Monday, February 19, 2018

Guardian Dogs of the Mongolian Steppe

By Jason Overdorf
Scientific American (February 2018)

Two days' drive from the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, 100 miles from the country's border with China, the foothills of the Altai Mountains slash a jagged brown line across the scrubby southern Gobi grasslands. Home to hungry wolves and snow leopards and brutal winters, it is rough country for herders such as 57-year-old Otgonbayar, a weather-beaten nomad who works his flock of 1,000-odd cashmere goats and two dozen sheep from the back of a 100-cc Chinese motorcycle.

“The wolves were terrible this winter,” Otgonbayar says on a spring day in 2016, as his wife passes around a dented aluminum bowl filled with Russian candies and sugar cubes. “If it weren't for my dog, my losses would have been much greater.” Just a few days earlier wolves had killed four of his animals. In a typical season, they can take 50 or more.

Since the 1990s, to compensate for the animals lost to predators and inclement weather, herders such as Otgonbayar have vastly increased the size of their flocks, which has led to overgrazing that has plunged the steppe into a vicious cycle of herd expansion and environmental degradation. Now, however, an American biologist-turned-entrepreneur named Bruce Elfström is working with the herders to break that pattern by reintroducing a tool developed thousands of years ago: an indigenous livestock guardian dog known as the bankhar. “The idea was to find the dogs of old, their grandfathers' dogs, then breed them and give them back to the people. The goal being that without the fear of predators, they won't raise so many goats, which are turning the steppe into desert,” Elfström says.

Collective Failure

Before Mongolia abandoned communism in the 1990s, socialist controls dictated how many animals herders could raise. Regulations prevented overgrazing through a system of rotating pastures, and the government made sure herders in remote grasslands could get their meat and wool to market. During the country's transition to a market economy, that scheme was dismantled. The government privatized the herds, but the pastures remained common land. That arrangement encouraged herders to raise more animals without providing any incentive to preserve the range. At the same time, the rise of neighboring China resulted in soaring demand for cashmere, explains Zara Morris-Trainor, a doctoral candidate at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, who is studying the impact of the trade on Mongolia's snow leopards.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—which resulted in a precipitous drop in bilateral trade with Russia—made Mongolia more dependent on China. Almost overnight, nomads who had traditionally raised a mixed herd of camels, goats, horses, sheep, cattle and yaks began ramping up herd sizes with more and more cashmere-producing goats, which are harder on the soil because their sharp hooves puncture the biological crust that prevents wind erosion. Historically accounting for less than a fifth of all livestock, goats made up about a third of some 29 million domesticated grazers by 1996. By 2015 the goat population had surged to nearly 24 million out of a total herd of 56 million livestock.

The expansion of Mongolia's desert has kept pace with that increase. Since 1996, which was also the year in which the country first joined the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the amount of its land severely impacted by desertification has more than tripled to around 100,000 square miles—about a sixth of Mongolia's total land mass. As much as 80 percent of the damage is the result of overgrazing, researchers at Oregon State University concluded from satellite maps of the vegetation in 2013.

Over roughly the same period, uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction have killed 75 to 90 percent of various prey animals. Their downfall has forced wolves and snow leopards to target the nomads' herds, even as ever more frequent winter storms known as dzuds have periodically killed millions of livestock. Without other adequate forms of insurance, the nomads have taken matters into their own hands: in good times, they have enlarged their herds in hopes of ending up with at least some animals in the spring; in lean times, they have confined their livestock in smaller areas to try to protect them. Both responses have intensified the problem of desertification.

Making matters worse, because the herders are impotent against drought, snow and climate change, many of them focus their resentment on predators. Reliable statistics about how many animals they kill are hard to come by. But as many as 14 percent of Mongolian herders interviewed for a 2002 study admitted to killing snow leopards in retribution for dead livestock. And experts still cite retaliatory killings as among the main threats to the big cats, according to Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, director for the Snow Leopard Trust's partner organization in Mongolia. Wolves are in the crosshairs, too. “For wolves, there is still local-government-level hunting organized annually in some areas,” Agvaantseren says. Conservationists fear for the future of both species in Mongolia.

Rescue Dogs

Elfström believes he can help. In 2013 he designed a program to reduce livestock losses—and thereby encourage support for wildlife conservation—by bringing back the bankhar, a large, black-and-brown mountain dog. The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project has set up a breeding and training center near Ulaanbaatar and placed the dogs with nomads who face high pressure from predators. Otgonbayar is one of the first participants. “The goal is to take what we're doing and hand it off to Mongolians so we can have satellite breeding centers around the country,” says the 51-year-old Elfström, who owns a Connecticut-based off-road driving school called Overland Experts.

Bankhars were once ubiquitous on the Mongolian steppe. In a nod to their fearsome nature, the traditional Mongolian greeting is “Hold your dog.” Dogs are the only animals the Mongolians believe to be worth naming. Various defining myths and folktales—including the origin myth that traces the birth of Genghis Khan to the coupling of a blue wolf and a fallow deer—confirm that traditionally nomads believed that the Mongolians and their dogs were “of the same bones,” notes anthropologist Gaby Bamana, currently a visiting scholar at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Despite their cultural importance, however, true bankhars have mostly disappeared since the communist era. A symbol of independence, fierce, territorial dogs were unsuited to the ideology of the times and the practical realities of state-owned herds, which allowed herders to keep only seven animals per person as private property. There was even a brief craze for bankhar fur coats in Moscow in the 1930s. Furthermore, crossbreeding between bankhars and other dogs, including an influx of German shepherds that accompanied the effort to build the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the 1940s and the guard dogs and household pets of more than 100,000 Russian military personnel who moved to Mongolia in the 1960s, has diluted the gene pool of the indigenous bankhar population. Indeed, it is hard to find bankhars that have not been crossed with foreign breeds, which can reduce their effectiveness as livestock protectors by reintroducing predatory traits that breeders promote in dogs like the German shepherd.

The expertise required to raise effective bankhars is also in short supply. The same collectivization programs that discouraged their use resulted in the loss of much traditional knowledge. Few of the herders whose families have occupied the steppe for generations now remember how to rear dogs to protect livestock.

