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Here was peculiar grace

The Indian elite blame Pakistan for the Mumbai attacks. They congratulate themselves on their restra

Through the Seventies and much of the Eighties my father used to travel to and in India. He worked in fashion and the clothing business, in “the rag trade”. Sometimes he would call from Bombay, Madras or Calcutta, and it would be hard to hear exactly what he was saying, with his voice a wavering echo on an indistinct international telephone line. On several occasions he stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel in south Bombay, and once, when he was back at home, he showed me pictures of the hotel, with its grand dome and position next to the Gateway to India monument, like a Moorish fortress overlooking the Arabian Sea.

For me, the Taj hotel came to represent all the mystery and possibility of India as well as that part of my father's life that took him away from home so often, the part that was unknowable, unreachable. Now, because of the attacks of 26 November 2008 by Lashkar-e-Toiba militants on Mumbai, in which as many as 170 people died, the Taj hotel has become one of the most iconic buildings of our new globalisation, a symbol of corporate prestige and power and yet also of profound vulnerability.

I was at the Taj on 15 January when the Foreign Secretary David Miliband gave a widely reported revisionist speech in which he outlined the British government's new position on what it had once called the "war on terror", a belligerent phrase that, according to Miliband, had served as a "call to arms, an attempt to build solidarity by portraying a fight against a single shared enemy. But I believe that the foundation for solidarity between peoples and nations should not be based on who we are against, but instead on the idea of who we are and the values we share."

Miliband was using the ambiguous space created by the US presidential transition to make a statement in support of what he believed would be a new era of multilateralism. Meanwhile, privately, he continued to agonise over Israel's murderous assault on the civilians of Gaza.

Before the speech, we met staff who had been working at the hotel on the day of the attacks and learned more about some of those who died. We were told about a police constable who, as Miliband put it in his speech, had acted "as a human shield to save the lives of others". Later, I could not stop thinking of this man, Constable Omble, the human shield. He had stepped into the line of fire, wilfully taking the bullets from the militants' guns, a man prepared to die so that others might live. Here was something beyond bravery. Here was peculiar grace.

Earlier in the week I was in Delhi, and there I attended a private lunch at the British High Commission, a stately white-painted colonial-era house with a garden large enough in which to cut a cricket square. The guests were former Indian ambassadors and high commissioners, as well as retired military leaders. They were hawkish and their message to the Foreign Secretary was unequivocal: Pakistan was to blame for the Mumbai attacks. So far, they said, India had shown "restraint", but for how much longer? There would soon be a general election in India; the people were hurt and wanted revenge. "These were commando-style attacks," I was told by one retired general. "These people were highly trained and motivated. They must have had support at the highest level in Pakistan."

Miliband's response was that he had seen evidence to suggest the attacks came from within Pakistan, but that they were "not directed" by the Pakistan government. (That may be so, but they were surely directed by rogue factions in Pakistan's military and Inter-Services Intelligence, the notorious ISI.) Again and again, this was his response to the question of Pakistan's culpability in the attacks, whether he was addressing students during a televised debate or sitting alongside his Indian equivalent, the foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, at a press conference.

On my last day in India I visited my friend Soumya Bhattacharya, editor of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai, at his home in the western suburb of Bandra. In the aftermath of the November attacks he had written in the New Statesman of the resilience and spirit of the people of Mumbai, digressing to explain how Bandra, on the western seaboard, and so popular with the new rich of Bollywood and India’s internet entrepreneurs, had come to symbolise all the restless energy and mercantile spirit of India’s greatest city. We sat in the bright sitting room of his rented flat – even he cannot afford to buy because property prices in Bandra are out of control – drinking a Tiger Hills Sauvignon blanc, from the vineyards of Nashik, about 100 miles from Mumbai.

Soumya speaks Bengali at home to his wife and young daughter. The driver who brought me to his flat was a Muslim from Madras whose first language was Tamil. Soumya's flat is owned by an Urdu-speaker from the Punjab. The plurality, openness and diversity of this improbable nation of 1.1 billion people, 28 states and several hundred languages - this is what is most often mentioned when Indians, with pride, contrast their successful democracy with the failing state of Pakistan.

On several occasions, at private meetings and on public platforms, Miliband spoke of how the partnership between Britain and India was "now one of equals". He said this at a meeting with Mukherjee, who nodded in agreement. Very soon, however, the relationship will be once more one of inequality - or of unequals - if it is not so already, with Britain knocking at the door of the Indian mansion, humbly seeking entry in its role as the junior and more impecunious partner.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?

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Puffins in peril

Britain’s best-loved seabird is vulnerable to global extinction.

The boatmen helped us scramble ashore and soon there were 50 people wandering on an uninhab­ited slab of sea-battered dolerite called Staple Island. It is one of the National Trust-owned Farne Islands in Northumberland and among England’s most spectacular wildlife locations. There are 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds here and they were everywhere: at our feet, overhead, across every rock face. The stench of guano was overwhelming.

While the birds seemed to be boundless, the human beings converged on the grassy knoll where the local star attraction resides. It’s the creature that adorns the boat company’s publicity and is emblazoned on the National Trust’s website for the island, the bird that possesses what the poet Norman MacCaig called the “mad, clever clown’s beak”: the pint-sized, parrot-faced puffin.

The British love for this creature is so intense that it is, in essence, the robin redbreast of the sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies around our coast are tourist attractions. Just across the water, along the shore from Staple Island, is the town of Amble, which holds an annual festival devoted to the puffin. From Lundy in Devon and Skomer in Pembrokeshire to the Isle of May off the Fife coast, or Fair Isle in the Shetlands, trips to puffin colonies are frequent, sometimes daily, events.

