Saving Thano Forest from an Airport Expansion Proposal

Great Slaty woodpecker pic by Sanjay Sondhi

Ep#21 Read the Show notes or Listen now.

Woodpecker photo:Sanjay Sondhi

Download a Preliminary Checklist of birds of Thano here created by Titli Trust and Cedar.

Thano forest overview photo courtesy Mr Lokesh Ohri

Let’s Talk about Thano. Ep 21 Lokesh Ohri. Abhijay Negi. Sanjay Sondhi. Show notes (edited).

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi, I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to Season three, Episode 21 of the Heart of Conservation podcast. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world. This episode is about the Thano forest in the Doon valley (Uttarakhand- the state where I live.) This forest in Dehradun has been in the news lately because the Uttarakhand government has sought the National Wildlife Board’s approval to transfer 243 acres of forest land to the Airports Authority of India. The what, where and why are questions everyone wants answered. You can hear the facts from three prominent Doon citizens who are my guests on this episode. Lokesh Ohri is an anthropologist, historian, writer, and a cultural activist & also the founder of BTDT which is the ‘Been There Doon That’ group. Abhijay Negi is a young activist-lawyer, also the founder of MAD which stands for Making a Difference. Both are active drivers of the #savethano movement. I am also speaking with Sanjay Sondhi, who is a well-known naturalist, founder of the Titli Trust, and community development and livelihood expert.

Lalitha Krishnan: Lokesh Ohri, Thank you for speaking with me. With reference to your article in the (Daily) Pioneer, you heard about these plans way back in 2003. This expansion will flatten a large chunk of the Thano forest. Could you start by telling us what transpired in that conversation? I think it’s important to know the history.

Lokesh Ohri:  Yes, so it was a meeting for tourism stakeholders which was happening in the Tourism Dept. and because I do several projects with the Tourism Dept. I was part of that meeting. The chief minister was also part of that meeting. He was addressing all of us. At that point in time, the Union civil aviation minister walked in. It was unscheduled. He was probably visiting Dehradun and he decided to call on the chief minister right there at that meeting. And, that’s where I first heard about this plan of expanding the airport and having the night landing facilities, because until now, Dehradun airport does not have night landing facilities.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s right.

Lokesh Ohri:  We don’t have a lit-up runaway, we only have flights in the day time. So that was the time when the state’s civil aviation secretary first introduced this idea that perhaps we could have night-landing facilities and we could expand the airport. So, the minister questioned him about why they wanted to do it. The reasoning he gave at that point in time was that at times there’s a lot of congestion at the Delhi airport, So Dehradun being just 45 flying-mins away from Delhi, probably, the aircraft could here and give some additional business to the state. So that argument was rebutted by the (civil aviation) minister saying that these services would not be required because very close to Delhi we have a place called Greater Noida…in Jewar…we’re already building India’s biggest international airport. Even bigger than the Indira Gandhi Terminal which is the Delhi airport. So, all the night landing…if there is congestion or if there is fog in Delhi–which there is during winter-time, there is a lot of fog in Delhi—so, visibility being poor, the flights cannot land. So, he suggested that perhaps they could perhaps take a call later on. At that point in time, one of us realized that the expansion would happen at the expense of the forest. Right now, the airport abuts, you know, two areas. One is the Thano forest area and the other area on the other side, toward the western side is already an agricultural area. As long as the airport expands in the agricultural area and people get compensated for the land the govt. acquires, we don’t have any issue…we don’t mind expansion of the airport. But we are concerned about the 10,000 trees that will fall for this planned expansion. This has only come to light now because once we have seen the environmental impact assessment report of the National Airports Authority and then we’ve come to realise that this is what the government is planning. And that raises the hackles.

Lalitha Krishnan: I know. Doon citizens have been working for years to save the rivers. The Rispana has been given a special ‘perirenal stream’ status

Lokesh Ohri:  Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: And this proposed airport also, if constructed will be close to the Song river. The implications of this for the river, for wildlife for all life around it, would be quite huge.

Lokesh Ohri:  Yes, definitely. It’s a huge cost involved.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. There’s also talk of the airport not only being used for commercial flights, parking of the aircrafts in the night and stuff but also for use by the air-force- both of which according to you is really not necessary because there’s another (air-force) airport/base close by.

Lokesh Ohri: That’s a veracious argument. I think all the projects being undertaken in Uttarakhand now…so the moment people start opposing them, they use this, you know, a smokescreen to say that it’s because of national security. And all these people who are crying about the environment and ecology, these people are posing a security risk to the nation. So, I just wanted to counter that argument. What is the security issue? What about India’s water security? Because if the Song gets polluted, and the Song contaminates the Ganga, then one-tenth of humanity is at risk because the Ganga supports one-tenth of humanity in terms of its water requirements.

Lalitha Krishnan: True.

Lokesh Ohri:  Now, we already have two air-force bases. We have an air-force base at Sarsawa, near Saharanpur which is like, you know… an air-force aircraft takes about eight minutes to reach Dehradun from Sarsawa. We have another big air-force base near Delhi. I think…so most of these fighter aircrafts are super-sonic, stiff like that. They take a very, very short time to reach the Himalayan frontiers. So, if we already have air-force bases which already have air-force materials, how is a commercial airport going to help the security of the nation? That is something I don’t understand.

Lalitha Krishnan: Point. If it’s already there, why (build) another one?

Lokesh Ohri: So, I’m saying, because we already have these two air-force bases and we have air-fields much closer to the border…so we have two airfields, one, right in Pithoragarh and one in Gauchar which cover Garhwal and Kumaon—which are the regions on the India-China frontier. So, expanding the runaway in Dehradun means you are expanding it only for airbus flights to land. Now airbus flights are essentially commercial flights. They have no security angle to them. Now we have been talking to various agencies, like agencies under the Ministry of Environments and Forests. The sense I am getting from Delhi is that Uttarakhand as a state has been the most reckless in terms of forwarding proposals for infrastructure. They have not looked at the wildlife angle. They have not looked at the forest angle. And, they are very callous about the ecological angles. I am getting information that even states like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim which are much more precariously placed in India, in terms of security issues…they still look at the environmental costs in great detail. In the case of the airport in Dehradun, the forest land has been transferred to the National Airports Authority by making just one reference to the environmental angle saying that: “in conversations with forest officials it was found that no Schedule I species were found in the forest.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes. That’s amazing because it’s called an Elephant Reserve. What were they thinking?

Lokesh Ohri: Why did they name it Shivalik Elephant Reserve if no elephants are found there? It is common knowledge. Even when we went to the protests, we saw deer marks on the sand. There are so many research papers that say that this is the last surviving habitat of the Great Slaty Woodpecker.  So, the Great Slaty Woodpecker is the largest woodpecker species found in the world—it’s the largest bird among all the woodpeckers in the world. The Thano forest is the last surviving habitat for the Great Slaty Woodpecker. And, you know, this is a highly endangered species. And even when we look at Schedule I, it has the elephant, it has peafowl; and all these species are very commonly seen in the Thano forest. Any person who has walked through the forest can tell you that these species are found there. So, what were they thinking, who was consulted? They said, “we have consulted forest officials”. They did not even name forest officials. That’s why I wrote in the article that if they had named forest officials, these forest officials should be sacked. If a forest official does not even know what Schedule I is, then how is he expected to know the other schedules. And it’s their job to protect the forests. That’s what they are paid for. That’s what they are trained for.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is said is so true in many ways. We are creating tourism infrastructure by destroying the very experience a visitor seeks.

Lokesh Ohri: Yes, it’s very ironical.

Lalitha Krishnan: Also, very sad. What next? When are they going to make this decision?

 Lokesh Ohri: Actually, they still need approvals from two key bodies, from the government. So we are working on a strategy that we should raise that much noise that these permissions do not come through. But, given Uttarakhand’s track record…they don’t even wait for the final approvals to come and they start work on the project. We have seen that in the case of the Char Dham Mahamarg project: 4 lane highways going all the way up to Badrinath, Kedarnath, (Gangotri and Yamunotri). They did not even conduct an environmental impact assessment report and just went ahead with construction. So, given that track record, we are also keeping all legal options open. We are collecting the data; we are consulting the lawyers. A lot of groups in Dehradun have come together. For the first time, I am seeing that all the environmentally conscious, socially conscious groups have come together and we are all working in a coordinated way so that a legal option is also ready.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good to hear. That’s hope. And I hope the Jolly grant stays the way it is. It’s so quaint and lovely. There’s a sense of homecoming when you reach there unlike these big commercial airports. Thank you so much for your time and for enlightening us about what’s happening on the ground. 

Lokesh Ohri: You’re welcome.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thanks Abhijay for speaking to me on the Heart of Conservation podcast.

Abhijay Negi: Most welcome and thank you for having me.

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure. As the activist founder of MAD which stands for Making A Difference by being the difference, you have spearheaded several environmental causes including river rejuvenation, wall transformations, plantation activities, earthquake relief operations, etc. You are an original Doon resident. Now with the proposed expansion of the Doon airport, up to 10,000 trees, they’re saying could be chopped down. This must be very close to your heart…as a resident of Doon. What does Thano mean for you? I thought let me ask you that first.

Protest Photo Courtesy MAD

Abhijay Negi: So, Thano means to me and to every nature-loving Doonite…one of the last remaining green spaces where you could hear birds talking in their own language, where you can spot the occasional deer. Where you can just be lost in the awe of nature and be at one with your inner self. People called Dehradun the city of grey hair and green hedges. It was meant to be this kind of a conservation bastion for the country, for the state. It was not a burden imposed on Dehradun. It came naturally to the Doon valley because it was a valley. If you look at Dehradun district or the Doon valley, it is uniquely placed between two major river systems of India. Ganga is on its east and Yamuna is on its west. When we talk of Ganga, four tributaries go into this river, and one of these main tributaries, which is the Song river comes and cuts across right through Thano.  Maldevta is also very close by. Thano is very close to the Rajaji National park and acts likes a natural bump (lost in translation) to it. That entire route to Rishikesh via Thano is also one of the most beautiful drives the city residents can find. So Thano means a lot to any nature-loving Doonite and therefore this crazy, crazy plan deserves to be opposed tooth and nail.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. It is the prettiest stretch. Even going to the airport …it’s so lovely to drive through that forest. I’m always looking out to see if I will spot any wildlife and invariably, I see some beautiful birds, you know, and it makes my day. So, this approval hasn’t come as yet from the…

Abhijay Negi: National Board of Wildlife

Lalitha Krishnan: …and MAD and other concerned citizens have held protests to oppose this expansion. It’s been compared to the Chipko movement, right? So, tell me something about it. How did it start? How did you organise and get so many people to participate?

Abhijay Negi: Yes,one thing about MAD, if I can give you a small context, the organisation started functioning in 2011. And more than an organisation it is like a movement. Much before this entire talk about Swachh Bharat, we as teenagers who had just passed out from school had got together, pooled in our resources, and started organising activities every Sunday—because that was the time when we free. And, we used our own pocket money resources to conduct these activities.

Gradually, with time, we started realising that just us cleaning waste or us planting trees is not going to solve systemic or chronic issues which is why we needed to work on policy. Even before this Thano movement, MAD has been successful in protecting the teas estates in Doon valley near Premnagar where an equally foolish and hellish plan was being discussed which was to concretise the tea gardens of Doon valley. And, to replace the lush green tea estates with repulsive structures in the name of a ‘smart city’. So, we at that time, in 2016, had campaigned that we should first be making the existing city smart instead of trying to be the most unsmart people and concretise green areas.

