Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Number of the day: 49%

According to a new survey of six north Indian states, 49% of pregnant women actually ate less food during their pregnancy. Only 22% ate nutritious food every day, and 34% struggled due to lack of money. The most telling stat: “For instance, 48% of pregnant women and 39% of nursing women in UP had no idea whether or not they had gained weight during pregnancy.” In other words, no one was monitoring their health or nutrition.

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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The tragedy at Sambhar Lake

In the midst of screaming headlines on politics as usual, thousands of birds were found dead on the shores of a saltwater lake over the last 10 days. We dug deeper to find out why.

What happened at Sambhar Lake? More than 17,000 birds have been found dead along its shores. These include 25 different species, including thousands of pink flamingos, demoiselle cranes and other species that flock to the lake from northern Asia and Siberia each year. Also dead: a number of local species such as  Greater Flamingos and Lesser Flamingos. The lake is now described as “the site of Asia’s largest mass mortality of birds.”

Tell me about Sambhar Lake: Here are the key details:

  • It is India's largest inland salt lake located near Jaipur, Rajasthan. 

  • The wetland hosts 83 known bird species. These include migratory birds both from northern Asia and within India, from places such as Gujarat. 

  • Salt mining at the lake is controlled by a public-private joint venture between Hindustan Salts Limited and the Rajasthan government. The lake currently produces 2,10,000 tonnes of salt each year.

  • The government has declared it a Ramsar site—i.e. a wetland of international importance and is protected under a UN convention of that name. However, it has done little to protect this fragile and dying habitat. 

  • The lake that once spanned 230 square kilometers now barely covers 7 square kilometers—for reasons that we will get to below.

  • According to researchers, the number of migratory birds has plummeted from 20,000 in 1995 to 1,389 in 2018-19.

  • Also disappearing: flamingos whose numbers have fallen from 500,000 in 1982-83 to 20,000 in 2008. 

Ok, so why did the birds die? The government has not yet given an official reason for these mass deaths. And experts are still testing the carcasses to ascertain the exact cause. But there are a number of theories, some more likely than others.

Theory #1, avian botulism: This is the most popular explanation put forward by local veterinary experts. It is a paralytic, frequently fatal disease caused by the ingestion of toxins—typically contained in maggots. An expert told PTI, “First it paralyses the leg and then the wings, resulting in eventual death of the bird. These symptoms have been found in dead birds' legs and as most of the species died are non-vegetarian." 

Theory #2, excess and sudden rain: After successive years of drought, the area received heavy rains. Birds, therefore, flocked to the lake in high numbers attracted by the rising water level. However, the sudden inflow changed the alkaline balance of the salt water and made it toxic. The excess salt in turn contaminated plankton—i.e. micro-organisms in the water—which were consumed by the birds. The result: hypernatremia or more simply, salt poisoning. 

Point to note: Invasive bacteria breed heavily in such high levels of salt, and their presence was confirmed by a recent environmental report on Sambhar lake. So the spread of avian botulism could also be related to the change in water quality.

Theory #3, salt mining: This is the one factor that government officials are least keen to discuss. But it likely played the biggest role in causing this tragedy.

  • As we noted before, the lake is mined by Hindustan Salt Limited, a public company formed after independence to manufacture salt.

  • However, thousands of illegal miners also extract salt from the lake—while the government turns a blind eye.

  • According to a Supreme Court petition filed in 2015, they have dug innumerable borewells—some as deep as 500 feet. And they have laid pipelines that extend several kilometres into the lake in order to extract salt water.

  • And this is the main reason that the lake is highly polluted and shrinking—leading to the environmental disaster at hand.

  • A more immediate cause: Salt miners also use submersible pump sets in borewells created deep inside the lake bed. A number of these electric cables were recently found damaged—and some suggest that a large number of birds could have been electrocuted to death.

  • Repeated efforts to ban illegal salt mining have failed—primarily due to economic reasons. As water resources dry up, farmers have turned to salt production to survive. A ban, if enforced, will jeopardise the lives and livelihood of salt workers.

The big picture: Saltwater lakes are critical habitats for migratory birds around the world. As a key US study found, when water levels fall in these lakes, bird populations will inevitably fall as well. Avian botulism and other such factors are merely a symptom of a far deeper problem of destructive human activity—which in turn will inevitably be made worse by climate change in the decades to come. 


Is there a solution? Yes. Shockingly, despite declaring Sambhar lake a Ramsar site, no environmental or forest agency has been given the task of protecting it. Hindustan Salts concerns itself entirely with salt extraction—and its remit does not include conservation. Taking that one simple step in the right direction would make a world of difference.


Learn more: This 2015 Down To Earth story has the best reporting on the effects of salt mining on Sambhar Lake. Hindustan Times has the recent environmental report on its health (or lack thereof). IANS reports on the shocking fact that no agency has been tasked with its preservation. The Wire rounds up the possible causes, including electrocution.

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hurriedly trying to book a trip to Bhutan

Jio joins the price hike party: Vodafone and Airtel recently announced plans to raise their prices. Well, if you were planning to switch to cheap-o Jio to save your wallet, think again. Reliance is also upping its tariffs, but no one knows how high the rates will go. One market analyst’s prediction: “I would be surprised if the tariff hikes being talked about will be anything less than 20%.” Gulp!