“Every tourist shop on these islands sells puffin merchandise – knitwear patterns, tumblers, carvings, coasters, cuddly toys, clothes and, of course, puffin hats,” Helen Moncrieff, the area manager in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told me.

While the love affair is unquestionable, what seems in doubt is our ability to help the bird now that it is in trouble. Fair Isle once supported a puffin colony of 20,000 birds. In less than three decades, that number has halved. Similar declines have been reported at Britain’s most important puffin site on St Kilda, Scotland, where millions are said to have bred. Now there are fewer than 130,000 pairs, half the total recorded as recently as the 1970s.

The national picture is alarming but the news from elsewhere is even worse. Continental Europe holds more than 90 per cent – five million pairs – of the global total of Atlantic puffins but they are shared primarily between three countries: Denmark (the Faroe Islands), Iceland and Norway. Across this subarctic region, losses have been estimated at 33 per cent since 1979, when monitoring began. But the most striking figure comes from a colony on Røst, Norway, where there has been a fall over this period from nearly 1.5 million pairs to 285,000.

The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland hold a substantial proportion of the country’s puffins. Since 2005, breeding success there has been almost nil, and a similar failure has recurred on the Faroe Islands for more than a decade. In both places, where hunting puffins was once a staple of cultural life, catchers today have initiated a self-imposed moratorium.

Puffins are long-lived species and a life­span of between 20 and 30 years is not unusual, yet Euan Dunn, principal marine adviser to the RSPB, explains the implications of persistent breeding failure. “Puffins on Shetland or the Westmans may go on attempting to breed for years, even decades, but eventually all those old adult birds will die off and, if they haven’t reproduced, then the numbers will start to plunge.”

BirdLife International, a conservation network that classifies the status of birds worldwide, has reached the same conclusion. It judges that the Atlantic puffin is likely to decline by between 50 and 79 per cent by 2065. The nation’s most beloved seabird has been declared a species that is vulnerable to global extinction.

To unpick the story of puffin losses, marine ecologists have examined the bird’s oceanic ecosystem and looked particularly at changes in the status of a cold-water zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus. This seemingly insignificant, shrimp-like organism plays a crucial role in North Atlantic biodiversity and has experienced a huge decline as sea temperatures have risen steadily since the 1980s. While the decline of the finmarchicus coincided with swelling numbers of a close relative, this other zooplankton species is less abundant and nutritious.

As the finmarchicus has suffered, so, too, has one of its main predators, the lesser sand eel. And it is this formerly superabundant fish that is the staple food of puffins in many areas of the Atlantic. At the root of the disruption to marine life are the hydra-headed effects of climate change.

Though no one disputes that an important shift is under way in the sea areas of northern Britain and beyond, not everyone agrees that the present puffin situation is a crisis. A leading British expert, Mike Harris, thinks it is premature to designate the bird an endangered species. There are still millions of puffins and, he says, “We need numbers to plummet before we even start to assume that things are terminal.”

Similarly, Bergur Olsen, one of the foremost biologists studying puffins in the Faroe Islands, believes that the talk of extinction is over the top. “The food situation may change and puffins may well adapt to new prey, and then their numbers will stabilise and perhaps increase,” he says.

***

On Staple Island, the extinction designation does appear bizarre. The Farne Island puffin population has increased by 8 per cent since 2008 and there are now 40,000 pairs. This success mirrors a wider stability among puffin colonies of the North and Irish Seas. The distinction in feeding ecology which may explain the birds’ varying fortunes is that, in the southern parts of the range, puffins can prey on sprats when sand eels are scarce. Sprats appear to have suffered none of the disruption that assails the other fish.

But Dunn says it is important to look at the whole picture. “It’s fantastic that puffins are doing well in places like the Farnes, but remember: Britain holds less than 10 per cent of the world total. Also, the declines that have beset puffins in Shetland and St Kilda are even worse for other seabirds.”

The numbers of a silver-winged gull called the kittiwake have fallen by 90 per cent in Shetland and St Kilda since 2000 and by 80 per cent in the Orkneys in just ten years. Shetland’s guillemot numbers have also halved, and the shag, a relative of the cormorant, has experienced falls of over 80 per cent on many islands since the 1970s – 98 per cent, on Foula. Most troubling is the fate of the Arctic skua, which feeds mainly on fish it steals from other seabirds and is reliant on their successes. Its declines are so severe that Dunn fears its eventual loss as a breeding species in Britain.

While there is disagreement about what to call the puffin predicament, there is unanimity on one issue: much of the data that informs the discussion in Britain is out of date. All of these seabirds, which are of global importance, have been monitored decade by decade since the 1970s. Yet the most recent big audit of our cliffs and offshore islands was concluded in 2000. The full census data is now 16 years old. The organisation that underwrites this work is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; it is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has suffered deep budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. There is no certainty that another comprehensive census will be mounted any time soon.

“Much is made on wildlife television of how special these islands are for wildlife and how much we care about it,” Dunn says. “In the case of our seabirds, one of those claims is indisputably true. Britain holds populations of some species that are of worldwide significance. But if we lack even basic information on those birds and how they’re faring, especially at a time when our seas are in such flux, what message does that send about how much this country cares? And how can we ever act effectively?”

The plight of the puffin is shedding light on the fortunes of our marine wildlife generally and the shifting condition of our oceans as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels. Now, puffin politics is also starting to show
this government’s indifference to nature.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue