Stork Sister: An Interview with
Purnima Devi Barman

By Tara Lynn Masih

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Whenever anyone has put me down, like any other Indian woman, my claws have dug deeper into the ground.
 

Introduction

Once, a giant, blue-eyed stork roamed the wetlands of India and Southeast Asia. The stork is an iconic symbol, named the greater adjutant because of its stiff, almost military walk. Not a pretty bird, as viewed by humans, but one that performs an important service, just as vultures or buzzards do, by cleaning up the carcasses in the environment. But today, its territory has shrunk to the northeast state of Assam, India, where it is called hargila, which translates to “bone swallower.” And few remain, making the large scavenging stork the rarest stork on Earth.

Great adjutant storks at garbage dump
Greater adjutant storks, or hargila, at a garbage dump.
Photo by Rathin Barman.

One woman has made it her mission to save the greater adjutant stork—so much so that she’s now known as the Stork Sister. Her story captured me, not only because of my interest in nature, but also because I am familiar with India and its culture (my father is from northern India) and I understand its patriarchal system and the centuries of hard-held beliefs. How could one woman stand up to the powerful men of those villages, such as the village of Dadara in the district of Assam, who sought to destroy the stork and the beautiful trees they lived in because the birds were viewed as dirty pests? How could one woman turn their negative biases into reverence in just a few years? And do her methods have wider implications for how a society can reverse bias and get reluctant citizens to prioritize the environment?

Purnima Devi Barman
Purnima Devi Barman with life-size greater adjutant stork, or hargila, cutout.
Photo by Dipankar Das.

Meet Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, founder of Hargila Army, wildlife biologist with Aaranyak, and director of species restoration and community climate education at Rewilding Academy.

The women of the Hargila Army are mothers protecting their hargila kids. And my love for the birds gave me the strength to stand tall.

Interview

Tara Lynn Masih: I’m thrilled to finally be able to interview you, Dr. Barman. I first came across your story in Living Bird in the summer of 2020, and wanted to know more about you. Much has happened worldwide since you started your campaign in Assam to save the storks, specifically the greater adjutant, or hargila. The magazine article touted your success. Has anything changed? Has the Covid pandemic impacted your work?

Purnima Devi Barman: When the going gets tough, the tough get going, as they say. While the pandemic brought the world to its knees, I was fortunate to have witnessed my team’s grit and strong character. The Hargila Army and the people of Dadara joined hands to make the world a better place for man and nature alike.

I am grateful for having inaugurated India’s first hargila learning and conservation center in the Pachariya Kushal Kunawr High School during the pandemic in Dadara. The deputy commissioner was invited as the chief guest and he was very impressed and extended his valuable support by providing a girls’ toilet and pure drinking water to the underprivileged school children.

Women in the Hargila Army
Women of the Hargila Army.
Photo courtesy Purnima Devi Barman.

As the Hargila Army, we wanted to sell our products on an international platform during the pandemic. I started by exploring new designs and products and accordingly worked with the women to produce jackets, stoles, mekhela sadors, cushion covers. I transformed myself from a biologist or conservationist to a designer and entrepreneur. We partnered with an organization called Pashoopakshee to sell the products, and now these products are circulating internationally.

Eleven thousand face masks with the hargila motif and other conservation motifs were distributed among communities, raising the awareness of wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the virus. Thus the Hargila Army women started earning and supporting their families. Most of their husbands were daily wage earners in the village and had limited earnings since the lockdown.

Along with the pregnant women of Dadara, we started a nature-inspired environmental education program. We used the myth of the “stork carrying babies,” nature songs, the birds’ parenting description, and many more metaphors to spread awareness and empathy. We ensured to-be mothers proper nourishment through this program by providing essentials like Horlicks, eggs, and fruit. We also distributed sanitary napkins, face masks, sanitizers, dustbins, and food to those in need.

Unfortunately, the Assam State Zoo refused to keep fallen birds during this pandemic due to bird flu. Along with our youth team, we proactively rescued and rehabilitated 43 hargila chicks last year. Apart from seven chicks that the local forest department raised, the rest of the babies were raised by the women of the Hargila Army until they could be released into the wild safely. Every day, I learned a lot from those chicks.

We also created a plantation during the pandemic. The youth nurtured 400 cotton and Simuli tree saplings. Soon these will grow into nesting sites for the greater adjutants.

