Chances of Nipah, Coronavirus species jump high, warns Kerala scientist TV Sajeev

Kerala Forest Research Institute principal scientist Dr T V Sajeev
Kerala Forest Research Institute principal scientist Dr T V Sajeev

Kochi: Kerala Forest Research Institute principal scientist Dr T V Sajeev is a scientist with principles. He is the bete noire of the quarry mafia eating into the precious natural resources. He has shown how science translates to everyday lives by showing how a virus checked the spread of a moth that affected teak plantations and by propounding biological means to control the African giant snail population. He is also the main organiser of the popular science phone-in programme, the First Question. He is a frequent lecturer in university classrooms in India and abroad. Science and philosophy merges in his thought. He has lived up to his image as a rightful heir of Prof. Jon C Jacob, better known as ‘Johnsi’.

Sajeev talked to Malayala Manorama to expose the harsh realities of contemporary planning and development. He lays bare the real reasons behind the man-animal conflict along the forest fringes of Kerala. He views tribal literacy as a new form of invasion. His thoughts spread from biology to economics and political science.

• What are the environmental problems faced by Kerala?

People in Kerala were fortunate enough to be insulated from serious ecological challenges until recently. That changed with the flood of 2018. Many parts of the state became unsafe overnight. The COVID-19 pandemic should have heightened our awareness to these problems, but I doubt if we have even realized those. How do we manage earth’s surface? The calamities in Uttarakhand, Assam, Bengal, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh are closely linked to global warming, which has led to serious changes in weather patterns. What makes them calamities, however, is construction at the local level. There were a lot of buildings constructed in relation with tourism in Uttarakhand. Government officers who stood against the rampant construction were transferred out at will. Construction went unchecked. The terrain was altered significantly. When the deluge came there was no place for rainwater to drain. The stagnant water put pressure on the glacier underneath, which broke off and led to a flash flood. Several villages were washed away. Nobody knows how many people have died. The tragedy can be directly blamed on the explosions done in connection with the construction of a hydel power plant. If global warming brings about unprecedented rains, human constructions make it a disaster. Do we have anything in place to counter this? Have we given it any thought? The state budget is devoid of any ecological issues or conservation activities.

• COVID-19 and monkey fever

The coronavirus was not present in humans. It spread to humans from animals. We cannot dismiss this as a Chinese phenomenon. We had similar instances in Kerala. We saw how Nipah virus spread from bats to humans in Kozhikode. Several people die of monkey fever in Wayanad and parts of Karnataka every year. In a biological hotspot such as Kerala, it is particularly important to have a general awareness about zoonotic diseases and their management. It is important to consider if our planning process and development discourses take it into account. Where will the bats go when the big trees in which they lived are cut down? When their habitat is destroyed, we are increasing the chances of their interaction with us. Chances of species jumps increase manifold. Even as we talk a lot about a COVID-19 vaccine, we are silent on the monkey fever which has been killing people for many years. Of course, any vaccine for monkey fever would not be as profitable because the disease largely affects tribal people and others living on the fringes of forests. Pharmaceutical companies would not want to invest on vaccines and medicines which do not guarantee a large market. That is how capitalism operates. They would only take action when they see a large profit. They are interested in COVID-19 vaccine because they are assured of customers. Either the people will buy it or the government would for the people. Either way, the company is assured of a profit. At the same time, no pharma company would like to develop a treatment for a disease that affects common people in a restricted area.

• Man-animal conflict

Wild animals are venturing to human habitats. They are not looking for watering holes. There are herds of male elephants. Even the forest is changing. We have to change our perceptions. We have to study the changes that are happening to the behaviour of wild animals.

Wild boars have moved away from deep forests to the fringes. They know they have a better chance of finding food near human habitats. They have a lot of rubbish to forage, including the mountains of waste left out of poultry farms. The rubbish heaps also lead to a spurt in stray dog population, which in turn attracts leopards and tigers. Hunting dogs are much easier than hunting wild animals. The food is tastier too. Elephants love pineapples. Jackfruits and pineapples will definitely attract wild elephants. Poaching has come down inside the forest after the tightening of rules. Animal population is on the rise. Their behaviour has changed too. Elephants have learned how to break through electric fences. Strangely male elephants are herding together. Elephant herds were always led by the oldest female. Bull elephants usually move away from the herd when they are 11-12 years old. This is a natural strategy to avoid inbreeding. Bulls were always solitary. This is changing. We have founding bulls moving together in a herd. There were three bulls roaming through Palakkad for several days last year. Forest officials had a difficult time sending them back to the forest. But they returned soon, this time with two more bulls. They didn’t create any trouble but their mere presence was menacing for the people in the area. All of government machinery fails in how they respond to such situations. Tribal people are always excluded from any discussions on these matters even though they are the ones who live inside the forest and possess a vast amount of knowledge about the forests and the animals living in it. They have a different tale to tell. When a tiger or leopard kills a cow, the next natural step for us seems to be a clamour for compensation. That predator would be still hungry and on the prowl for its next prey. The next hunt becomes scandalous, with a flurry of media reports. Nobody has ever asked if the tiger has been fed.

