Sunday, August 31, 2014

Devil in the detail

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 31, 2014

Students express solidarity. Photo: Kiran Bakale
The Hindu Students express solidarity. Photo: Kiran Bakale


Crimes against women have become a popular talking point in India. They figure in the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech. They find a mention in a statement by the Finance Minister about how the growing incidence of crimes against women is affecting tourism in India. And they are the focus of a plan by the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to win the 2017 Assembly elections in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, albeit with a twist.

The BJP is concerned about crimes only against women of one community (read Hindu) and has concluded, without any evidence, that the perpetrators are all of another community (read Muslim), who are waging something that exists only in the imagination of the Hindutva rightwing, namely ‘Love Jihad’.

Where does all this leave Indian women, of whatever community? Should they feel reassured, more secure, that the highest in the land are concerned about their welfare? Or should they be afraid that this concern is ultimately only instrumental, to push a political agenda, or an economic one — such as making India a more attractive tourist destination?

Whatever one concludes, it is evident that those making statements from the top have little idea of what happens on the ground when women are assaulted, and particularly when they pick up the courage to report the crime and to fight the case through our courts.

August 22 was the first anniversary of a brutal gang rape in the heart of Mumbai when a young woman journalist went on a work assignment to the abandoned Shakti Mills compound. Her resilience and determination played no small role in ensuring that the case was registered, the perpetrators apprehended, charged and committed. But only now, a year later, do we know the details of what she went through in the process of seeking justice.

These facts are brought out in two important recent articles. One by Flavia Agnes, Audrey D’Mello and Persis Sidhva in Economic and Political Weekly of July 19, 2014 (http://www.epw.in/insight/making-high-profile-rape-trial.html) informs us in considerable detail about what happened before and during the Shakti Mills trial. It exposes the insensitivity that infects the entire system — from police to prosecution to the media — where the welfare of the survivor seems to be the lowest priority. If the survivor did not have the support of the Majlis Legal Centre, to which the authors of this article belong, her fate would have been much worse. For instance, it is they who insisted that her privacy should be protected from the intrusive and persistent media when she entered and left the courtroom during what was supposed to be an ‘in camera’ trial. The authors also write about the mockery of the confidential nature of the trial when the public prosecutor gave out all kinds of details of the trial to a hungry media.

Even more disturbing is an article written for the web by a colleague of the Shakti Mills gang rape survivor. Titled ‘That hashtag was my colleague’ (https://in.news.yahoo.com/that-hashtag-was-my-colleague-060844991.html), the article gives us a different insight into what happens in such a situation, including the gross insensitivity of the media concerned only about an ‘exclusive’.

What I found personally most disturbing was the description given in the article about the Test Identification Parade (TIP). In popular TV crime serials and films based on systems in the West, we see a one-way glass between the survivor and the suspects. Each suspect carries a number and the survivor is supposed to state the number of the person or persons she considers responsible for the crime. In India, the system is truly brutal. In one room, often without any women police, a rape survivor has to face a line-up of men. She then has to walk up to the men she identifies as the perpetrators of the crime, touch them on the shoulder and then announce loudly what they did to her. One cannot even imagine the trauma that a woman who has been brutalised must go through with such a grotesque system in place.

There is much else in both articles that will disturb anyone concerned about the issue. But what speaks loudest is the urgent need to address these details of our criminal justice system so that women subjected to sexual assault do not have to go through further assaults on their selves in the process of seeking justice. 

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Invisible women

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 17, 2014

At a garment factory. Photo: K. Pichumani
At a garment factory. Photo: K. Pichumani

Should women ‘work’ after they get married? I put the word work in inverted commas deliberately because women work all the time but only when they do paid work is it considered ‘work’.

One imagines that this question need not be asked anymore because India is changing. But is it? Going by recent reports and studies, it is evident that some things never change, or change so slowly as to be imperceptible. And the one equation that does not change is the expectation from women once they get married. Their priority has to be ‘the family’ and all else, including jobs that could be something they enjoy doing, must be set aside.

