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Conf, Wkshop, Training

Biodiversity informatics in India - A bird's eye view

Biodiversity information management using informatics techniques began in 1970s and since then there have been several initiatives by taxonomists, researchers and curators across the world. A recent workshop in Bangalore highlighted some of the ongoing initiatives in India to map the country's vast biodiversity resources, both from the government as well as the research community.

On 19 and 20 January 2013, the city of Bangalore hosted researchers in biodiversity informatics, taxonomists, herbarium managers and curators, representatives from biodiversity portal initiatives and young graduate students, in a workshop that examined advances in information technology that enable open, net-based access to India’s biodiversity information. The workshop titled “Indo–US Biodiversity Informatics”, was organized by ATREE, Bangalore in collaboration with India Biodiversity Portal (IBP), Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), the Western Ghats Portal (WGP) and Strand Life Sciences.

Milk Weed butterfly - Blue Tiger

A "Milkweed" butterfly also called Blue Tiger, unpalatable to predators - India is a host to a spectacular number of butterflies: approximately 1,800 species and subspecies (Image courtesy:

India Biodiversity Portal (IBP) was launched in 2008 by ATREE and its partners, to establish an open access biodiversity information platform for India. It has features such as a map module, species module and a citizen science module. The Portal was designed to facilitate user interaction and participation. 

The Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) was also launched in 2008 to provide access to information on every species in the world. EOL is a significant global resource for descriptive information about living organisms. It has built collaborations and partnerships with similar initiatives around the world.

What is biodiversity informatics ?

Biodiversity informatics is the application of informatics techniques to biodiversity information for management, presentation and analysis. It typically builds on a foundation of taxonomic information stored in digital form which is useful for viewing, analysis and for predictive modelling

Biodiversity informatics began in 1970s with the first computerisation of taxonomy database in the US. This progressed further in 1990s with the development of search tools in 1990s including the Species Analyst from Kansas University, the North American Biodiversity Information Network NABIN, CONABIO in Mexico and others. Later in 2004, the journal "Biodiversity Informatics" commenced its publication. Several international conferences through the 2000s, have brought together biodiversity informatics practitioners across the world.

Some major issues in biodiversity informatics

Though the field of biodiversity informatics is nearly 4 decades old, there are several issues that are still worrying taxonomists all over the world. One major issue is that of absence of a comprehensive master list of recognized species of the world in real time. Another is of multiple representations of same species including spelling errors. The issue of achieving a consensus on the classification of an organism is another very big issue which is causing problems in biodiversity informatics system design. Much of the data comes from primary sources such as surveys conducted by professionals, students and amateurs. Mobilising this primary data regarding the distribution of species in time and space is a difficult task.

Summary of important workshop sessions

The workshop presented some very interesting initiatives both from the government of India as well as research community in the country on developing species pages, streamlining taxonomy and so on. 

Dr. Venkataraman from the Zoological Survey of India who was one of the speakers at the workshop, presented the biological diversity of India from past literature, museum records and other lesser popular/ limited access sources of information

Map showing endemic tree species in Western ghats, India

Map showing the distribution of endemic (local) tree species in Western Ghats, India (Image courtesy:

Dr. Sameer from the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehradun presented the Indian Bio-Resource Information Network (IBIN) programme of the Department of Biotechnology, GoI, being implemented in collaboration with University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) and Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS). This programme provides data on specialized topics and is being collected and collated by different partners across the country, such as medicinal plants (UAS), maps and checklists (ATREE), chromozome data (Kolkata University) etc. The model works on integration of work being done by others by bringing them on board as collaborators.

Dr. Binay Panda from Ganit Labs presented on how DNA bar-coding is effective in identification of species and how this is replacing the traditional morphology-based methodology.

Even with all these issues being faced by this field / sector, there has been significant advancement in this field. The workshop served as a good reflection point on the current status of biodiversity mapping in India and in the United States of America.

Interested ?

If you are interested in biodiversity conservation or if you are an amateur taxonomist, then you can be a part of some of these initiatives. Here's one way you can get started.


