Shimul Bijoor, Dakshin Foundation

This summer, I worked at the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team (ANET) as an intern, to study the governance and management of marine protected areas in the islands. As a recent graduate in Environmental Studies and Policy, my field of interest is in the social sciences, which means studying human society and relationships between different groups of people and their environment.

ANET has seen a flood of biologists coming in year after year, studying marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the Andamans. These scientists travel the islands, conducting fantastic research that has helped people understand these island ecosystems better. Their interactions with local communities during the course of their studies has made ANET well-known among islanders as “The Company” of scientists.

However, in this flood of biologists there is an occasional social scientist. Our work differs from the natural sciences in that we don't always have quantitative datasets, fixed measurements, and fixed explanations for phenomena. For instance, my project aimed to understand why it's so difficult for different groups of people to work together and develop an effective system for managing natural resources in marine protected areas. After one month of research in the islands, we don't yet have a singular and solid explanation for this, and probably never will. But our outcomes are more along the lines of identifying patterns in how groups such as fishermen and the government interact with each other, and where their perspectives diverge such that they have a hard time cooperating.

This is perhaps why I felt a little out of place when I first came to ANET, as my skill-set and work was so different from a majority of the researchers there. It's almost intimidating when your work often elicits questions like,

“Come on, it's not a real science. Is it?”

“You get grant money just to travel the islands and talk to people?!”

Of course, most of this is only banter, and any intelligent conservationist knows the importance of integrating human dimensions into research to improve conservation outcomes. As such, any conservation program cannot be implemented effectively without first knowing the various people or stakeholders involved, how they interact, and at which points the project could lead to either conflict or benefit.

Even though this may sometimes seem obvious, it's still very difficult to explain social sciences to someone with a vastly different ideology or background. Most of why I find it so difficult to explain, is that social science methodology is more about figuring out all the reasons why you can't make certain explanations. For instance, it may have been easy to assume that the reason why Protected Areas don't have management systems in place is due to the negligence of concerned authorities, but only after delving deeper can you know exactly why making this inference would acknowledge only a very small portion of the complications that actually stand in the way of developing effective management systems in marine spaces.

But this uncertainty is also what makes it all the more engaging for me. Each conversation we have unveils a new layer of complexity and changes our understanding of a particular phenomena. Speaking to different groups of people (or stakeholders), listening to their stories, and identifying patterns, conflicts, and consistencies among all of their stories is awfully exciting.

My work involved talking to various groups of stakeholders, including officials from the Forest Department, Fisheries, Tourism, Revenue, and Agriculture Departments, the Directorate of Shipping Services, the Andaman Lakshadweep Harbour Works, and, most importantly, local islanders such as fishermen, farmers, shop owners, vegetable vendors, school teachers, and retired government workers. Together with my project partner, I spent each day on field moving from one house or office to another. We spoke to each person with the intent of understanding how they use marine spaces in and around protected areas, what they felt about the designation of these areas for conservation, and how these Protected Areas affected their daily lives and occupations.

Sometimes a single conversation would occupy an entire day, and sometimes they would last only a few hours or minutes. Sometimes we would have to sit upright and nervous in the office of a high ranking official, and sometimes we attempted to shout above the noise of a running motor while interviewing a fellow passenger on a speeding dunghi (a small wooden dugout motor boat).

“How do you get actual analysable data from just hearing stories?”

After the fun part of hanging out with different people and collecting their stories, came the flummoxing question of what to do with all of these stories, and then eventually the stage of sifting through them to conduct some analysis. This meant transcribing each conversation, rereading them several times, and highlighting repeated themes, unusual comments, or leads for further reading. This initially sounded like the most boring part of the whole process, but it turned out to be my favourite. On field, I sometimes felt flustered, as there were so many parallel conversations happening with different stakeholders, that it became difficult to always keep track of how each story connected with another. But once I was off the field and had 'coded' all my field notes, things started to fall into place, and putting everything down into a coherent report seemed a lot less daunting.

Putting together the findings of our fieldwork helped us understand the larger picture regarding complications faced by the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in establishing management plans for marine protected areas. This can potentially be taken forward to design interventions to help overcome some of these challenges. 

Historically, conservation research and implementation has largely been restricted to the natural sciences, and only recently have the social sciences been gaining a wider audience. As a new participant in a relatively new field of study, my internship has been not just an exploration of the subject itself but of people's understanding of it, including my own. So perhaps the next time I go on field, we will have to worry less about whether “social science” is just an oxymoron or not, and more about how every scientist can best apply their chosen scientific method to understand the world we live in.

