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Media and Environment in Uttarakhand

Even as media proliferates in the wake of statehood for the Uttarakhand region, its primary challenge is to engage meaningfully with issues that are related to the environment

The Hoot (August 9, 2002)
Manjula Lal & Sevanti Ninan

In a broad sense environment is the central issue in the newly formed hill state of Uttarakhand. It always was, for this region located in the foothills of the Himalayas. Development is governed by the fact that there are constraints that the economy of a hill region has, regardless of whether or not an independent state has been constituted. Industrialisation is not environmentally sustainable, employment has to be created without damaging a fragile ecosystem. Development means meeting the needs of the population, of which the foremost are livelihood and water. Both have clear environmental implications.

So even as media proliferates in the wake of statehood for the Uttarkhand region, its primary challenge is to engage meaningfully with issues that are related to the environment. Both in a broad and narrow sense. How newspapers and television cover these, is an index of how much service they do to the state. Given the journalistic priorities that the plains-based proprietors of the most widely circulated newspapers have, this is a tall order. Both by temperament and training the average reporter in the field is ill equipped to provide sustained, contextual reporting on the larger issues. Add to these the constraints of time and resources, and reporting on the issues most relevant to this state becomes highly inadequate as well as unsatisfactory.

However the Uttarakhand region also has a large number of non governmental organisations, implementing a variety of initiatives on the ground. They have the perspective and understanding that journalists cannot acquire in the short term. Were the media and NGOs to engage satisfactorily with each other, between them they could keep the new government on its toes, as well as spread ripples of information on innovative solutions to the region’s problems. Since this is not happening, this article will attempt to spell out why. “Regional papers are like NGOs: they can do a lot of sensitization and capacity-building,” says Prof Ajay S Rawat, who teaches History at Kumaon University. He was the initiator of the Nainital Bachao (Save Naintal) movement in 1988. His public interest litigation against builders brought a stay on construction from the Supreme Court.

Rawat does his own investigations of organized crime like felling of trees and illegal mining, he also takes sneak pictures to document these. As chairman of the International Union of Forestry Research Organisations, Vienna, he naturally thinks that the press should focus on environment. “The national press should have played the role of a watchdog”, he says. He says regional papers give a lot of news, but there is no follow-up. When 2,000 trees were destroyed at the Maharishi farm, Amar Ujala did highlight it, he says, but the paper has never written about how the Forest Department’s inquiry has been dragging on for two years.

He points out that the press could play a role like that played effectively by the Dehradun-based HARC (Himalayan Action Research Committee) which has set up contact centres in the Upper Yamuna Valley region. These disseminate information about government projects, protecting villagers from being fooled by Block Development Officers. Then the way the NGO Chirag went in for ‘social fencing’ in Thanliya Mehra Gaon could have been highlighted by the press to set an example for others.

Prof Shekhar Pathak, also of Kumaon University, says that the press could play an important role – even more than academicians and NGO activists, to both of which categories he belongs. “In a democracy, with all its internal contradictions, only the media can have a major impact,” he says.

“To break the unholy nexus between mafia, politicians and bureaucracy, you need a nexus between people, government and NGOs.” Journalists must understand, according to this view, that they are of the people. “Their catchment area is the whole of society. They are often more sensitized and knowledgeable,” says Pathak

There is no doubt that journalists are aware of all this. But then, why don’t they write about issues in dire need of exposure, such as the lack of a separate mining law for the hills, indiscriminate tapping of mineral water, and a recent lease for copper mining to a multinational corporation? Moreover, there has been no discussion on important projects like Joint Forestry Management and World Bank projects which are being implemented virtually without any public debate or awareness. What is happening to Van Panchayats? Nobody knows.

Part of the answer lies in the way the newspaper’s priorities are structured. The two most widely circulated newspapers in the Dehradun region are Amar Ujala and Dainik Jagran, leading newspapers in Uttar Pradesh, the state of which Uttarakhand was a part until November 2000. Amar Ujala is headquartered in Bareilly, and the paper that is distributed in the hills is made up in the plains. Environmental issues, according to one journalist, have “no value” in Bareilly, they do not get good display. Dainik Jagran is headquartered in Kanpur which is not likely to be more sensitised either in this regard.

The flip side of having less appreciation for the importance of environment coverage is that with the creation of the new state, with the coming up of a legislature, and a state government based in Dehradun, political news has gained pre-eminence, and takes up a lot of space in the newspapers. Though the number of pages and reporters in the state’s new headquarters have also increased, the priorities set for newspapers in Uttarakhand do not include specialisation in environmental reporting. Or rather an environmental dimension to most kinds of reporting, which would be even more valuable.