Expanding access to improved water sources through watercredit: A report on the stakeholders engagement forum, organised by, New Delhi,19th February 2013

A one day session on the challenges faced in access to water and improved water sources through water credit initiatives was organised by Uday Shankar from welcomed the audience and introduced the issue of access to safe water and sanitation.

Gary White,, set the tone of the seminar by explaining his organisation’s vision of ‘getting safe water’ for everyone. He explained the concept of water credit, which is a microfinance-based watercredit initiative that sees rural people as citizens and customers and offers them the financial power to access safe drinking water and basic sanitation services.

Water credit initiative in India-89% borrowers are women:Rich Thorsten,

Rich Thorsten then went on to elaborate on watercredit and how it works in India. He explained how microfinance loans are given for the purpose of water and sanitation in terms of smart (start ups, product development) and strategic subsidies ( softwares, capacity building etc.)

The average loan size in India is about Rs 7500, average loan term is around 15 months and the effective interest rate is 16.7%. Data interpretation also brought about an interesting fact that about 89% of the borrowers are women and sanitation loans are 54% as against water loans at 38%. He also clarified that this loan rate is contextual, and depended upon the proposed location and object of construction.

Challenges in expanding water access via  water credit: Avudai Nayakam,

Nayakam from spoke on the challenges and issues faced in expanding water access via watercredit. These included decline in water sources, income level variation, political support and availability of local funds. He explained how water loans are income saving and not income generating loans.

Provision of 24 x 7 water availabilty in projects in Hubli & Nagpur: Brune Poirson, Veolia water India 

Taking the stage for Panel I discussion, Brune Poirson, Veolia water India, spoke on their company’s experiences in a pilot project in Hubli for providing 24 hr water supply. In Maharashtra the company is in PPP mode with the Nagpur municipal authority and is providing 24 x 7 water, where earlier the water supply was intermittent and irregular. She stated that the water source remained the same as before; it is 40 % of the unidentified flow water that was lost earlier, which has been regained.

Agriculture uses 80% of total groundwater extracted:Rahul Bokare, Arghyam

Rahul Bakare from Arghyam, spoke on the groundwater mining rampant in the country, with at least 3.5 crore wells/tubewells existing today. Irrigation through groundwater is much higher than that through surface water irrigation. He elaborated how groundwater extraction can be reduced by changing crop patterns,  as agriculture uses 80% of total groundwater extracted. Groundwater though an invisible source needs to be treated as a common pool resource.

Safe, affordable water through rainwater harvesting structures:Subhash Jain , Safe water network

Subhash Jain, Safe water Network, reiterated how providing sops to the farmer encourages mining of groundwater, further depleting its level. He explained how water security at household levels can be attained through the construction of tanks and by reviving common water storage structures like pond, talab, naadi etc.

In the Panel II discussion regarding water quality management, Arumugam, from Water for people, spoke on the various pollutants, water contamination and their health based effects. He highlighted the fact that as groundwater levels dip alarmingly iron contamination increases and also how about 40% sources in the country are fluoride contaminated.

Water quality, tests and household water treatment options :Dr Mariapan, TWAD,Board, Trichy

Dr Mariappan spoke on rainwater harvesting, different types of available filters like the Tripura filter suitable for household purposes and Kanchan filter, used for arsenic removal. He explained a simple practical method for checking water quality- it should be colourless, odourless, and when the bottle is shaken, the bubbles must disappear within 60 seconds. He also mentioned a government site which can be utilised to check water quality data of any particular village.

Water for the urban poor riddled with health risks & financial losses leading to increased conflicts:A J James, WES-NET India

Water for the urban poor was taken up by AJ James, WES-NET India. He elaborated on how the problem of no service and poor service was compounded in the urban slums, with health risks, molestation cases and more financial loss due to purchase of water, leading to water conflicts. Though the duty-bound government has both the mandate and the resources to work here, the private sector too is introducing innovative products, marketing strategies & supply chains.

Mathew Titus of Sa-Dhan spoke on how pilot projects need to be carried out in the country, which could then be scaled up. For this at least a million address challenges are needed, and even then there is no guarantee for success and he hoped that MFI bill would come into force soon. However instead of trying to fit in a western solution, he emphasized that is advisable to work systematically and find a solution pertinent to Indian conditions. For this dialogue with the government is both essential and critical.


