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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Brand Kerala - the rot beneath the hype

A cliff in Varkala

Behind the Chinese fishing nets in Fort Kochi

Vytila, Kochi city

First it was mounts of uncleared garbage that festered on its streets, and sometimes its waterways, that spoiled its picture perfect, freshly broomed look.Then came the unprecedented waves of viral fever and dengue that dented its globally acclaimed public health record.
Now it’s the food served by hundreds of hotels and restaurants that is bringing ill-repute to the state. It can land you in serious trouble and can even kill you as a young boy from Thiruvananthapuram recently learnt.
He, along with many others, ate the middle eastern chicken-roll called “shawarma” from a popular eatery in the state capital and boarded a bus to Bangalore. He also carried a couple of rolls for his onward journey.
On the way, he reportedly developed stomach pain and signs of food poisoning, and subsequently died on reaching Bangalore. Ten others, who ate from the same place ended up in hospitals, one of whom was the son of a popular actor. His entire family was hospitalised. He brought it out to the attention of the media and threatened legal action. The fiercely competitive local media made it big and triggered a chain reaction.
They peeked into several other restaurants and found that what people have been relishing in the state was mostly trash – old, decaying and foul-smelling food prepared by dirty hands in dirty vessels in horrendously unhygienic conditions. To hide the rot, they also added illegal substances.
What followed was a string of raids, not only by the food department, but also by the heads of local civic bodies. In Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi, the Mayors of the corporations went with raid-parties and TV crews. What Kerala saw for the next couple of days was exactly the opposite to the branded visage of state – its dirty kitchens and festering food.
For the first time, the prime time discussions on the sensational political murder of TP Chandrasekharan and the decay in the CPM gave way to discussions on food and hygiene. Meanwhile, there were also reports of people falling sick by food poisoning from various places in the state, a possible case of better awareness leading to a spurt in reporting. Some of the visuals that the TV cameras beamed into the smug middle class homes were gross – meat that was several days old, a kitchen that was also an overflowing latrine, excessively overused cooking oil that resembled grease, unauthorised colours and other additives, unwashed plates and utensils, and grimy kitchens.
The gravity of the situation is borne out by numbers. In the last two days, out of the 1170 odd places raided by the authorities, about half were in bad conditions and were issued notice to clean up and report again. About 70, including some outfits that were at public places such as train and bus stations, were closed down because they were too dangerous. The raids that began in different parts of the state by a severely understaffed food inspection wing are continuing. However, many of the cases that they will report might not be legally tenable because the food department does not have sufficiently equipped labs where the food samples could be tested for harmful organisms and impurities.
Interestingly, the worst culprits are two imports to Kerala’s eclectic menu: shawarma and badam milk. Shawarma came from the middle-east about a decade ago, thanks to the millions of labourers in the gulf who sustain the state’s economy, and badam milk came through the migrant workers that started flooding the state a few years go. In Kochi, migrant workers pushing carts selling badam milk is a common sight.
With the risking stink of their kitchens, the hotel and restaurants association has banned shawarma across the state as a face-saving measure. Authorities in Kochi banned push carts selling badam milk.
While the hotels and restaurants should indeed be held responsible for the gross neglect of food safety and cheating the public, the demographic transformation, the socio-economic mismatch, and the lifestyle aspirations of the people of Kerala, whether rich or poor, are also responsible for the increasing rot.
The state, which was once a rare mascot of high human development in resource-poor settings, is in decay. Organised crime in the state is on alarming rise (highest IPC crimes among mega cities reported in Kochi and and highest level of violent crimes, in Kerala, according to NCRB) which attract a lot of unemployed youths looking for quick bucks; and prohibitive labour charges have seen an influx of tens of thousands of migrants workers from West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, that has also begun to affect the unique characteristics of the state and in some cases, led to social tension.
Its higher education sector, particularly private engineering colleges, is in a mess that even invited strict observations from the Kerala High Court and unemployment is about 10%, without taking into account huge levels of under-employment. The labour force, traditional farming sector (other than cash crops) and whatever little industrial activities left in the state are under severe stress; but the dominant demographic changes, thanks to the gulf-remittances and IT employees, have considerably transformed general lifestyle or rather lifestyle aspirations of people.Eating out, or take-away from road-side makeshift fast-food joints is a common element of the new lifestyle. The state has about 21000 + plus estimated eateries, not to mention the hundred of push-carts and nondescript outfits. The state’s food inspection wing, with a handful of staff, is too small to conduct periodic inspection of these places.
The Bureau of Indian Standards has a new set of benchmarks for places where we eat and the Speaker of the Kerala assembly has asked for a report on what the government has done to stem the decay.
But as usual, a tragic death and an expedient media have raised the stink and triggered the subsequent spurt of activities. The present government interventions and social vigilance will soon die down till another unfortunate tragedy happens.The last time it was in the state’s trademark toddy shops. Perhaps next time, it will be somewhere else, for the social rot is really spreading fast.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Our growth - you could be a partner.

