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Reaffirming Our Commitments to the Biosphere – Abhik Gupta – World Environment Day 2021 Edition

Last updated on June 13, 2021


Abhik Gupta is Vice-Chairperson, Tripura State Higher Education Council; Former Professor, Environmental Science and Pro Vice-Chancellor, Assam University, Silchar

“We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft…”: Adlai Stevenson, 1965 (Speech delivered before the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations at Geneva, Switzerland)

World Environment Day: A brief timeline

The first wakeup call on the impending environmental crisis can be said to have been given by the US marine biologist Rachel Carson, whose path-setting book Silent Spring, which was published in 1962 and sold more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries, drew the attention of the world to the dangers of pesticide poisoning of the ecosystems, which caused adverse effects on the organisms living there as well as to the humans. Around this time, many other scientists were also writing and talking about the rampant degradation of the natural systems that was being brought about by reckless human exploitation of the various resources provided by them.

Not only that, interferences were regularly being made in the numerous functional processes which kept these systems going since their formation several billion years ago. In 1967, a proposal was made to the United Nations General Assembly to organize a conference to attract the attention of the member countries and promote international cooperation to address the “extremely complex problems related to the human environment”. Meanwhile, the Earth Day, a landmark event was conceived and organized by a young US senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970. This event inspired 20 million Americans to protest against the deterioration of the environment through rallies, demonstrations and mass gatherings. These actions led to the establishment of the United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA) and the passage of several important environmental protection laws in the US. Nevertheless, the impact of the Earth Day before it became an international event in 1990, was largely confined to the United States.  The first truly international initiative to draw attention to the various environmental issues was taken by the UN, which led to the organization of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) during 5th to 16th June, 1972, at the Swedish capital city of Stockholm.

On 15th December of the same year, the UN General Assembly took a resolution to create the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), and 5th June was designated to be observed worldwide as the World Environment Day. Two years later, the first World Environment Day (WED) was observed in 1974, with the theme “Only One Earth”. The theme reminded us that if we continue to degrade and destroy this planet through our foolhardy actions, we might make it uninhabitable for all forms of life for ever. Since then, WED has served as a platform for spreading environmental awareness and promoting action among all the nations of the world. Every year, a theme is selected and the World Environment Day is hosted by a specific country in which official celebrations take place. This year’s theme is Ecosystem Restoration with Pakistan serving as the host country. Further, 5th June, 2021, will also mark the beginning of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. This is intended to be a global mission to revive and restore ecosystems all over the world[i]

Biosphere, ecosystems and humans

The earth is often conceived to be made up of several spheres: atmosphere comprising air, hydrosphere water, and lithosphere comprising rock and soil. However, the overarching sphere that is present as a ‘film of life’ across these three spheres is the biosphere – the sphere of life. The biosphere – the concept of which was first put forward by an Austrian geologist Eduard Suess in 1875 and later popularized by the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky in the 1920s – is the sum total of all biomes and ecosystems present on the earth and is powered by the energy of Sun. The biosphere in turn comprise a mosaic of ecosystems of diverse structure and function, though they have some fundamental features in common.

The term ecosystem was first proposed by the British ecologist Arthur G. Tansley in 1935. The ecosystems are considered as the basic unit which serve as the arena of interactions among the various abiotic (non-living) components such as climatic variables, inorganic and organic matter and the biotic (living) components such as the green plants, herbivores, carnivores, and the decomposers like bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes and others. The ecosystem is the first level of organization in nature that includes both abiotic and biotic elements.  On a larger scale, several ecosystems comprise a landscape, which in turn are parts of larger, regional scale systems called biomes, such as the Tundra biome, the Desert biome, the Tropical Rainforest biome and others. All the biomes, in turn, are parts of the biosphere. Thus, there is an inherent unity and connectivity among all the natural systems and the myriad living organisms that inhabit these systems[ii]. However, the human species often visualize itself to be outside this natural web and try to play the role of a master or owner. Many humans also consider their relationship with nature as a kind of ‘conflict’ and set the goal of ‘conquering’ nature. These aggressive attitudes have led the humans to degrade, damage and even destroy ecosystems all over the world.