Why, then, is Elfström intent on reviving the bankhar? Guardian dogs are still common elsewhere in the world, from the ovcharka in the Caucasus to the Anatolian shepherd in Turkey to the Great Pyrenees in the West. Why not just import these breeds to Mongolia?

One reason is biological. Like the forebears of other guardian dogs, the bankhar was not created through the kind of careful inbreeding that resulted in modern breeds such as the Great Dane or golden retriever. Rather it evolved through a combination of natural and artificial selection: the best specimens thrived, whereas the nomads did not feed useless ones and culled those that chased or killed livestock. The result is a dog that is purpose-built for guarding flocks under harsh conditions.

Standing between 26 and 33 inches tall at the shoulder and weighing 80 to 125 pounds, bankhars are remarkably well adapted to the challenges of the steppe, where temperatures can soar to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and plunge to 50 below zero in winter. Their thick, shaggy fur, which feels almost as fine as cashmere to the touch, features a heavy undercoat that protects them from the cold in the winter and is shed in the summer, when they sometimes dig underground dens to escape the heat. Bankhars also need less food than other livestock guardian dogs of similar size—perhaps because they have evolved a slower metabolism, Elfström suggests—an important consideration in a region where many families have little to spare.

But cultural reasons, rather than biological ones, ultimately prompted Elfström to settle on reintroducing the bankhar instead of importing a similar guardian dog such as the ovcharka, which thrives in extreme climates elsewhere in Central Asia. Decades of Soviet meddling have left Mongolians wary of foreign advisers, and herders are especially skeptical that a bunch of Americans who do not seem to know a goat from a sheep will have anything to teach them. The bankhar, however, still has great cultural significance: traditionalists are convinced that the revered dogs can see into the spirit world, and more modern herders view them as a powerful symbol of national pride. “Everybody wants a bankhar,” Elfström says. If he can forge a relationship with the herders through the bankhar program, perhaps they will be amenable to other conservation efforts.

Ups and Downs

Thus far Elfström and his team have bred and distributed more than 60 bankhar puppies to herders. Although the project is in its early stages, a detailed study of its impact is now under way, and Elfström says he has “firm data” showing a 90 to 95 percent drop in the livestock killed by predators. The scheme has attracted the interest of nonprofit groups, including the Snow Leopard Trust and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). In 2016 the WCS helped to place six dogs with three families in an area of the Gobi that sees a lot of predation from wolves and raptors, according to Onon Bayasgalan, a conservationist who works with the WCS in Mongolia. “If the bankhar initiative proves to be a success with these herder families, we will consider expanding the number of families receiving the dogs. In the future, we may also consider collaborating with the bankhar project in our other project sites,” Bayasgalan said in 2016. This year Elfström is supplying the WCS with another 10 to 14 dogs.

Conservationists hope that by reducing stock losses, the dogs can help generate support for other ambitions, such as “sustainable cashmere,” which requires that the nomads focus on smaller herds to produce high-quality wool that they can sell for a higher price than regular wool. Already the distribution of puppies is acting as an informal reward for model herders such as Otgonbayar, whose rangeland is near a protected area for snow leopards. Elfström himself aims to institute further incentives to encourage herders to refrain from killing predators once he has shown how effective the dogs can be at deterring them.

That said, he has run into several hurdles. In May 2016 Mongolian environmental regulations forced him to shift his breeding center to a new location near Hustai National Park in the north of the country, thereby prompting a reboot of the project. Because of an accident, the faithful four-wheel-drive van that the team used to transport dogs and equipment now needs to be replaced. And although herders covet the bankhars, it is a constant struggle to find ones who are willing to implement the training protocol necessary to raise the puppies to be effective working dogs. The regimen, which requires keeping the puppies corralled with the livestock from the age of six to 13 weeks so that they bond to the goats and sheep the way pet dogs do to humans, is not complicated, but it requires a herder who is willing to listen.

More discouraging, the collaboration with the Snow Leopard Trust has stalled. A little headway has been made, but Gustaf Samelius, assistant director of science for the trust, says it is not actively working to place dogs from Elfström's bankhar project because all the nomads in the areas where the organization works already have dogs of their own. “From the few people I've talked to, they all seem to be happy with the dogs they have,” Samelius says.

That claim is a major source of frustration for Elfström. Virtually without exception, the dogs in question are strays or crossbreeds that were not raised to bond with the herders' livestock, he says. They provide some deterrent against predators, mostly by barking if a snow leopard comes near the corral at night, but they cannot be trusted to guard the herd in the pasture because they are bonded to the family rather than its livestock. They are more likely to follow the shepherd back to the yurt than to keep watch over the flock.

Despite Samelius's assertion that nobody wants them, the bankhar team is working on its own to place pups with families who live in the same areas where the Snow Leopard Trust is active, though perhaps not the same families who say they are satisfied with their current dogs. Herders sometimes call their untrained crossbreeds bankhar out of ego or loyalty. But when they are offered a true, working bankhar from the breeding project, “all of a sudden, their dog becomes a mix, and they want ours,” Elfström says.

“Many people, including scientists, are still of the mindset that ‘a dog is a dog,’ despite an overwhelming glut of papers and data to prove them wrong,” Elfström says. “Herders know bankhars are not just dogs.” Research has shown that similar livestock guardian dogs have had dramatic impacts in Africa, Australia, Europe and the western U.S., where breeds such as the Great Pyrenees and Anatolian shepherd have reduced or eliminated livestock losses to cheetahs, coyotes, dingoes, foxes, bears and wolves. In Namibia the introduction of some 450 Anatolian shepherds over the past 20 years virtually eliminated livestock predation by cheetahs, helping to convince farmers to stop killing as many as 1,000 big cats a year. In Mongolia, where wildlife conservation is in its infancy, the effect could be equally dramatic, Elfström believes.