As part of a new growth strategy of Mir Holistics, we are in the process of revamping our Homestay Division. The idea is to bring under our umbrella homestays and small boutique hospitality properties and market them under the Mir Hotels and Resorts brand.

Mr Prabith will be heading this division and he is currently engaged in the process of identifying new homestays. IF any of you know of or are in possession of homestays or small hotels and would like to explore possibilities with us, please do get in touch with Prabith. His email id is and his contact number is 9388960415.

A little peace for our tigers?

Indian authorities have recently taken numerous measures to protect tigers in the country.The Supreme Court  has ordered a ban on tourism in "core zones" of more than 40 of the country's central government-run tiger reserves. In a landmark ruling, it warned that states that fail to implement the ban face contempt proceedings and fines.The court imposed fines of 10,000 rupees each on six states for not complying with its earlier tiger protection directives.
Tiger numbers have shrunk alarmingly in India in recent decades. A 2011 census counted about 1,700 tigers in the wild. A century ago there were estimated to be 100,000 tigers in India. Conservation groups have welcomed the ruling, describing it as a significant development. The court was hearing a Public Interest Litigation petition filed by conservationist Ajay Dubey which sought the removal of commercial tourism activities from core or critical tiger habitats in tiger reserves.

Most tiger reserves in India have "core zones". The reserves also have buffer zones - fringe areas that surround tiger reserves up to a distance of 10km. While the ruling is important, it is unclear what impact if any it will have on the tourism industry, which is mostly confined to the buffer areas. The court's order is one of a number of initiatives recently taken by the Indian authorities to conserve tigers. In February an entire village was relocated in the state of Rajasthan to protect the animals.
Officials say conservation efforts by the government and wildlife organisations have helped tiger populations increase. But poaching and conflicts between the tigers and people living in and on the periphery of the tiger reserves remains a threat.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A communist, feminist and an aethist

                                          A friend posted this on Facebook. State of the world!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"The heart's memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burdon of the past".  - Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the time of Time of Cholera

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Kerala rejects Western Ghats panel report

NEW DELHI: Kerala today termed as "impractical to implement" the suggestions made by an expert panel on Western Ghats and sought Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's intervention in the matter.

Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy said he has requested Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to direct the Environment Ministry to "consider the anxieties expressed" by the state and to leave the matter to be decided and implemented by the state government.

"The Environment Ministry has been requested to do away with the proposed Western Ghats Ecology Authority, for the state government to take appropriate conservation measures on its own under the existing legislations and notifications under Environment (Protection) Act," Chandy said.

Madhav Gadgil-led Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel has made recommendations for 'zonation' of the Western Ghats and adjoining land areas depending on ecological parameters and for formation of the Western Ghats Ecology Authority at national level to regulate activities in the respective zones.

"The proposed zonation uniformly applicable for all the six Western Ghats states is detrimental to the interests of the state. Though the exact boundaries of each zone have not been fixed by the panel, the tentative recommendations would make development or even human activities unable in certain areas where the width of the land is less," he said.
Chandy said the issue was debated in the Kerala Assembly wherein the state government has conveyed "its dissent to the impracticable recommendations in the report" and has declared setting up of an expert committee to examine the panel report in the context of the objections raised.

Goa government ignored UNESCO on Western Ghats heritage status

KERI/GOA: The apathy of the Goa government has been responsible for five sites in the Western Ghats region of Goa missing out on being included among world heritage sites.

Already, a cluster of 39 sites from Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu has been inscribed in the heritage list. However, four wildlife sanctuaries and one national park of Goa has missed this year's opportunity of getting world heritage status.

UNESCO delegation members of government of India, the MOEF, had asked Goa for its participation prior to India submitting the proposal to the World Heritage Committee in February, 2010.

The Goa government neither concurred with the application to UNESCO, nor did it supply any information on Goa's protected areas of Mhadei, Bhagavan Mahavir, Netravali and Cotigao to the MOEF.

On September 15, 2011, not a single official from Goa attended the meeting between the delegates and the co-coordinating agencies held in Banglore. On June 28, 2011, the then Union minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, who has led India's nomination process at UNESCO, wrote a letter to the Goa chief minister asking him to take immediate steps on submitting a proposal for the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) to be brought under the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

It was one of the last things the minister did before moving onto the Union ministry of Rural Development.

