Musing over the Kerala Model of Development in the light of recent extreme events

In the last two years the State of Kerala, had to face devastating events during the monsoons; a synergic corollary to the lopsided evolution of the Kerala Development Model (KDM) forced upon its ecoscape by the zealots of ceaseless growth-based development pattern and relatively extreme climatic events. Meanwhile the state also had to face epidemics, first a zoonotic outbreak (a local outbreak of Nipah incidences) and currently a pandemic by the SARS-Cov19 virus. Extreme climatic events are expected to recur in the coming years due to the ongoing global warming (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2016; Mal et al. 2011) another consequence of the ceaseless-growth based paradigm of development. Thankfully, the situation could be handled by a committed State government and its capable bureaucratic machinery; the compassionate humans from the State and diverse corners of the world and an admirable pack of volunteers steadfast to support the victims in all possible manners – physical, mental and financial. The recent episodes of climate calamities illustrate Kerala’s vulnerability to climate extremes and maybe a presage of the high probabilities of such incidences in the future.

It is well known that further to such disasters there may be varied consequences and also opportunities (IPCC 2018). Physical injury and loss; epidemic outbreaks (infectious, vector-borne, zoonotic), vector and vermin outbreaks; limited access (to food, shelter, potable water, medical and other essential amenities) followed by high demands and price hike; mental illness (anxiety, depression, etc.); exposure to hazardous chemicals and waste; poor waste disposal, etc. being some of the common pressing consequences. It would certainly take time, resources and commitment to facilitate recovery from physical, mental, social, and economic trauma. The state had proved its capacity and resilience for quite a speedy recovery during the deluge; the success in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak is again attesting the state’s potential, the strength of its largely public-funded health care system. However, strategizing the path to recover from such disasters, particularly that from climatic changes would demand introspection on the obvious gaps and drawbacks in the contemporary variant of the state’s development model in practice. This is very crucial since the prevailing notion of economic development is the current ecologically destructive pattern of development.

 The Kerala Model of Development and environment 

The erstwhile “Kerala model of development” (KMD) refers to the worthy socio-economic development of the state since its formation. Dreze and Sen (2014) while acknowledging that “there is much to learn from scrutinizing the experiences of Kerala” also notes “there is little evidence for seeing Kerala as a model to be mechanically emulated”. Nevertheless, the model is highly praised since that took the state to a position on par with many developed countries, concerning various development indicators. Kerala has witnessed the positive outcome of a demographic transition, population stabilization and a consistent rate of economic growth. The state also topped the score of Sustainable Development Goals index as per the NITI Ayog (2019) in India. Achievements in many aspects of ‘quality life’ despite the relatively low-income level as noted by many authors (Sen 1997; Parayil 1996; Dreze and Sen 1995) would be worth examining in other states for customized emulation.

The drivers of KMD were many; unique geography and landscape, climate and history that shaped a fairly metropolitan culture in the state, a relatively tolerant demeanour towards cultural and religious diversity, a caring attitude towards the local ethnic lifestyles, a cohort of social and political reformers and widespread appreciation of the value of education, etc. The pioneering efforts of the Christian missionaries to set-off free and universal education, the persuasion from much-admired social reformers, the spread of socialistic and egalitarian ideology all could successfully eclipse the earlier domineering feudal and rigid caste-based social structure one-time ingrained in the society (Balakrishnan 2008; Gurukkal and Varier 2018).

Although the state’s economy is traditionally agrarian, over time agriculture waned and farming almost diminished as a career option for the literate youngsters. Kerala never had a great ambiance for anindustrial boom in its history.

The Western Ghats habitat destruction_CEiBa _Vol3_Issu2
The Western Ghats region of the Kerala state is undergoing large scale habitat destruction/fragmentation due to various infrastructure development projects like this wind farm installation at the Sholayur area.

In the post-independence period, the highly politicized, skeptical, and environmental health conscious population hardly patronized industries in the land. Probably the passionate environmentalists on one side and the centrists and socialists who beefed up the labor force on the other perchance could restrict and discourage entry of private corporate agencies in Kerala to an extent. As a consequence, the dearth of opportunities at home and the need for skilled workforce elsewhere prompted the movement of people for employment. The ‘gulf boom’ markedly in the northern part of the state, the Malabar region, and its contemporary ‘US boom’ in the southern part, Travancore, boosted the economy so much so that the common person’s desires, at the cost of natural resources, for development and comforts in life greatly levitated. Eventually, the people in the state transformed into a society questing for material possession, a version of excessive consumerism (Swaggler 1994) or economic materialism, except perhaps in the last couple of months owing to the recent pandemic and lockdown. In recent years, foreign remittance from the non-resident Keralites (NRKs) is said to be in the range of INR 95,000/- crores a year (, that certainly may take a beating because of Covid-19 and its economic aftermaths. Nonetheless, such developments eventually led to a no-care attitude towards environmental/ecological issues and subsequent unsound changes in its landscape and waterscape (Raj and Azeez 2010).

The urbanization in Kerala has been advancing, through its length and breadth, in such a way that the state as a whole is nearly a single conterminous urban agglomeration, a megalopolis, in effect typifying decentralized urbanization (Ishaque and Jayapal 2019). The one-time major urban centers in the state are expanding rapidly, engulfing the surrounding naturescape, natural geomorphic features, hills, forests, rivers, streams, and rice paddies, largely disregarding the terrain employing modern adaptable construction techniques. During the last couple of decades, the state witnessed huge deforestation, mining, and quarrying in its ecologically vital hill ranges. Currently the rice (staple diet of the state) cultivation, once spread all over the state, is restricted only to few pockets (Raj and Azeez 2009). Kerala is renowned for its perennial networks of median and small rivers and brooks flowing from the Western Ghats to the Arabian Sea. Nonetheless, during the course of development, the state has dammed its major rivers at its upper reaches. Incidentally, it is said that the recent floods affected much the dammed rivers; in fact, many of these dams are located in the landslip s prone regions. There are currently 61 dams and many dikes and subsurface dams in the 44 rivers of the state. Furthermore, the mid and lower reaches of all the rivers were plundered heavily for the rising demand for sand (Shaji and Anilkuar 2016; Arun et al. 2006) and pebbles.

