history lessons

•September 9, 2015 • Leave a Comment

My second piece for Catch News came out today! I had managed to catch (haha, yes) a few of the Madras Week events and lo behold a listicle was born. The original article can be read here (with photos!).


Eccentric, meet eclectic: 8 things a local learnt about Chennai this Madras Week

SUMANA NARAYANAN | @catchnews |8 September 2015

Chennai – or Madras as anyone with roots here still calls it – has a birthday. August 22 – the day 376 years ago that Francis Day and Andrew Cogan bought a sliver of land from the Nayak rulers, on behalf of the East India Company – is the city’s big day.

And since 2005, a bunch of enthusiasts have been coming together to celebrate the city’s birthday with a series of fun events. What began as Madras Day is now Madras Week, held this year between 16th and 22nd August.

Although a visitor for years, this year I decided to be systematic about the whole thing and got a copy of the handy little booklet of events printed by the organisers.

The range of events was staggering – I was spoilt for choice.

But more, the events listed gave me a bird’s eye overview to everything that matters to Chennai, and made me ask questions about my city I had never bothered to ask.

How long have Madrasis relished their filter coffee? Was it from prehistory as we seem to believe or is it of more recent provenance? What about the ‘December Season’ so closely associated with the city? And so, armed with questions, I set out to find some answers.

Here are 8 things I learnt:

01 The Buckingham Canal, now a noxious sewer, is 796 km long and was dug in stages

It started in 1806 by connecting water bodies between Fort St George and Ennore, and then further north to Pulicat Lake, finally ending in Pedda Ganjam in Andhra Pradesh, some 300-odd km north of Madras. The second part began from the Adyar River southwards to Marakkanam, 100 km from the city. The purpose was, of course, to move goods.

02 The Duke of Buckingham – who lent his name to the Canal – had precious little to do with its construction

He just happened to be Governor of Madras when the last bit of the canal was being dug. This was the connecting stretch within the city, between the Cooum and Adyar Rivers, a distance of 8 km, which was dug as a food-for-work programme during the Great Famine of 1877-78 on his orders.

03 The Canal is still navigable, at least in parts

DH Rao, an engineer and Buckingham Canal enthusiast, spoke of how as recently as January 2015 he hired a boat to travel between Mahabalipuram and Marakkanam and earlier had traversed the section of the canal in Andhra Pradesh, right up to Pedda Ganjam.

04 Bleeding Madras, Chennai’s famous fabric, was considered a sign of prestige in West Africa

The iconic checked fabric whose dyes were not colourfast was, surprisingly, a big hit in West Africa.

This checked fabric was traded as far back as the 15th century to Africa and, with the slave trade, made its way to the Americas, where it became a sign of preppy fashion in the US in the 20th century.

The East India Company were the ones who started this craze for Bleeding Madras or Madras checks, and had to dub the 36 inch-wide and 8 metre-long bolts of fabric Real Madras Handkerchief (RMHK) to avoid certain taxes that the British government levied on imported fabric.

05 To the best of our knowledge, the December music seasons started in the late 1920s

According to Google, it was in the late 1920s that the venerable Music Academy was inaugurated. Someone must have had the realisation that, while the ‘Sahibs’ had their Christmas revelries, there was nothing to occupy the ‘natives’. And this being the most pleasant season (or, well, the only pleasant season) the city had, it made sense to have a music festival then.

Plus mid-December to mid-January is also the Tamil month of marghazi, which is generally given to devotion.

06 Coffee didn’t always run in the Madrasi vein

It slowly percolated down to the native via the Indians working for the British, the Burra Sahibs. Even in the first half of the 20th century, coffee was an elite drink; the addition of milk – an expensive item – made it unaffordable for most. So while Madras has been drinking coffee for a while now, it’s nowhere near as long as you’d imagine.