Purnima Devi Barman with children
Purnima Devi Barman works with children at a Dreaming Beyond workshop.
Photo by Dipankar Das.

Tara Lynn Masih: I know India is a patriarchal society in many ways (though they are ahead of other some countries in terms of allowing women to be educated and hold high offices). So I was struck by your braveness in confronting the first man you came across who cut down a tree with baby storks still in it while you watched. Then you faced down the additional men who came around to taunt you. Where did you find the courage to be so audacious, and have you continued to encounter resistance more from men than women in these villages?

Purnima Devi Barman: When this happened, I had never faced such a situation before. I was very naive at that time, probably. When I arrived at the village, I saw the man cut down trees with nine nests and nine babies. I saw some babies die. I got deeply pained. I was a mother of twin babies and I think that made me relate as a mother to seeing the hargila babies die or be in pain. I do not know what came over me, but spontaneously I dared to speak to the villager. Then more men arrived. I was suddenly alone among so many men. This normally would have been a serious situation, but I did not care. The villager I confronted got very angry with me and started yelling at me to come to his home as a maid and clean the debris and excreta of the bird. The rest of the men also scolded and insulted me. Soon people started whistling and clapping at me and commenting that this lady came to eat the meat of hargila. 

That day I realized scientific research in a classroom or lab would not be enough. That we needed to create awareness and connection to the birds, to get them into the hearts and culture of the villagers. Since then, my mission started. When the men of Dadara stood against me and hurled insults, I was simply looking out for my children.

Greater adjutant stork in tree
Greater adjutant stork surveys the landscape from a tree.
Photo by Rathin Barman.

I continued to be harassed by men in many different ways. Women welcomed me more than men. Indeed, big chunks of Indian society are still knee-deep in patriarchy. Even though a lot of our social beliefs have run dry of their remnants, discrimination against women and other minority genders is still dripping from our old customs and cultural viewpoints. Unfortunately, women have to constantly prove their worth in every field. Ironically, this excess of expectation also gifts Indian women with rock-hard grit. Whenever anyone has put me down, like any other Indian woman, my claws have dug deeper into the ground.

Women are like mother bears. You see them at their fiercest when their offspring are under threat. The imagery of goddesses in our culture, like Durga and Kali, show how Indian women can be soft and loving caregivers, while turning into fortresses when in need. Hargila chicks are like my own babies. The women of the Hargila Army are mothers protecting their hargila kids. And my love for the birds gave me the strength to stand tall.

Women are the creators of society and hence have the capacity and the power to change a society. 

Tara Lynn Masih: You keep mentioning your Hargila Army. You started an “army” of enterprising, enlightened women. Please tell us what gave you this idea—to change the local culture through the women in the villages. I assume it started with their being more open to you than the men.

Purnima Devi Barman: The biggest challenge the bird faced was people. Hargila do not nest in protected areas; they choose to stay very close to people. They nest in privately owned trees. Because of the messy habits of the birds, tree owners often cut the trees. The birds’ fate depended on the tree owners.

When we first organized meetings in the village, we had very little turnout. People were uninterested and my plan of environmental awareness seemed to be going downhill.

But I was not one to give up. What I observed in those meetings was that women rarely participated. They always gave us excuses that they had a family back home to take care of and cook for. So I thought of a plan to engage them. I believed it would be my biggest win if I could at least motivate a few of the village women to save the bird. Women are the creators of society and hence have the capacity and the power to change a society. Therefore, I decided to attract the women with the very excuse they gave me. I started organizing cooking competitions!

Purnima Devi Barman with women
Purnima Devi Barman at an environmental education event.
Photo by Surajit Sharma.

The number of women who entered the cooking competitions startled me. At first, I wasn’t expecting many village women to show up. But my plan succeeded and with these competitions I started introducing the hargila.

That was just the beginning. I began attending weekly ceremonies with the women in the temples and what we call the naam ghar here in Assam. I started giving Sarais, or offerings, in the naam ghar for the sake of the bird. Sarai is basically an offering prayer, which is given for the wellbeing of loved ones or made on special occasions. When I started offering Sarais for the wellbeing of the bird, it intrigued the village women. I slowly started mingling with the women and we started getting close, and it was so much fun getting to know them. We played environmental education games, talked intimately about the bird, and discussed the women’s thoughts and concerns regarding the bird. I realized that what I needed to do was to bring the bird into the hearts and the traditions of the people.