An advertisement that is being passionately analysed and discussed on social media depicts a woman boss instructing her junior, who turns out to be her husband, to work over-time to complete a project. Meantime, she heads home and instead of putting up her feet and relaxing, proceeds to cook up a gourmet meal for the husband. She then sends him the pictures through her phone to tempt him to come home for the meal.

So is this depiction of woman as the boss ‘progressive’ or is it ‘regressive’ because ultimately she conforms to the stereotype of the wife who must please her husband? If the roles had been reversed, would the husband boss have done something similar? At most, he might have ordered in a great meal, or asked the domestic help to cook something special. Incidentally, where was the domestic help when the woman ‘boss’ was slaving in the kitchen? It stretches credulity to believe that a woman at the top in the corporate sector would not have domestic help.

Perhaps we are making too much of this but the advertisement raises other, more important, questions about the ability of women to continue doing paid work after marriage. This paper carried an interesting analysis on this subject on August 11 (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/marriage-driving-urban-women-out-of-jobs/article6301574.ece). The article reported research that showed that women dropped out of paid work once they got married or/and had children. The exceptions were women in the upper income bracket and the poorest, who had no option but to continue some form of wage work. Poor women in villages also had no choice although their work was often unpaid as it was part of agricultural tasks that they were expected to do in the family.

What the advertisement represents is the exception to the rule. For the majority of women who are poor, whether in city or village, there is really no choice. Speak to any woman who works as a domestic. You hear identical stories. There is not enough in the house to make ends meet. The man either has no work, or cannot work due to addiction, or is in a low-paid insecure job. Often, the woman’s salary is the only steady amount coming into the family kitty. As a result, these women — come rain or shine, illness or family tragedy — are forced to continue to work. What is interesting is that despite the drudgery of domestic work, many of them persist because it gives them a chance to escape the greater drudgery of the work they must still do in their own homes.

The article in The Hindu, however, does touch upon a group of urban women who are neither so poor that they must work for survival nor so well-off that they can continue to work outside their homes because they have help at home. It is the women in the middle who get caught. For them, paid work is ‘permitted’ so to speak, only until they get married. And then it has to stop. Unless the family into which they marry ‘allow’ them to continue. So the little bit of autonomy they gain through earning something through their own labour is snatched away from them the day they get married. Apart from the blow to their own self-esteem, this is a waste because these women could be productively employed.

We do not read enough about this class of women. They are all around us in our cities — working in garment factories, in offices, as saleswomen in the growing retail sector, in call centres etc. Yet, they are virtually invisible. What are their stories?

Perhaps it is time the camera focused on these lives. 

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Boy, girl or super athlete?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 3, 2014

Dutee Chand. Photo: K. Murali Kumar
The Hindu Dutee Chand. Photo: K. Murali Kumar


Our sport authorities need to be educated. Urgently. They need a crash course in understanding human biology, that there is no clear binary between male and female and that there are many conditions in-between.  But clearly, this knowledge, that has now become fairly commonplace, has failed to trickle down to those controlling Indian athletics.  They continue to believe that testing testosterone levels will conclusively establish whether a woman athlete is indeed a woman!

 So even as women athletes are bringing home medals from the Commonwealth Games, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Athletics Federation if India (AFI) will be better remembered for denying, virtually at the last minute, the chance for one of our most promising runners to compete in these games in Glasgow.

 The case of Dutee Chand will not surprise people who have followed the often farcical and always tragic cases of leading women athletes around the world who have been barred for something over which they had no control. “Sex tests” as they are called, or gender determination tests, are now more refined than the crude form they took earlier.  But they are still not conclusive because nature is sometimes inconclusive in clearly defining the so-called “maleness” or “femaleness” of individuals. Children born with this kind of biological confusion — that is now recognised medically — grow up as boys or girls depending on the way they are socialised. They believe they are boys or girls. They grow into men or women. But the problem arises when the stereotypical definitions of what constitutes a man or a woman clash with the way a person appears.

