Thursday, 24 October 2019

Station 55

This picture is enlarged and displayed on the wall of my living room. I shot it in a monastery above Thimpu in Bhutan. I was attracted by the nirvana-esque pose of the monk. I was captured by something else too. I will come to that later.
In the mid-1980s I started with student environmental activism. The Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur was established in a palace donated by the Kochi royal family. It has a sacred grove, which generations of students called “Ooty”. When the college management wanted to cut old-growth trees to build a wall, some of us students protested.
Even though our protest was unsuccessful, it laid the foundation of ecological understanding in our group. One amongst us went on to become the agriculture minister of Kerala, and admitted to me later during an interview that the roots of his ecological understanding began in those heady days between 1985 and 1987.
It is this understanding that I took into my work as an environment journalist and communicator. I belong to the second generation of environment journalists in the country. We followed the pioneers such as Darryl D’Monte, Claude Alvares, Bittu Sehgal and Anil Agarwal.  It is not as if environment stories were not covered before that but these journalists carved out the environment journalism genre in the early 1980s. Their writings inspired us during our student activism.
Some exceptionally talented and patient mentors trained me early on in my working life. If N.D. Jayal gave me the conceptual framework on India’s environmental issues, Indira Ramesh, Rita Bhatia and Joe D’Souza also left their indelible imprint. What they taught me was that it is not enough to understand environmental linkages, but for the ideas to grow there was a need to pass it on to the younger generation.

Three decades

From the mid-1980s to the present, our generation experienced the country’s political economy undergoing major changes. Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister when I started working. He of the “I am young, I too have a dream” quote, Rajiv put metrics into the development process by initiating national technology missions. For the first time since Independence, the National Technology Mission on Drinking Water computed how many villages in the country did not have access to a safe water source.
Today it is fashionable to lay many of the country’s past problems at Rajiv’s doorstep. However, in the summer of 1988, I saw one of Rajiv’s policy actions that prevented many human deaths. I had joined Action for Food Production (AFPRO), a national-level NGO working on water resources development as a communicator. AFPRO had established a field unit at Udaipur in Rajasthan, in response to the fourth year of drought in the Aravalli hills (1984-1988). Agricultural fields were bone dry, and cattle were dead at multiple locations. Unable to maintain their livestock, farmers abandoned them to die by the roadside, or in the fields. Despite the devastation, human lives were not lost in the famine. The government’s food for work schemes ensured that sustenance reached rural families.
We lived the roller coaster years. We saw the violence that followed the implementation of the Mandal Commission report; the economic crisis that led to the implementation of the economic reforms; the federalism (led by regional parties) of the United Front government; the BJP-led governments of 13 days, 13 months and then a full term under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee; the second nuclear test; the Kargil War; India failing in its shine during the 2004 national elections; India’s economy growing when the sub-prime lending crisis had tottered the US economy and many others in 2009; a season for scams; the rise of the Aam Aadmi party; and the return of the BJP-led government.

Gandhi as the environmental icon

In the more recent years, we were witness to Mahatma Gandhi becoming India’s official environmental icon. First it was the launch of the Swachh Bharat campaign on Gandhi Jayanthi in 2014, then it was the announcement of the nationally determined contributions that India made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the UN Climate Change Secretariat in 2015. By 2019 the integration was complete, with the media talking about Mahatma Gandhi and national government’s policies in the same breath. It is something like the itihasa-purana of yore, where feudatories new to power validated themselves through discovered or created lineages to the gods.
In a sense it was an ironical justice to the environmental discourse from the mid-1980s. In those days environmental activists articulated a binary between Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. While Gandhi was seen as the ideal for everything small and sustainable, Nehru was personified as somebody signifying everything large and destructive. The famous environmental book, Temples or tombs, written by Darryl D’Monte in 1986, and looking at the adverse environmental impacts of three industrial-scale projects, articulated this dichotomy in its title.
It is this divide that the post-2014 ruling establishment worked upon. They stretched Gandhism to mean everything environmental and the environmentalists’ criticism against Nehru added ammunition to their already-existing tirade against India’s first prime minister. Ironically, in the process the government could clothe environmentally-destructive projects in benign Gandhian ethics. Environmentally, the Gandhian currency has changed hands – the old one demonetised and the new one back with double strength, like the 2,000-rupee note.