In addition to that we have also been successful in pressuring the then Chief Minister of Uttarakhand—and directly so– because we went and met him -Mr. Harish Rawat in reversing the cycle ban in Mussoorie. Imagine, they were banning cycling. We had some success with that. So, this is probably the third or fourth major policy initiative of the government which we are opposing. I wouldn’t count the river rejuvenation here because that is something we are proposing. So, it is not just a group of opposition. Many people who are our detractors look at us as permanent pessimists. No. we do oppose anything and everything that has no green footprint. Which has no green thought. But that doesn’t mean we are people who are opposing things. Now coming back to Thano specifically, we have a very large volunteer base of around 50-60 youngsters who themselves get activated on such issues. And I would really, Lalithaji, attract your attention to some of the visuals of the Thano protest where you will see that all the banners that MAD volunteers carried…they were all carrying cloth banners.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I noticed that.

Abhijay Negi: We didn’t use any plastic banners. We were wearing our masks, we were very conscious, and then too, we were on the streets because this required to be challenged. It was not just MAD as you rightly noticed. Several organisations, individuals turned (up) on their own for something like this. And, we will do it many times. All of us are loosely in touch. We are coordinating amongst ourselves (to) what should be the next step. MAD for one, has been organising daily nukad-nataks outside Gandhi park—I just got back from one this evening. We will be having one tomorrow, the day after. We are also planning a series of other protests. We are having meetings. We had one with the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests—a pretty disappointing one—none the less, we had one and we had one with the Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board.  And we have urged the biodiversity board to into this situation. So, we are doing all that we can to stop this both on the street and off it.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s incredible. I was reading somewhere that you attended an internship in an ashram in Thano run by senior lawyer Mr. Mehta, is that right? I wasn’t sure what internship that was. Would you like to speak about it?

Abhijay Negi: Yes. In fact, I’m glad that you brought it up. It was in June 2015 that Mr. M C Mehta who is India’s most renowned environmental lawyer; he organised this camp at an ashram that he owns in Thano. There, we went for birdwatching…it was an experience of a kind where we were one with nature. We went into the forest, into the jungle, we heard the birds, spotted the deer, weren’t very lucky with the panther (aka leopard), but never the less we could always sense it around. That is how I can tell you that I know that place first hand. It is a beautiful place. That is why it is very sad for us to hear the Chief minister… The day before yesterday, he said, it’s a political conspiracy. He labelled all our efforts as a political conspiracy. And, it’s very sad that in the 21st century, for a hill state created on environmental issues—as one of the important issues why this state was created. And here we have a chief minister who would probably have even labelled the Chipko movement a political conspiracy. So anything that is celebrated worldwide would be a political conspiracy to him. He doesn’t even make the effort to understand these issues and that’s why we are trying to sensitize the forest dept., the Biodiversity Board… It’s just looking at it from the context of cutting and felling trees. It’s not just the trees. It’s an entire ecosystem you are jeopardising.  It’s the air of the valley. Nobody’s stopping them from going into Doiwala and buying private land. Please buy private land and expand your airport as you please. But, why do you have to so easily and readily come into the Thano forest like this?    

Lalitha Krishnan: What is the timeline here. What next? There’s a petition for it already.

Abhijay Negi: We are alert and prepared for any eventuality. If we get to know that they are actually getting on the ground with any tree felling our 100s of volunteers will be rushing there and stopping it be so physically. The second thing is we are preparing legally for all the steps we have to take. So far, we are still waiting to hear from the National Wildlife Board. We are trusting our institutions and we hope that the Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board specifically will play a role here. (It) will step up to save the biodiversity of the area that the government is so eagerly willing to put on the axe. We are also working with other like-minded organisations since this is genuinely a city effort. Several organisations are up in arms against it and we are coordinating with each one of them. At the same time, we are also working to get into a dialogue with this government. We plan to call upon the relevant bureaucrats, relevant ministers, if possible, even the chief minister to put forward our point of view and to request them to roll it back.  So, we will do everything in our power.

Lalitha Krishnan: Good to know. One more question. Does your activism come in the way of your career as a lawyer?

Abhijay Negi: Yes, that is why…I wanted to have this conversation myself in the afternoon. It does come in the way of my lawyering sometimes. If we do file a public interest ligation where I am representing the cause, then all the interviews and everything will stop. I restrict myself to the courtroom as our legal ethics require. I have been involved in several public interest litigations, even for environmental causes. One of them…we’ve got a stay on any construction activity between the Rajpur area of Doon valley which is on…………. (lost in translation), a stay on any blasting activity in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. We also have worked on the health care system in Uttarakhand wherein an ongoing public interest litigation we’ve asked all primary health centres, community health centres, and district hospitals to submit to a questioner that we have prepared. We asked them if they have the basics of health care. So, these are issues I am actively grappling (lost in translation) within the courtroom…in the Nainital High Court. So of course, I can’t generate public opinion on them as much as I might want to but since the organisation is involved here, and we are very, very ably led by Mr. Karan Kapoor who is the current president, who has been working very hard in facilitating all these meetings. And with several volunteers, who are also up and doing the job, the movement goes on.

Lalitha Krishnan: I wish you all the best for your career and your activism and thank you for your efforts.

Abhijay Negi: Thank you for having me Lalithaji.

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure. This is close to my heart too because the thought of it (Thano ) disappearing forever is not acceptable.

Great slaty woodpecker photo courtesy Sanjay Sondhi

Lalitha Krishnan: Sanjay, thank you so much for speaking with me on the Heart of Conservation podcast. As a naturalist, I’m sure you’ve gone to the Thano forest a zillion times. Could you tell us a little about its biodiversity, the species, or what it is you love about it?

Sanjay Sondhi: So, you know, we’ve been going to Thano on multiple occasions in the last decade and I think close to  Dehradun, it’s one of the best bird-watching sites you can have. In fact, in recognition of this, its bird diversity, the 5th Uttarakhand Spring Bird Festival was held from 9th-11th March by the Uttarakhand Forest Dept. and during the festival, we released the Preliminary Checklist of Birds of Thano. At that point in time, the checklist was 175 birds. Of course, this is just a preliminary list because even during the festival, we added another 6 or 7 species. My estimate is that it would have more than 250 species if properly surveyed. It’s incredible.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s incredible. And there’s so much there than just birds. The forest itself…the trees over there…what species of trees are more common.

Sanjay Sondhi: The forest itself, it’s a lot a broad-leaved forest. There’s a lot of sal over there. It’s a great spot for woodpeckers. I’m sure other people have also mentioned that it’s one of the few locations close to Dehradun where the Great Slaty woodpecker can be sighted.

Lalitha Krishnan: Which is (IUCN) vulnerable, right?

Sanjay Sondhi: Which is IUCN Vulnerable listed. Absolutely. You will not believe it that if you go to Thano, and you stand just in front of the forest resthouse, just standing beside the road, you will spot between 30 – 35 species in the forest around. Just standing in one single location. That’s the kind of avian richness the forest has.

You’re right, it’s not just birds. There are butterflies, there’s a lot of other stuff which actually hasn’t been properly documented. The butterflies… has just been opportunistic. We’re out there for a bird walk and whatever butterflies we see we document. But the quality of forest in that area is such that it’s clearly a biodiversity hotspot. And, to be cutting that to build an airport which is not required is just a travesty of justice I think.  Somebody said we need fresh air.  We don’t need more planes and another airport.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, and nobody is talking about the noise pollution that airports create or an international airport would.

Sanjay Sondhi: Correct.

Lalitha Krishnan: But Thano is not a designated hotspot is it?

Sanjay Sondhi: No, I don’t think there’s a formal designation as a hot spot but…There are designated important bird areas…I don’t think it is even designated as an important bird area but solely by the number of species that we see…and not just birds but other things…it’s a very, very rich biodiversity hotspot which is so close to Dehradun and so easily accessible.  

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. Sanjay we’ve covered the wildlife, but you also wanted to speak about the people in and around Thano.

Sanjay Sondhi: I said, Thano is such a biodiverse area and if we develop it properly, it has such a great potential for birdwatching, homestays with benefits going to the local community. In fact,  Titli Trust-that’s our NGO and Cedar, jointly we are running a nature guide training programme for rural youth which extends from Thano to…………jheel  and it’s a 2-year programme where we’re training local youth in that area to become bird guides and nature guides in the hope that it becomes a livelihood opportunity plus they are strongly focused on conservation because if the biodiversity is not there, they won’t earn anything from nature guiding. And the response has been great. There have been lots of people who have joined and the youth is very enthused because they see this as a win-win where they earn from the area’s biodiversity and they also help conserving.   

Lalitha Krishnan: And they can stay at home rather than leave the state

Sanjay Sondhi: Absolutely. And the benefit goes to the local community who belong to that area. What could be better than that?

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. Absolute win-win.

Sanjay Sondhi: There’s no better incentive for conservation than livelihoods that they can earn living in or near their home.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s a great initiative. Thank you for this Sanjay.

( I hope enjoyed episode 21 of the Heart of Conservation podcast. I’m Lalitha Krishnan. You can read the show notes on my blog: Earthy matters. If you want to know more about the Thano movement, or about the work my guests do there’s lots of information on the net. You can also hear my podcast on Spotify, Soundcloud, Google podcast, or apple podcast, or other platforms of your choice. Till next time, stay safe and keep listening.)

Urban Forager, Nina Sengupta Tells us how she’s Changing the World one Weed at a Time.

Heart of Conservation podcast Ep#18 Show notes (edited)

Heart of Conservation Podcast. Episode #18 Show notes (Edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi. I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to episode 18 of Heart of Conservation podcast. I bring you stories from the wild that keep you connected with our natural world. This monsoon has turned everything green and fresh and wild again, maybe a bit too wild for some of us. S,o what do you do when you see a weed occupying space with your favorite flower? Fling it aside, right? I pretty much do the same, I actually find weeding quite therapeutic. But how can you be sure you’re getting rid of the right plant? My guest today will enlighten us about the ordinary weed. She is Nina Sengupta an ecologist who lives in Auroville and works around the globe as an independent consultant, integrating biodiversity conservation and sustainable development options. She’s worked in South & Southeast Asia, Africa, Finland, and the USA. She’s passionate about food forest, food gardening, art, films, and making life science active and participatory for all. She’s also published a coloring book for adults, the first of its kind on edible weeds.

Lalitha Krishnan:  Thank you so much for coming on Heart of Conservation podcast and am excited to talk to you. I will start with a very basic question.  So, what is urban foraging and how did you get into it.

Nina Sengupta: Get into it is entirely by chance but what is urban foraging? What is foraging? Let me explain that, that may help. Foraging involves searching, wandering and collecting food on your own from the wild or where it grows naturally but for free typically the items that are foraged are vegetables, fruits, roots, honey, and edibles but if you look at it ecologically, the theory foraging involves two key decisions of the foragers – what do forage and where to forage and for most animals who are surviving in the wild, wild animals, these are the two very critical decisions. So up until you know about 10,000 years back when humans started agriculture, humans were hunter-gatherers, and out for a lot of their survival they depended on their skills to forage. So urban foraging is nothing but within the concrete jungle of urban areas that you find areas where things are growing wild, where you can forage or collect your food or greens or whatever you choose to, sometimes it’s also flowers for beautification but also definitely food items for free, for yourself, not for selling, you know, for yourself. That’s the key thing about foraging.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s interesting! I never thought of flowers as foraging but you so right and also to me, you know, foraging has always been a western concept, you know, you hear people picking mushrooms and strawberries and stuff like that in the woods. But I am sure in our country in rural areas, people with traditional knowledge do this all the time regularly and already and I’m sure their kids also, you know, know what is edible and what’s not. So I’m curious in urban India when you’re talking of foraging and for free is this, you think, is a recreational activity or are the people doing this regularly?

