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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Birds have Personalities !

I read some surprising articles on birds... one study showed that birds can have distinct personalities – some are aggressive, exploratory, while some are shy and afraid.. their stress levels when faced with an unfamiliar object in their environment were measured and co-related to different personality types – the fearful birds had high stress levels, and the adventurous ones had lower stress levels !

Attribution: Simon Carey
Empathy, or “feeling another’s pain”, has long been thought to be the providence of humans and, according to some research, other mammals. In an experiment, Domestic hens were separated from their chicks but allowed to observe that puffs of air were being directed at the youngsters.  The hens became very alert, ceased preening, and began vocalizing at their chicks.  They also exhibited physiological changes, including a drop in eye temperature and a rise in heart-rate…both signs of stress.

The author of the article writes that this new information raises the possibility that empathy, as a trait, may have evolved far earlier than was previously believed.  Its presence in birds opens the door to intriguing questions…according to one biologist, we may be looking at a 200 million year old characteristic that is rooted in reptile evolution. So will we next be looking at empathetic reptiles ?!

Attribution : https://commons.wikimedia.org/
wiki/File:Zebra_finch.jpg
And in the last study I read, Researchers found that birds expressing strong personality traits, such as aggressive behaviour or a willingness to explore, did a much better job of raising young if they had a like-minded partner. Where couples were markedly different in personality, chicks didn’t fare as well – being less well-fed and in poorer condition. The study found that if birds were highly exploratory and their partners shared that trait, their offspring were in really good condition. It was the same for highly aggressive birds. If only one parent showed the trait, the chicks fared less well.
Attribution : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
File:Trichoglossus_moluccanus_with_open_wings,_Brisbane.jpg
In a comment below one of the articles was this touching story :

I used to feed wild rainbow lorikeets in Sydney and can give an example of these birds displaying empathy.
One of the birds that I used to feed only had the top part of his beak. I would provide him with a soft feed mix because he could not eat apples like the others. I fed him for about 7 years. One time after not visiting for a few days he arrived with another lorriket that I had not seen before and this bird too only had half a beak. I was blown away that he was looking out for another with the same problem he had.rsonality 

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Impact of Urban Trees

Vasant Vihar, Delhi, below.


Research shows that vigorous urban trees keep people healthier, cool cities in summer, warm homes in winter, help kids learn better, decrease car accident rates, raise real estate values, and decrease crime dramatically.

Trees are long-term investments and provide greater benefits to things like property value, energy and water use reduction as well as air pollution reduction.


In fact, a study of 10 megacities last year (Mumbai & Beijing among them) concluded that the tree cover in the cities provided about 500 million dollars worth of decreased air pollution. More millions were added by CO2 sequestration, storm-water remediation and savings of heating and cooling costs. 


Manoribel, Mumbai
On average, the study saw a potential of nearly doubling the tree cover (and hence the benefits) in the mega cities, over available lands such as parking lots, etc. 

The idea that we should not invest in watering and planting our trees and shrubs during a drought is a misconception. Lawns can use three times as much water over the same area as trees. 


On left : Bhiwadi, Rajasthan

As the plants use water in photosynthesis it is released from the leaves in a process called transpiration, which cools the surrounding air. In semi-arid climates, like ours, this cooling can be 80% dependent on water redistribution by trees. 

Urban landscapes are made of materials that absorb sunlight and heat more than soils or planted landscapes, making cities hotter than the surrounding landscape. Scientists call this “the heat island effect”. Tree cover can cut the temperature by about 5 degrees C in heat islands.

Planting and maintaining trees to help us cope with heat and drought is essential for the long-term health of our cities and towns.



On Left : Bhiwadi, Rajasthan

Planted areas provide the ideal permeable surface for runoff prevention and optimal recharging of aquifers. Plants — especially trees — play a critical role in the water cycle. This is the process by which water circulates between the earth’s bodies of water, atmosphere and land. The loss of plants from a regional landscape can result in a warmer, drier climate and desertification.

Working as a team with the world’s oceans, trees form half of Earth’s rain cycle. Trees maintain the rain cycle thousands of miles from the closest oceans, keeping our planet hydrated from coast to coast.


Because of trees’ huge impact on the amount of water surrounding them, deserts can easily form if trees are not present, according to this article here. Where trees do not exist, water does not exist.


On Right : Manoribel, Mumbai

In addition to water-related benefits, plants and trees are important tools for carbon sequestration, improve property and community aesthetics and can have significant stress-lowering effects on humans.

