Friday, August 9, 2013

The travelling salesmen who weren’t

DSCF1201 (2)
This picture is from the most ill-planned and foolhardy trip to Tuting. But more about that some other time
When K and me walk around with our backpacks in Yingkiong, people often wonder what products we are selling. We know this because frequently people come up to us and ask us
“What product are you selling?”
Its not as if travelling salesmen are very common, but the rare ones bring the promise of unusual products from far away at a good bargain. In many ways, this ‘good bargain’ is just plain daylight robbery by these salesmen. But people here just lap it up. Transactions are conducted with great determination and resolve by the locals with constant assurances of ‘ho jayega’ to the salesmen. In truth, even after these ‘ho jayega’ bargains, the salesmen are the winners.
On the flip side though, it is probably a good bargain for the locals too who would ordinarily need to spend atleast a week’s travel to and fro to Dibrugarh to be even able to glimpse some of this stuff. K and me once met a determined bunch of Kashmiris with humongous sacks of blankets on their backs near Gelling, the last Indian village barely a half hour walk from the Sino Indian border. Some of the same bunch once joined us in our ‘palatial’ forest barracks in the village. They happily cooked raw papaya curry and played Kashmiri songs on their mobile. Surely, I thought this must be a colossal climb-down for these guys from the land of Rogan Josh and Gushtaba.
But they keep coming. And as long as they keep coming, we’ll have to keep answering that familiar question we hear so often on the streets.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Death in the hills–the tragedy of the mithun deaths

This article, co-written by Karthik and myself appeared in the June issue of Eye magazine brought out by the Indian Express. Among the many things that both of us have written about, this was one of the closest to our hearts. When one stays in a remote village for a large part of the year, one cannot but feel a deep sense of kinship for the fellow inhabitants. They cease to be study subjects and assume the role of friends and family. The least we could have done for them was to present their struggles and difficulties to the rest of the country. We hoped against hope that somewhere in some swanky office room, some IAS or politician would chance upon this article and decide to do something about it. Well, it doesn’t hurt to hope, does it?


Click here for the pdf copies of the article. Or just read on below:

THE TWO-month-old mithun calf lay by the side of the road. Its lifeless glassy eyes stared into nothingness, but its feet twitched occasionally in spasms before death finally came. The young mother stood unsurely beside the calf, licking it at intervals. Scenes like this played out virtually every day in the last few months,  reminding us of the epidemic that had besieged this remote corner of Arunachal Pradesh. The killer was a virus (Aphthae epizooticae) belonging to the Picornaviridae family, causing the dreaded Foot-and-mouth disease.

Dead mithun beside the road 

Bomdo village in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh is peopled by the Adi tribe, the second most numerous tribe in the state. Further towards the north lies Tuting, the last town before the border with Tibet. The mighty Siang River flows below the village, while the snowcapped mountains to the north provide a glimpse of the spectacular beauty of the Siang valley. It's a picturesque agrarian society, except all is not well.

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) had made its way into the mountains from the plains of Pasighat. The worst affected were the semidomesticated mithun (Bos frontalis) that were dying out even as their owners watched helplessly. Each day, as one more animal was found dead in the forest or beside the road, another few were seen salivating profusely from the mouth as the infection spread rapidly.

Mithun being taken for sacrifice during the annual Aran festival

To a person unfamiliar with this region and the lifestyle of the people, it would seem to be just a minor problem. Surely, livestock die all the time across the country. So what was so different about these deaths?

It is impossible to gauge the scale of the tragedy without an understanding of what mithuns mean to people in these parts. The mithun is an integral part of the cultural and socio-economic life of a majority of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Among the Adis, the number of mithuns owned by a man determines his wealth and prestige. Traditionally, it has been used for barter, paying fines as well as bride price. Even today, mithuns are used as a form of currency in villages across the state. The Adis are primarily animists and major festivals such as Solung, Mopun and Aran are inconceivable without the animal’s sacrifice. When a member of the Adi community dies, he is buried with the skulls of the mithun that he had offered in sacrifice during his lifetime.

A young mithun

An adult mithun weighs about 500 kg and its meat forms one of the most important sources of protein for remote tribal villages like Bomdo, which do not have access to town markets. Incredibly, this animal demands minimal care from their owners. Mithuns are free-ranging and reside in the forests around the village. The only attention they demand are occasional treats of salt that are provided by their owners. The price of an adult mithun in the Upper Siang ranges from Rs 25,000-30,000.