A shocking state of detention: The Telegraph reports on the appalling state in which Kashmiri politicians are being held. Many were shifted from a hotel to a hostel, and are now held in small unheated rooms with boarded up windows. Also this tidbit: Former CM Mehbooba Mufti received “a few slaps on face and head from the lady constable.” (?!) (The Telegraph)

That dream Bhutan vacay just got pricey: Until now, tourists from neighbouring countries—including India, Bangladesh and Maldives—didn’t need a visa or have to pay the hefty fees slapped on international tourists. Foreigners typically pay a minimum of $250 (Rs 18,000) per day per person. As per soon-to-be introduced rules, Indians will now have to pay the daily “Sustainable Development Fee” ($65/day) plus a $40 “permit processing fee.” The reason: Bhutan is worried about the rising number of tourists—who have increased 10x over the past decade. In 2018, of the 2,74,000 visitors to Bhutan, 1,80,000 were from India. (The Hindu)

Google wants to correct your pronunciation: Confused about how to pronounce stupid words that never sound as they are spelled? (Our pet peeve: penchant) Google is here to help. Just type in ‘how to pronounce…’ and it will give you an audio version of the correct pronunciation, and you can use your phone’s mic to practice saying the word. Of course, you still won’t remember any of it the next time you use that wretched word. Pen-shahn, pahn-shawn… (The Next Web)

Is Trump having a series of “small strokes”? Obama’s former physician certainly thinks so. The reason: Trump often can’t string together coherent sentences. According to the good doctor, "These are words he can't find and this is happening over and over again. Comedians joke about it, but it's not a joking matter. I think there is a neurological issue that is not being addressed. The reason for speculation: Trump recently paid an unscheduled visit to his doctor, which his aides later dismissed as “phase one” of his annual physical. As the Washington Post notes, “It is unusual for a president to undergo a physical exam in multiple stages months apart.” (Newsweek)

A revolutionary recycling technology? An Israeli company claims to have created a radical technology that transforms garbage into raw material for plastic manufacturers. And that includes any kind of garbage: rotting food, plastic bags, dirty paper, bottles and containers, even broken toys. The big, bold plan: to prevent all garbage from ending up in the landfill. (Washington Post)

Men like their exes better than women: New research shows that men tend to think more positively of their former partners than women. But the reasons are unclear and may not be quite as, umm, positive. For example: men may just want to keep that hook up option open. Also, in bad news for future partners: “being grateful for your ex may actually make it harder to say ‘thank you, next’.” (British Psychological Society)

Bangalore is killing its restaurants: A series of high-profile and popular restaurants have closed shop in recent months. And for once the slowing economy is not to blame. The culprit: local officials who have made it nearly impossible to get a music license. The latest victim: Monkey Bar. (Bangalore Mirror)

Rajya Sabha’s epic #FashionFail: For reasons unfathomable to normal human beings, those in charge of deciding such things decided to give the upper house’s marshals a makeover. The result: a ‘tinpot military dictator’ look imported from the set of an 80s flick. Here are ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos. No one liked it, but more amusingly former generals were morally outraged at such blatant plagiarism. The Vice President has since promised to undo this insult to military honour.

More is not better in friendship: According to a new study, it is more important to have a few close friends rather than a wide circle of acquaintances—which in turn impacts how lonely you feel. Sounds kinda obvious, but what struck us was this bit of advice: “If you feel lonely, it may be more helpful to make a positive connection with a friend than to try and seek out new people to meet.” Also: It’s why older people tend to be happier than their younger peers who tend to have larger networks of “peripheral others” thanks to social media. (Daily Mail)

Your daily quota of sunshine items: include the following:

  • This intrepid Delhi conman who got a free ride on 15 flights by pretending to be a Lufthansa pilot. Details here.

  • This must-read story of a man who single-handedly clears plastic waste from the Ganga.

  • This US politician who let rip a big one… in the middle of an on-air interview! Though he strenuously denies it.

  • South Dakota’s new $500,000 anti-meth campaign with an unintentionally hilarious slogan

  • This very horny deer who is now scarred for life.

  • This excellent read (incl. links to cool projects) on Indian designers who are “decolonising” their work and challenging “design school propaganda.” 

  • This lovely video story of a 99-year-old man who walks six miles every day to visit his wife of 55 years in the hospital.

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Everything we don't know about human desire

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A luminescent snapshot of an abusive relationship

This is an exquisite excerpt from Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir ‘In the Dream House’ that documents her abusive relationship with her ex-girlfriend. Read it for the achingly gorgeous writing and unflinching honesty. (Read Vox’s review if you want to know more)

Read: In the Dream House: A Memoir | The Cut

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Hell is dating in San Francisco

We offer this piece as a wellness gift for you to bookmark. Anytime you are feeling blue about the state of your personal life, it will give you many reasons to feel very, very grateful that you are not single in San Francisco. Someone ghost you on Tinder? Hey, at least he’s not using a chatbot to DM you late at night. (Note: you have to sign in via Google or register to read the piece)

Read: Freemium Love: Tech Transforms Dating in San Francisco l The Information

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