Right : Taj Westend hotel, Bangalore

This poignant article from the Hindu newspaper talks of how we are emptying our groundwater to water lawns.. it is simply unacceptable in india’s climate and water situation. It suggests that we focus instead on planting trees, shrubs and bedding plants.. I would draw inspiration from Taj Westend at Bangalore for the kind of planting I would do in residential, institutional and commercial complexes. 

It is true we often use stp treated water for our lawns but maybe we should think of treating it to a higher standard and reusing for bathing and washing clothes atleast, besides flushing and cleaning of floors and utensils. 

Water Conservation in Urban Areas

Meeting on recharge from rainwater
at Munirka DDA Flats, Delhi
Catch Rain where it Falls : Water conservation in urban centers starts with retaining rain water in the city by directing it underground. Every building in every block - house, school, hospital, should be channeling the rainwater from their roofs and yards that they cannot store, via cleaned stormwater drains and into covered wells in their public parks. Vandana Menon, Architect, Nizammuddin, Delhi can provide consultancy services on this. 

All car parkings, pavements, hospital and bus yards etc. can be of paver blocks with holes in them so soil and grass can be on the surface to soak in rainwater.


Protect Water Bodies and their Water Channels : All water bodies in the city (including rivers such as the Yamuna ofcourse) should be deified - given names and identities that people revere and protect. It should be the top priority of the government to protect them and to ensure the natural rainwater channels that kept them fed, function. Fishing rights, walks around the water body, water birds, etc. can be facilitated so people use and cherish the water body. 


Make Constructed Spaces Green : The Governemnt should convert public building roofs into green roofs and also vertical greens - can be seen in several buildings, flyovers etc. in Singapore. It should disseminate these ideas to encourage people to grow vegetables, flowers, trees and vines on rooftops and sides of their private buildings to soak in more rain, cool the city, provide transpiration, and absorb more CO2 which helps with climate change. 

Minimize Water Leakages from Pipes : Data on all complaints regarding water leakages should be available online - for example, when complaint was lodged, when addressed, by which water sub-office, with pictures before and after. At present it is common to see water leakages unattended, despite complaints, for days, weeks, months, and even years. 

Government must also begin a web page called 'This is a National Shame' - where pictures showing  premises where water is being wasted are uploaded by the public including the address (not names or pictures of individuals though). 

Less Delivery by Design : Government must call a meeting of all manufacturers of water faucets, both taps and showers, and builders / big contractors to ask for faucets and showers which deliver much smaller volume of water per minute but mist it more, so it feels like as much or more water. Govt. must promulgate standards where certain 'luxury' fittings which deliver water above a certain volume per minute are made illegal for use in India.


Continuous Public Education CampaignThe government must run a continuous public education campaign on TV and radio and on the net (it can ask corporates to fund it too) which shares ideas on water conservation continually. Some ideas to save water in domestic use are : 
  • Open tap or shower as little as possible, as briefly as possible.
  • Wipe utensils and dirty areas with napkin sized newspaper pieces before washing.
  • Store waste RO water for use in washing utensils or swabbing floors
  • Do not use plastic pipes to wash cars or floors; swabbing a floor should suffice to clean including in hotels and hospitals - pressure hosing to be completely disallowed for this purpose; 
  • Wash utensils from water stored in a utensil to minimize wastage from running water from taps, etc.

Minimizing Pollution of Soils and Water Bodies : All households to store wet wastes (kitchen peels and wastes) separately from dry wastes (plastic, paper, carton, glass, metal, etc.). Dry wastes to be given to waste collector or deposited in public trash bin only when the bag containing them is full and tied in a knot on top. This minimizes plastic pollution of soils and water bodies. It also saves many animals, birds and acquatic life from choking on them. 

All wet waste to be composted at landfill sites as recommended by Almitra Patel, national expert for Swachch Bharat Abhiyan. Farmers to be encouraged to take composted wastes free from landfills. This will minimize the leachate from wet wastes now poisoning groundwater and help build up the quality of the mostly degraded soils of India. 

Recycle Construction WastesBoth paucity of water and climate change demand a slowdown in manufacturing which involves use of fossil fuels and water - atleast to make it more efficient and cut out that which is unnecessary - so it is essential for example, to recycle construction wastes. Films available on almitra patel's youtube channel advise how to do this.

Use treated STP water for for flushing, and cleaning of floors and carsThe government should require all complexes with own sewage treatment plants to use the treated water not only in green areas as is presently done, but also for flushing, and cleaning of floors and cars. So their must be infrastructure in place to carry the treated water back to each household and commercial enterprise in that particular complex. 

Coastal cities must use sea water for flushing, and cleaning of floors and cars, and not freshwater as has been done in Hongkong for long.