Animal Road Accident

This is not how the tribal people would deal with the situation. They believe that they owe anything to the forest and consider it lucky if a tiger chooses to target one of their cattle. They see it as an opportunity to give back something to the forest. That is how they define their relation with the forest. For the general public, however, forest is just a tourist place where you go once in a while to take a dip. For the tribal people, forest is part of life. The difference in perception is evident. We have to incorporate this tribal sensibility to solve the problem of animal incursion. We lack it. We see farming as a profitable activity. We would farm whatever we want. It is the duty of the government to protect it. If the produce is lost, we have to be compensated for it. This is the line of thinking. Gone are the days when farmers used to keep overnight vigil to ward off the animals looking for food in the farms. Contemporary farmers are sound asleep inside their houses. People who have no idea about how a forest works have decided to set up a farm by the forest. The new generation of farmers are a different lot.

The resorts inside the forests are also problematic. They cause disturbances in wildlife corridors. Resorts, religious institutions and educational institutions have come up on the natural paths of the animals. Wild animals are trapped in pockets. They have to cross human habitats to move from one patch of forest to another. We do not care about these issues. Trenches and electric fences corner animals to an area. We are blocking the paths for elephants, a path registered in the memory of the matriarch of the herd. They are forced to look for another way out. They may venture into strange territory. Wild animals have no restaurants to dine out. They don’t pack food. They have to find their daily food and water. The leader has to look after each member of the herd. A huge animal like elephant has to find a lot of food. They look for suitable places.

All these changing behaviour patterns call for thorough data analysis. How many elephant herds are present in Kerala? We have to estimate their home range and corridors and avoid all human activities in those places. Tribal people are experts in this field. They instinctively avoid animals’ home ranges and habitats while they clear paths through the forest. When we build a road through the forest, we only look at how steep it is and whether it is funded by the central government or through the KIIFB. Animals are never talked about. We never give a thought about the previous users of that space. We have to include wild animals in our planning.

The borders of forests and villages are never clear enough to fence. We draw a lot of things from the forest, including fresh air and clean water. Likewise, we give the forest a few things and that is the real reason for the animals to venture into our territory. Their home range is invaded by outsiders.

A prime reason for animal incursions into human territory is the invasive species inside the forest. Foreign plants have come to dominate the forests. These weeds such as communist pacha and anathottavadi are constantly removed from farms by farmers. What happens when they spread in the forest? Who controls them? None. Indigenous plants happen to be the feed of animals naturally found in the area. They never grow out of control because there are animals feeding on them. The invasive weeds are not eaten. They just grow and grow until they edge out other plants. This poses a food crisis for the herbivores. They migrate in search of food. Predators follow them. Animals like tigers and leopards are territorial. When they move out of their territory and into another’s they cause conflicts. Animals wounded in fights are unable to hunt. They look for easy prey in adjoining villages.

Our government officers are keen on forestation drives. They are interested in foreign species such as acacia, eucalyptus and pine. They grow faster because our animals don’t eat them. They present a green picture, giving the officials a cause to celebrate the success of their programme. We had even showered a foreign variety of seed from the helicopter in north India. Prosopis juliflora spread rapidly across north India for want of an animal species that feeds on it. This has become a headache for the Delhi government. The menace has been studied by Paul Robins. We know our own headache in the form of the African payal. We have to be careful enough to plant indigenous varieties. We don’t do that. These are basics.

Forest and wildlife conservation cannot be standardised. They come in focus in certain areas. We have to identify those areas and single out the requirements. They call for micro-level studies.

• Animals aren’t looking for water

It is a wrong perception that animals venture into human habitats for food and water. Most of the animal incursions are reported in the monsoon months, when there is abundant supply of water in the forest. Animals stick by water sources in dry months. They can go anywhere in rainy months.

We bring in reforms without studying their implications. When the Kerala authorities stored water inside the Wayanad forest for gaurs and deer in the summer, elephants from Karnataka forest turned up. We have to stop thinking from within local borders when it comes to nature.

