Environmental journalism and economic liberalisation

BY Subarno Chattarji| IN Books | 02/05/2010
The Hoot excerpts the Darryl D’Monte's foreword from The Green Pen, edited by Keya Acharya and Frederick Noronha.
Author line: Selected and introduced by SUBARNO CHATTARJI

Interpreting Media

April 2010

 

 

As part of The Hoot’s continuing commitment toward creating greater media awareness and fostering debates related to media issues we are excerpting Daryl D’Monte’s ‘Foreword’ and a section of Richard Mahapatra’s essay ‘Environmental Journalism at the Time of Economic Liberalisation’ from The Green Pen edited by Keya Acharya and Frederick Noronha. New extracts will be posted on the site every month and readers are invited to send in comments, book recommendations, and reviews.

 

Environmental journalism is a relatively new genre and, as the essays in The Green Pen argue, an extremely important one. The collection consists of writings by prominent journalists in the field and they bring to bear their experiences and insights into an arena that ought to be centre stage in a more sustained manner. Daryl D’Monte’s ‘Foreword’ provides a brief history of environmental journalism from the perspective of one of its more famous practitioners. He not only stresses its contemporary necessity but also the need to avoid ghettoizing environmental issues. Mahapatra’s essay makes valuable connections between poverty, development models, economic liberalisation, and the environment. As India and South Asia hurtle towards economic development and environmental disaster this volume offers historical contexts of environmental struggles and the continuing need for media practitioners to focus on matters related to our collective futures.

 

Keya Acharya and Frederick Noronha, eds. The Green Pen: Environmental Journalism in India and South Asia. New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, London: Sage Publications, 2010. http://www.sagepub.in/browse/book.asp?bookid=1456&Subject_Name=&mode=1

THE GREEN PEN
Environmental Journalism in India and South Asia
edited by:
KEYA ACHARYA and FREDERICK NORONHA

312 pages / Paper: Rs 395 (978-81-321-0301-1)

SAGE Publications

 

Foreword

 

Darryl D’Monte

 

When I look back at 30 years of writing about the environment, I realize that many seminal occurrences are due to chance or intuition, rather than a clear-cut, well thought-out decision. I was editing the Sunday edition of The Times of India throughout the 1970s and my brief was to steer clear of politics. Business, I ought to remind younger readers, wasn’t even an issue worth discussing those days: it was left to the Commercial Editor. Environmental issues were just beginning to become newsworthy.

 

One day towards the end of 1977, a slim green pamphlet landed on my desk titled ‘Report of the Task Force for the Ecological Planning of the Western Ghats’, not exactly a subject which would have set the Arabian Sea on fire. The 19-member task force was headed by the well-known naturalist Zafar Futehally and concluded, among other issues, that the Silent Valley hydel dam across the Kunthipuzha river in the western ghats in Kerala would destroy ‘one of the last vestiges of natural climax vegetation of the region and one of the last remaining in the country… and various adverse ecological consequences will follow’.

 

I cleared a Sunday editorial on this report with my formidable editor, Girilal Jain, who was solely preoccupied with political issues. But he issued me a caveat, which I still recall: ‘make sure your argument isn’t unscientific’. Those days, the battle lines were clearly drawn: reason was on the side of the hard-headed ‘developmentalists’ and those who were opposed to them—and they weren’t too many—were guilty of fuzzy thinking.

 

In the early 1980s, I resigned as the Resident Editor of the The Indian

Express in Mumbai and was at a loss as to what to do. It occurred to me that I should write a book, dealing with three major environmental controversies of the time, in the context of the development versus environment debate.

 

These were Silent Valley, the Mathura oil refinery near the Taj Mahal and the natural gas-based Thal Vaishet fertiliser plant near Mumbai.

 

When I applied for a Homi Bhabha fellowship to do the research, I was somewhat intimidated by the interview panel. The head of the Nagpur based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute asked me how I, as a mere journalist, could possibly make sense of the mathematical ‘constants’ that are used in the complex calculations of how a smoke plume—from a refinery chimney in the case of the Mathura refinery—would land on a site 40 km away. I was not even aware of what constants were but, gathering my wits, replied that it was our job as journalists to be confronted by complexities we couldn’t understand every day of our working lives. Our task was first to comprehend these and then to convey them in a manner that readers could follow.

 

I had been active in the civil liberties movement till the mid-1970s.

During the emergency, we had to disband the Association for Defence of Democratic Rights, because this could invite trouble. Soon after I began my research on the book in the 1980s, I met an acquaintance who asked me what I was doing. When I told her about the book, she admonished me: ‘So you’ve moved from being concerned about people to being concerned about things?’

 

The remark stung me at the time; such stray comments always catch you off-guard. I wondered if I had let the side down and abandoned my commitment to protecting human rights. It was only in the months to come, when I was engrossed in my research, that I realised that far from there being any disconnect with human beings, the environmental crisis lay at the heart of such concern. My intuition, I was happy to learn, hadn’t deserted me.

 

Later, Anil Agarwal struck a balance in the environment versus development debate by citing Gandhiji and his exhortation to look to the needs of the last man, the Antyodaya. If his needs are given topmost priority, the purpose of all ‘development’ schemes becomes transparent. Agarwal added a nuance when he stated that actually in this country, the last man is a woman, thus lending a gender dimension to the debate.

 

Most journalists, I suspect, come from a background in social sciences.