Experiences from a civil society initiative to restore stretches of toxic Yamuna: Report of a conference organised by PEACE, Thames River Restoration Trust and WWF India at New Delhi in March 2013

The Thames River Restoration Trust, UK, WWF-India and PEACE Institute Charitable Trust, Delhi held a conference on “Sharing experiences and lessons learnt from the Thames and Ganga Twinning Project” on March 1, 2013 at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

Dr Peter Spillet of the Thames River Restoration Trust shared that the Trust was the recipient of the 2010 Theiss International Riverprize funds on behalf of many organizations involved in the restoration work on river Thames in United Kingdom. He said that the Trust had shared the money for twinning projects in various countries including in India.

This conference presents the results of the 2011-13 twinning programme. The Trust collaborated with PEACE and WWF to work with local communities working on Yamuna river restoration, he said.

Dr Ashghar Nawab, Senior Projects Coordinator, WWF-India noted that they ran the project on the Upper Ganges river at the Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh to re-introduce the endangered Gharial and other wildlife there and in the lower Yamuna river area. At the same time they helped local people improve their agricultural practices to improve their standard of living.

The long term plan was to ensure a viable population of Gharial with a favourable habitat through increased capacity support from the local communities. The project was to benefit fish population, freshwater turtles, Ganges river dolphins and other riverine species in the lower Yamuna river such as otters and water birds, he said.

Field survey

Intensive field surveys were conducted to monitor species diversity and evaluate threats to habitat (Image courtesy: WWF-India)

In the stretch between Bateshwar Ghat, Agra to Dibholi Ghat, Etawah the frontline forest staff was trained in monitoring and assessing the Gharial population and habitat, thereby transferring WWF-India expertise in this field to the Forest Department.


Female Gharial recorded with about 18 hatchlings; this is the first record of Gharial ‘nesting’ in river Yamuna (Image courtesy: WWF-India)

In this project, work was done with the local communities to reduce dependency on river resources. Alternative livelihood options were provided by creating links with government village development schemes. Local Youth Conservation Forum was built to instill a sense of ownership for the protection of the species.

Dr Nawab stated that biodiversity conservation was inextricably linked to the protection of habitat in terms of availability of prey and suitable sites for shelter. Biodiversity recorded represents endangered species like the Ganges Dolphin, Gharial and the black-necked Stork. Peripheral areas of the National Chambal Sanctuary fall in the Yamuna, which are used as seasonal migratory routes by endangered species like Gharial.


Small population of Ganges river dolphin were observed near Pathewara village, Hamirpur (Image courtesy: S R Taigore)

Such habitats maybe recognized or proposed as conservation units needing effective protection measures on urgent basis. Technical assistance is being provided to the Forest Department in the development of a Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan for Yamuna. Riparian communities with stake in long term future of freshwater species and habitats across the region must be fully engaged in the development and conservation planning processes. This will help assure the future sustainability of associated livelihoods and the ecosystem services provided by fully functioning freshwater ecosystems.

Manoj Misra stated that PEACE’s work on the river Yamuna has evolved, and the partnership with TRRT and WWF-India is a part of this process. It started with devising and testing a People’s River Health Index (PRHI) in 2010 supported by a two-year grant from the UNDP-SGP. Findings from the PRHI project became the activities under the Twinning Project. The activities were spread over ten grids along the river Yamuna.

Nadi Mitra Mandalis (NMMs) were set up as formal registered societies at each grid and acted as instruments for action addressing the “non point” threats to the river. The focus of the project was on promotion of natural or organic farming, improved sanitation and waste water management, solid and farm refuse management, catchment restoration, river and village health assessment, institutional strengthening and outreach to school children.  

Activities taken up included development of plantation, recharge well, pond and well restoration, solar lamps, eco-san toilets and repair of village drains. 6,000 trees have been planted along the river at ten locations. Monthly monitoring of river health (water quality, quantity and biodiversity) and village health parameters was being done at all the grids by the NMMs.

