Beyond Pretty Trees and Tigers

The environment influences everything from social relationships to management and governance systems. It is time environmental reporting starts reflecting this

Kathua is no longer a place, but the chilling title of a story. On January 17, 2018, an eight-year-old girl, daughter of a nomadic Bakerwal Muhammad Akhtar, was found raped and murdered in Rasana forest in Kathua. Though the tone of headlines emanating from the state of Jammu and Kashmir are often triggered by deaths and devastation, this incident shook the country and its conscience. And soon, it assumed communal hues. For weeks shoddy journalistic investigations were thrown at people, and religious polarisation determined which side of story they would believe.

This is where the role of an environment reporter, or environmental reporting, is critical.

Is the Kathua tragedy an environmental story? Or is it just another crime story? Set in Jammu and Kashmir, does it only qualify to be told as a story in the polarised context of the State’s geography?

Ideally, these should have been the questions discussed at news meetings across the country. Editors should have delved deep into this tragedy to tell a story that otherwise got buried in the trash of political angles.

An environmental journalist (often/regularly?) suffers from this apartheid in media houses. It explains the challenges she or he faces in pitching stories that bring out the environmental aspect of a mainstream development.

The rape and murder of the girl belonging to a nomadic community in Kathua is an environment story.   

Every year, Akhtar would eagerly wait for the day his daughter would arrive from Kathua in March-April with her foster parents and their 200-odd goats, cows and horses. Once they reached, the 500-kilometre journey to Kargil in central Kashmir would ensue, made easier by the joy and happiness of a family reunited. This journey is considered one of the world’s longest nomadic peregrinations for livelihood, dictated by the local ecology. And this ecology is the Bakerwals’ economy.

That year, his daughter didn’t come, and as we know the journey didn’t happen.

Akhtar rears goats, and is always in search for pastureland. This simple ecological-economical axis of his life, like that of a thousand others from his community, has made him vulnerable to environmental hazards. What if the grazing lands in the migration route vanish? What if they decide to settle down instead of living a nomadic life? These questions precisely set the context for the Kathua tragedy. The media just reported it as a crime, and later took sides convenient to them. But an environmental reporter saw climate change, vanishing grazing lands, booming return from livestock and the tussle between the nomads and the communities settled along the migration route. It was a persisting and emerging fight over natural resources that put the two communities at loggerheads. The child became an unfortunate victim of this fight.

However, this incident did eventually inspire a few stories on the challenges of the nomadic community. Working for India’s only environment and development fortnightly, Down To Earth, I had that great sense of grudging superiority when these stories finally appeared. We were the only magazine till then who had deputed a team of journalists to track the 500 kms traversed by the nomads, and dissect the simmering conflict over resources.

But, at a time when the environment has seemingly become a mainstream issue, why doesn’t the media proactively seek this aspect in our daily life?

There are two trends in environmental reporting in India. One, it continues to be considered as a specialised subject to report on, and two, there is no editorial leadership – stewardship, rather – to sensitise newsrooms on the environmental aspects of general news development. These are also the two major challenges for an environment reporter.

Back in 1997, I was assigned a journalistic caste – an environment reporter – which was a way to outcast us environment reporters from the so called ‘mainstream journalism’. I joined Down To Earth as a reporter. “So, you will write about trees and tigers now?” That was the oft-repeated reaction to my decision to switch to environmental journalism from mainstream reporting on sex, fashion and crime! In the three media houses I had worked with till then, I had never heard the word ‘environment’ or seen the caste of ‘environment reporter’.

In my first interaction with noted thinker and the founding editor of Down To Earth, Anil Agarwal, he told me, “We don’t report on pretty trees and tigers.”

The word “pretty” in the context of environment in the media space has come to define our engagement with environmental reporting. For long, environment reporting meant writing about species, exotic trees or tree lovers; or, once in a while, about an alarming “investigative” report on the declining tiger population.

But after 22 years, our world is a different one. Unlike in 1980s and 1990s, the smoke-belching chimneys are no more indicators of economic prosperity but symbols of environmental doom. Climate change is no more a niche subject for scientific exploration, but a crisis unfolding in our backyards. Air pollution is no more contained to Delhi or industrial towns, but a death sentence wherever you are born in the country. And in northern India, “Winter is coming” has an altogether different meaning from its pop culture usage – it heralds the blanket of smog that chokes us.

