Sunday, March 29, 2009

Urban wetlands

In a fairly recent post, I had mentioned how many of Bangalore’s lakes are being killed. But nature is extremely resilient, and given the slightest chance it will bounce back. And some of Bangalore’s lakes are wonderful examples of urban wetlands that are priceless treasures.

I’d recently visited the Hulimavu lake, a fairly large lake just half a kilometre from Bannerghatta road, one of the busiest roads in the city. This road is filled with apartment complexes and office blocks, with traffic that usually moves at 5 miles an hour on good days. Not surprisingly, this lake is under severe stress. There is plenty of legal and illegal construction all around the lake, and much of the lakebed has been encroached. Many of the other construction sites nearby use the lake as a convenient dumping ground for excavated earth. Along one channel, untreated sewage is slowly being discharged into the lake. A whole lot of people seem to use parts of the lakebed like a public toilet. And there are roads running all around the lake, on what clearly was the lake’s spillover bed. As is sadly the case in most Indian cities, the local residents are either unaware or unable or unwilling to do anything about this.

In spite of this, there remains an incredible diversity of life in and around the lake. We decided to take our binoculars and see what birds still inhabit the lake. I was more than pleasantly surprised at what we saw. There were plenty of brown pariah kites, and a few magnificient copper and white brahminy kites (and we were also able to follow a couple of them to their nest, on a nearby eucalyptus tree). There were also plenty of cattle and little egrets all around the lake. In addition, we saw a couple of grey herons in statuesque stillness, waiting for their next fish or frog to swim by, and a good number of moorhen pottering around the wetland. In the lake itself there were a good number of Eurasian coots swimming around, as well as a few snake-necked darters out hunting. These were just the confirmed sightings in a span of about 15 minutes of standing by the lake with Salim Ali’s indispensible handbook, which makes it more than likely that many more waterfowl inhabit the lake.

Urban wetland management unfortunately is not much of a concept in most of India. Yet this lake is just one example of the kind of diversity and richness of life in lakes around the city. It is also a fine example of a lake that could easily be made into a city nature park. To do that, only a little needs to be done to protect the wetland. Obviously, preventing encroachment around the lake would be a priority, as would be stopping the flow of untreated sewage that is choking the lake would be an obvious other step. In addition, the usual mismanagement of “lake development” that most city authorities eagerly embrace should be avoided. Usually, the city decides to build a big “garden” around lakes, which means manicured lawns, paved paths, lots of flowers and trees that don’t usually grow in wetlands, and a complete destruction of the wetland around lakes. This usually ends up slowly killing the lake. Most of these birds live and nest amidst the reeds that grow in lake wetlands, nurturing a rich ecosystem that supports frogs, breeding fish, small reptiles and small insects. Unfortunately, “beautifying” or “developing” lakes by building parks only breeds mosquitoes (by killing off fish and dragonflies that eat them, and breed in the reeds). The Yediyur lake in Jayanagar was a thriving lake that was killed off by just this effort of “development”. First came some lawns, and then there were motor boats and motor scooters, and now it is just a little swamp that breeds mosquitoes.

Instead, if the city could declare some of the lakes of Bangalore protected wetlands, and then spend a pittance on preserving the wetlands, we would be left with wonderful city parks where children and adults alike could spend evenings or weekends observing a diversity of birdlife and plant life (in addition to perhaps small amounts of regulated recreational fishing). It would be a chance to educate and enrich our own lives, and reconnect with nature in the heart of a stressful urban environment. A fond memory of mine is the environment around Lake Washington, in Seattle, right by the magnificent Husky Stadium. The wetlands around the lake are now carefully protected, and there is a beautiful little nature trail, with a description of the flora and fauna around the lake, as well as the importance of wetlands for human survival. People relax here now on weekends, paddle in little canoes, or walk around the unpaved nature trails, or spend lazy sunday afternoons trying to fish (with a permit). Yet this wasn’t always so, and the lake and wetland had nearly been killed in the sixties, and a massive restoration effort of over twenty years revived it. Here, we have wonderful living lakes in the midst of a massive metropolis. Do we need to sacrifice them in the name of “development”, or can we learn to live with them, and allow them to make our lives so much better?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A scientific temper