The roots of the Hargila Army are actually quite funny to me. Back in 2009 or 2010, my team and I invited a group of 30 women to one of our meetings. What we didn’t know was that on that same day there was a political event taking place nearby. Due to some confusion the women going to the political event also came to ours. Before our eyes, 30 women turned into more than 600. The situation was pure chaos and the village head told me that this was quite unexpected and we needed to quickly dissolve the meeting, because involving this amount of women for the event would be impossible. I was quite shaken, too, as speaking in front of 600 women was frightening. But I said that the show must go on. I told them that the role of women was to create the biggest change. That day we formed the “Hargila Family,” which went on to become the Hargila Army.

There is no bad or impure. In our nature every creature, small and huge, exists here to balance our earth. We cannot live without each other.

Next, I started organizing baby showers for the birds during the breeding season, exactly in the way we celebrate for Assamese expectant mothers. And those stork baby showers were one of the biggest successes toward integrating the birds into the hearts and souls of the women. The women loved it. Amidst the celebration we talked about what role the hargila plays in society. We have a myth about the stork carrying babies, right? I started telling those stories to them. I told them about the significance of the bird in our environment and how they keep our environments clean by eating the discarded leftovers. Back then I was criticized by a few of my colleagues because of my methods. I was told these methods were useless and I should continue my Ph.D. instead. But I had seen into the eyes of the women and I was sure that everything would change.

As days went by, the Hargila Army became bigger and stronger. It’s a group of women who work to save the hargila and the environment. We conducted numerous community events and door-to-door awareness to motivate the villagers to conserve the birds. We reached out to the tree owners and called on local celebrities to encourage the owners to not cut down their trees.

Currently about 10,000 women all across Assam have taken their pledge as part of the Hargila Army. And we have 400 women in the village working very hard to conserve the bird and create awareness. They help rehabilitate the fallen baby birds with the help of local youth and also create traditional Assamese handmade gamosa and other clothes with the bird motif. The women receive fashion diplomas and their goods are sold all over the world.

Purnima Devi Barman at exhibition
Purnima Devi Barman leads villagers through a greater adjutant stork educational exhibit.
Photo by Surajit Sharma.

Tara Lynn Masih: As someone who studied sociology, I was intrigued by your story beyond its environmental impact. I see valuable lessons within the changes you brought to the attitudes toward the hargila. Perhaps from your inventive approach the rest of the world might learn how to change harmful beliefs. What final thoughts would you like to leave with those of us who are not from your village?

Purnima Devi Barman: Humans have made two very confusing words: GOOD and BAD. Or PURE or IMPURE. Or we say BEAUTIFUL and UGLY. I often lose sleep over this. How can we consider something beautiful or ugly?

People who think of the hargila as a bad omen or call them dirty birds, ugly birds, I think they fear the power of this bird.

I advise communities to have strong ownership of nature and to love and respect each creature. There is no bad or impure. In our nature every creature, small and huge, exists here to balance our earth. We cannot live without each other. That means each species or animal is like a thread in the web of a spider. This includes us. If any species or any biodiversity is lost, our web gets unbalanced and this will affect our survival. We are an integral part of nature and this is our responsibility—to maintain coexistence and harmony between people and wildlife.
 

For further information: A film documentary, Hargila: It Takes a Village to Save a Stork, produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Conservation Media, celebrates “conservation hero” Purnima Devi Barman and her work. 

 

 

Tara Lynn MasihTara Lynn Masih is a National Jewish Book Award Finalist and winner of a Julia Ward Howe Award for her debut novel, My Real Name Is Hanna. Her anthologies include The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays. Her fiction has been awarded two Neville Citations for best climate fiction of the year, and a portion of her climate essay “Be Prepared to Evacuate” was translated into dance. She is the daughter of the first prominent Indian-American watercolorist, Lalit K. Masih (from Almora, India). She lives in St. Augustine, Florida.

Read more by Tara Lynn Masih appearing in Terrain.org: Letter to America and the short story “In a Sulfate Mist.”

Header photo, Hargila Army celebrating Wetlands Day, by Dipankar Das.

 

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.