Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Endangered Asiatic or Indian lions, striped hyaenas, plum-headed parakeets and many other species are awaiting visitors at the India House, which opened in the Budapest Zoo on Wednesday.
Zoo-goers can also learn about the impact of Indian lions on cultural history and other interesting aspects of the fauna of the sub-continent.
The facility was inaugurated by Indian Ambassador to Budapest Gauri Shankar Gupta and Deputy Foreign State Secretary Janos Hovari.
Director-General Miklos Persanyi said that the zoo keeps about 150 Indian animal species. Only a few hundred Indian lions live in the north-western state of Gujarat in India, he added.
Hovari said at the event that the house will strengthen ties between Hungary and India. "The mystical and inscrutable India" has been attracting Hungarians for two centuries, including such famous people as linguist and explorer Sandor Csoma Korosi, Asia-expert Aurel Stein and orientalist Ervin Baktay, he added.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Monday, April 18, 2011
The freak suicide of Yadvendrasinh Chauhan has exposed the deep-rooted rot of corruption in government systems in general and in the prestigious Gujarat Ecological Education and Research (GEER) Foundation in particular.
The story so far has been that Chauhan, a DFO in GEER had demanded reimbursements for work he'd done for the organisation.
Officials at GEER, he claimed in his suicide note, had demanded bribe to release the money legitimately due to him. An FIR has been filed in Adalaj police station against director Bharat Pathak and two other officials.
The amount in question is to the tune of Rs10 lakh, of which Rs7 lakh had been paid to him over the past one year and the remaining Rs 3lakh was due. The question that arises is why there was such a hullabaloo over Chauhan's claim for work that was officially assigned to him?
Because, parts of the tasks assigned to him were done 'orally'.For a senior officer to 'give oral orders' refers to assigning important tasks to subordinates without a written sanction.This is an unaccepted practice in government departments, but, as this case has exposed, often used by senior officers.
In fact, highly placed sources confide that lately this practice has been rampant in the department. Most importantly, these 'irregularities' have been pointed out to all the officials in the forest and environment department and the chief secretary by the Gujarat Forest Services association on several occasions.
But absolutely no action has been taken. Shocked by the death of Chauhan, his former colleagues and peers in the services believe that he has been a victim not of the greed of one or two officers, who allegedly demanded bribe from him, but of a deep decay of massive corruption in the system which is being conveniently ignored by the government.
Significantly, GEER Foundation is headed by the chief minister directly and all communication in this matter has been marked to him. But, sources claim there never has been any response from the CMO to letters shot by the association over corruption charges.
“The CM office on the other hand has received international awards for prompt response to any communication with them,” they put rather acidically.
The copy of one such letter written in early 2009, in possession of DNA, clearly states that this practice of giving oral orders was being followed and tasks and expenses out of the purview of the organisation was being undertaken.
The letter states that officers would refuse to sign documents when approached for official sanction. Additional principal chief conservator of forest CN Pandey held the post of director at GEER for a-not-very-common seven long years between 2004 and 2010.
"Senior officers orally give instructions to execute an ambitious project. This is typically done to put showcase projects, like the butterfly park in this case, on the fast track, to impress the powers that be. The responsibility for theproject is with the lower rung officials but the power to sanction the money continues with top bosses," said a reliable source, refusing to be identified for fear of backlash. Not deciding the contours of the project at the outset itself leads to submission of exaggerated claims by executing teams. "For example, work worth Rs1 lakh would be claimed as Rs10 lakh. As there was no sanction to begin with, documents would be forged to clear these claims.Irregularities galore. This is a very very common practice in the entire forest department," said a forester, underlining 'very' several times over.
"Mind you, this is all tax-payers' money," he smiles. In Chauhan's case, this is clearly what has happened. "Because he was under pressure to execute an ambitious project, though orally assigned to him, he perhaps went as far as to pour money from his own pocket to finish it. He was assured by his seniors that the money will be 'adjusted' and granted to him. But that didn't happen and there was a change of guard. The new officials were in the process of 'regularising' the processes, when Chauhan lost patience and committed suicide," he elaborated.