Nina Sengupta: Let me address this whole idea of the western concept, the term foraging is perhaps what we have tagged to a certain recreationally activity which is primarily coming to us from the West but, you know, if you really step back from it, how can gathering food that is seasonal, accessible and you can get it for free, how can that not be part of any culture and in any century really. So, you know, once I worked with a tribal group in India and one person, I clearly remember him saying, he kind of famously made a statement; that as long as the forest lives tribal people will not starve, you know, so I kind of remember, like it was amazing to me, because then I kind of thought that I am not there, I mean, where he is and there’s a huge truth to that and if you really look into the, you know, traditional village life you have there are people who would say, you know, after school they would come by while coming back home they will pick up this and this, this and that which they learned from their parents what to pick and those are the greens they seasonally picked. So, picking where, you know, it was not recreational at all, it was often not poverty-driven either. It was part of the lifestyle whereas if you right now look at, you know, what the foraging is, in the urban areas you find people who are consciously shifting to a healthier lifestyle. They are getting into foraging and those are, I won’t say recreational, it’s really going back to a more sensitive way of living but you can call it, you know, borderline recreational too but you also find, you know, people who are foraging when they have the access to, urban poor, those who actually forage to supplement their income. I always find this, you know, amazing this – typically old ladies who would come to the fringes of a market. They never get probably a place in the market but they would have their fares on the footpath, next to the footpath, in little portions, no weight or nothing and they always bring the seasonal, you know, greens and seasonal this and that, very small portions of each. Now what they’re doing is basically they are foraging, they are foraging for themselves and a little bit extra they go and sell for this little extra money. There is some kind of seasonal weed-like what you call chickweed (Portulaca quadrifida) this you actually rarely ever find in any of the supermarkets or any of the, you know, formal shops, you always find seasonally with these ladies. So, we do have a tradition of foraging, even urban foraging, but yes, the middle-class foraging perhaps came to us from the West.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. When you speak about it, I do remember seeing, you know, women with very little selling these greens and I always presumed it was from their garden but it’s interesting that they probably foraged it. So, Nina, in a city where would one, you know, I mean without being specific, what is an ideal spot to start forging in the city.

Nina Sengupta: My recommendation would be – the first step to foraging is recognizing. In your city if you have weed walks, like the one I conduct and many cities do actually, it’s best to join them because if you are new to this, not just once, join it as many times as possible until you recognize a handful say 5-6 of them almost like second nature, like you know, kind of see that and you know it is that.  Now where you are seeing and recognizing it may not be the ideal place for collecting it because often these are in the cities, these are next to the gutter or next to a leaky pipe, or pretty terribly bad polluted water but these are actually quite excellent places to see them, know them, and recognize them. It’s actually a good source of collecting seeds because you cannot collect and eat them because these plants also often bio-accumulate & bio-concentrate which means that if they’re growing in polluted water they are actually would concentrate those and heavy metals and pollution in them, so you definitely don’t want to collect and eat where you are not very sure that the water is relatively clean. So in an urban area, once you have recognized and if you’re going for a guided walk you will already know where you know it’s a safe place to collect but otherwise, you know, you say you are very confident of 5-6 plants that you are sure you can collect, then look at the fringes of the gardens even the edges of a flowering bed often, you know, where they get a lot of TLC -tender loving care every day the Flowers and all that get but you know the edges of that they start getting a little wild and start getting, you know, other plants which are not intentional, these are the places where it is absolutely safe to collect from and if you know that what they are you can. And sometimes, like you know each area in India for example has a primary seasonal flowering time. Once the garden kind of gets over there is a period when it says lull, know there is not the next, you know, set of plants hasn’t been planted, these are also the absolutely ideal time to forage because the weeds kind of takes over and it’s very easy to pick them at that time and you’re also very sure that they are safe.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow! That’s interesting. Nina, I hope you’re going to be free after COVID time because I don’t know anyone else who takes people out on weed walks. Is there a network of people who do that or is, I think, it’s only you?

Nina Sengupta: I think is there somebody I mean there are lots of this you know pop up lunches and dinners where they do farm to plate kind of thing, you know, so I am just guessing when they’re doing farm to plate some of the things that they’re collecting, I am hoping, they’re also wild and not necessarily the vegetables but yes I know I didn’t realize that I was only one but you know hopefully not, hopefully, we are a tribe.

Lalitha Krishnan:  And, you know, you’re also talking about foraging being free but, you know, free for us but is there a law, is it legal, I mean, could you be arrested for eating wood sorrel or would you be doing a city a favor by clearing the weeds out?

Nina Sengupta: In India, really, who cares what (plants) you eat or as long as what you eat is not commercially super attractive or declared a narcotic. If it’s not either of this category whether, you know, I have, you know; whether I’m surviving on wood sorrel or something else really, you know, nobody, to me it feels like, that they have the time to but there’s an interesting anecdote I must share with you. There is a particular solanum like you know Solanaceae which is in the nightshade family is usually you don’t eat the leaves usually, you know, people kind of stay away from it, but there is a particular Solanaceae which is a lot in Solanum nigrum which is very, very nutritious, wonderful to eat and tasty and all that and I, it is it’s quite popular in South India, even though the plant grows anywhere actually pantropical not only everywhere in India but you know beyond, it is not something very popular elsewhere in India. So I went to Calcutta and I see that I am eyeing, that right all along on both sides of the road I’m walking there this Solanum nigrum is fruiting, beautiful, lush and nobody is collecting because nobody eats them and I have eyed them and eyed them for several days as I walked up and down. And then one day I decided I’d stop and just take some fruits as you know seeds so that you know I bring them back and plant them and as soon as I start collecting them, there were lots of benevolent people who just kind of crowded around me and said “Madam don’t, don’t you are going to die” so I must say that they were very sweet, very concerned people who were very bothered that what I eat I might, you know, might kill me but otherwise there is no particular law to stop me from eating something which is I collect, not that I have encountered but I don’t think so.

Lalitha Krishnan:  Tell me why do you forage? Is it just for the pleasure of I,t for the taste and also what do you get what do you get from it personally and also what would you forage for, you did mention a few?

Nina Sengupta:  Actually to begin with it, I mean I primarily again it still is, it’s fun, it’s a sense of discovery and there’s a wow factor because there is that sense of discovery and if you see something beautiful, you know, you inhale a chest full of air in wonder and that wonder-appreciation of nature is quite priceless and it almost does not happen it doesn’t matter if ultimately I get to pick something, you know, I think or eat or collect enough but that I know that they are there kind of has a huge a sense of security and well-being. That is, you know, it’s hard to articulate that sense that you get that despite being an urban area I have this amazing, you know, a wonderful bounty around me, it’s like even in a concrete jungle like nature kind of lets you know that it is there for you, you know, very close to you if you choose to pay attention.  So for me, I actually got very attracted to this tiny little flowers which many of the weeds have and you wonder at the detailing, you know, it’s just too good and you know, I have a haiku which I actually had included in my coloring book which says that ‘a flowering weed hearing its name, I looked anew at it’ and it’s so true because you figure out its name because of course I, first of all, it was a wonder for me, then being a trained ecologist it’s not that difficult even though I’m not a botanist, it’s not that hard to figure out, OK! let’s identify this species and then you read about it and then you’re like amazed by the different qualities of it and soon you realize that many of them, you know, natural remedies that you are very familiar, which comes in bottles, familiar bottles, they’re actually growing right next to you. So, this is how they look and some of them you can actually eat so that’s where it is that it started and it continues to be that because I still am discovering and figuring out absolutely new things almost regularly. So the things which I get to absolutely love, there is this particular weed, one I already mentioned, Solanum nigrum locally called manathakkali and there is a cousin of it called Solanum villosum which looks like tiny little red tomatoes and it’s beautiful and for me personally, there is a plant called Commelina benghalensis and it grows… it’s prolific, and has one of the most delicate blue and beautiful flowers and it turned out to be that it is amazing for, you know, intestinal health, gut health and yeah so and of course punarnava- it’s a very well-known ayurvedic medicine but it is also amazingly edible and quite tasty too. What I actually personally revel in discovering is that the ones which are not traditional, there so many greens, you know, locally if you ask they will say, you know, it’s a goat food. When there is terminology like that, you know that they are perhaps not in their traditional pantheon or things that they are using which also may indicate that it had become naturalized much later it is not part of Ayurveda sidha and all the other medicinal tradition but if you really investigate and find out about them we can be edible, they can be amazingly medicinal, they are just, you know, awesome. So, I’m still discovering, I’m still at that wow stage.

Lalitha Krishnan:  I can hear the wow in your voice. I guess every time you are attracted to something it sort of begins a whole voyage of discovery because then you go into it and find out more and more and more. Nina, you created a coloring book called “Edible Weeds and Naturally Growing Plants of Auroville for Adults” on weeds, I love the idea but what made you think about it? And what do you think the experience of drawing weeds does, you know, for a person?

Nina Sengupta:  It’s a variety of things and since I have kind of come up with the book it has also extended into several other things which kind of justifies it, but for me it was, you know, I was very bothered about one character in me, I have noticed in me, that for example, there is deforestation going on in some part of our country and we’re all very bothered, we are, you know, signing up in some kind of a petition signature and then something else comes up – social, environmental, other factors, we’re totally, you know, shift to that but hardly ever there is an update on what actually happened to the other one and it bothered me that how we can let go of that, you know because there are people who for them it’s a part and parcel of their lives and they are, whether you forget or not, they will not be able to forget it. So I kind of thought that perhaps that nature doesn’t, you know, in urban life, nature is not such an integral part because you know we get our food from a grocery store, supermarkets, we, you know, have a park nearby too, so it’s not like if one goes, we go to the other , you know, it’s not such an end of the story and I kind of started asking people that you know how do they connect with nature and somebody who had made a statement famously that “I really don’t have the time and I don’t afford to go and a visit, I don’t connect with nature because I really don’t have the time and I don’t afford to go to a National Park every now and then”. And it struck me that, Oh my God is nature so disconnected that for an urban individual to connect to nature one has to actually physically take themselves out of the urban areas and go somewhere? Now, of course, there is always the bird watcher group and the other you know other wonderful tree groups and in different cities but what about people in general like they do they connect with nature? And I started thinking that what I can offer? What I can kind of point out for me and for all of us that we cannot ignore that it is right there in the cities? And I could come up with weeds because they are everywhere and so that’s how I started on, you know, focusing on weeds more carefully to make into a book. The reason I wanted to make it into a coloring book for adults because it is a concept that has remained with me since I was doing my studies abroad, that I had walked into a genetics class and I always, you know, was interested in art and here I walked into a genetics class and the professor was telling that you know you can pick yourself a coloring book and you can see the snow, learn about the cell structure that that way and for me mainstreaming coloring which is doodling and coloring was always like and you shouldn’t be doing in the class kind of training I had. So suddenly mainstreaming coloring as part of your education really seemed very attractive and from then on I always thought that you know, we should have our education also made a little more fun, little more light so that you can do it yourself so that when I made the coloring book I want it to be experiential that by holding the book it feels different, it is made in handmade paper, it is hand-stitched, it has no use of plastic in it and when you are a coloring, when you are sitting and coloring, I really believe that this calming act of coloring has an effect like osmosis, the kind of the information gets to you even without you paying attention and so it kind of gets to you in many levels, it kind of wraps you in in a certain experience, it informs you about plants. If you want to, you know, paint it crazy purple – that’s fine but you can still have a colored insert by which you can take outside and identify the weeds you want because everything is drawn to scale. So yeah that’s why.

Lalitha Krishnan: You know, I really hope people are listening with this lockdown we’re talking about growing our vegetables and microgreens, and people are thinking of taking up farming seriously. I mean, this sounds like the perfect climate to go foraging. Don’t you agree?

