India is facing an environmental crisis. But you wouldn’t know from reading papers and watching TV. Here’s why
LET ME begin by stating the obvious: India is not New Delhi. Yet, for the moment, at least for the media, it is. Not so for people in the rest of this vast and diverse country.
So, even as India’s capital heats up with the impending election to the Delhi Assembly, and is already on fire with the determined and seemingly unflappable opposition of the women of Shaheen Bagh to the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, there is much else happening elsewhere in the country.
And by that I don’t mean the fracas over comedian Kunal Kamra’s monologue with Arnab Goswami on an IndiGo flight from Mumbai to Lucknow. The urgency shown by private airlines in prostrating before the civil aviation ministry will be a story long remembered.
The closest I can get to that incident and what I plan to focus on is this tweet.
Yes, reducing your carbon footprint in the light of global warming (not to be confused with the political heat in Delhi) requires some attention from the media. This should not be reduced to reproducing agency copy with statements by the very serious and determined Greta Thunberg, who recently told off the world’s top businessmen at Davos. Or even the mention of the devastating bushfires in Australia that destroyed an estimated 16 million acres in that country.
A combustible political climate should not be an excuse to take our eyes away from the processes that could destroy the very ground on which we stand. And it could happen sooner than we anticipate as is evident from what happened in Australia. Forest fires in that country are an annual event. But successive extremely hot summers have made parts of Australia a virtual tinderbox, and much of it went up in flames this time.
We have lessons to draw from that. Not just how we prevent the same thing happening in India, something that would be much more devastating considering the size of our population, but to pay attention to other changes occurring because of the heating up of the earth’s atmosphere.
We actually have a central ministry that has appended climate change to the environment and forests. But we have still to hear any sensible plan or strategy emerging from it that relates to heeding the warnings. A plan is in the making, we hear, but when it will be ready, and thereafter operationalised, is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, an estimated 600 million people in India are at risk from the effects of global warming. That, one would have thought, was a big enough number to make the media jump to report on it.
There are always exceptions, of course, and usually these happen to be digital platforms. IndiaSpend, for instance, did an excellent series on the impact of climate change. Each of the seven stories in the series was centred on ordinary people who are already paying the price.
Awareness about climate change has also resulted in some “good news” stories. Yet, these too are generally ignored by mainstream media. Forests, for instance, are precious for many reasons, not least that they play an essential role in carbon sequestration, literally absorbing the carbon that would otherwise accumulate in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.
A charming story about how some villages in Bengal’s Purulia district got together and literally grew a forest on a mountain appeared on the website Mongabay. This website has established itself as the go-to place for well-researched environmental stories. The villages took the help of a local NGO and over time reforested a mountain. This has replenished underground water aquifers, provided easier access to biomass for fuel, and restored biodiversity. It’s a story worth reading in these bleak times.
Apart from climate change stories, well-researched environmental stories have virtually disappeared from our mainstream media. There was a time, not so long ago, when many newspapers, and even some TV channels, had environmental correspondents. They were given time and financial backing to investigate and write stories on the environment. And such reports do require time as well as money. They can’t be written sitting at a desk in an office, looking at online reports and academic studies.
In the heyday of environmental reporting, journalists became aware that environmental stories were not merely about forests and rivers; they also meant looking at government policy in terms of the location of hazardous industries. This was brought home in December 1984, when an estimated 3,000 people in Bhopal were killed in just one night after the Union Carbide factory leak. The so-called accidents at industrial plants using hazardous chemicals were a direct outcome of the indifference of their owners and those in government designated to enforce safety standards to the lives of the factory workers.
Despite that, today we see regular reports of industrial accidents, especially at chemical plants, but there are practically no follow-up stories about why these happen with such frequency, or the cost to the workers, most often poor migrants.
Many of these stories do not require the kind of investment in time and money that stories tracking the impact of climate change do. These are routine stories that mainstream media ought to do. Yet, with the nature of news having been redefined to be news that sells the product, clearly the depressing tale of the dangers facing poorly paid workers in industrial estates is a non-story.
Here’s a recent example. On January 11, just two hours outside Mumbai, at an industrial estate managed by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation, there was an explosion in a chemical plant. Eight workers were killed, another seven seriously injured. The story ran for a couple of days; the government closed down the unit, and then all was forgotten.
Only two papers, as far as I could see, did the obvious follow-up stories. The Indian Express sent a reporter to the industrial estate. He found that there were 1,100 units in the complex of which 500 manufactured chemicals. Eighty percent of these were small-scale units with poor safety records. Since 2015, there have been 582 accidents in this very complex and in the last two years alone, 21 people have been killed and 70 injured.
A safety auditor told the reporter: “Memory in the government, industry and public is short. No one cares about the lives of the workers. They go to work at chemical factories everyday to feed themselves but there is no guarantee of what will happen to them at work or whether they will return.”
This remark is heartbreaking, indicative of the callous indifference to human lives, especially when they are poor. To make matters worse, there is an acute shortage of safety inspectors. So, even if the government planned a safety audit in the future, as it has announced it will, there are not enough trained personnel to carry it out.
The follow-up story in the Hindu Business Line was even more worrying as it reported that three workers die and 47 are injured every day in some factory in some part of India. Data provided by the Labour and Employment Ministry reveals that between 2014 and 2016, at least 3,562 workers died and 51,124 were injured in factory accidents in India. Gujarat led in the number of fatalities followed by Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, all three being the most industrialised states.
Politics in India has become so volatile that much of the media feels compelled to keep their eyes peeled on the constantly breaking news. In the process, we are neglecting our duty to cover everything that is happening in India, including the silent processes that will one day lead to natural catastrophes.