The tightening loop

The paradigm shift in Indian environmentalism happened with the economic reforms of 1991. Till then, environment was a concern of rural and marginal communities that fought to conserve their natural resources and also to prevent access to their resources from being taken away from them. So was it when the Garhwali women hugged trees in the Himalayas as part of the Chipko movement in the 1970s. So too with the anti-Tehri dam and the anti-Narmada dam movements that were active in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
However, the post-reforms social economy changed this. The primary objective of the reforms process was to grow the Indian economy through an increase in domestic consumption. It is then the great Indian middle class was discovered. The business newspapers of the day – both pink and white – articulated about the middle class in detail. It said that with 250 to 300 million people, the Indian middle class was the size of the US population.
Irrespective of whether this number was a reality or an overestimation, the truth was that the middle class felt pampered after the economic reforms. With goods and services, and advertisers vying for their attention, they discovered their economic voice, which later blended into a political voice from the time of Anna Hazare’s fast in 2011, leading into the national elections of 2014.
In the meanwhile, environment too had become an urban middle class concern. There were jobs to be had in the environment sector – consulting, designing and constructing effluent treatment plants, green economics, etc. New environmentalists also started using urban tools to fight environmental battles – media campaigns, public interest litigation, internet campaigns and even rap songs.
It is not as if the environmental issues of the rural and marginal communities disappeared, but they were pushed to the periphery of national consciousness. In the more recent years, environmental issues of the voiceless have become further marginalised by strident nationalism and national security. What are petty issues of natural resource access and deprivation when the country is in danger (albeit more imagined than real)?
In the past three decades, I have had a ringside view of these changes. In the 1980s, environment issues were the concern of the tribals of the Narmada valley and the villagers of Garhwal. In the 1990s, environment was a spanner in the nation’s dream of economic growth. Journalists covering environment were the peripheral ones in every news bureau. In the first decade of the 2000s, environment was a middle class concern, whereas the issues of the marginal communities were pushed to the periphery. In the second decade of the 2000s, the middle class bloomed with the sense of their economic and political power. Environment got distanced – to be mentioned as a paragraph sub-head in political manifestos.
But nature did hit back. The changing climate continues to return extreme weather events with a vengeance – with increasing intensity and frequency. So much so that the cyclical monsoons are gradually turning into a string of extreme weather events. From the point where environment was the interest of a few in the 1990s, the feedback provided by the extreme weather events has brought it as a concern for everybody. And for those affected by floods in the recent years, the concern came destructively to their homes.
The extreme weather events of the recent years have been providing increasingly stronger feedback loops. People are connecting the linkages like never before in the past. Thus, when the Maharashtra Government felled trees in the Aarey forest for a metro railway shed, people of Mumbai led an unprecedented protest. Hit by floods multiple times in 2019, the citizens of the business capital city have realised that the trees and the mangroves play a very significant role in maintaining the ecological balance in the megapolis.

Mentoring environment journalists

When I started, it was not fashionable to be an environment journalist. We were the fringe in every publication. We lost out on promotions and were scorned at by our colleagues. Those were the days of the political, corporate and stock-exchange reporters. But a few of us trudged on, changing job descriptions at times, but overall persisting with environmental journalism and communication. Partially it was because we believed in what we were doing, and partially because we were not capable of doing anything else.
Today, environment journalism is an established field in India. In my current assignment at Mongabay-India, I work with and am in touch with some very fine, young environment journalists.
There are multiple reasons for this growth. Environment journalism is not an isolated genre any longer. Journalists have successfully linked environment to politics and economics. This was the way to go. These linkages have made environment stories relevant for the readers.
If the Kerala floods of 2018 led to a loss of Rs 31,000 crores, it was a strong economic story, and was reported as one. And when efforts to move the public discussions away from the floods did not yield political gains, it was a political story.
Environmental journalism started getting recruits when environment became an urban middle class issue. Environment could be linked to health, lifestyle, fashion, tourism and gourmet food. Science journalists have also transitioned to environment journalism in the recent years. A science journalism programme organised by the National Centre for Biological Studies has trained journalists, and some of them have blended science and environment. Today, most of the journalism schools in the country have environment journalism at least as an elective.
The climate change events and the international and national discussions attracted journalists into the field. A continuing study by the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (CSTPR) at the University of Boulder in Colorado, US, has shown that the Climate Change Conference of Parties held in Copenhagen in end-2009 attracted the attention of international media. It had its reflection in India too. The Paris CoP of 2015 also attracted attention, and more is happening in the recent months.