 So if women athletes are supposed to be weaker than men, a strong woman is suspect.  Is she really a woman? Is she taking drugs to heighten the male hormones, thereby giving her greater strength? Or was she born this way? The latter question is not taken into consideration. Instead, the so-called “unfair” advantage that a strong female athlete might have is used as a stick with which to beat her. And many times, such promising athletes are ruined for life.

Dutee is regarded as one of India’s most promising track athletes. She has consistently brought home medals, the latest just six weeks ago at the Asian Junior Athletics in Taipei where she won two golds. Just as she was getting set to participate in the Commonwealth Games, she was made to undergo this so-called ‘gender determination’ test and thereafter held back. 

 The girl is just 18. She comes from a poor weaver’s family in Odisha. At one shot, the very people who should have been nurturing her for the future have virtually destroyed her career. Luckily for her, the Odisha government and sports association have promised help and are willing to invest in whatever medical intervention is needed to set right her hormone levels. But the question should still be asked: why do we have these tests? And when it is mandatory that even if tests are conducted, that they be kept confidential, why is this information put out in the public space? Dutee says that within days of the news of the tests, journalists landed up at her home in Gopalpur and demanded from her bewildered parents an answer to the nonsensical question: “Is Dutee a boy or a girl?” 

 A woman who knows well what this feels like is the outstanding woman athlete Santhi Soundarajan, who was stripped of her silver medial won at the 2006 Doha Asian Games when she failed a “gender” test. Santhi has managed, with immense difficultly, to overcome her despair and has rehabilitated herself.  But when she heard about Dutee, here is what she said, “They have tested her at the last minute, humiliated her and broken her heart… Now, if she re-enters the sports field, things will not be normal. Even if she takes treatment, people will kill her with their suspicious gaze.”

 Depressing words from Santhi, but Dutee should look at the example of another female athlete similarly humiliated. Caster Semenya from South Africa was considered the fastest woman on earth after her spectacular performance in 2009 at the World Championships.  Like Santhi and now Dutee, Caster “failed” the test and was humiliated.  But she dug herself out and went on to compete in the London Olympics where she won the silver medal in the women’s 800 metres. South Africa had her carry the country’s flag.  When will our sports authorities grow up and develop knowledge and sensitivity to nurture our future women athletes?

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In the war zone

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 20, 2014

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Children flee from the war zone. Photo: AFP
AFP Children flee from the war zone. Photo: AFP

In this escalation of hostilities in one of the world’s most volatile of regions, this nameless boy, and thousands of children like him, force us to face the ugly truth — that wars kill children, not a few, but millions. They wound children. And they leave them bereft and scarred for life.

Earlier this month, the United Nations released its annual report on children and armed conflict. It makes depressing reading. It documents the ever-expanding arena of war and conflict, between and within countries. It states that armed conflict has ‘a disproportionate impact on children’ and that indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas as well as the use of terror tactics was taking a worrying toll on children.

The report also reminds us that despite campaigns to stop using children, national armies and armed groups continue to recruit young children. The UN report says that last year, children were used in 23 conflict situations around the world. It gives a long list of countries where this is happening and specifically names 51 armed groups that continue to use children.

Apart from Palestine, almost every day we are reminded about what war and conflict do to children. Remember the 223 schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria abducted by the armed rebel group Boko Haram? It is now three months and they have still not been released. On July 13, the leader of the group released a video where he mocked the efforts of people like the brave Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai to negotiate their release. What is happening to these girls? Will they ever return? And if they do, will they be able to deal with what they have been through?

The UN report also gives us a glimpse of this aspect of war and children, that of sexual violence that boys and girls face. We do not know what is happening to those girls in Nigeria. What is already documented is the violence that children are facing in places like Syria, where there appears no end to the war. The UN report mentions that apart from repeated sexual harassment of women and girls at government checkpoints, there are reports of the abduction of young women and girls in groups at checkpoints. These girls are then released a few days later and sent back to their villages, thereby ‘intentionally exposing them as victims of rape and subjecting them to rejection by their families.’

Children are killed, kidnapped, forced to fight. But apart from that, in on-going conflicts, such as the situation between Palestine and Israel, they live under the daily cloud of violence, where the ordinary routine of daily life like going to school become impossible.