Involve Responsible Public Members : Many groups in several cities have worked on water conservation. The government should seek their advice and ask them to comment on its water conservation efforts. All RWAs should be charged with water conservation of piped water in their area and also water bodies that lie partly or wholly in their area. 

Should we not be doing more to conserve India's freshwater ?

Attribution : https://commons.wikimedia.org/
wiki/File:Beautiful_Lake.jpg
A common argument is that India’s growing water use in inevitable. But China, with 1.4 billion people, uses 554.1 billion cubic metres of freshwater every year – that’s 28% less than India.
The consequence: India’s annual per capita availability of water fell 74% over 69 years,
In nine states – in south, west and central India – groundwater levels are now described as “critical”, according to this 2016 Parliament committee report on water resources. “Critical” implies a stage where 90% of groundwater has been extracted, with significant decline in recharge capability.

This clip from the National Geographic Channel shows how desperate people are when they dont have enough water..



Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A searing account of apartheid in south africa


I wandered into a searing account of apartheid in south africa on the net.

Ofcourse we have all heard of apartheid, a policy of south africa (one of the richest countries in Africa), well into the early 1990s, which kept its white population away from coloureds, including blacks, and commandeered most of the resources of that nation only for white people.

But it was for the first time I read on what it actually looked like on the ground.

Left : Signs on a beach in MuizenbergCape TownSouth Africa. The sign states: "White persons only. This beach & the amenities thereof have been reserved for white persons only. By order, Provincial Secretary." The bottom sign indicates that dogs are not permitted on the beach. Attribution: Ullischnulli

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Paintings by humans 15,000 years ago

I wandered into an Archaeological Survey of India site on Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka. Paintings inside caves here date to about 15,000 years ago. 

The image on left is from here.

This is a UNESCO World heritage site near Bhopal in the Vindhyan Mountains in dense forest. The buffer zone includes 21 villages whose culture appears to indicate a remarkable continuity with the rock art and with the tradition of hunting and gathering depicted in the paintings. 

The UNESCO write up on the site says : The area has abundant natural resources – perennial water
supplies, natural shelter, rich forest flora and fauna, and
like similar regions of significant rock art.., these conditions of plenty seem to have been
conducive to the development of sustainable and persistent
societies and the creation of notable rock art.

The image on Top is from here.

Some paintings contain a few images, while others have several hundred. Sizes of the paintings range from five centimetres to an immense impression on a ceiling of an animal nearly five metres in length and two metres across.

The image on Top is from here.

As a collection.. they form one of the densest known concentrations of rock art (400 painted shelters in an area of 19 km2 ). 

Bhimbetka owes its name to the characters of the longest epic in the world, the Mahabharata. It is believed that when the five brothers, called Pandavas, were banished from their kingdom, they came here and stayed in these caves, the massive rocks seating the gigantic frame of Bhima, the second Pandava. 

The image on Top is from here.

Friday, April 06, 2018

The Himalayan Whale !

I wandered into an old news item that showed that a fossil had been found dated to 50 million years ago, of a himalayan whale that walked on land ! ofcourse at that time the land under the himalayas was near seas. that got me reading more on whales for sure !

Whales are related to Dolphins - and Hippopotamuses ! The blue whale can be a 100 feet long - that is 2.5 times as long as the utsav buildings are tall !

In a detailed genetic kinship study, researchers revealed that just like human societies, beluga whales appear to value culture and their ancestral roots and family ties. They demonstrated that related whales returned to the same locations year after year, and decade after decade, and hung out together.

Humpback Whale Songs are passed down over generations of whales. Songs emitted by the Humpback Whales can be heard over great distances, haunting melodies of radiant joy which fill the ocean.


A wonderful recent article talks of the intelligence of whales and dolphins :  Communication is so great in whales and dolphins that there is a strong possibility they are able to project an “auditory image” that replicates a sonar message they may receive. The process is a bit confusing, but here is a description : “So a dolphin wishing to convey the image of a fish to another dolphin can literally send the image of a fish to the other animal. The equivalent of this in humans would be the ability to create instantaneous holographic pictures to convey images to other people

With several sound producing organs, whales and dolphins are capable of conveying and receiving “20 times the amount of information as we can with our hearing - and vision. 


While it appears that whales and dolphins have incredible abilities to feel emotions, understand complex problems and communicate in ways we can’t even imagine, humans don’t seem to value this. Boycotting inhumane establishments, like marine parks (and zoos and circuses), should be our first step in helping them, but fighting to obtain personhood rights for whales and dolphins should be next.