In the context of KMD it is relevant to consider a couple of its dimensions, drivers, or trends. Of these, a very relevant one is the evolution of scientific temperament or knowledge-based rationality in society. The Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP), started by a group of educators and writers in the early 1960s, grew up into an impactful people’s science movement. The KSSP in effect played a major role in building a scientific conscience in the public towards the environment, ecology, protection of nature, etc. The popularisation of scientific conscience insinuated discernments about better living standards and awareness of rights. While the scientific conscience dwelt upon a welfare state economy and was concerned much about the state’s environment, over time apathy towards nature has grown significantly. While the objections to the Gadgil committee report was an example of how self-promoting politicians could misrepresent scientific facts to distort public perception, the dilution of the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act (2008) exemplified how the authorities dilute well-meant regulations possibly under pressure from short-sighted interest groups. These movements of trends are discussed a bit more below to show the need for a new updated version of KMD for the state. 

People’s science and environment conservation movements in Kerala 

The highly literate society of Kerala has gone through a thorough course of social reformation that had constructive reflections in literature, art, academics, governance, and administration of the state, the country, and away.

The gate way to the Silent Valley National Park_CEiBa_Vol3_Issu2
The gate way to the Silent Valley National Park, Palakkad District, Kerala; The ‘Save Silent Valley’ movement- one of the successful peoples’ movement for biodiversity conservation in the early 1970s

It is the process that inspired and nurtured an empathetic, tolerant, and relatively well-informed society. Arguably the most popular people’s science movement in the country, the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) was an offshoot of the ongoing social and educational reformation in the state, and also subsequently one of its major driving forces. KSSP committed to scientific and environmental conservation awareness in earlier times was a typical story and motivation to many successful people’s movements to conserve environmental well-being. Regarding environmental protection in the state, the well-known ‘Save Silent Valley’ movement in the 1980s was a milestone. KSSP that spearheaded the movement could infuse a powerful insight in the general public that effectively forced out an expert-driven decision on the matter from the policymakers. However, the KSSP had in recent years fallen to not even the shadow of its former self. While the social order in the state is evolving in line with the general trend especially of the country, but certainly to a much lesser degree, it is facing a post-truth society where truth and values do not matter much and half-truths or distorted truths broadcast for public consumption are decisive. Superstitions and pseudoscience while is propagated, if not justified, by powerful personalities elsewhere in the country, in the state that is still looked down by most public because of awareness nurtured by literacy, education, and peoples’ science movements. That social capital, largely welfare-oriented governance and public-funded infrastructure helped the state to handle the calamities. The response of the state government to the recent COVID-19 pandemic has shown the path to the nation on control of the viral spread basing on systematic, scientific and rational insights. Rightly that has been well appreciated the world over. Those types of knowledge-based actions are required in the state to cope with the potential extreme events, as of now ineluctable climate change as well. Movements such as one-time KSSP are much more wanted now to develop a sustainable development path and wean the society from the current praxis that is grossly unsustainable.

 Need for dusting Gadgil reports 

The Western Ghats shaped the socio-political-cultural-ecological milieu of Kerala greatly, the other equally or more influential natural feature is the Arabian Sea. For a long past, large accessible areas along the hills were under cultivation and infrastructural transformation; but in a manner not abrupt to tip the area’s carrying capacity, sustainability and ecosystem evolution. The pressure turned many folds in recent times when decision-maker-politician-corporate nexus excavated and amassed huge wealth by untenably exploiting the natural resources in the beautiful ‘blue mountain’ range, disregarding the priceless ecosystem services that sustain about 400 million people (Molur et al. 2011) in and outside the state.

The Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel (WGEEP) report unveiled the magnitude of pressure the current pattern of development has been thrusting on the Western Ghats’ ecological setup and it especially warned the state of Kerala about the pace of damage being inflicted on the vital ecosystem and its consequences. The report also urged the state to rethink the path taken towards the “new nirvana” (Pilling 2018) of the existing development model. The report advised for a profound transformation of its current idea of (unequal or unbalanced or unsound) development to a more realistic, scientific and sustainable development with an egalitarian welfare perspective. The committee had a great expectation about Kerala, for its high literacy rate, social-environmental consciousness and above all its leadership capability in capacity building through the three-tier Panchayati raj system ‘Janakeeyasoothranam‘ (peoples’ planning). However, the instigated opposition to the WGEEP report from the so-called farmers forced the UPA government to hold back. If not, that would have been a path-breaking eco-centric decision which would have lessened many of the recent woes the public in the state had gone through. Eventually, the central government decided to review the relatively holistic recommendations of the WGEEP and appointed a High-Level Working Group (HLWG; Kasthurirangan Committee) perchance with an implicit brief for more economic-centric management plans.

The epidemic outbreaks in the recent past in the state were zoonotic; pathogens crossing over to humans from wild animals. One of the major external factors that influence the spread of zoonotic diseases is the quality of the environment, higher ingress of people to the wilder areas, and higher contact with wild species. Even the SARS epidemic (Li et al. 2006) or recent pandemic SARS-CoV2 (COVID-19) is said to have linkages with wild species (Broad 2020) and many such pandemics are likely to sprout in future as habitat and biodiversity loss increases globally ( The conservation of natural habitats in effect reduces human contact with wild species and the probability of the outbreak of zoonotic diseases. Such recent tragic episodes, both epidemic and climatic emphasize the need for proactive conservation of the state’s ecological setup, its wilderness, in particular, the Western Ghats and reconsidering the almost forgotten WGEEP.