Nina Sengupta: It happened in our community how as I was and how it evolves here is… I had made the book and I actually thought everything has been very organic, you know, making thinking about making the book, making the book and I let it be, you know, I didn’t, you know, start off with uh doing weed walks and it turned out to be that some people… they were gathering up to know about local food and it didn’t have so much of interest that, you know if you publish a recipe people look at it but you know they’re not very sure so they didn’t know. So, there was a group which started, they started taking people’s small groups to different farms and actually there will be a demo on how to cook it. So one of them in one of these farm demo visits that they had gone, they found that they are using my coloring book as a reference so for a lot of people that was the first time they were getting to know there is something called you know edible weeds so they called me up and said you know can you show us a few? So that was the beginning of the weed walks and I realized that you know, one weed walk and one session was not enough so it kind of became regular but even then, even when you know very well, that this is edible, people are very interested learning, taking notes. I saw, barring a few exceptions, there not many people who graduated from knowing the weed to actually cooking and eating them. Even though, you know, we have plenty of safe places where it can be collected. But come lock down suddenly with this knowledge which was already they had gathered, they decided that let’s, you know, use it so there was absolutely amazing amount of energy we had, you know, there was a WhatsApp group but with hardly about 10 members it became soon a group of 90 which each one sharing their recipe on how differently they can use this weed and that weed, incorporate that a little technique, taking pictures and, you know, getting congratulation from each other. It actually really brought it into a full circle in which right now there are several people who who eat it and also this is their way of avoiding to go and stand in the line in a grocery store, they know that, you know, they can just go around and collect and how healthy and I call it ultra organic food and, you know, it has been right simply wonderful, you know, there are recipes which I would have never thought which, you know, part of this community, you know, it has developed so it’s yeah it has been a great journey as far as that is concerned.

Lalitha Krishnan: ‘Weed recipes’, that’s your new book I think. Yeah but definitely I think, you should do a webinar. There will be thousands of people who’d be really, really interested so that’s another way to promote but so do you do a lot of walks and how else can we promote foraging – school groups? I mean now it’s all online. Is there a platform that one can go to and read or forums to participate in?

Nina Sengupta: There are forums to participate, I have actually initiated a new Facebook group and also a Youtube channel where I actually, regularly, tell more about the weeds, individual weeds so that they, you know, sometimes if you see 10 and then you forget all of them. So we thought that we will concentrate on one or two at a time so that, you know, it can percolate and you know make more concentrated writeups on that, make a little video how it actually looks in the because… you know, the walks we cannot do at the moment until like, since the lockdown in March, we haven’t had a walk and we thought that it’s, instead of people using what they had already gained other than the ones which are already using, it’s a good way to connect to people who are… who can just look around their own homestead and start foraging from then on? So, yes, we do have… and also, you know, I feel that this activity is such a calming and grounding activity in a way that this has to come to each individual at their own pace. So, if it’s OK to just, you know, sit with a coloring book, read about it and then go out and, you know, get something, read about it before you actually try out. It’s OK, but there are others who do it much, you know, at a faster pace, so the pace is decided by you, but out once you already what is really nice is that…a couple of things. Most of the foraging weed that we are talking about they’re pantropical, there available everywhere and sometimes even in the temperate regions, in the summer months they are available. So I find it an amazing connection that I am eating a wild here in that wild grows in somebody else’s backyard halfway across the world or a half way across the country and I find it very connecting, you know, that factors are very connecting and we make those connections to our websites and the channels that we are trying to make and so what we’re trying to do here is …part of it is reclaiming our tradition because many of the weeds as you get to know you see that there are traditional users then we just, you know, we may have forgotten or lifestyle didn’t permit so we didn’t know whatever, so we are reclaiming our past in a way then we’re building on it at the present because culture and tradition are never static. It is dynamic and part of that dynamism is that there are weeds which are probably not part of our tradition but they’re here and now so you learn about them and you add to that… add to your repertoire of weeds that you forage from and thus kind of you are building on that culture, you know, that you are connecting with the past and your building in the present and the next obvious step is to take it to the future which you have not touched upon just now in your question, is to take it to the next generation. And I think that there cannot be anything more amazing that as parents and adults we can do is to take this knowledge to the kids and have them that sense of wonder from a much earlier age and so that’s one of the things that we are trying. Personally in my effort, I’m trying to reprint this book because now it is out of print… reprint this book and have two more volumes and the way I want to do is through crowdfunding because one more uh interest in doing so in that way that I want to involve people not just printing and publishing book but also take it as a package to the schools, you know, the schools will have all the three books may be and as part of this whole initiative, the teachers will get trained. I will have different sessions with the teachers and then with the kids so that there will be many more of this weed walks and the weed knowledge that will go and percolate amongst the children in the schools and that’s where, you know, that’s where you start picking up you know things will really get rolling, I think.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’ve given us so much food for thought…

Nina Sengupta: And the idea that it is getting in touch with the wild, it is actually the best wilderness that you can remain in touch with being an urbanite. So it, you know, when I am really connected to the natural world around me I am much more sensitive and sympathetic to somebody else elsewhere and I hope that that kind of feeling comes in the decision making in the choices that we make as consumers or as individual citizens in making our decisions. So that is hope from weed to changing the world.

Lalitha Krishnan: Well this is the time to change the world. Nina, I also wanted to ask you where do you draw the line when it comes to foraging?

Nina Sengupta: I say the word foraging comes from a very western concept of foraging, where actually people do go and collect themselves to eat but it has also escalated to being a part of tourism, you know, that eating wild is part of the exotic feeling sometimes not even going to the wild, you know, sitting in the city there are famously this some restaurants in Nairobi, famous for over decades but we also now have started having them in India is that if you go there you will be served wild food. Now that’s to me is not foraging for if you are sitting in your city and somebody else is smoking the heck out of the rock bee to provide you the most amazing honey then that honey has a lot more ecological problems with it then values because the demand actually forces— demand beyond self and beyond the local area— forces a greater amount of, you know, taking off these resources and it’s a concern. One of the things that I probably … one of the things that I also am very interested in films, I do screen an environmental film series every year and I’m … you know a lot of my metaphors come from films… and if you even look at Satyajit Ray films or any films as such, you see people treat the forest as the edge of civilization. So when you go to the forest you let your hair down and you be somebody else and this feeling remains there and as people have in the risk they say the last couple of 20 years people have started moving more. You know there are more people who are working you know young people there working away from their family; they are traveling, they are going into tourism, there lot more people movement and these people when they’re moving and going into a very exotic place, they’re not necessarily sticking to their, you know, traditional meals or even the very hardcore vegetarians don’t remain vegetarian. So many wild foods are getting overexploited to serve… one thing is to serve the people who have moved away from their own community elsewhere so that they have, you know, a touch of their home and other people who are visiting and as tourists to their place and want to experience that taste of the wild without foraging. So, these two are actually very even, though it is termed as foraging, it’s called forest food you are eating local honey. You know, how healthy can it be? How sustainable it can be? It is actually anything but sustainable.

Lalitha Krishnan: One more question Nina, I usually ask my guests to share a word to improve our vocabulary and I know, I’m suggesting now, ecotonal and the term edge effect. So, would you mind explaining both?

Nina Sengupta: Yes, gladly but I will start with that I will take again a little step before I go to ecotonal, that much of our lives are now locked up in the screens, you know, be it, you know, in our mobile phone or computer screen and that bit hasn’t probably changed in our lockdown period either but, you know, life happens in the periphery. So it is that peripheral vision individuals have started losing more urbanities than not but there are you know it’s becoming our character like you know we are all if you’re going in the bus or train or plane you’re still looking at a screen, we’re looking at a screen, many are watching… The screen is our lives yet our lives are happening around so this is kind of in ecologically speaking ecotone is the region which is a transition between the two 2 biological communities two ecological areas. For example, an estuary is an ecotonal area because the river meets the ocean and the land is there in that area… that confluence is the ecotonal area and naturally, the ecotone between which is the confluence between the two habitats is always richer in species than either of the two. So, you know, given the area, you know, per unit area, there usually ecotones hold more species. Now the edge effect. You can have both, a positive and negative tilt to that. Edge is something that you create, it’s not always the ecotone, not always the natural boundary. Suppose I have a boundary of the forest, the natural boundary of the forest and grassland, that is an equal ecotonal area, that area will have more species but say I have cut a forest, I have cut a road in the forest and have created an edge, that edge is the boundary between the two communities, like nothing and forest would also have quite a bit of different, you know, different creatures but usually they tend to have the more generalist species. So suddenly you are favoring the generalist species rather than the forest dweller one, so it has, it can have negative impacts also and therefore, you know, as an ecologist always say that if you were actually… have a forest is better not to have it fragmented, better not to have a cut a road or cut a railway through it because you are creating more edge and that will actually affect the forest interior species or the overall health of the forests.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. Thank you so much, Nina!! That was enlightening, to say the least. You have introduced foraging, I mean, we knew it was somewhere on the edge of our consciousness now you have brought it right to our minds, into our hearts. Thank you so much.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation, I’m Lalitha Krishnan. You can listen to Heart of Conservation on Spotify or SoundCloud and other platforms of your choice. Keep listening and do check out Nina Sengupta’s YouTube channel. It’s called ‘Edible Weed Walk’. Stay safe and start foraging.

Photo courtesy Nina Sengupta.. Podcast interview and Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes.

Birdsong by hillside residents.

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guests featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organisation, committee or other group or individual.

Batman and MothLady

Ep# 12 An Interview with Rohit Chakravarty and Pritha Dey.

EP#12 Show notes (Edited).

[Photos courtesy: Rohit Chakravarty. Top-L-R Clockwise: Leisler’s Bat (Nyctalus leisleri), Eastern Barbastelle (Barbastella darjelingensis), .Woolly Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus luctus), Kashmir Long-eared Bat (Plecotus wardi), Pearson’s Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus pearsonii)]

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi. You’re listening to Episode 12 of Heart of Conservation Podcast. Your very own podcast from the Himalaya. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories that keep you connect to our natural world. Today for the first time I am speaking to an interesting young researcher-couple who are both experts in their fields. Pritha Dey and Rohit Chakravarty. Pritha’s doctoral work included the study of insect biodiversity loss due to anthropogenic disturbances. My second guest is Pritha’s husband is Rohit Chakravarty. He is a bat biologist currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, in Berlin. I met Pritha during a butterfly workshop in Devalsari, Uttarakhand and her knowledge and presentation on moths just blew me away. And so, I invited them to be guests on my show.


Pritha, Rohit, thank you so much for being on Heart of Conservation Podcast. It’s so fascinating to interview researchers anyway but to interview two who are a couple is a special bonus, I think. It’s intriguing that both of you are researching nocturnal creatures. Both of you have travelled in Uttarakhand in pursuit of your subjects. Let’ start with the basics. So Pritha, why moths?


Pritha Dey: Hi Lalitha, thank you for asking us to talk to you about our research.

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure.

Pritha Dey: We are highly interested to talk about our research all the time. It’s new for us that both of us are doing it at the same time. So, I’ll start with my pursuits of moths. I finished my masters and immediately joined Wildlife Institute of India where there was a project to document the diversity of moths in twelve different protected areas. Initially it is was just the excitement to roam about in different places and studying moths but eventually, I started reading about them and learning about moths. What intrigued me most was diverse they are and at the same time how understudied, they are…being so ecologically so important.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK.


Pritha Dey: And the myths that we find in movies, that they are evil creatures are absolutely not true. I wanted to look into that more and yes, that’s why moths.


Lalitha Krishnan: Ok and I think you have passed on a little of that love to all of us who heard your presentation at the butterfly workshop. I for one was totally inspired and want to know more. Rohit how about you?
Rohit Chakravarty: Yes, it’s a privilege to be on HOC. I would simply say I chose bats because more than half of India is busy looking at tigers, leopards, lions, elephants…


Lalitha Krishnan: Seriously.

