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   Friday, October 19, 2018
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My words, it's still fun!
By Sudhirendar Sharma

On the eve of the World Environment Day, Sudhirendar Sharma reminiscences personal account of environmental journalism of the past three decades. Self-critical and somewhat amusing, it unfolds many layers of what constitutes 'environment' and how indeed it has been perceived.


Looking for a green path? (pic courtesy: penguinparody)

Environmental journalism could indeed be fun, literally! That the Maldives will disappear before the advent of the next century under rising sea waters made interesting environmental story in the late 1970's. Three decades later, it's amusing that the island nation hasn't ceased to exist on the world map! Did I read too much into the doomsayers predictions or was the influence of Daniella Meadows and Lester Brown overwhelming? The cause-effect relationship of climate change sensationalism was over simplified, and may indeed be so even today!

If journalism is the 'first draft' of history - incomplete, momentary, and often inaccurately opinionated - then I have long been into it. During the past three decades, journalism for me has grown from being an obsession with byline to a passion for change. Unlike others of my genre, my first decade in it was lost in creating niche amidst a diversity of periodicals. From Youth Times to Mirror and from JS to Imprint, magazines of the bygone era had helped sustain my enthusiasm. Though most of these magazines may have ceased to exist, the generation of writers these nurtured are still in circulation.

Phrasing of ideas and articulation of news couldn't have been without a mix of influences, from individuals, institutions and published information. Place of residence too played a role then. Moving from a small town in the hills to the sprawling capital of the country brought dramatic change in my world view. Being one of the earliest to be ushered into the environment school at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University had left an indomitable mark on me. It continues to reflect in bits and pieces ever since, the legacy of the erstwhile white elephant of higher education is hard to discount.

With access to exclusive literature from across the world at an arms distance at the university library, re-writing on emerging environmental issues came handy. The intricate interplay of forces governing changes in the human environment kept unfolding before me. If there was news, I had a nose for it! No wonder, when The Times of India had launched its 16-page weekly section called The Review in the early 1980's, I had a co-authored story 'One day it may rain acid' prominently displayed in it. The threat to the historic Taj Mahal by the controversial Mathura refinery was the backdrop to the story. Interestingly, both co-exist though the Taj may have taken some beating!

Reality Check
All said, I was one amongst scores of journalists who had covered the environment during early years without embracing the extremes. Barring few, most of the environmental writings of the 1980's were an exercise in scaring readers anyway. Even at the cost of being repetitive there was little let down in giving alarmist spin to the story - pesticides in food, pollutants in the air, hole in the ozone layer and so on. Environment had become a staple of most newspapers, with any average story stood ample chance of being published. No wonder, stories written in moronic fashion had started mushrooming, apparently written by those who didn't understand what they were writing about.

What competitive edge I had over those writers who were churning out environment stuff frequently? Did a degree in environmental science make any difference? I was in for a reality check as I was fast becoming skeptical of my own writings, as much of others. Without sounding apologetic, the crux of the matter instead was that we were reporting research over which we had little control. Unlike in the west, back home much of the derelict environment predictions were not being contested either by the readers or the editors. Yet, one could sense some kind of fatigue descending on the media.

In his response on my offer to write on environment for New Delhi, the magazine that didn't last long, the one and only Khushwant Singh had written: 'Environment doesn't sell.' It had left me dumbstruck! For a moment I was furious with his oneliner but had soon realised that the legendary Sardar had only showed me a mirror. Though not trained as a formal journalist, I had passion and commitment to sell environment stories against odds. I suspect there were several of my kind pushing each other for the limited column inches that were on offer in the print media.

Undoubtedly, the likes of me were unintentionally distanced from reality. Unlike Indira Gandhi who had opined that 'poverty was the greatest polluter' at the Stockholm Summit on Human Environment 1972, we were still writing about environment concerns of the west viz., acid rain, ozone depletion and so on. Does academic conditioning distance one from the ground truth? Hearing about the historic decision to shelve the hydroelectric project at the Silent Valley and the judicial position on the incredible Chipko Movement in the seminar halls had lent a helping hand in taking a detour from armchair environment journalism that I was glued to.