Former director of GEER foundation CN Pandey, however, said he was not aware of the letters written by GFS association and refused to be quoted on the issue.
Chauhan's case, another source adds, is merely the tip of the iceberg. The question is why has the government not taken action to control the rot in the system?"Prosecuting one or two officials is not going to help. No one man is responsible for 'abetting' Chauhan's suicide. It is the corrupt system that has claimed his life," says the veteran officer with firm conviction.
Minister of state for environment and forest Mangubhai Patel refused to comment on the allegations of corruption in GEER or any action to be taken for internal irregularities. He dismissed the question by saying, "I am in Navsari right now and I don't know anything about it (the allegations of corruption). I am aware that an RFO has committed suicide and police are doing their job. I have nothing to add," he said.
Friday, April 15, 2011
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Saturday April 9, 2011
By Graham Simmons
Do birds confer and make wise decisions? Can they tell us more about global warming? A visit to Jamnagar, Gujarat, proves interesting.
I had always thought that twitchers (committed bird-watchers) were just one step up from train-spotters on the ladder of moronity, so when invited to attend a birdwatching conference in Jamnagar (Gujarat, India), I couldn’t help wondering whether this would be just another dork fest or a meeting of real significance.
Fortunately, enlightenment came in the imposing form of His Highness Jamsaheb Shatrushakyasinhji Jadeja, Maharaja of Jamnagar and an outstanding ornithologist and wildlife expert. Speaking at the Global Birdwatching Conference in Jamnagar, the Maharaja predicted that bird migratory patterns would in future be among the leading predictors of climate change.
“Do birds have intelligence?” he asked.
“We give too much credence to instinct — but what about their innovative ways in life and powers of communication? We should study changes in bird habitats. All these changes are for a reason, and they can be forward indicators of transformations about to happen in the world,” he argued.
It soon became apparent why Jamnagar had been chosen as a conference venue. The adjacent Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary and Narara Marine National Park, which are right on the Indo-Asian Flyway for migratory birds, host over 250 species of birds. The 600ha sanctuary is a unique wetland ecosystem, with freshwater, brackish water and saltwater habitats right next to one another. Pelicans, cranes and flamingos (among many others) use the reserve for roosting and nesting.
Brushing the cobwebs out of my eyes I joined an early morning visit to Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, along a raised bund-road that divided the fresh and saltwater habitats. The diversity of birdlife at the time was not exactly overwhelming — maybe the birds had been out raging the previous night and it was too early for them. But the soft light of pre-dawn, gleaming off a pristine lotus pond, provided a superb backdrop for the Painted Storks, Crested Grebes, Bulbuls and Cranes that had ventured onto the scene.
And in marshlands on the other side of the road, another phalanx of waterbirds was starting to stir. A later sunset visit revealed yet more birds, with egrets and herons stalking the wetlands in impressive numbers.
Nikanth Patel, now 21 years old, grew up in Khijadiya village.
“I’ve seen so many species of birds disappear since I was young”, he said. “I don’t know why this has happened.”
But the group Birds of Gujarat did have an answer.
“Species are disappearing because of human activities,” they said. “At the moment, 192 birds are classified as critically endangered as a result of habitat loss, hunting, pollution, climate change, human disturbance and other reasons.”
Despite species losses, Gujarat is still one of the best places to see birds in their natural habitat, with the state boasting over 50 bird wetland reserves including Khijadiya, Nalsarovar, Porbandar and Thol Lakes Bird Sanctuaries. Although it is just 5% of India’s land area, Gujarat is either a home or a stop-off point for around 30% of the country’s 3,200 bird species, representing 70 of the 76 bird families found in India.
The state is also said to have Asia’s biggest area of grasslands (the Banni grasslands of Kachchh) as well as the Little Rann of Kutch, which in season becomes the world’s largest breeding ground for flamingos.
A visit to Narara Marine National Park is also a “must-do”. Its mangrove forests, coral reefs and 42 offshore islands promise an outstanding nature-feast. But at the time of my visit, disappointment was on the agenda.
