By Kalyani Subbiah and Nithin Ramesan
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Oh Deer! Tackling Deer Fatalities on Campus
Sunlight streaming through trees, deer grazing peacefully nearby – the IITM campus is an idyllic sight in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Chennai. But behind its calm exterior, this outpost of nature is in the midst of a raging environmental crisis, and we need to act fast to protect it.
The deer, spotted and blackbuck, are some of the best loved animals on campus and symbolic of our institute’s principle of harmonious life with nature. Unfortunately, increasing human presence in campus has caused the deaths of deer hit by speeding vehicles, hunted by stray dogs, snagged in chain fences and slowly killed by ingesting plastic. While deer fatalities occur throughout the year, according to a Prakriti report provided to us by Professor Shanti Bhattacharya, about 21 deer have died, and three injured, in January 2014 alone — the month when the student fests Shaastra and Saarang are organized. Of these, at least two are endangered blackbuck, and one is a fawn. Three are confirmed dead by accidents, six by dog attacks. Several other deaths are listed as ‘natural’, but Professor Bhattacharya contends, “If they were truly natural, we should be seeing numbers like that every month.” A possible cause is that autopsies were not performed on some of the deer, which could have died of accidents. Professor Bhattacharya further asserts that stress caused by noise pollution from the fests and the vulnerability of mothers and offspring to dog attacks (January is the fawning season) could cause casualties.
Articles in leading newspapers of Chennai have drawn attention to these deer deaths in January, as IITM, being the leading tertiary-education institute in Chennai, is often under the ‘social scanner’. Naturally, acerbic criticism of IITM’s environmental policy is pouring in, while a management already caught up in a mess of environmental legalities balks at the mention of the issue. Fortunately, a proactive student community can take steps to reduce deer fatalities.
The Students’ General Secretary, Aditya Bharadwaj, called for a meeting with the Speaker, Cultural Affairs Secretary, Saarang Cores, Sustainability Network members, and Professor Bhattacharya to discuss possibilities for restricting vehicles in campus to reduce deer deaths, especially during Shaastra-Saarang. Thousands of vehicles pass through the campus roads during January, causing enormous disturbance and danger to the deer. The possibility of alternative parking spaces in CLRI, Anna University or Library, IITM Research Park, Guru Nanak College and others during the fests were discussed. If vehicles are stopped from entering, arrangements must be made for bus transport for the thousands of people attending Saarang, by increasing the number of bus drivers, and buses plying the route from the Main Gate to Gajendra Circle. While this involves logistical difficulties, it is not implausible.
The Saarang representatives, however, highlighted the understandable caveats of this approach on their side, such as the dangers of stampede when boarding the buses and financial and budget constraints. According to a former Saarang core, the footfall for the ProShows is as high as eight thousand for Choreo Night and Popular Night, out of which about five thousand are from outside the institute. “Blocking vehicles from entering the campus will definitely inconvenience people, which in turn will directly impact ticket sales.”
Everyone agreed that these measures could only be implemented with the cooperation and assistance of the management, especially increasing the number of bus drivers during the fests. Apart from the fests, they also discussed restricting vehicles on normal days. According to an S-Net report that was presented in the meeting, an average of 922 two-wheelers, 157 three-wheelers, 196 taxis and 678 lorries and private cars enter IITM every day. Several of these use IITM as a thoroughfare from Guindy to Velachery, which could be prevented by introducing a stricter pass system, or banning two-wheelers, autos and taxis from entering the campus, and asking visitors to park at the main entrance and take a bus. As Chief Security Officer Narayan Elumalai aptly says, “Vehicles from outside like taxis, and not residents, are the ones that overspeed with no regard for wildlife. They’re so used to driving on potholed, bumpy roads with traffic that when they see the wide, clear roads of insti, they speed.” Introducing an alternative mode of paid eco-friendly transport for students was also on the cards, such as ‘Green cycles’ for rent at different locations, as well as a portal for taxi-pooling of students going to and coming from the railway station at the start and end of the vacation.
