Sunday, 7 September 2014

Tobacco trails/trials

I still remember the time the salt-and-pepper-bearded always-smiling old man asked me to get tobacco back to Bomdo. He said, "just get this here, and we will be glad you ever came around"!

Two visits in two years I had forgotten, but this time I really gave it a thought and when I was back in Bangalore, I made some contacts regarding this. I told a friend of mine, I need to get back tobacco in a place far removed from here, somewhere they had planted it long back and it's now gone locally extinct! My friend was working with a reputable Tobacco company, studying hybrids of tobacco to produce the best variety, which had fields close to where I worked. He thought for a split second and said why don't you come along with me and take the seeds back with you, let's harvest them together; I was excited, the salt-and-peppered bearded old man smiling wider in my thoughts. Some remote village in Arunachal Pradesh getting the finest tobacco grown in some fields in Bangalore was awesome! So I went with my friend and collected, each time content with the number of seeds, but my friend kept insisting, "your situation is different, take more!", I think I collected millions, the seeds are really small like very tiny mustard seeds.

Back to Bomdo. One of the things I did was meet the old man and give him his precious seeds. He was happy, "kusher" he said, these are called kusher and old men and women used to smoke the dried leaves of this plant up and the plants were grown around the house. The plants needed excess care but was worth the effort. But I could not figure out if kusher was always present or was planted by the Adis here. The situation even fifty years back in the Bomdo village was quite different; even salt was bought from Tibet through a barter system. The walk to and fro Tibet, called Mimmet by the Adis, took more than two weeks. So I doubt kusher was the same variety of tobacco.

So, the old man planted the seeds. I also gave around the seeds to several families in the village, I had millions of seeds and word spreads around faster than fire in the village. Some folks even came to the place I stay and collected the seeds. In the place I lived, Roy and I planted them and they grew about a centimetre a day during the rains and in a few months were 3 metres tall! It looked like the plants were really having a good time in Bomdo, we may have produced a new cultivar! And then the rest of the story came together.

The tobacco plant, it flowered in just three months!
In Bomdo, people like spit tobacco not smoking tobacco, although they enjoy that too. They buy the dried tobacco leaves, called 'Bihari saada' from the shop and mix it with lime bought from the shop or lime prepared by some of the old men from snail-shells smoked over fire. Beedis are too expensive to buy, particularly since match-boxes have to be bought with the beedis (which for some reason are too expensive these days). And this prime tobacco that I brought from Bangalore was 'smoke' tobacco, it smoked awesome, we tried some in a bamboo pipe my friend Gekut had made. But this tobacco did not work as spit-tobacco. The spit tobacco had a different end-process to it (which I guess Biharis had mastered) that gave it the taste that lasted long. And then the complaints began!

"Tigbo (that's what they call me in the village), the tobacco you brought is great for smoking and for leeches (one can make a paste of the leaves and apply, it works pretty well), but is not great for spit tobacco, can you fix that". I, obviously, had no answer to that. Now there are several plants of this great tobacco growing near homes and in vegetable gardens in Bomdo but people don't know how to use them! Some day I hope to figure this out and tell them too. Well, going by the way Adis are, they will figure out another complaint to that too! I hope to post that story in the coming years!

A close-up of the flower

Monday, 25 August 2014

Woodstock in a wooded place!

Earlier in the day it had rained. Rained so much we were wondering how the rock show would go on. Not far away, the Apatani farmers were harvesting rice; it was September.

Meanwhile I saw an old Apatani man walk by with a board that read 'king', he had picked up one of the boards which said 'No parking' and carried away the half for shelter from rain; picked the right half too! Aparajita Datta and I were in Ziro valley in Arunachal Pradesh in September 2013. The Ziro music festival happens every year and that year, twenty bands from all over the country were playing there over three days. Till then, the Ziro valley in my mind was a picture of lush paddy fields in the valley encircled by hills etched with pine trees and evergreen forests. But the two pictures; one of a rock show setup in a big city and another of a quaint village with fields and forests in the background merged and we were at once comfortable and transfixed with the music; it was a Woodstock in a well-wooded place.

Omak Komut Collective opened the day; they were a fusion of Adi folk songs with elements of rock and we were suddenly transformed to the Siang region of Arunachal Pradesh. I was particularly hooked to their music since there were words familiar from my field site in Bomdo village that I could hear Omak Komut sing and I felt at once at home. The band next was Purple fusion, a band from Nagaland that featured Naga phrases and great riffs topped with powerful vocals that almost seemed like they were echoing off the valley.