07 Chintadripet was built for weavers by the Company

The Company figured it would be best to set up a weaver colony, where they could keep an eye on the product and the producers. The weavers wanted an area with lots of trees since shade was essential to their process and so Chintadripet was built on what was called Sunku Rama Chetty’s Gardens, close to present-day Chennai’s central railway station.

Sunku Rama, a dubash, had been granted this space by the Company in 1719. Obviously he fell afoul of the powers that be for they had no qualms in un-granting the land in 1734! And so was born Chinna Tari Pettai (or small weaver town).

08 The Aadikesava Perumal temple was built to attract weavers to Chintadripet

Adiappa Narayana Chetty, another dubash, was entrusted with getting Chinna Tari Pettai up and running. He hit upon the idea of building a temple to attract weavers. (Nowadays we advertise great views of the ocean, swimming pools, shops and the like).

And so Chintadripet, in the 1780s, got its Aadikesava Perumal temple, which consists of twin temples to Shiva and Vishnu. The temples are interconnected via a colonnaded corridor. This kind of sharing of space between Shiva and Vishnu temples is quite uncommon.


Benevolent Mother

•September 9, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Last month, I was commissioned a news piece for Catch News, the recently-launched English website under the Rajasthan Patrika banner. The article was to be a part of a series for August 15 i.e Independence Day, on how people have fought for and won rights across the country. But as I did this story, it turned out to be a bit different for we Madrasis like to throw a spanner in the works!

The original article can be read here.


With love from Amma: why Chennai’s breastfeeding rooms are a relief

SUMANA NARAYANAN | @catchnews | 14 August 2015

Small freedom

  • J Jayalalithaa has opened 352 nursing rooms at bus terminals
  • The idea: to give mothers a clean, private space to nurse babies
  • The rooms have comfy cubicles, guards; some even have nurses

 Great fight

  • The fight for private breastfeeding spaces has a long, global history
  • Several countries have now enshrined it as a legal right
  • The campaign hasn’t got traction in India, but the need is obvious

 Big debate

  • The move is fine, but more is needed to promote breastfeeding
  • But it’ll bring attention to the struggles of working, travelling mothers
  • Breastfeeding reduces infant mortality, so the move will help a larger cause

While we are celebrating the freedoms we had to battle hard for, here’s one that has been won without a fight.

Just in time for the Independence Day, mothers in Chennai received a gift from J Jayalalithaa – 352 nursing rooms at bus terminals.

The chief minister inaugurated two of these rooms, or Tai Paal Uthumarai as they are called in Tamil, at Koyambedu to mark the International Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7.

The campaign for private spaces for working mothers to nurse their babies has been a long one globally, and it has scored several victories. In the United Kingdom, the law now requires employers to provide space for mothers to nurse their babies and rest.

In Belgium and Estonia, breastfeeding breaks are covered by social insurance and public funds. Irish law requires employers to give breastfeeding employees paid breaks and reduce their working hours.

That the campaign hasn’t had much traction in India doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy cause. It certainly is, now more than ever.

“In India, women always breastfed in the open. But due to the western culture’s influence, our clothes today are a challenge for nursing in a public place,” says Yasmin Effath of La Leche League, an international NGO that promotes breastfeeding.

“These nursing rooms, therefore, are a welcome move to meet such futuristic challenges.”

Of a generous pattern

Jayalalithaa’s government has also announced setting up of seven milk banks in hospitals to store breast milk. And the 104 health helpline will now provide advice on breastfeeding.

“The idea came from the chief minister who felt that women should have some privacy to breastfeed. Some airports do have spaces where women can have privacy, but bus terminuses typically don’t,” says a senior official in the health department, who didn’t want to be named.

The idea is to provide lactating mothers a clean, comfortable and private space, no bells and whistles attached, the official adds.

 Infant mortality is falling, but India still sees over a quarter of the 2.8 million under-5 deaths globally

 It’s a typical Jayalalithaa initiative.

 She doesn’t really shine when it comes to running a clean administration – she recently did jail time for corruption – but has a decent track record on social welfare.In the 2014-2015 fiscal, her government allocated 37 per cent of its budget outlay to social schemes.

