 30 years remember. One resident of the lake, who participates in the two annual surveys of birds (the Salim Ali Bird Count held in November and the waterfowl count for Wetlands International in January), reports that 2 species of waterfowl no longer nest in Ousteri. Large birds are poached, and illegal gill nets cause the deaths of diving birds (particularly Little Grebe or Dabchicks) captured in the nets.

Then there is the pollution: raw sewage runs into the lake, untreated; household and industrial wastes are dumped either near the lake or in the dry lake bed in summer. (Local villagers living near the lake have not used the water in the lake for over a year and a half – they say it is not clean.) And the illegal soil and pebble mining: canyons of red soil have been illegally taken out of the area surrounding the lake to feed the construction of institutions, industries and residential colonies springing up in what was recently agricultural land surrounding the town of Pondicherry.

Weed Scraper
One of the “weed scrapers” 

On top of all this, the lake is shrinking due to siltation, being choked with weeds, and losing its feeder channels due to industrial development in the catchment area. (The launch employs two men to scrape the aquatic weeds off the motor with large sticks, and every once in a while, the boat slowed and motor struggled as weeds overpowered the blades.)

Bird Watching Towers
Bird watching tower at Ousteri

Two lone towers that were built for bird watching before the change in tourism policy stand unused on the shore. And the huge sign board that listed the types of birds seen at Ousteri has been taken down.

Laksha Deepam at Sendrakillai, Tamil Nadu

Laksha Deepam

8 February 2008

There is a tropical dry evergreen forest (TDEF) in the village of Sendrakillai (in the state of Tamil Nadu), 60 kilometers south of Pondicherry, that serves as a sacred grove for the 2,000 people of the village. There are five temples in the sacred grove, and this grove, unlike the two TDEF in Pondicherry, is protected and used in a sustainable manner by the villagers.


Niranjan Kumar and a fellow student were the first people to study this ecosystem in December 2006 in their final year at the Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences at Pondicherry University. They categorized 54 species of trees and 48 species of liana (woody climbers) in the 12 hectares grove. The forest is the main source of medicinal plants and trees, edible fruits and tubers and firewood for the village. There is a family of nadivaithyam (traditional healers) that treat the villagers using plant extracts from the forest. (There is no hospital in or around the village.)

Entrance to Main Temple
Entrance to main temple in the sacred grove

There are two horses and guards that lead to the main temple of the sacred grove. The temple portico is flanked by two dogs. The villagers believe that if you whisper your prayers into the ears of the horses or dogs, your prayers will come true within the week. (Before he left the village, Niranjan prayed for a good job in an NGO and he landed up at Shuddham!)

Filling the deepam Boys filling deepam 62nd year 62nd year - lit

On the last Friday of the month of thai (the harvest month which begins with the Pongal festivities), Tamilians celebrate Laksha Deepam – one lakh (a hundred thousand) lamps. (This is the 62nd year that this village has celebrated Laksha Deepam.) The deepam are filled with a mixture of five different oils: nallennai (sunflower), pinnaennai, vilakuennai (neem), malataennai (groundnut or peanut), and thengaennai (coconut).  (One of the oils prevents the wicks from being blown out by the wind.)  20 years ago, one family sponsored the entire festival. Now, they collect donations from the village and surrounding areas for the celebration.

Lighting the deepam

Families participate in both the filling and the lighting of the deepam as the sun begins to fade. As the figure of the god is brought along the path from the village into the sacred grove, accompanied by a drummer, firecrackers light the sky and assault the eardrums (some of the firecrackers only produce noise).

Vendors set up their wares in a carnival atmosphere (with mobile rides – mini ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds and games – balloon shooting and ring tosses) and families come from neighboring villages by bus, trucks, and on foot to offer their prayers and to celebrate  into the night.

American ’60s Pop Culture and the Pondicherry College Student

“Ma’am, the Flintstones.”  Does everyone know about the Flintstones?  “Yes ma’am.” “Tom and Jerry, ma’am.”  “WWF” (World Wrestling Federation, now World Wrestling Entertainment).

I am stunned as other suggestions, such as “Father Christmas”  are proposed by the 20 (Hindu) students of Tagore Arts College. Eventually, the suggestions turn to South Indian film stars (Rajnikant and Ajith), and Indian cricketers (all men). And I begin to feel a little easier.

We had gathered on a Saturday morning to engage the Tagore Arts College student members of the NSS (National Service Scheme) in an awareness campaign to stop littering on Beach Road in Pondicherry. We (the members of Shuddham and two visiting students from the University of Iowa) were hoping to pump up these first 20 NSS students to start a “Beautiful Pondicherry” movement, first at their school, then on Beach Road, then throughout Pondicherry.  They accepted a very tight deadline to start the first “action” on Beach Road the next Saturday evening.

Tony, one of the University of Iowa volunteers, suggested that the students dress up as characters to engage the public in a fun, funny way to stop littering.  Tony and his sister had worked with their mom (Mr. Neat and Clean, a clown) in Belize in a successful campaign against littering.   Kyle, the other University of Iowa volunteer suggested a character called the “Green Guru”. So, while the Americans and members of Shuddham suggested characters such as Mr. Clean, Mr. Toilet, Mr. Water, or “No Paper”, “No Plastic”, “No Bottles”, etc. who would be under the leadership of “No Trash” the NSS students were suggesting cartoon characters created in Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s. (Everyone here knows the Flintstones?!?)

These students, most of whom are first generation college students, are part of the Indian juggernaut hurtling towards progress a la the U.S. in the ’50s, consuming sanitized U.S. pop culture (no one mentioned Itchy & Scratchy), material goods (the latest cell phones), and mineral resources.

The students left completely jazzed, discussing among themselves how they could get their entire college clean before our next meeting on Wednesday. (During our visit to the principal last week, we observed piles of trash everywhere.)  We settled on them dressing up as the Indian cricket team (uniforms are easy to get anywhere), but with capes emblazoned with “Beautiful Pondicherry”, some in English and some in Tamil. Dress rehearsal is on Friday.  The performance on Saturday.

Pondicherry “Beach”

Pondicherry “Beach”
Pondicherry “Beach”

This is the coast of Pondicherry. What was once a beautiful beach is now a rock seawall, all the way from the mouth of the Ariyankuppam river, along the entire Pondicherry coastline, and across into Tamil Nadu.

Two days ago, the government of Pondicherry, in an effort to appease the traditional fishermen at Ariyankuppam, commissioned an aged dredger (no longer used in Kerala) from the Kerala State Maritime Development Corporation to dredge the mouth of the river. The work order is to dredge 100,000 cubic meters of sand to give the fishermen, who are not able to launch their boats due to silting of the river mouth (primarily from accretion of sand which has been blocked from moving up the coast because of the “new” harbor that was completed in 1989) access to the sea.  (A government research organization, the Central Water and Power Research Station in Pune, recommends that 400,000 cubic meters of sand be removed each year to allow for the free movement of fishing vessels.)

In their wisdom, the Port officials had decided to dig a “pit” so as to “trap” the sand that moves north along this coast at a rate of .6 million cubic meters for 9 months of the year. The dredged sand would then have been dumped into the ocean.

Members of the Pondicherry Citizens Action Network (PondyCAN) are trying to prevail upon city officials to move the sand further north along the coast to replenish some of the coastline north of the obstructive harbor (which has never been used as a commercial port). Whether or not port officials agree, 100,000 cubic meters of sand is but a drop in the bucket (to use a hackneyed phrase) compared to the 9 million cubic meters necessary to replenish the sand lost to erosion since 1989.


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