Specially written for Vikalp Sangam
The Citizen Science movement in India is re-envisioning scientific endeavour, public literacy, and participation. Its potential in education and as a form of direct democracy is growing.
‘Citizen Science’ – was the final module I did this year with the Grade 8 students of my school. A number of children in this class were already Ebird buffs. In groups they first went away to research different Citizen Science platforms and initiatives in India – and how they were making a difference. They found out about and went through the ‘State of Indian Birds’– an assessment of the conservation status of 867 Indian bird species, from about 10 million Ebird observations submitted by over 15,000 birdwatchers. Some kids were thrilled to think that the checklists they had submitted might in fact have been used in this study.They read about Marine Life of Mumbai and their extraordinary work in popularizing Mumbai’s coastal biodiversity among the city’s public. And about initiatives like the Pan Pantala Track, which maps the global migration of the Wandering Glider dragonflies through observations uploaded by people around the world and across the year. They researched apps like the Big-Four Mapper and Road-watch. The groups then thought about and chose a small citizen science project they would plan and execute over a month. The core requisites for the projects were that they should involve public participation in the creation of knowledge/science, and in the end give back their findings to the participants or to make it public in some way. The children’s projects ranged from finding the perceptions city-dwellers had about snakes, to understanding how many common species of trees school children could identify, to planning urban wilderness walks in their localities.
One group wanted to map the Indian Grey Mongoose in Chennai – a creature not as commonly seen today as it was several years ago. They wanted to understand its habits and distribution better. The children circulated a digital form which people filled in with their recent Mongoose sightings with details on the location, habitat, date, whether they saw adults with offspring, and any other observations, along with pictures if they had taken any. They took these observations and plotted them on a Google map – red plots for sightings without offspring and blue plots for sightings with offspring. Interestingly they found that most of the sightings were clustered around Chennai’s wetlands – marshes in Pallikaranai, Perungudi and Velachery, near the Adyar river and Estuary, along the Buckingham canal and so on. Children hypothesized that near waterbodies a generic predator like the Mongoose would get a variety of prey, would have enough undergrowth to hide and hunt in, along with ideal breeding conditions. The decline and pollution of Chennai’s wetlands were possibly affecting the Mongooses too. The other groups made similar findings which added new knowledge to our collective understanding of our immediate environment and society.
There’s an important truth about the evolution of conventional schooling systems and scientific institutions. They co-evolved and emerged in tandem with colonization and industrialization in the world. They historically had the same agendas, were backed, and funded by the same powers. Science practiced within a top-down political mechanism functions within certain limits. Its interests and contributions are often distant from ground realities. Common people rarely have a say in the direction it takes. Its findings are very often fuelled by the intentions of large corporate bodies and authorities to profit and to exploit, within the GDP driven economic model. This can even influence the meaning and significance we ascribe to and draw from our natural environment. This year India significantly hiked its overall budget for Science and Technology by 10 – 13 percent for many of the departments. But the allocation for Health research, even though we are still within the grip of a pandemic, was cut down by over 34 percent, while the Deep Ocean Mission to explore and mine minerals in the seabed was given nearly twice the importance. The Department of Atomic Energy got significantly more than all the Civilian Science Ministries. Even today, it wouldn’t be untrue to say that science and political motive go hand in hand, lacking democratic spirit.
The point to note here is that sciences – although projected as impersonal, objective disciplines – happen within and are strongly influenced by the socio-political contexts they are set in. In ecology and social sciences especially, where disciplines enmesh into one another and with our lives, this top-down approach comes with strong detriments. To begin with an example – several of my friends working in premier Wildlife and Ecology research institutions have told me that the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) they are commissioned to do for infrastructure companies are most often tinkered with to suit their interests, towards the approval of their project.
The emerging revolution of Citizen Science in India and its various movements re-envisions scientific endeavour. It democratizes scientific participation, access and use to everybody – bringing about not just scientific outcomes, but social and political ones as well.
I want to recount three recent and ongoing conservation battles I am part of where Citizen Science has rock solidly backed us and is helping us fight faulty EIAs/tailored official documents.
- Sun Pharma’s proposal to expand within Vedanthangal and the Tamil Nadu Government’s plan to denotify 60% of the bird sanctuary to allow commercialization. The EIA prepared for a 10km radius around the section of the wetland the pharmaceutical company plans to expand over states that 25 species of birds are found here. All the Near Threatened and migratory species had been excluded. Ebird data helped falsify this, showing records of 191 species of which 6 are near threatened and over 50 are migratory.
- The EIA prepared for the 6111-acre area to be built over by Adani Port Limited lists a mere 32 species of birds, along with grossly understated diversity of marine fauna found in the Pulicat lagoon and bird sanctuary. Ebird data records 222 species in the coastal wetland, thus coming to our aid again.