Island Girl from Remote Kadamtala Island Plays Active Role in Forest Conservation and Community Upliftment at Rajasthan

Meet Ms. Sunita Das, a 24 year old Social Innovator from Kadamtala, M. Andaman D/o of Ajit Das, currently working as SBI Youth for India Fellow in Udaipur District, Rajasthan. Sunita completed her Graduation (B.A. B. Ed in Geography) from Regional Institute of Education Bhubaneswar, Orissa and Masters in Local Governance and Development from Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth and Development, Chennai, Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport.

She says, as a development practice student; she always wanted to learn new things and experience from the new places. After completion of her post Graduation, Sunita got an opportunity to be a part of SBI Youth for India Fellowship and it has given her a platform to explore experience and contribute to the Rural India.

As her fellowship project, Sunita today is enabling community institutions like Gram Vikas Committees, Nature Club, SHGs, and Forest Protection Committees for Sustainable Forest Management and restoring 65 hectares of Common land as a Joint Forest Management with native forest sampling and making boundary walls to secure them from animals.

Presently Sunita lives in Jhadol Block of Udaipur District of Rajasthan, where 95% are tribal population, practicing agriculture, migrant laborers who collect forest products for livelihood. Sunita says, “When I started interacting with the villagers and taking awareness sessions on forest conservation, I realized that people really did not care about conserving forest in spite of being depended on forest. Because of overuse of forests and common land, it started degrading and become an open barren land and people weren’t left with much land to do forestry in their backyard.

Sunita then came up with the idea to restore the forest land and also help the villagers for their livelihood. Now she is rejuvenating 65 hectares of common land with income generation plantation and native forest sampling as a Joint Forest Management and also formed a Forest Protection Committee to take care of land, which also includes women, youth and men of the village. From whatever forest produce which is being sold in the market, a percentage will be deposit in the village common bank account for village development work.

Sunita is also converting four Government Schools into “Green School”

She says, “We urban people can easily get fruits and Vegetables from super markets. But the poor kids they can’t enjoy the taste of fruits because their parents earn only 4000 to 5000 Rupees per month and they can’t afford. Sunita then came up with an idea for planting fruit tree in the school boundaries, so that village children can enjoy the fruits without any cost. She has also formed a Nature Club with school students to take care of plants after she leaves.

Sunita has also bought a desktop for village kids and is training them on basic computers.

Sunita has also involved herself in providing training to the tribal women on basket making with the help of forest departments for their better livelihood. Hailing from an Island territory and living in an entirely different region is an amazing experience for me. Experiencing different culture, different geography, language, food, traditional practices etc is a thrilling experience, Sunita expressed. It also enhances my knowledge and teaches me how to live life with basic amenities, patience, kindness and much more.

The SBI Youth for India Fellowship is a platform where one can dedicate 13 months for Rural Development while experiencing a wonderful 13 months journey with new people and new place, Sunita adds. 

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It was a little boy living in Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram, which houses India’s rocket base who told me he’d seen most members of the ruling party climbing into a Time Machine, which had taken them back in time. “They said, there was nothing they could do about the present, so they thought they’d go back into India’s past!” said the little boy, speaking to me in Malayalam.

“I wonder what they’re finding out!” I pondered loudly.

“There’s a black box, that tells you what they’re seeing now,” said the little fellow as he led me to the entrance of the Time Capsule and pressed a switch. I heard the voice of Mumbai’s former police chief who was now a junior minister, “This is marvelous!” he said in chaste Hindi, “Look at all those planes. I told you India had aircraft in those days! Our technology was the greatest, see that plane doesn’t even have an engine!”

Another voice piped in, “India had internet thousands of years ago. Look, I am whatsapping King Ashoka and see all the Chola rulers from the south have formed a whatsapp group!”

I heard a familiar voice, “Mitron, I can see Mrs Gandhi reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf!I told you she was a Hitler, not me!”

The door of the machine opened and all the members of the ruling party stepped out, big grinsacross their faces, what with having actually seen supersonic aircraft, internet and Hitler type dictators in India’s past. But the little boy was shaking his head and pointing to another machine standing next to this one. I suddenly understood what he was saying and rushed to the group “Sirs, I think there’s been a mistake!” I said humbly.

“Bah you journalists!” said the familiar voice, “Didn’t I tell you Indira Gandhi was Hitler?”

“Didn’t I tell you we had airplanes thousands of years ago!” said another.

“And I whatsapped King Ashoka!” sneered the other member of the ruling party.

“But sirs!” I said, pointing to the machine they had just stepped out from, and gesturing to the little boy who had actually found the mistake, “Sirs, you all entered the Dream Machine by mistake!”