In response to the recent deaths, the security section conducted a survey of vehicles on campus, measuring their speeds using laser speed guns. They found that most vehicles flouted the existing speed limit, and presented their findings at a meeting of the heads of departments. In response, they were allowed to reduce the speed limit within the campus, from 40 kmph to 35 kmph on arterial roads, 30 kmph in the school zone and 20 kmph on blind curves. Offenders are tracked using laser speed guns and are slapped with a fine of Rs. 500. While this change is welcome, the security section can do a better job of informing people about it. Most speed limit signs have not been updated, and the only notice about the changed speed limit is a small sign at the main gate. In other attempts to restrict the number of vehicles coming into campus, cars were not allowed to park in the space opposite the CCW office – designated a blackbuck space – during the 51st convocation. However, vehicles are not the only cause of deer casualties.
Deer also die of other man-made causes, the most preventable of which is improper garbage disposal. This is perhaps the worst form of painful and slow death possible for a wild animal, and it is solely caused by human negligence and unconcern. The Students’ General Secretary emphasizes this point when he asserts, “Students should feel more responsible. All around the hostels, there is a lot of waste. People just throw them out of the window.” He stresses that the management is doing the best it can to alleviate this problem through community cleaning programmes such as the Hostel Clean-up drive that recently occurred. It has also been setting up dustbins that are deer-proof. However, as he says, “These efforts only work with a change in individual behaviour.” Civic responsibility has always been lagging in our country, even in a top institution like IITM.
The reasons for dog attacks on deer are quite unclear. Professor Bhattacharya believes that the reasons may be fighting over open garbage bins or systemized hunting of the deer by dogs for food. This problem has been addressed to some extent as some stray dogs have been taken away by dog-catchers and open dustbins have been replaced as far as possible, so that the situation is better than before. However, the lack of large grazing grounds provides deer, especially blackbuck, with a lesser chance to flee from attacking dogs. Chain links, earlier present around departments, have been removed, though more has to be done since they persist in some locations. The recent uproar over the death of a deer on the chain link fence surrounding our Director’s home illustrates this. Professor Bhattacharya remarks sadly that deer are sensitive and vulnerable creatures, and therefore modest injuries caused by slamming into these fences while running cause their deaths.
The management has planned to set up deer corridors throughout the institute. Upon recommendation from architects, to enable space for the deer, six-level multi-storey buildings will be constructed in such a way that there is more space for the blackbuck. It is true that the numbers of blackbuck have risen in the institute to 34 because of more awareness and action on the part of the management, but the authors of this article believe more needs to be done.
Nityanand Jayaraman, one of the foremost environmental activists in Chennai, rightly stresses the extent and implications of this crisis. “I think it is unfair to expect college-going students and youngsters to conduct a rock concert in hushed tones. It is also unfair for the wildlife to be subjected to a high-decibel Saarang. The only fair solution would be to separate the two.”A Saarang core points out that although they strictly adhere to the 90 dB noise limit set by the Supreme Court, artists are constantly asking for the volume to be increased. “We have to repeatedly refuse requests to increase the volume – simply ensuring that it doesn’t exceed the limit is a huge challenge, so reducing the volume is not even an option.” Mr. Jayaraman advocates a satellite campus, or an additional campus situated elsewhere, to accommodate more people, and prevent deer deaths and loss of natural environment. (It was recently in the news that IITM may set up a new satellite campus for research facilities). He further asserts, “It is even more unfortunate that these deaths are happening inside the campus of an institution that proclaims itself to house the largest concentration of intelligent people. I wonder if this signals a need to revisit the notion of intelligence. In any case, repeated deaths by the same causes can no longer be classified as accidents. If the victim deer were human beings, the Institute’s administrators would be facing charges of manslaughter.”
We have blood on our hands, and it’s time to act – now. For now, four commandments for us as students: throw garbage in the dustbins, drive carefully, use the campus bus as much as possible, and report injured deer immediately.
Authors’ Note: The authors thank Professors Enakshi Bhattacharya (Electrical Engineering) and Susy Varughese (Chemical Engineering) for the data and input provided.
“Deer Found Dead in IIT-M Campus”, The Hindu, 9 Jan 2014.
“IIT Madras Plans Deer Corridor”, Deccan Chronicle, 15 June 2014.
“IIT-M Satellite Campus to Come Up in the Suburbs”, Times of India, 11 Oct 2014.