FMD is a highly infectious viral disease that affects both domestic (cattle, pigs, sheep and goats) and wild (buffalo, gaur, deer, wild pigs and many more) even-toed ungulates. Since its first description in 1546 and the discovery of the virus in 1897 by Loeffler and Flosch, it is considered to be one of the greatest threats to animals. The disease gets its name from the advanced pathological symptoms which manifest as lesions in the foot and mouth and excessive drooling of saliva. It spreads through contact. About 5,000 outbreaks of the disease have been recorded from India that have affected about three lakh animals resulting in an economic loss of about Rs 4,300 crore annually. While these figures are startling, it is derived mostly from livestock deaths in mainland India, while much of the mithun and livestock deaths in the hills remain unreported. Sadly, even the most accurate figures would not reflect the cultural and  socioeconomic losses that hill communities such as the Adis are facing.

The Siang river 

There is also the very real risk of the disease spreading to other wild animals. This area is located very close to the Mouling National Park and the Dihang Dibang Biosphere Reserve. The community lands around the villages too harbour an incredible diversity of wildlife. As mithuns are free-ranging, they can very well spread the disease across the landscape.

The warning signs have been around for almost a year in the form of an outbreak among other districts in Arunachal Pradesh. Occurence of FMD was reported last year in September from Kurung Kumey district in western Arunachal Pradesh, following which it was reported from the east and west Siang districts in January this year. In the last two months, the disease has spread to the mithuns in Upper Siang district and caused the deaths of about 25 mithuns in Bomdo village alone. Several more deaths have occurred in other villages along the Pasighat-Tuting Border Road. These figures, however, are only of those animals which have been found. It is possible that the actual death toll is much higher as several animals could have already died within the forest and remained undiscovered.

This is not the first time that FMD has come to this part of the country or the state. An epidemic of FMD had also occurred earlier in 57 villages in the state between 1994 and 1995, infecting 6,237 mithuns and killing over 800 animals. Even the strain of FMD causing the earlier epidemic in Arunachal Pradesh was identified as the Asia1 virus serotype.

To their credit, the veterinary department is supplying free vaccines and medicines to the villagers. Unfortunately, the onus is on the villagers to come to the nearest town and collect the vaccines or the medicines. In remote areas, this is a major limiting factor as it involves a long unenviable walk in the absence of local transport or motorable roads. FMD can be prevented through vaccination of unaffected animals and enforcement of quarantine to stop carriers from mingling with other animals. Last year, the ‘Mithun Health Camp’ organised by the Krishi Vigyan Kendra in some parts of Papum Pare district, where medicines were distributed and mithuns vaccinated, raised awareness to a large extent. Similar programmes need to be implemented to stop future outbreaks.

It is a bit late to be able to do anything for the people of the Bomdo village and various other affected villages. There have been calls earlier to compensate mithun-owners for their losses, notably from senior politicians within the state. While this would certainly be of great help to people in these remote villages, eliminating FMD and eradicating such epidemics from the hills, would be the best possible compensation.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Meeting Mr. T

Trophies at a hunters house
A post! A Post! Yup, when nudges become pushes and pushes turn to shoves, and one is forced to write, that is when the words finally tumble out. This is a small piece that got accepted in the Eastern Himalayas Newsletter (published from ATREE) in spite of its highly unconventional style. Since I have hardly posted anything about my work in Arunachal, this is probably just right for an introduction to my field site and work.
Also, I doubt anything longer than this would be able to hold anyone’s attention.
(Full Disclosure: All people, places and statements described below are completely non-fictional). Honest.
Hunting tales
I met Mr. T on the road to Moying. He was in an overloaded Mahindra Pickup that belonged to the JP Group, a company that was building a hydro-electric plant up north towards Tuting, the last ‘town’ before the China border in Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. Mr. T worked for the JP Group. He was a Telugu from Andhra Pradesh. It is easier and less embarrassing to just call him Mister ‘T’.
I was walking towards Moying village from my study village Bomdo in Upper Siang. My village doesn’t have mobile connectivity, so occasional trips towards a ‘network point’ were necessary to assure people at home that I was still alive and well. Unfortunately, there was absolutely no local transport and the 22 km till the ‘network point’ would have to be covered on foot.
The sound of the vehicle was a welcome noise and I signaled for a lift. Five minutes later I was sitting inside the pickup answering a volley of questions from Mr. T. Predictably, he ranted on about the constant rain, lack of mobile connectivity, remoteness and excess of jungle! So, what was I doing here? He wanted to know. I told him I was studying wildlife in community managed forests among other things.
Mr. T was shocked. “Really? What was there to study? People here kill everything and eat everything. I haven’t seen a single bird here!”
That was my cue. I told him it was surprising he hadn’t seen a single bird while I had recorded more than 200 species in one year within the vicinity of the village. I told him there was evidence of almost 20 species of mammals and although I hadn’t been very fastidious in searching for butterflies, I still managed to record more than 50 species. These people who had supposedly ‘killed and eaten everything’ must surely be doing something right, if such an impressive assortment of wildlife still existed after all their exertions. I also told him that having stayed in the village for extended periods, I now knew that we city dwellers eat a lot more meat than them.
Mr. T’s views were not very different from a vast majority of people. However, the supreme irony lay in the fact that when it came to biodiversity loss, nothing could beat his own company and their mega dams across Arunachal.
As I contemplated how to break the bad news to him, Mr. T asked: “Can you get me two totas (parakeets)? I need some pets.”
Oh well. This was going to be more difficult than I thought.
The focus of my research is to understand patterns of village hunting in this remote Adi village and how it is affected by cultural, socioeconomic and institutional factors. The hope is that my study, and similar interdisciplinary studies, will begin to change preconceived notions about hunting and introduce greater room for debate on current policies that govern hunting.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The curious case of the nosy healer

