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Backstory: Himalayan Glaciers Are Melting but Media Not Interested in Climate Change

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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In his book, The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh observes that literary fiction has failed to capture what, after all, is one of the greatest threats facing humankind: climate change.

“If the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over – and this, I think, is very far from being the case…” Ghosh goes on to argue that this failure will have to be seen as an aspect of the “imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of climate change.”

On the eve of yet another World Environment Day, the question is this: has journalism – which after all is meant to focus on the most urgent, most compelling issues of contemporary social concern – been able to do any better? Has it summoned up the necessary imagination, creativity, science, resources, to tell this story better? If not, should not its apathy also be seen as an aspect of the “imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of climate change”?

Media watchers have taken note of the reasons for the silence. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), for instance, identified what was seen as six key barriers to climate journalism:  One, the slow nature of developments makes it a poor fit with a fast-paced news cycle. Two, readers and viewers are put off (I would say presumed to be put off) by the depressing outlook that leads to feelings of powerlessness. Three, there is lack of money to hire specialist journalists who can explain the science. Four, original coverage is expensive as it often involves travel to far-off places. Five, the story is very complex, full of jargon and with no easy solutions. Six, pressure exerted by owners and advertisers, is not yet aligned with required changes.

Considered together, these reasons stem from failures intrinsic to journalism as it has come to be practised today – which includes a lack of understanding of the subject and incapacity of the editorial eco-system to deal with it – as well as the external neo-liberal economic environment within which media function today, where the laws of the market literally demolish the laws of nature.

This also means that there is no journalistic will to tackle the enormous implications of climate change that involves a complete overhauling of how we live, how our economic and energy systems run, how our food is produced, how our living spaces are designed, how we transport ourselves. The very immensity of the challenge, the many discrete and complex phenomena that constitute it, the seeming invisibility of the change, all contribute to pushing it out of the media frame.

We may be all too aware of the melting of the polar caps but since it does not immediately lead to Mumbai sinking measurably into the sea, why should the media bother? We may know that carbon dioxide levels at present are the highest in human history, but as long as people are not dropping dead on the streets why must the media care? 

The media’s silence does not mean that climate change does not exist, or that the age of the Holocene, with its millennia of stable temperatures is not giving way to the age of the Anthropocene, so named to reflect the enormous human impacts on the earth’s environment in terms of accelerated carbon dioxide emissions, mass deforestation, extinction of innumerable species of flora and fauna and the distinct possibility of global warming exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels before the end of the century.

Journalists driven to write on issues of this kind were and continue to be rarities. Some like Anil Agarwal and Praful Bidwai are no longer with us. Bidwai, in his 2012 book, The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis, written three years before his death, had a chapter which specifically looked at ‘Why Climate Change Matters to India and Why India Matters in Fighting It’. He noted that apart from small island states, India with its 7,500-kilometre long coastline is among Asian countries most vulnerable to the dire consequences of climate change, which include not just water and land crises of all kinds, but deterioration of urban life, pollution in various forms, with the threat to the Himalayan ecosystem being the most portentous. While Bidwai’s scepticism over whether Indian policy-makers will respond wisely to the crisis was apparent, he believed that “their ideas, polices, plans and actions – based on their moral predilections, understanding of climate science, social orientation and political commitments – will significantly influence the fate of the earth”.

The chance of India achieving environmentally sound policies gets considerably enhanced if the Indian media were to take climate change more seriously. This takes us right back to the sixth aspect flagged by RISJ – the tremendous influence that corporate actors exercise on media operations and coverage. It is no coincidence that Big Media have no quarrel with the government clearing projects that extract huge environmental costs because they themselves believe in the markets and run side businesses in industries like mining and construction. The disappearance of large tracts of habitat, the despoliation of coastal regions, the displacement of millions, have over the years been justified, even celebrated, in the media as signs of a rising nation. Such blanket assumptions have tragically foreclosed explorations of saner, less ecologically destructive pathways in this country.

Consider two recent stories carried in The Wire. What is interesting about the first, ‘Reject Clearance for Etalin Dam in Arunachal Pradesh,’ Conservationists Urge Govt Again’ (May 30), concerning a 3,097 MW project that has seen spirited resistance from Arunachalis, especially those living in the lower riparian regions, is the way scientists and environmentalists from across India have come together on it. They have demanded the government withdraw its clearance for the project urgently for several reasons from lack of transparency and seismic activity to the region being “an area of unique biodiversity”. 