“Sorry, there’s an unusually low tide, so we can’t launch the boats!” said a Park official.
Still, we got to take in the park’s excellent new interpretive centre and then explore the extensive sand-flats with their hordes of sandpipers and waders. In the heat of the day, I took shelter under the low mangroves, which were surrounded by surreal-looking gardens of mangrove shoots poking their heads through the sand.
Later, I caught up with Dr Naranbhai Karangia, of Jamnagar’s Kennedy village. Dr Karangia, a former farmer, has since his childhood been a passionate rescuer of injured peacocks. Each year, he sponsors temporary feeding centres for over 1,000 peacocks; these are set up for about three months just after the monsoons, when the fields have been harvested and there is consequently little food left for the birds.
Dr Karangia, with his humble and unassuming manner, has become something of a legend around Jamnagar.
Sadly, it was soon time to leave Jamnagar and hit the road to Porbandar — the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. But sanctuary or no sanctuary, it soon became apparent that the whole of this region was a bird hotel without peer. Egrets in vast numbers took to the water of a drainage pond, while a roadside bird hide looked out over an island that provided a roosting ground for thousands of migratory birds. Porbandar even has its own bird sanctuary, attracting Curlews, Flamingos, Little Cormorants and other species.
I soon came to lament my own limited skills in understanding and maybe learning from bird behaviour. As yet, I felt I was still little more than a twitcher, a dorky type whose only claim to being part-human is the ability to tick off bird names on a list. Gujarat is a well-known transit stop for the Bar-tailed Godwit; is it also a visiting place for the Western Halfwit, whose only desire is to collect “sightings” or camera images rather than developing a real empathy with the birds.
Once again, a story told by the Maharaja of Jamnagar at the Global Birdwatching Conference shed some light on the wonders of the bird world. The Maharaja spoke about the intelligence shown by the Barrow’s Golden Eye, a diving sea duck found in Iceland.
A few years ago, due to a shortage of the ducks’ staple food, the Black-eyed larvae, the birds met and apparently arranged for 600 non-breeders among the flock to emigrate so that there would be enough food left for the rest. These 600 were later found in the Hudson’s Bay area of Canada.
“The point is that the birds studied the situation, conferred and came up with a solution,” said the Maharaja. “That derogatory term ‘birdbrained’ could not be further from the truth.”
The birds conferred? Does this sound absurd?
The Maharaja’s words called to mind Farid Ud’din Attar’s Sufi epic The Conference of the Birds, that 12th Century spiritual allegory that I am far from even beginning to understand. Birdwatcher Linda Liu, who recently reviewed Attar’s work on her blog, Wings Spirit, said that “after becoming a serious birder, (I found) a revisit of this book brought me to a higher level of realisation.”
“You need to read this book like tasting a good wine,” continues Liu. “And you will swallow its essence only when you understand life should be embraced with love not hate, with peace not war”.
So, maybe birds really ARE smarter than humans. Perhaps scientists trying to find answers to global warming and other world problems should urgently seek their advice!
Jamnagar is about seven hours by road from Gujarat’s biggest city, Ahmedabad.
Hiring a car with a driver and guide is highly recommended. Contact, for example, JN Rao Travel Consutancy Services (tel +91 79 2640 2875, see: http://www.jnraoindia.com/car-coach-rental.php).
Budget around RM200 per person per day (twin share), all-inclusive (that is, premium accommodation plus meals, car, driver and guide).
Of this, the cost for the driver is just RM25, so do the right thing and buy your driver a meal or two, or three! Alternately, catch a train to Jamnagar (six to eight hours) and then get around by inexpensive local taxi.
KHIJADIYA BIRD SANCTUARY
About 12km from Jamnagar. The best times to visit are at sunrise and sunset.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Monday, March 28, 2011
Monday, January 24, 2011
Asia's last lions lose conservation funds to tigers
January 24, 2011
Gir lions become more popular with tourists, but threaten livestock of adjacent villages.