The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act (2008)

The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act (KCPLW, 2008) was another vital and positive action to protect rice paddies, a significant component of the local ecological setup of the state, providing crucial ecosystem services (Nayak et al. 2019). A few wetlands in the state had been earmarked for protection under the Ramsar convention (1971), Coastal zone protection (1991) and as wetlands of national importance under National Wetland Conservation Programme. However, the reclamation of wetlands has been rampant, mostly adjacent to towns, urban sprawls, highways, and institutions and suchlike. The conversions of wetlands were explicitly apparent in Kerala for its relatively high population density (~859/sq Km), the limited available land area and the dominant culture of the nuclear family with distinct residences for each family unit. Kerala stands at the top along with Punjab in household surplus in the country ( adding on to construction

the agrarian economy of the Kerala State transformed to a more consumer based economy_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2
As the agrarian economy of the Kerala State transformed to a more consumer based economy, many of the rice paddies of the state have been converted to cash crop growing areas like coconut groves (left image) or left fallow for further conversion to built up land (right image)

spree. Since urbanization in Kerala is much of a ‘highway centric-ribbon development’ the common stance is that roads should reach every house at whatever cost to the environment, flattening the hillocks, cutting steep slopes, filling up all the low-lands including the crucial rice paddies or blocking natural water flows through half-baked engineering solutions. Incidentally, one of the major reasons for the recent deluges was blockage of natural channels for the discharge of flood-waters for unscientific constructions; Hume pipes replacing open channels and drains, bound to be clogged, reaching nowhere. The fast surface runoff due to torrential and untoward rain carried millions of tons of topsoil to the waterways, which on one hand exhausted the nutrient-rich surface soil and on the other blocked the fluvial courses.

The original KCPLW Act, while restricting many activities, allows rural and urban governing bodies to reclaim about 10 cents and 5 cents of rice paddies under their jurisdictions, to build residential houses. The recently proposed Amendment of the 2008 Act regularises any size paddy land conversion before the promulgation of the original act, and as per the Kerala finance (no. 2) bill (2015) such conversion can be legalized by paying 25% of the fair value of land, a major blow to the latter and spirit of the 2008 Act. The amendment is bad indeed for the already decimated rice paddies and wetlands in the state. The price of a wetland is slight compared to that of buildable dry land in the state and the proposed payment for legalizing the conversion is minuscule relative to the market price gettable after the land is made fit for constructing a building. In any case, market price rarely comes into the record in land transactions; an avenue where black money can be conveniently parked/invested and rent-seeking rampant.

Kerala’s redevelopment- the future model 

The flood episodes in the recent past have affected gravely the highland and the lowland regions of the state. The midland areas also had their share, but of lesser dimension and consequence. The highland regions suffered devastating landslides and the lowland regions were affected gravely from heavy flood and water stagnation. There was no sufficient leeway for the water to debouche, all the natural pathways and buffer storages having been blocked or encroached by constructions. In short, the damages mostly were intense and concentrated in and around ecologically sensitive areas including riverbanks, flood plains of the rivers, backwaters and rice paddies, valleys, and high slopes in the Western Ghats. If one zooms into the spread of the disaster it further reveals how the state’s ecologically sensitive areas were mistreated for so-called developmental activities by unscrupulous interest groups.

Incidentally, back in 2006 ICMR in the context of cyclic outbreaks of dengue in Kerala had noted that the state having undergone enormous change in its physiography and climate had “risks of emergence or resurgence of several vector-borne diseases” (Anonymous 2006). As is well-known the state is highly dependent on other states for almost all essential items, grains, pulses, vegetables, and livestock. Paddy and pulse productions are insignificant compared to the needs (Economic Review 2018). Hence, it is high time for Kerala to introspect on a sustainable development model focusing on self-reliance at even at village levels.

The state has demonstrated the effectiveness of its public welfare-oriented relatively egalitarian development focusing on education and healthcare facilities in the case of disease outbreaks. Heller ( acknowledges that “the state managing the crisis with the most resolve, the most compassionate and the best results of any large state in India” as dividends from the “legacy of egalitarianism, social rights, and public trust”. The state needs a self-sufficient and self-reliant system to extend and ensure its proven achievements to combat calamities. It is time that the state proceeds to ‘Kerala model of development plus (KMD+)’ focussing on social, economic, and cultural transformation forging solidarity with nature, deviating from the beaten path of the consumerist economy.

It would be also apt now to contemplate upon the concept of “Ecological Civilisation” – the theme of the 15th CoP of “Convention on Biological Diversity” (; or perhaps to the more radical concept of “Steady State Economics” with the goal of satisfying “basic human need within ecological limits” (Karp 2020). The state should explore a paradigm shift in its development perspective by incorporating Gross National Happiness (GNH) or Genuine Progress Index (GPI) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the way the regions prone to natural calamities essentially need to transform ( But, all that needs are a radical transformation, and figuratively speaking ‘social vaccine’ with broader scope “to develop the ability of communities to resist and change social and economic structures and processes that have a negative impact on” (Baum et al. 2009) not only ‘health’ but overall human welfare. A cultural radical transformation is necessary for the individual citizen to the Government vis-à-vis development, focussing on social welfare rather than unbridled consumerism, shedding the notion of perpetual growth and with the deep recognition that humans are biologically and ecologically symbiotic with other life forms, that human economy is just a sub-system in the finite natural system. It is a shift towards self-reliant village economy possibly in a Gandhian prospect – holistic and multidimensional, aiming at local self-sufficiency while cooperating with nature.

