-Elrika D'Souza and Vardhan Patankar

Every year, we dedicate the 2nd to the 8th of October as the 'Wildlife week'. It is during this period that we reflect on our countries' rich biodiversity and the services it provides us. While we celebrate this week here, in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, there is a greater reason to fete our success and evaluate our failures in protecting our very own State animal, the dugong.

The dugong or pani suwar has a long history of existence in these islands. Old fishers recollect sighting herds of 10-15 dugongs just a few decades back when there were over two hundred animals inhabiting these waters. Most people in the islands believe that dugongs are found only in Dugong creek in Little Andaman. Contrary to this, dugongs have been and continue to be reported (although few in numbers) from islands in North Andaman (Reef, Sheame and Landfall), South Andaman (Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, Chidiatapu), the Ritchie's archipelago (Neil, Havelock and Inglis), Little Andaman and around the Nancowry group of islands.

Sadly, hunting in the past and accidental entanglement in fishing nets has led to drastic declines in dugong numbers making it rare to sight an animal in the wild in recent years. Recognising this fact, in 1992, the Ministry of Environment and Forests amended the status of the dugong, giving this marine mammal legal protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act. In 2002, the dugong was declared the State animal of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. At the national level, a Dugong Task Force was constituted in 2008 and in 2011, a project was approved to recover the species under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme, for a period of five years.

The Department of Environment and Forests here in Port Blair along with scientists at the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore, have been working together ever since, to develop a management and protection plan for the animal. Over the years, this effort has been headed and managed by officers at the Department like Mr. D.V. Negi, Mr. G.N. Sinha, Mr. S.S. Garbyal, Mr. K. Ravichandran, Mr Ajai Saxena, Mr A.K. Paul and Mr B.P. Yadav. 

As researchers of the project, we identified important dugong habitat during the first two years of the project. Over 50 seagrass meadows are present in the shallow waters of the island, but animals appeared to feed in only eight of these meadows. The selective diet of the dugong and presence of their preferred seagrass species at these sites is the main reason. We monitored seagrass meadows over two years and learnt that dugongs repeatedly feed in these sites throughout the year, rarely abandoning the site. Only seventeen individuals have been sighted till date, of which three were mother-calf pairs. The low numbers are alarming and monitoring and protecting these select habitats and the remaining individuals has become important for the animals survival.

It has been four long years since the start of our joint efforts. While we have gathered the basic information needed to protect the species and manage its habitat, there have been several roadblocks. These have been mainly due lack of continuity in sanctioning of funds, delays in fund release when sanctioned and insufficient funds when released. While these hindrances have not discouraged efforts from the department, it has surely affected the momentum of work and increased the time frame for achieving the set goals.

After a year's lag, this financial year seems promising, with the Ministry sanctioning funds. In the months to come there are plans to identify clear terms of management intervention, establish a monitoring programme for the species and its habitat, and help further clarify aspects of the species biology, behaviour and ecology, that would be critical for its rational conservation.

Besides increasing our understanding of the dugong, there are also huge practical challenges to conserving the species. Fishing nets and high-speed boats in dugong habitat and hunting by communities who believe in the totemic and cultural value of the animal are a few of these. A major community-based conservation programme with the joint effort of all stakeholders over an extended period is a must and. The declaration that accorded it the status of the State animal will otherwise, amount to nothing more than a mere symbol.

Elrika D'Souza is a Research Fellow at the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore and  Vardhan Patankar is an INSPIRE fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. They can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 


Assistant Professor & Head, JNRM

While I was studying in  Gandhigram Rural Institute, Gandhigram, Tamilnadu,  I stayed five years as a student and exposed various Gandhian Activities which include Village Adoption and Rural Reconstructive Programmes. Every week we used to visit the adopted village and the task entrusted on us to motivate the Rural Youth to form Youth Club and Mahila Mandal for womenfolks. We believed through this forum only we can attain total sanitation in the village including eradicating the habit of open air defecation. Initially struggled to interact with the targeted group people, but slowly acclimatized. Sometime among ourselves in a student group we use to have chat on in the present day of globalised and faster growth of economy why to bother about village, rather build a urbanized model which will attract the villages to listen us. We have also carried this outcome of our discussion to the Gandhian Though Class which is compulsory for all students of Gandhigram. When discussion round came one of my fellow friend opened up our previous outcome to the eminent faculty member. The very evening without hesitating the professor took us to the village and asked us to observe the happenings as mute spectator till dusk without disturbing anybody. The next day again we have assembled and were asked to present the previous day learning. Some  says Villagers are pity and poor, few opined government ignored them, and some said the place is not suitable to live in. etc.,

