Without environment there is no democracy

Author: 

Claude Alvares

Though I do work in the environment, my first public activity was journalism and I used to do a lot of writing in the Times of India, Indian Express, and Illustrated weekly, and I used to enjoy it. I used to spend most of that time criticizing people, or making fun of them. I was given the title- typewriting guerilla.  Now one of the things we are facing today is reporting on environmental issues. We have reporters specializing in financial matters, law correspondents, critics, and all- but one part where it’s weak is good environmental reporting. And it is my personal view, that if environmental reporting is poor, it affects the quality of our democracy. They are related. And if you have bad environmental media reporting, then you see how the democracy quality declines. Environmental journalism is not like other types of journalism. It requires technical knowledge. City reports or whatever are fairly simple; even murders- who killed who, how, all those simple things. But when you write on a subject like the Western Ghats, particularly, the controversy between the Gadgil or Kasturirangan report, you need specialized knowledge. And the tragedy is today journalists are writing about these without even reading the reports! You have to first read and understand the report, then you compare that with the other, and then you could explain to the public the feature of each, criticize them and all, but you have to first understand what that report states. That is why today in Kerala, Goa or Maharashtra, there is some sort of agreement with the Kasturirangan, and rebellion against the Gadgil report. I can’t understand how this happens. The two reports are directly contradictory. In relation to democracy if you give them points, Gadgil report gets 8/10 points, and the Kasturirangan report gets zero in terms of democratic values. Yet why is a democratic state of Kerala is infamous of Kasturirangan and opposed to the Gadgil report? For that, you have to understand what the Gadgil report actually says. Since this is a major issue you and I are concerned with- even if you are living in the coast, the water from the Ghats is feeding you. It’s protecting you as well. You may think, “I’m living in Kochi”, but it will affect you, and your children as well, which is why you have to know about it. Why this mountain range that is there uniting six states from Kerala to Gujarat is important for our democracy, and what Gadgil, a retired scientist from IISc Bangalore is trying to do. He has been writing on the Western Ghats for thirty years. He and his colleagues had written the best paper on this. He set up his own center, Center for Ecological Sciences, all the top scientists who work for the Ghats are there. This group really understood the Ghats. In a meeting with the minister of environment, Jairam Ramesh, he told Mr. Ramesh, “Are you going to set up this expert committee or not, because your own studies have shown that more than 12% of the neutralization of bad climate comes across the WesternGhats. Since it contributes 12% to the positive side of climate change, aren’t you going to protect it? Why are you not protecting it after all those studies?” So, by evening (the meeting took place in noon!) he told his officials, whatever happens, set up the committee- and interestingly, all the members of the Gadgil committee, were from the Western Ghats. They’ve lived and done their studies on the Ghats, so they were the best people to see what should be done with it. The best people in the country were appointed including Dr. V S Vijayan from Kerala. And the report was in favor of environment, but also, in favor of democracy. Gadgil said we are only experts, it is not upto us to decide these matters. What area should be protected, what type of development should be allowed, what type of agriculture should be allowed, this should be kept for the decision of the panchayats. I’ve never heard scientists say that. They say- What’s the panchayat to do? Why should they decide? Only scientists know how to decide.
But Gadgil said to ask the panchayat, take their consent- even if they’re not approving, consider whatever they have to say. Don’t issue any final notification in the gazette, till you get the gram sabha’s approval. This is not something remarkable, when Rajiv Gandhi was PM, he passed two amendments- one was giving the panchayats all the power, and the othergiving municipal councils powers or doing whatever required under their jurisdiction. This is an old law, from 1994. If you are doing anything in any area, the final decision comes to the panchayats. If you go to Niyamgiri- Vedanta plant- in Orissa, for producing aluminum in a tribal belt, the tribals are saying they cannot take out the aluminum from the mountains because in those mountains, our gods live. If you damage those mountains, we will lose our gods. This was their argument before the Supreme Court. Supreme Court said, whatever decisions taken by Vedanta, should be discussed before the tribal gramsabhas. Get their approval first. If they say yes, the plant can be approved. All twelve gramsabhas said no. They don’t have experts, PhDs, scientists. But 100% said no. 600 Cr of investment went down the water because they said no. In Goa, 1993, a nylon project from USA, was proposed- the first such plant being put up by one of the largest chemical MNCs in the US. But after the 1994 Panchayat Raj act, they had to go to the panchayat for opinion. The panchayat room was surrounded by 2000 people from the village. The company could not set up the plant. Tuticorin, in Tamil Nadu, they were not allowed there either. A single panchayat, no PhDs, no experts- they said they had to protect their agriculture, their livelihood, and their water source. The MNC will take all of these away. So, they acted against this.