The national media in the state and the regional media with its local pages, see the situation differently. R P Nailwal, the Times of India representative in the state capital says that the state had lots of potential but the local media did not go into depth. Local newspapers are full of water shortage stories , but there is not enough analysis or proper focus on the larger problem. The Bharatiya Janata Party came to power between 1980-89. The Kalyan singh government created 5000 water schemes. Yet in 13 districts water is a basic problem. Where did the money go? There is no analysis in papers no proper focus on where has the money gone. Large water bodies exist across the district, yet it is facing a potable water famine.

Kamal Joshi, an NGO worker, says that the biggest weakness of the media is that reporters don’t go to the field much. Most of what they report is based on hearsay. At the same time, he can understand that they don’t go to the field much because of resource constraints. A typical village of the kind in which he has his projects would require a walk of 10-15 km.

He also objects to the kind of coverage given. If a meeting/workshop is held, all you get is names of those who took part. What happened is not published. The media should concern itself more with imparting information and not just propagating stereotypes of what constitutes environmental awareness. School children, villagers think that preserving the environment means planting trees, he says.

Avdhash Kaushal of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra in Dehradun says that often rural reality makes a mockery of what the urban media projects as environmental priorities. Though poaching is made much of as an environmental problem, in the Uttarakhand region only 15 per cent of wildlife killed is protected areas. 80 per cent of the killing is outside the protected areas where conflicts between man and beast are taking place. The creation of wildlife sanctuaries in the middle of people’s habitats cut off traditional supply routes of food, fodder and water. And created situations where wildlife have begun to intrude in living areas. In the hills leopards kill women and children. So while celebrating World Environment Day in the cities means showing children in Delhi wearing tiger masks on television, to a child in the hills tigers and leopards are truly frightening things, Kaushal says.

Similarly in Garhwal, the international accolades that came to Sunderlal Bahuguna, the fact that he is a frequent invitee to international conferences in places like Geneva, has alienated him from his own people, who feel that the world clamped down on even sustainable use of minor forest produce in the name of pure conservation, cutting off their livelihood. Perspectives of environment differ when seen from the point of view of local people, and from the point of view of environmentalists. But it is easier for the media to reflect the latter.

And between Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Bahuguna, the two most written about environmentalists have developed their own media backers. Journalists prop up either one, or the other, and both are interested in the personification of the movement, which does little for the region. Bahuguna was a stringer for the Navbharat Times when he started reporting on the movement in the region, giving his own name. And subsequently his son worked in Navbharat Times, which helped to sustain the publicity. Meanwhile, says Kaushal, limestone mining is still going on in Tehri district.

He makes the point that there are two kinds of media. The English language media read by decision makers, and the Hindi media read by voters. Politicians and NGOs have to decide which kind they want to appeal to. He adds that he is choosey about whom he am written about by, and has never had a problem getting very friendly media from the national and international press on his own terms. He lays down conditions for making time for the media: “Yorkshire TV wanted to make a film on mining. For you it is a commercial venture, I told them, so give me two computers. Someone came form Germany, I asked for open ticket to Karnataka and back. They obliged, so I talked to them.”

However some of the more worthwhile work does by his Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra is unlike to excite either the local or national press, while holding immense value for this region. The organisation has produced a research study on the self-imposed rules and traditional practices of natural resource management among tribal and hill communities in Uttarakhand. This includes as many as 36 case studies from around the state of forest management, water management, and land management as practised by local communities. Between them they contain solutions for many of the current problems including pressure on land, and water scarcity.

There are several success stories here that journalists would love to report if they had the patience to sniff them out, but then again it is a question of which journalists. The regional press is unlikely to consider this headline material. The media has to be given ideas, says Kaushal pithily. He mentions that there are Gujjar Muslims in the region who are vegetarian and nomadic. Profiling them would make for a fascinating human interest story that breaks stereotypical notions of Muslims.

Lalit Pande of Almora, whose family trust established in 1967 became the NGO Uttarakhand Sewa Nidhi in 1996, works in the area of environmental awareness. He concedes very reluctantly that if an issue is properly reported, then the media can have a positive effect. But it also creates problems. “One of the biggest problems we come across when working in the field of environment is the media itself, because it publicises consumerism and glamour. But life is not like that. The environmental movement after all questions this consumerism. Polythene is not the issue, as some educated people here believe, it is: what are people striving for in the future? If our goal is industrialization, and pesticides, then it goes against the environment. Nobody is projecting that the quality of life should be good.”

He adds that what happens at the grassroots is that girls who have been through the formal education system refuse to touch cowdung. “We try to tell people about the village as an ecosystem, to develop skills appropriate for making life better in one’s own surroundings.” He feels that another message that the media is sending out is the despair that the government is no longer creating jobs. Because of this, people don’t think about betterment of their own life, they don’t realize that they have the resources to make their own livelihood. “You are willy-nilly helping people to propagate their goods (which do not improve the quality of life).”

His conclusion is that if the message in the media was right, half the work of those striving to restore balance in the ecosystem would be done.


Posted: 23rd July 2002