Monday, April 30

Birdsong on a quivering note

Punjab’s wetlands, the stopover for migratory birds, are fast drying up, writes Vikram Jit Singh in TehelekaThree decades ago, India’s legendary birdman Dr Salim Ali, under the aegis of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), spearheaded a pioneering study of migratory birds at the Harike wildlife sanctuary, putting it on the global conservation map. Harike became known as “Punjab’s Bharatpur”. The BNHS launched a survey-cum-census at Punjab’s smaller wetlands again last winter, and found a variety of common as well as globally endangered bird species. However the wetlands are themselves endangered, thanks to rampant encroachment. According to estimates, they have shrunk by 50 percent in the last decade alone.
Vibhu Prakash of the BNHS, along with a team from the Punjab Wildlife Preservation and Forests Department under Jitendra Sharma, conducted field studies at the Keshavpur, Shalla Pattan, Nangal and Dalla wetlands in Gurdaspur, Ropar and Hoshiarpur districts. The team found that these wetlands were vital halts for birds coming from the far north and as well as for those returning from the south.
Prakash said the wetlands were important, as there was scope for effective conservation measres here, unlike in similar areas in Jammu & Kashmir. The wetlands could also be of immense value in studying and tackling bird flu. “If there is a problem of bird flu in India, then the first signs will be seen in Punjab’s wetlands,’’ he said.
With its abundance of water bodies and marshes, Punjab has been recognised on the world wetlands map with three of its major sites — Harike, Ropar and Kanjili — listed under The Ramsar Convention, the international treaty on wetlands. Both Prakash and state Chief Wildlife Warden Kuldeep Singh feel that Nangal can also be brought under the Ramsar Convention. “Nangal has tremendous potential with its diversity of species, easy viewing and shallow waters which are rich in the wader birds. It could develop into an eco-tourism spot. One just needs to set up some bird watching hides to realise its potential,’’ Prakash said. Singh said the moves to declare Nangal a sanctuary were on and should bear results soon. Meanwhile Punjab’s wetlands at Harike is being affected by the polluted Sutlej waters. As result, experts say, some migratory birds are giving Harike a miss. Among BNHS’ significant finds last winter were the Sarus crane in Keshavpur and an assorted number of raptors (birds of prey) which are declining in numbers globally. The Sarus is on the list of critically endangered species and had in fact been declared extinct in Punjab by the Wildlife Institute of India. It was re-discovered on the Himachal Pradesh-Punjab border at the Swan river wetlands last year by the NGO Jagriti. The BNHS survey also found around 300 Common Cranes, which is considered a healthy number.
“Amongst the raptors we saw were the Imperial Eagle and the Greater Spotted Eagle, both declared globally-endangered. Both the Sarus crane and the raptors are indicator species for the health of wetlands,’’ Prakash said. The BNHS has identified agrarian encroachment and the use of pesticides as the biggest threats to the wetlands. Prakash does not rule out poisoning through pesticides by poachers as another serious threat. Sukhdeep Singh Bajwa, Gurdaspur’s honorary wildlife warden, has conducted extensive operations to nab poachers. He also feels that bird poisoning by poachers has been going on in Punjab on a large scale.

Sunday, April 15

Art of the matter

Precious art work at religious places managed by SGPC is being lost due to the callous attitude of the managing body, writes Dharmendra Rataul in The Indian Express