There was pin drop silence as the little boy pointed to the other machine next to this one, “Sirs, he says that that is the Time Machine, this one you all have come from makes your favouritedreams and fantasies into reality while you are in it! Why don’t we all go into the Time Machine and see the truth?”

The little boy and I stood next to the Time Machine, as the group just walked away.

“Nobody wants to know the truth!” said the little boy from Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram in Malayalam. 

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The small fan I’d bought just three months back, made a series of grunts and came to a grinding halt. With much experience, having travelled in Mumbai locals, I whipped out a comb, inserted it into the grill and turned the blade, but unlike the success I’d had in those old trains, these fanblades refused to move. Disappointed, I called my driver and told him to take it to the electrician. He came back in ten minutes, “Made in China fan sir! Electrician says it can’t be repaired!”

It had hardly lasted three months and had gone kaput! Today, I see more of such products coming from our great neighbor,fading away shamelessly without a whimper.

A few years ago, while shopping in Hong Kong, I decided to buy myself a colourful cardigan. I found one, it was a Tommy Hilfiger and paid quite a price for it. While unpacking, back home in India, I turned the sweater inside out to see where it had been made and wasn’t I pleasantly surprised to see a ‘Made in India’ label?

“Jai Hind!” I whispered proudly.

And more and more am I seeing our label throughout the world. While in America at the beginning of this year, I bought a coloured mug and found I was taking home what had been made at home! I smiled and felt proud, our products were now good enough to be sold in high end retail stores!

And as I handle the cardigan and mug today, I think of their manufacturing factories where they’veobviously kept strict adherence to quality; no compromises in finish, good grade raw materials, disciplined workers and strict supervision, all culminating in world class products.

Today we export Yoga to the world. There’s no doubt in the qualitative difference it makes in the lives of individuals; reducing stress, calming troubled minds, healing illnesses and bringing peace and stillness in chaotic situations.

The world loves this Made in India product and turns to India with smiles of gratitude, many even coming across the ocean to visit the source, the factory where this wonderful product is being manufactured.But do they see such tranquility and calm here?

Just as the factory which makes a quality product reveals a high degree of excellence, does our nation show the same calm, peace and stillness yoga reveals?

Shouldn’t it?

As exporters of a meditative process that has already got for itself a day assigned for it, let our nation too show the world those same characteristics of understanding, tolerance, lack of prejudice, patience and quiet,Yoga brings.

I hold aloft the cardigan and mug with pride and hope, and pray that soon I will also hold to the world the calm and peace that exists in our land, which we export under the label, Made in India..! 

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As I heard about the tragic plane crash a few miles from my home, my thoughts went back to another crash in which my uncle a fighter pilot was involved. He retired as a very senior officer in the Indian Air Force, but this happened when he was much younger, “His plane caught fire!” said my grandmother to six- year old me, “But angels lifted him out of the aircraft and brought him safely down!”

“Why?” I’d asked, “Many pilots die, why was only he rescued?”

“Because I prayed for him all the time!” said my grandmother, very matter of fact.

It was this same grandmother who taught me, that whatever I needed, to pray about it, and God would give it to me. “But always have a picture in your mind of God answering that prayer Bob!” she said.

Many years later when in my twenties, the Maruti 800 was making a big impact on Indian roads, I remembered my grandmother’s words,and with trembling hands cut a picture from a magazine of a gleaming red 800, placed it under a glass on my desk, looked at it, prayed for it everyday, and six months laterit happened, the only difference, I settled for white!

It was not just material things, I used this power of picturization and prayerisation everywhere. There were times one or other of my daughters would call me from school, “Dad my legs are hurting so badly, please come and pick me up!” I would get on my knees and pray and see my child with no ache, then get into my car, now a Tata Estate and drive breakneck to her school, and find her grinning at the gate, “Daddy, the pain just disappeared!”

Over two thousand years ago, a young Jesus who was healing the sick and bringing to life those who were dead told everybody, “Even if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘May God uproot you and throw you into the sea, and it would obey you!’

Around two decades ago, another young man who wanted to start an orphanage would visit my home for donations, and while leaving would say, “Please pray for me!”

One day, I got impatient and asked him, “Pray for what?”

“For my orphanage to come up!” he said.

“How big do you want it to be?” I asked.

“I don’t know!” he whispered.

“Picture how big you want it to be, then pray that picture to God, and let’s watch it becoming possible!” I told him. “The three Ps, “Picturize, Prayerize and Possibilize!”

He listened, and it’s now a huge complex with buildings and guest houses, called Anand Ashram, houses over a hundred boys and an old folks home.

Yesterday’s tragic crash brought memories of another crash and reassuring thoughts of a faithful God..! 

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