Provided the project succeeds in breeding enough dogs and in convincing enough nomads to rear them the right way, a reduction in retribution killings is likely. Other successful livestock guardian dog programs, including Cheetah Outreach in South Africa, have convinced farmers to sign contracts agreeing to not kill predators, leading to a sharp decline in retribution killings. And evidence from a livestock vaccination program run by the Snow Leopard Trust in Pakistan suggests that reducing livestock losses can encourage farmers to raise fewer animals: the program helped to reduce herd sizes by 17 percent.

But even if Elfström does succeed in persuading people to limit the size of their flocks, changing the practices of a few herders will be merely a Band-Aid on the proverbial bullet hole, he realizes, unless it is accompanied by a raft of other nonprofit efforts and policy measures aimed at conserving the Mongolian steppe and its denizens. Luckily, many such programs are already underway. Ulaanbaatar-based Sor Cashmere, for instance, is working to popularize cashmere made from the hair of yaks and camels, which are less environmentally damaging than goats. The Wildlife Conservation Society, for its part, is working with herders, mining companies and other stakeholders to fund ecological mitigation projects and promote sustainable goat cashmere.

“What we want to see is the herders moving more. What we want to see is them having a diverse herd. What we want to see is them not having extra animals to counter the fact that they're going to lose so many,” Elfström says. “But that requires that we work with other nongovernmental organizations. We can't do everything.”

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Guide to the Hidden Gems of Delhi’s Architectural Legacy

By Jason Overdorf
Destinasian (January 2018)

From the rooftop of Haveli Dharampura, Old Delhi stretches toward the horizon. Turning slowly, I can pick out the towering minarets of the Jama Masjid, the red Lego blocks of the Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir temple, the gleaming onion domes of the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, and the bustling market of Chandni Chowk. As dusk falls, the sky is fluttering with hundreds of kites, and the neighborhood pigeon caller is readying his birds for flight. It’s a glimpse of a culture that has endured for hundreds of years, practically since the days of the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, whose architects built much of what is still sometimes called Shahjahanabad in the early 17th century.

First settled in the sixth century B.C., Delhi has been the capital of a dozen-odd empires dating back to the dynasty of the Pandavas, the five sibling heroes of India’s ancient Mahabharata epic. Remnants of that storied past are scattered throughout the city—some dating to 300 B.C., others from the medieval and colonial periods. But so far, the government has failed to capitalize on this rich trove of monuments, which could make Delhi a tourist center on the order of Athens or Rome. Until now, perhaps.

From the rooftop of Haveli Dharampura, Old Delhi stretches toward the horizon. Turning slowly, I can pick out the towering minarets of the Jama Masjid, the red Lego blocks of the Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir temple, the gleaming onion domes of the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, and the bustling market of Chandni Chowk. As dusk falls, the sky is fluttering with hundreds of kites, and the neighborhood pigeon caller is readying his birds for flight. It’s a glimpse of a culture that has endured for hundreds of years, practically since the days of the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, whose architects built much of what is still sometimes called Shahjahanabad in the early 17th century.

First settled in the sixth century B.C., Delhi has been the capital of a dozen-odd empires dating back to the dynasty of the Pandavas, the five sibling heroes of India’s ancient Mahabharata epic. Remnants of that storied past are scattered throughout the city—some dating to 300 B.C., others from the medieval and colonial periods. But so far, the government has failed to capitalize on this rich trove of monuments, which could make Delhi a tourist center on the order of Athens or Rome. Until now, perhaps.

Opened as a 14-room boutique hotel in March 2016, Haveli Dharampura is one of the flagships of a nascent heritage renaissance underway across Delhi, a movement facilitated by the Internet, corporate sponsorship, and private initiatives. Another is the dramatic transformation of the area surrounding Humayun’s Tomb and the Nizamuddin Dargah shrine, where the Aga Khan Trust for Culture completed a massive restoration and expansion project in 2013 in an effort to create a template for conservation that could be emulated across the country. Other endeavors—sometimes haphazard, sometimes centralized—have also turned once-ignored monuments like the ruined 13th-century mosque and madrasa of South Delhi’s affluent Hauz Khas neighborhood and the colonnaded colonial center of Connaught Place into thriving entertainment hubs.

A growing environmentalist movement, meanwhile, has made strides toward restoring this surprisingly leafy city’s natural heritage, through the conservation of the 80-hectare Mehrauli Archaeological Park as well as the creation of the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary and the Yamuna Biodiversity Park—projects that have involved uprooting invasive species and clawing back forests from slums and garbage dumps.

As a longtime resident of Delhi, I had witnessed all this without really registering what was going on. That’s probably because when you are surrounded by its whirling throng, India’s capital always seems to be coming apart at the seams. Up close, it looks like nothing is changing or ever will change. But after living in the city for close to a decade, I moved to Berlin for 18 months—just enough of a hiatus for me to register the transformation I’d missed upon my return in early 2015. This summer, I revisited some of my favorite haunts and discovered a new sense of optimism.

A late Mughal–style mansion built in 1887 in the Chandni Chowk area, Haveli Dharampura is among the few local conservation projects to turn heritage into a straightforward commercial proposition. So-called “heritage hotels” have become the lynchpin of neighborhood conservation in Rajasthan, where, in 1971, former prime minister Indira Gandhi inadvertently created a new generation of hoteliers when she abolished the privy purses awarded to the state’s erstwhile royals. Haveli Dharampura marks the first significant hotel-conversion project in the historic center of Delhi.

Fronted by a massive arched gateway, the mansion had been carved up into warehouses and shoebox apartments when Vidyun’s politician father (and current minster of state) Vijay Goel acquired the property in 2010. The weight of the roof was causing the building to collapse on itself, and most of the original fixtures had been stripped away and sold. Perhaps even worse, a thicket of well-intentioned government regulations designed to protect heritage buildings paradoxically made every attempt at renovation a maze of bureaucratic hurdles.