However, the human species often visualize itself to be outside this natural web and try to play the role of a master or owner. Many humans also consider their relationship with nature as a kind of ‘conflict’ and set the goal of ‘conquering’ nature. These aggressive attitudes have led the humans to degrade, damage and even destroy ecosystems all over the world.

The earth’s myriad ecosystems are being unsustainably exploited and destroyed since long. It is estimated that forests measuring about a football field are vanishing every three seconds, while about half of the world’s wetlands have already been destroyed or reclaimed over the last century. More than half of the coral reefs are already gone, and this loss could reach up to ninety per cent by 2050, even if the temperature rise due to climate change is kept restricted to 1.5 0C.

This year’s World Environment Day theme of Ecosystem Restoration emphasizes that we have to not only prevent the destruction of ecosystems, but also to reverse the changes and restore their normal structure and function. There has to be a paradigm shift in the role of humanity from destroyer and ruthless exploiter of ecosystems to their restorers and friends. Global cooperation with active participation of the citizens are essential for achieving this goal. In 2020, the WED theme was Biodiversity, which emphasized the urgent need to conserve the richness of plant, animal and microbial life on the planet. However, the rich biodiversity of the earth, which is already under tremendous threat, cannot be saved unless the ecosystems that harbour and nurture them are protected and restored. Besides, the ecosystems also support the livelihoods of numerous people, which can only be sustained if these are maintained in a healthy state. Thus, a big challenge confronts the human species, whereby the myriad ecosystems from forests to cultivated plots, from rivers to wetlands, and from mountains to oceans have to be given the ‘healing touch’ to take them back as close to their original state as possible.  

This year’s World Environment Day theme of Ecosystem Restoration emphasizes that we have to not only prevent the destruction of ecosystems, but also to reverse the changes and restore their normal structure and function. There has to be a paradigm shift in the role of humanity from destroyer and ruthless exploiter of ecosystems to their restorers and friends.

Ecosystem restoration – the tasks ahead

Over the years since its inception, the themes chosen every year for World Environment Day have reminded us that the ecosystems around us are being altered and damaged by various anthropogenic (human-induced) disturbances. Accordingly, the themes have focused on air and water pollution, pollution of the sea, plastic pollution, desertification, climate change, ozone layer depletion, toxic chemicals, and so on. However, in 2000, it also exhorted us to take action through the theme “The Environment Millennium – Time to Act”. In response to this call, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was launched on World Environment Day in 2001. Twenty years hence, the WED 2021 theme of Ecosystem Restoration and the launching of the Ecosystem Restoration Decade (2021-2030) therefore, reaffirm further international commitments to corrective action to save the environment.

The main objective of ecosystem restoration is to assist the recovery of damaged, degraded or adversely altered ecosystems to their normal structure and function. Ecosystem restoration also aims to conserve those ecosystems which have remained unaffected. The various approaches to ecosystem restoration may include planting trees, cleaning up pollutants, or removing the different types of stresses which may be affecting them. Some selected examples of ecosystem restoration work which are already underway may be cited here to understand the range as well as depth of the issues involved.