As per India's Forest Report of 2011, Goa has one National Park at Mollem in Dharbandora taluka with 107 sq km area and six wildlife sanctuaries covering an area of 648 sq km a total of 755sq km area constituting 61.68% of the recorded forest area and 20.4% of the geographical area of the state as under protected area.

The forest cover in the state, based on interpretation of satellite data of February 2009 is 2,212sq km which is 59.94% of the state's geographical area.

In terms of forest canopy density, the state has 543 sq km area under very dense forests, 585sq km area under moderately dense forests and 1,091sq km area under open forests.

Out of six wildlife sanctuaries, Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary is not inside the Western Ghats region of Goa. However, the rest of the four wildlife sanctuaries and one national park with the total protected are of 745.10sq km are lying in the Western Ghats.

Amrutsingh, president of Animal Rescue Squad, said, "It is indeed painful for us that our Western Ghats region is not given a heritage tag, when the region has areas rich in biological wealth."

Goa is bestowed with a relatively rich floristic diversity. Late V D Vartak in 1966 in his 'Flora of Gomantak' has recorded a total of 1,512 species of plants over an area of 3,282sq km. Wildlife International, Cambridge, has officially classified Goa's area as one of the endemic bird areas of the world.

The sections of the Western Ghats that lie within Goa are one of the richest reservoirs of biodiversity, reflecting a complexity of plants, animals and bird life.

Ramesh Gauns, environmentalist from Bicholim, said, "Goa's Sahyadri is an extremely important source of fresh water for people. The legal protection of the green cover has facilitated and sufficed the increasing demand for fresh water. By inscribing the region in the World Heritage list, our efforts to protect and conserve the region will be consolidated."
The officials from Goa's forest department said, "We are making our best efforts to get Goa's sites in the Ghats a World Heritage status. However, final decision in this matter lies with Goa government."

- Courtesy: The Times of India

In the press - will we allow the plunder to continue?

The grant of World Heritage Site status to this hotspot of biodiversity should hopefully protect the ghats from being destroyed by incessant construction and so-called development activities in the name of tourism and enhanced civic amenities

It was a small story, buried in Page 7 or some such, regarding the cancellation of construction of an eco-resort in the Bababudangiri Hills of the Western Ghats, but it brought much cheer to conservationists, for it marked a significant victory in a persistent battle to halt commercial resorts in this landscape. The hills are adjacent to the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, forming an important corridor that connects the reserve with the rest of the forest landscape. It’s a well used passage for wildlife — leopard, gaur, sambar, elephants and tiger. Evidence of breeding tigers in the region has also come to light, tragically, when an orphaned cub (now in Mysore zoo) was found here in October 2010.

Chikmagalur is coffee country. Legend has it that Bababudangiri is where coffee was first grown in India, back in the 16th century. Plantations still clothe these slopes, and while they have fragmented the old growth forest, they still allow wildlife the right of passage.

Over time, this Malenadu landscape, has faced myriad onslaughts —subsistence pressures of local people, and worse, developmental activities like roads, highways, dams, power projects and mining. Some of these were successfully resisted due to their very damaging impact on this fragile landscape.

The hills are still verdant, throbbing with life. But there are worrying new challenges, ironically, from projects packaged and promoted as ‘environment friendly’: Green Energy and eco-tourism. With its natural beauty, the Malenadu region has always attracted visitors, but these visitors were largely restricted to homestays, which did not put much additional pressure on the landscape. That has rapidly changed in recent years with several commercial, self-proclaimed green resorts —some masquerading as ‘homestays’— coming up to cash in on an increasingly holidaying middle class. Ugly, monstrous structures mar the lush landscape, and more of these structures are in the pipeline, including a Rs 125 crore project  right at the doorstep of Bhadra.

Tourism is a double-edged sword. It can be a powerful constituency for conservation or a death knell. In its present form, the wildlife tourism sector in India is largely ill-managed, intrusive and unsustainable, putting immense pressure on tiger reserves and blocking vital wildlife corridors. The impact of such ill-planned tourism has been well-documented in Corbett and some other tiger reserves.

Here, the problem is still nascent, but unless nipped in the bud Bhadra may soon be islanded, walled in by mushrooming resorts, rivers diverted, hills gouged out for roads and for construction.

The tourism boom has already taken a toll. Construction of numerous resorts have thrown open new areas —pristine shola forests were slashed, roads widened, power and pipe lines laid — destroying and fragmenting habitat, blocking corridors and leading to increased human-wildlife conflict. Another worry is that most of the resorts either block or divert the flow of fresh water streams which flow through Bhadra, on the higher reaches of the hills to meet their own requirements, impacting vegetation and niche micro-habitat while reducing water availability to agriculture and sustenance of local people.