Formerly a parliamentarian representing the constituency of Chandni Chowk, Goel understood those obstacles as well as anyone. He had initiated the first, halting efforts to restore the 17th-century bazaar district to its former glory in 1998, spearheading a government-led effort to repaint the facades of all the buildings along the main road from the Red Fort to the Fatehpuri Masjid and remove the rats’ nests of improvised electrical wiring strung overhead for a first-of-its-kind cultural festival that attracted some 500,000 visitors. But since then, he’d seen dozens of grandiose plans to turn the city’s historical center into a top-flight tourist attraction broken by their own ambition. Every square meter of Chandni Chowk is occupied by shops and residences. Nobody has any money (or much motivation) to invest in renovation. And the city’s strong culture of tenant rights makes evicting people to make way for historical restoration all but impossible.

Rather than a grand plan, therefore, Goel envisioned an anchor project that would be like throwing a pebble into a pond, sending ripples outward into the city even as it inspired like-minded entrepreneurs to develop their own heritage properties.

“Ten years ago, my father brought me and my brother here and told us he was taking us to the Taj Mahal of Delhi,” Vidyun recalls as we sit beneath one of the scalloped arches in Haveli Dharampura’s ground-floor restaurant. “I was standing in this complete ruin! It was ready to fall apart at any time.”

Today, the property is a stunning example of late-Mughal architecture. Over six years, Goel and his son, Siddhant, painstakingly reviewed documents and photographs and scoured the country for artisans to recreate the original structure, replacing the terrazzo and sandstone flooring, stripping out partitions, and restoring the original scalloped arches, columns, and marble latticework.
“They didn’t want to restore it to how it was 10 years ago, but to how it was 100 years ago,” Vidyun says.

You can already see the impact the hotel is having on its neighborhood, in the form of new businesses catering to the comparatively well-heeled guests Haveli Dharampura attracts to an area that had hitherto featured only backpacker accommodations. While it’s a long way from the posh medieval lanes of Italy’s Siena or even the rebirth that turned Beijing’s hutong district into a warren of art galleries and hip restaurants, it offers just enough evidence to inspire hope that such a revolution could be possible for Old Delhi, where as many as 200 historic havelis survive in a sad state of neglect. (One notable exception is the Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli, a private residence in the Chhota Bazaar area that was recently restored using traditional building materials and techniques—including grout mixed in a specially made circular mill—by young Delhi architect Aishwarya Tipnis.) But first, the bureaucrats will need to get out of the way.

“The government should come to the support of the people,” Vijay Goel says. “We should relax the rules that have prevented renovations and give concessions to people who want to restore other havelis.”

Neither Goel nor many other Delhiwallahs expect that kind of government support to materialize anytime soon. But across town in another of the city’s remarkable historical centers, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has demonstrated that civil society can accomplish the same kind of transformation, combining conservation with urban renewal.

Despite achieving World Heritage status in 1993, the 16th-century Humayun’s Tomb complex has never drawn as many visitors as the Red Fort or Qutub Minar, the city’s other two UNESCO sites. That’s in part because of the name, explains AKTC’s Ratish Nanda, who has devoted most of his career to the site’s restoration. While the Taj Mahal is also a burial site, it’s known as a “palace,” not a “tomb,” and promoted as a testament to emperor Shah Jahan’s love for his favorite wife. For some reason, the Empress Bega Begum’s devotion to her late husband, Humayun, has never attained the same cachet.

To me, though, that has always made Humayun’s Tomb and the neighboring Nizamuddin Dargah more exhilarating. On the off-season morning when I meet Nanda for a walking tour of the restoration project, I am one of perhaps a half-dozen tourists exploring the 12-hectare Persian-style garden that surrounds the massive, domed tomb of India’s second Mughal emperor. It’s not always so deserted, Nanda assures me. The number of visitors has increased from around 200,000 to more than a million per year thanks to the restoration project. But because the complex is so large, you don’t get the fish-in-a-barrel feeling that hits you amid the thicket of touts at the Taj Mahal.

A sandstone precursor to the white marble Taj, Humayun’s Tomb had deteriorated steadily even after it was named a World Heritage site in 1993. Poorly planned and underfunded preservation efforts using cement had marred the main structure and devastated some of the 100-odd outlying monuments, while overlooked stone walls and gardens had simply decayed into ruin. Using funds donated by the Aga Khan on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, in 1997, Nanda undertook the restoration of the gardens surrounding the building. Then, when that project was successful, he began a comprehensive restoration of not only the tomb itself but also the adjoining neighborhood—a medieval colony surrounding a vibrant shrine to the Sufi saint Muhammad Nizamuddin Auliya that is now essentially a slum, though it is nevertheless interesting to visit.

According to Nanda, the idea was to counter the perception that conservation was the opposite of development. Bringing in artisans from all over the country, the 200,000-man-hour project created employment and reestablished a sense of ownership among community residents. “Almost 75 percent of our budget goes to wages for our craftsmen,” Nanda says. Along with restoring buildings, the trust improved access to education and healthcare and invested in parks and other public infrastructure, including performance areas for Qawwali music, a devotional genre that began here in the 14th century and is still popular today. (Every visitor should take in a Thursday-night Qawwali performance at the shrine; they’re one of the city’s cultural highlights).

Like the owner of Haveli Dharampura, though, Nanda is equal parts optimistic and pessimistic about the future of similar conservation projects. He’s convinced the AKTC project has ably demonstrated the way forward, and he is encouraged that corporate funding has poured in since the government ruled that heritage conservation projects qualified under a recent law requiring companies with a turnover of more than one billion rupees (US$150 million) to give at least two percent of their profits to charity. Low-cost airline IndiGo, for instance, is sponsoring the restoration of the tomb of Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khannan, who was a prominent courtier during the reign of Akbar the Great. And the chari-table arm of Mumbai-based conglomerate Tata Group partly funded the restoration of Humayun’s Tomb.

Nanda, however, remains skeptical that anyone will pick up the torch when the AKTC project—which was recently extended another five years to undertake the restoration of more monuments in the area surrounding the tomb—officially comes to an end.

“This cannot go on in perpetuity,” he says pensively as he shepherds me through the warren-like Nizamuddin shrine. “There will be things left undone.”