Rohit Chakravarty: Bears and all other charismatic animals. It started off with me looking for an empty niche for my research but in the end, it just took me beyond that empty niche. As we’re going to talk more about bats, we will hopefully convince the audience that bats are rather extraordinary animals. So more about that as we talk.


Lalitha Krishnan: Definitely. So Pritha, you completed your Ph.D. on the diversity patterns of the Geometridae family of moths along the elevation gradients in the western Himalaya. Could you tell us about this family of moths? And why you studied them in the Himalaya?

Pritha Dey: So, when I started working on the project on moths in the Himalayas, I found this particular family called the Geometridae family or commonly known as the Looper Moths. They are very abundant in mountain habitats. In mountains, you find them in huge numbers and they exhibit amazing variation in wing patterns and are hugely diverse with about 24000 species worldwide. Their taxonomy at the same time is very challenging and interesting. So, my idea was to work in the mountains and to merge moths. So, moths and mountains were the ideal study group for me. I chose the western Himalaya because it’s very interesting biogeographically as the tropical and the temperate elements kind of merge in this part of the country and we find very interesting diversity across all taxa. It is far less diverse than the eastern Himalaya where you find double the number of species of moths or other taxa. Yes, this was very interesting as a study group as well as a study area.

Lalitha Krishnan: Great. And the combination of moths and mountains just works right? And Rohit, correct me if I am wrong, I read that there are a thousand species of bats. Right? How many bat species do we have in India? There are so many myths about bats in general. They are not your everyday mammal either. What is the role of bats in nature?

Rohit Chakravarty: You’re correct about the 1000 species. There are close to 1,300 species of bats in the world. India has about 120 species so we have a really large diversity. And, bats are actually the most diverse group of mammals in India. They even outnumber rodents in India. You’re right. Bats are really not your everyday mammal. They are way more extraordinary than most mammals we come across in our day to day life. They are the only mammals that can fly. They use ultrasound to navigate and they have very long lifespans. From the point, for an animal that is barely the size of a mouse, it actually lives way longer than a tiger would.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow

Rohit Chakravarty: So, bats are really long-lived and their role in nature… There are two broad categories. There are fruit bats and there are insectivores bats. So, fruit bats pollinate flowers and they disperse seeds of different trees. Some of the flowers that they pollinate, include extremely important cash crops like agave and durian. Durian is a very important food plant.

Lalitha Krishnan: Of course.

Rohit Chakravarty: Agave is the plant that is responsible for producing tequila.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes.

Rohit Chakravarty: So, without bats, there won’t be any tequila. People are also trying to find out more about how bats are important in systems that produce cocoa. There might be many interesting results coming out soon. Insectivores bats eat tons of pest insects, which also include moths, unfortunately…

Lalitha Krishnan: I know, I am going to ask you about that. That’s interesting because considering there are so many bats, we barely see them. And now, you’ve added a twist by saying they pollinate agave. It just made me think, do people actually breed bats by any chance?

Rohit Chakravarty: I’m not sure about it. People don’t breed bats for economic benefits. The only breeding facility that I know of is for research. Not really for economic benefits.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. Pritha, tell us about the whole moth’s attraction to the flame/the whole moon connection and how many species of moths there are in the world and the Himalaya?


Pritha Dey: We are all very familiar with the phrase,” Like moths to the flame”. Actually, it’s very interesting. It’s very unique to this group of insects that their communication or orientation is towards the light. There’s a theory called the light compass theory which means that they orient their flight towards celestial light. They try to keep the celestial light as parallel and orient their flight towards the moon. So if we put any artificial source of light in their pathway, they get confused and try to orient their flight along that pathway along with that artificial light. So you mostly find moths flying in a circular manner around the lights in our houses or street lights if you see them. So that’s the reason. It’s kind of confusing for them so they fly towards the light and we are increasing their confusion by adopting artificial illumination. It’s kind of hampering their ecology.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s like we know the way home but we use Google maps and end up in some small lane right?

Pritha Dey: Absolutely. Talking about the number of species, India has about 10,000 species of moths. I cannot even imagine how diverse they are. In the Himalayas, the eastern Himalayas have 50-60% of the total diversity, which is 5-6000 but if you come to the western Himalaya, it’s only 20-30% which is an estimated 2-3000 species in western Himalaya. You can imagine.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, and a major part of it is unexplored right. Both in the west and in the east?

Pritha Dey: Right. When I started out, I was the first person to study moths in Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh wow. Nice.

Pritha Dey: To document them properly. So, such important areas are known for other kinds of wildlife but we don’t know much about moths from such a biodiverse state like Uttarakhand.

Lalitha Krishnan: I’m glad you’re doing that and you can have a lifetime of doing that if you want. There are so many moths. Rohit you did mention that bats are the only mammals that fly. Do they migrate like birds do?

Rohit Chakravarti: They do and we know very little about that in India. Most of the studies on bat migration come from Europe and the US. Because the bat’s flight is not as efficient as that of birds, they cannot fly to the same order as birds do. Some birds can migrate from one pole to the other but bats are not capable of that. The maximum distance that they can cover is about 1000-3000 km.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s quite a bit.

Rohit Chakravarty: That itself is a lot for an animal of that size. The interesting part though about bat migration is that unlike birds that migrate to remain active in a warmer climate, a lot of bats actually migrate and then they hibernate in much warmer conditions and much cooler conditions. So, bats do all sorts of interesting things that are rather unusual from the point of view of birds.

Lalitha Krishnan: Did you say to warmer and cooler conditions?

Rohit Chakravarty: Yes, I say that because particularly the studies on bats migrating on mountains have shown that the females go lower down because they mate just before migrating. So, they have a growing embryo in them; the females carry a growing pup and they have to remain active for some period of time in order to let the pup grow in their body. Bu the males do not have any such pressures so what they do is that they actually migrate up the hill to much colder conditions where it is easier to go into hibernation. It’s just like us sleeping in winters. We tend to sleep longer in winter because it’s much nicer to sleep in colder conditions. It’s much easier for us to fall asleep in colder conditions so that’s what the males do.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ok and save energy, I guess.

Rohit Chakravarty: Yes.

[Photos courtesy: Pritha Dey. Top:Tanaorhinus kina. Below L-R: Amblychia sp., Naga Hawk moth (Acosmeryx naga), Peach blossom moth (Thyatira batis)}

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. Pritha, back to you. There are day-flying moths and night-flying moths. I know this is a very basic question for you but for all of us who don’t know anything about moths, could you tell us 4 easy ways to help us differentiate a moth from a butterfly?

Pritha Dey: I’m very happy to answer very basic questions. So, moths and butterflies, they both belong to this order, Lepidoptera. Moths came earlier than butterflies. Butterflies evolved from moths. So, there are some connecting groups in the evolutionary tree which are the day-flying moths. So they have bright coloured wings like a butterfly do but mostly moths are nocturnal in behaviour.

The easiest way to differentiate between a butterfly and a moth is to look at the antennas. The antenna for butterflies is club-shaped. They have a round ball-like structure at the end of it whereas moths, they have fuzzy, hairy antennas. By looking at them also, butterflies are more slender but moths are fuzzy and hairy. If you look at them sitting also, butterflies close their wings when they sit on a leaf or a flower and moths sit with their wings open and flat on the surface.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK.

Pritha Dey: Of course, there are exceptions to these things that I’m telling you which actually prove the rule. Another difference is the pupal stage which is very scientific or taxonomic but I’ll still mention it. The moths in a pupal stage spin a covering around their developing stage which is called a cocoon. Which is spun by the moths. But for butterflies, the covering in which the developing stage is there is called chrysalis. It is part of their body that develops into this cover.

Another interesting thing that differentiates moths and butterflies is something called a wing coupling device. In moths, there is a tiny structure called the frenulum which actually joins the forewing and the hindwing but there is no structure like that in butterflies. So, that’s why you find their flight also a bit different. Butterflies, if you see them in flight it’s clearer and in moths, it’s a bit fuzzier and confused flight.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. And can one see this? Is this visible…the joint between the wings?

Pritha Dey: No. it’s visible under a microscope. So, the last two differentiations that I said are very scientific and taxonomic but for a layperson to differentiate between a moth and a butterfly, is to look at the antenna. That’s the giveaway.

Lalitha Krishnan: This is an easy and practical way for people who might be interested but don’t know how to start looking in their own garden to differentiate the moths and butterflies. Thank you so much. Rohit, since 2016 you have been working on bats in Uttarakhand. Could you tell us more about the bats in the Himalaya?

Rohit Chakravarty: So, Himalayan bats are quite unique. Like Pritha spoke about moths we see very similar patterns with bats as well. Just because of the geographical location of Uttarakhand, there are species that are at the edge of their distribution from Europe, from Eastern Asia like China, Japan, etc. and peninsular India. All of these species sort of merge in Uttarakhand. So it results in a unique diversity of tropical and temperate species. But what is even more fascinating for me is to see these small animals that fly. And flight, as you know, takes up a lot of energy. These small animals live in such elevation and they fly continuously throughout the night. So it’s very interesting from the point of view of physiology to know how these animals do that. At some point in time, it would be great to study these things. There are bats going even further, even in Ladakh which is at 3800-4000 metres. I don’t think there is any place in the whole world where bats occur at such high elevation. That’s unique.

Lalitha Krishnan: One had a concept in one’s head that bats usually live in caves. But now they’re all over urban areas, right?

Rohit Chakravarty: Bats have actually been in urban areas for a very long time. It’s really their ability to keep themselves concealed. Most people have bats in their houses but they don’t know about them until they see a pup lying on the ground or until they see a dead body in their house. But bats really have the ability to conceal themselves. And, they fly out at night, which again helps them conceal. So, bats have been with people for a very long time and it’s just that their secretive behaviour had helped them keep away from people while being close to them.

Lalitha Krishnan: Pretty smart. Pritha, back to you. Could you tell us about the independent project that followed your Ph.D. work?

Pritha Dey: When I came back from Germany after doing part of my Ph.D., I got funding from the Rufford Foundation (UK) where I got to study the moths from the Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary. It is another protected area in the western Himalaya which has not been explored for moths. We know the Himalayan Monal, we know the Musk deer, we know the Rhododendrons from this particular part of Uttarakhand but nothing about moths. In 2018 I did fieldwork there in the summer for two consecutive years. In 2019 also, I did some fieldwork. It’s been a very different diversity that I found from my earlier work in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve because it’s more oak-dominated, rhododendron dominated moist forest in that part of Uttarakhand. I already reported a new species to western Himalaya from that project. Most importantly I got to do a lot of outreach activities from that project where I could reach out to people from non-scientific backgrounds to talk about moths; how they’re important to our ecosystems and how is it important to conserve them. During that time also, I got to meet you at the Devalsari meet, which was also part of my outreach activity when I could give a talk about moths. Apart from science, I really like to reach out to people about my research which I think is very important for any kind of research. I take that from my independent project.


Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. And what is the species you discovered?


Pritha Dey: I didn’t discover. it’s an already existing species. It the Drepanid moth which is a hook tip moth that was previously known to be found only in the eastern Himalaya. So, I reported this along with Mr. Sanjay Sondhi. He also found it near Chakrata, in a place called Kanasar and I found it in Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary. Both of these records are first time records from the western Himalaya. That was really something exciting.

Lalitha Krishnan: So cool. This might be a really stupid question but I haven’t heard of a …you know we have a national bird, a national animal, but do we have a national moth? Is that something we could do to promote moths?


Pritha Dey: We don’t as yet but we have state butterflies. We don’t have state moths as of yet. That gives me another reason to talk about moths more and to continue my research.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s an idea.

Pritha Dey: It’s an idea.