Omak Komut singing the traditional Adi way
(photograph from
Next, after sundown, Peter Cat Recording Co., a four member band was on stage. They walked in heavily disoriented with rice beer in bamboo mugs in their hands. The sound poured in and they sounded fabulous. Meanwhile, I saw a fellow run in front of the stage towards the crowd almost hurling to the ground. I soon realised that it was actually the vocalist of the band running towards the crowd just to be sure they did sound good! He almost crawled back to the stage, slung his guitar back, strummed and started singing, quite a feat! Their music and the vocals sounded to me very much like 'The Doors'. They played for an entire hour and throughout I felt the familiar adrenalin-rush you feel at a rock show when good live music is pumping into your ears. I also realised a lot of Indian music had gone lot more digital and electronic. There were several bands like Your Chin (one guy accompanied by a laptop and an ipad), Digital Suicide (band from Guwahati with two folks, one of them wears a fake thermocol monitor on his head during the entire show, and keeps adjusting the screen to see the audience!) and Sulk Station who came to the stage accompanied by Macintosh computers with mixes and singing along. It was often difficult to know who or what is playing what, but they did sound good!

The highlights of the entire show for me were two bands; Skyrabbit and Menwhopause. Skyrabbit features superb vocals with great music and abstract lyrics whereas Menwhopause was one of the bands I remember had nothing electronic about them and featured unadulterated rock, which was great to hear. After their performance, we literally begged for one more for more than five minutes! The Menwhopause folks are a real down to earth bunch who invited Aparajita to come over with a team and have a parallel workshop or a session with Apatani kids about wildlife and forests. That's how we ended up at this rock show!

Kids from the school at Ziro painting their forests and the hornbill (photograph by Ngunuziro NGO)
Aparajita made a small presentation for people at the rock show who were interested in wildlife. Sadly she was not even given a microphone while 100 metres away a band was blasting away music, but Aparajita did rock! Later we had a painting contest for the local school kids that went quite well; the north-east kids are very aware of their surroundings, the wildlife and their forests; most kids drew a forestscape with pine trees with fields in between.

The Ziro music festival this year is from the 25th to 28th September, if you are around or even if you are not around, do get to Ziro if you want to have a real awesome time over four days! There's even food and local alcohol from north-east served at the venue. Cheers!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Damn that river

The beautiful Siang (photo by Anirban Datta-Roy)
The river roars with whitewater in some sections while in others it flows gentle and placid holding secrets of whirlpools twirling along slowly downriver. People cross the river on a daily basis on precariously twitching man-made cane-bamboo bridges, often on bikes too. These bridges not only connect villages but also increase the genetic flow between the various clans of the communities since marriages from communities in villages across the river are quite common. People practise several types of fishing in the river and also collect the pentatomid bug 'taari' (Halyomorpha picus, an edible stink bug) from below the rocks on the riverbank. Several thousands of bats live in the caverns along the river bank that are inaccessible to the communities and birds like waders and cormorants are not uncommon in the riverbanks. Winter picnics from December till February are common too when various groups of people, even of different age-groups carry utensils and cook and make merry by the river bank. Their wet rice cultivation or terrace cultivation patches are all mostly along the river valley, the irrigation being provided by the canals and streams that flow year-round to the river. In short, the river means everything to the communities along the Siang valley in central Arunachal Pradesh in north-east India. The communities I write about here are the Adis of the Eastern Himalayas and the river is the Siang, the 'Everest' of rivers.

The river

To begin with, it is difficult to even imagine that the Yarlang Tsangpo river that starts from Manasarovar lake near Mount Kailash (22,020 ft) and flows easterly about 1625 km across Tibet, the Siang river that flows north–south in Arunachal Pradesh and the Brahmaputra river that flows westerly in Assam are one and the same. The river flows through the deepest gorge in the world (about 5000 m deep) and bends towards the south-east due to the Namchi Barwa peak (25,445 ft) to enter India at Gelling in Arunachal Pradesh. The terrain where the river flows and turns towards India is so rugged that the discovery that the Tsangpo is in fact the Siang was only made a little over a hundred years back by Kinthup, a Pundit who meticulously explored Tibet.

The projects

This majestic river that flows through some of the least traversed areas in the world and through relatively undisturbed forests in Arunachal Pradesh is now severely threatened by 44 hydropower projects that are planned on the river and its tributaries. The length of the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh is about 290 km and if even just the three larger projects among these are undertaken, there will be no free flowing water left! About two-thirds of the river will be converted into a reservoir with only a third left as free flowing water regime. This will have serious irreversible consequences for wildlife, forests and people of both Arunachal Pradesh and Assam downriver. While about 24,000 hectares of forest will be directly affected due to the 44 projects, other forests will also be affected due construction activities that will last for at least 10 – 15 years that will also open up access to hitherto relatively undisturbed forests and wildlife.