Tourism is just one of the threats to the ghats. There are other, equally worrying attacks — also touted as eco-friendly: Green energy for one.

The Bababudangiri range spans 57 km and varies in altitude from 1,400-1,800 metres. The steep heights and strong winds have invited wind mill projects and turbines are proposed to come up along 42 km of its length. Erection and maintenance of the turbines will require a well-connected road system, destroying  and fragmenting the habitat. The high altitude and windy conditions also make these hills an ideal environment for raptors and other birds, including the endemic White-bellied Shortwing. The ridge also forms a buffer to the Bhadra Tiger Reserve. The vegetation here is the typical shola combination of grassland and forest, supporting highly diverse wildlife, and protecting vital watersheds of River Bhadra.

The cumulative impact is catastrophic. But the good news is, consistent resistance by local conservation groups like the Bhadra Conservation Trust, Wild Cat-C and Kudremukh Wildlife Foundation has achieved some success in stalling some of these projects — such as the recent stay on the Satori Eco-Adventures resort. This gives little relief, though, with over a dozen new projects on the anvil. The wind farm too, has been halted, but there is a looming threat of other, bigger players taking up similar  projects.

While the turbines slam the ridges, a slew of mini-hydel dams are poised to drown and pillage remote valleys. Though they have been currently stayed by the Karnataka High Court, the threat from these ‘little green monsters’, as dubbed by scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society, Ullas Karanth, in an article detailing the devastating ecological impacts of such projects, refuses to go away. In fact, not only have they been granted Government subsidies, such projects escape much of the forest and environmental regulatory scrutiny, which has encouraged large projects to be broken down into several smaller ones in order to avoid crucial environment filters.

In response to a petition filed in the Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests- appointed expert panel submitted its inspection report to the CEC in April 2011. The report clearly recommends that “all projects in Western Ghats region involving tourism, wind power and hydropower on Government lands and currently under consideration by the State or Central Governments should be stayed” based on the ‘precautionary principle’. It urgently calls for assessing the carrying capacity of the area, and identifying highly sensitive areas from the biodiversity and wildlife perspective. The report recommends that until such areas are notified, an immediate and complete moratorium be imposed on fresh clearances.

This landmark report, which could clearly bring much relief, lies in cold storage awaiting the CEC’s nod. Meanwhile, the unique biodiversity of the Western Ghats lies vulnerable to further assault.

Postscript: On July 1, the Western Ghats, already recognised as a global biodiversity hotspot, was declared a World Heritage Site. Its importance — ecologically and culturally —  has been well-documented. The Western Ghats harbours a variety of spectacular wildlife: Tigers, elephants, lion-tailed macaques, great hornbills, king cobras. It nurtures and nourishes several rivers that sustains humanity in peninsular India.

- Prerna Singh Bindra (The author is member, National Board of Wildlife.) 
Courtesy: The Pioneer

The Spectacular Western Ghat Mountain Range

The Western Ghat range of mountains are composed of high mountain peak rising on an average to 1500m above sea level, with gorges, and deep-cut valleys covered with dense forests, interspersed with tea, coffee and spice plantations, spectacular waterfalls and mountain streams.

This is the most species-rich eco region in peninsular India with eighty percent of the flowering plant species of the entire mountain range found here.

The mountains are ideal for travelers with a passion for the outdoors.  Numerous outback trails and trekking routes snake through the forests with many spots ideal for adventure sports. 

Visitors will also find delight in the dazzling profusion of flora and fauna endemic to the Western Ghats. Forty-one of Kerala’s forty-four rivers originate in this region. 

The Western Ghats in an unbroken stretch separate Kerala from the rest of the country with a natural mountain pass known as the Palakkad Gap provides access to peninsular India. Situated west of the mountains, the midland plains comprise a swathe of land running along central Kerala with paddy fields at the bottom and groves of rubber and fruit trees besides crops such as black pepper and tapioca on the elevated areas.

The Western Ghats A World Heritage Site

The Western Ghats has made it to the coveted list of World Heritage Sites. The World Heritage Committee, meeting at St. Petersburg in Russia, decided to inscribe 39 serial sites of the Western Ghats on the World Heritage List on Sunday night.
Criterion nine of the guidelines for heritage sites deals with properties that are outstanding examples representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals. Whereas criterion 10 is relevant for properties which contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.
The nomination processes thus successfully ended a six-year-long campaign by India for getting the sites inscribed on the list. India had submitted a dossier for nomination of 39 sites in the Western Ghats spread over Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris in 2010. Under the Operational Guidelines of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, India’s nomination dossier was peer-reviewed by IUCN experts and subsequently an IUCN Technical Evaluation Mission that visited India for field evaluation.