Lalitha Krishnan: Rohit, bats use many senses as you said but mostly their sense of hearing to communicate? You have trapped and recorded their ultrasonic calls. Could you tell us more about how they hunt, how they pick up sounds or avoid threats and stuff like that?

Rohit Chakravarty: Bats use ultrasound to navigate. They make these sounds that we can’t hear. We can’t hear ultrasounds. These sounds that bats make are really loud and sometimes they can be as loud as a firecracker. We are fortunate that we can’t hear it. When those sounds hit objects and come back to them, bats make all these mental calculations in split seconds in their minds where they calculate their distance with respect to the object, their position, their speed, etc. and they navigate. If it’s a hard object, for example, if it’s wood, or it’s a tree or a brick wall in front of them…hard objects reflect almost all of the sound that has hit on them. Whereas if it is a person, or if it’s an animal, that’s in front of a bat, the skin absorbs some sound and reflects part of the sound back to the bat. Depending on the time that it takes for the sound to be emitted and to be returned, and the intensity of the sound that is emitted and the intensity of the sound that comes back to the bats, bats make these calculations and they figure out if it’s an object that’s in front of them – whether it’s an enemy, whether they’re edging toward danger or towards food. So despite our politicians telling us that mathematics is not important, it’s really important for an animal to survive in the wild and they do it subconsciously.

Lalitha Krishnan: I won’t any anything about politicians. But bats sound pretty smart. That’s so cool. You also mentioned earlier that bats also feed on moths. I just read part of an article in a scientific journal which mention that a species of tiger moth has developed a defensive ultrasonic clicking technique that jams the sonar–exactly what you were talking about— of echolocating bats to avoid being eaten. They’re saying this is the “first conclusive evidence of sonar jamming in nature”. Who wants to talk about this?

Rohit Chakravarty: I’ll let Pritha answer.

Pritha Dey: Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: What do they mean by moth-clicks?

Pritha Dey: Moths are majorly predated upon by bats. In the conversation so far we know that bats echolocate to hunt also. They hunt for moths by echolocating. One group of moths known as the tiger moth; they have—you talk about one species—but the entire family has developed this way of combating this echolocation by producing ultrasonic clicks. What they do is basically they produce the clicks at a certain frequency which are also ultrasonic. A frequency that hampers the echolocation of the flying bat and it confuses the bat as to where the moth is located. So, the bat gets confused about the location of the flying moth and cannot really predate on it. So, that’s how it functions and that’s how it evolved. So, the moths echolocate; they produce these ultrasonic clicks only in response to echolocating bats otherwise they do not use any ultrasound to communicate. They are mostly herbivores insects so they communicate only for mating which is mostly through pheromones.
This moth-bat ultrasound warfare is an evolutionary arms race and they are co-evolving new strategies. There is something called a ‘stealth echolocation’ by the bats also where they have devised a way to avoid this sonar jabbing by the tiger moths and at the same time, the moths are also devising new strategies to combat these echolocating bats. So yes, it’s eco-evolving, ongoing warfare in nature.

Lalitha Krishnan: This sounds like something straight out of the movies. You know this could be a hit and miss for both right?

Pritha Dey: Yes.

Rohit Chakravarty: It sounds more like the US and North Korea saying, “My button is bigger than yours.”

Lalitha Krishnan: Haha. Ok. You’ll have both studied abroad. Did anything stand out from those experiences? What did you bring back to your respective fields?

Pritha Dey: For me, I was in Germany for part of my Ph.D. After I completed my fieldwork in India, I came to Germany to complete the rest of it. My supervisor here (Germany) is a very funny and kind-hearted man who took me to South America and different parts of Europe for fieldwork.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh nice.

Pritha Dey: I was exposed to a lot of—for the first time—I have seen so many people working on moths come together which I hardly see in India. The efficient networking that they share like all the scientists here – I am talking about the European community – the scientific networking and the taxonomic exchange that is required for lesser-known taxa is very efficient here. Which I took- something positive about my stay in Germany and want to take this culture back to India where more scientists work together toward conserving particular taxa. It would be more encouraging. We have so much diversity in India but very few people working on this kind of diversity. So yes, I took that back from my stay in Germany.

Lalitha Krishnan: That sounds so good. That sounds like a good thing to bring back. What about you Rohit.

Rohit Chakravarty: In the case of Bats, Germany is a great place to study in because Germany treats its bats like we treat our large animals. So, bats receive the highest levels of protection in German law. Whereas in India, they are completed unprotected except for a few species. What is even more heartening to see is almost every month, there are citizen science events where people go around the city either recording bat calls in a scientific framework. Or they are citizen groups that put identification rings on bats much like how people put rings to study migratory birds. So groups put rings on bats before they go into hibernation or during autumn. (They do this) To see how populations are faring in the city or see how populations are migrating from one part of Europe to another. Most of these studies have been going on for decades now. So, this culture of studying bats is really ingrained in them. That’s something I would really like to see in India- to bring back to India and continue for many years to come.
Other than that, of course, Germany is a technological hub. The technology we have here to study bats for e.g. miniature GPS tracking devices that you can put on bats to study their movements, study their foraging, and everything. So, that technology is something that I would ideally like to bring back to India.

Lalitha Krishnan: So nice to hear that you’re interested. We don’t have enough of citizen science projects. They’re a good way of creating awareness and conserving wildlife. I’m going to get back to citizen science as both of you are interested. If somebody in India is interested in moths and starts off by taking photographs or wants to id or post pictures online what or where should he/she be looking? What sites or what forums?

Pritha Dey: Yes, you correctly pointed out that both of us are interested in the citizen science framework. There are many forums like the India Biodiversity Portal or different social media groups where people put up pictures of moths and get them identified. Here, I would like to emphasise a particular portal – the Moths of India website which comes under the Biodiversity Atlas Project in India. It is completely citizen science-based. I’m a team member of this initiative. How it functions is that you see a moth, you click a good resolution picture as others can identify it and you can just put it up as an observation with a date and the location. These two things are important. Anybody can register themselves and upload their observations. Then, there’s a team of reviewers. We get these observation uploads every day and we -a team of 7-8 people-we review it, try to properly identify it if it hasn’t already been done and then it is put up on our website. The website is very easily searchable. You can search by location or if you are a bit more oriented toward the moth taxonomy you can search by family or genus names and you can get your moth identified and see their distribution also which is based on whatever observations we have from different parts of the country.

Lalitha Krishnan: That will help. And for bats Rohit? What resources would a bat fan use? What website?

Rohit Chakravarty: So, I have written a detailed article on this and I would really urge the audience to google ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Bat watching’ and the article is up on ‘Conservation India’ You’ll be able to find it as soon as you google it. In that article I have listed down all the resources that people can refer to, all the equipment a bat watcher needs to start watching bats and to start identifying bats. Unfortunately, there are not any online portals that allow Indians to know more about Indian bats but there’s a lot of self-learning that people can do and I’m sure this article will help you get started.

Lalitha Krishnan: One could always start a group of sorts, right?

Rohit Chakravarty: Yes and we definitely do need something bat focused in due course of time but at the moment like ‘Moths of India’, we also have ‘Mammals of India’. Of course, we receive a lot more photographs of other large mammals but I would urge the audience to click photos of bats wherever they can find them and post them to groups of ‘Mammals of India’ and also India Biodiversity Portal.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. That helps, Thanks. I request both of you to share a conservation-related word/concept and tell us why it’s significant for you.

Pritha Dey: What concerns me at the moment is the ongoing insect species decline that we see globally. It has gathered attention from scientists and politicians alike. We need more young people to be interested to study lesser-known taxa or less charismatic taxa from a country which is so hugely biodiverse like India. With the right techniques and tools, India has the potential to stand out in insect conservation. I would really reach out to the young people through this conversation that: Please be interested more in moths, butterflies, and other insects. Apart from science, it’s very important to reach out to the non-scientific community to achieve larger conservation goals and I would end by saying there’s a famous scientific article by the scientist, EO Wilson which says that:” Little things that run the world”; he talks about insects and arthropods. As long as you believe that so that’s the message that I would like to spread through this conversation.

Lalitha Krishnan: Bravo.

Rohit Chakravarty: My message is pretty similar to Pritha’s. As someone who works on a lesser-known group of animals. I believe that every animal is different and every animal tells a different story about the world. For e.g. a tiger might tell you a lot about forests and about how deer populations need to be controlled, how human interference needs to be managed, how corridors need to be connected etc. But a bat is a completely different animal and so is a moth and so is a frog. So, every animal tells a different story about the world. And, only when you study them, you understand what story it conveys and how you should protect its world in order to save the animal itself.
The other message that I would like to younger people is to have faith in science. To not lose hope in science and to develop an objective view of the world; not a subjective one. And to include science in the way we conserve species. Science is not the end result and it’s not the destination but it’s definitely something important we need to incorporate it in conservation measures.

Lalitha Krishnan: That was interesting and relevant for anyone who’s listening. Really great. Thank you so much Pritha and Rohit.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation Podcast. I’d love your feedback. Do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. If you know somebody whose story should be told or is doing interesting work, do contact me.

If you want to know more about Pritha’s and Rohit’s work scroll down for the links. You can download Heart of Conservation podcast episodes for free on Soundcloud, Apple podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Bye for now.


For more info on bats write to rohit.chakravarty77@gmail.com. For more on moths, write to dey.pritha126@gmail.com

Also, check out “A beginners guide to bat watching

Mammals of Indian Subcontinent

Moths Of India

https://www.sanctuaryasia.com/conservation/field-reports/10693-like-a-moth-to-a-flame.

htmlhttps://www.livemint.com/Leisure/6vGVslxDp407q8vYzCsoVM/Searching-for-nightfliers-in-Uttarakhand.html

Birdsong by hillside residents


Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guests featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organisation, committee or other group or individual.

Ep#7 Ajay Rastogi. The pursuit of Consumerism and Science of Happiness.

Ajay Rastogi #HeartofConservationPodcast #storiesfromthewild

Heart of Conservation Podcast . Also on iTunes and Spotify

Show notes (edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi, you’re listening to Episode #7 of Heart of Conservation, your podcast from the Himalaya. I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan bringing you stories from the wild. Stay tuned for interesting interviews and exciting stories that keep you connected to the natural world.

My guest today is Ajay Rastogi, He is the Co-founder & Director of the Vrikshalaya Himalayan Centre in the Majkhali a village fringing Ranikhet in the Kumaon part of Uttarakhand, India. Ajay is the one responsible for introducing the term nature contemplation to me. He is an applied ethics practitioner, philosopher and a yoga instructor I can vouch for.

Ajay studied agriculture and environmental science at Pantnagar University. He’s a recipient of the South Asia Youth Leaders Award, European Union Erasmus Mundus Fellowship in Applied Ethics, and the Nehru-Fulbright Environmental Leadership Award for Contemplative Education.

He has been invited to conduct workshops world over and has spoken at several forums including Fortune 500 events. His work has been also been translated and published in Spanish. (La Contemplacion De La Naturaleza).

Thank you so much for joining me on this podcast.

Ajay Rastogi: Thank you so much Lalitha. It’s indeed a delight to meet you. I’ve known you as a friend for so many years. I’m happy to join your podcast.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re so welcome. Ajay, you so do so many wonderful things but what do you call yourself professionally these days.

Ajay Rastogi: What I call myself is just a teacher now…and a mentor because I am working with a lot of young people and I find that young people are only motivated if they see (you) leading by example. So I think from a conservationist to an ethicist to yoga teacher, I think now, I don’t want any prefixes or suffixes. I just want to be a simple mentor or a teacher.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ajay I remember you were into nature contemplation. That was a long time back. Are you still doing that?

Ajay Rastogi: Very much. In fact, we are getting a little deeper as time goes by and learning many more things.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is nature contemplation? Is it the same as soaking in nature? How is it different from just enjoying nature or forest bathing? What is it specifically? Could you define it for us please?


