Sunday 13 June 2021

‘Bad science’: Planting frenzy misses the grasslands for the trees

There’s a tree-planting frenzy everywhere you look. In August 2019, the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India announced that more than a million Indians had planted 220 million trees on a single day. A month earlier, Ethiopia had made a similar declaration: more than 350 million trees had been planted in one day.

“Always be suspicious of such big claims,” says William Bond, a grasslands researcher and emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “It’s taken for granted that tree planting is good. But look at what they’re planting, where they’re planting.”

Intuitively, planting trees makes sense, especially given the high levels of forest loss and fires around the world. Even in 2020, when it was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world lost 4.2 million hectares (10.4 million acres) of old-growth tropical forest in places such as the Brazilian Amazon – 12% higher compared to the previous year, according to data from the University of Maryland and Global Forest Watch. Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and forest clearing are also at an all-time high. Where pre-industrial levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide were about 278 parts per million (ppm), contemporary levels exceeded 420 ppm in April 2021, according to data from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawai’i.

Reforestation after logging in western U.S. Image by Downtowngal via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Planting trees, then, can seem like the easiest way to battle both problems – it has the potential to create “forests” and soak up excess carbon dioxide from the air. This narrative is what many campaigns are relying upon. Take for example, the one-trillion trees initiative launched by the World Economic Forum in January 2020. The project notes that “trees and forests are a critical part of the solution to the climate crisis and biodiversity collapse. That’s why we aim to mobilise, connect and empower the global reforestation community to conserve, restore and grow one trillion trees by 2030.” The Bonn Challenge aims to bring 350 million hectares (865 million acres) of degraded and deforested land into restoration by 2030. An offshoot of the Bonn Challenge, AFR100 (the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative) wants to restore 100 million hectares (247 million acres) of land in Africa by 2030.

Restoring lands sounds like a good idea. But there is a widespread perception that “restoration” means “planting forests,” says Giselda Durigan, a forestry engineer and plant biologist at the São Paulo State Forest Institute in Brazil.

“I am primarily a forestry engineer, and that is why I take those concepts so seriously,” Durigan says. A good forest-restoration project, she says, must recreate a forest ecosystem where it was a forest before, a process also called reforestation. But afforestation, or planting a new forest in an area where there was no forest to begin with, can often be problematic.

This is because planting forests requires a lot of land. And areas that were never forests historically, but seem open and available for planting trees, are usually another critical ecosystem: grasslands, savannas, shrublands, meadows, rocky outcrops, or dry lands. For long, though, forests have been viewed as the default natural vegetation. And large tracts of non-forest areas, including shrublands, grasslands and savannas, continue to be viewed as unproductive, or historically forested land that humans have degraded to barrenness.

Where is all the unforested land?

In 2019, a paper titled ‘The global tree restoration potential’, published in the journal Science, created a furor. The authors of the study estimated, using remote sensing and machine learning, that Earth had available land for about 900 million hectares (2.2 billion acres) of forest restoration. Foresting this tree-less land would help store 205 gigatonnes of carbon, they wrote, making it “our most effective climate change solution to date.”

The study was, however, based on various flawed assumptions and data, several independent groups of researchers countered. Among the many problems, one group noted, was that the study had relied heavily on foresting grasslands and savannas.

A few years earlier, the World Resources Institute had published the Atlas of Forest Landscape Restoration Opportunities in collaboration with the IUCN. This influential map identified more than 2 billion hectares (5 billion acres) of land as presenting an opportunity for forest restoration. But subsequent analysis by independent researchers including Durigan showed that the Atlas ­had classified 900 million hectares of grassy biomes as “deforested” or “degraded.”

“They mapped the major game parks of Africa as degraded and deforested, defining degradation as anything that damages trees,” Bond says.

The Cuyaba dwarf frog (Eupemphix nattereri) is only found in Brazil’s Cerrado. It has a unique defense mechanism: mooning potential predators in the hopes of scaring them away with its giant rump eye spots. Image by Felipe Gomez via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5).

Authors of both maps countered by saying that their maps simply point out areas that can be potentially forested. Each area, however, needed to be assessed individually.

But critics say that by marking broad areas as potential sites for restoration – a term usually conflated with planting forests – the maps prompted a flurry of massive tree-planting campaigns and projects around the world. AFR100, for instance, is aiming to plant trees across 100 million hectares of mostly savanna in Africa by 2030, write Bond and his colleagues in a 2019 paper published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

“These maps have been extremely damaging,” Bond says. “It was really superficial, bad science, but then international policies are feeding into this. The vast areas then became the targets for reforestation, supported by the World Bank, the IUCN, the German government and so on.”

At the heart of many of the disagreements lie muddled-up ideas. When is an area a “forest”? What is a “degraded” forest? How is it different from a grassland or savanna with trees? How far back in time do you go to see what the original habitat of the area was like? Does a forest always trump a non-forested area?

Degraded or naturally unforested?

The WRI Atlas considered all areas with more than 10% tree cover as a form of forest; this is the broad definition also used by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Only land with less tree cover was considered to be either naturally non-forested or converted to some other land use.