The last lions of Asia and the final survivors of the Asiatic lion subspecies (Panthera leo persica) are losing their federal conservation funding to tiger programs, reports the Indian media agency Daily News & Analysis (DNA). While the Asiatic lion once roamed Central Asia, the Middle East, and even Eastern Europe, today the subspecies survives only in India's Gir Forest National Park in the north-western state of Gujarat.
"We are unable to understand why the central government is being so tightfisted with lions when the tigers are being allocated huge amounts regularly. Though the state government has enough allocated funds for now under the Lion Conservation Society of India, several mega projects are on hold," a senior forest official explained to DNA.
The lion population has been increasing and today numbers 411 individuals, whereas India's tiger population continues to plunge due to poaching and habitat loss. Last year, the Chinese year of the tiger, brought global media attention to the plight of tiger's worldwide, while the world's last population of Asiatic lions remains largely unknown.
However, that may be changing. Last year saw visitors to Gir Forest National Park increase by 55% after the state of Gujarat effectively promoted tourism.
Still, India appears—perhaps due to international pressure to save its tigers—to have selected tiger programs over lion conservation.
"The lions are safe in Gujarat and multiplying. We were impressed by the way Gujarat dealt with the poaching problem. The forest dwellers in Gir are tolerant towards the big cat, while the tiger is being killed in other states. That is a burning problem," a source told DNA.
Even though lion poaching and poisoning has lessened, as top predators Asiatic lions are quite capable of causing considerable distress to adjacent villages. A report byNTD television states that local villagers are in 'constant fear' of the lions, which frequently kill local livestock.
Given its tiny population and the fact that it survives in a single location, the Asiatic lion continues to be threatened by in-breeding, disease, fires, and illegal mining. As well, conflict with villagers continues, and lions have been poached and poisoned in the past. The subspecies is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List.
Young male Asiatic lion. Photo by: Madhusudhan Nanjappa.
January 23, 2011
|Lynsey Addario for The New York Times|
Bhikhubhai Jethwa sifts through photographs of his son, Amit, who was killed after filing a lawsuit to stop an illicit, multimillion-dollar limestone mine run by powerful local politicians.
High Price for India’s Information Law
KODINAR, India -- Amit Jethwa had just left his lawyer's office after discussing a lawsuit he had filed to stop an illicit limestone quarry with ties to powerful local politicians. That is when the assassins struck, speeding out of the darkness on a roaring motorbike, pistols blazing. He died on the spot, blood pouring from his mouth and nose. He was 38.
Mr. Jethwa was one of millions of Indians who had embraced the country's five-year-old Right to Information Act, which allows citizens to demand almost any government information. People use the law to stop petty corruption and to solve their most basic problems, like getting access to subsidized food for the poor or a government pension without having to pay a bribe, or determining whether government doctors and teachers are actually showing up for work.
But activists like Mr. Jethwa who have tried to push such disclosures further -- making pointed inquiries at the dangerous intersection of high-stakes business and power politics -- have paid a heavy price. Perhaps a dozen have been killed since 2005, when the law was enacted, and countless others have been beaten and harassed.
In many of these cases, the information requested involved allegations of corruption and collusion between politicians and big-money business.
"Now that power people are realizing the power of the right to information, there is a backlash," said Amitabh Thakur, an activist and police official who is writing a book about people killed for demanding information under the law. "It has become dangerous."
India may be the world's largest democracy, but it remains dogged by the twin legacies of feudalism and colonialism, which have often meant that citizens are treated like subjects. Officials who are meant to serve them often act more like feudal lords than representatives of the people.
The law was intended to be a much-needed leveler between the governors and the governed. In many ways it has worked, giving citizens the power to demand a measure of accountability from bureaucrats and politicians.
When the law was passed, Mr. Jethwa, a longtime activist who nursed a lifelong grudge against those who abused official power, immediately seized upon it as a powerful new tool.