The second article has to do with the richest man in the country, Gautam Adani. His wealth today exemplifies the cynical cost-benefit analyses behind current policymaking, with the benefit going to him and the cost being borne by some of the country’s poorest denizens. The dense Hasdeo Arand forests in Chhattisgarh have already witnessed widespread tree felling as part of a gigantic coal mining project being run by Rajasthan Colleries Ltd, which is an Adani Enterprise (‘Hasdeo Arand: Second Phase of Tree-Cutting Begins for Coal Project, Stops After Protests’, May 31).

If the project carries on unhindered, it will mean the ripping out of 1,70,000 hectares of forests. For the moment, thanks to the concerted protests of local tribals, a halt has been called on the second phase of the project. But for how long? Two important studies on Hasdeo Arand have already rung alarm bells but projects like these, given their powerful backers, invariably carry on, as will editorial support for them in the name of India’s “development”. 

The doomsday clock is ticking, but how do we get the Indian media to hear its insistent heartbeat?

Rag pickers look for recyclable materials as greater adjutant storks perch at the Boragaon garbage dumping site, in Guwahati, June 4, 2022, a day ahead of the World Environment Day. Photo: PTI

IPL in the pre-election mix

Anyone who watched the IPL final between Rajasthan Royals and Gujarat Titans last Sunday would immediately be reminded of the old stratagem – give the masses bread and circuses. Roman rulers were among the earliest to discover the power of spectacle to get people eating out of their hands. The IPL final proved to be a strong reminder of those hoary days: a stadium named after Prime Minister Narendra Modi with its Ambani and Adani ends; a newly minted cricket team bearing a name like Gujarat Titans resonant with Gujarati asmita, that was almost pre-predestined to carry off the trophy; a kaleidoscopic light and sound show that sent up shrieks of delight from a crowd that was over one lakh strong, with each spectator (largely male) rushing to capture the razzle-dazzle on their Jio-powered phones with their lit up screens constituted a light and sound show in themselves. 

Basking in the lights were the entire family and friends of Union home minister Amit Shah. He did not get up and deliver an election speech of course, but he really did not have to. The show with its serendipitous conclusion worked brilliantly as an election ballast for the ruling party in the state and one just needed to read the comments to the online videos of the finals to confirm this. Here are a few: “This is called modi magic. He dreams big, achieve big. NaMo, NaMo”; “Narendra Modi redefining and rebuilding India in his own style”; “Goosebumps will be felt when vande Mataram is played in such environments”, “NEVER SEEN CRICKET GROUND FULL OF COLOR LIGHTS PROUD TO BE AN INDIAN”.

The celebrations carried on to the front pages of the next morning’s newspapers. Media watcher Churumuri tweeted: “How Gujarat’s leading newspapers are hailing the debutant winners of #IPL2022, Gujarat Titans, the franchise owned by ‘India’s most gifted businessman’, Gautam Adani” along with an image of the front page of the Gujarati language newspaper that had but a single word (not in Gujarati but English) across eight columns – ‘Champions’.  

Tamil Nadu’s journalists are fighting fit

Remember the way Jayalalithaa lashed out at the journalist community in her state when she was the chief minister? It is a matter of public record that of a total of 213 defamation cases filed from 2011-2016 by her government, 55 were directed against the media.

Today, the BJP in its ambition to capture Tamil Nadu politically has decided to take on its journalists in a no-holds-barred manner. The recent attempt to rile the media by the BJP’s state president, K. Annamalai, was a case in point. When a television journalist asked him an inconvenient question, he came up with the insinuation that the reporter had been put up to the job of posing this question by his “paymasters”, the DMK, which is currently in power in the state (‘Tamil Nadu Journalists Stage Protest Against State BJP Chief Annamalai’s Remarks on Media‘, May 31).

The question may have been inconvenient, but it was certainly not irrelevant – it concerned the erection of banners for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had visited Tamil Nadu on May 27, which was in violation of a Madras high court order. When the reporter persisted with his questioning, Annamalai continued to provoke him.