The impacts

A 'cumulative impact study' including downstream impacts was undertaken by R S Envirotech Technologies for the Central Water Commission and presented in a report in December 2013. This study systemmatically listed the biodiversity values of the Siang river basin and assessed the cumulative impacts of the projects. It was acknowledged that while direct loss of 24,000 ha of forest due to submergence would occur, 'nibbling' effects of the projects during construction works, quarrying and road-building would lead to further major loss of forests. It was also reported that these reservoir based projects will affect aquatic life migration due to the conversion of lotic environment to lentic habitats causing species extirpations. Downstream impacts of these projects were also evaluated and listed as causing drastic daily fluctuations in river flows downstream, loss of fisheries, changes in wetland ecology in the floodplains, impacts on agriculture, impacts on livelihoods of people and also increased flood vulnerability. For instance, it was estimated that daily water level fluctuations in the D'Ering wildlife sanctuary will be more than 23 feet in the non-monsoon seasons!

Notwithstanding the information provided, the report falls short of various aspects in listing the 'cumulative' impacts of the 44 projects planned and more importantly the recommendations of the study completely contradict their findings. Firstly, 'Cumulative impact is the impact on the environment which results from the incremental impact of the acton when added to other past, present and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency (federal or non-federal) or person undertakes such other actions (as defined in CEQ 1987, 1508.7)'. Here, 'impacts' include ecological, aesthetic, historic, cultural, economic, social, or health, whether direct, indirect or cumulative (CEQ 1987). The cultural, social and aesthetic impacts of the projects have been completely ignored in the study. Several collateral impacts of the projects such as those due to sand and boulder mining and road construction which often have been shown to have disastrous effects on river ecology (Padmalal et al. 2008) have been mentioned in the report but the recommendations made to control these effects are cursory. The report has also not assessed the damage that villages downstream in Assam will incur and has only focused on the impacts in few urban places (Dibrugarh, Bokaghat, Tezpur and Guwahati).

The most ludicrous aspect of the report is that after mentioning the disastrous impacts of large-scale hydropower projects, such as direct and indirect loss of forests and wildlife, critically affecting migration of fish species and thereby causing species extirpations and several downstream impacts, the recommendations of the report are to drop 15 small-scale projects (capacity less than 100 MW). The three larger projects, Siang Upper Stage I & II and Siang Lower Stage, will lead to a forest loss of over 18,000 ha and together are of about 12,500 MW capacity. Overall, the 44 projects are of 18,300 MW capacity and will lead to a forest loss of over 24,000 ha whereas the report recommends dropping of 15 projects that constitute 473 MW and will cause a forest loss of 334 ha; a mere 2.6 % of the capacity and 1.4 % of the forest loss!

The reality

In North-east India, the people and the wildlife, both terrestrial and aquatic are intricately dependent on the rivers. The Siang or the Brahmaputra that supports livelihoods of millions of people in India and the biocultural landscape it is located in is being envisaged to be converted into a powerhouse for electricity generation for others who have no stake in it. The communities that live along the river are majorly dependent on the river in many ways; they harvest an array of aquatic flora and fauna, they undertake agriculture which is dependent on the annual floods and recession and they use the river for transport. The natural annual changes in the river water levels are also important to the people in Assam and they have adapted to these fluctuations over several decades and ill-planned hydropower projects can disturb this delicate balance. It is high time that we realise that such projects can cause irrepairable physical, social, economic and ecological damage such as the one we recently witnessed in Uttarakhand just last year.


  • Padmalal, D., Maya, K., Sreebha, S. & Sreeja, R. (2008) Environmental effects of river sand mining: a case from the river catchments of Vembanad lake, Southwest coast of India. Environmental Geology, 54(4): 879-889.
  • Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) (1987) Regulations for Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. 40 CFR Parts 1500 – 1508.
  • Yashwant, S. (2013) Brahmaputra and the temples of doom. Infochange News & Features.
  • D'souza, R. (2013) Unquiet flows the Brahmaputra. The Hindu, Business line, November 4, 2013.

Monday, 19 May 2014

A couch potato in the forest

The crossword puzzle cuckoo continuously calls, intermittently a green pigeon sings or perhaps tries to sing; melody for some, closer to cacophony for others. I am sitting below a pine tree that even has pine cones. The leaves clumped together looked like a thousand flowers on a tree. They make the ground slippery too, for they are round and cylindrical. The leaves are like the ones I used to play with as a kid, made of small fragments that can be detached and reattached. I have a mat on the ground and some time to kill. Due to some turn of logistics, it so happens that I am the one to lie down on a mat below a pine tree on top of a hill somewhere in Meghalaya with a 360 degree view with a jagged horizon due to the lining of pining trees, and a ticket to a concert of several birds. I take it all in.