Now, deforestation and degradation of forests can create open areas with few trees. But non-forested areas like grasslands and savannas, too, naturally have trees. Sometimes the trees are scattered, sometimes they occur in dense lots. This means that when viewed from above, many of these areas will have more than 10% tree cover and look like degraded forests.

“You’ve got to be careful of the word forest and what it means – the definition of forest is critical,” Bond says. “The definition provided in global terms by the FAO is more than 10% tree cover, which includes nearly all the world’s savannas, which are not forests at all.”

If you’re thinking just in terms of tree cover in an area, it can be hard to distinguish between a “degraded forest” and a naturally non-forested area. But there are better ways to do so. Let’s consider tropical savannas. In a paper entitled ‘When is a ‘forest’ a savanna, and why does it matter?’ published in Global Ecology and Biogeography in 2011, Jayashree Ratnam, an ecologist at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, India, and her colleagues recommend looking carefully at the kinds of plants growing on the land, and the kinds of evolutionary adaptations they show.

Tropical savannas, such as the Serengeti in Tanzania, the Cerrado in Brazil or the grasslands of central India, they write, are dominated by species of grasses that use a form of photosynthesis called C4. These grasses don’t like shade, which means that the trees that grow in these landscapes are typically short and have smaller leaf areas and open crowns that let sunlight filter to the ground. By contrast, a tropical forest tends to have grasses that use more shade-tolerant C3 photosynthesis because trees there grow tall and wide and have denser canopies.

This may look like a meadow of small groundcover plants (A), but it’s actually the canopy of a Jacaranda decurrens tree in Brazil’s Cerrado. In addition to leaves, the tree also flowers aboveground (B). Like conventional trees, the underground branches of J. decurrens are woody (C). Photo courtesy of Alves et al., 2013.

The C4 grasses in savannas are highly flammable. The wet season prods the grasses to grow long and thick, while the prolonged dry seasons turn them into potent fuel for fire. Savanna fires, however, tend to be low on the ground, burning the grasses and young saplings, but not big or hot enough to scorch adult trees. Once the fires ebb, the grasses regenerate quickly. It’s perhaps counterintuitive, but many savannas need fires to remain savannas. Even the trees that grow in these areas have adaptations like thick bark to live with fire.

Fires in forests, on the other hand, tend to be very hot, burning not just the understory but the crowns of tall, adult trees as well. They spread rapidly to other trees, and can turn catastrophic. In fact, Ratnam and colleagues note that many areas in South Asia, currently classified as tropical dry forests, such as Bandipur Tiger Reserve in southern India, have such C4-dominated grasses with interspersed fire-resistant tree species. These areas are more like savannas than forests. “Having worked for a while in African savannas and being very familiar with the idea that mixed tree-grass ecosystems were distinctive from forests, when we returned to India and started visiting various field sites, we were struck by the similarities of these sites with African savannas,” Ratnam told Mongabay India in 2019.

Apart from needing fire and light, savannas also have a long association with animals that graze, studies have found. They’ve evolved to support both large, wild herbivores like wildebeest, rhinoceros, zebras and antelopes, as well as nomadic pastoralists whose livestock feed on the grasses and small plants and keep the savanna ecosystem an open one.

Still, for many, the image of a fire, or of a goat pulling out young saplings, might seem like a “disturbance” that humans have introduced to forests, resulting in forest degradation. Moreover, tropical savannas and forests can often occur side by side, within the same wet and warm climatic conditions. That raises the question: did savannas exist before humans started cutting down forests, or did humans degrade forests into savannas?

Current evidence suggests that many of the world’s tropical savannas are ancient. In Africa, for example, studies have found that savannas started spreading 10 million to 15 million years ago and were extensive by around 3 million years ago – long before humans started clearing large tracts of forests. Even in Asia, evidence suggests that these habitats existed before human arrival.

If you had to look at more recent history, a study from South Africa found that there were around 471,100 hectares (1.16 million acres) of “forests” in the country in 1750; the authors consider this to be a baseline, before humans started widespread conversion of land for other uses. Yet, AFR100 has a reforestation target of 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) in the country. “So the target has got nothing to do with restoring forest. It was an arbitrary number, it was pulled out of a hat. It had no relationship to the real need to reforest areas that had been deforested,” Bond says.

AFR100 did not respond to a request for comment, but on its website describes forest landscape restoration as “more than just planting trees” and mentions including savannah restoration as part of its commitment.

Collateral damage

Much of the recent emphasis on planting trees comes from international agencies and individuals from the Global North, and is based on the assumption that tree-less areas store very little carbon. Forests, on the other hand, are considered miracle carbon sequesterers.

Forests are great at storing carbon; there’s little controversy there. In fact, the loss of tropical forests contributes some 5 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, which means that halting deforestation and reducing fossil fuel emissions are two powerful actions to take, if tackling the climate crisis is the goal. But Durigan says that tree-planting programs often “create the illusion that if we can plant trees in the whole world, we’ll neutralise all carbon emissions.”

For the goal of storing carbon, planting forests on grasslands or shrublands, however, can backfire.