Quasi imaginary conversation with a ‘city slicker’.
Me: “What do you do when you are sick?”
Him: “Pop a pill.. stupid”
Me: “Umm.. what if there are no pills?”
Him: “Guess I’ll just have to go to the 24 hr pharmacy or go to the doc’s chamber”
Me: “Lets say there is no pharmacy, 24 hour or 2 hours. Lets say there isn’t a doctor’s chamber. Lets say there isn’t a damn doctor at all and lets say you’re so far away from the nearest pharmacy that it’ll take you two days just to reach there if you walk. And you will have to walk because, lets say there are no vehicles.”
Silence. More silence.
Him: “Lets say I hit you on the head with this <expletive> hockey stick? Would that be enough to shut your <expletive> <expletive> <expletive> mouth and your <impressive expletive> questions?”
Needless to say, I decided to quasi-stop the quasi-imaginary conversation. But think about it. Its not so far from reality as you may think. People staying in remote villages face such situations across the country, and since northeast India is especially badly connected with remote areas, our joke is their reality.
I meet a fair share of interesting people during visits to such areas, but none are more interesting than the traditional healers and masseurs found in these villages (see story on the ojha of Garo Hills). They are the medicine men and women of the villages, using a combination of herbal medicine, massage, acupressure, and folk remedies to put an MD to shame. You may very well use the ‘Q’ word and call them quacks, but the villagers will tell you innumerable tales of how people were cured and even ‘brought back from the jaws of death’ by them.
So, there I was in a Monpa village called Mukto, 80 kilometres from Tawang at my friend Sangay’s house. There was so much beauty around, I was overdosing on it. The buddhist ethic meant that you woke up in the morning with laughing thrushes hopping around and … and well, laughing at your dropped jaw (this is worth mentioning as the most bird-brained bird would think twice before coming anywhere near any village in northeast India, unless they wanted to end up as barbecue'). Live and let live really happened here. But I digress.
Sangay had hurt his back the previous day trying to lift something heavy, making his old hernia injury flare up again. The sub-zero temperatures at night didn’t help the cause. There was ‘supposed’ to be one government doctor in the village. As happens very frequently in remote areas, he was not interested in spending his time in a village and had been untraceable for the last few days. So, we had to meet meme Wangchu (pronounced maymay, meaning ‘grandfather’ in Monpa language).
As we wove through the small alleys separating the stone and mud houses in the early morning chill, Sangay turned to me and said “you may be surprised”. It was an understatement. We knocked and entered the dark room with just one small wood fire with a huge kettle perched on top of it. A man was bending over the fire with the traditional Monpa yak hair cap on his head. As he lifted his face up, I could see that his nose wasn’t a nose anymore. It was almost like he had started morphing into an elephant with the nose lengthening itself into a trunk.
After the initial talk and introductions, Sangay told him his problem. He rolled Sangay’s T shirt up and felt around for what seemed like pressure points and tangled nerve points. After identifying his target spot, he kept one finger on it and with the other hand lifted a burning log out of the fire. He spat once on his index finger, took the orange coals and pressed his finger into it. He kept it there for a very long time until his finger too seemed to be glowing and smoking. This glowing finger he jammed into the target spot which happened to be in my friend’s back. I could see Sangay biting his lips in the pain. Meme repeated this a few more times at two other points. The treatment was declared over, for the day. Sangay was advised to come everyday and get a hot jab in his back. His face wore a grim look. We were then offered some butter tea. As we headed back from meme Wagchuk's house, I asked Sangay how he was feeling . “Better. I think”.
The following day the pain returned and we had to ride a bike in zero degrees to the nearest town (Jang) only to find that both the doctor’s there too were away. And to top it all off, the only medical shop in the town didn’t even have a painkiller. But that's another story. I did do some research on meme’s condition and it seems like its a bad case of Rhinophyma. I remembered him lifting his nose up to drink his butter tea. It didn't seem to bother him half as much as it was bothering me. Atleast he was there, when nobody else was. The people of Mukto sleep peacefully knowing that doctors may come and go, but meme Wangchuk will always be there for them.
PS: I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was an attempt to have a meeting of all the ethnomedicine practitioners in Arunachal recently. I hope meme Wangchuk went for it. Read about it here:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

In Absentia

DSCF0929 (2) (1024x768)

Picture taken at Upper Siang, Arunachal. One of the few reasons that led to PFA and subsequently HIT 

After what seems to be an interminable pause, this blog is finally back. What do I have to say in my defense ? Let me try, but before that listen to this :

The best part about procrastination is that you are never bored, because you have all kinds of things that you should be doing.