Ajay Rastogi: I think you have, right in the beginning of the conversation asked the question, which is important. See, the thing is, that we are driven by the rational mind. And, even if the rational mind calms down to a level of tranquility, through forest bathing or anything else, it is still the rational mind. Now the fact is that now, the whole science is kind of talking that this can relax you. Because, it can put your internal physiology in order. There’s something called the deeper trigger of physiological relaxation which can happen when the mind calms down. And all these things are excellent. Nature is definitely very healing on that account.

Where the mindfulness…the contemplative bit comes into the picture is that we are trying to say this is where we are trying to mix the east with the latest neuroscience, is that somehow we need to somehow transcend the the mind. And then you connect very deeply with yourself. That’s where the contemplative aspects are. While forest bathing if you get lost, and you forget this whole sense of mind, then, that is the contemplative way of being in the forest or connecting with nature. But if you are still trying to observe, or still making your checklist or you’re still trying to imbibe—which is all very beautiful, all very healing—but it is not transcending. I’ll be happy to explain more.

Lalitha Krishnan: So what I understand is that if you’re very conscious of what you’re doing while you’re observing nature or making your checklist then you’re not actually transcending. Am I right?

Ajay Rastogi: The conscious is the universal consciousness. The tree has a consciousness. The bird also has a consciousness. The rock also has a consciousness. I also have a consciousness and I am part of that universal consciousness. The rational mind is not willing to accept. The thing is, I still view that I am a subject (and that) I am viewing some object. The rock, the bird, the tree, the bark. I am observing, I am interacting of course, but then I am different. This is a subject, I am the object and I am viewing it…whether I am viewing it with my ears, nose…mean all senses…eyes, but I cannot feel that I am part of the same consciousness with the rational mind. It’s only when I go beyond, that I feel that I am part of the universal consciousness. That’s what important. It’s important because it connects us with the very root of our being on earth. You know this thing about five elements of panch thatva… Kabir and everybody has said it but how do you actually feel it? Watch your third eye or watch your breath? It’s sometimes very abstract. With nature, nature automatically does it. It’s our mother. We have been born in nature. If you look at our evolutionary pathway we are definitely a product of nature. We are biological organisms. We tend to forget (that) because of our intellect. As Joana Macy , one of the very famous mindfulness teacher in nature—She says that, “Often we feel, that we are a brain at the end of a stick.” We often fail to feel our somatic awareness, our emotional awareness…most often get into our intellect stuff. It happens in our daily lives you know. You’re in an office situation, you’re dealing with an issue, you’re only applying the intellect. But I’m not just that. I’m a biological organism. My emotions are equally important. My somatic awareness is equally important. So we are talking of the critical awareness. Critical awareness can only happen if we somehow not be under the influence of the brain all the time. I have to give myself, my body, my feelings, my internal depth a time to connect with my own self.

Lalitha Krishnan: Tell me Ajay, how much time do you need to connect with your whole self? After all you don’t exist by yourself. You exist in an office or a queue. You exist in community. So to deal with other “intellects” of the world, who don’t meditate or contemplate nature, how much time do you need to do what you’re doing without being an isolated person or alien who can actually look within but practically does not know how to deal with the real..the rest of the world.

Ajay Rastogi: Beautiful. If I say that you need maybe 25 minutes a day…just like every other practice. You know that something may have happened 20 years ago between you and me. And I suddenly meet you on the roadside. Do you remember what happened 20 years ago? Often you will. And that will colour the way we will meet. Whereas you may have forgiven me in 20 years. While I may have realized in 20 years. We may both be different individuals at the moment but when we meet, we are still carrying that intellectual baggage. That’s the idea of transcending. The idea of transcending is not , kind of, get in your cocoon. It’s the idea of universal consciousness. That’s the idea -that I am meeting you, I am meeting you now, I’m meeting you now, afresh.

Let’s say a colleague of mine had not responded to an email and I am his supervisor. In the morning, I am furious because there’s another reminder. I still have to point it out to my colleague. But if I don’t have any baggage, we talk and we talk now. And maybe that’s more motivating. That’s what we call ‘Authentic leadership’. Authentic leadership is about now. Because, most disputes in the workplace take place either because of egos.. relationships are spoilt because of peripheral things. We all work in offices with people. 90% of issues have to do with peripheral things not the content we are working with. We question how you talk, or we question, “Did you actually mean that?” We are trying to keep a little distance from that judgmental mind. I would once again, come back to the evolutionary pathway. The reason Lalitha, why we are suffering so much…see, we have never had a better time in this world, at least for 5% of the population. We have all the gadgets, we have all the comforts, we have all the money, we have all the resources. But still we are suffering with a lot of anxiety issues, we are suffering in our relationships. It has come because of all our fearfulness. Where is this fear coming from -inside? When everything is going good where is the fear (coming from)? The root of the fear is in our biology. What is happening is because of our flight and fight that we have evolved now there are so many things to judge—we were never so judgmental. I would recommend a beautiful book by the University of Stanford, Why Zebras have no ulcers?

Lalitha Krishnan:: Don’t they get ulcers?

Ajay Rastogi: Maybe a few, but not like us. The hospitals are full of patients and patients of that class who have everything going for them. If you go a hospital for a visit, you spend 5000 rupees. That means you’re already in that class and you’re paying for your illnesses instead of enjoying a more beautiful life. What I’m talking about is prevention. How do we prevent that level of insecurity, that level of fearfulness? I was talking of zebras. Let’s say a herd of zebras is going and a lion attacks. It’s a matter of moments. The rest of the day the zebras are peaceful. One zebra is gone. The rest are moving. It’s not a big deal of worrying all the time. Now imagine ourselves in an office situation going from home. You meet the traffic all the time, you meet the gateman, then you meet the boss, your colleagues. Every time you have to take a judgment call. All the time, you’re worked up. This working up is not coping up with our evolutionary pathway. You are not designed as a biological organism to be able to do that 24×7. That’s why we say we need to get away from this whole judgment thing. That can only happen by transcending the mind. Because if the mind is involved it is already taking some decisions for you. That’s why we are talking about 25 min. of going beyond.

Lalitha Krishnan:: Ajay are you saying this can only happen in nature?

Ajay Rastogi: I am not saying this can only happen in nature. This is ancient technology yaar. 5000-10000 years of wisdom (from) Buddha, and everybody else. I was in Sarajevo and we (visited) a shrine of a saint. They were doing it (contemplation) with a waterfall…and many people from Nanak…. everybody does it…all the prophets, you know, have done it I think.

The reason I’m talking about nature is that nature creates a multi sensuous experience in a particular direction. In the 8 fold path of yoga—I’m once again coming back to east because I’m trying to mix it with neuroscience—you know they’re coming together. They’re coming together very, very quickly. We’re putting, you know the 8 fold path -yama, niyama, asana, pranayam,dharana & Samadhi. The step of the dharana is when you can, over a longer period, focus on one particular aspect, one particular thing. That’s what nature does by itself. All the senses are involved in the same direction. My feeling is that we have tried to recreate it in our religious places of worship. We light incense. We have a big statue, which is larger than life. We are ringing a bell. We are lighting a lamp. We are trying to put all the senses in that particular direction. Nature automatically does it so it is very helpful. It is in our internal nature to feel safe. But it cannot happen deep in a forest. It cannot happen in a tiger or elephant territory or core areas. It can happen where you feel secure. There has been a lot of work done by psychologists and neurologists that I can point out. On our website: foundnature.org you’ll find a lot of references. Last year’s Noble prize (2017) in medical physiology is related to biological rhythm, connect with internal and external nature. So, contemplation is very state of the art now.

Why I feel very fortunate in India, we have a big tradition of this knowledge: of wisdom from the traditions and yoga, and other things and I feel fortunate enough as a Fulbright to interact with the best in the world on the scientific aspect. That’s why life is so beautiful in the sense I am very deeply into nature contemplation. A university in the US is offering a three-credit course on various aspects of nature contemplation, which we ran last year. I was there again and part of the course we are doing there, a part of the course over here.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ajay you’re teaching in the east as well as the west. What is the response you’re getting?

Ajay Rastogi: You used the word ‘practical’ which I really love as to, “what is the use to me?” Practically, how does it help me? See, how do we learn? We learn either the cognitive ways, which means we read and write or you learn by experience. We join mother in the kitchen or join Lalitha in her beautiful kitchen and learn how to cook…huh? Or you learn intuitively as well. As a woman, you will not undermine the value of intuition?Lalitha Krishnan: Certainly not.

Ajay Rastogi: OK? So what is the biggest force? Once you get a feeling from inside it’s almost like a truth. You don’t question that. So, the reason why we are unable to transform the world into a more sustainable society is because we are only influenced through reading and writing. Reading and writing can make me aware. Reading and writing can perhaps also make me more knowledgeable but the chances of influencing my decisions and actions, and changing my behaviour so that the elephant also can have the required level of habitat mean that I compromise a little on my food consumption. Am I willing to do that? Or am I just willing to just talk about it and write about it?

The elephant is my brother. That’s what all traditional cultures did. The tiger was the brother of the Mishi people in Arunachal Pradesh. And that will only come from inside.

How much will you explain or teach me? OK, you buy this Fair Trade chocolate so the farmer will get a better price. OK, don’t wear this Tee shirt; it is made in a sweatshop. Don’t wear this shoe. There was cruelty on this buffalo. How much will you teach me Lalitha? Every now and then? If it only comes internally, from me, then you don’t have to teach me. I will be motivated to act.

Lalitha Krishnan: Just listening to Ajay, I feel we have lost it completely in India. We’re ruining our oceans. We’re dumping it with all our garbage, all our industrial waste, even our religious festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi. You’ve seen the number of dead fish that float up the next day. We’re killing all marine life. We have completely lost it, I think.

Ajay Rastogi:: Exactly. We have completely lost it in a big way. We need a huge transformation. We need an almost 180 degree turnabout in society if we need to have beautiful nature and beautiful relationships, and equity in society you know? Everybody needs to drink clean water, have healthy food and breathe healthy air. But do we really care when we put an extra air-conditioner in our home? Do we really care? We only just think we are saving some electricity bill with the 5-star rating and I can say thank you to my consciousness that I’m an energy efficient consumer. You think this will change the world? This will not change the world. It will not save our tiger. This will not save our oceans. This will not save our rivers. This will not save us.

For that, the science of happiness is coming around in a huge, huge way…as to what actually makes us happy. I already told you that all the hospitals are running because of rich people. We are all falling sick all the time despite having everything good going for us. 


Highest number of cases of depression present in the world are in North America where there is no dearth of infrastructure, no dearth of economic incentives, where there is no dearth of security. So now the science of happiness is coming up in a huge way as to what makes us happy because we thought that in the pursuit of all that consumerism we will be happy. We in India, are still following that. 2% of us have gotten there at the cost of 98% and the rest of us will also go there. But, is that making us happier? So the science of happiness is really coming back and that is also part of our workshop.

So what is it that I am doing? I feel that my job is done as a mentor if a student starts to question only two things at the end of it. One is, “Oh ho, what is it that I should do?” Taking individual responsibility, I think, is the call of the hour. You cannot change the family without changing yourself. Without changing the family, I cannot change the neighbour. I cannot change society without changing my neigbhour. OK? So I have to begin with myself.