In general, forests store most of their carbon in woody trunks and leaves aboveground. But much of the carbon in grasslands is in the soil (in extensive root systems of the grasses as well as decaying organic matter). In fact, grasslands, covering a quarter of the Earth’s surface, can store up to 30% of the world’s carbon, per some estimates. “Replacing savannas, grasslands and wetlands by tree plantation[s] is expected to decrease carbon storage in the soil, despite increasing aerial biomass,” Durigan says.

There is also the question of fire. Afforestation projects in grasslands or savannas have rarely planted “forests” of native tree species, and typically involved establishing monoculture plantations of fast-growing exotic species like eucalyptus or pine. These trees burn very well, and in case of fires, can turn devastating.

“Since fire is a natural factor in savannas, it will happen in the dry season despite human efforts to avoid,” Durigan says. In open savanna systems, such fires usually cause low carbon emissions and this carbon is quickly captured back when the grasses and plants regenerate after the fire, she adds. But “firestorms in forest plantations will irreversibly send huge amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.”

Tree-planting programs and governments say they’re paying attention to the kinds of species they grow. But it isn’t hard to imagine that plantations of eucalyptus and pine trees will still be common, especially with the kinds of targets they want to achieve in a short period of time. “Planting indigenous trees is slow and difficult,” Bond says. “We often don’t know how to get them to grow, and you can’t plant them over a million hectares. It’s difficult.”

On the other hand, growing large populations of pines and eucalyptus is easy; people have been doing it for a long time, Bond adds. Madagascar’s latest mass tree-planting drive, for example, includes exotic species like eucalyptus and acacia along with some fruit trees. But with a warming climate making droughts and heat waves worse, establishing plantations on vast tracts of grasslands could put the very forests you’re trying to protect at risk.

“Unbelievably, people are planting eucalyptus in Madagascar, next to the last remnants of their forests, and they’re bringing fire right into those forests,” Bond says. “It just indicates such ignorance. When the fires do happen, which they will happen undoubtedly, they’re increasing the risk to the forest massively.”

Impacts of tree planting on climate change are complicated by other factors like albedo, the amount of sunlight that’s reflected back into space without being absorbed as heat by the Earth’s surface. Since land surface covered by forests is much darker than if covered by grasses or even crops, afforestation can lead to a decrease in albedo, Durigan says, which can lead to an increase, instead of the desired decrease, in air temperature.

Afforestation of grasslands, shrublands, or even native forests with plantations, a widespread practice for timber, are also known to create water woes. Several studies have found that, in general, such plantations consume more water than the original vegetation, which, in turn, reduces flow of rivers downstream. Long-term experiments have found this to be the case in South Africa, for example, which has extensive areas, including montane grasslands and shrublands, under eucalyptus plantations. Based on these results, the country formulated legislation to restrict afforestation with plantations.

Then there are the more obvious impacts of converting open, airy grasslands, savannas and shrublands into plantation forests: the loss of unique biodiversity. Losing savanna grasslands can mean losing animals like wildebeest, giraffes, rhinos, lions, blackbucks and the great Indian bustard.

So, planting thousands of seedlings in naturally open areas can, in fact, be disastrous if done too quickly without adequate evaluation. But there is value in planting trees in non-forested areas like agricultural lands, or in helping native trees in degraded grasslands and arid areas regenerate.

Restoring degraded habitats

Let’s consider Regreening Africa, a program that aims to “reverse land degradation on 1 million hectares [2.5 million acres] across 8 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.” Since the demand for agricultural land is a major driver of deforestation in sub-Saharan Africa, the program focuses on restoring degraded lands in agricultural farms and community lands by integrating trees into the landscape. Not just any trees, but trees that the communities want.

“Rule number one is let natural regeneration occur, especially in areas where you don’t have a lot of human pressure,” says Susan Chomba, a social scientist and program manager of Regreening Africa. “It’s going to encourage not just the tree species themselves, but other kinds of biodiversity that naturally exists in that area. It’s less expensive, and it’s the most kind of effective way of letting nature heal itself.”

But where there is human pressure and natural regeneration might not work well, the program asks a fundamental question: what is it that needs to be restored?

The answer isn’t based on scientific measurements alone, but also on what farmers and pastoralists in the area want. 

Do they want more fruit trees to earn more income? Do they want more water in the area? Do they want the soil on their lands to be more productive, and wash away less frequently when it rains? “If fruit trees is the end goal, we need to understand what kind of diversity of food resources are suitable for that area and are needed by farmers,” Chomba says. “If farmers want water, we try to figure out what kind of tree species native to these ecosystems can help restore hydrological functions.”

Shola grassland in India’s Kudremukh National Park. Image by Kousik Nandy via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

It’s not been easy, Chomba says, because governments and various NGOs still tend to hand over hundreds of eucalyptus saplings to farmers to grow on their lands. Farmers, too, accept these species as the default trees to plant. This was the case in Rwanda, the team found.

“We engaged with the local district and subdistrict government, and we found that most of the seedlings being prepared by the cooperatives were eucalyptus,” Chomba says. “When we discussed this, they said, ‘Oh, but if you grow other kinds of seedlings the farmers are not going to be interested. These are the ones that farmers are interested in’.”

But when the team started holding discussions with the farmers themselves, with the government officials present, the narrative shifted. “We asked them, ‘Could you please tell us historically what kind of tree species existed in these ecosystems?’ And my goodness, they were naming hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of tree species and their functions.”