Among other issues, AKTC is only responsible for the restoration project. Though Nanda is working on a 1,000-square-meter museum that promises to improve the standard of curation and interpretation (a weak point here as at most Indian historical sites), the job of running the complex as a tourist site falls to the overburdened and underfunded Archeological Society of India (ASI). This leaves it vulnerable to the same pressures that have allowed ill-informed and irritatingly aggressive freelance guides to take over so many of the country’s remarkable landmarks.

Fortunately, the Internet has facilitated a boom in “software” that more than compensates for the city’s failures in the “hardware” department. Facebook-based event calendars and dedicated websites like now make it easy for travelers to find guided food tours, heritage walks, and nature hikes organized by young volunteers or nonprofit groups like the Bombay Natural History Society and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

Perhaps more than anything else that has happened over the past decade, this has liberated visitors to Delhi from the tyranny of touts and package tours, says INTACH’s Alisha Pathak. “The most exciting thing about it is that now Delhi is discoverable on foot,” she tells me.

Every few weeks, for instance, the Bombay Natural History Society organizes a morning hike of some kind through the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, where not long ago I joined an excursion to search for proof that the park has attracted its first leopards. Each winter, the Delhi Walk Festival inaugurated in 2016 by the nonprofit Delhi, I Love You group now offers some 85 culinary, architectural, and bird-watching walks through some of the city’s most fascinating neighborhoods, led by volunteer historians, gourmands, ecologists, and flaneurs. And groups like Delhi By Foot and INTACH itself organize similar outings on a weekly basis that have earned local experts like historian Sohail Hashmi and environmentalist Pradip Krishen a cult following.

“If you walk around the hinterlands of Delhi, you keep stumbling on forgotten monuments that are intimately connected to the city’s history,” Pathak says.

To me, that’s the most amazing part of this renaissance. I’ve lived in Delhi for more than a decade now, and every year I continue to “discover” major archeological sites such as the 12th-century Qila Rai Pithora (the fortified citadel of the so-called Slave Dynasty) or the 17th-century tomb of the Mughal general Azim Khan.

Now, everyday visitors to India’s capital have the chance to discover these hidden gems too—and it finally looks as though they may survive to make Delhi a rival to the other great ancient cities of the world.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Restoration Drama”).

Monday, December 11, 2017

'Going on a witch hunt' in India is real — and deadly

Jason Overdorf, Special to USA TODAY
(December 2017)

BHILWARA, India — "Going on a witch hunt" is a custom many in India observe — and for those hunted it can be deadly.

Just ask Ramkanya Devi, 80, who still lives in fear three months after a young neighbor branded her as a witch responsible for the girl's illness.

“I don’t trust anyone anymore,” Devi said, sitting in the shack she shares with her husband of more than 60 years in this western Indian village. “I’m still scared they might kill me if they catch me alone.”

Stories like Devi’s are common across India, even though the state of Rajasthan, where Devi lives, outlawed branding people as witches in 2015, and other states adopted similar laws.

Nearly 2,000 people across India, mostly women, were killed for alleged witchcraft between 2005 and 2015, the most recent numbers available from India’s National Crime Records Bureau.

Devi, who has lived here her whole life, has been a midwife to countless women, while her husband and two sons run small barbershops. When a local schoolgirl fell ill, she went to the village bhopa, a self-proclaimed sorcerer with powers to heal, bring good fortune, conjure up voodoo and identify witches. He convinced the girl's family that she was a victim of witchcraft, and she named Devi as the witch.

That led to death threats and a vow to burn their house, so Devi’s family kept her locked in a musty brick storage room — where she spent 18 days in the dark before an activist who seeks to eradicate witch hunts arranged for her rescue.

“She was crying and kept saying, ‘I’m not a witch. I’m not a witch. Don’t kill me,’” said activist Tara Ahluwalia, who has fought to protect women from witch hunts since 1986.

Bhilwara police superintendent Pradeep Sharma said bhopas are at the root of the problem.

“Bhopas are a very widespread social evil,” said Sharma. “People go to these bhopas for a number of problems, mostly to cure their illnesses. ... They call spirits and try to remove spirits. It’s something like voodoo.”

Ajay Kumar Jain, a lawyer who petitioned for protections against witch hunts, said "branding a woman as a witch is itself a serious offense, punishable with up to five years of rigorous imprisonment.”

So far, 13 victims of witch hunts have received compensation of $750 to $3,000 from the state government. But no one has been convicted in the 86 cases filed since the Prevention of Witch-hunting Act was passed two years ago, largely because of the slow pace of India’s courts. In three of those cases, the witch hunts ended with the killing of the women accused of witchcraft.

Sharma said police receive many complaints, but the term "witch" is often used as an insult during a dispute, and the aggrieved party sees the new law as an opportunity.

“It’s not always that somebody is cast as a witch and thrown out of the village,” Sharma said. "By complaining that they were called a witch, they can (file) a legal case.”

Ahluwalia set out to prove that witch hunts are real. She donned a garish sari and posed as a superstitious villager to nab aggressors in the act. She caught seven bhopas on video as they tried to “exorcise” women volunteers she claimed were witches by chanting mantras, slapping them and beating them with a broom.

“One female bhopa beat my volunteer so badly that she tore out a piece of her hair, and she put a sword to her neck,” Ahluwalia said. “Right now, all seven are behind bars.”

Police say eliminating witch hunts will likely remain a challenge, given the fine line between superstition and religion. Sharma said the authorities prosecute these bhopas and run educational programs to convince people to stop going to them, but it's difficult.

“We found in a lot of the cases, single women, especially women belonging to the lower strata of society, were harassed by being branded as witches,” lawyer Jain said. “The objective in most of the cases was just to grab their property.”

In one of Ahluwalia’s cases, a 40-year-old woman was stripped naked, forced to eat feces, made to walk on hot coals and blinded before she was killed. She was a widow, and her alleged torturers were her niece and nephew, who wanted to snatch the land she inherited from her husband, according to a police complaint lodged by her children.

A woman accused of witchcraft who survives the physical abuse is ostracized by society. Ahluwalia said. “Physically, she is alive, but she has been killed in so many ways.”