This is the law which Gadgil incorporated into his report. I was shocked. Because he was a conventional scientist, who had written in favor of corporate agencies, we had fought with him. But when he wrote this, it was remarkable that he said “you had to include the village people in the decisions”. They are living there. Not someone from Delhi- they don’t understand anything. About beaches, mangrove or stuff like that- they haven’t seen them. Gadgil said, ask the Gram Sabha. You’d think that the democratically elected governments of Goa or Kerala would say “Thank you, we are very happy with this report, we will implement it.” The contrary happens. They don’t want the decisions to be taken by the panchayat. Knowing fully well that in most cases the panchayat would say no to these projects. We’ve asked villages in Goa- do you want mining? It gives jobs, trucks, contractors, all that, but the villagers said no. I’m saying sometimes, not all the time, they will say no. No government in this country wants the panchayat to take decisions on their own. “They’re uneducated, illiterate fellows, what do they know? If you want a factory there, don’t consult the panchayat, we’ll approve directly from Trivandrum,”- because you can make a deal there. They do not want the people to feel that they have got a role in their own democracy. That’s why I’m trying to link up democracy, media and environment. People like me who have been environmentalists find that the best environmental decisions have been taken when the people who have to take it are faced with a problem of their own life and death. Otherwise, they’ll make compromises or accept bribes. If you ask some tribal villagers for example if they want that particular development project, they will probably say no. 
In Kasturirangan, it is just the reverse. He is a space scientist, working in ISRO- he had never been to Western Ghats. Government appointed him saying that we’re not taking the Gadgil report because of too much opposition. The committee which they appointed to examine how the Gadgil recommendations could be implemented- including the chairman, Kasturirangan, were from outside the Western Ghats. They took the decisions based on satellite pictures. From the top, we can decide, what is good for the villages- “We have satellite pictures!” The reduced the entire area of the Ghats worthy of protection! The next step that he said, is that they don’t want any approval from any panchayat. “We are the experts. We have the data. We have decided which the ecologically sensitive area is.” It is done from the sky, like god created the earth, Kasturirangan decides the sensitive areas. The situation now is that we have a report which is promoting democracy, but is rejected by the people who believe in democracy. We have another report which is basically anti-democratic, but is being promoted by democratically elected governments. It happens because people did not read the report. One major argument against the Gadgil report, is that once Gadgil is accepted, “everybody would have to leave the Western Ghats. You will lose all your land. Those doing agriculture will have to quit and move.” None of these are in the report! It is unfortunate that the media participated in this nonsense. The media, without reading the report, told the people of Kerala, that this is what the Gadgil report is saying, you will lose everything, your land, etc. 
The media is committed to objective and fair reporting.  If you, for example, say something about someone which is not true, they can sue you for defamation. In media, fair and correct reporting, is a primary duty of journalists. Time and again this does not happen. The media is not successful in providing the truth to its viewers. Often I used to find that a journalist is not willing to say things s/he should because they are worried about what the editor would say. There is censorship at the primary level itself. Will this get edited, will I lose my job – selfcensorship! A young journalist wanting to tell the truth- if deterred, would be willing to sell the un-truth every day! Whatever the management, MLA, or the local goon wants. You must be careful about this- because you are all going to go through the same phase. Today all of you are aspiring to be journalists. The senior journalist asks you “why you’re getting into trouble? Drop the story, let somebody else write it. Remove this, or that from it.” The boiling hot controversy, which everybody wants to read, in the end, becomes nothing. Remember that the reader knows the compromises you made. There will be five different versions for every five of the papers in the city of Goa. Do you remember the Mukesh Ambani’s son involved in a hit-and-run recently? No news came anywhere! This should be an insult to all journalism. TOI, Express, Arnab Goswami, no one is willing to say anything. Is this a nation of cowards? Only in social media, and because of it, we came to know that there was a cover-up to protect the some of the most powerful man in India. 
I’ve yet to come across anybody who is –instead of promoting or opposing – says this is what Gadgil says, this is what Kasturirangan says – like in court. 
Wrong reporting is as bad as no reporting. You should be careful what will happen to you in another 15-20 years.  Some people will say they’re starting their own newspaper because they’re fed up by how the media is controlled, handled by their owners. Today because of the internet, you have at least social media to be make those who would not otherwise be published, able to circulate news. You should even consider that no such thing as a newspaper may even exist 15-20 years from now. Universities may not even exist by that time –you don’t go ask stuff to your college professor, what he has read was from 40 years ago! If you want up-to-date info, you go to the internet. Similarly, people will get news from the internet first, before they get it from the media. Two hours later, they open their paper and say- there is no news here! Then they’ll know that the media is trying to conceal the truth. You have to accept that media as a form you see today- print or so, may not exist. I have already changed, I only write for newspapers once in a while. I do blogging, and stuff on the internet, it gets to more people. Number of people who read articles on Social media is far greater than the others. 
You have a much bigger access to your writing. I’m not saying to ignore the print media. But look at how things are evolving. You will need to cultivate skills for reporting for different types of media, not just one. 

This is a part of lecture series on Media, Democracy.
Transcribed by Ananthu R A