Based on the outcome of our first visit to the village, we decided to visit the village to conduct Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) which is a tool to identify the problem and solution from the people and we are just facilitator. After the PRA exercise the top priority and urgent felt need realized by the women and adolescent girl was sanitation. That time remembered a Gandhian Thought lecture i.e “ When there is both inner and outer cleanliness , it becomes next to godliness”. After learning from the villagers about what they want exactly, we felt that’s what Gandhiji emphasized long back. Bapuji know the pulse of the rural areas and  villagers, that’s why he gave top priority for sanitation and cleanliness during his stay in South Africa and in India through his constructive programmes. When he came back from South Africa he visited Kolkatta that time congress session was in progress. Gandhiji was unhappy and appalled by the filth and unsanitary conditions at the meeting site. Instead of lecturing he cleaned the drains and organized the volunteers to dispose the filth and he personally cleaned and covered the pit latrines. Instead of addressing the delegates he taught the lesson by showing example.  Regarding the bad habit of spitting babuji once with humor commented “if all Indians were to spit all together at the same time, India would drown”.  The Young India dated April 25th 1929, Gandhiji commented on our habit of keeping the home clean and dumping the surroundings dirt, filth. Way back through this he insisted everybody to shoulder the responsibility of making clean India

So, Cleanliness  can not be achieved by warnings, laws or punishments, it would be achieved only as a matter of habit. Long back Gandhiji wrote in Young India, dated November 19th 1925 “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”.

By Almas Shamim

The other day I walked into the kids section of a famous clothing brand, to be greeted by two prominent colours- Blue and Pink. How lovely this little demarcation of colour appears! I remember how religiously I stuck to this colour coding for my twin nephew and niece, with all toys and clothes bought in pairs- the pink one for my niece and the blue one for my nephew. It almost became a subconscious choice later on- our hands automatically going for all pink things when shopping for the girl and all blue things when shopping for the boy. The absurdity, when pointed out in one of the ‘Gender’ classes I attended, was too large to be ignored, but it really hit me hard when I heard that my nephew, at 7 years of age, hated pink! The link between a young child hating pink and the constant reminder by his family that pink is the ‘girly’ colour is only too obvious. We later realized that not only did he criticize all things pink, he also constantly criticized all ‘princess’ stories and toys, coz’ obviously, they were meant for his sister, not for him. In one of those tender moments between a mother and a child, my nephew admitted that he wanted to play with some of those ‘princess’ toys, but, was only scared that others would make fun of him!

We do regret, now, that we had brought this colour separation between the twins, but, thankfully, we realized our folly when there was time still remaining. This slight colour segregation is a powerful example of the levels at which we segregate gender in our society. No child is born knowing the kind of toys it should play with or the kind of clothes it should wear. As the child grows, he/she is conditioned into becoming a boy/ girl! It is this very conditioning which makes it nearly impossible for a male to cry without his pals mocking him, and the same conditioning which prevents girls from taking up sports as a career. Not to say, that such gender segregation is cashed on by, and really- also driven by, multibillion dollar businesses. These huge companies know how to turn situations to their advantage and so keep coming up with more and more pink and blue child products to satisfy the great demand by the public to make the two genders stand out from each other. In doing so, they are also strengthening gender norms and are shaping further demand for themselves.

Yes, there is a start of advertisements attempting to be more gender-sensitive, trying to make their products more suitable for both the genders, and even toy companies coming up with a lot of products for girls which were conventionally thought to be ‘masculine’. Yet, the battle is largely for us to fight. We need to make sure that we, in our attempt to make our children’s rooms ‘cuter’ or simply to follow what others have been doing, don’t end up making our boys hate pink. I must also remind this to myself, especially when I go for the ‘Kinder Joy’ for girls…. I must remind myself that a ‘Kinder joy’ which is different for girls and boys, is a ‘Kinder Joy’ not worth for humans at all! 

Almas Shamim is a public health specialist with a great interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and feminism among Muslim women. She currently works for an international humanitarian aid organization in New Delhi and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

By Almas Shamim

We all must have met, known or heard of someone who has a medical condition or a disease but has tried to hide it from others. Communicable diseases like TB, HIV-AIDS, and mental health conditions top the charts for diseases that tend to be hidden the most.