This is the time for a superior model of development for the state, a KMD+ (or maybe KMD-2) that would advance inclusive and egalitarian development, covering all marginalized sections of the society. It would embrace diverse dimensions of human security (e.g., Economic, Food, Health, Environmental, Personal, Community, and Political) and human development, ultimately human welfare in a sustainable environment with high resilience to the impending changes of climate and its repercussions. COVID-19 gives an unforeseen opportunity to re-route development from extinction to survival, beyond the common dissimulative verbal discourses on sustainable development. It is sufficiently evident that the present-day paradigm of development only furthers deprivation of a major section of humankind from basic survival needs, a minuscule fraction controlling all the resources, the disappearance of crucial ecosystems and the sixth extinction, maybe including Homo sapiens as of now the most damaging species on earth. Perhaps the state of Kerala can be a trailblazer along with like-minded communities across the globe, towards a welfare society in a secure nature/environment.


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About Author:

PP Nikhil Raj and PA Azeez




1 Center for Sustainable Future,
Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science,
Amrita University, Coimbatore, India

 2 Society for Sustainable Systems,
Kovaipudur (PO), Coimbatore – 641042, India


Harvests shrinking? Challenges for sustainable harvesting of non-timber forest products

Humans have lived in and around forests for tens of thousands of years and have been using forest to meet their daily requirements of food, shelter and even clothing. These include a number of forest products such as fruits, seeds, mushrooms, foliage, tubers, medicinal plants, spices, stem, bark, resins, oils, animals and birds including their fur and feathers, etc and these are often considered as non-timber forest produce (NTFP). These NTFP products were earlier popularly known as minor forest products, with timber being considered as a major produce. Over the years, these NTFP which were harvested for subsistence are now being harvested for meeting the livelihood requirements. In fact, the NTFP products support the livelihood of number of forest fringe and forest dwelling communities not only in India but across South-east Asia, Africa and many other parts of the world.

Why are NTFP’s harvested?
A vast majority of the NTFP’s harvested today are used locally by the communities that harvest them for food or for medicine or for construction (bamboo). Some of the NTFP’s are sold in small amounts to others in the community or to outsiders who visit these forests and these provide small cash benefits to the local communities. These however, are never documented and seldom is known of their economic value or their contribution to the local economy. Some studies suggest that more than one-third of NTFP’s are consumed in local economies without actually entering the market. These NTFP’s which are a source of subsistence as well as livelihood for over 100 million people, are often promoted as a win-win strategy to not only provide livelihood options to the forest dwelling and forest fringe communities but also as a means to conserve these forest resources (Shaanker et al 2004). However, there are few NTFP resources which are not harvested for subsistence but largely for meet the livelihood requirements.

In India, some of the NTFP products that are harvested on large scale include some medicinal plants, fruits such as amla (Phyllanthus emblica and P. indofisheri), tendu leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon), Shikakai (Acacia concinna), grasses for making brooms, honey, sal seeds (Shorea robusta), bamboos, rattans etc. Some of these high value NTFP products are controlled by the state governments which regulate their sale and trade. The states have over the years, ensured large scale profits from these NTFP resources often at the cost of the local collectors (who are often paid only for their labor) and at the cost of sustainability of these resources.

The pods of Parkia_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2
The pods of Parkia, one of the important NTFP species being sold in the Imphal market by the local communities

Does large-scale harvesting impact NTFPs?
Many NTFP species which were harvested sustainably in the past (for subsistence use) have over the years harvested in large quantities largely to meet the market demand. In recent years, there have been a number of studies that have reported both for and against such large-scale harvesting on the ecological impacts as well as on the sustainability of these NTFP resources. While one side, overharvesting of some NTFP species have resulted in many of the species becoming endangered in the wild. For example, many populations of medicinally important plant species such as Ashoka (Saraca asoca), Coccinium fenestratum etc have become locally extinct.  The bark and wood of the Ashoka tree is widely used for a number of ailments and hence is harvested destructively from the forests. Extensive harvesting of the bark results in the death of the tree and hence, many populations in western Ghats, there is complete lack of adult trees as they are stripped of their bark.

On the other side, some NTFP species are over-managed, resulting in plantation type areas where other non-NTFP species are cleared. For example, many Tendu plantations are cleared of other vegetation thereby making them less bio-diverse than the natural forests. The tendu leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon) which are used for wrapping tobacco for making bidis, not only provides livelihood for a large number of people but also fetches a huge royalty for the Governments. With more revenues coming for the Government, there has been more pressure to increase the areas under tendu plantation. Similarly, the bamboo and rattan plantations in Western Ghats, have become monoculture plantations resulting in reduced biodiversity in these regions. Commercial extraction of NTFP species, thus could have serious consequences on the population of the species both at the ecological as well as at the genetic level.

Ashoka tree_Saraca asoca_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2
Populations of many important species such as Ashoka tree (Saraca asoca, above picture) have become locally extinct

What are the ecological impacts of harvesting?
The shift in harvesting of NTFP’s from subsistence level to a large-scale commercial level has had significant impacts on these NTFP resources. Commercial extraction of NTFP often involves larger volumes of harvest and often at higher frequency and intensity which disrupts the sustainability of these resources. Over harvesting can lead to reduction in population size of the species, could alter the population structure (with older individuals being eliminated from the population) and could lead to fragmentation and isolation of populations (Stanley et al 2012). While the impacts of harvesting may not be uniform across all the species harvested, species that are often harvested destructively are impacted the most. For example, species for which the reproductive parts are harvested (such as amla) or species for which the entire individual is harvested (in some rattan species), the harvesting could have severe impact. Even within species, the impact could be different. In case of rattans, there are single stemmed rattan (only a single stem) or multistemmed (a number of stems) arising from a single plant. In case, a single stem rattan is harvested, it would mean the death of that plant, while in case of multistemmed species, harvesting few stems would still enable the plants to bounce back. Harvesting non- reproductive parts such as resins and gums, bark, leaves etc too could affect the physiology, growth and reproduction of the species besides making the individual susceptible to pests and diseases. Harvesting resins or gums involves damaging the bark and making cuts on the stem of the tree from where the gums or resins ooze out. Making too many cuts would result in the plant being susceptible to fungal infections. The plant would also delay or advance its flowering due to the injury. However, as mentioned, the impacts are severe if the entire plant, bulbs, roots and the reproductive parts such as flowers and fruits are harvested.