We have so many scientists. But how far does science go when it goes to decision making at the government level? Do we take science take into account when taking key decisions? Or do we rely on common sense or some other interests? Each animal we encounter has its own specific characteristics. Elephants are not driven by the same reason as those of wild boars. Tigers and leopards have distinct troubles. We have to study them separately. We tend to think of animals as trouble makers who disturb our peace. We have to study how we affect animal lives.

• How far have we employed tribal knowledge in policy making?

We have to include tribal societies in decision making. They are fewer in number but they come with a lot of variety. The people who represent them in our discussions are not really their representatives.

Tribal literacy is a dangerous concept. When we take them out of the forest and house them in hostels, they are denied a continuation of their traditional and pragmatic knowledge. They can’t even learn the language they are taught in. This is sort of cultural invasion. Tribal people are heading to extinction. This is a process of eliminating them socially, culturally and linguistically.

It is impossible to proceed with environment without taking into account their knowledge of environment, concept of nature and world view. Mainstream common sense leaves a lot to be desired. We have to realise it.

• Isn’t it regressive to deny tribal children education?

If you are down with a fever, a ginger-laced coffee is enough to heal you most often. That is a traditional knowledge passed from generation to generation. But you may still be asked if you are so primitive to do that. That is because you opt out of the business model of hospitals.

Even the government is not interested in healing concoctions because they do not contribute to the growth of GDP. For GDP to grow, you have to go to hospital when you run a temperature. You have to buy medicine. You have to spend money. Only then will the domestic product grow. Any government is in favour of all people paying taxes. If you sell Thrissur’s own sherbet on the Tekkinkadu Ground, the government cannot tax you. If you sell Pepsi or Coca-Cola, then taxes will flow. So sherbet trader is disallowed and cola companies are encouraged. GDP will expand.

Someone designed a modest machine to pluck out small invasive trees from Meesappulimala. A welder made the machinery that cost only Rs 5,000. We need the machinery but can’t buy from the welder because he does not have the GST registration. The government can only buy the machine from a GST-registered company by spending much more money. The government have to wait for a big company to manufacture that machine.

The government wants you to fall sick. You have to go to hospital and spend money. You have to be part of a business model. We are heading for a situation where you cannot live outside a business model propounded by the government. Our natural life is being thwarted, like blocking the natural course of a river. This is the new-age fascism formulated by career politicians and corporate entities. A situation in which the people are not allowed to live outside the business networks of Ambani and Adani. If you challenge it, you are branded as a traitor. This is a scary situation.

• How do quarries affect the forests and our lives?

We have to realise that rocks are public property. We have to claim public ownership of rocks, through central, state or local bodies. We have to use it wisely. Rocks were not cultivated by quarry owners. They cannot be created. That is a non-renewable natural resource. We have blasted tons of granite from the Western Ghats and dumped them in the Arabian Sea. We are not even thinking of reclaiming them and reusing them. If we lose a gold chain we try to recover it. At the same time, we see no value in invaluable rocks. We actually pay to blast them and transport them to construction site. It’s so strange. No technology can recreate rocks.

A quarry in Pathanamthitta
A quarry in Pathanamthitta district. Photo: Aravind Venugopal

Local resistance is increasing against quarries in many places but no mainstream political party is backing those struggles. They are more interested in whatever donation that can be squeezed out of quarry owners. Gone are the days when political parties went from door to door collecting funds. They no longer need your money or mine. They just have to make a phone call and some quarry owner will send them the money they need. This naturally affects the way the government works. The governments will be forced to take decisions favourable to the people who funded them. They will allow quarries to come up near the forests and even where people live. These decisions are not made on the basis of science or environment. The quarries transform the topography around them. There will be shortage of drinking water and wells will be dirty. Quarry owners distribute drinking water in such affected places now but how long will they do it. Once the quarry runs its course and the owner leaves with a fatter pocket, the responsibility of supplying drinking water will fall back on the local self-government body. They will use up taxpayers’ money on huge drinking water projects. Sustainable development goes for a toss. An area where people could draw clean water from their wells changes beyond recognition. This is an irreversible change. To remedy the situation, the panchayat will dip into the public treasury and distribute drinking water as if they were doing us a favour. Or they will pump out the water from the quarry spending crores of rupees. Meanwhile, the quarry owner pockets huge profits by spending a meagre sum on licence fees. People who draw water from the well on their yards at will have to wait for a truckload of water or a pipe connection. They are forever doomed to dependence. The quarry owner earns crores of rupees, while the panchayat spends crores of taxpayer money to claim that it has distributed water free of cost. It works well for both parties. They should have at least made the quarry owner pay up for the cost of drinking water supply. The impact of this business of nature’s destruction is huge. The illegal source of income lets them buy their way into power and influence the decisions of the people’s representatives. Panchayat members no longer lend an ear to the voter because they are assured the support of the quarry owner. Corruption begins from the grass roots. This gradually spreads to the top. This money flows back to degrade society at many levels. This flows as bribes in teaching appointment and medical and engineering education. While eligible candidates are left out, we are left with teachers, doctors and engineers with no merit. Society is degraded and democracy eroded. This is what mafia does all over the world. They destroy democracy.

