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.