- In the Madras High Court’s directive to the Greater Chennai Corporation to consider a coastal road over Adyar estuary, the work of Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network on nesting Olive Ridley turtles in the area was a crucial argument in our case to protect the habitat.
The power in this data is not just that it is reviewed and scientific. It is also that it is contributed by adults, children, scientists, amateurs, and people from all kinds of backgrounds. It represents a collective, ground-up spirit and interest.
There are many more big and small examples of how Citizen Science portals and people’s collective contribution have helped conserve ecologies in recent times, in India and abroad. The work of Marine Life of Mumbai in popularizing and documenting intertidal biodiversity on the INaturalist platform is helping them fight the Mumbai Corporation’s Coastal road project. Their data was accepted even in the Maharashtra High Court and used to falsify BMC’s claims. The Indian Biodiversity Atlas platforms facilitated the discovery of various unrecorded species of butterflies, spiders, frogs and other fauna, or important information about their distribution, often through observations by amateurs and non-scientists. And to give a couple of notable examples from abroad – the size of the Ramsar site at Fraser River Delta, Canada was increased 40-fold on the basis of Ebird observations of wintering waterfowl and migratory species. In Florida State parks, U.S, Ebird observations helped pass a law against drones which disturbed nesting Rails.
In 2019 Pankaj Sekhsaria and Naveen Thayyil published a comprehensive report on the various achievements of Citizen Science in India. What it clearly showed was that the volume and scientific-potential of the information gathered through these initiatives and platforms simply could not have been replicated or funded by private institutions or carried out by independent researchers. Information-gathering, inferencing and knowledge-creation was possible at spatial and temporal scales unthinkable before.
A group of us, as part of the Young Naturalists’ Network in Chennai created the INaturalist group – Biodiversity of Chennai two years ago. Our intent is to document all taxa of life forms in and around the city with the help of public and have it in one accessible place, where we review and keep updating it. We presently have documented over 2500 species, and our hope is that it will be a readily available educational tool and reference for schools, and just anybody – who might, through the platform and its discussions, become more interested in observing and documenting biodiversity. But it will also be a database which will empower our campaigns when a biodiversity-rich area in this region is threatened.
Madhav Gadgil, in his brilliant essay ‘Ecology is for the People’, points out the numerous problems with both development and conservation being imposed from above, and if any kind of conservation at all can be implemented through the exclusion of people. Top-down policy making functions that way – dependant on hierarchy and power relations. They are paradoxical in a strong sense. People on the ground, at the grassroots, whose experience and knowledge are most significant are deprived of or given little autonomy. And those at the apex of power and decision-making are usually the ones most far removed from ground realities. So, a majority of policy imposed from above must necessarily create conflict, inequality and perpetuate the crises we face today.
Brad Werner, Professor of Geophysics at the University of California, studies the futures of systems on Earth through numerically modelled simulations; extrapolating politics, cultures, and prevalent practices in the world onto different time scales. He is a scientific prophesizer so to speak. He and his team’s central finding is that activism, movements of resistance, and environmental direct action play the major role in changing the dominant extractive culture on Earth, and in reversing the climatic and ecological trends we are facing. Hope hangs, according to his empirical research, on ground-up direct action. Reading his 2012 presentation at the American Geophysical Union, I am reminded of Rebecca Solnit’s words in ‘Hope in the Dark’ – “You may be told that legal decisions lead the changes, that judges and lawmakers lead the culture… But they only ratify the change. They are almost never where change begins, only where it ends up, for most changes travel from the edges to the centre”. P.Sainath, founder of People’s Archive of Rural India, speaking about the Indian Freedom Struggle, said – “ (it) was not just about a bunch of charismatic individuals, it was not so simple at all. Tens of millions of ordinary people won your country its independence.”
I want to see the scope, potential and future of Indian Citizen Science through these political lenses. Of it becoming, in various spheres, a form of direct democracy. Where it can facilitate knowledge-making, progress, policy, and processes – ground-up and side-by-side. A thinking, informed, proactive citizenry ensures good governance. Or rather governs itself for the most part, ceasing to be solely dependent on power-centres for change. In matters of environment and social justice – one thing has protected their integrity the world over, if not anything else – pressure from an active, educated, and persistent public.
A confluent public participation avenue unique to the Indian context, which is also emerging and must grow, is the intersection between the use of the Right to Information Law and Citizen Science. At my school we have begun to teach ‘Right to Information’ in the higher secondary as an important part of Citizenship Education. Children read the essential sections of the law, discuss, interpret, and research on how it has been used in the past to bring about change in different parts of India. They then reflect on what their own interests, concerns and questions are for which they could file Right to Information requests to the respective departments. Once the information sought is received, each child reads the response, presents it to the larger group and we discuss different ways of taking it further. Here are a couple of recent examples of how this law has facilitated increase in public literacy, leading to demanding of good governance. An elaborate RTI study done by the Chennai Climate Action Group last year showed that six major polluting industries in North Chennai were in gross violation of air pollution regulations. This led to a campaign by the youth of North Chennai demanding that these industries follow laws, and a ban on any new industries in this area. A series of recent RTI requests by different groups brought out important data on the caste-based discrimination which is still prevalent in a majority of Indian universities – which led to student-campaigns demanding educational equality.