I don't even bother fetching my binoculars to know what bird that is that looked like hurried feathers onto a shrub far-away. Its okay, today I will be a couch potato in the forest.

A great barbet calls continuously; its like the orchestra conductor instructed, 'you play rhythm today and hold the beat'. The brainfever cuckoo fills in a one-second monotonous lead, out-of-beat too! Its that time of the year in the north-east when so many cuckoos call, its the end of April and the pre-monsoon showers are due.

The wind is now roaring and sounds like a jetliner flying low. I have been sitting on this mat for an hour and no one and no vehicle has passed, nice! This was a time to switch off other voluntary senses and just take in the sights and sounds.  I also now hear the puff-throated babbler, its a higher-frequency version of one of the calls of a Magpie Robin. I remember my friend G V Reddy Sir who used to say, the Robin calls 'Mr. Reddy' and I think the babbler says 'Come on Mr. Reddy'!

At my 10 O clock direction, I see a forest cleared for jhum and perhaps a week ago was burnt, for the patch stands out in a background of verdancy. There is also a temporary jhum hut where I would love to stay in for few nights. For once, the entire landscape, inspite of all the differences fuses into one. Below this hill is a beautiful stream where lots of butterflies were fluttering. There were also tadpoles that were perhaps feeding but it looked like they were practising synchronous dancing.

The mat now wants to leave and is vigourously blowing from all sides due to the wind, but I perhaps have an hour more here! And then, I realise, all the physical and the mental effort I put in throughout the year is mostly for this, to spend time hearing and looking at things in a forest and take it all in.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Breakfast of the champions

It's so good, I didn't want to take a picture of it; I can just think about it and picture the taste perfect! Have you ever eaten a plate of Doh Sniang, a Khasi dish from Meghalaya. If you've not, you've missed out, here is why...

Think of the smallest plate you have ever eaten a meal in, then think of two ladles of rice in it. Now comes the interesting part. The gravy (the one I had was cooked with Kadi patta or Murraya) is put on this rice and two pieces of superbly cooked pork; only two pieces, often one more fatty, the other more meaty. This is served with pounded dry fish chutney usually with coriander or mint and some salad; scrapes of fresh cabbage spiced up with chillies. A refill means two more ladles of rice, gravy and two more pieces of meat. By the way, Doh Sniang strictly refers to pork.

The beauty of Doh Sniang is that they serve you exactly what you need; none of that jazzy watery dal, none of those heaps of rice and not a lot of meat and is affordable, usually 30 bucks a plate. Its the best combination of protein, fat, starch and vitamins in a breakfast I've come across! Go eat some Doh sniang!

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Field this time...

A month back I had packed for a field trip in north-east India for about 45 days, and after several trial-and-errors over several years, I think I got the packing right! A pillow I bought in a train gets filled up with air every night and ensures I sleep well. A marmot sleeping bag that my awesome boss gifted to me keeps me snug. There is a small heating rod, coffee powder and a steel filter that get together in the morning and wake me up.
The equipment is another story. A multi-plug which can convert one plug point to three is extremely useful while travelling. A smartphone has been indispensable in field; it has a gps, google earth, google maps, Birdlog Asia, an offline dictionary, compass, macro and landscape camera, music, internet, voice recorder, a torch, a pdf/book/document reader. The only problem with the phone is that the battery lasts only a day; so I carried back up batteries which even get charged with a small solar panel. This phone was backed up with a black-and-white Nokia phone which has a great battery. I did not know this earlier, but Airtel seems to have as good coverage in the north-east as BSNL or even better; and the internet is great, so Airtel is highly recommended if you are travelling in the north-east! At Goalpara, I got internet speed in excess of 250 kbps and I had downloaded the Ubuntu ISO, which is about 1 GB in an hour by tethering the smartphone to my laptop! There is also an amazing Bose Bluetooth speaker that ensures a lovely musical evening, when we have the time for such things!
Since I am still recovering from a surgery and need to get my legs stronger, for exercise I am carrying a black T-resistance band which is very useful. I still remember the trouble I went through carrying 4 kg ankle weights to Arunachal and back! The T-band is very portable and one can be very innovative with the exercises too. All this together weighs less than 20 kg which ensures at the airport I don't need to pay a rupee extra for luggage! While I write this the Bose is playing Coke Studio Pakistan music and the evening is mellow with a drink. Today I am very close to Bangladesh in Meghalaya overlooking the Goyain river!