The farmers named species that were extremely important to them for their medicinal value. Some species gave them important food, fruits and nuts. Then there were tree species, whose presence indicated there was water around. When the team asked them if they would like to see these species come back in their areas, there was a resounding “yes.” Eucalyptus was good for timber and firewood, they said, but they would like to see the other ecosystem services, like more water, return to their lands. Chomba’s team then worked with the government, cooperatives and farmers to revive some of the native species.

“In some areas in Rwanda now, farmers really demand these indigenous tree species,” Chomba says. “We saw a big transformation there, not because of something that was completely out of big scientific innovation, but by engaging with the local knowledge in communities to look back at what used to exist in their landscape and what they’d like to see.”

Such engagement is uncommon, though. In India, for example, the law requires “compensatory afforestation” whenever infrastructure or mining projects involve cutting down forest areas; the forest loss has to be “compensated” for by either establishing a plantation over an equivalent area or by depositing money with the forest department to do so. In a country where land is an incredibly valuable resource, marginal communities often end up losing their lands for these “compensatory forests,” usually without their knowledge or any form of consultation on what the communities might want.

Even if the local communities are consulted, whether they will support those trees’ growth for years to come and care for them depends on whether they see more value in the trees remaining standing, or in cutting them down or not tending to them. Land tenure, where the farmers have an ownership in the trees and land, can provide that value, examples from Africa have shown. “Everybody now knows that land tenure is a big problem,” Chomba says. “People also know the solution, but they don’t want to get into that because it means you have to engage with the local authorities for a long period of time in trying to change the laws. It’s not as simple as planting a tree and saying I planted a million trees. So we need to be able to understand the policy bottlenecks and be prepared to do the hard work to change them.”

Overall, agroforestry, if done well and keeping in mind the local context, can achieve lots: it can increase the productivity of soil, improve microclimate as well as water and food security, and build resilience to climate change. 

But whether these benefits actually materialise needs to be monitored systematically, Chomba adds.

Durigan says planting trees in farmlands is a good way to restore degraded lands. But she doesn’t consider agroforestry to be true reforestation or afforestation.

“I do like productive systems with trees spaced, especially in degraded land, no matter if it was not a forest before. It is better than monocultures,” she says. “But agroforestry does not result in a true forest. It is not afforestation nor reforestation, since both are expected to create a continuous canopy and a forest structure. Agroforestry is a productive system where trees and crops share the space, aiming at improving degraded soils or to have an ecologically ‘healthier’ land use.”

Not everyone loves a forest

Forests are culturally important for many people around the world. Dense, mysterious forests have been a part of stories, nursery rhymes, poems and movies. But those who live in areas that have naturally been non-forested – grasslands in India, rolling meadows in Scotland, Cerrado in Brazil – don’t necessarily want them.

The loss of open areas to forests or plantations can mean losing an entirely unique landscape.

“We cannot see the horizon anymore,” Durigan says. “We cannot see the blue sky, the rain falling, the mountains and the valleys, we cannot feel the breeze on our faces. Unfortunately, this ecosystem service is not perceived by the urban society.”

The Shola grasslands atop the mountains of the Western Ghats in India, home to the pastoral Toda community, for instance, now have extensive stands of invasive acacia trees that have spread from plantations that were originally established by the British who settled there. With the trees proliferating, the community’s traditional cattle rearing has become difficult. Unlike the grasslands that made spotting predators easier, the trees now provide cover for carnivores, increasing human-animal conflict. There’s been loss of grasses that the community used in their daily lives; wetlands have disappeared; tribe members are increasingly forced to migrate to other places for work.

Bond says he loves trees, but he doesn’t want them everywhere. “My garden is full of trees; I love them,” he says. 

“But a forest is a dank dark place. Here in my part of the world, we love the open spaces too. We love grass. This is my mantra: ‘the right tree / in the right place / for the right reasons’.”


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Veldman, J. W., Aleman, J. C., Alvarado, S. T., Anderson, T. M., Archibald, S., Bond, W. J., … Zaloumis, N. P. (2019). Comment on “The global tree restoration potential”. Science, 366(6463), eaay7976. doi:10.1126/science.aay7976

Veldman, J. W., Overbeck, G. E., Negreiros, D., Mahy, G., Le Stradic, S., Fernandes, G. W., … Bond, W. J. (2015). Where tree planting and forest expansion are bad for biodiversity and ecosystem services. BioScience, 65(10), 1011-1018. doi:10.1093/biosci/biv118

Bond, W. J., Stevens, N., Midgley, G. F., & Lehmann, C. E. R. (2019). The trouble with trees: Afforestation plans for Africa. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 34(11), 963-965. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2019.08.003

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(Source: Mongabay)

Saturday 12 June 2021

Mojilpur clay dolls, endangered examples of an ancient Bengali craft

The ancient settlement of Jaynagar-Mojilpur stands at the gateway of the Adi Ganga in the Sunderbans. Most Bengalis know the twin towns for ‘Joynagarer Moa’, a seasonal sweet made of date-palm jaggery and Kanakchur ‘khoi’ (popped rice, akin to popcorn). That apart, Joynagar-Mojilpur is also famous for its ancient Dhanwantary Kali Temple, and its status as one of Bengal’s ancient human settlements or ‘janapadas’, which came up along the old Bhagirathi channel until around the 16th century.