 In 2013, Jayalalithaa introduced Amma Canteen, which serves cheap, healthy food to the poor. It’s been a big hit.

 Amma Water provides bottled water for just Rs 10 per litre at bus stands and state-run stores.

 Jayalaithaa has also launched the Amma Pharmacy and Amma Vegetable Shop, though they are not yet as ubiquitous as the canteens.

 No small comfort

At Koyambedu terminal, there’s no discernible signboard to the nursing rooms, but there is a sparkling photo of Amma herself, clothed in her bullet proof saree, modestly draped around her shoulders. Who needs pesky words when she points the way!

Inside, the white walls are enlivened by more photos of her. The room has six cubicles, each with a comfy sofa. The other room has a well-padded bed and ample washroom space.

Above the common washbasin, a full-size Amma benignly looks down upon the mothers and their babies, lest they forget who made it all possible.

The rooms at Koyambedu, unlike most others elsewhere, are air-conditioned and provide services of two nurses from Apollo Hospitals who work in 12-hour shifts.

This is the initiative of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Agency, which runs the bus terminus.

The nurses said that they were initially apprehensive about being posted to a bus terminus, but no longer have any concerns.

There is a security guard outside the rooms and another accompanies them home when the shift ends.

As for their brief, one of the nurses says, “We have been told to help women if needed, give them advice on breastfeeding and tell them why it’s important.”

The other adds, “But we can’t be intrusive so we usually just wait and listen. If the baby sounds distressed, then we ask if we can help.”

Just the first step

The initiative has been mostly well-received – the visitor’s book at Koyambedu is filled with grateful entries – though a debate is on how much it really helps promote breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding isn’t a social taboo in India. I am not familiar with Tamil Nadu but in general, Indian women do breastfeed in public,” says Dr Arun Gupta, regional coordinator of the International Baby Food Action Network-Asia, which works to reduce infant and child mortality.

“So while this scheme is welcome, in as much as it is always a good thing to give women a clean, comfortable space and some privacy, it is not, perhaps, a pressing concern.”

What is?

“I would rather the government focused on raising awareness about the importance of breastfeeding, better nutrition for mothers and the need to provide them support socially and in workplaces,” Gupta says.

Tamil Nadu sees 22 infant deaths per 1,000 live births; 77% of them die within the first week

Studies have shown that proper nursing practices help reduce infant mortality. While India’s under-5 mortality rates have decreased rapidly, it still accounted for over a quarter of the 2.8 million such deaths globally in 2013, according to a 2014 UN report titled ‘Levels and Trends in Child Mortality’.

Tamil Nadu fares better than the national average at 22 deaths per 1,000 live births, but UNICEF says three-quarters of the infant deaths occur within 28 days of birth and 77% of neonatal deaths take place within the first week.

The state ranks among the top three states on several economic and social indicators. It has pioneered several groundbreaking women and child policies such as the noon meal scheme of the 1960s.

Yet, as UNICEF notes, only 52% of the state’s children are exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, the minimum recommended by the WHO.

Lalita Iyer, the author of I’m Pregnant, Not Terminally Ill, You Idiot!agrees it’s not impossible to breastfeed in public.

“It’s a question of planning ahead, making sure one wears clothes convenient for breastfeeding, and being prepared,” she says.

However, she cautions, that urban women tend to be more self-conscious about nursing in public and this make them to switch to bottles.

“The system does not encourage breastfeeding for more than 3 months. Doctors and hospital staff tend to push towards bottles, though not always overtly.”

“Then there is peer pressure. Women compare notes: ‘oh, you are breastfeeding for so long?’ As if it’s a strange thing,” Iyer says.

This and workplaces that have little consideration for the needs of lactating women force them to stop breastfeeding.

Chennai’s nursing rooms, therefore, are a welcome move.

More than anything, says activist Kavita Krishnan, they are a “reminder that there are women out there in public spaces that struggle to nurse their babies.”