The second thing I feel, our job is done, when the students ask, “what is it that can give me a larger purpose? A larger than life purpose that will drive (me) passionately? Passion combined with simplicity leads to happiness on a lot of occasions. You can have the most expensive brand of canvas, the most expensive brush and the most expensive Fine Arts education in the world. But that will not make you a happy painter. You can be a happy painter by just painting on mud…if you feel happy about it. What we are saying is that it is simplicity (Keep it simple), have less clutter and have time for yourself. Otherwise, we are time-poverty people. What are you doing? We’re just managing our stuff. Where is the time to meet friends, chit-chat, sunbathe, go and swim in the river and do what we feel like? That doesn’t cost money. You don’t need a diving suit to sit next to a river and swim in it.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ajay, you mentioned a methodology to nature contemplation. I’m curious to know whom you’re teaching it to or as part of what course you’re teaching it.

Ajay Rastogi: You see, I think it all began with (Krishnan) Kutty when he was the Director of NOLS* because he wanted to start with this Nature and Culture Section based in homestays. We were approached in Machkali to set up a women’s collective. A self-help group so that students can learn. I was just back from the US after doing my nature contemplation course, as a Fulbright. So I said, “We’ll start to work with the contemplation of nature as well”. So, it is students and we have been offering it as a side event in conferences. For e.g., in 2012, there was a conference on the Convention of Biological Diversity. This is called Conference of Parties, so 160 countries were participating in Hyderabad. I did a side event there. As a result, some Chilean delegate who really loved this idea  invited me to Chile in 2014. Then we offered workshops there. Of course, in Santiago, you do it in a church. It was dark, we rearranged the seating in the church, (put up) flower arrangements for people to contemplate… It was very beautiful. And they translated the whole thing in Spanish. Then in 2016, they got a book out in Spanish, La Contemplacion De La Naturaleza, which is available on Amazon. In 2014, I think we did it (workshop) as part of the International Parks Congress in the Olympic Park in Sydney. So, that was big. A couple of years’ back one of the participants from the National Parks service in Australia wrote (to say) how much it has helped them. She actually wrote an email, a year later, after attending this, to say how beautiful it was for her through the years and now she’s talking to others in the National Park Service. At the same time, I also feel—see I used to work for the United Nations—how detached one can be. I’m writing, let’s say, “small farmers,” “poor people”, “marginal environments”, “impacts of climate change…” I am just using these words. Do they really hit me in the heart? Do I really feel for that small farmer when I’m actually typing my tour report? I feel like unless I feel it in my heart, when I put that word down “marginal environment”, “poor and vulnerable communities,” “women and children,” “undernourishment,” then I should feel it. If I doing it without feeling then I am not attaching my full being into it. I am just trying to say things for others to read. Therefore, I also tried to do it with the FAO headquarters in Rome. We suggested that before people meet in a workshop; let them contemplate before they take important decisions. So we had these little flower arrangement in the room; everybody contemplated nature for 20 min. then we started the meeting.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ajay, I know you work at the grassroots level, you personally know people in the villages here, you speak to the farmers, you know what the issues are. But, all these people who write these great sounding reports–who attend these meets and contemplate on nature—do they know the ground realities of the people they’re basing their findings on? How much do they really know?

Ajay Rastogi:You are right Lalitha. Many of them actually don’t. Many of them do also. They go on trips and they come back and learn from the situation –rural appraisals, appreciative inquiry, indigenous knowledge systems —these kinds of the methodology are quite mainstream. But the fact is do we attach that much of value or importance to it or not? In my own selfish or wasted way—ok I am already concerned about my colleagues; whether I am getting my due promotion or not? Whether my accounts were settled or not by the accounts officers rightly? Whether my supervisor will send me to the next conference or not? If I am worried about those, instead of the fact I am getting paid—because some taxpayer is paying to serve that small farmer—that’s the paradigm shift we need in these bureaucrats. So work with a conscience you know? And it should prick your heart. If I am wasting the amount of money in one flight from say, Rome-Papua New Guinea, and back, the amount of money that one trip of mine will cost may perhaps be good enough for a whole village yaar—to do a drinking water project. Just if that thought can be in your mind. I’m not saying I should not make that trip but that will make a huge difference in how I view the project. And, how I put my foot forward in the next meeting, next trip.

So we are trying to work with diverse people as I told you. We have worked with the Wildlife Institute of India you were there. The Director told us it was very useful. The Director and the Dean were there at the contemplation of nature session. He said for the first seven minutes, he was making a checklist of the tasks to do – which is fine- but later on, he could feel the tranquility of the contemplative practice. We have done this (workshops) in Bhutan, in the US in different cities and different settings; including in the University of Washington Medical School because they are teaching mindfulness for the past 18 years. It’s happening in India of course. I was a speaker at the Fortune 500 event three years ago. I spoke about it (nature contemplation) and people were very enamoured. It so happened that the CEO of Nestle Mr. Narayanan was the speaker before me. So we shared the dais.

My only worry is that we do all the beautiful conference about poverty in five-star hotels. We are known for that. For the environment also, we have gone, almost the same route. Now in India, the first Mindfulness Summit is taking place in the hotel West Inn in Mumbai. So, my worry is if we are going that route then my worry is that we are not reaching where we want to reach…Even with this kind of technology of mindfulness, it will go the same way and will continue to destroy the world.

Lalitha Krishnan: Ajay what you’re doing is wonderful but could you tell us the impact it’s creating here in the hills? All these people interacting during homestays and stuff…do you see any change in them? In the locals who are the hosts and the university students who are coming from abroad? Could you tell us something about that?

Ajay Rastogi: There’s been a lot of learning for us. When we set up the village homestay in the traditional homes of the agrarian people, we made a self-help group of women. They call themselves Jagriti Sayam Sahayata Group. They have a common bank account; they have these responsibilities to decide where the students will stay and what will be the code of conduct in the house. Hygiene issues– all the food– because we have to be careful of the nutritional side of it at the same time, the food should be culturally compatible. We don’t want different foods to be cooked in the home or served. They have a rotation system so everybody gets their turn. A lot has happened on its own, organically. This model works very well because the hosts are not just the women. In our case, everybody has to address it as part of the family. Say, if I am a young person and I have siblings of my age group, I will address the host mom as Eja – ‘mom’ in the local language. You have to. Grandfather is Bubu. If there is a sister, who is elder to you, then ‘Didi,’ etc. So, it’s like being in a family. There is a lot of language issues in the beginning because the women don’t even read proper Hindi you know? Even for their bank accounts they only put their thumb impressions. Language has been (an issue) but some younger children go to schools and have started learning preliminary English-3th, 4th, 5th standards and they can help translate. Kids pick up very fast.

In terms of cultural exchange, our kids have learned a lot of beautiful things from the kids who have come. For e.g., Planning ahead. Now arranging your school bag on the previous night you know? Or our kids will shout at 7 in the morning. If you can organize your socks the previous evening, then the mother can peacefully do other things. You don’t have to shout at her. Those kinds of things.

Ajay Rastogi: Then the gender equity had been huge for us.

Lalitha Krishnan:: Really?

Ajay Rastogi: In the western situation, there is no disparity with the girl child. In our society, it’s big. When they see this in their own peer group, they question it. When Abhishek comes, he throws the bag away and goes out to play. When Geeta comes, she has to help with the cowshed work. Or fetch water. Why is that? “She should also come and play with us because she is our sister.” Now you know it’s a family. That had gone a big way. Now we have a standard – in the cricket pitch in the evening, all the girls are also there.

The third thing is the cleanliness of the toilets. In our own house, neither the father will clean the toilet neither will the male child clean the toilet. Usually, the toilet will be cleaned by the mom or sister. But with these people (visitors) it is not a task. They have to. So, this is also a big thing – that the children have started helping with cleaning toilets. When I say “toilets,” it is the last thing they would have done.

So, we have gained a lot culturally from the visitors. Visitors also gained as they have learned to handle hand tools. Grow small patches of vegetables. Then they begin to comprehend that nothing much goes to waste because whatever is generated mostly comes locally. For e.g. a student did a project from an urban area as to when they get a litre of milk what all goes into it vs. getting a litre of milk here. You can see the whole economic enterprise of that whole litre of milk in the urban area. And the plastic and the waste, the human resources and the transportation, the energy involved and the quality. That opens up their mind to what small things you can do. Not everybody can rear a cow but grow a patch of vegetables. Consume fresh.

But to come to the brass-tacks of nature conservation, I think we rest it on three pillars. I am not talking about the steps of contemplation of nature. I am talking of the three pillars of this whole initiative we have.

One is what we call The Dignity of Physical Work. The reason why we are suffering so much and so dependent on fossil fuels and why (costs) of fossil fuels have gone up is because we don’t value the dignity of physical work. Because we believe machines do this or that and we also look down sometimes on men who do manual work. We feel they are inferior in some way as compared to somebody who is doing something white collared. We want to divide that whole thing because if we have to move forward for a sustainable society we have to remove the barriers. If I don’t have a pump, I can still get two buckets of water. And I will only care for that water source if I don’t have a water filter at home. If I have a water filter at home and there is some distant pipeline coming to my home, how does it matter? When I start to see this then it starts to influence me. And that’s part of the dignity of physical work.

The second pillar, which I already spoke about is interdependence. To see, the interdependence of communities! Otherwise, in our current economic ways, somehow we have become very transactional. I feel if I have enough money in my pocket, I can buy the services, I can buy the goods, I can buy a holiday in a nice place. But it’s not like that. That’s where it becomes unsustainable.
You see, the communitarian ways of life of helping each other, going out, doing things together… in the villages, we still have this huge tradition that is still continuing. If you don’t have a cow that is not currently giving milk, it’s not like your child will not get enough milk. All the neighbours, whose cows are giving milk will come with at least one glass of milk.

Lalitha Krishnan: It literally takes a village to raise a child over here. What is especially true of the villages in the hills is that if you need help in any way, it could be a death, or it could be changing your slate roof, the whole community will come together and help you do it.

Ajay Rastogi: That is so beautiful and that is the interdependence thing we are losing as a culture.

The third is interconnectedness. You see that your cow is going to graze in the forest so you should take care of that forest. If you put litter in that forest, it will go into the stomach of that cow, it will come to you. You see the interconnectedness. You see how some sacred tree in the catchment is rejuvenating the springs. Maybe, that’s why the trees are sacred because you think they are so important. You see culturally how traditions are interwoven into nature conservation. So it’s a big deal to comprehend all that – elements that are integral to the whole programme that we run with the village homestays.

Then there are other aspects. The women self-help groups get a lot of financial benefits out of it by hosting these guests. What is better is that this financial incentive of accommodating them, serving them food is all based on local affairs. They don’t have to move out in search of jobs. Out-migration is such a big issue. Now if somebody is coming to your home and accepting your cultural ways, helping you physically to do things you are supposed to do like fetching water, taking care of the cowshed or a younger sibling, you know? It’s so very beautiful. It works for everybody in a very beautiful way including the guest.

Lalitha Krishnan:: It’s so wonderful to hear because one doesn’t connect all these things you’re talking about to home-stays.

Would you care to share one word or term or concept that you think is significant to you?

Ajay Rastogi: All species—you are a dog lover and you have had dogs practically all your life—if you look at their behaviour, do you see them carry grudges? I think if we can stop carrying grudges, start looking inside and with that reflection, try and bring integrity into our lives: then what I am feeling inside I’m trying to act outside as honestly as I can. Lalitha is also doing that. Chingoo-Mingoo is also doing that. Then I think we’ll make a better society. So my keyword is integrity. My only thing is if we can value the privileges we have, then let go some of it so that others can have an equally good life. But we are still insecure and I don’t know why, despite everything going.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s so true. We can’t seem to have enough of anything. We always want more.

Ajay Rastogi: Whatever it is. This is it. I think we have to start sharing.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much for joining me on this podcast today.

Ajay Rastogi: Lovely talking to you Lalitha.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was talking to Ajay Rastogi. Do check him out on foundnature.org I hope you’re enjoying the conversations about conservation. Do subscribe for news, views, and updates from the world of conservation. 
If you do know somebody who is doing interesting work or whose story should be shared do write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com