However, one other thing that this area ought to be famous for is its exquisitely crafted clay dolls. In many respects, the Mojilpur clay dolls, as they are called, differ from the fired-clay dolls made in other parts of Bengal. Inevitably, and sadly, not too many Mojilpur clay doll makers are to be found today. In fact, the number may soon be reduced to just one.

Crafting clay dolls is one of Bengal’s ancient art forms, and over the centuries, different parts of the state have come up with their own unique variations of the art. Krishnanagar in Nadia district, for instance, produces dolls that are remarkable for their realism and perfect finish, with their subjects coming from everyday life, work, moods and characters - farmers, weavers, rag pickers, basket makers, and umbrella makers. In Medinipur, we find Patua, Shilet, Hingli, Musk, and Jhumjhumi dolls, all of which are indigenous forms. So are the Tasu and Goalini dolls from Malda and Murshidabad districts. The Heemputul or Hingul dolls of Bishnupur in Bankura district represent yet another very popular variation of the art. 

However, the method of crafting Mojilpur dolls is different from all the aforementioned varieties. To begin with, their insides are hollow, with two parts of a doll being joined together. The idols of gods and goddesses which are used to offer puja are not fired. Instead, they are dried in the sun and then painted. Other dolls, however, go through the usual firing process. The figures are rounded, painted with vibrant colours and coated with Gurjan (balsam) oil to enhance their lustre. Brushstrokes similar to those found in Kalighat ‘pata’s also give Mojilpur dolls their unique identity. 

In his lifetime, legendary artisan Manmatha Das created more than 105 moulds, including divine figures such as Narayan, an intoxicated Shiva, Kali, Nandi-Bhringi, Radha-Krishna, Saraswati, Krishna-Kali, Vishnu’s Varaha avatar, Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra, Ganesh, Jagaddhatri, Durga as little Ganesh’s mother, Krishna’s mother Yashoda, and Krishna annihilating Kaliya Naag. He also created numerous moulds of ordinary people from everyday life. Even animals and birds were part of his vast repertoire of moulds. His nephew Panchugopal Das was the epitome of a born artist, who would even craft large Durga idols in his inimitable style. Panchugopal had no formal training in doll making, but learnt from watching his legendary uncle at work. 

A distinct trait of Mojilpur dolls is the crafting of folk deities specific to the Sundarbans, such as Dakshin Rai, Bonbibi, Narayani Ateshwar, Panchanand, Baro Khan Ghazi, Basanta Roy, Peer Gorachand, Jhola Bibi, Shitala, and Kalu Rai. These deities are still worshipped in local villages and the demand for these dolls has not waned. 

One very attractive feature of these dolls is their eyes, which are drawn differently. Traditionally, the clay models of Bengal depict large, wide, elongated eyes that look similar to bamboo or neem leaves and are referred to as ‘potol-chera chokh’. It was Panchugopal’s grandfather Haranath Das, a brilliant artisan once again, who deviated from the norm and created eyes that resemble those found in Kalighat ‘pata’s, which Haranath would often create with a single brushstroke. 

Unfortunately, with the demise of such master craftsmen as Manmatha and Panchugopal, this unique art form is almost on the verge of extinction. Today, these unique clay dolls are manufactured single handedly by Manmatha’s grandson Sambhu Das. The ancestors of the Das family had migrated to Bengal from Jessore (a district in south-west Bangladesh) several decades ago. Shambhu is currently the only artist in Bengal who still makes these beautiful dolls by hand, and is struggling to keep this superb art from going extinct. 

(Source: Get Bengal)

Friday 11 June 2021

40 years after AIDS, remembering Dominic D’Souza, the first Indian diagnosed with HIV infection

 D’Souza’s legacy as an activist far outstrips the treatment it receives in the film ‘My Brother… Nikhil’.

June 2021 will mark the 40th anniversary of the discovery of AIDS, a sobering reality in the face of the current Covid-19 pandemic. While the Indian variant of the coronavirus continues to take its toll in a deadly second wave, Goa has presently recorded the highest rate of infections in India despite being its smallest state.

This dubious distinction sits alongside another virus-related history-making association with Goa. May 27 marks the death anniversary of Dominic D’Souza from AIDS-related causes in 1992 soon after being diagnosed, in Goa, as the first person in India to have become infected with HIV.

Dominic D'Souza.

Much of what has been written about D’Souza’s diagnosis has veered towards the sensational, obscuring his life’s work as an AIDS activist. Take this newspaper account from 2017 on the 25th anniversary of his death:

 “On 14 February 1989, D’Souza … was summoned [by the] … police… [H]e was handcuffed and taken to Asilo Hospital in Mapusa, where doctors gathered around him. They didn’t touch him but asked him several questions: Did he have sex with prostitutes, was he a homosexual, did he inject drugs? It was only when he saw a nurse pass by holding a file with the words ‘AIDS’ printed on its cover that D’Souza realized that he was HIV-positive.”  