Here is a quote from the UN report about the situation in the West Bank last year. Change the year to 2014, and you will get a sense of what has become a frequent, almost permanent, state of affairs in Palestine: “Fifty-eight education-related incidents affecting 11,935 children were reported in the West Bank, resulting in damage to school facilities, interruption of classes and injury to children. Forty-one incidents involved Israeli security forces operations near or inside schools, forced entry without forewarning, the firing of tear gas canisters and sound bombs into school yards and, in some cases, structural damage to schools. In 15 of the incidents, Israeli security forces fired tear gas canisters into schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), some during class hours, without forewarning. In a majority of instances, schoolchildren and teachers were delayed or prevented from going to school owing to checkpoints, areas closed for military operations or exercises, military patrols in front of schools and preventive closures by the Israel Defense Forces. In 32 cases, teachers and children were arrested inside the school, at checkpoints or on their way to school.”

Like that boy in the photograph, generations of young children in Palestine and elsewhere do not know what it is like to simply go to school, to study, to dream of a better future.

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Kicking out sexism

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 6, 2014

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Mumbra girls at a practice session.
The Hindu Mumbra girls at a practice session.

They weep, they scream, they explode with anger, they dance with joy — millions of football fans around the world are right now focused on only one thing — World Cup Football in Brazil. The controversies that preceded it have been all but forgotten as lovers of the game, men and women follow every move.

But the players are all men. Football remains, in popular imagination, a man’s game.

Yet, women also play football. Including Indian women. You would not know that as precious little is written about them. But this year, for a change, there has been some welcome reporting on the women who also kick the ball around.

One of them is a remarkable 36-year-old from Manipur — Oinam Bembem Devi. Her claim to fame is that she plays excellent football, so good that she captained the Indian Women’s Football team thrice. Yet, at the age of 12 when she began kicking a ball around with the boys in her neighbourhood, she could not have imagined this. In fact, according to reports about her, Bembem was so keen to play football that she cut her hair short and changed her name to Bobo so that she could continue to play with the boys.

Inevitably, she was found out. But that did not deter her. She continued with the game, played so well that she got a job with the Manipur police and went on to captain not just one of the teams in Manipur but the Indian team. Since Bembem’s early efforts to play football, things have changed considerably and today more girls and than boys play football in Manipur.

The Indian women’s football team has a higher FIFA ranking than the men’s — 50 as opposed to 154 for the men. It is also ranked 11 in Asia, while the men’s team is 28. But 50 is still not good enough for it to qualify for the Women’s World Cup Football that will be played in Canada next year.

Should it matter whether Indian women play football or qualify for world tournaments? The only reason to even discuss this is because the very fact that women are playing — and playing well — a game that is traditionally seen as a male sport has a significance that is greater than just the game.

This newspaper carried a wonderful story about a girls’ football team in Mumbra, an urban settlement outside Mumbai that is 95 per cent Muslim (http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/mumbras-women-footballers-have-grounds-for-rejoicing/article6130903.ece). They began playing despite objections from their parents. But within a year, not only have they made their parents proud by winning in a couple of football tournaments but they have also succeeded in getting the Thane Municipal Corporation to reserve a 1.5 acre plot exclusively for women’s sports.

Earlier, Mumbra’s claim to fame, or rather infamy, was that it was home to Ishrat Jahan, the young woman tragically shot in a fake encounter in Ahmedabad in 2004. Today, these girls who play football are demonstrating how conservative norms can be broken even in an area where women’s literacy is low and girls are expected to marry young. If this can happen in Mumbra, surely it would not be so difficult to achieve elsewhere in India.

Whether the girls in Mumbra go on to become professional players is not so important as the fact that they have a chance to play, to enjoy the exhilaration of sport and the taste of freedom that it gives them.

Yet, ensuring that this trend continues and grows is an uphill battle. With the rise in the incidents of sexual assault on young women, parents are tempted to prevent girls from going out. Yet the safety of confinement will not make the world safer for girls.

