The city of Aligarh looks peaceful and full of an old-world charm that is missing 150 km away in New Delhi. I sat perched nervously on the seat of a rickety cycle rickshaw as the driver took me from the railway station to the hundred-year-old Aligarh Muslim University. AMU’s campus is vast and dotted with historical landmarks, yet impeccably-maintained and modern. Students milled about, on campus and on foot. Most were male, probably because most undergraduate courses for females take place in the nearby Women’s College, separate from the main AMU campus.
The college, in recent times, has been mired in sexism and homophobia-related controversies. I was curious to talk to some women scientists and get a sense of the scientific research culture here. Orus Ilyas, 44, has been associated with AMU since her MSc days. Today she is Assistant Professor in AMU’s Wildlife Sciences department.
Her journey began in 1996 in the remote forests of Binsar situated in the Kumaon Himalayas in Uttarakhand. The Binsar Valley Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1988 after a long movement led by some of the locals who recognised that the broad leaf oak forests around them needed protection.
Studying ungulates and a deal with WWF
For her PhD, Ilyas wanted to study the biodiversity of herbivorous ungulates (hoofed mammals like goats and deer) – especially barking deer and goral – endemic to unexplored areas like Binsar. These two animals have not been extensively studied even today. “Yet, they are important ecologically. She illustrated this for me with an example: “Have you heard of the dodo? There was a plant in Mauritius which existed along with it. Dodos used to feed on its seeds and defecate it out. This seed would then germinate. After the dodo went extinct, the populations of these plants also drastically reduced.”
What Ilyas was trying to tell me with this analogy was that ungulates are important to its ecosystem in several such indirect ways. “To sustain tigers in habitat, we have to have prey base. Ungulates are preferred food for large cats. Moreover, they balance ecosystem by acting as natural gardeners – they graze the grasses and disperse seeds. They are the link between grasses and top carnivores.”
The area of Binsar was in those days highly remote. It was expensive to travel to and there was no place to stay. But all Ilyas could see was the thrill of unexplored biodiversity. “I accepted this as a challenge.” In the process of securing permissions from authorities and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to conduct her own research in the protected area, she agreed to take up another WWF-funded project on the side.
“The moment you declare an area protected, the locals are not supposed to take anything from the forest anymore,” explained Ilyas. “Until then, they were taking fuel wood for timber and everything from the forest, free of cost – so when they were stopped there was some agitation. They wanted the area to be protected, too, but they did not know their way of living will be stopped.” Sensing the conflict between the forest department and the locals, WWF knew that the way to resolve the situation is through an assessment of how dependent locals are on the forest, so that they could be provided with alternatives to reduce this dependency. Ilyas was to conduct this assessment.
The people of Binsar
“The government had no plan for them – and even the few plans they made failed because they were implemented without assessing the dependency of the people.” Ilyas described how the government once trained locals to culture honeybees, but when they finally provided them with bees to start off with, it was a species that could not survive in these climates. As a result, most people in Binsar’s villages were unemployed. The 10-20% of employed people were in the army, but the rest of the households depended on the forest for energy (fuelwood), fodder (food for cattle) and agriculture.
But to conduct the socioeconomic WWF study, Ilyas needed the specifics. She had to get the residents to open up about their consumption patterns. Being female helped. “I had the liberty to go inside kitchens. When you are there, mixing with the local women, and being one of them, they eventually open up. It was easier for me to to talk to them compared to the male researchers who had attempted this before me.”
This mattered, because according to Ilyas, it is the women who run households in these areas. “It is the women who work throughout the day – they do all household work, go into the forest to collect fuel wood, and they take cattle for grazing, cut grasses, logging trees.”. Ilyas had recognised this imbalance early, while doing her MSc project in Ranikhet, another hill station in the Himalayan Almora district. “I knew that women are the target group through whom we can actually extract the information.”
So where are the men, I asked. “Most men in these parts of the Himalayas are difficult. They don’t want to speak – unemployed and after sunset totally drunk. They are only involved in ploughing the field – other times they are idle or gambling – it’s not good.”
Doing more to help
During her initial days in Binsar, a well-known activist in the area Mukti Dutta helped Ilyas. Dutta was one of the leaders of the movement that got the area the ‘protected’ status. Mukti had invited Ilyato stay in her estate and shared with her the maps of the area she had made.
Two years into her assessment, Ilyas decided to try her hand at some implementation programmes to help the women. “I wanted to see for myself – are they ready to accept the change. Kyunki mera ye maanna hain ki jab aurat ke haath mein paisa ho to [if a woman has money in her hand], she feels empowered.”