The reason behind a person not willing to share or talk about a disease condition is the stigma associated with these diseases. Stigma means a dishonor that is linked to a circumstance, in this case, having a certain disease. Society tends to look down upon people who have contracted the HIV, since it is common knowledge that HIV is transmitted sexually. Given the low sexual freedom in present day India, people with diseases that could have been acquired sexually are judged to be ‘immoral’ and said to have shamed the family and caste. Add on to this the dimension of gender and we get a world where female HIV patients, even though a lot of them have acquired the virus from their own husbands, are thrown out of their houses and sometimes even whole villages. A similar picture is seen in tuberculosis as well where many women are disowned by their families. Though TB is not a sexually transmitted disease, the fact that it is debilitating and sometimes fatal is sufficient to make the society talk about it in hushed voices.

Mental diseases are so stigmatized that many patients are not even taken to a psychiatrist ever, Especially in places like our own islands, most mental health conditions are attributed to some ‘kala jadoo’ by our neighbor or relative, who wants our family to go crazy because our son score greater marks than their son in the 10th standard board exams. Such explanations for altered behaviour are only too common in our islands. These superstitious beliefs in the supernatural have kept so many people from being diagnosed and treated of real mental health abnormalities. Commonly seen conditions like depression and anxiety disorders which need psychiatric help, also suffer, as a result, since people refuse to consult the doctor in a fear of being labeled as a “pagal”.

For the cure of any disease, along with the Government, the patients are the biggest stakeholders. Following my previous piece on the need for community groups, I requwst that people who have been patients of any disease, but particularly the stigmatized one come forward and share their experiences. The more we normalize a disease, the lesser the stigma which remains around it. Then, we can focus only on the treatment part, without worrying over labels or being disowned.

So, friends, speak up and share your personal stories.

Almas Shamim is a public health specialist with a great interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and feminism among Muslim women. She currently works for an international humanitarian aid organization in New Delhi and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

By Almas Shamim

“Community”- how often we use this word! Indeed, it is a very powerful driving force in so many ways- be it by giving us a sense of belonging, an identity or a safe haven- we all know how important a “community” is.

But, for once, let’s get out of our narrow view of this word- let’s try to belong to a community of a particular disease. Doesn’t sound very great, does it? But, this community of diseased people is as powerful as any other community. Today, let’s just go through all the benefits of forming such “community groups”.

A community group of a disease, let’s say diabetes, gives all the member patients a sense of belonging. It’s a group of people where all understand our journey and our difficulties of dealing with this disease. It becomes a place where new patients can benefit from the experience of patients who have been dealing with the disease for a long time. It can be a common place to share all the knowledge we have about our common health condition, a place to raise our doubts and questions and also a place to receive answers about the same.

We always hear complaints of how little time doctors and nurses spend ‘explaining’ a disease to their patients. In such a situation, a community group can be a great way to overcome this lack of information with each individual taking initiative to find information about a part of the disease process. It, thus, becomes a great place for myth-busting.

There have been great examples of how community groups have helped members adhere to their treatment, by assigning a “buddy” to each member. These “buddies” can take the role of reminding each other to take their medicines on time, or get their blood tested on time. It brings in more accountability on the patient but in a friendly way, which, let’s face it, our existing health system fails to do.

Though self-help to the patients is a crucial role of ‘community groups’, it is not restricted to self-help. ‘Community groups’ MAY, if properly channeled, become strong advocacy voices. Let’s assume (I repeat, ASSUME) a situation where G.B Pant Hospital fails to provide insulin for diabetics for a month. Insulin, in the private market is expensive and may not be affordable to many. These community groups of diabetics can then mobilize themselves and others to approach authorities. Such groups don’t just have the power of number but also the power of experience and validity. Elected representatives are bound to hear the plea of people who are really suffering from a shortage. If they don’t, the liability for them is high. Judiciary and media are other possible avenues for taking the case further. Such groups have been key in making many drugs available through national programs, in our country, as well as many other countries across the globe.

While advocacy with the government or administration, may seem a bigger challenge, small scale advocacy of raising awareness and providing information are surely something ‘community groups’ can take on easily.

Additionally, there is always the advantage of meeting new people, making new friends and contributing to the community in a positive way.

But, how do we go about it? Well, we could start with bringing together a few friends known to us who share a common disease. It could be diabetes, hypertension, any cardiac problem (heart disease) or even a family member’s terminal illness. We could organize weekly, fortnightly or even monthly meets to discuss and share our experiences and complaints. The meets need not be ‘grand’, they could be in the living room of one of the members, or a common park. There could be many such groups. The whole point is to empower ourselves in matters of our own health. Fabulous ideas on health promotion and prevention can arise from such meets. The best part- it is our own idea for ourselves.

So, are we game? 

Almas Shamim is a public health specialist with a great interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and feminism among Muslim women. She currently works for an international humanitarian aid organization in New Delhi and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.