What we need is for society to accept that girls have an equal right to the public space, that they too need the joy of being able to run free, to kick a ball, to hold a bat, to sprint, to jump over hurdles or to swim in the river, the sea, the pool. This is not a special favour being conferred on them.

So even as the football season peaks and then winds down, let us look around and see how many of our girls can go out there with confidence and kick a ball.

(To read the original, click here.)

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

That R word again!


The Hoot
SECOND TAKE
Kalpana Sharma

Every day, reporters routinely file thousands of words of copy and only a fraction of this sees the light of day. It is part of the ‘collateral damage’ of the news world – only news that’s fit to print, we are told, survives. Or is it news that fits the emerging definition of what is “news”? 

Those who have been in the print media for the last three decades will be familiar with how this definition has changed over time. Yet, every time an ostensibly ‘newsy’ development is covered, but not printed, one needs to ask why. 

I can distinctly remember at least three press conferences where the media was present in full strength but the next day, there was practically no report. 

The first was some time in 1989 when workers from Hindustan Lever had been locked out from its Sewri plant. In protest, they had begun manufacturing a soap called Lockout, which they sold to raise funds for the workers. The newspapers reported such developments even if the space given to the workers’ point of view was perfunctory. In response to a request from the union, a fact-finding committee was constituted to look at whether the lockout was legal, and also at the conditions of the workers who had lost wages during the lockout. Krishna Raj, the well-respected editor of Economic and Political Weekly, headed this committee. 

When the report of the committee was ready, a press conference was called at the Press Club to release the report. At that time, I was a Senior Assistant Editor at The Times of India (TOI). I went to the press conference as I was interested in the report.  Reporters from my paper and practically every other newspaper in the city crowded into the room and asked many questions of the committee.  One expected that the result of such a lively press conference would be reports in the newspapers the next day. But no, there were no reports, or practically none. Certainly, TOI did not carry anything although I do know that a report was filed. I gathered that the company’s representatives had managed to speak to the newspaper’s senior management and ensure that nothing appeared. 

After I joined The Hindu, something similar happened. A woman reporter from the TV channel Sahara Samay went public with a sexual harassment charge against the person in-charge of the channel. She named him and gave detailed instances of the way she had been harassed. She also reported how the company had responded by first transferring her and then dismissing her rather than looking into her charges. Once again, the press conference was packed, this time with many television channels also recording her statement and speaking to her afterwards.  Yet, the next day, none of the Mumbai papers reported this. I filed a story that appeared in The Hindu, but the paper does not have a Mumbai edition. 

I was reminded of both these instances last week when I saw a virtual repeat of them unfold. The Mumbai Press Club must be commended for taking a risk to organise a release of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s controversial book “Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis”. Apart from the author, the club had assembled a panel consisting of former Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar and senior journalists Kumar Ketkar and Govindraj Ethiraj. It was a lively discussion. Press Club President Gurbir Singh spoke of how they had tried to get a representative from the Ambanis to join the panel but the company declined because the book contained matter that they considered defamatory and for which a legal notice had been sent to the author. 

While Guha Thakurta spoke about the book and also the legal notice he and others had received from the Ambanis, Aiyar, in his inimitable style, provided several quotable quotes as he spoke about his stint as minister. He also gave his opinion on gas pricing, an issue that is currently in the news because the Modi government has decided to defer any decision on this until September. Even if the book has already been in the news since its release in Delhi, Aiyar’s comments were worthy of at least a few column inches. 

Yet, the next day, there was almost nothing on this discussion in any of the Mumbai papers; not even the financial papers, although representatives of these papers asked several pointed questions of the panelists. Only Mumbai Mirror carried something because its columnist, Ajit Ranade (who is not a journalist), used his column to write about the event and the issue of gas pricing. Asian Age had a short item, and a PTI item focused only on Mani Shankar Aiyar’s comments on gas pricing was picked up by the Economic Times. 

If this had been a big news day, one would have understood that newspapers had no space. But nothing earth-shattering happened in the city, except a fire in the administrative building of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), a stone’s throw away from the Press Club. 