The most direct ecological impact of harvesting is its impact on the survival, growth and regeneration of the species. A number of studies have shown that overharvesting of fruits of Amla (Phyllanthus emblica) and Tare (Terminalia bellerica) have resulted in lower regeneration (new individuals growing from seed) of these species in the wild. Selective harvesting of large-sized fruits from only few individuals could also mean that these individuals may not regenerate and new seedlings will germinate only from individuals which bore either small sized or irregular shaped fruits. So, while natural selection prefers best individuals to reproduce, harvesting best individuals would mean that only individuals discarded by harvesters are allowed to reproduce.

Amla fruits (Phyllanthus emblica)_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2
Overharvesting of Amla fruits (Phyllanthus emblica) could result in reduced regeneration of the species in the wild

What happens to the genetic diversity in case excessive harvesting is carried out?
Similarly, overharvesting can also lead to reduction in the genetic diversity (over the years) especially in species in which the reproductive parts are harvested. Genetic diversity is the basis for adaptability of a species to changing environment and to respond to various biotic stresses. Selective harvesting, reduction in population size and fragmentation of populations could lead to mating between closely related individuals leading to inbreeding depression in these small fragmented populations. Inbreeding depression is the reduced biological fitness of the offspring due to breeding between very close relatives. Poor fitness would result in that individual having very low immunity and could succumb to diseases and pests. Small population sizes could also reduce the number of pollinators and dispersers visiting these patches thereby reducing the geneflow and constraining the overall genetic diversity of the species further. Overharvesting thus could not only impact the individual but could also impact the population and could diminish the long-term survival of the species (Stanley et al 2012).

Does genetic diversity matter?
A decrease in genetic diversity could also endanger the ability of a species to survive in the ecosystem. Genetic diversity in a species could be reduced through a number of processes consequent to harvesting. For example, through a process often called as genetic drift where a chance disappearance of a particular individual harboring a unique or rare gene could result in change in the diversity of the species. For example, there are few individuals of a Jackfruit in Western Ghats which have a unique character of bearing fruits on the roots that come out of the soil. These can be easily harvested as they are close to the ground. However, their unique character has also made them prone to harvesting even before the fruits are matured. This pre-harvesting would result in immature seeds of this plant never to germinate resulting in this unique character being completely lost from the population. Similarly, disruption or fragmentation of populations could lead to reduced gene flow or mating within the population. A highway, for example, cutting across a national park could separate individuals across and never allow the pollinators or dispersers to cross over resulting in isolation of individuals. Overtime, these small genetic changes in the population can have cascading effect and could result in altering the genetic configuration (or genetic identity) of the populations.

Can NTFP harvesting be banned?
In India, collection of NTFP products supports significant part of the livelihood of scores of forest dwelling and forest fringe communities. In fact, some recent estimates report that 100- 250 million people in India, depend on the NTFP resources for meeting either their subsistence requirement of food and shelter or for their livelihoods (Shahabuddin, and Prasad. 2004). Besides, these NTFP species provide these communities food and nutritional security especially in the times of agricultural distress. In fact, many NTFP species are harvested to meet specific nutritional requirement of women and children especially during pregnancy and child birth. Similarly, a number of medicinal plants are used by the communities and local healers to treat various ailments. Studies have also shown that involving communities in utilizing these NTFP resources also ensures that resources are adequately conserved. Thus, it is clear that banning harvest is not the solution and promoting ecologically sustainable NTFP harvest as a win-win strategy to meet both the livelihood needs as well as sustainable goals should be championed.

NTFP species_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2
NTFP species supports the livelihood of number of forest dwelling communities

What is sustainable harvest?
A number of definitions exist; but sustainable harvest involves harvesting at a rate not exceeding the natural rate of a species to regenerate in the landscape. In other words, harvesting should not jeopardize the ability of the species to maintain in the ecosystem. This definition, however, does not take into account the fact that harvesting deprives other fauna, which are dependent on these resources. It only takes into account the necessity of maintaining harvesting intensities that, least distorts the original population structure and the genetic diversity of the species. Sustainable harvest is akin to removing individuals at a rate much less than the species is able to reproduce. It is like a tiger eating one deer a week from a population of 100 deers, but the deer population gives birth to more than two individuals a week.

NTFP species are harvested and sold locally_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2
A number of NTFP species are harvested and sold locally for subsistence

How can harvesting be made sustainable?
This has been a million-dollar question among scientists, resource managers as well as policy makers over the last few decades as to which method or at what levels of harvest can be considered as ecologically sustainable. A number of parameters including harvesting volume (within plant and within population), harvesting time and season, frequency of harvest, harvesting parts and harvesting techniques need to be considered to develop sustainable harvesting methods (Ticktin 2004). A clear understanding of how harvesting impacts the population and alters the genetic diversity is needed to determine the sustainable harvesting limits of these important forest resources (Ravikanth and Setty 2017). Further, it would be important to understand the rate of growth (how much a plant can grow in a given time) and regeneration (how many can it multiply) of NTFP species, if different methods of harvest techniques are employed. Since a large number and different type of NTFP species are harvested, it is difficult to suggest one uniform method for sustainable harvest. Since different parts are harvested, there would be varying response of a species to recover. This again would depend on the varying environmental factors aiding recovery. Thus, it seems too complicated to suggest one uniform method. It is therefore important to consider the needs of the communities depending on these NTFP resources, the species per se as well as the need and ease of monitoring the species.  