Friday, October 27, 2017

Is Rent-to-Own Solar Power the Answer?

A Canadian entrepreneur is using a business model familiar from ’70s daytime TV to get Indians to embrace solar
By Jason Overdorf -- SMITHSONIAN.COM
(September 2016)

Dressed in a teal green dhoti and a white undershirt, 63-year-old Kisan Singh chuckles when he’s asked how many hours of a typical day the village of Ranchi Bangar gets electricity from the power grid.

“At night, light comes from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., so we can watch television and run the refrigerator and water pump,” he says, with a lopsided grin. “In the daytime, it’s anybody’s guess.”

Retired from the local government irrigation department, Singh lives with his son, daughter-in-law and grandsons in a squat brick house about 100 miles southeast of India’s capital, New Delhi. It’s a simple four-room dwelling—practically windowless, with brick walls and bare concrete floor, a few pots and pans stored on shelves, and plastic lawn chairs and nylon cots as the only furniture.

When it comes to green energy, however, the little house could well represent India’s future.

For a little more than a year, the family has been supplementing the sporadic electricity the village gets from the grid with solar energy, thanks to a new pay-as-you-go business model pioneered by Canadian entrepreneur Paul Needham and his company, Simpa Networks. Call it “rent-to-own solar.”

Needham is a serial tech entrepreneur whose online advertising company BidClix made its way into the portfolio of Microsoft. As a doctoral student in economics at Cambridge, he was obsessed with the reasons customers will shell out for certain products and not others. One of the questions that always bugged him was, “Why don’t I own solar panels?” The reason, he determined, was the high up-front costs.

Imagine if mobile phone service was sold like solar energy. From an operator’s perspective, it would have made great sense to try to sell customers 10 years of phone calls in advance, so as to quickly earn back the money invested in building cell towers. But the person who suggested such a strategy would have been fired immediately, Needham says.

“You want to charge people for what they value, not the technology that’s providing it,” he says in a telephone interview.

Realizing that the poorer the consumer, the more that axiom holds true, Needham teamed up with two microfinance experts about five years ago to develop small solar house systems for sale in India on a pay-as-you-go model. Today, they’ve installed systems in more than 20,000 homes and created 300 full-time jobs, as well as opportunities for 500-odd technicians and “solar entrepreneurs” who sell services based on having electricity in their shops or homes.

With $11 million in financing from various venture capitalists, as well as organizations like the Asian Development Bank and USAID, the company is scaling up fast—now growing its customer base by around 10 percent a month. The target is 1 million solar rooftops in rural India by 2019. With a little tweaking, the model could work in other developing countries, even in sophisticated markets like the U.S., Needham says. It’s actually been applied with some success in the U.S., he explains, but companies face issues due to the financing side of it. Entrepreneurs have to invest in equipment up front and only realize payments over time, so it’s easy to go bust if they don’t have enough capital.

Simpa’s solution borrows from prepaid cell service and the “rent-to-own” schemes notorious for fleecing poor Americans desperate for a television—turned to a good end.

With the most basic system, customers get a 40 watt solar panel, a 26 amp-hour battery, two LED lights, a 15-watt electrical outlet for appliances and two ports to charge or power USB devices—all of which operate using direct current (DC), so no inverter is necessary. The blue rooftop panel is about the size of a card table, angled toward the sun. The meter looks a bit like a car battery, with an e-ink readout to show how many “days” balance is remaining. It comes with special LED tube lights, about half the size of the schoolroom fluorescents we’re used to, and a freestanding electric fan.

It costs about $270 to buy the system outright and get free electricity for an estimated 10 years. But most customers choose a pay-as-you-go contract that allows them to purchase the kit in monthly payments over two or three years. Over three years, that means paying an extra 50 percent for the system. But the small payments are easy to manage, and the arrangement makes customers confident that the company will keep the equipment working, so as to get paid. The pay-as-you-go system also features on-site service and an extended warranty.

That’s proven to be vital, because do-gooders and fly-by-night companies alike have in the past failed to maintain systems installed with loans or charitable funds, sowing general distrust in solar, Needham says.

“When the batteries need to be topped up or there’s a little problem with the wiring, those systems just stop working,” he says.

With the pay-as-you-go scheme, customers typically pay 15 to 30 U.S. cents a day to power a fan, three lights and a mobile phone charger. They can see how many days they have remaining by pressing a button on the keypad of their meter, and call a customer service rep to take a top-up payment anytime, with cash-back bonuses for bulk purchases. About 10 percent choose to buy the system outright after six months or so, Needham said, and everybody is attracted to the idea that their payments are going toward a purchase.

“What we found was that most people wanted to own the equipment themselves; they didn’t just want to keep paying to use it,” Needham says.

Apart from helping India in its battle to lower greenhouse gas emissions and relieving the strain on its overburdened power grid, the business could play an important role in reducing poverty, he believes.

Worldwide, approximately 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and another 1 billion have extremely unreliable access, according to a Simpa case study. The poorest spend up to a third of their income on kerosene and access to third-party electricity—a whopping $38 billion for kerosene and $10 billion to charge their cell phones. That means over the 10-year lifespan of one of Simpa’s more advanced $400 solar systems, a typical user would have spent $1,500 to $2,000 on kerosene, candles, batteries and phone charging. Meanwhile, they’ll have missed out on economic benefits associated with electrification, including increasing income-generating working hours and improving school performance.

“Before we got the solar system, I was cooking in the dark,” says 26-year-old Anjali Gehlot, Singh’s daughter-in-law. “We were using candles and kerosene lamps. My children weren’t able to study at night or they weren’t able to sleep because there was no fan.”

With temperatures soaring to more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit for almost half the year in Ranchi Bangar, that’s a huge selling point. So much so that Gehlot prevailed on her husband to have a second “Turbo 240” system—the number 240 refers to its two 40-watt panels—installed three months earlier.

In total, the family now pays about $24 a month for solar power—about 15 percent of what Gehlot spends to feed a family of five—as a result. But the added comfort is more than worth that price, she says.

“It’s cheaper than the bill for the grid electricity,” Gehlot says.

