news Friday, June 05, 2015 - 05:30
On a rainy night in Bengaluru – parts of which are built on encroached lake beds – a handful of people came to listen to and participate in a discussion on the environment and the place of human beings and other creatures within it. Book shop Atta Gallata had organized a reading and discussion of conservation biologist and environment journalist Bahar Dutt’s book Green Wars – Dispatches from a vanishing world. There were a lot of jokes about “five-star environmentalists” during the discussion, which was moderated by senior journalist Prem Panicker who now runs Peepli Project, and was the head of Yahoo India until December 2014. A spin-off from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s derogatory reference to activists, the term perhaps perfectly encapsulates the present scenario of the discourse on environment and development today. The current media, political, and public perception of activists and advocacy groups – especially environment groups – is a derogatory one that dismisses their argument and views as obstructive to “development”, a point that informed the tone of discussion. Dutt and Panicker were in agreement that environment and development could not be separated and neither could they be divorced from the involvement of various groups of people. Both of them felt that the indifference and contempt with which environmentalists are treated and dismissed as naysayers, and the projection of the debate as a binary – a choice between development and environment – was a flawed one and could only be countered by “telling stories”. Dutt underscored the necessity of getting people to make the connection between themselves and the environment. “The moment you switch on the electricity, when you turn on the tap you are using water from the Tehri Dam, the cup of coffee you drink comes from the habitat of a leopard or elephant,” Dutt said. Commenting on the lack of data in the book, Panicker said that there was a need to get people to care about the environment through personal ways. “No one is trying to convince you of anything. We are just sugar coating a bitter pill we want you to swallow but instead we tell you a story,” Panicker quipped. But telling these stories in the media, as both of them recounted, was not an easy task. Dutt joked about how she once asked a blank Mulayam Singh Yadav, then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, about the destroying the habitat of Sarus Cranes by building an airport on it. The man was so confused, that he called up her editor to ask what she was on about. But on a more serious note, she used the example to illustrate how a reporter could use the system to push stories into the public domain – by making use of politicians. Contrary to the idea that reporters in the mainstream media need training to cover the environment, Dutt said: “Stop sending reporters for training. It’s the editors who need to go out and travel a bit.” The biggest lesson she learned as an environmentalist was at the age of 22, during the years she spent working with snake charmers in Delhi and Haryana, trying to find alternative livelihoods for them. When one government scheme after another failed, she realised that “I was thinking like me, and trying to help them. But instead, I should have been thinking like them and finding ways to help them.” Talking about why people protest “development projects”, Panicker said that people only know what governments have to say about such projects, and people often know very little of the issues raised by environmentalists. “Every protest has been started by the person who is affected (by a project),” Panicker said, while Dutt added that the NGOs and other activists would come in later, whether it was the movement against Vedanta in Odisha or the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Even after the Narmada Project has gone from being a “notional” project to a tangible one, “they are still talking about rehabilitation”, Panicker said. Back when she was reporting, Dutt said that at one point she had to ask: “Where are you going to rehabilitate 1,50,000 people?” When the question of solutions to the seeming opposition between development and environment came up during the discussion, Dutt said that there were alternatives that existed. In a powerpoint presentation before the discussion Dutt spoke of a village where water ghariats were used to produce electricity by merely diverting a small amount of water from a river without permanently affecting it. “Alternatives are not implemented because there is no money in it. Water ghariats are cheap, that’s why no one wants them,” Dutt said. When a teacher asked how she could get her students interested in the environment, Dutt went back to the personal. She said that she once asked the children of a class to go and hug a tree. Immensely moved by the simple act, one child came back and said: “I never thought a tree could be so cold. I’m going to hug a tree every day.”