His objective was to stop illegal quarries near the Gir National Park, 550 square miles of scrubland and deciduous forest near his hometown, along the southern coast of Gujarat, India's most prosperous state. The preserve is the only remaining habitat of the rare Asiatic lion. The animal is featured on the national emblem of India, and is considered by Hindus to be a sacred incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
But the forest sits in a mineral-rich area of coastal Gujarat dotted with cement factories that churn out building materials to fuel India's near double-digit economic growth. The limestone that lies just beneath the soil in and around the Gir Forest is an ideal component of cement. By law, the forest and a three-mile boundary around it are off limits to all mining activity. But quarries the size of several football fields have been cut deep into the earth in the protected zone.
This mining has had serious consequences not only for the forest preserve, but also for water used for drinking and farming. The thirsty limestone is a natural barrier between seawater and fresh groundwater. A recent state government report concluded that limestone mining had allowed seawater to flow into the aquifer, causing an "irreversible loss."
Balu Bhai Socha, an environmental advocate who worked with Mr. Jethwa, said the pace of mining rapidly increased as the local economy boomed.
"The speed with which the illegal mining was going on, we realized, within 10 years they will clean out the whole forest," Mr. Socha said.
Mr. Jethwa repeatedly filed information requests to unearth the names of those operating the quarries and to see what action had been taken against them. He discovered there were 55 illegal quarries in and around the preserve. One name stood out among the records of land leases, electricity bills and inspection reports: Dinubhai Solanki, a powerful member of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which governs Gujarat.
Mr. Solanki, who had risen from the State Legislature to Parliament, was a local kingmaker and an imperious presence. He had the backing of the local police and bureaucrats, activists here said. Mr. Jethwa and many others suspected that he was the mastermind and principal beneficiary of the illegal mining operation.
In February 2008, Mr. Jethwa was attacked by a gang of men on motorbikes. He was beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalized. He immediately suspected Mr. Solanki.
"If someone attacks me, or kills me in an accident, if my body is injured -- for these acts the Kodinar MLA Dinu Solanki will be responsible," he wrote in a letter to Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, after the attack.
His father begged him to stop.
"I cautioned him several times about the danger," the elder Mr. Jethwa said. "But he used to say: 'Forget that you have three sons and say you have two sons. Let me do my work.' He would say, 'My religion is rule of law.' "
Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Bhikhu Jethwa sifts through photographs of his son, Amit, who was killed after filing a lawsuit to stop an illicit, multimillion-dollar limestone mine run by powerful local politicians.
Mr. Jethwa's information requests found sheaves of correspondence between forestry officials and local bureaucrats showing that despite repeated efforts to shut down the quarries, the practice continued.
By last June, he felt that he had amassed enough evidence to file a lawsuit to stop the mining. He filed the papers on June 28. On July 20, late at night, he was gunned down, leaving behind a wife and two children.
Because of his activism and the place where he died, practically on the doorstep of the state high court, political pressure forced an unusually swift investigation. Detectives used cellphone records to link Shiva Solanki, the nephew of Dinubhai Solanki, to the killing, and he has been charged with conspiracy and murder. He is accused of hiring a contract killer to murder Mr. Jethwa.
But few people believe that Shiva Solanki, who works for his uncle, could have carried out and paid for a contract killing on his own.
Anand Yagnik, a prominent human rights lawyer in Gujarat, said that the police had made no effort to investigate Mr. Solanki.
"The message that has gone out is that if you resort to your right to information to try to harass a political person, even after your murder, that man will go scot-free," Mr. Yagnik said, seated below a portrait of Gandhi in his basement law office in Ahmedabad.
The police did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the investigation into Mr. Jethwa's death. Mr. Solanki told reporters at his office here that because the case was under investigation he would not answer questions.
"You are welcome to sit here, have a cup of tea," he said. "I will not say a word."
Mr. Jethwa's death has sent a chill through the community of activists here. Mr. Socha, the environmental activist, said that he now thought twice before challenging powerful interests and that he wondered if the risks were worth it.
"Our hearts are broken after his death," Mr. Socha said. "You cannot fix the system. Everybody is getting money. If I give my life, what is the point?"
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.