CSTPR graph on world media and climate change coverage. Source:

With repeated and intense extreme weather events becoming an annual feature, the reader/viewer/listener interest on climate change and the imperative to maintain ecological balance increased in the recent years. This has given a boost to environment journalists.
However, the most important factor for the growth of environment journalism has been the steady supply of good quality training for young journalists who want to pursue their interest in the environment. Organisations such as the Earth Journalism Network, Centre for Science and Environment, Panos South Asia, Nature India and the Forum of Environmental Journalists in India have been systematically training journalists on various facets of environment journalism for years. And this has yielded results over the years.
Having been associated with the last three organisations in their training activities, I had the opportunity to mentor a few of these young journalists, who have now become respected practitioners in their own right.

At the South Asia climate change media workshop in Kathmandu, August 2012.

Don’t miss the underdog

At 23, when I started working, I wanted to communicate complicated environmental issues in simple language. The dream remains the same today. Every story, every act of communication along the way was and is a step in this direction.
And this is where the picture on my living room wall becomes important. It continues to guide me with the message: “Don’t miss the underdog.” (If you missed it at first, look again and you will see the dog that I am referring to).
You may also want to read Station 50.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Is the Indian monsoon turning into a string of extreme weather events

The regularity of the monsoon is getting lost in the recent years, and what we seem to have is a string of extreme weather events. MORE ...

Kerala was flooded in 20118 and 2019.

Did the budget miss the bus for building climate resilience for agriculture?

In the second innings of the NDA Government, the first budget missed the opportunity for building climate resilience for Indian agriculture. MORE ... 

Impact of weather shocks on agriculture. Courtesy: Economic Survey 2017-18.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Chennai's water crisis once again exposes the city's climate vulnerability

With Chennai facing a severe drought this summer, it once again emphasises the importance of the waterbodies in the city. MORE ... 

In Kerala there was nothing "golden" about this missed opportunity

After extreme weather events there is a need for truth and reconciliation. The chaos in the state of Kerala after the Sabarimala judgement prevented introspection into the August 2018 floods. However, the election results did not go as the BJP would have wanted. MORE ... 

Saturday, 30 March 2019

N.D. Jayal: A gentle tiger who did not get his due in Indian environmental history

In the summer of 1986, after the classes and hostels of the Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur had emptied for the holidays, there was an announcement by the college management that got my friends agitated. The principal had given a statement to the local newspaper that the college would be cutting some trees to build a compound wall.
The SKV College has a history. The campus was once a palace for the Kochi royalty, which was later donated for the college. The trees that the management had wanted to cut for the wall were old-growth ones that were part of the sacred grove inside the palace. The trees were part of the college's and the neighbourhood's history. In our youthful idealism, a few of us students did not want the trees to be cut. We protested and lost, but in the process I heard the name of N. D. Jayal (NDJ) for the first time. 
A few days into the campaign, I wrote a letter to Sunderlal Bahuguna. We had heard of him and the Chipko Movement. Bahuguna responded quickly, telling us of the importance of old-growth native trees. A day later, I also received a letter from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), signed by NDJ, supporting our action.
We photocopied the two letters and dropped them in the local offices of Malayalam and English newspapers. Suddenly, from a bunch of impertinent boys protesting against the wisdom of the college management to construct a compound wall, we became, in the eyes of local reporters, a group of environmentally conscious students fighting David-like to conserve old growth trees from the might of the college management.
Sunderlal Bahuguna was well known with journalists, and for INTACH the fact that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s name appeared as a patron on the official letterhead helped. “Prime Minister supports students’ struggle against tree felling” ran one of the headlines in a local Malayalam newspaper. Neither the journalists, nor I knew the importance of the man – NDJ – who had signed the letter, and the role he had played with quiet determination over years to protect India’s environment. I was to understand that, first hand, a few years later.
N.D.Jayal in his garden chair. A water colour by Indira Ramesh. 

I met NDJ for the first time five years later in his INTACH office. He had an office with multiple glass windows that stuck out onto the lawns of 71, Lodhi Estate. This was before the old colonial bungalow was brought down for the present building. I had worked for three years in the communication department of a national-level NGO, Action for Food Production, and was looking for some action. I met NDJ in his book-lined office. Indira Ramesh, who was to become my boss and mentor, took me to his room and I was hired to work with them during that very meeting.
I wanted action and got much of it in the two years that I worked with the Natural Heritage Wing of INTACH. I was in my mid-20s and was awestruck to have been pushed into the vortex of the anti-Tehri dam movement. We were also supporting the anti-Narmada dam movement. We had an active publication programme, where we published environment books, booklets and a newsletter.