• Do invasive pets pose a threat?

Red-eared slide turtles, a Mexican native, have caused tremendous trouble in Thrissur. Someone brought it there as a pet. These turtles are cute when they are little. You can carry them in a matchbox. They become very friendly. They are voracious and eat anything including frogs and fish. Once they are grown fully, they are clumsy rather than cute. Then they are abandoned. They pose a threat to small animals and plants. There are centres in Singapore which exports these creatures. Though they are intended as pets they gradually become a menace. It has no natural predators in Kerala. Once they reach forests the problem is aggravated. They will spread beyond control. There are many instances of animals and plants taken across continents as pets becoming a problem in their new habitats.

• Where do you see the ecological movement in Kerala headed for?

Kerala’s ecological activists are primarily composed of Prof. John C Jacob’s disciples and two generations of their students. They are very rooted. There are scientists, lawyers, professionals, academics and writers among them. Theirs is grand political activism too. They are not here because Johnsi paid them. They don’t take decisions because anyone orders them to. Their stand is not influenced by any other movement. Their activism is based on freedom, sincerity and knowledge. They do their work and studies without any external support or help. Thoughts of environmental concerns were initially limited to scientists and science students. It became a people’s affair through the Silent Valley movement. That eventually grew into the cultural arena. That era was more romantic than scientific. The works of ONV Kurup, Sugatha Kumari, Ayyappa Panikker, Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri and Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan gave an aura of romanticism to environmental activism. They were called as “tree poets”. That was a romantic age in which poems took precedence over essays. Such movements have later used leaders such as V S Achuthanandan, Binoy Viswam and Mullakkara Ratnakaran. Opinion makers can be used for lobbying. This is a trend that happens in every country.

• About Kerala’s attitude to environment

Land has become a commodity and a mode of investment. Its sale value has gone up. Not only the land, but everything on it, including rocks, soil and water. We have forgotten that this is a place for us to live for generations. Kerala is suffering the consequences of such an attitude. I was in Yanam when the cyclone hit. There were only less than 10 people. If that happened in Kerala, there would be at least 2,000 people in the face of the tragedy. They would turn that place into a festival ground with makeshift eateries and all. A crowd is waiting to descend on any place, be it a tragedy or a natural phase like flowers blooming or birds migrating. This shows how sick our society is. A disaster is turned into tourism. The number of spectators has gone up in disaster grounds, be it flood or landslide or roads caving in or rivers overflowing. We can always expect a crowd anywhere.

• What is the future of environmental activism?

From the classes I take, I understand that a generation interested in environment is growing up. Lakhs of students protested when the government tried to dilute the environmental impact zone notification. Yet we have a problem. Not all the protesters may be constant. They may choose to do something else the next day. We see such an attitude. I don’t know how it will help. They have to grown into an attitude where they can see environmental activism as a lifelong mission. Most of them tend to think that they cannot bring about change all by themselves. Where would we stand if Gandhi, Ambedkar or Castro thought like that? These youngsters do not have a model to look up to. Environmental activism can only develop if it is based on knowledge, studies, science and sincerity. Johnsi was a bedrock of such qualities. He built the church of environmental activism on that rock. That is still standing in Kerala.

• How does spirituality and myths help conservation?

Sacred groves have contributed a lot to conservation in Kerala. Snakes are vulnerable at the time of shedding skin. Their eyes are partly covered at this time. They would be very vigilant and aggressive at this time of vulnerability. They need a safe place to complete the process. They need rough surfaces to wriggle out of their old skin. This was the real reason for keeping aside a grove as sacred and untouchable. Snakes were assured of their own space. Once people started encroaching those spaces, snakes were left with nowhere to shed their skin in peace. Most snakes crawl into houses to look for a place to shed their skins.

Snakes have lost the sacred groves. Sacred groves were encroached upon and cleared once we decided that the deities could be transferred elsewhere with appropriate pujas. Religion can change its tack anytime because it has no backing of science. This is where we have to value science. Environmental activism has to be based on science.  

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