If this recounting of events appears cinematic, consider that the report also highlights a commemorative event that was held in Mumbai to mark D’Souza’s death anniversary, one that included the screening of the 2005 film My Brother… Nikhil. The gay-themed film, directed by the mononymous Onir, fictionalises the events of D’Souza’s life and death as the first person in India found to be HIV-positive, yet contains no allusion to the inspiration it drew from the activist’s life.

A remarkable elision

Writing in 2017 about the genesis of his film, Onir reminisced:

 “And how can the stigma go? Through understanding…no other way. Maybe cinema helps. As for My Brother Nikhil (my 2005 film on the life of D’Souza), it’s more the case that the subject found me instead of the other way around. I was hosting a documentary talk show … when I came across D’Souza’s story. It was so powerful that it lingered and I couldn’t shake it off. I had been working on another script, which was supposed to be my first film, but I was now consumed by the urge to make this movie.”  

For Onir, D’Souza was never more than someone to fictionalise in a film. Onir admitted as much in the afterword to the 2011 published version of his screenplay: “I remembered having edited some documentary material on Dominique De Souza…But I did not want to tell Dominique’s story. Nikhil was born out of Dominique but ultimately became a different person.”

Not only does Onir get D’Souza’s name wrong here, but that name is altogether absent in the film’s credits. If D’Souza’s story was so inspirational to Onir, what is to be made of this remarkable elision? 

Ultimately, the film plays as an act of co-option through the omission of D’Souza’s name for the purpose of foregrounding, essentially, a gay-themed story that is exclusive of D’Souza.

Because narrative is built upon the history of a real person, it takes the form of a biopic. But even as biopics are expected to be fictionalisations of reality, artifice exceeds the truth in Onir’s retelling by never acknowledging the person the film is ostensibly about within the filmic vehicle itself.

The genre of the biopic is used in the case of My Brother… Nikhil to disappear the real, for its investment is not in telling D’Souza’s history as something that actually happened. Rather, My Brother… Nikhil takes D’Souza’s story and accords it other meanings – it shifts the semiotics of HIV-infection from the real-life person’s struggle to the struggles of being gay and Indian. It is then only fitting that D’Souza’s name is never to be seen anywhere in the film.

Undoubtedly, Onir’s choice to transform D’Souza’s story for the express purpose of making a statement about gay discrimination arises from the lacuna around D’Souza’s sexuality – an absence the film must obscure while using his story to tell a tale about a specific kind of sexuality. D’Souza’s sexuality has often been the subject of speculation, conjecture readily giving way to the assuredness of the activist’s queerness.

Dominic D’Souza.

A case in point is Benjamin Law’s 2014 reportage of his conversation with Anand Grover, the lawyer who took up D’Souza’s discrimination case:


“Anand had worked extensively in cases relating to homosexuality and HIV since the late 1980s, when he represented Dominic D’Souza, a gay man who was fired after being diagnosed as HIV-positive … After D’Souza died, Anand became obsessed. Gay men approached him for representation if they were being blackmailed.“

Though Grover is Law’s source of information about D’Souza, Law does not say that it was the lawyer who told him of D’Souza’s sexuality; this void around Law’s source of information raises questions about its credibility.

For Law, it is sufficient that Grover took on cases of homosexual- and HIV-discrimination to then decide that these two requirements are synonymous and proof of D’Souza’s sexuality. Law’s book is titled Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East, a tongue-in-cheek choice of name. An Australian of Asian origin, Law’s book is an attempt to understand gay sexuality in Asia, with Law himself serving as a cultural informant between West and East. 

“Research” of this nature continues to demonstrate how fact and fiction dissolve into one another so glibly when it comes to the matter of D’Souza’s life.

The popularisation of D’Souza’s story is not solely the territory of Onir’s film, as far as fictionalisations go. When a character in The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi 2009 novel, discovers he has been infected with the HIV virus, he laments to his boyfriend: “Do you know how they treat people like me? A guy in Goa was locked up in a sanatorium when they found out he had it.”

Apparently calling upon the stigma attached to being HIV-positive in India, the character’s allusion is an obvious reference to what happened to D’Souza. Shanghvi’s novel, like Onir’s film, abstracts D’Souza’s life to emotionally attach the trauma of HIV-infection to the plight of gay men. In both cases, the invisibilisation of D’Souza still relies on the notoriety of the real-life events and the plausibility of HIV-infection due to homosexuality.

That Onir chose D’Souza’s story as the vehicle through which to raise awareness about the plight of middle-class gay men in India springs from the convenient linkages the director makes between what happened to D’Souza and HIV/AIDS-discrimination generally, these matters slipping into one another because of their possible association with sexuality. If for these reasons, then, it is immaterial if D’Souza was gay, for his story is meant to serve the greater good required of it by the director as self-positioned gay rights advocate.

In this vein, the film’s purposeful deployment of D’Souza’s story is about cleaving AIDS activism from gay rights activism, despite the relationship between the two. This is equally a historical distortion of D’Souza’s own labours as an advocate for the rights of those with HIV/AIDS; his Positive People, which My Brother… Nikhil itself references (renaming it People Positive) is an NGO that serves anyone with the disease, regardless of sexuality.