India is based on some soaring ideals: liberty, equality, freedom, justice and plurality. On the 68th anniversary of independence, this series focuses on the little battles for freedom, justice and plurality. On the 68th anniversary of independence, this series focuses on the little battles for freedom that keep those values alive.

Warning! Elephants nearby!

•August 3, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Human-wildlife conflict gets a lot of press. Lots of mad coverage of animals running amok and government efforts to chase them back to the forests, forgetting all the while that its us who have encroached on their space forcing the animals to look for alternatives. Its also an interesting debate on this whole our space vs their space issue. There have been studies that show animals and humans managing quite well in human modified landscapes. In all this tamasha, there are few researchers doggedly trying to find sensible solutions. This is an article I wrote about one such endeavour. Of course none of these attempts are fixed in stone, they need to be tweaked to local situations. Even in the current location, the solution may need to change if the situation changes.

The article was published in the Earth Island Journal (http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/elist/eListRead/early_warning_system_is_reducing_human-elephant_conflict_in_india/).

Early Warning System Is Reducing Human-Elephant Conflict in India

New program uses text messages and LED lights to improve life for both elephants and humans

Several years ago, as a masters student studying ecology, I took a trip with friends to the Anaimalais (literally, Elephant Hills, in Tamil) in the Western Ghats, a mountain chain running down peninsular India. One day we were careening down a hillside to the town of Valparai in the last bus of the day (or rather the night), trying to peer at the shadows the headlights threw up and spot wildlife. It was all very exciting, but I cannot imagine what would have happened if we had come across an elephant standing on the road.

Encounters with elephants and other wildlife in India are not rare. Often, animals enter human-modified landscapes, which the media frequently presents as a case of animals “straying” out of their habitat into human areas, requiring them to be chased back. Of course, these human-wildlife interactions can result in escalating conflict, even leading to death — of both humans and animals — and damage to property. Sometimes the situation gets so bad that authorities are pushed to capture or kill the animal. For example, in February 2015, a tiger in Tamil Nadu was declared a maneater after it killed a farmer and tea estate worker, and was put down. In other cases, the animals are captured and sent to zoos. On occasion, animals like the nilgai (an Asian antelope) are temporarily declared vermin in a specified region and people are allowed to kill them if they enter their property and destroy crops.

A 2015 Whitley Award-winning initiative in the Anaimalais shows how this conflict can be reduced and co-existence made possible. The program, which focuses on human-elephant conflict, was developed and implemented by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), a wildlife and conservation research organization.

Valparai, a town in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is an unassuming jumble of houses spread over several hillsides. The 220-square-kilometer Valparai plateau is known for its tea and coffee plantations, created by the British more than a century ago by clearing the rainforest. With the tea industry booming (though the last two decades have seen a reversal of fortunes), human population increased. With growth came roads, construction, and electricity. The plateau is surrounded by forests, most of which are protected areas. Today, the plateau is a mosaic of plantations dotted with clusters of houses (known as labor lines) for tea workers, and forest fragments. The plateau is also part of the home range of some 100 elephants that regularly cross the plantations to reach forests on the other side, leading to run-ins with humans. The human population of the plateau — mostly plantation employees — is about 70,000.

Elephants have learned that the labor lines are usually an easy source of food, as people grow bananas and store food grains in the ration shop, a center where government-subsidized food items are distributed to the poor. Schools are also popular with the elephants as they have a pantry. Often, people returning home at the end of the day encounter elephants on the roads or in the plantations, occasionally leading to human injury or death.

“In 2002, we started this project by tracking the elephants and understanding their behavior,” said M. Ananda Kumar, lead researcher on this project. “Our research showed that the elephants tend to follow certain routes faithfully, sticking to the streams and the little patches of tree cover along these waterways, as they cross the plantations.”

