Rare takes on the year just passing by

Being a Down To Earth reporter entails merging the personal with the professional. The magazine you so dearly own has a fascinating world hidden behind the pages.

Photo: Vikas Choudhary
Photo: Vikas Choudhary Photo: Vikas Choudhary



It was the end of imagination for me and the beginning of real thrill. For the first time, I had the opportunity to report on an event that happened 130 million years ago in the mysterious universe. The collision of two neutron stars could be studied because of the discovery of gravitational waves. This event triggered a massive response in the scientific community, which went gaga over it.

As a reporter covering science, I was excited to be part of an event that became one of the most talked-about phenomenon in recent human history. We all know that stars meet their death after a certain time. In reality, neutron stars are the collapsed cores of dead stars only. The much-hyped collision occurred near the fringe of an oval-shaped galaxy known as NGC 4993.

Gravitational waves, which were first detected at Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) on September 14, 2015, originated when two black holes collided with each other. However, the collision of dead stars, is one of the most fascinating things ever known to humans. Such occurrences are the source for the formation of all heavy metals on Earth. These include precious ones like gold, platinum and silver and radioactive ones like uranium.

In India, there is a tradition of buying gold and silver on the auspicious occasion of Dhanteras. There are so many myths and legends as to the origin of these metals. Little did we know before that the enigmatic dance of neutron stars is the one to be thanked for the discovery of gold.

It is indeed fascinating to show the connection between the smallest and densest stars ever known and the gold people buy all over the world. Gold, which even drove King Midas mad in Greek mythology, is actually made of the dust and debris of long-dead stars. For the first time, gravitational waves discovered by Einstein 100 years ago became useful in astronomy.



In November, when I was shopping in a mall in Kolkata, a message from ICICI bank gave me a jolt. It said that my Aadhaar number has not been linked to my bank account. This was despite my attempt at online linking. The incident reminded me of a story I covered in June in Jharkhand's East Singhbhum district. This is how one of the biggest problems of this year became my personal cup of tea. MGNREGA labourers stopped getting their wages after ICICI surreptitiously opened around 6,000 accounts in Boram block.

One of the most hotly-debated issues dominating the headlines this year was the Centre's relentless push to make Aadhaar compulsory. The Union government considers Aadhaar a magic bullet for every sphere in life and is hell bent on linking it with bank accounts and mobile numbers of citizens. Sadly, this is the case even after problems in linking Aadhaar with social welfare schemes have cropped up, derailing the government's intention to fast track payments of labourers under MGNREGA. The argument put forward in case of MGNREGA-Aadhaar link was that wages would get directly transferred to the bank accounts of workers. This will ensure transparency and guarantee timely payments. Among the states, Jharkhand followed it up with a missionary zeal. In 2013, it became one of the first states to link Aadhaar to payments under MGNREGA.

However, the ground reality is quite different. I found that instead of accelerating growth in rural hinterlands, Aadhaar has become a bane for hardworking rural masses. Talking of poverty in terms of economic growth is perhaps out of my league, but I vouch that during my travels to the interiors of India I have seen the real misery of people - labourers running from pillar to post for a few hundred rupees and beneficiaries being denied rations due to technical glitches in the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication system.

Instead of arresting corruption in PDS and MGNREGA, Aadhaar has given rise to numerous problems. During public hearings which I attended, MGNREGA labourers complained about not getting timely wages or in many cases no wages at all. When it comes to foodgrain distribution, ration dealers continue to cheat beneficiaries in rural areas. When this is the scenario, how can we ensure rural growth in a country like ours where majority of the population still lives in villages? One major drawback has been the gradual centralisation of MGNREGA, where the role of gram sabhas is fading in the background. In the past few years, there has been an increasing stream of directives from Delhi, limiting the role of states in welfare schemes.



The Indian summer monsoon in all its glory has always fascinated me. Coming from a city like Mumbai, I had the full opportunity to watch its arrival amidst intense excitement. In India, we usually associate the monsoon with music, poetry and literature. But as a reporter working on climate change, I have always tried to look at the science behind it.

Of late, the monsoon has been affected by an uncharacteristic variability, and this became more evident this year. India witnessed frequent floods due to a shift in monsoonal wind patterns, especially in Gujarat and Rajasthan. After a sluggish start, the monsoon continued with an erratic pattern and caused increased rainfall activity in September, which in itself is unusual. Frequent and widespread extreme rainfall events wreaked havoc across the country and gave further credence to observations citing such increases.