Gentle tiger

From the time I met NDJ in his office in 1990, I was always impressed by the gentleness with which he spoke. But he never pulled his punches. Perhaps it was a combination of his inherent nature and decades of experience in the bureaucracy, NDJ always argued his case softly, without ruffling feathers through a harsh note or a thoughtless word. The mild exterior, however, always packaged strong arguments ruthlessly delivered for impact. He was a gentle tiger.
NDJ had moved to INTACH after his retirement from government service. Despite decades of rich experience he was never overbearing towards us young people in his team. However, he was not kind towards ignorant arrogance.
At a lunch, I heard one of our friends, also in his 20s, tell NDJ that there was no administration in Arunachal Pradesh. The friend used to work in the next-door office of the World Wide Fund and had come to the rather momentous conclusion after a quick tour of Arunachal Pradesh that lasted a few days. Perhaps he did not know that as a civil servant NDJ had helped establishing the administrative structure in the north-eastern state. I heard NDJ clearing his throat. Gentle bloodshed followed.
When I was part of NDJ's team. Indira Ramesh is at extreme right.

Facts based opposition

Since I was a general dogsbody in INTACH, I used to coordinate media relations. The Tehri dam controversy that had gone silent erupted again after the Uttarkashi earthquake of October 1991. NDJ called for a press conference to bring back into the conversation the dangers of constructing a 240-metre tall dam in the Himalayas, which was prone to earthquakes. Due to the topicality of the subject, more journalists assembled than expected. While some were veterans who had covered the issue in the past, many were newbies who asked questions that took the discussions back to scratch. NDJ answered them patiently, and did not digress from his arguments even while facing provocative questions.
Of essence for NDJ was an argument built on facts rather than rhetoric. He had commissioned economist Vijay Paranjpye to carry out traditional cost-benefit analyses of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the Tehri Dam projects. Both his studies were published as books by INTACH, and they detailed how the costs of both the projects were higher than the benefits that were to accrue from these projects.
Using conventional cost-benefit analysis methods, Paranjpye argued that the benefits were shown to be higher by the project proponents because they had externalised the social and environmental costs. The government did not accept the findings of the INTACH studies. But it never refuted them either. By commissioning and publishing these studies, NDJ took the anti-dam argument from the rhetorical “say no to dams” one to one based on hard facts.
Similarly, his arguments protesting the construction of a high structure such as the Tehri Dam in the Himalayas, which has the probability of being struck by an 8-plus magnitude earthquake, was based on the opinion of well-known geologists. These arguments were also the basis for the petition he filed in the Supreme Court, along with Shekar Singh in 1991, against the Tehri Dam. 
During that period the Natural Heritage Wing of INTACH also commissioned the publication of a book on the biodiversity of the southern Western Ghats, written by a well-known ecologist from Kerala, Sathis Chandran Nair. NDJ’s friendship with Nair started during the days of the Silent Valley controversy. Nair, who had extensively trekked the southern Western Ghats region had collected persuasive data that proved that there was reason to conserve the Silent Valley and prevent it from being destroyed by a hydro-electric dam. NDJ, who then had an important official position in the national government helped communicate Nair’s message to the policy makers.
Nair’s The southern Western Ghats: A biodiversity conservation plan, published by INTACH in 1991 was a first of its kind assessment of the importance of the biological diversity of the Western Ghats south of central Karnataka to the Agasthyamalai Range near the tip of the peninsula and the need for its conservation.
In the same period, INTACH also published a book by Ganesh and Vasudha Pangare. While the rest of the country had not realised the significance of the transition that a retired army driver – Anna Hazare – had made to the conservation of natural resources of his village Ralegan Siddhi, Pangare’s book documented it for the world.
I had missed working on the Parajnpye manuscripts, but was assisting Indira Ramesh with the editing and publication of Nair’s and Pangares’ books.
NDJ with Edward Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist, when he had visited New Delhi in 1991-92.

