Environmental journalism and economic liberalization

IN Books | 11/05/2010
The Hoot excerpts a section of Richard Mahapatra’s essay from The Green Pen, edited by Keya Acharya and Frederick Noronha.
Selected and introduced by SUBARNO CHATTARJI

Interpreting Media

May 2010 

As part of The Hoot’s continuing commitment toward creating greater media awareness and fostering debates related to media issues we are excerpting a second passage from The Green Pen edited by Keya Acharya and Frederick Noronha, a section of Richard Mahapatra’s essay ‘Environmental Journalism at the Time of Economic Liberalisation’. 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. 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

 

Environmental Journalism at the Time of Economic Liberalisation

Richard Mahapatra

In India environmental journalism means global reportage with village datelines. Environmental journalism is no more the old ‘off-stream’ but a ‘main-stream’ deliberation on contemporary existence. Particularly so when India has the unique distinction of being one of the fastest wealth-creating nations, having the largest number of poor in the world. Poverty in India is primarily environment-driven. Thus environment journalism, overtly or covertly, is about the most mainstream issue, poverty. Every story written from a village on environment has intense global linkages. And every global environmental story written has a few meanings for an Indian village.

MOHUA AS METAPHOR

Exactly 10 years ago in 1998, Sumani Jogdi, a tribal woman of Orissa’s Koraput district, set the agenda, and intellectual challenges, for environmental journalists in India. Sumani has been spearheading a campaign against bauxite mining in her village. Her stake in the campaign: she has to vacate her home and would stop earning around Rs. 10,000 a year from collecting mohua flowers in the nearby forest. The Rs. 5,000 to 10,000 crore investments that the district is attracting for mining bauxite were beyond her comprehension. More than that she could never imagine how steel would mould her a prosperous life. ‘If you want to do development works for people like me, get me access to more forests. I will collect more mohua flowers and earn more. A steel industry will just displace me, take away my forests and will give back few days of daily wage jobs. That is not development for me,’ she told this author in 1998.

In the last 10 years, her small campaign has evolved into a big and iconic struggle against mining in Orissa. In the meantime, India has opened up the mining sector and Orissa with vast mineral resources is solely depending on steel plants for economic boom. It is triggered by the rising global demand for steel. Global mineral price is rising and companies are in a rush to explore new sources. The cheapest source makes the maximum profit. Orissa is the right place for the global mineral industry to thrive. The state government’s insistent reason behind this policy is to raise her more than 50 per cent people, like Sumani, above the poverty line. Orissa is the poorest state in the country but with impressive business investments.

Sumani’s economic model for rural development—based on local ecology and its sensible uses—is in sharp contrast to contemporary political thinking that believes that bringing in investments in private sector would ultimately bring in prosperity for the poor.

For environmental journalism, this conflict of interests, of perspectives and of modes of development is the greatest challenge. How does an environmental journalist strike a balance between the two streams of thought? Being an environment journalist means a certain degree of biases towards environment. You tend to see or assess situations through the eye of environment. Current industrialisation process, as in Koraput and in case of Sumani, inevitably means great compromises on environment. So does it mean an environment journalist has to shed the principle of objectivity? Or how much bias is an environment journalist entitled to?

IN BETWEEN STREAMS

A contemporary environment journalist is often faced with this challenge. The challenge is more daunting as economic liberalisation is the accepted mode of delivering economic goods. From the prime minister to public relation officers of corporate houses, environment reporters are the most debated species.

Policy makers often term environment journalists as ‘people practicing socialism as time pass’. Industries see them as ‘less progressive’. Even inside national media houses, environment as a subject of reportage is reserved for ‘old school students’. An environment reporter occasionally celebrates his or her existence in case of an extraordinary environmental event. The rest of the time they just remain in the margin, waiting for the next big event.

Environmental journalism is not new to the Indian media. Since early 1970s, the media has been taking interest in the environment, even though in a very staccato manner. But with economic liberalisation since 1991, the role of an environment journalist has drastically changed. Or rather, economic liberalisation has made his role more challenging.

AND INTO THE MAINSTREAM

Economic liberalisation has triggered economic boom and has caught the public imagination. Suddenly growth has become the buzzword. India finds it finally refreshing to do away with her ‘Hindu growth rate’ tag. As the public acceptance of the new economic model deepens, environment as a public good is losing relevance. This means environment and its related problems like poverty in rural areas is getting less and less favour within the public sphere. This also makes the job of an environment journalist difficult—you have to fight hard against a popular perception to be able to bring back environment into mainstream.

The late Anil Agarwal, a noted environmentalist and founder of the environment magazine Down To Earth used to say: ‘Economic liberalization has become a perfect excuse for government to cover up environmental problems. Because the powerful middle class is beneficiary of the boom and has been trying hard to push aside environmental concerns as stumbling blocks.’ Even though, as various estimates suggest, the gross domestic produce has doubled in the last one decade, the load of pollution has more than tripled. But this has not made many impacts on public perceptions.

Take for example the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Delhi. The BRT makes provision for segregated roads for different types of vehicles and is being implemented in Delhi for fighting road congestion. The project is attracting criticism from mostly car owners. They say that the project leaves little space for cars and give more space to buses. Government and environmentalists are pushing the project saying buses transport more people and thus bring down per capita pollution emission. Cars, though large in number, transport much less people and also occupy more road space. Ultimately cars pollute more too. Delhi, after years of campaign by environmentalists through the Supreme Court, shifted its public transport system to compressed natural gas (CNG) fuel, thus bringing down pollution levels. But the rise in the number of cars, a sign of the booming economy, has undone the gain in clean air. So it is prudent for environmentalists to push for the public transport that runs on clean fuel as well as to make the public transport attractive to general public for discouraging private cars. ‘Even in editorial meetings our editors are against giving priority to buses over cars. So our reportage is mostly focused on the short-term problems like accidents while the BRT is being constructed,’ says a senior correspondent working for a national daily. It is observed that the media coverage of the BRT is dominantly biased against it. This results in the media, particularly those covering Delhi’s environment, focusing less on the logic behind the project and writing more on problems related to its construction. There are already talks that the Delhi government may not take similar projects in future.

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