As someone, who has intently followed the changing weather and climatic patterns, there is little doubt in my mind as to the connections between extreme weather events and anthropogenic imprints on climate. Apart from bringing erratic rains in India, 2017 was also the hottest non-El Nio year and the third hottest overall, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere continued to rise rapidly to touch 403 ppm (parts per million), up from 400 ppm recorded in 2016. Scientists believe this to be the biggest leap ever made in a single year.

For me, it is not just weather, as global warming has not even spared geography. There is now a need to redraw maps as even Antarctica is not immune. In mid 2017, Larsen C, a sizeable floating ice shelf, broke off from the continent. Larsen C, more than 10 times the size of Puducherry, is the most recent of the three ice shelves to have broken off from the same protruding arm in the past 20 years. Studies are now underway to find out how the depletion of ice shelves on the continent can affect oceanic and atmospheric currents and cycles. Emerging reports are further detailing how undercurrents of warm water are now licking the undersides of ice shelves and weakening them.

As someone who has been covering international climate talks, it became clear this year that the urgency to undertake climate action is not a need felt by all even in the midst of all the calamity. Though expected, the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement after the election of Donald Trump as the president, came as a jolt to the much-deserved climate commitments.

One of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world and historically by far the largest, the US pullout substantially hurts chances of meeting the goal set under the agreement of limiting global warming to at least 2oCelsius. The earliest date of withdrawal under the Agreement is 2020, although the requisite official notification of withdrawal has not yet been submitted by the US to the United Nations. When the withdrawal comes through, it will become the only country to be left out of the deal.

The withdrawal announcement cast a shadow on the Bonn climate talks. Ironically, in Bonn, the American delegation still occupied the table and angled for possible re-negotiations, which have been explicitly disallowed in the Paris Agreement text. I also feel Bonn failed to deliver big. But a silver lining was the incorporation of agriculture in climate talks for the first time. This has been a critical area for India, which has been suffering from agrarian distress, often exacerbated by intense drought spells.

It is good to realise that discussions will now focus on adaptation options for farmers, especially in vulnerable and developing countries like ours. At a time, when climate action is the need of the hour, the progress on the rule book for the Paris Agreement, the prime objective of this year's talks, was really sluggish.



A five-star hotel built in Rajasthan's Udaisagar lake is a stark reminder of how environmental laws can be bent in India to suit one's greed. A luxurious property destroying a precious water body is shameful and this comes at a time when there is a huge hue and cry over wetland protection across India. The Rajasthan incident shows that the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, passed in September, are not adequate when it comes to conserving over 0.2 million wetlands across the country. Though the Rules prohibit setting up of industries on such sensitive areas and takes a strict call on solid waste dumping, discharging of untreated waste, poaching and construction of a permanent nature, there are startling gaps.

The Rules notify the formation of state wetland authorities. I believe that by proposing the formation of separate state bodies for wetland conservation, the Centre has shrugged off its responsibility. The Rules leave a space for the states to omit any point from the prohibited activities list. This is a dangerous precedent to be set.

A major development in 2017 was made in the field of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation took cognisance of local administrations resorting to coercive measures to prevent open defecation. A string of violent incidents prompted the ministry to issue an advisory to all the states, stating that coercive actions are not in keeping with the spirit of SBM.

This is a welcome move. Behavioural change takes a lot of time and coercive actions certainly do not work. Instead of applying force, the government needs to improve its Information, Education and Communication (IEC) strategy to stop open defecation. Coercive action can only lead to alienation of the masses, who are used to this habit since ages.



As a food reporter whenever I go to eat at a restaurant, I try to measure the amount of nutrition intake mentally. In my daily life too, the nutritional value of each food intrigues me as our diet is directly linked to health.

At a time when India is suffering from the double burden of obesity and malnutrition, the release of the upgraded version of the Indian Food Composition tables on January 18 by Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition is a welcome step. The last version of this book was released in 1989. The latest version covers over 528 food items and 151 nutrients (vitamins, minerals and antioxidants). It also boasts of food data collected from six different regionsÐcentral, east, north, north-east, south and west. I feel this book can help India become a healthy nation, as it is a compilation of the nutritional contents found in foods. Moreover, this book can help the government come up with better nutrition policies regarding mid-day meals and PDS.

While the first version comprised data on nutritional values of all foods measured during the British time, this upgraded edition has been designed keeping in mind the current Indian nutritional status and food consumption patterns.

Sadly, over the time, the nutritional value of each food has declined due to deterioration of soil. Also, our diet pattern has changed. Nowadays, most of us depend on one single diet, thus inhibiting the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals. A diversified food basket should be our goal in daily life.