For an organisation that served as the custodian of Sikh art and heritage strung out across its gurdwaras, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) has ironically emerged as the biggest threat. Accused of causing damage to paintings, murals and frescoes in the name of kar sewa (voluntary service) at the Golden Temple and various gurdwaras in northern India, the religious body has come under attack for brutally defacing and neglecting the repositories of art.
“The SGPC and kar sewa workers have done the most damage to heritage buildings. The paint of murals and frescoes at the Golden Temple are peeling off and restoration has been carried out without regard to the original work,” says Sukhdev Singh, state convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Some the work, a mixture of Pahari, Mughal and Hindu style of the paintings, dates back to the late 17th century.
The SGPC, allege historians and critics, has allocated no budget for heritage protection, is ignorant of its historic buildings, has had its staff painting the murals white, destroying paintings and replacing traditional nanakshahi bricks in old buildings with marble and other stones. What’s needed is a heritage wing with experts to check the “destructive tide”, they say.
While admitting that there have been complaints, SGPC chief Jathedar Avtar Singh, said that care is taken not to destroy the Sikh heritage. He said he would take up the matter at the executive body meeting, which will be held in a month or so, and if everybody agreed, experts’ help would be sought to preserve the art and architecture of the gurdwaras.
While INTACH carried out the renovation of the upper domes and walls at the Golden Temple some years ago, it was suddenly stopped by the SGPC without any explanation. The UK-based Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewa Jatha also carried out repair work, but the original craftsmanship was not preserved. It’s not the high cost of renovation—which could run up to Rs 1 crore, say experts—that is the stumbling block. The SGPC has enough funds and Sikh NRIs are more than willing to help, but there is a lack of initiative on the part of the SGPC.
“When the Akal Takht was rebuilt after Operation Bluestar in 1984, art took the worst hit,” says Brij Bedi, a social worker who has captured the Golden Temple in its various avatars on his camera. The heritage wing, he suggests, should work as an advisory body for the SGPC staff and should be consulted while restoring art work.
Renowned artist Satpal Danish, whose forefathers were hired to beautify the walls of the Darbar Sahib, is also justifiably concerned. “Glazed tiles were used on the ground floor of the Gurdwara Baba Atal. We have voiced our concern, but there’s no one to listen,” he says.
“Many devotees are ignorant about this treasure. The paintings on the walls in the Golden Temple and at Baba Atal depict the janamsakhis of Guru Nanak Dev and other gurus,” says Sukhdev, adding that even books and documents at the Sikh Reference Library in the Golden Temple complex are not being preserved.
It may take the combined force of the Sikh devotees to rouse the SGPC into action.

Sunday, April 8

Langar, the community kitchen

Women-folk preparing meals in a Community kitchen in the village gurdwara. Vill Fatehgarh Chhanna, dt. Barnala. pic: jaypee

Thursday, April 5

30,701 reasons

Khalistan’s president’ died in a peaceful, prosperous Punjab. That’s India’s victory, according to an editorial in The Indian Express,
Today an entire generation of Indians takes peace in Punjab for granted and would find the term ‘Khalistan’ a curious construct. This in itself is testimony to the fact that the country has successfully left behind a tragic and bloody interregnum in its history. The death of the man who once proclaimed himself ‘president’ of the ‘republic of Khalistan’ and who had three decades ago hoisted the flag of Khalistan from Anandpur Sahib comes as a reminder of this emphatic closure.
Jagjit Singh Chohan’s idea of Khalistan was anchored on Hindu-Sikh antagonism. He died in a Punjab which had just voted to power — for the second time in 10 years — a Sikh-Hindu political alliance which signals that old fissures have healed. The failure of Chohan’s political project was in many respects the triumph of a democratic Indian state because it could not, ultimately, turn ordinary Sikhs against ordinary Hindus. Punjab of the eighties and early nineties was nightmare country: the excesses of Operation Blue Star, political assassinations, including that of a prime minister, unrelenting terrorist violence and the unravelling of peace initiatives led to the entire state, and the Sikh community in particular, paying a terrible price. Looking back, there came a point in this ugly war when the militants got the message that the Indian state had the strength, resources and determination to defeat them. It needed political will and patience to carry on with the fight until that inflexion point was reached. It needed political sagacity to recognise that moment and respond with civil society initiatives of reconciliation, including that of an election.
Today what was one of India’s most trouble-prone states is right there among the lights. In 2004-05, Punjab, with a per capita income of Rs 30,701, emerged as the country’s most prosperous state. It is inspiring and educating, this story of Punjab’s emergence from the brink.