Bahar Dutt speaks on why development and environment are not mutually exclusive, on why environment journalists are threatened species and how environment stories are all about contested spaces.

Features Friday, July 18, 2014 - 05:30
Nayantara Narayanan | The News Minute | July 7, 2014 | 09:47 am IST  A mythological curse keeps the Chambal river alive and healthy. An irrigation canal in a Haryana national park stands dry and incomplete because of a water dispute with neighbour Punjab. Conservation biologist-turned-journalist Bahar Dutt’s new book Green Wars is full of the ironies of development and protecting the environment in India. Dutt spoke to The News Minute on why development and environment are not mutually exclusive, on why environment journalists are threatened species and how environment stories are all about contested spaces. Q: You describe these different stories of your various reporting trips, different environment conflicts in all corners of the country. The thread running through it as you say is that 'development' as it is commonly understood is a many-headed hydra. What is the story of development and environment that you set out to tell us?A: I don’t know if I ever set out to write a book. All found as I was doing my reportage is that there was a common thread through many of my stories. That's something that I describe even in the first chapter that even as I was doing my own little conservation project what I found was that we were suddenly part of a very rapidly growing economy and suddenly I found that there were forests being siphoned off for mines or roads or highway projects. I felt that no one in the media was talking about it, which was partly also the reason that I turned from conservation biology to this profession. As I was doing these stories, of course TV has its impact, but I wanted to get into the nitty gritties like how do you discuss EIA reports, which I have analysed in some of the chapters. I felt that it needed a broader spectrum. That's how I got into 'let me put this down and pen down all my experiences'. If you read the book it's not just 'I went there, I did that'. I try to get into taking on the devil, the devil in this case being the devil of development. That's the main thread throughout the book. Who is developing? I keep saying that in the book that it's the development for our city-based people and where the resources are, are those people developing or not and that's the question that I have raised in each chapter. Q: You have said that the issues we face are not development versus environment. How do you communicate that to citizens and the authorities?A: This is the buzzword these days even with the new government. Everyone's asking 'is this going to be very pro-industry?' Even in television debates I feel that it is just convenient to polarize the debate and say it's development versus environment without taking on the real issue. I think what I've tried to do is speak as a voter and as a consumer. If you look at the chapter of palm oil, I give the example of palm oil and a consumer movement. It's a very strong movement that says whether it's chocolate or cooking oil in our food it should not be sourced from a rain forest. It should be sourced responsibly and not from a habitat of the orangutan. That actually put pressure on industries to reform. I think we need something of that sort in India as well and I think that will only come from an enlightened consumer or an enlightened voter. Q: You are a conservation biologist and journalist. Which one comes first?A: Conservation biology. I got into journalism for the love of conservation biology. I am very clear about that. I had no other agenda. My conspiracy theory was how do I get to be around animals and that's all I wanted from my career. I had already announced to my family that 'I want to be the Mother Teresa of the animal world', grand things to say when you're six years old. I felt that I could have done far more useful work when I was working with that community because I feel that's what we need. Journalism was a tool for me to spread the message for what I was passionate about. Q: What would you say to the argument that protecting people's needs comes first and that's why animals and their habitats don't matter as much as generating power or creating jobs?A: What I have a problem with is that I don’t think we define development very well. In the chapter on Goa mining for instance I have turned his around on it's head and said 'ok, I have no problem with you doing mining but please tell me how many jobs you have created". The mining that we do today is more and more mechanized. If your argument is that mining is bringing development to a region the only counter question I have to ask is - why is it that in the states of Bihar, Jharkand and Orissa, which is basically your mining belt, not seen any development in the last 50 years. Q: What about the argument that slow environmental clearances are the biggest hurdles to growth in the country?A: There's data, which I have presented in the book, that the Ministry of Environment and Forests already has a 94-96% clearance rate. How much more efficient do you expect the system to be? I think the problem is that industry sees environment as something very superficial. That first let's develop and then we'll clean up our rivers and trees and all. It never works like that. In the western countries that destroyed all their wildlife and are now paying the price. Q: Why did you choose to do environmental reporting at a television channel? A: I think I started at a time when TV was a medium which would make a difference and which was in your face. For me I was lucky that CNN-IBN was being set up. As an environmental journalist I felt the impact lay in the visual. I feel the visual does tell a story, when you are talking about forests or you are talking about mining. That story of a sarus crane standing there while Mulayam Singh Yadav is draining its wetlands - I think that's a very powerful image. Q: On the day your book was released the Centre for Environment and Media released a study that over from 2009 to 2013 environment stories made up less than two percent of the coverage on news channels. Environment news has been the poor cousin of general news, not just in India but around the world. How do you feel about that?A: I think that environment journalists today are as threatened a species as the tiger or elephant. But I am worried about the future of the profession because I think there is a huge anti-environment wave right now and that comes down to your media as well and what they see as important. We are seen as anti-development and we are competing with other news stories. I like to be an optimist and I like to think that a good story is a good story. If you have a good story your editor will run it. Q: Was the sidelining f the environment beat a factor in your leaving CNN-IBN? Do you think if you were a general news reporter you would still be there?A: Of course. The reason I left was that I was being told that there was not enough funding to do what I like doing. I am very grateful to CNN-IBN that I had all the opportunities, far more than other journalists, to go out there travel and do the stuff that I did. I am completely grateful for that. But I think times are changing. I was told that funds are drying up. You can’t do environmental journalism sitting in Delhi. I don’t know if it is linked but I was also doing many stories against corporates, although my stories were never stopped because they were anti-corporate stories. But I think all this does add up and I just decided that this doesn't make sense for me. That's when I said let me just focus on my book because that's where I have complete control over what I say and how I say it. Q: Are you thinking of writing a second book and what topics would you tackle in that?A: It's early days. But a second book will be in the space of solutions. I think in this book I have tried to raise a lot of questions. I think in my next book I hope to document some of the fantastic work that is going on around the country. People say 'if not this model of development, then what?' I think that there are very exciting examples. We don't need to go to the US or the UK for that. They are in India, it’s just about how to scale it up. 
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