Having lived with them for so long, the strength of these women had left a deep impression on Ilyas. “You must visit Kumaon. There you will see, in risky rough terrains, women cutting wood. Imagine! A 60 kg log of wood and a child on their back, they carry both. That fascinated me. Every day they do this – it’s so hard.”
Armed with some funds with WWF and two field assistants, Ilyas chose two villages to focus on. They invested in charkhas (spinning wheels). For the first village, Dalar, which had 12 houses, they bought five charkhas and hired one more person to train the village’s women in weaving. Six months later, they moved the charkhas to the second village Risal. “We heard that out of 12 houses [in the first village] six bought their own charkha. That was a big achievement for me.”
Throughout this time, Ilyas was also working on her PhD project. Most of the WWF work in the villages was done in the evening while the mornings she would spend trailing barking deer and goral in the forests. “I would walk on line transects (a way to estimate the density of wildlife populations over large areas) in the mornings. I was on field before sunrise, when the animals are most active.”
Ilyas surveyed 19 sites from 1995 to 1997. She believes that as we study these creatures more, they may come to reveal secrets that we do not yet know. “This is why we talk about conservation. We still may not know aspects of the barking deer’s role in our society.”
To reach her study area, Ilyas had to travel 11 km from an altitude of 1,100 to 2,400 metres above sea level. This would turn out to be really expensive (about Rs 700 per day) so when WWF offered her a motorcycle, the 24-year-old wildlife biologist jumped at the chance. “I said why not! Beggars can’t be choosers,” she laughed. So there she was a young woman “in western clothes, riding a Rajdoot (a Yamaha motorcycle made in India)”, negotiating sharp curves in a terrains. Ilyas said she made quite a sight and her bravado made her popular among the local women. In this way, her two projects went along successfully side-by-side.
Ilyas finally left Binsar after three years there. She completed her PhD in 2001 and married her husband Pervez, also a professor at AMU today. She won the department of science and technology’s Young Scientist fellowship, with which she went on to studying musk deer as her post-doctoral research in higher altitudes (3,500-4,500 metres above sea level). “I used to trek 35 km, that too very steep! From 900 to 4,000 metres.”
During one such day trekking up, Ilyas found out that she was pregnant. “I was vomiting a lot and after 15 km, a lady at the village I stopped at said ‘madam aapka shaadi ho haye? oh so good news!’” Though she was three months pregnant, Ilyas continued her survey for the next three months. “Once you are on field you have to finish; you can’t just come back.” Thankfully, she had some help. “Indigenous knowledge systems are very strong. The women told me ‘Didi, you can trek, but under your stomach tie a cloth’. I followed their instructions because that’s how they have been surviving!”
Ilyas came back to Aligarh seven months pregnant, and after some complications her daughter was born a month premature. For six months, Ilyas stayed with her daughter and mother, who was there to help. Then, she was off again because there was still some months of work to finish. When Ilyas returned three months later, she was elated to see how much her daughter had grown. “I left her lying on a bed and came back to her sitting down!” she laughed, eyes lighting up at the memory. These difficult times away from her daughter paid off for Ilyas as her paper got published in an international journal.
Going back to work after pregnancy and delivery was not easy but Ilyas had no doubts that it was what she wanted. Due to the complications she had put on a lot of weight – in fact, during an interview, one of her bosses asked her if she had indeed accomplished all the physically demanding projects in her CV. “With this weight, how did you manage,” he asked. Ilyas took it with a pinch of salt. She replied, “Sir, it is not one’s weight that takes them to the top, it’s motivation and passion. Come with me, I’ll take you to the Everest!”
A liberal upbringing
As one of five sisters in a progressive Muslim family, Ilyas considers herself lucky. “My mother did her graduation in the British period – that was a big deal for a Muslim woman in that time – and from the first day after her marriage, she decide that whatever child she gets, he/she must get education. I was always told to be independent – this should be the first priority – marriage will happen later.”
Nevertheless, she admits that her chosen career path did take some getting used to. “My father never said no, but he considered medicine and teaching the safest professions for women.” But things like wearing jeans and skirts were never a problem – “Back then, nobody objected to such things because we were from a Muslim family. They just said you should know how to carry yourself. This is the kind of confidence I got from my mother.”
Is Binsar saved?
Ilyas never went back to Binsar but she is keeping track of the villages there. One of her friends, a young postman, tells her the local news about families she interacted with. Today, the area is relatively developed, she said. But problems persist, even if in different forms from what Ilyas encountered in the 90s. “Now the British bungalows have been converted to hotels. So while the dependency of locals has reduced, dependency of tourism has increased.”
This article was originally published on The Life of Science.