Green dilemma
The slopes were getting green, the idea of conserving water was reflected in the two majestic check dams in the Shivaliks. Those who were once struggling for cattle fodder had enough milk to spare for occasional visitors like me. The life for the Gujjars had gone through dramatic change, poverty had been shown the door in the Sukhomajri village. Perhaps my first convincing outing into the countryside, the village tucked upstream of Chandigath's picturesque Sukhana Lake had become my popular destination for many years to come ever since I had been to it during mid-1982.

Raising grassroots concerns through an alternate media, on the lines of parallel cinema, seemed the order of the day. Building and nurturing a constituency was critical to sustaining newfound environment consciousness.

With degrees in physics and philosophy, P R Mishra was rare amongst his contemporaries. In his inimitable style he had once quizzed me: have you been able to understand Sukhomajri?' Having seen protected hill slopes, an enthused village community and a couple of check dams filled to the brim, my response was in the affirmative. So amused was the man behind the project, which eventually launched the country's watershed programme, that he could not hold himself to say that he was yet to understand it! Years later, I now realise that getting to understand the dynamics of natural systems is one hell of a subject too big for a lifetime.

Between check dams and large dams, the gulf was treacherously wide. Were small dams an alternative to the big structures? Could power be generated without inundating large tracts of land? Sunderlal Bahuguna had his set of arguments cut out against then proposed Tehri Dam. With his distinct headgear, though in white, he was dubbed one of the earliest 'environment terrorists' of his time. Having started camping inside the submergence area of the dam, he had become toast of the media. I had teased him once: 'it will be an unbelievable headline the day you'll take 'jal samadhi'. That had brought curtains on our rather friendly relationship!

Environment Journalism (pic courtesy: emich.edu)

It was a shocking revelation that some of the best in the business of environment were conscious of their territorial jurisdictions. Often fighting for the same turf, they were found working at cross purposes to each other. The environmentalists were a divided lot with media playing its part in promoting one at the cost of the other. The legacy of 'divide and rule' had sustained itself. The work on the controversial Tehri dam was at high pace. It was evident that the dam will be built soon and the forlorn crusader of the bygone era will have to resign himself to history books. But will lessons ever get learnt from it?

It was hard to believe that in a country where the much-hyped Silent Valley hydroelectric project could be put to rest with the stroke of a pen, several hundred column inches of writing deploring the project were inadequate in repeating the feat in the case of the controversial Tehri Dam. 'The apolitical nature of social movements was up against the politics of development', I had argued in one of my articles. It wasn't a level playing field though, with odds tilted in favour of the powerful stakeholders. Opposition to several mega-projects were inconclusive, pulling activists into the convenient domain of service delivery for fighting poverty at the grassroots.

Alternate media
With hundreds of written stories on diverse environmental issues behind me, an opportunity for being part of the mainstream media was somewhat expected. A short stint at the India Today was a great learning experience. In addition to rubbing shoulders with some of the big names, how a handful of journalists decide what the majority must read had begun to unfold! I'd always wondered why a human interest story would get pushed to the 'back of the book' section at the cost of a story reporting on the inevitable ageing of a political supremo named Sitaram Kesari? That aligning with the powers-that-be was akin to being counted amongst the 'powerful' seemed the unwritten logic.

It was a shocking revelation that some of the best in the business of environment were conscious of their territorial jurisdictions. Often fighting for the same turf, they were found working at cross purposes to each other.

Raising grassroots concerns through an alternate media, on the lines of parallel cinema, seemed the order of the day. Building and nurturing a constituency was critical to sustaining newfound environment consciousness. The passion and drive were in plenty, and so was perhaps a committed readership but the requisite capital was nowhere in sight. The rights to re-publish The Ecologist, a well-known environment magazine from the UK, were secured without strings. However, getting it on to the newstands had remained an unfulfilled dream ever since.