What are the specific plans for sustainable harvesting?
The specific plan for sustainable harvesting of NTFP species requires monitoring the health of the harvested species both at the individual level as well as at the population level. The population health is ensured by ensuring adequate regeneration of the populations. One of the challenges in ensuring adequate regeneration especially when reproductive parts such as fruits and/or seeds are harvested is to ensure systematic rotations. The other option is to ensure that some percentage of the resource is left untouched. This could be accomplished either by harvesting only low hanging fruits or harvesting alternate years. However, this is difficult to implement unless communities are provided information and the necessary knowledge about the usefulness of such measures (Ravikanth and Setty. 2017). Similarly, large-scale cultivation and domestication of over-exploited NTFP species, whose demand would continue to increase, could be systematically encouraged and promoted. The key challenge however would be to not only ensure the conservation of the genetic diversity of the NTFP species but also ensure the balance between the local livelihoods and ecological sustainability.



  1. Shahabuddin, G. and S. Prasad. 2004. Assessing ecological sustainability of non-timber forest produce extraction: the Indian scenario. Conservation and Society 2(2): 235–250.
  2. Stanley, D., R. Voeks, and L. Short. 2012. Is non-timber forest product harvest sustainable in the less developed world? A systematic review of the recent economic and ecological literature. Ethnobiology and Conservation 1(9): 1–39.
  3. Ticktin, T. 2004. The ecological implications of harvesting non-timber forest products. Journal of Applied Ecology 41(1): 11–21.
  4. Ravikanth G and Siddappa Setty. 2017. Shrinking harvest: Genetic consequences and challenges for sustainable harvesting of non-timber forest products. In: Transcending boundaries: Reflecting on twenty years of action and research at ATREE. Edited by Ankila J. Hiremath, Nitin D. Rai and Ananda Siddhartha. Bangalore: Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.
  5. Shaanker, RU., KN. Ganeshaiah, MN. Rao, and NA. Aravind. 2004. Ecological consequences of forest use: from genes to ecosystem—a case study in the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, South India. Conservation & Society 2(2): 347–363.

About Author :

Ravikanth G

Ravikanth G
Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE),
Royal Enclave, Srirampura, Jakkur Post, Bangalore-560064


Wild uncultivated edible plants of India

Part  6
(……after part 5)

Monochoria hastata (L.) Solms
Family: Pontederiaceae

This aquatic plant is a common weed of the rice fields of India. It is usually seen in shallow waters, erect, and occasionally creeping, with floating leaves and rhizomatous stem. It is only recently that the edibile and the nutritional value of leaves and flowers of this plant are recognized among nutrition enthusiastic. Flowers, leaves and rhizomes are rich in mineral content and are used as alternative green vegetables by rural populations. In Odisha, young inflorescence has also been accepted as food. In Assam, it is called as Bhaat Mateka. The Tai ahom tribes of upper Assam cook it with pork, chicken and fish. It can be used as a vegetable and stir fried with potatoes, green chillies, garlic onion and ginger. The young shoot is also acceptable as food among the Dimasa tribe of the Barak valley of Assam.  The ‘pola’ as it is known in the ‘Kuttanad’ region of Kerala is a menace in the shallow water bodies, rice fields, and canals.  But nowadays the tribes are earning a decent income as the weeds are bought to feed the ducks and also for making handicrafts.

Monochoria hastata (L.) Solms_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2

Mukia maderaspatana
(L.) M. Roem.
Family: Cucurbitaceae

The plant belongs to the family of melons, i.e., ‘Cucurbitaceae’. It is a native of India and is an annual. It can be successfully cultivated in the tropical region. It is called as ‘headache vine’ in many parts of the country. In India, it is mostly reported from Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The shoots, leaves and fruits of the plant are edible and eaten after cooking with spices. Due to its anti-diabetic and anti-hypertensive properties the plant is gaining importance among the health conscious diners. It is called as ‘Madras Pea pumpkin’ and the fruit has a combination of sweet and bitter taste. In the south of India, it is made to a paste (Thuvayal) with coconut after saluting with chillies and other spices. Other recipes are like, pieces of leaves mixed with rice, soaked with water and prepare Dosa like item. Similarly, leaves are fried with ghee or gingelly oil, followed by grinding the mass with roasted mixture of coriander leaves, curry leaves, pepper, red chili, dal and salt to make chutney like preparation. The tea prepared from leaf and bark has medicinal use in traditional therapy. The fruits are rich in vitamin C, E, A, phosphorous and minerals. Phytochemical analysis shows the presence of glycoside, flavonoids, phenols, alkaloids, saponin, carbohydrate and steroid in the plant.

Mukia maderaspatana (L.) M. Roem_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2

Neptunia oleracea  
Family: Leguminosae

This plant is gaining popularity among the urban cities across the globe as ‘water mimosa’. It is a perennial nitrogen fixing legume with touch sensitive leaflets. The plant has got the name Neptunia from the God of seas –the Neptune, as it is aquatic in habitat.  It floats with the help of the aerenchymatous spongy stem. The branches are harvested when they reach around 30cm in length. The people of Manipur eat the stem after removing the spongy wrap around it. The main delicacies prepared using this plant includes the famous ‘Morokmetpa’, ‘Iromba’, ‘Kanghou’ and ‘Shingju’.  Morokmetpa, the chilly salad is made from leaves and fresh shoots. The clean small pieces of plant parts are mixed with boiled king chilli, fermented fish, raw onions and salt. For ‘Iromba’, sliced pieces boiled along with potatoes and petiole of Alocasia odora which is then prepared along with chillies and fermented fish. The dish is garnished with onions, corianders etc. For ‘Kanghou’, the plant parts are fried with other vegetables (brinjal, okra, potato, cabbage etc). ‘Shingju’ is made with papaya and ‘water mimosa’. Some other popular preparations are like, young stems, shoots and leaves of water mimosa are cooked and eaten as stir fries with soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, chillies, and garlic. It is also used in recipes with noodles, minced chicken or fried fish. The plant is rich in calcium, iron, vitamin A and C. ‘Pheophorbide a’ and its related compounds make this plant a promising antitumor agent. In addition to this, it shows high antioxidant activity too.