Elections are being fought and won on the basis of environmental issues like agrarian distress and disaster preparedness. From air to water to food, we have been consigned into a toxic fate. Even a mother’s milk is no longer safe, and our central nervous system now contains human-made toxins. Everybody is suffering from one environmental threat or the other.

In such a context, there is a visible increase in environmental reporting in Indian media. There is now a cadre of environment reporters, and most newspapers and magazines have a dedicated journalist to examine the latest environmental issues. So, acknowledging the issue and thus factoring it in into editorial strategy is now taking place. But giving more space to environmental stories doesn’t necessarily mean good environmental journalism. From here starts the next big challenge: that of myopic editorial leadership in the Indian media, and of inadequately skilled environment reporters. Let’s look at how overwhelming it has been to report on the environment in India.

In May-June 2018, India witnessed an unusual season of storms. In May, less than a week after an intense dust storm killed at least 124 people and injured more than 300 others in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab over just two days, another stormy phase set in. By the end of June, the country reported thunderstorm, squalls, dust storms and heavy rain in 19 states and two union territories, covering more than 58 % of the country’s total area. In each of the states witnessing storms or extreme weather events, the media reported them as small developments. Usually, each storm was reported as local news in hardly few centimetres worth of news space. And the editorial leadership didn’t bother to put together all this month-long reportage to sense some unusual trend. As a result the designated environment reporter was not pressed to look into this development, and we entirely lost the plot.

Had they bothered to look underneath the surface, they would have found that the storms ravaging small towns and villages in northern India were due to a development in the northern polar region of the planet, the Arctic. The Arctic is warming, which is changing the global wind pattern. As a result, India was reporting a longer and more intense storm season, like many other countries. A global story of utmost importance played out in our backyard, but went unreported. This climate change story was not picked up by local reporters in charge of environment because they are not adequately trained in detecting such complex linkages. And, the editorial leadership didn’t bother to look at such human tragedy from this perspective.

As the line between the local and the global blurs, environmental reporting needs far more focus and editorial help from leaders. We continue to believe that environmental reporting is all about reacting to something directly or overtly related to the environment. For example, air pollution in Delhi. It is still being reported as a city problem. Whenever the city experiences an episode of intense smog, newspapers, television channels and magazines overwhelms us with reportage. Similarly, when sever floods occur, like they did in Kerala and Bihar, the media reacts with the usual stories of human miseries and the lack of government response.

While these stories of human suffering need to be told, an environment reporter is supposed to explore the “environmental” reasons for such episodes. For that to happen, they must be equipped with the right journalistic skills; to even ask a fundamental question like “why does Bihar flood every year”, an in-depth probe into the state’s history of flood is required.  

Of late, building the skills and perception of an environment reporters has been taken over by non-governmental organisations. Such groups spend significant time and resources to conduct customised media briefing workshops, and open modules for purely journalistic skills like data-centric reporting. Environment reporters usually take up such opportunities. But, isn’t this the duty of media organisations?

There is hardly any media organisation that conducts skill building exercises for its journalists. Further, editorial meetings are bereft of any discussions and editorial engagement. This makes the editor simply as a manager of content; not the desirable leadership role s/he should play.

Practicing environmental journalism needs certain investment in news gathering. To detect why floods regularly have such an adverse impact in Bihar requires reporters to travel to the state, and examine its failure to prepare; the decades-old embankments need to be tracked to learn why they have failed as a flood-control mechanism. Telling the story from Kathua needs deployment of human resources there and also time. But no news organisations has not invested in this.

Currently journalism is suffering from multiple specialisations. We have many castes of journalists, like environmental journalist, science journalist, and development journalist. While specialising has been a natural choice, making it a narrow beat of reporting has had negative impacts on the coverage. In order for our reportage to have a meaningful impact, not only for the daily consumption of readers, but also to build important archives of information and knowledge, we need to overcome these silos and give each perspective its due importance. As they say, consumer is the king in any trade. And readers are not immune from the environmental hazards. As we live through the anthropocene, where environmental awareness becomes increasingly important, maybe Indian media will finally look at its environment reporter as its most reader-friendly asset.  

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