One may define Citizen Science as scientific research conducted in whole, or part, by non-professionals or common public. Often it is a collaborative project between professional institutions and public. Its main shortcomings pointed out by academics are that of data quality, a non-hypothesis driven practice unlike professional science, and being tainted with advocacy. Some questions arise here. Should science be divorced from ethical and moral considerations? Should it be disconnected from human and ecological values? Social scientists like Kevin Elliott and Jon Rosenberg have explained how “Citizen Science provides one of the best avenues for achieving scientific goals and for moving science forward”. Technology available today and the internet are able to facilitate this, but also as important is the growing acceptance of the idea that ordinary citizens should be empowered to play an active role in political, scientific, cultural, and other processes that affect them. Several studies show how volunteer training can result in data quality and results comparable to those achieved by trained scientists. But maybe more importantly, citizen science expands and diversifies what it means to be a scientist. Can farmers, fisherfolk, tribal folk, cattle herders,forest rangers, recreational divers, school children, common public be scientists? Which is to ask if they all, we all, have important knowledge to contribute to society and the space to participate? Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts scientific literacy and participation in scientific advancement as a human right. And citizen science has been making this right, perhaps for the first time, a grassroots-reality.
The Seeds for Needs initiative by Biodiversity International is a novel citizen science initiative in collaboration with now over 25,000 Indian farmers and 40,000 farmers worldwide to research and apply how crop diversity can help food-security and minimize risks due to climate change in various agricultural landscapes in India and other countries. The Transboundary Rivers of South Asia programme engages women and youth from local communities in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin to collect and analyse water quality data, and through the process build an evidence base which will inform multi-stakeholder dialogues on water governance. In Mexico, citizen science programmes involving small-scale fisher communities have helped evaluate fish populations and their habitat, detect impacts of climate change, and improve people’s knowledge of their fisheries. In a long-term study we have initiated at the Madras Naturalists’ Society, we too are doing something similar. We are documenting biodiversity and threats to coastal habitats and communities all along the Tamil Nadu coast. And we are primarily doing this in collaboration with artisanal fisher communities across the state and the local public, who are our main source of knowledge and are helping us monitor and take on-the-ground conservation initiatives. I got to know about the Reef Log programme recently, through my friend Suneha Jagannathan, a marine biologist who works at Dakshin Foundation. She and her colleagues run this citizen science initiative which is India’s first for exclusively monitoring marine ecosystems with the participation of recreational divers. In other parts of the world Reef Life Survey, REEF and Reef Check Foundation are initiatives doing similar work. The data collected through these citizen science initiatives have resulted in more 150 scientific papers on marine ecology. John Cigliano, who is among the marine scientists who facilitates these programmes, says that although professional researchers have long recognized the importance of engaging the public in conservation work largely for generating community and political support, he now realizes that ‘long-term monitoring’, especially of impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems, is only possible through citizen science.
As an educator I also want to explore and utilize the immense potential of citizen science to dissolve the unnatural distinction between ‘school learning’ and actual direct engagement and participation with the larger community and society. The real world today implies interdisciplinarity – not artificially separated subjects. It means complexity, crises, despair and hope, the beautiful, the ugly and everything in between. How much of academic learning allows or helps the child to be an intelligent, questioning,sensitive, proactive human being on their own terms in the larger society?
Doing citizen science projects with children brought to mind lines from a beautiful poem by educator Nicolette Sowder –
Citizen science taken seriously in schools will transform science learning and teaching (or the learning of any subject for that matter) from a mere passive passing down of pre-determined facts and values, towards a process of continuous learning, questioning, postulation, exploration and knowledge-making through active citizenship and collaboration. All knowledge and knowledge-systems are dynamic, constantly undergoing evolution and change, but subject teaching in its current fashion inevitably treats and portrays them as set and stagnant. Through citizen science projects and interactions, children can become valuable members and co-creators of society very early in life. It also becomes an avenue for the young person to be in direct contact with the real world and its complexities.
Beyond anything, the spirit of citizen science is a new kind of social philosophy which is inclusive, ground-up/side-by-side and democratic. In India and around the world it is advancing participatory conservation, good governance practices and social-empowerment. In the future, where citizen science as a culture and practice flourishes in different spheres, it would also contribute significantly towards creating an informed, proactive, and intrinsically Earth-conscious citizenry.
- SoIB 2020. State of India’s Birds, 2020 : Range, trends and conservation status.
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