Some case studies

Coral reef restoration: Coral reefs cover less than 0.1 % of the world’s oceans and yet support about 25 % of the marine biodiversity. Often referred to as the “rainforests of the ocean”, they occur in over 100 countries with more than 500 million people dependent on them for their livelihoods. They are among the most vulnerable ecosystems about 50 % of which have already been lost in the last 30 years. The objective of coral reef restoration is to assist these ecosystems to recover from the damage and destruction that have affected them. Various methods such as direct transplantation of corals, “coral gardening”, substrate addition by constructing artificial reefs with substrate manipulation and stabilization, and larval propagation by transplanting coral larvae are being employed to help the process of regeneration in coral reefs.

underwater photography of school of fish
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

Coral reef restoration projects are underway in at least 56 countries, for example, in Fiji and Kiribati islands in the Pacific, and in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. In India, several organizations are doing work for coral reef regeneration. One of the earliest ventures is the Mithapur Coral Recovery Programme in the Gulf of Kachchh in Gujarat launched in 2008 jointly by the Wildlife Trust of India and the Gujarat Forest Department, and supported by Tata Chemical Limited. This project is unique in having involved community management of a section of the reef. As a result of this project, fish diversity and density have increased in the restored reef area. Another organization – the Reefwatch – has started reef regeneration activity in the Andamans since 2018, and yet another NGO – the Coastal Impact – has initiated a project in Goa in 2020. However, some of these recent projects are facing tough challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation[iii].

Forest restoration: Forests provide clean air and water, store vast amounts of carbon and moderate the climate, thereby comprising our defence against climate change. They are also the source of livelihood to billions of people, especially those belonging to rural tribal and other indigenous communities that lead lives in harmony with nature. Yet, about 4.7 million hectares (mha) of tropical forest are lost every year to various human activities such as logging, firewood collection and others. Seven million hectares of natural forests are converted to other land uses annually. Wildfires destroy large chunks of forest in many countries such as Australia, USA and others.

India is facing the threat of land degradation and deforestation in a big way. The Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas (SAC-ISRO, 2016) reveals that about 96.4 mha land in India – which represents almost 30 % of its geographical area – is undergoing degradation and desertification. The Forest Survey of India’s reports have identified about 63 mha of open forest, degraded forest, plantations, cultural wastelands, land along roads and railway tracks, and other such areas, which could come under the umbrella of restoration and regeneration.

dawn sunset evening fire
Photo by Arnav Kainthola on Pexels.com

We had a devastating forest fire in Mizoram this year. Restoring forest ecosystems is, therefore, a priority task that needs to be undertaken in as many places as possible. As early as in 2000, the United Nations had founded the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), which is a high-level intergovernmental policy forum including all UN member states. In its recent meeting on 21 March, 2021, which is also observed as the International Day of Forests, the UNFF noted that forests along with green spaces and parks played a great role in observing social distancing during the pandemic. People living in such areas could enjoy a better quality of life despite the pandemic. Besides, well-managed forests also act as buffers against zoonoses and spread of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. The UN has also initiated the establishment of the Collaborative Partnerships on Forests (CPF) in 2001, which is an innovative voluntary inter-agency partnership.

India is facing the threat of land degradation and deforestation in a big way. The Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas (SAC-ISRO, 2016) reveals that about 96.4 mha land in India – which represents almost 30 % of its geographical area – is undergoing degradation and desertification. The Forest Survey of India’s reports have identified about 63 mha of open forest, degraded forest, plantations, cultural wastelands, land along roads and railway tracks, and other such areas, which could come under the umbrella of restoration and regeneration. All these activities could make India’s Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR) a robust exercise[iv]. India is also part of an important effort towards forest restoration, namely, the ‘Voluntary Bonn Challenge’ launched by the Government of Germany and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in 2011 with a target of restoration of 150 mha of degraded and deforested landscapes by 2020. This target was later raised to 350 mha by 2030, which marks the end of the UN Restoration Decade.  India has pledged to restore 21 mha of degraded forest land, with the target subsequently raised to 26 mha by 2030[v]. It is hoped that these targets both at the global level and in India will be largely met by 2030 to make the decade of restoration a successful one. India has the necessary institutional capacity down to the level of gram sabhas, van panchayats, and forest protection committees, as well as the scientific and intellectual capability to realize this ambitious goal.