Significantly, Ethiraj stated that he had received a “friendly” call from a representative of the Ambanis informing him that the author of the book had been slapped a defamation notice! 

So one wonders, how many other “friendly” calls were made before  and after this event to ensure that nothing of it was reported the next day.  Even if they were not, has the media decided to be ultra cautious about reporting on the Ambanis to pre-empt any legal action? Is this not a kind of self-censorship that should have no place in a democracy? And are we going to see more of this in the future?  

These are questions that we in the media need to discuss and ask ourselves. How have we come to this stage where 39 years after Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed press censorship during the Emergency, the Indian media has decided to censor itself?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Going after the green

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 22, 2014

Pocket of rich biodiversity.Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
Pocket of rich biodiversity.Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Crimes against women have been constantly in the news. But crimes against nature remain largely unreported.

Given the current climate, with the Intelligence Bureau claiming that non-governmental organisations like the crusading international environmental group Greenpeace, are detrimental to India’s progress, and with the ubiquitous ‘foreign hand’ making a serendipitous comeback, such crimes are likely to become invisible, noticed only by those who have been damned as ‘obstructionist’ or worse still, ‘anti-national’.

As I tend to identify with that tribe, let me address this column to the elements that ensure that our physical environment does not become an endless landscape of roads and buildings, leaving no space for the unregulated, the wild, the unexpected that only the natural environment, left inviolate, provides.

A big part of this unregulated environment is trees. Today, they are in danger. They will drown as more dams are built, or the height of existing dams is raised. They will be razed to make way for infrastructure — roads and highways, airports, electric power stations. They will be stifled and killed by the concrete pavements surrounding them in our expanding cities. They will be excavated from our forests to make way for open-pit mines producing the minerals considered essential for a ‘modern’ India.

The former environment minister Jairam Ramesh and the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi both spoke of the need for toilets rather than temples. Will anyone now say that India needs more forests not freeways? That even if factories, roads and railways, airports and sea ports are essential, so is a tree cover that saves the soil, replenishes the water, provides sustenance to millions of forest dwellers, cleans the air and absorbs some of the filth and poisons being generated by our modern lifestyles, poisons that will accumulate in the atmosphere and ruin the health of future generations.

The new environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, whose ministry is also supposed to take care of forests and address climate change, is a man in a hurry. He wants to clear ‘obstacles’ to progress in the form of pending environmental clearances. To do that, he wants to change the old criteria that classified forested areas as ‘violate’ or ‘inviolate’. The latter category was formulated to ensure that nothing — no project, no mine, no dam — could disturb certain forested areas.

The parameters set out to decide whether a forest area is ‘violate’ or ‘inviolate’ are the quality of the forest area, the produce it generates, its biodiversity, hydrological, social, aesthetic and economic value. All these are essential. So in what way can this list be ‘rationalised’ or altered by the new minister? Why should these parameters be changed? The only reason would be to find a way to grant clearances to projects that will go against these criteria.

Forests are also about people, not just trees. An estimated 350-400 million people in 173,000 villages live within forests, or depend on them. That is not a small number. So if forests are destroyed, to make way for a mine, a factory, a dam, a power plant, there are people whose lives are also destroyed. The previous government passed laws protecting their rights, giving them the power to decide whether a forest area can be diverted to other uses.

What will happen to these rights? In the name of ‘progress’ and fast-tracking environmental clearances, will laws like the Forest Rights Act be revised or negated? If and when this happens, will the voices of those who have fought for the rights of forest dwellers, and for the protection of our remaining forests, be heard?

These are questions that need to be asked now, not after policies are put in place that facilitate the destruction of the natural environment and that deprive nature-dependent communities of their rights. If environmentalists are apprehensive about the future, they are justified. So far, nothing has been said or done to assuage their fears.

Despite this, what they can and must do is document the importance of fighting to preserve the environment — in the way the TreesIndia Group is doing on the India Biodiversity Portal (http://treesindia.indiabiodiversity.org/). Spend a few minutes on this site. It will give you a sense of the wealth that we have in India and what could disappear without a trace if we don’t speak up now on behalf of nature.

(To read the original, click here.)