And the light always comes on when she flicks the switch.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Checking In: The Roseate, New Delhi

Tucked just off the busy highway linking New Delhi and Gurgaon, the Bird Group’s 50-room Roseate is a surprisingly tranquil and green boutique resort.
By Jason Overdorf
Destinasian (October 2017)

The Look
Separated from the roadway by a towering false-ficus barrier made of elegantly crafted steel leaves, the eight-acre retreat is enveloped by pin-drop silence. More than a thousand trees, landscaped gardens, and a winding reflective pool give it the feel of a fortified retreat—an impression underscored by the high-domed ceilings and twenty-feet-high doors selected by renowned Thai architect Lek Bunnag.
Closer examination, however, reveals bronze latticework and Persian pillars that give the modern, minimalist resort accents that are reminiscent of the style employed by Mughals who built Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal.
Its proximity to Delhi and isolation from the chaos of the city has made it a popular choice for staycations for well-heeled city-dwellers looking to avoid the long drive into the Himalayan foothills. But on the weekday afternoon we checked in, the manicured garden played host to a fashion shoot and an episode of a cooking show starring head chef Nishant Choubey.
The Rooms
Built to impress, the Roseate comes with well-appointed and spacious 60-square-meter rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the canal-like swimming pool or the lush garden. A complementary iPad controls the lighting, window shade, and television, as well as providing a menu of hotel services and activities.
Dominating all rooms are glorious, bespoke mattresses and sumptuous pillows that provide just the right combination of softness and firmness. The separate sleeping and sitting areas make it easy to combine business and pleasure, with the window’s natural light illuminating a comfortable desk with plenty of room for getting one’s work done. But the mood lighting is a bit dim for reading in bed.
The Buzz
With so few rooms, expect a personal touch: every staff member is likely to know not only your name, but your plans for the day. Head chef Nishant Choubey or executive sous chef Anuj Wadhawan will stop by your table with recommendations.
Kiyan, one of the restaurants, offers world cuisine with a tilt toward European classics along with subtly spiced and artfully plated Indian dishes. Meanwhile Chi Ni offers modern Chinese dishes inspired by London’s Kai Mayfair. Now that the well-meaning but idiotic ban on serving alcohol near India’s national highways has been lifted for five-star hotels, guests can grab their choice of tipples at the cozy Iah Bar, where they can even pair their drink with a cigar.
The elegant, all-white Aheli spa has justifiably attracted a dedicated following among local residents. It offers a full menu of treatments including what’s arguably India’s best hammam, as well as a small-but-efficient fitness center that’s enclosed in glass so that guests can enjoying working out “outdoors” in air-conditioned comfort. The Aheli signature treatment combines elements of Shiatsu, Thai and Swedish massage. Enjoy it—or one of the spa’s many other treatments—in a soothing white spa room or under the sky in one of its stunning outdoor treatment areas.
Don’t Miss
Ask the friendly staff to arrange for a trip to the resort’s dedicated organic farm, located less than a kilometer away, for a custom-tailored meal prepared with vegetables fresh from the vine. Here, chef Choubey can work some magic with little more than a fresh bottle gourd or two, a few pumpkin flowers, and a dash of baby spinach. Check for special farm-side food events as well.
Samalka, NH-8, New Delhi, Delhi 110037, India; 91/1133 552211; doubles from US$198 per night

People are still cleaning sewers by hand in this country — and they're dying

Jason Overdorf, Special to USA TODAY
(October 2017)

NEW DELHI — Chandra Kanta shudders when she thinks about how she will explain her son's death someday to her 6-month-old granddaughter.

Mohanlal Kanta, 22, died from asphyxiation in August while cleaning a blocked sewer line without a gas mask or other protective gear, as required by laws rarely enforced.

“The police came to our house with Mohanlal’s photo and said there had been an accident,” said Kanta, holding her granddaughter on her lap. “They didn’t mention anything about criminal charges against his employer for letting him work in violation of safety rules.

Mohanlal is the latest victim of widely flouted laws that have led to at least 750 deaths across India since "manual scavenging" was outlawed in 1993, including 75 this year. The large human toll casts a light on the deplorable working conditions here — even in the capital.

In 2013, the Indian government increased penalties up to $7,700 in fines and five years in prison for employers who let their workers clean human solid waste by hand or build latrines that require manual maintenance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has launched a massive Clean India campaign that has built more than 80 million latrines to improve public health by discouraging Indians from relieving themselves in the open.

But the plight of sewer and latrine cleaners remains largely unchanged, said activist Bewazda Wilson of the non-profit Sanitation Workers Movement.

“In Delhi within the last one and a half months, we have witnessed more than 16 sewer deaths,” said Wilson, 51. “You don’t think this is a big problem? How can my democracy just keep quiet?”

Indian sewer workers, usually stripped down to their underwear rather than outfitted in protective gear, go down manholes and often spend their days neck deep in human muck using brooms, scrapers and buckets to clean blockages.

Their menial occupations reflect their low status in the Hindu caste system. For millennia, cleaning latrines has been the job of the lowest castes, most prominently the Dalits or “untouchables.” India’s 1949 constitution prohibited explicit discrimination against the untouchables. But social and economic norms have kept them in the dirtiest jobs.

Wilson said unconfirmed reports put the actual death toll far higher than the official count. Yet no one has been convicted of violating the law against manual cleaning in the 24 years it has been on the books, he said.

“We have given the (Delhi) chief minister details of 54 death cases,” Wilson said. “He must arrest these people.”

Mohanlal's death was among a spate of similar fatalities that prompted police to file a case against his employer. The Delhi government offered his wife a government job and provided his family with compensation of about $15,000.

But it’s an open secret that government agencies — in this case the Delhi Water Board — regularly employ contractors knowing they send people into sewers to clean illegally, Wilson said.

Modi's government aims to build 210 million latrines by 2019. But the government has not improved sewage systems at the same pace. Even before the project began, only a third of urban toilets were connected to sewer lines. Many of them dump directly into rivers and canals. That’s already causing environmental problems, in addition to harming the cleaners.