Jawaharlal Nehru, for all his numerous follies, strongly believed in two wonderful concepts; freedom of speech, and a concept he had coined, a nation with a “scientific temper”. That term, a “scientific temper” is a wonderfully succinct way to describe a broad concept. By speaking of a nation with a “scientific temper”, he wanted to speak of the people of a nation who would be able to think independently, understand and practice the scientific method in their daily lives, analyse and not take statements at their face value, and avoid simplistic reasoning. Of course, it has been easier said than done to create that atmosphere in a nation where superstition, religion, rumor, myth and innumerable beliefs abound. Interestingly, I was reminded of the concept of a “scientific temper” by an unlikely source.

One of the pioneering biochemists, science advocates and science policy advisors of our time, Bruce Alberts talked about this concept in a talk of his recently. While talking about science policy, research and much more, he also talked a bit about some of his efforts with City Science, an effort to improve science education in schools in San Francisco, which he hoped would not just improve science education, but would get kids to think about everything. Now, this effort isn’t just about getting kids to learn their science books better, but it is about bringing about a fundamental change in their way of thinking, enabling them to question, analyse and reason better in all aspects of their everyday lives, making the scientific method a part of it. He used a simple example of just one of the types of lessons that the kids learnt which illustrated the concept beautifully. I thought it would be just the kind of story to share on this blog.

This was a lesson for five year old kids in kindergarden, showing how this concept can be inculcated in kids very early in life. A bunch of five year olds were allowed to run around and play in their schoolyards wearing clean white socks. When they returned, each kid was told to collect all the little black and brown bits of dirt, grass, seeds and whatever else from their socks. The kids were then asked to sort out the dirt, separating the seeds from the dirt. At this age of course, the kids knew that seeds were something plants grew from, but couldn’t easily tell seeds from just regular, largish specks of dirt. But they were allowed to come up with their own ideas of what would be a seed and what would be dirt, and they created their own little piles of “seed” or “dirt”. Now, at this stage, you would think the teacher would just come in and correct the kids. But no, the exercise was taken further. First, the kids were asked to look at their seeds and dirt under a 5$ “microscope”, where they could get a clear idea of the shape and dimensions of their dirt or seeds. Then they could draw out the different patterns they saw, making their own guesses for dirt or seed from this, and perhaps intuitively looking for a regular pattern into which all seeds could fall into. Finally, in order to prove their hypothesis, the kids were asked to plant their “seeds” or “dirt” in seed free earth, keeping a record of what they planted, with a small drawing of what each speck planted looked like. If their separation was correct, the dirt would never grow into grass or a plant, but a majority of the seeds would grow in a few days into grass or sprouting plants. Then, the kids could see for themselves which specks were dirt, and which were seeds. So, with this fun little experiment, the kids were introduced to the concept of forming a hypothesis, and then testing the hypothesis. They could easily have just been shown seeds, and dirt, and told which was what, ending the lesson. But by allowing them to go through this process, it enabled them to understand that just an idea, however appealing it might sound, wasn’t necessarily true. It inculcated the idea of the “testability” of a hypothesis, and the concept that a statement that couldn’t be verified or tested wouldn’t fall under the scientific domain. It also showed them something about “falsifiability”, the fact that if something convincingly failed the test (say all pieces of dirt classified as “seed” not growing into plants) could suggest then that the idea could be false. Of course, this didn’t go into the limits of falsifiability and suchlike, but this is pretty good for five year olds isn’t it?

The broader idea here is that by doing this early in a child’s life, it would enable the child to understand the scientific method better, better enable the child to question simplistic statements or “theories” (thereby differentiating scientific theories from popular “theories”), and would help the child grow up into someone more rational and someone less likely to be swayed purely by emotion or passion.

So, coming back to Nehru’s scientific temper, I think these are the type of initiatives that we need, starting with kids at a very young age. There certainly are small efforts here and there, by wonderful NGOs or other organizations, but most of the efforts are few and far between. With education in India itself, most of the effort (or argument) appears to be for better colleges or research institutes or more IITs, but the biggest hole lies in our schools. It is a white elephant no one wants to touch. But only when that hole is plugged will terms like a nation with a scientific temper mean anything.