Dave Wardle, Twinning Project Chairman discussed the work of the Thames River Restoration Trust in improving the biologically dead river. He provided an account of how the Thames system suffered from problems such as pollution, physical alteration, low water flows and loss of wildlife habitat. The work of the Trust in improving the Thames system was discussed. He shared how TRRT helped restore the Thames and its tributaries through its policy lobbying work and by helping produce the Thames River Basin Management Plan, London Rivers Action Plan and Thames Water Resources Plan. The river is as free of pollution as possible and has been able to meet water quality standards.


Thames river (Image courtesy: Thames River Restoration Trust)

Dr. Robert Oates, Director of the Thames River Restoration Trust stated that significant stretches of the river have been restored to a natural structure, to enable functioning natural processes and sustainable ecosystems.

The technical sessions led by Bhim Rawat and Sita Ram Taigor of PEACE along with representatives of the Nadi Mitra Mandalis elaborated on the activities taken up in each grid and the experiences therein. 

Download these documents : Size
River restoration techniques - Presentation by Manoj Misra, PEACE (2013)7.55 MB
International river prize - Presentation by Dave Wardle, TRRT (2013)13.92 MB
Mainstreaming biodiversity conservation in river Yamuna - Presentation by Asghar Nawab, WWF India (2013)12.93 MB
Thames Ganga Twinning Project - Presentation by Peter Spillett, TRRT (2013)2.58 MB
Bateshwer grid in Yamuna - PEACE (2013)5.55 MB
Ekdala grid in Yamuna - PEACE (2013)5.59 MB
Gadaya grid in Yamuna - PEACE (2013)5.66 MB
Hamirpur grid in Yamuna - PEACE (2013)7.02 MB
Kanalsi grid in Yamuna - PEACE (2013)15.99 MB
Katapathar grid in Yamuna - PEACE (2013)13.23 MB
Kharadi grid in Yamuna - PEACE (2013)8.22 MB
Oba grid in Yamuna - PEACE (2013)8.03 MB
Pachnada grid in Yamuna - PEACE (2013)5.04 MB
Ramra grid in Yamuna - PEACE (2013)10.37 MB

Water in India: Situation and prospects – Book release by UNICEF, FAO and SaciWaters

New indices are needed to measure available water resources, says a report on the state of the water sector in India, entitled Water in India: Situation and Prospects by UNICEF, FAO and SaciWATERS. The report released at UNDP, New Delhi on February 14, 2013 attempts to consolidate the significant amounts of information available on water and sanitation in India and also aims to examine the key current challenges in the sector; both the threats and opportunities for the water sector in India.

Dr Aidan Cronin, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist, UNICEF gives a sneak preview to the report

Video courtesy: UNICEF

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Subsidy or shame: Which technique works better in improving sanitation in India ? - Talk by Sumeet Patil, NEERMAN, at the 3ie seminar at Delhi, February 2013

Subsidy proponents believe that the poor need economic incentives while shaming proponents contend that to bring out lasting behavioural change, intrinsic motivation is required; people are more likely to use and value things they have had to pay for.

What explains the Total Sanitation Campaign: The first impact evaluation study carried out in Orissa, by a multi disciplinary team, comes up with a few answers on how to answer this key policy question !

Sumeet Patil contributes to this ongoing debate, providing insight on a study carried out to examine the effects in Orissa of a “community-led total sanitation” model implemented there. For the study, a random sample selection of villages was done and survey carried out. Data was collected through questionnaires, interviews and field visits and subsequently analyzed.

Total Sanitation Campaign

Community Participation - Total Sanitation Campaign ( Image: India Water Portal)

Some important findings from the study reveal:

  • Not just health awareness but importance of privacy and dignity play a key role in influencing household demand for latrines
  • Households priority for toilets is low; 80% want health dispensary’s , 59 % roads and only 7-8% give priority to water and sanitation
  • Constructing individual household latrines placed conveniently next to the house for the family’s exclusive use rather than community toilets
    brought in a larger change
  • Social pressure and peer monitoring are stronger tools than targeting individuals for success of sanitation program
  • Poor need to spend 85% of their monthly income on a full-price latrine, hence subsidies clearly helped 
  • Equally important is how and when the subsidies are given
  • Among households above the poverty line, subsidies are not necessary to spur action and shame alone can be very effective


Cartoons explaining importance of hygienic toilet habits: TSC (Image: India Water Portal)


Success of the campaign lies in a unique combination of shame and subsidies. The inference drawn is that the “shame and subsidy” strategy together  have a larger effect than “shame” or “subsidy” alone. It is this Community Led Total Sanitation  (CLTS) based behavior change, coupled with subsidy based intervention that impacts the sanitation campaign.