The elephants, say NCF, tend to spend the daytime resting and feeding in the forest fragments and then move at night. The tea gardens do not offer shade and so the elephants do not spend much time there. However, when they move across these landscapes or come into human settlements, people are scared and try to drive the animals away. This typically takes the form of loud noises to scare the elephants, including beating drums and bursting firecrackers. The stressed herd scurries away to the next plantation or settlement, and the cycle begins again. While these incidents usually don’t result in death of either humans or elephants, they produce a lot of stress for both. Human deaths and injuries can, however, occur when people startle elephants, often on the roads in twilight. Perceiving a threat, the elephants may react by attacking; there have been incidents of elephants throwing or pushing vehicles off the road.

“People’s tolerance of elephants has come down. The loss of property is not something viewed lightly, either by people or by the plantations’ management who are duty-bound to pay for the damages in the labor lines,” says Kumar. Plus, the media sometimes plays up this drama, feeding people’s hysteria. People, then, clamor for the government to take action, but the government has few options.

To understand what drives the conflict, Kumar and his colleagues, Ganesh Raghunathan and Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan, mapped the incidents of human deaths and found that out of 41 victims between 1994 and 2002, 31 had been unaware of the presence of the elephants prior to the incident. Plus, many of these run-ins took place between December and February, which coincides with the time when elephants frequently traverse the plateau. Many of these encounters took place on the road. NCF realized that what was needed was a good early warning system by which people could avoid run-ins with elephants, as well as education programs on elephant behavior and the best way to react in the event of an elephant encounter.

NCF initiated a two-part project. First, in partnership with the State Forest Department, plantation management (there are seven plantations on the plateau), and community members, NCF began sending out bilingual text messages (in English and Tamil, the local language) reporting elephant movement. Information on elephant locations was provided by the Forest Department, researchers, and community members. The messages went out to community members living in the area who were registered with the warning network. The information was also broadcast on local television channels warning people to avoid those areas or at least be vigilant.

The second phase of the project was to set up LED lights in 24 areas frequented by elephants and humans. The lights are operated by calling a number from a mobile phone — if someone sees an elephant, they call the number and the light is activated, alerting locals to the fact that there is an elephant in the region. The forest department, on its own initiative, has set up six additional lights, for a total of 30. The LED lights began functioning in early 2011 and were initially operated by researchers. Since then, volunteers from the community have taken over. “The community of course must have a sense of ownership on this endeavor and be able and willing to continue with it even if we are not working in this area,” says Kumar. “We are also hoping to hand over maintenance of the infrastructure to the plantations.”

The forest department has also set up a rapid response team and helpline to ensure that not only property and human lives are protected, but also that elephants are not harmed. “Our team reaches the hamlet within five minutes of being called,” says Asokan, the divisional forest officer for Anaimalai Tiger Reserve. “We then ensure no firecrackers are set off or stones thrown. People are requested to move away and we keep watch on the elephants until they move of their own accord into the forests.” He adds that the trust and confidence people have in his team has grown over the last few years.

Since the early warning system began functioning, human deaths have dropped by over 50 percent; there were, on average, three deaths per year between 1994 and 2002, compared to an average of 1.2 deaths per year since. In fact, in 2010 and 2013, no deaths were reported.

Much of this initiative is focused on human safety. So far, there has been little assessment of the impact on the elephants. How stressed are they? How are elephant populations faring since the warning system was installed?

Recently, however, an effort has been made to collect this data. In the last few years, NCF has started to analyze cortisol, the “stress hormone,” in elephant dung samples. The preliminary results indicate that human interaction is a stressor for elephants. Specifically, researchers have observed that elephants that have experienced a run-in with humans tend to have higher levels of cortisol for 48 hours than those that have not. The researchers have also noted that the herds seem to be spending more time on the plateau than before, which could be an indication that they feel safer.

Bolstered by the success of this project, the government is looking to replicate it in other regions where human-elephant conflict is an issue. Of course, the model might require tailoring to local situations, but the major gain has been that the government is now contemplating co-existence models instead of relying on knee-jerk reactions to conflict.

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