The source of the image above : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_bowhead_whale_is_tail-slapping_in_the_coastal_waters_of_western_Sea_of_Okhotsk_by_Olga_Shpak,_Marine_Mammal_Council,_IEE_RAS.jpg

The source of the image on the top : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Glacier_bay_(3733728870).jpg

The Maurya Empire..

I am reading 'india's Ancient Past' by Professor R S Sharma, founder chairman of the Indian council of historical research. 

He writes - 'The Arthashastra of Kautilya leaves no doubt that Indians could run the administration of a large empire and tackle the problems of a complex society. India produced a great ruler in Ashoka who, in spite of his victory over Kalinga, adopted a policy of peace and non-aggression. Ashoka and several other Indian kings practised religious tolerance and stressed that the wishes of the followers of other religions should be respected. Also, besides Greece, India was the only other country to experiment with some form of democracy.'


My notes / comments.. 

1. Kautilya - or Chanakya as he is more widely known, wrote Arthashastra in   the 4th century BC. 

2. Ashok ruled in the 3rd century BC. 

3. City states which practiced varying forms of republics - rule via a Senate comprising of nobles and some representatives of common people too - but no women, existed for a few hundred years around 5th-6th century BC, in India, Greece and Rome. After that, kingships resumed..
4. Almost the whole of South Asia was united in a single realm under Ashok barring the deep south, the north east and burma, and Sri lanka. After him, only the later Mughal Emperors succeeded in having a single polity over this area before the British. During India's independence struggle, Ashoka was therefore a great inspiration in the face of the western view that India would break up without the unifying force of the British.

Image on Left : It is thought that the bull symbol is not related to the bull Nandi of Hinduism, as Ashoka was quite eclectic in his choice of animals for his pillars anyway: lions, elephants, camels, geese, and horses are known.



5. Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka's grandfather, was equally a great ruler. He emerged from humble beginnings and trained under Chanakya at Takshashila University in all disciplines. He overthrew the corrupt nanda king and fought off Greek expansion into India after unifying several realms. The extent of  his political boundaries seems similar to Ashoka's other than Kalinga (the area corresponding to present day Orissa). Chandragupta renounced kingship in favour of his son and became a jain monk. Ultimately he fasted to death at sarvanbelgola in the jain tradition called sanlekhana.

The image above : Chandragupta basadi on the Chandragiri Hill in Sravanabelagola. Minute sculptures here show scenes from the lives of Chandragupta Maurya.and his Jain teacher BhadrabahuAttribution: Dineshkannambadi at English Wikipedia

An effervescent painter..

Amrita Sher-Gill, died in the 1930s.. still a young woman, daughter of an Indian Sikh father and Hungarian mother. She is one of India's foremost painters, her paintings having been donated to the Indian govt. after her death by her European husband. Both of them were in Lahore when she passed away suddenly.

A family in a Punjab village, painted by Amrita..







Amrita travelled to the South of India to paint these images inspired by the Ajanta murals. This one is called 'The Bride's Toilet'.





The painting on 'Brahmacharis' is also part of the Southern journey by Amrita.

When my husband and I travelled to his tiny village called Vishnampet in Thanjavur District of Tamil Nadu in 2009, we found a very similar group sitting under a tree at the entrance to the village !

This Hungarian Gypsy Girl was painted by Amrita in Europe.









This painting called 'The portrait of a young man' was presumably done in Europe.

Amrita's husband was a Dr., who continued to serve in Indian villages in Punjab after her death (her father's elder brother and cousins lived in Punjab and they called her heartbroken husband to live near them).

Thursday, April 05, 2018

The story of the Swallows in the Himalayas..


I found more pictures of Swallows in the Himalayas that I thought I would share.. here is this remarkable nest built on my father’s rain-shade at his front door – made with mud by the swallow parents.



And here is the parent swallow.. Janaki Lenin writes in the Hindu that ‘Unlike other birds that seek natural settings far away from humans to raise their young, barn swallows seem to idealise human-made structures.’ The article is very charming and worth a read.

While these pictures were taken by my father and husband in the Himalayas, here is a clearer one from the net.







And here are the babies in the same nest we saw before.. Janaki writes : ‘Swallows sit on overhead electric lines, watching the hustle and bustle of the street below. When one spots and insect, it swoops down, weaving its way between pushcarts, vehicles, and pedestrians. The bird snaps up its insect prey in mid-flight and dives into the shop or house to cram its prize into a hungry yellow mouth.’

Here is the final picture taken at a nearby shop of the parent swallow in mid-flight. Janaki writes : ‘Many shops in market areas across the Himalayas — from Kullu in Himachal Pradesh to Kurseong in West Bengal — host the nests of barn swallows. Some have three or four nests, and the space above people’s heads is busy with air traffic as the parent birds speed in and out, provisioning their young.’