Lest you start getting any ideas from the above statement, let me assure you that I have been suffering from two very serious forms of psychosomatic disorders that have prevented me from discharging my duties to the fullest. One may be familiar to my fellow ecologists as PFA (Post Fieldwork Angst). It may also be referred to, in a casual and disparaging tone as PFFT (Post Fieldwork Full Tension) by those ecologists who are not affected by it. This disorder is brought about by the return of the affected persons to large cities after a prolonged stay in remote forests, mountains, islands and other such exotic locations. This condition has known to be more pronounced if the individual has been in a place where taxes on alcohol are extremely low. However this point has not been established completely. This may not be the appropriate forum for a discussion on the detailed prognosis and treatment of the disorder, however it is accompanied by extreme sensitivity to loud sounds, pollution, reports, meetings and most socially accepted forms of ‘work’.

After spending the greater part of the first two months of this year in some of the most beautiful parts of Arunachal Pradesh, and returning to Bangalore to experience the worst summer in many years. There was no way I could have escaped.

The second disorder is of a much more general nature and may be familiar to most people in my age group (please note how I did not say ‘your age group’). The condition is known as ANUS.

Actually not. I just made that up. ANUS stands for American Nihilistic Underground Society. No kidding. Check out their website here.

What was (is?) affecting me is known as HIT (Hyper Introspection Trauma). As a person recovering from a HIT, I am unable to introspect much on this disorder and I am sure you can understand that. You are free, however to form your own interpretations, but please be kind to me.

The good news is that its all behind me now. I will surely try to live up to the regular nonsensical quality of this blog and provide you valuable information on useless stuff that you wont find anywhere else.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009



As we are constantly reminded during our coursework at ATREE, we are in an ‘interdisciplinary’ course. I thought I knew what all that was about before I joined.

I thought wrong.

It turns out now that not only is all that I thought of ‘interdisciplinary’ (ID) redundant, but it has four other cool guys it likes to hang out with. There’s CD (cross disciplinary), MD (multi disciplinary), TD (trans disciplinary) and PD (pseudo disciplinary). Okay, I admit I made up the last one, but judging by the undisciplined rate of the growth of disciplines, it spells trouble for us. Actually being a firm believer in evolution, it becomes even more uncomfortable to tell people that I’m in an ID course! I’m not going to rattle on about this, but let me tell you that there are apparently at least 17 certified people in this world who know the differences between ID and its pals. I can certify that I’m certainly not one of them. As an aside, and I kid you not, there are apparently people studying interdisciplinary practitioners to see how they work!!

In one of our many readings for the coursework was a paper on practicing interdisciplinarity. If it was meant to be an advertisement for interdisciplinarity, it falls flat. Instead, it will terrify all prospective ID practitioners because of the range of reasons it provides for the failure of ID to take off. Practitioners, it says, need to rid themselves of their biases and value judgements that are a part of their training in any discipline. Then comes the serious part. That many of the barriers aren’t actually in our hands at all! Then the final nail. Parent institutions should be convinced that the outputs that emerge from an ID collaboration should not be weighed by conventional disciplinary or departmental standards! Is that a realistic situation? With just a handful of people around who have even heard of ID, doesn’t look like good times ahead.

As ecologists and ID practitioners, we are expected to bridge the gap (divide?) between the natural and social sciences and find collaborative answers to all the burning problems that the environment faces. As if it wasn’t intimidating enough already. Oh, did I mention that nobody is still very sure how to do that?

I think I need a drink.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I’ll be back!

To all of you who have almost given up on this blog because of the long inactivity, let me tell you what happened.

Only three letters.


Yep, I finally got into a PhD program and am stuck with this thing called ‘coursework’ down south in Bangalore away from my favourite Northeast India. The last few months have been spent far, far away from the field. Thus was the full-time biologist torn apart from his intermittent notes in the field.

But I’ll be back. Or as that joke about Arnold Schwarzenegger goes.. (all the action heroes in Hollywood were asked which classical composer they wanted to play in a new movie. Stallone and Bruce Willis chose Mozart and Beethoven respectively. Schwarzenegger made the obvious choice. “I’ll be Bach” he says.)

The only trip in the last few months was to Agumbe in the Western Ghats. It lived up to its reputation of being one the wettest places in Karnataka. Here’s a picture from the view point in Agumbe after a night of rains. You can almost see the Arabian sea and the city of Udupi in the distance!