As a figure whose struggles as India’s Patient Zero, in the era of the global recognition of the AIDS crisis, were nationally known, D’Souza’s life lends itself to the cinematic as being the story of an individual who courageously fought a legal battle against discrimination. It is this individuality that My Brother… Nikhil borrows and transforms.

In Onir’s film, the political implications of the protagonist Nikhil’s HIV-diagnosis develops as My Brother… Nikhil progresses. Prior to this, as the title itself suggests, My Brother… Nikhil occupies itself in presenting an intimate portrait of a brother, but also a son and lover through the personal reminisces offered by the main character’s inner circle. That this young man who loves his family and is a source of pride to them must deal with later disapprobation is what operationalises the intimacy the film develops, connecting it with the film’s political agenda.

In the sharing of the personal through the narration of the film by Nikhil’s intimates, My Brother… Nikhil offers its audience a central character who could very much be like them in his commonplace attachment to loved ones. Consequently, this expands the potential of My Brother… Nikhil beyond being a film only about gay issues; it is then also positioned as a film meant for more than an exclusively gay audience, even as its motivation is to champion gay rights.

Dominic D’Souza.

That an otherwise ordinary person could face discrimination because of a health problem, makes Nikhil’s struggle, in My Brother… Nikhil, the stuff of quotidian existence; that, like D’Souza, Nikhil decides to turn a personal struggle into an opportunity for advocacy then elevates the personal, and intimate, into the political. By conferring upon Nikhil’s journey from ordinary citizen to public advocate the storyline of the genesis of HIV/AIDS in India, as well as the attendant issue of gay rights that My Brother… Nikhil develops by borrowing from D’Souza’s AIDS-activism, the personal is not only made public but also heroic. Yet, while creating a cinematic and tragic hero in Nikhil for the cause of gay rights, D’Souza’s story as an early pioneer of AIDS-activism in South Asia is cleaved from the very film it inspired.

Even though it borrows the contexts and settings of D’Souza’s Goa to create itself, My Brother… Nikhil makes Nikhil and his family – the Kapoors – ethnically part-North Indian, so that they appear more Indian than had they been distinctly Goan. Part of how My Brother… Nikhil eclipses D’Souza’s story is also then in its misrepresentation of his ethnic background, and the obscuring of the Catholic cultural background of his family, in order to create a cognisably Indian filmic milieu for the consumption of a Hindi-speaking national audience.

Because the Kapoors must be identifiably Indian, the fact that the D’Souzas had spent a significant amount of time in East Africa is something the film would have no room for. The D’Souzas’ East African past is no anomaly given the history of Goan travel and residence in that part of the world from colonial times. Were the film to acknowledge such circuits of Goan identity as they are informed by the extra-national existences of Goans might have perhaps allowed it to gesture at shared postcolonial legacies and the still looming crisis of AIDS in the developing world.

Re-centring D’Souza’s Goanness may allow for a rethinking of the possibility of decolonial queer activism in South Asia, for it is precisely the far more complex reality of the figure of D’Souza, which My Brother… Nikhil leaves out, that may present a queer politics of affiliation unbeholden to the concept of nation and nationalism.

While My Brother… Nikhil uses the form of the biopic to represent the HIV/AIDS-stigmatisation of gay middle-class men in an Indian setting, the film would not have been more judicious in actually being a biopic about Dominic D’Souza. The same is also true of any claim that could be made to the veracity of D’Souza’s sexuality, for a film about HIV/AIDS could also be about gay identity. D’Souza’s legacy continues to exist despite its misrepresentations in Onir’s film, so there is little that a possibly more “authentic” biopic could offer.

Instead, the larger question to be grappled with is how the politics of advocacy, even in the representation of the marginal, can be manipulated cinematically. That cinematic representations of such nature limit the potential of AIDS-activism, and especially in how its advocates could be remembered and their legacies deployed, is worth more complex consideration for their political possibilities.

Certainly, D’Souza’s legacy far outstrips the treatment it receives in Onir’s film. Grover’s defence of D’Souza, when he battled the discrimination he faced for being HIV positive, in turn led to the lawyer drafting an HIV/AIDS Bill that was passed in April 2017. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Prevention and Control) Act, 2017 thus became the first national HIV law in South Asia that could potentially protect HIV-positive people against discrimination. The afterlife of D’Souza’s activism therefore persists, a legacy that continues to be of importance 40 years into the challenge of HIV/AIDS.

R Benedito Ferrão is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at William and Mary, Virginia, USA.

Adapted, with permission, from Twenty-five Years after Dominic D’Souza: What Happens When Your Queer Icon Refuses to Be?” by R Benedito Ferrão, pp. 61-83, in Gender, Sexuality, Decolonization: South Asia in the World Perspective, edited by Ahonaa Roy (Routledge 2021).

(Source: Scroll)

Thursday 10 June 2021

India’s vibrant and idiosyncratic truck art

 The drivers go to great lengths to beautify their trucks, which are also their homes.

An apsara dances in a diaphanous skirt, small yellow daffodils blossom, a menagerie of tigers and elephants roam in the midst of wing-flapping birds — all of these come to life together on the steel panels of India’s trucks. Hand-painted symbols, elaborate patterns, and quirky slogans with bold typography coalesce into vibrant, idiosyncratic artworks. Truck art has been a part of India’s visual lexicon and heritage for decades. Highways transform into runways for chunky vehicles drenched in hues of tangerine, canary, plum, and jade green.