I had studied economics but wasn’t aware at the time that both economics and ecology stem from the same Greek root—oikos, meaning home or house. Thus, economics is the science of good housekeeping, making sure that the household accounts are in order and expenditure doesn’t exceed income. Ecology, on the other hand, concerns itself with ensuring that the home is well stocked with resources that go into people’s wellbeing. There is now a respectable International Society for Ecological Economics.

 

I had to battle with unfamiliar natural sciences constantly during my research into these three quite diverse case studies for my book. Silent Valley, in particular, called for some insights into botany, forestry and zoology; the Taj case into chemistry and conservation, not to mention mathematics; and the Thal fertiliser plant into industrial location policy. Politics permeated each and every stage of the discourse. In Silent Valley, the threat to a rare species called the lion-tailed macaque, a denizen of this forest, led to a fiery debate between development and environment and prompted the pro-dam lobby to exclaim: ‘Are monkeys more important than men?’

 

This was my baptism in environmental journalism and extended research. Earlier, as a Sunday editorialist in The Times of India, I had criticized conservationists for being uncaring about the conditions of tribals in forests. Later, environmentalists welcomed me to their fold and believed that I had crossed over. But I continue to argue that in this debate, humans and wildlife must co-exist, without one being promoted at the cost of the other. The argument got very heated over the recent report of the Tiger Task Force headed by Sunita Narain, who contributes to this book. Elsewhere, she asked a question which no one can easily answer: ‘How is it that India’s poorest people live in the most resource-rich areas of the country?’

 

In the 1980s, I was in Bandhavgarh National Park in MP when an adivasi was killed by a tiger as he was bending over the forest floor to collect some produce. More than my gory photographs of the hapless man, with his head nearly severed by a single blow from the mighty cat’s paw, what lingers in my memory is the image of the forlorn widow, clad only in a tattered sari, without a blouse. Her legs were bow-legged with anaemia and I think, in retrospect, that even if she had been saved from the fury of the beast, she would have succumbed, sooner or later, to sheer starvation.

 

Baba Amte once described central India to me as the country’s cummerbund, which is an apt metaphor, considering that this waistband contains the forests and minerals and some of the rivers which make up our natural wealth. Is it an accident that the Naxalite movement has taken root precisely in these most wretched regions, now extending to one-sixth of all the districts in the country? Many conservationists, in their admirable zeal to protect endangered animals, have not paid as much heed to endangered countrymen. In this book, Richard Mahapatra recounts some basic truths about poverty. The suicides of farmers is as much an environmental issue as it is a matter of agricultural and trade policies, not to mention the utter callousness of politicians.

 

I relate these personal instances not out of any exaggerated sense of my own contribution to environmental journalism but because they address many of the concerns expressed in this book. Speaking for myself, I am sometimes referred to in public as an environmental activist and sometimes as a journalist. When I was an editor, as I was when I rejoined

The Times of India in the late 1980s, I never spoke about environmental issues on public platforms, confirming environmentalists’ worst fears that I had become a member of the establishment! But I continued to write about the environment in this country and elsewhere in the newspaper. I prefer to call myself an environmental journalist and I see no harm in doing that. It requires a certain degree of specialisation, particularly with today’s complexities regarding environmental treaties, trade and technology.

 

No such opprobrium attaches itself to being a business journalist or a political journalist. Why should environmental journalists feel defensive about themselves? As for the argument that it creates a special category which seeks privileges and is not subject to the same checks and balances as other forms of journalism, me thinks the proponents of this line of thought overstate their case. Do business journalists tell the whole, unalloyed truth, or are they susceptible to be swayed by particular interest groups, particularly in an era when media houses are themselves investing in companies? And, by the same token, are political journalists not guilty of planting stories to embarrass their sources’ rivals? In other words, aren’t they also ‘committed’ and not objective?

 

The admonitions that several contributors to this book address to environmental journalists actually apply to all scribes. There are good journalists and bad journalists on every beat. At the same time, there is certainly a strong case for not ghettoising environment by allocating a page or section to it every so often. It has to compete with other stories for the front page, the city page, the international page, the editorial page, the business section and even—as pollution issues during the Beijing Olympics indicate—on the sports pages. While that is true of the mass media, the fortnightly Down to Earth is one of the best environmental journals anywhere in the world.

 

There is actually a surge in environmental reporting throughout the world with the publication of the fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The skeptics are being silenced, although they raise their head from time to time. It may well be true that this is a cyclical phase and that the environment will undergo a downturn in the years to come. But it is difficult to see how, with oil and food prices going through the roof. I would argue that it is the short-sightedness of the media—particularly with the emergence of editors who don’t write a line themselves these days—that is responsible for a general neglect of environment and development.

 

If one sees the international opinion polls on environmental issues conducted by the Toronto-based organisation Globescan, environment—particularly when it is linked to health—figures amongst the top three concerns in every society, both in industrial and developing countries, across all classes and communities. That is a message which politicians don’t understand; that is a message which bureaucrats don’t understand; but, most of all, that is a message which the media itself doesn’t understand. An increasingly globalised media in this country is dumbing down with a vengeance, trivialising all issues: ‘amusing ourselves to death’.

 

Ecology has been originally defined, as long ago as in the mid-19th century, as the study of the relationship between living organisms and the environment. Humans, as much as wildlife, are integral to its concern, which is why its variant has subsequently been termed human ecology. Ecology always enjoins us to look holistically at the entire picture, not one dimension of it. As Agarwal always emphasised, environment and development are two sides of the same coin, or two sides of the same tree trunk, as Kunda Dixit paraphrases in this book. As a die-hard environmental journalist, I can only hope: may the tribe increase!

 

 

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