Neptunia oleracea Lour_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2

Oenanthe javanica
(Blume) DC.
Family – Apiaceae

This is the only plant in the ‘Oenanthe‘genus that is not toxic. This plant is called as water dropwort in English, ‘seri’ in Japan and ‘Minari’ in Korea. The plant is cultivated for it’s edible shoots, fruits and roots in China, Japan and India. The plant can be seen in forest floors and in paddy fields upto 1500 m. In India, it’s mainly seen in the eastern states and also in Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The plant is called as Komprek in the north-eastern state of Manipur and used to prepare their traditional cuisines, ‘enroba’ and ‘shingsu’. The young shoots are used for soups and salads. It tastes like carrot tops and celery which makes it a perfect additive in sumptuous soups. The food use of the plant is also reported from Assam.  Cuisines made of this plant are widely available in all the Japanese restaurants in Indian Cities. In addition to the excellent edible value it possesses, it also can be used as a fish feed to feed ‘koi fish’. Eugenol – a phyto chemical which can be used as an analgesic is present in the shoots of O. Javanica. The shoots and fruits are also rich in antioxidants which qualify the plant as an ideal candidate for health conscious urban platter. O.javanica has high iron content, followed by calcium, and magnesium, which are useful for patients with mineral deficiency problems.

Oenanthe javanica (Blume) DC._CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2

Glimpses Of Nature And Culture

Some like it Hot…….. and Spicy

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine our food without the hot and spicy flavor of green chilies. But, green chilies were the recent introduction to India in the fifteen century by the Portuguese traders. So, how was life before the arrival of green chilies? Did the absence of chilly mean no hot no spicyPiper_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2 food? Was hot and spicy flavor squarely unknown to Indians? If not, what could have substituted green chillies in our cuisines?

We did have our very own version of hot and spicy spices to flavor our food, be it fish, chicken, or meat or spicy veggies. The Piperaceae family is super-loaded with many species which are strong flavoring agents in their own right, black pepper or Piper nigrum, Piper longum or Indian long pepper or pipliPiper retrofractum, etc. While two of the key players, black pepper and Indian long pepper remained conspicuous with their pomp and presence. But one member of the same family, Piper chaba, has been lost in the dust of history which was once a frequent ingredient of cuisines. One can find mentions of choi jhal (jhal = hot in Bengali) in the old historical texts.

Piper chaba is another member of the family Piperaceae which is a native of south and southeast Asia. It is distributed throughout India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. The plant is a creeper that trudges on the ground, can climb up, and grow around large trees like other piperaceous members. The leaves are oval, the flowers are monoecious, and blossom during the monsoon. The fruit is elongated in shape and looks very similar to the other varieties of long pepper. When ripe, the fruit first turns red and then turns dark brown or black upon drying.

P. chaba, Chui Jhal or Choi Jhal, is locally famous as a strong flavoring agent in the of southern Bangladesh, and the states of Tripura and West Bengal in India where the East Bengal diaspora prevailed. Generally, stem and roots are cut down, the skin is peeled, chopped it into small pieces, and cook them with sumptuous non-vegetarian items. The culinary tradition was also quite alive in the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura where people use this spice similarly. In Bangladesh, the stems of the plant are used as a spice in meat and fish dishes. In that way, the use of Choi Jhal is quite unique, because the twigs, stems, or roots of P. chaba – not the fruit – are used as a spice.

So, when green chilies had arrived with the Portuguese, gradually embraced with open arms and made place in the local cuisines; it actually stepped in into the taste regime already created by local fiery hot spices of Piperaceae; waging a war against them, perhaps robbing of their dominance and shunting a few to oblivion.  

Image source: CC BY-SA 3.0,; By Ferdous – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Collector: Avik Ray


Artificial intelligence: the new normal

In the Covid-19 reality where even simple tasks are becoming increasingly digitized, we are made aware of the necessity of a ‘digital existence’.  In the ‘dystopian future’ that we are living in, this comes as no surprise.

 Let us however imagine an alternate scenario at the very beginning of the Covid-19 crisis; imagine being able to map, track and predict the spread of Covid-19. Could we have prevented this disastrous pandemic?

An advanced AI system will be able to do just that:  process large amounts of complex, varied data setsAI_intelligent model_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2 to make accurate and fast predictions. All the nodes where the data points interact with each other would be scrutinized and an ‘intelligent’ model of action would be proposed depending upon our required outcome. This is not just true for spread of infectious diseases; complex data sets include locust attacks, global warming and weather patterns, analysis of biodiversity in systems and surprisingly enough: our thoughts.

Development and applications of AI systems are gaining momentum. It would be worth to note that neuroscience and ecology are the two fields that are perhaps benefitting the most from this.

In the human brain; billions of neurons interact by two major ways: binary firing and re-arrangement. As you are reading this article, your neurons are rapidly generating electric potentials and changing their network to result in what would be entirely unique to you. AI essentially allows us to ‘hack’ the neural networking. By ‘loading’ intelligent reasoning and cognises into artificial neural networks, neuroscientists will be able to tackle most of the medical cases involving poor functioning of our neural system. Whether it is neuro-motor diseases or mental health issues; AI developed neural networks might be our panacea. While this opens unexplored avenues of questionable practices such as mind control, controlling dreams and imagination among others, we cannot deny the eventual dependence of humans on AI rather than physical alternatives like medicine.

AI in ecology is also much-talked about. While neuroscientists are trying to understand the reason why we dream, why we are capable of imagination, etc… Ecologists are resorting to AI to look for sustainable conservation models that can provide solutions to Global Warming, Biodiversity waning, alternate farming practices and development models.

Take the emerging branch of ‘Climate Informatics’ ,for instance, where AI is employed in analysing complex weather patterns without biases in model generation that would drastically improve the accuracy in data science practises. Equipped with AI systems, your laptop could be your ‘supercomputer’; rendering research affordable and accessible to such an extent will accelerate development in the field exponentially. Apart from making accurate predictions based on complex, ‘real’ models, AI can also identify tipping points/extreme events to scales unfathomed previously. This comes in handy when we seek to combat loss due to natural disasters. Not only will we be able to predict the event but also be provided with ‘quick and smart models’ to handle the crisis with maximum efficiency. This idea penetrates even into conservation strategies where AI can help identify trends in ‘disappearance’ of various species taking into consideration all the factors relevant and suggest methods to conserve them. These predictions can be made way before the actual event to improve our responses.

AI_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2The use of AI in automated vehicles is also of paramount importance to the environment. By reviewing traffic patterns, enabling fuel optimisation, monitoring exhaust releases and coordinating with other intelligent systems, an ‘intelligent vehicle’ can bring down the pollution by a significant rate. The idea can be extended to ‘smart cities’ where automated systems coordinate with each other to monitor parameters such as electricity usage, water usage/waste ratios, traffic and vehicle exhaust levels, amount of green cover, etc and find trends in the lifestyles, culture, age, gender, etc of populations to optimise pollution mitigation measures by making it more customised to the population and thus more feasible.

AI when incorporated into our satellites for ‘geo-mapping’ can track various pollution trends, deforestation, poaching, carbon footprints, industrial activity among other things to suggest an environmentally and economically feasible course of action for the future. Much like the smart cities, this can be tailored according to countries, development indices, biodiversity and topological features.

Of course, it would be worth to note that AI systems can learn from experience and from each other; it wouldn’t be a surprise if there are unexplored utility values of AI systems that come from the system’s own suggestions.

If these prospects seem ostentatious and flamboyant, we must remember that two months ago, no one had even imagined of the possibility of a pan-India digitized leaning….yet, look where we are now!

Some interesting questions to ponder upon when it comes to the applications of AI: Can we ‘induce’ morality in humans to conserve the environment? Can we analyse criminal behaviour and terminate its underlying cause? Can we substitute anti-depressants with neural re-wiring? Can we have successful and quick de-addiction sessions to eradicate alcoholism, smoking, etc? Can we solve the big conversation around consciousness? Will we understand the purpose of existence?

While some of these questions are being answered right now, there is lot of room to work on the others with the advent of AI as a ‘new normal’.  With governments and global communities abandoning the ‘arms race’ and ‘space race’ for the new ‘Digital Race’ headed by the development of AI, we might get intertwined with the many moral, social and economic discussions around this new field of study. Nevertheless, AI is the new poster boy of the scientific community and shall soon revolutionize not just life on Earth but the very definition of life. 

Collector: Aishwarya H. Iyer

A solution to floral pollution 

Flower means beautiful, soft, colorful, sacred, i.e.,, every possible word infuses something positive intofloral pollution_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2 it. Hence, the term floral pollution sounds a bit bizarre to us. But the facts and figures are not something to ignore, ~ 16% of river pollutants in India stem from floral wastes. A careful look at any urban or semi-urban waterbody reveals a good fraction of waste is from floral members. These wastes are mainly from temples (or other religious places) and from our households. The cultural-religious association of flower often precludes us to consider it as normal waste, therefore regular waste treatment plans turns futile. Although seems less harmful, flowers have their own role in pollution affecting aquatic life to a certain extent. Flowers are organic in nature, therefore, excess deposition in waterbody increases the organic load beyond the permissible limit. Similarly, pesticides and weedicides which are often used to grow flowers are also end up to the water.

Here is a story that tells about an exception. Kanpur, one of the prosperous cities in northern India on the bank of the river Ganges, had this floral waste problem. Along with the industrial and household effluents, flowers from temples and mosques also used to pollute the river on a regular basis. To deal with the problem, two young entrepreneurs, Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi, adopted an innovativeFounders_IndiaToday strategy which addressed multiple issues at a time. Their initiative ‘helpusgreen’ made an agreement with religious places to receive the temple waste, i.e., tons of flowers on a daily basis to their recycling unit. Those used up flowers are then recycled through ‘flower cycling’ technology to vermicompost and incense sticks for further use. Majority of the workers in their unit are women who earlier involved in manual scavenging activities, therefore have to withstand severe social stigma. Their inclusion in this initiative assured both social acceptance and economic upliftment This unique approach towards the environmental issue blended with social justice caught the attention of the United Nations Environment Program and is appreciated as one of the inspiring steps towards the sustainable development goals.  

Image:, Economic Times, India Today
Collector: Rajasri Ray


Ice flower – Natures miracle

Come winter, life becomes standstill in many parts of the earth especially where human footprint is stillIce flower_CEiBa_Vol3_Issue2 not so dominant. However, there is no interruption in natural activities which often turns into a miracle. In Heilongjiang province of northeast China, Kurbin river area is famous for its ‘ice flower season’. The 220 km long river running from north to south mostly goes through temperate environment. During winter, the temperature goes down to -300C, creating a freezing condition in the northern region. As a result, trees become leafless skeleton of branches standing as guard at the river bank. However, due to the presence of a hydropower station at the upstream of the river, there is always a flow of water with temperature above 00C. This comparatively warmer water when comes in touch of the chilly environment, a foggy condition develops along the course of the river. At night, the water droplets present in the fog get crystalized andRime_Xabusiness tiny ice particles are deposited over the bare branches of the trees, thus creating millions of icy crystals across the area fondly called as ‘rime’. These crystals cover the trees in such a way that it appears as winter bloom for the trees. The rime formation is a widely known phenomenon across the cold temperate region of China. Apart from Kurbin river, Wusong island near Songhua river, Tianmenshan Natioanl Forest Park in Hunan province are few famous spots for rime vision. The scenic landscape immersed in total tranquility attracts flocks of tourist from December to March every year to celebrate the Winter Flower Season and to enjoy the winter life on the Earth.

Image: Max Liang, 
Collector: Rajasri Ray