Freshwater ecosystems: Freshwaters comprise only about 2.5 % of the total water present on the earth. Again, only about 0.3 % of this is found in lakes and rivers, while over 69 % is locked in ice caps, and about 30 % deposited in groundwater aquifers. Even then, the total volume of water stored in water bodies like lakes, swamps and rivers amounts to about 105,000 cubic km, which is a large amount. However, this water is very unevenly distributed over the face of the earth, and yet the freshwater ecosystems supply food, water and energy to billions of people all over the world. They also serve as habitats to a rich biodiversity of plants, animals and microorganisms, and provide other services like water storage, moderation of climate and protection from droughts and floods. Despite their importance, freshwater ecosystems are getting degraded at an alarming rate from pollution by chemicals, sewage, plastics and other solid wastes, and by over-extraction of water and over-fishing. Rivers are affected by mining, sand and stone quarrying, diversion, canalization, and dams. It is estimated that about 87 % of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the last few centuries, with about 50 % vanishing since 1900. Hundreds of freshwater species are facing extinction. Freshwater restoration programmes can comprise wastewater treatment before discharge into water bodies, strict regulations on fishing and mining, maintenance of environmental flows in rivers, avoiding construction of large dams, providing bank protection and plantation on riverbanks and lake shorelines, and other relevant measures.  

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Government of India, has prepared detailed project reports (DPR) on the rejuvenation of 13 rivers besides Ganga, which is already being implemented through the National Mission for Clean Ganga under the Ministry of Jal Shakti, Department of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation. The 13 rivers are: Beas, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, Sutlej, Luni, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari, Kaveri, Krishna, Brahmaputra and Mahanadi

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Government of India, has prepared detailed project reports (DPR) on the rejuvenation of 13 rivers besides Ganga, which is already being implemented through the National Mission for Clean Ganga under the Ministry of Jal Shakti, Department of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation. The 13 rivers are: Beas, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, Sutlej, Luni, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari, Kaveri, Krishna, Brahmaputra and Mahanadi[vi]. Besides the Government initiatives, the International Association for Human Values (IAHV) in association with Art of Living has undertaken rejuvenation programmes in 41 rivers of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The IAHV aims to provide local, community-driven and sustainable solutions for rejuvenation of rivers.

Other ecosystems: Besides the aforesaid three types of ecosystems on sea, land and freshwater, the others that are receiving attention at the national and global levels include peatlands, grasslands, shrublands and savannahs, mountain ecosystems, urban forests, coastal ecosystems, open ocean and others. Achieving the goal of restoring a substantial number of ecosystems the world over will be a test for human ingenuity, innovation, sincerity, love for nature and of course, political will and international cooperation and support. However, we should all remember that we still have “only one earth”, and unless we lend a healing touch to its much ravaged ecosystems that connect with each other to form the biosphere, we might not be able to keep the earth as a “living planet” for very long.

Ecosystem restoration: Why is healing the only option?

When we observe the World Environment Day this year, and also at the same time embark upon the Ecosystem Restoration Decade, can we also hope to usher in a change in our attitude towards the environment, or in other words the nature around us? The words that drive the World Environment Day this year is “Reimagine-Recreate-Restore”, and calls for the present generation to become the #GenerationRestoration. Thus, first of all, this generation must have the courage and imagination to “reimagine” an earth that is not ravaged by human trampling, and where humans no longer live with the idea of domination, but of co-existence with respect for each other, and for the non-humans that also populate this planet, and their homes – the ecosystems. After all, the prefix ‘eco’ comes from ‘oikos’, which in ancient Greek means home.   

According to the Dutch philosopher Wim Zweers, humans could adopt one of several positions in relation to nature. These are Master, Steward, Partner, Participant, and Union with Nature[vii]. Of these, the last position may be considered an ideal climax, which would be extremely hard (and well-nigh impossible) to achieve, except perhaps in certain individuals. The pre-industrial human societies were largely conforming to the partner / participant role vis-à-vis nature and biodiversity. Many indigenous communities maintained protected areas like sacred groves or sacred water bodies, observed taboos on hunting, fishing and restrictions on uncontrolled resource exploitation and so on. Conservation biologist Raymond Dasmann has named such communities as the Ecosystem people. These communities largely depend on the resources available in the ecosystem in which they live or in a few nearby ones[viii].