The Uttarkashi earthquake

In 1990-91 NDJ and Indira had thought of starting a monthly newsletter that would connect all the activists and kindred souls supporting the anti-dam movement. I was assigned to make this happen. We gathered in NDJ’s multi-windowed office to decide on the name for the newsletter. We had by then decided its periodicity – once a month. The main purpose of the newsletter was to focus on the Tehri Dam project, which was to bridle Bhagirathi and Bhilangana rivers at the point where they meet. We called our newsletter Bhagirathi ki pukar (Bhagirathi’s call).
After the Uttarkashi earthquake in 1991, NDJ asked me go to Tehri to see first hand its impact. The aftershocks were still continuing. Soldiers and Garhwali men were returning to their villages from their employment posts in different parts of the country, to see what was lost and to pick up from where the earthquake had left their lives. In villages, there were men and children with shaved heads – having carried out the last rights of the dear ones they had lost.
Sunderlal Bahuguna was on a sit-in strike at the site where the Tehri Dam came later. The killer earthquake, of course, was no warning to those in power. The dam did come, and the tall column of water continues to hold out its threat from the mountains. I travelled to Silyara, where Vimala Bahuguna, Sunderlal’s wife and herself a leader of the Chipko movement, made us as comfortable as she could under the circumstances. Simple lives lived with stoic dignity.

Lost in history?

My window to NDJ’s professional life was of a mere two-year span. It was looking and understanding a man of his experience and achievement through a keyhole. However, I continued on the path that I had set out on when I worked with NDJ. I continued being an environment journalist and communicator.
It was difficult times when I was adventuring into environment journalism in the late 1980s and 1990s. Economic liberalisation had just been launched in 1991, and media houses were competing with each other to sing hosannas to the epochal change that would unleash the growth that India deserved and was earlier being smothered under a Hindu rate of growth.
To be an environment journalist in those days was to assign myself to professional masochism, where everybody around me happily called me an “obstructionist”. I persisted with the quiet determination that NDJ had taught me.
As I went about my job of understanding and reporting India’s modern environment history, I felt that somewhere NDJ did not get the mention that he should have got for his contributions. For years he was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s pointsman on environment. Many others who held the same position in different parts of Indira Gandhi’s tenure had gone on to become famous. This list included Manmohan Malhoutra, M.K. Ranjitsinh, Samar Singh and R. Rajamani. History had not given its due to NDJ.
The only exception, and that too in 2017, was former environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s environmental biography of Indira Gandhi (Indira Gandhi: A life in nature. By Jairam Ramesh. Simon and Schuster, 2017). Ramesh wrote that Jayal played an active role in the N.D. Tiwari Committee that was tasked with recommending legislative measures and administrative machinery for ensuring environmental protection. The recommendations of the committee led to the establishment of the Department of Environment in 1980, which later went on to become a full-fledged environment ministry. Gandhi entrusted Jayal with missions that involved travelling to states and studying and recommending corrective action on the environment – Bharatpur in Rajasthan, Satkosia Gorge in Odisha, and Mahabaleswar-Panchagani in Maharashtra. In 1982 Gandhi sent him to study the UK National Trust, an idea that later developed into the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
However, as Indira Ramesh’s chapter elaborates, when NDJ retired from the government, he had ended only one part of his achievement-filled life. There were far more achievements that followed.
The cover of the recently published book on NDJ. My blog is a chapter in this book. 

Papers for posterity

In August 2015, I met NDJ at his home in Dehradun. He was on his reclining chair in his room with books and filing cabinets spreading across the walls. He asked me if I could think of a public institution that would be interested in archiving for public and posterity the environmental papers that he had collected over the years.
Why not the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML)? His question had to hibernate the night for me to think of this answer. NDJ found the idea good. I wrote an exploratory email to the then director of NMML, an environment historian of repute. Within five minutes I got a response. He was interested, and had also marked the official concerned in his email. Those papers had a different destiny though. The director resigned the next day, due to differences with the national government. I am given to understand that NDJ’s papers have later made their way to a university where future generation of researchers and students will have access to them. The NMML director had moved to this university and ensured this transfer.
For NDJ, the priority was always to give back to the society from which he had drawn. It was with this spirit that he trained me in 1990-92. He also taught me another important life lesson – I didn’t need to have a gruff voice to roar.

[I wrote this as a chapter in a recently-published book on NDJ, who turned 92 in February. The book was published by the Doon Library and Research Centre in Dehradun].