Shame or subsidy: What explains the imapact of TSC- Presentation by Sumeet Patil at  New Delhi

To read the complete journal paper, click here.

Download the seminar presentation by Sumeet Patil.

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Shame or subsidy - What explains the impact of Total Sanitation Campaign, A presentation by Sumeet Patil, 3ie, New Delhi (2013)2.6 MB

Everything you wanted to know about rivers in India - Compilation of all videos from the "Living rivers, dying rivers" series of talks organised by India International Centre and Centre for Policy Research at New Delhi over 2011-12

The India International Centre launched a series of talks titled ‘Living Rivers, Dying Rivers’ in collaboration with the Centre for Policy Research. The attempt was to join the crucial debates surrounding the alarming increase in environmental degradation, especially of rivers and river systems, without which the very survival of all species is in jeopardy.

A certain number of rivers, some sick or dying, some living and healthy, and some showing early signs of sickness, were taken up for presentations and discussion, and an attempt made to understand what has gone wrong in many cases, what has gone right in some, and what needs to be done to revive and restore dying or sick rivers. The series has been conceived and carried forward by India’s foremost expert in the field, Prof. Ramaswamy Iyer.

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An exhibition at Studio Safdar in Shadi Khampur traces the history of the urban village and its water systems

Guest post: Amita Bhaduri

West Delhi’s dusty neighbourhood, Shadi Khampur now has its own museum, in the traditional brick-and-mortar sense. I live nearby, have worked out of an office here and am familiar with the alleyways. But I got to know only now, what life in the neighbourhood was like. Its rich history and its connect to larger narratives from the past, like the series of land acquisitions in Delhi, the Emergency, and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 which had gone largely undocumented and unarchived have been chronicled in the Neighbourhood Museum of Local History of Shadi Khampur, at Studio Safdar, a cafe cum bookstore.

Studio Safdar

Neighbourhood Museum at Studio Safdar

Source: Facebook page on “Public Art Project at Studio Safdar”

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Videos: Lovraj Kumar panel discussion focuses on the challenges to biodiversity conservation, livelihoods and ecological sustainability

Guest post: Amita Bhaduri

The manner in which biodiversity contributes to poverty reduction and development had recently become a subject of heated debate at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CoP-11) at Hyderabad.  As a curtain raiser to this event, SPWD’s Lovraj Kumar panel discussion on 28th September, 2012 at IIC, New Delhi focused on the challenges to biodiversity conservation, livelihoods and ecological sustainability.

The discussion was chaired by Sunita Narain, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). The panelists included Ashish Kothari, Kalpavriksh; Ravi Chellam, a renowned wildlife scientist and Ligia Noronha, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). The panelists agreed that environmental sustainability is a fundamental development objective and deliberated on the opportunities that are available for concrete action.

Talk by Ashish Kothari, Kalpavriksh at the Lovraj Kumar Panel Discussion

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Yamuna - Talk by Prof Brij Gopal and Manoj Misra at the “Living rivers, dying rivers” series, organised at IIC, New Delhi in July 2011

Guest post: Amita Bhaduri

The second lecture in the series titled "Living rivers, dying rivers" was delivered on the subject of Yamuna river by Prof. Brij Gopal, Former Prof. of JNU and Manoj Misra, PEACE Institute and Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan. The lecture held on July 11, 2011 at the India International Centre, New Delhi highlighted the complex challenges faced by the river which on the one hand is worshipped as a divinity and on the other hand abused. The series coordinated by Prof. Ramaswamy R Iyer aimed at understanding what has been happening to rivers across India and in drawing appropriate lessons.

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