These societies are also characterized by their close relationships with nature and their ecocentric worldviews.  In other words, these communities can be said to have followed a partner / participant relation with nature. Therefore, though environmental degradation is believed to have contributed towards the decline of ancient civilizations like those in Indus Valley, in the Fertile Crescent of present day Iraq and Jordan (ancient Mesopotamia), and in Easter Island in the Pacific, these effects were more localized, leaving the large expanse of the natural ecosystems more or less unaltered and pristine. With the advent of the industrial age in the West, the predominant worldviews got radically transformed to the master mode, philosophically supported by the ‘man-nature dualism’ of thinkers such as René Descartes and others.  The root of the widespread degradation, damage and destruction of ecosystems all over the world lies to a large extent in the master attitude, which regards nature as a mere storehouse of resources that the humans have absolute right to exploit in an unrestrained manner. Thus, master is an ethical position that is strongly anthropocentric, or in other words, it gives highest priority to human needs at the expense of nature, and sanctions unrestrained alteration and destruction of natural ecosystems. The dominance of this position among the policy makers and influential people in human societies was overwhelming till the 1970s, after which the scientific findings on the harmful effects of ecosystem damage and spread of environmental awareness accompanied by environmental movements led to a softening of the attitude towards nature. This resulted in the more or less widespread adoption of the steward position, which is weakly anthropocentric, and recognizes the need to protect nature and its biodiversity by steering human development along a more prudent and sustainable course.

Today, a question arises as to whether a mere steward attitude is adequate to protect our ecosystems, or do we need to nurture a deeper respect for the biosphere and the numerous ecosystems that it is made up of. In other words, any anthropocentric ethic, however weakly human-centred it might be, is likely to be inadequate for enabling the human species to tide over the ecological crisis, which is manifesting itself in the form of global climate change, widespread pollution and toxic contamination of ecosystems and entire landscapes, loss of biodiversity, and even the deadly pandemic that we are currently passing through. On the other hand, the partner and participant positions are essentially ecocentric, that is they recognize intrinsic value in nature[ix]. Many western thinkers like Paul Ehrlich are now convinced that only an ecocentric approach can enable the biosphere along with the humans to emerge from the environmental crisis. This is a realization that has taken long to gain ground in the west, though environmental philosophers like Arne Naess of Norway had upheld ecocentric ideals through his Deep Ecology platform. On the other hand, ecocentric worldviews were the dominant worldviews in many eastern societies, including small ethnic groups such as the tribes and other indigenous communities. Harmony with, and respect for nature, are integral parts of the Shinto religion of Japan and many other eastern traditions, and the message of inherent unity of entities in nature was proclaimed in the Upanishads of India.

Rabindranath Tagore could perceive this unity and continuity of humans with nature, and his ecocentric ideals are contained in many of his writings, including the numerous songs that he composed. Tagore’s “kinship with nature” is reflected in his songs where he effortlessly moves from a human world to that of plants, animals, rivers, clouds and forests, and blends them together in his inimitable way.  For example, in one of his songs tui phele eshechhish karey mon mon re amar, he trains his ears on the murmur of the river with his heart quivering at the rustling of leaves, and he feels that if he could only unravel the words of flowers, he could again trace the long-lost road that goes beyond the evening star.