Depending too much on coarse grains is also bad for health. For instance, pellagra occurs due to niacin (vitamin B-3) deficiency and is prevalent among people dependent on sorghum diet. Research points out that sorghum releases leucine, an amino acid, which inhibits the absorption of niacin. Today, as the focus is back on coarse grains and we are promoting them in a big way, it is time to rethink.



When the Forests Rights Act (FRA) was passed in 2006, it signified the victory of local communities over the forest department's tyranny. However, this year marked a significant dilution of FRA.

As a reporter covering forests and wildlife, I feel that forest conservation and tribal rights can go hand in hand and these two issues should not be considered in isolation. But the Union government seems to be in a perpetual state of confusion when it comes to safeguarding the rights of tribals vis--vis wildlife in forest areas.

A big blow to local communities came in the name of tiger conservation. The National Tiger Conservation Authority's (NTCA) order on March 8, 2017 denied granting of forest rights to forest dwellers living in critical tiger habitats.

As a direct fallout of the NTCA order, the process of settling land rights on communities in many national parks has stopped for the time being. The confusion does not end here. To further the cause of wildlife, the environment ministry announced the Wildlife Action Plan (2012-31) on October 2. Ironically, it talks about speedy recognition of forest-dwelling communities in tiger reserves. Viewed in light of the NTCA's order, this is a direct contradiction.

The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (CAF) introduced in July 2016 has put forest communities in trouble. While the central government is still in the process of drafting CAF rules, compensatory afforestation is undermining public participation in many states across India.



This year was a landmark one for farmers. Perhaps for the first time in the past three decades, they jointly raised their voice, which reverberated across the country. In the middle of the year, farmers' protests erupted in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra and gradually spread to other parts of the country.

As a journalist covering agriculture for many years, I heard strong demands of crop loan waiver and guaranteed fair price everywhere I went. The protest culminated in the suppression of farmers' voice ruthlessly by the state. In a tragic incident, at least half a dozen farmers were killed in Madhya Pradesh and hundreds injured. As a mark of protest, Tamil Nadu farmers drank their own urine, consumed rats and sat on a hunger strike in Delhi, demanding loan waiver in view of drought. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, farmers' protests have spiralled in recent years.

Interestingly, 2017 coincided with 100 years of the Champaran Satyagraha in Bihar. In 1917, Mahatama Gandhi had come out in support of Indigo farmers facing oppression under the British regime. It also coincided with the 50th year of India's tryst with Green Revolution. Though an initial success, today we are experiencing a deep-rooted agrarian crisis often exacerbated by drought. We are witnessing a precarious situation where every hour a farmer commits suicide. Every day, 100 farmers also turn away from agriculture as it is no more a profitable thing to do.

As an election ploy, protests led to loan waivers in election-bound states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which will hold elections next year, may witness the same. However, amidst all the protest, the government is silent on the critical issue of guaranteed fair price. In the backdrop of record production and farm loan waiver, the promise of doubling farmers' income by 2022 announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August 2016 still remains a distant dream. In our story, "Sick(le) Charade", we analysed how the Centre's much-hyped farm schemes have hardly made a difference to farmers. On one hand, the Centre refused to implement the 12-year Swaminathan Commission's recommendations on increasing farmers' income. On the other, the government has constituted another committee on doubling farmers' income chaired by Ashok Dalwai.



As a reporter covering health, India's crumbling public healthcare system is not a new thing to me. We routinely cover stories of bed scarcity in government hospitals, rats scurrying along corridors, and most important of all, shortage of doctors and nursing staff. Over the years, I had become immune to all these issues. But then something happened on the night of August 10, which shook me out of my complacency. In one single night, 23 children died in Gorakhpur's Baba Raghav Das Medical College due to the lack of oxygen. The incident proved the dismal condition of public hospitals in India where millions of poor Indians go day in and day out for treatment. As criticism over the incident poured in on social media, even the international media covered it. Later, the death toll reached 68, including 45 children and 23 adults, in the next couple of days.

BRD Medical College is known for catering to around 60 per cent of total encephalitis cases in the country. Over the years we have reported how it has registered a huge number of children's death due to the disease. While 641 children died in August 2016 and 491 in 2015, a total of 124 deaths were reported till August 8, 2017. Even before the tragedy took place, the media alerted the hospital administration about the possible disruption in oxygen supply due to pending dues.

Though the Uttar Pradesh government suspended a few officials over the incident, such measures amount to nothing. To streamline healthcare, I suggest there is a need for a lot more decentralisation with accountability for public health management. If authorities do not work on public health and allocate more money on this, such incidents will keep happening.

(These snippets of experience were first published in December 16-31 issue of Down To Earth under the headline 'Rewind 2017')

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