A truck driver poses in his truck (all images courtesy All India Permit)

In India, trucks play a pivotal role in transporting heavy-duty goods, journeying for endless kilometers across the country. Most drivers are on the road for weeks, sometimes months at a stretch, living a nomadic life and often sleeping and eating in their vehicles. Their trucks become their travel companions and their homes, and the drivers go to great lengths to beautify them. They work closely with truck artists, describing the illustrations they would like to see.

Sanjay ji, a truck artist is at work. Newspapers are used to block areas which will be painted separately. (photo by Manjot Singh Sodhi)

“A good artist should have a steady hand and an intuitive understanding of color-pairing,” said Raj Dongre, in Hindi, over the phone. He has been embellishing trucks with his designs for over three decades. Before the country was engulfed by the pandemic, he worked in a truck-building workshop in Nagpur. In the summer heat, wearing scruffy clothes, he would dip his brush in colors of indigo and green, and glide it across the truck’s sturdy body, defining the fine feather wisps of a peacock. His hands moved with adept flourish, while songs from old Bollywood films played on his mobile phone.

Inside a trucker’s cabin. The drivers, who are on the road for months, decorate the interiors of their cabins, where they sleep and eat. (photo by Manjot Singh Sodhi)

From golden-crested eagles to ruby-lipped roses, he has drawn them all. The handiwork on the truck — from the crown to the number-plate — is a patchwork of the truckers’ emotions, aspirations, faiths, and cultural roots. “One of the common motifs painted on trucks is a white cow nuzzling its calf,” explained Dongre. “It reflects the driver’s yearning for his mother while he is on the road, or the understanding that he will always be protected by her. The eagle represents speed, but also the feeling that no matter how far it flies, its eye will always be towards its home.”

A superstitious totem often seen on the bumpers is the nazar battu: the mug of a sharp-toothed demon with matted hair, believed to ward off the evil eye. Graffitied catchphrases like “Horn OK Please” and “Use Dipper at Night” (the latter encourages other drivers to dim their headlights at dusk) are now an inextricable part of the truck nomenclature.


A truck artist with his paint cans. The artists work without gloves and use turpentine to remove paint from their hands. (photo by Ishika Aggarwal)

The graceful art form had an unlikely beginning. Cargo trucks predominantly began plying Indian roads during the World Wars. Deployed as armory vehicles, they sported a mean camouflage look. “After the Second World War, however, the trucks were made available to the public for transportation of goods and passengers,” explained Farid Bawa over the phone, an Indian designer based in the Netherlands who collaborates with truck drivers back home. 

A trucker’s love for his country, “India is Great” (photo by Farid Bawa)

Bawa’s family is deeply rooted in the truck business: he grew up watching over a dozen skilled artists at his family-owned truck yard. “Anecdotally, it’s said that because the vehicles looked scary, not many people wanted to sit in them,” he shared. So, the local artists stepped up with their bright paint cans and gave them their campy avatar.

‘Cheel’ (Kite) by Mohammed Shabir (photo by Farid Bawa)

Over the last six years or so, however, he has noticed a precipitous dip in the art form. With the arrival of pre-painted trucks and radium stickers, homegrown artists from small towns and villages whose livelihoods depend on it are being forced to find work elsewhere. 

A freshly painted truck at a truck yard called “Bunty & Anand Body Works” in Nagpur, India (photo by Manjot Singh Sodhi)

“Hand-art is getting neglected,” said truck artist Akhlaq Ahmad, who has been in the field for the last 20 years. “Many drivers prefer pasting radium stickers all over their trucks, because it’s new.” The adhesive-backed pictograms are cheap, and the truckers save time by slapping them on, rather than waiting three to four days for the paint to dry. 

Ahmad frowns upon the stickers, noting that “with hand-drawn art, each truck driver can tell his story. In comparison, the radium stickers are all alike and don’t offer any kind of uniqueness.”

Raj Dongre painting the “nazar battu” to keep the evil energies away. (photo by Manjot Singh Sodhi)

To preserve and promote the country’s ephemeral art tradition, Bawa launched All India Permit (AIP) in 2018, an art project which collaborates with local truck artists. AIP supplies them with Cold Rolled steel sheets on which they paint their vibrant creations. In turn, these pieces become one-of-a-kind collectors’ items, available for sale. A sizable portion of the proceeds goes to the artists, providing them with financial sustenance, particularly during the ongoing quarantine period. AIP’s online platform showcases the artworks, while educating visitors of the art form’s cultural relevance.

“Blow Horn” is a common phrase painted on trucks. (photo by Manjot Singh Sodhi)

“Unfortunately, I think this might be the last generation of truck artists,” speculated Bawa. “Many want their children to work in air-conditioned offices, not on rough highways. Also, there is [financial] uncertainty in this field.” While both Ahmad and Dongre don’t want their kids to inherit their profession, they believe that truck art will never peter out. 

“Otherwise,” Dongre mused, “the Indian highways will be gloomy and bare forever.” 

(Source: HyperAllergic)