Around this time, a young Nepalese journalist had walked into my one-room office. After years of serving the UN as a mediaperson, he was planning to launch an environment magazine from Kathmandu. That gentleman had learnt of my interests from the Ashoka Foundation, a US-based organisation that had bestowed fellowship on both of us for public service entrepreneurship. I had helped him in every possible way, giving vent to my unfulfilled ambitions in the process. Though we have stayed connected ever since, both Kanak Dixit and his brainchild Himal have continued to flourish.

I had to contend with what I could afford the best, edit and publish a Hindi language quarterly on environment and sustainable development. Named Vikalp, meaning alternative, the magazine had acquired a respectable readership in a short time. However, it didn't translate into desired number of subscriptions for meeting the production costs. With a handful of budding writers, we published it as long as we could take the toll of doing everything ourselves, from writing copy to organising pictures and from maintaining subscriptions to mailing copies. In hindsight, it may have been worth the cause had there been a method in that madness!

All said, it remains a milestone in environment literature and an experience worth sharing. It must however be said that an alternate media may indeed be a bad idea if it can not create a significant readership base to amplify voices to influence policies. The very notion of alternate media often has an ideological base with a mission. I have learnt it the hard way: those who are passionate about environment must not pursue active journalism and those who stand to do objective journalism must stay away from being passionate about the environment. Either way, it doesn't serve any purpose.

With the democratisation of communication technologies, it is a fresh new game to confront the market forces that operate under the veil of democracy. Clearly, the rules of environment journalism are being rewritten!

Getting focussed
It may seem that I had burnt myself on several fronts at the same time. But for me, environment journalism has been an evolving engagement, a process in which one was able to check on one's capabilities and capacities as new environmental challenges were tossed from time to time. If pollution and poverty were issues in the past, scarcity and survival were the current issues. However, in the pursuit for economic growth concerns for the environment were put on the back burner. Quite often it seemed that the good work of creating environmental awareness during the 1980's and 90's had been lost.

I was ready for new challenges unlike many who had sought to drift into 'business', the new window of opportunity in up-market journalism. My renewed commitment may have something to do with the birth of my son. Since he was born on the world environment day, many wondered if it reflected my commitment (or that of my better half) to the environment. It did, however, reflect lack of commitment for some of my erstwhile colleagues whose offsprings had missed dateline environment by few days on either side. Either they were sucked into the system or had chosen more lucrative career paths. Pure coincidence, I'd imagine!

But I knew there was a road ahead for me. The gigantism of development had started to surface yet again. We had a task at hand. Fresh affiliations and new associations were on the horizon as the country got ready to alter its geography by embarking on the ambitious task of linking its rivers, from north to south and from east to west. Water became the foci of my writings ever since. I had never stopped to think what a magical substance it is, with a special meaning for everyone. A new form of consciousness had started to dawn upon me. I had began my schooling yet again!

It was the return of the familiar debate on dams along with all pervasive discourse on water harvesting. Commodification and privatisation were components of market-driven hydrology. Growth engine is trying to consume everything in the process as social space gets usurped by a market economy of malls and multiplexes. Poverty no longer registered as in the past. The surging middle class was upset when it was reminded of that old blight. Poor had to be dispensed with for making space for special economic zones, even if it meant forcing many to commit suicide. A new culture of self-annihilation is upon us.

It will demand a journalism of a kind that will not only question the dubious processes but confront the invisible forces of self-destruction as well. I often enthuse myself with the famous one-liner from irresistible Sholay: Ab aayega mazaa! In many ways, it is fun to rearticulate and reposition oneself to confront a new situation. It indeed burns the creative calories in you, but the impact is immensely satisfying. With the democratisation of communication technologies, it is a fresh new game to confront the market forces that operate under the veil of democracy. Clearly, the rules of environment journalism are being rewritten!

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

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