In another song e pothe ami je gechhi baar baar, Tagore says that the fragrance of the roadside flowers would infallibly be there to guide him even if his light goes out along a lonely road.  Today, if we really want to heal the biosphere and its vibrant ecosystems, technology alone may not be sufficient to lead us to the cherished goal. We need to groom and nurture a worldview such as that espoused by thinkers like Tagore, who dreamt of a world where the destiny of humans and nature are linked by inseparable bonds of love and respect[x]. As Baba Dioum, a forestry engineer and modern day nature philosopher from Senegal says, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”

Baba Dioum

In the context of Baba Dioum’s words, the importance of environmental education (EE) cannot be overemphasized. In fact, the very event that was instrumental in launching the World Environment Day as a global occasion – that is the UN Stockholm Conference (UNCHE) – paid due importance to EE. Principle 19 of the Declaration of UNCHE states the common conviction that “Education in environmental matters, for the younger generation as well as adults, giving due consideration to the underprivileged, is essential in order to broaden the basis for an enlightened opinion and responsible conduct by individuals, enterprises and communities in protecting and improving the environment in its full human dimension. It is also essential that mass media of communications avoid contributing to the deterioration of the environment, but, on the contrary, disseminates information of an educational nature on the need to protect and improve the environment in order to enable man to develop in every respect.”[xi] Thus, the onus is on the educators – not only those engaged in schools, colleges and universities – but also in NGOs, media and in all other organizations, to spread the message of healing and restoring the ecosystems around us. This is because if we have learnt anything in these 47 years of observing the World Environment Day, it is that the humans are an integral part of the intricate web of nature, and therefore, must live and let live in order to survive on this planet.  


Abhik Gupta

Vice-Chairperson, Tripura State Higher Education Council; Former Professor, Environmental Science and Pro Vice-Chancellor, Assam University, Silchar

Refererences:

[i] World Environment Day. https://www.worldenvironmentday.global/about/world-environment-day

[ii] Gupta, A. and Gupta, S. 2021. Environmental Studies: Principles and Practices. Sage Publication India Pvt. Ltd.

[iii] Varma, R. 2020. A deep dive into the coral regeneration projects of India. The Outdoor Journal, July 23, 2020. https://www.outdoorjournal.com/in/featured/a-deep-dive-into-the-coral-regeneration-projects-of-india-2/  

[iv] Burnwal, K. and Bharat, K. 2020. Forest restoration: How ready is India? The Hindu BusinessLine, November 21, 2020. https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/forest-restoration-how-ready-is-india/article33143426.ece

[v] CPF (Collaborative Partnership on Forests), 2020. CPF Strategic Vision Towards 2030. http://www.cpfweb.org/49203-0a134fd638bca1e59881fede4a1e73904.pdf

[vi] Times of India (TOI), September 3, 2020. Centre working on rejuvenation of 13 rivers across the country: Javadekar. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/centre-working-on-rejuvenation-of-13-rivers-across-the-country-javadekar/articleshow/77917703.cms

[vii] Zweers, W. 1994. Radicalism or historical consciousness: on breaks and continuity in the discussion of basic attitudes. In: Ecology, Technology and Culture (Eds. W. Zweers and J.J. Boersema), pp. 63-71. The White Horse Press, Cambridge, UK.

[viii] Dasmann, R.F. 1988. Towards a biosphere consciousness. In: The Ends of the Earth: Perspective on Modern Environmental History (Ed. D. Worster), pp. 177-188. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

[ix] Gupta, A. 2008. From biosphere to technosphere to biotechnosphere: the Indian scenario in an eco-ethical perspective. In: Asia-Pacific Perspectives on Environmental Ethics (Ed. D.R.J. Macer), pp. 22-29. UNESCO Bangkok, Bangkok.  

[x] Gupta, A. 2017. Ecocentric thoughts in the writings of Rabindranath Tagore: An illustrative study. In: The Idea of Surplus: Tagore and Contemporary Human Sciences (Ed. Mrinal Miri), pp. 235-248. Routledge, New Delhi.

[xi] Stockholm Declaration: Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. http://www.publicinternationallaw.in/sites/default/files/salient/12-Int’l%20Environmental%20Law/01-Stockholm%20Declaration.pdf

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