“Urban India is already floating on sludge,” said Mamata Dash of WaterAid India, an aid organization with offices across India. “The problem has only increased many fold.”

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Counterpunch tells the story of athletes struggling to excel in a crooked game

The contrasting stories in Counterpunch offer a moving portrayal of athletes struggling to excel in a crooked game.
By Jason Overdorf - INDIA TODAY

(August 2017)

Now that Vijender Singh and company are introducing India to the theatrics of professional boxing, Jay Bulger's new Netflix documentary, Counterpunch, is required viewing. It follows the careers of former World Boxing Organisation (WBO) middleweight champion Peter 'Kid Chocolate' Quillin, top professional prospect Chris 'Lil B-Hop' Colbert and affable would-be US Olympian Cam F Awesome, yes, that's what it says on his passport. The contrasting stories offer a moving portrayal of athletes struggling to excel in a crooked game.

Having barely missed the 2012 Olympics, Awesome has had more amateur fights than anybody in America, and he's still pushing to make the 2016 Games, though he's older than many seasoned pros. At 18 years old, Colbert isn't thinking of the Olympics at all-but a contract with all-powerful promoter Al Haymon. Meanwhile, Quillin, who's already at the top, accepts $500,000 from Haymon in exchange for refusing to fight the mandatory challenger for his WBO belt and taking a year-long vacation instead. It's a Machiavellian manoeuvre by Haymon, who's out to control all the top fighters in the game, and the undefeated Quillin's comeback is marred by a controversial draw and then a loss to Danny Jacob. (Two years later, Quillin is yet to regain his title.) And when Colbert signs with Haymon as well, Bulger encourages you to see it as inking a deal with Mephistopheles.

But Haymon and Floyd 'Money' Mayweather aren't the ones who killed boxing. And the Don King-Mike Tyson era Bulger remembers with such fondness was hardly a golden age-as anybody who recalls the name Peter McNeeley will tell you.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Why advertisers are salivating over an obscure Indian sport

(Newsweek June 2017)

This summer, as many as a billion TV viewers will tune in to watch India’s hottest new game: not cricket, not soccer, not basketball but a sport little known in the West called kabaddi.

Kabaddi is a contact sport combining elements of tag, rugby and capture the flag and was invented centuries ago in south India. It was first exhibited in the 1936 Berlin Olympics but never became an official Olympic sport. That hasn’t hindered its popularity in India: The Pro Kabaddi League, which is on the eve of its fifth season, starting in July, has more Indian fans than any sport besides cricket.

Professional sports have never been as popular in India as they are in so many other large nations, but the country has become an attractive market for global advertisers eager to reach the Indian middle class, one of the world’s fastest-growing pockets of consumers. By 2025, Indian consumer spending is projected to triple, hitting $4 trillion a year. (Germans, by comparison, spent $1.81 trillion in 2016.) Interest in entertainment, like music, film and television, has increased in India, and multinational corporations are betting that the middle class will develop an appetite for pro sports.

A joint venture among Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries, sports and talent agency IMG and Rupert Murdoch’s Star India media group is pumping money into sports, such as professional soccer, tennis and mixed martial arts. It is wooing retired football players from English teams, like former Manchester United forward Diego Forlán and Chelsea winger Florent Malouda, and tennis stars, like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who reportedly received roughly $4 million apiece from India’s tennis league to play in the 2014-15 season. Meanwhile, small-time entrepreneurs are starting Indian sports franchises in everything from badminton to basketball. Twenty new professional sports leagues have been created since the founding of cricket’s Premier League in 2008.

None of these leagues has been as successful as the kabaddi league. According to local data company News Flicks, last year’s 24-match season attracted nearly a billion TV viewers. Kabaddi is now the second most popular sport in India after cricket.

“Kabaddi has a unique Indian identity,” says the commissioner of the Pro Kabaddi League, Anupam Goswami. In just four seasons, excitement in India has built a sport with international participation. Twelve teams, including ones from Japan, the United States and Britain, competed in the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, which snagged 114 million Indian TV viewers over 16 days of matches.

The sport still has a long way to go to catch up to the popularity of cricket, which also has a deep history in India. Since British colonizers introduced it in the 18th century, cricket has been called the religion that unites India’s many castes and communities. In less than 10 years since India’s professional cricket league launched, it has become the largest driver of the sport worldwide, with hundreds of millions more viewers than in the U.K., where the sport began.

Just as the best soccer players in the world travel to Europe to play, the world’s best cricketers want to compete in India’s Premier League. India’s investment in the sport has generated million-dollar endorsement deals for top players like Sachin Tendulkar, who earned enough from brands like Pepsi, Colgate and Visa to rank among Forbes ’s top 100 highest-paid athletes worldwide before he retired in 2014.

But the big question for business is whether newly imported sports can achieve the same popularity in India as those that Indians grew up playing . So far, sports with less familiarity here, like soccer, have not generated the same kind of enthusiasm.

Insiders say league officials and franchise owners resort to free tickets and even bussing schoolchildren to games to achieve “stadium fill,” in industry-speak. The three-year-old Premier Badminton League attracted only 3.5 million viewers for its 15 matches earlier this year, for instance, while the Hockey India League had even fewer for its 2016 season.

Some of the new sports leagues are thriving. Remus D’Cruz, an executive with the four-year-old Hockey India League, says it is basically breaking even thanks to funds from corporate sponsors like mobile network service provider Airtel and motorcycle maker Hero.

Meanwhile, corporate spending on sports-related marketing is growing in India. Overall, sports sponsorship has risen nearly 20 percent in 2016 over the previous year to reach nearly $1 billion, about a tenth of India’s overall advertising spending, according to a 2017 report by SportzPower India. (That is still far less than in North America, where sponsorship spending last year was more than $20 billion.) More encouragingly, perhaps, sponsorships of teams outside of cricket now account for nearly 40 percent of the pie.

Investors aren’t the only ones who benefit from a thriving sports culture. Chinese smartphone maker Vivo, kabaddi’s title sponsor, is betting more than $45 million this season that the game can win its brand some fans.