Such casting of aspersions on a media person doing his job did not travel well within the media fraternity in the state and several media organisations came together to hold a joint protest. They also demanded an apology which, of course, never came. Annamalai, incidentally, in his very first public address after taking charge of the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit last July, had assured his audience that the media in the state will be brought under control, that the BJP will “take them over” within “six months”. That was 11 months ago, and it seems that the Tamil Nadu media is still in no mood to be “taken over”.

K. Annamalai, newly appointed president of BJP Tamil Nadu. Photo: PTI

FIR against The Wire quashed

On May 25, a division bench of the Allahabad high court quashed an FIR lodged by the UP Police against The Wire editor Siddharth Varadarajan, and colleague Ismat Ara, for a report on the death of a young man protesting against the farm laws on January 26, 2021. The two presiding judges, having gone through the facts of the case, had no difficulty in concluding that this portal had only reported the version given to it by the victim’s family:

“Perusal of the publication made by the petitioners indicate that it mentions the fact of incident, thereafter the statement of the family members regarding incident and alleged information given by the doctors, denial of the U.P. Police and the fact as to what happened that day.”

The Wire editor tweeted: “Grateful to Allahabad HC for reiterating importance of press freedom. Many thanks to our lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan and her colleagues. For @thewire_in, that’s one FIR down, four more to go! But there are many cases against media that need quashing–from Kashmir to Kanyakumari!”

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Readers write in…

How Nehru’s death was covered in Pakistan

Srinagar-based Hakeem Wajahat shared this with us: “Pakistan and India were united in grief when Jawaharlal Nehru passed away on May 27 in 1964. Pakistan went into official mourning. Condolences were expressed in Pakistan’s National Assembly and Pakistani flags were flown at half-mast. Pakistan’s foreign minister, at that point – Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto flew down to Delhi immediately along with Indian journalists who were in Pakistan to cover Sheikh Abdullah’s visit there.

“Hafeez Jullundhri, the man who wrote Pakistan’s national anthem, is said to have told Indian reporters, “You people have had a long ride feeling superior to us because you were lucky to have Nehru. Our misfortune was that after the early deaths of Jinnah and Liaquat, all our leaders were useless. Now Nehru is about to go. You will be down to our level, and then we will see.”

“Inder Malhotra recalled in a piece written in a national daily that the PIA air hostess on that flight asked him if she could see what he was filing for the paper. Malhotra had shown her the obit. After reading the part on the Pakistani reaction, she broke down and rushed to the washroom. After a while, she returned and said in a composed manner, ‘I am sure we cannot be enemies forever.’ Malhotra told her that Nehru had said exactly that seven years earlier.”

“Pakistani newspapers in Lahore and Karachi were inundated with the message: ‘India’s Nehru is no more’.”

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Mind your language

Mail from Muralidharan, general secretary of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD): “The piece, ‘By Allowing Gyanvapi Mosque Survey, SC Has Turned a Blind Eye Towards Injustice” (May 17), was a very timely one and one appreciates the flair and ease with which the writer communicates.

“Unfortunately, the headline given to the piece, which I am not sure can be attributed to him, is inappropriate. India is home to around 12 million blind people, roughly one-third of the world’s blind population. Some are born blind, some acquire blindness later in life for a variety of reasons, which I am not going into here. Expressions like “blind alley”, “turning a blind eye”, and so on, have all become part of common parlance. But being born blind or acquiring blindness is nobody’s choice. Let us not insult disability. Let us recognise it as diversity. Let us be more sensitive. Can a portal like The Wire, which needs to set examples, refrain from using such terminology?”

I respond: Thank you for that important reminder. I do hope the newsroom and editing team at The Wire are taking note.

New link, please update 

Daniela Jose sent in this update: “You have linked the piece, ‘The Quest to Understand Why a Tribal Population Is at More Risk for Suicide’ (May 14, 2018), to our post www.suicideinfo.ca/resource/indigenous-suicide-prevention/

“However, we have removed this and other old posts from our primary domain. Now, this post is available at https://gradesfixer.com/blog/suicide-prevention/. It would be great if you replace the old URL with a new one to keep your content relevant.  Thank you.”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in.