A Home in the Hills..


My father lives in the Himalayas.. his bedroom overlooks a valley at the back..











More snow views are a little way off his property... a place called sheetla.











At a nearby hotel.. his house is enough just for him as there isn’t that much flat land available all together in the Himalayas.. 









Appa's land stretches till that tree-line at the back. in the foreground is the hundred thousand litres tank which takes in rainwater from the roofs of the house. this is the sole water supply at the property but does quite nicely.


Near this tank is the old house that came with the property and is approached by a flight of 20 steps in the open.. We live here when we visit..






Swallows, who winter in india and go back for summer to the northern hemisphere, build nests at his house as well as in the nearby shops !






This is the last of our 7 dogs - Mili.












One travels to the hills by road by car (though public bus and train are available too) - and we stock up on seasonal fruit being sold on roadsides on the highways - in this case Mangoes !




There were many fruit trees on my father's property - peach, apple, plums, but langoors or leaf monkeys have destroyed most of them.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The wonderful Shoebill !

A friend asked if this is a man dressed up as a bird...  I said yes !















© Hans Hillewaert CC / BY-SA 4.0
But it IS a bird around 4 feet tall !


Shoebills live in East Africa..


Shoebills forage in mud banks for frogs, fish - and small crocodiles !


It has a habit of standing still for long periods...


Shoebills generally remain solitary.. and dont speak much. 


Shoebills are very docile and permissive when it comes to humans.


They will not threaten humans, but will only stare right back at them.


Both parents participate in every aspect of nest building, incubation and chick rearing.








There are only a few thousand shoebills left on earth. 

It is upto you and me reducing our energy use, and use of materials and food, and water use.. to ensure shoebills remain with us...

The Gayatri Mantra

i was reading on tamil brahmins.. the gayatri mantra is central to their religious and cultural life.. i read that : The mantra is an important part of the upanayana ceremony for young males in Hinduism, and has long been recited by dvija men as part of their daily rituals. Modern Hindu reform movements spread the practice of the mantra to include women and all castes and its use is now very widespread.

Here is the mantra in English – though we all know it, sometimes I forget a word or two : 
oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
tatsaviturvareṇyaṃ
bhargo devasyadhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt
– Rigveda 3.62.10

I liked this translation the best : Sir William Jones (1807): "Let us adore the supremacy of that divine sun, the god-head who illuminates all, who recreates all, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return, whom we invoke to direct our understandings aright in our progress toward his holy seat."

in contrast, our own Radhakrishnanji was rather literal : S. Radhakrishnan: (1947): "We meditate on the effulgent glory of the divine Light; may he inspire our understanding."

An update on the dialogue on the Dalit Agitation

Exchange with a friend. She wrote : Permission at DSP level (in the supreme court amendment) is astounding and the poor dalit will rarely get it.

Me : if you read the article i sent which is for the supreme court order, it says : the apex court ruled: “To avoid false implication of an innocent, a preliminary inquiry may be conducted by the DSP concerned to find out whether the allegations make out a case under the Atrocities Act and that the allegations are not frivolous or motivated”. no dalit is required to get permission of the DSP. the DSP is required to conduct an enquiry within 7 days when a complaint is made under that act. seems fine to me.

Friend : In my ordinary language I used permission. In villages, of course the dsp will follow the new law while the dominant caste people will threaten the complainant, beat them up.. But that is an everyday reality so who cares?

Me : ofcourse the upper castes routinely humiliate dalits. i agree in rural areas the dalits are defenseless and exploited as well as harrassed. we need to do far more to support them. perhaps the solution may be to keep the amendment for urban areas and keep the old act as it is for rural areas.. but as yet the constitution will not have envisaged such ground situations differing in urban and rural areas. i dont know what is the solution then. but i have no sympathy for parties such as congress or BJP putting out crocodile tears when their own politics is heavily dominated by dominant castes.

The friend asked me to see a Ravish (a well known news anchor) TV programme on NDTV (a tv channel in india known for its balanced reporting).

I wrote her back : in the ravish nd tv programme you mentioned, it was touching to see young dalit's pain at how FIRs are often not registered even on heinous crimes.. and the shocking thing, that i had not noticed before, is that the supreme court order says an FIR cannot be registered in an SC / ST act case without an enquiry (when it can be registered for crimes against the general population) ! that is patently illegal and must be struck down. The programme said that the conviction rate in cases filed under the SC / ST act fell after 2014 (and that it must be investigated why that has happened) !