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Bahar Dutt, Author of Green Wars – Dispatches from a vanishing world, in an interview with Mark Ulyseas. Published by HarperCollins
“I spent eight years of my life working in villages across Northern India with a community of snake charmers. We travelled to far flung places and developed livelihood options with them. I was so engrossed in my project that I had missed, in those years, the tremendous churning going on in India, as it started opening up its economy. That’s why I decided to turn to environment journalism. And that’s why I wrote this book.
The book Green Wars is a story of my transition from a conservation biologist thrown into the rough and tumble world of television media; trekking high up to the mountains, or diving deep into the sea, or trudging into the jungles to find out why we are losing our most precious wilderness areas.
Today India loses 333 acres of forests EVERYDAY to large development projects like dams, roads and mining. Behind India’s quest for double digit growth is the untold story of destruction of some of her most precious wilderness areas, and that’s the story I thought needed to be told.
Main stream media focuses on issues of wildlife conservation only when a tiger or elephant has been poached, but what’s happening to their habitats? How do politicians in India treat environment issues? Do we ask our politicians why an airport has to be constructed on the habitat of the Sarus crane? Is anyone questioning why mining happens on forest land despite the fact that the Supreme Court has said a firm NO? Or what about the highest office in the country, the Prime Minister’s office? One of the chapters in this book looks at how the Prime Minister rushes to lay the foundation stone for a hydel project when its environment clearance process is not even through! How can we protect our rivers, seas and jungles, in this quest for growth? That’s what this book explores.
The book is focused not just on India; it travels to other parts of the world, from the Arctic to the rainforests of Indonesia. I would like to emphasise this is not a gloom and doom book, I hope to seat the reader at the centre of such impacts and create hope that through our choices and outlook we can create a life that’s gentler on the planet.
The book therefore creates hope that the power to protect lies with us. “ - Bahar Dutt
You have written about Mother Nature’s dominion and the poaching of her denizens and resources by humanity but how can this mindless destruction cease when human population is growing at an alarming rate?
I honestly don’t perceive human populations growing as the problem; the problem is what kind of growth. To give you an example, India, with almost 17 percent of the global population, accounts for less than 5 percent of emissions. And the reason for this is that a large part of India’s population doesn’t have access to energy sources. On the other hand while the United States has less than 5 percent of the world population, it accounted for 19 percent of the global emissions, which was in 2005. Of course all this is changing; as Indians get rich their lifestyles are getting more and more carbon intensive. So the challenge of our times is, how do we move away from an energy intensive economy? How do we the people, consumers of natural resources see our role in protecting the environment? I don’t see a growing human population a problem (it is a problem in terms of access to education, health facilities, etc.) but how it chooses to grow. Green Wars also raises the issue of Whose Development is it anyways? I give examples of the river Ganga where 300 dams are being constructed, but that the electricity and water is used for people sitting far away in cities like Delhi. What is the benefit to people who live close to those resources?
India has built a number of dams across the country. Many more have been planned. What is the impact of these dams on the environment?
Great question. This book in facts looks at the impacts of large dams in two regions, Uttarakhand and the north east part of the country which is slated to be the power house of the country and is incidentally also a biodiversity hotspot. We all know the story about the Narmada Dam. But what about 600 dams that are being built across the Himalayas? Swathes of forest submerged, debris dumped in the river and massive landslides, that’s what is happening in Uttarakhand. . In fact, when we were in Uttarakhand in 2012, I had said in my report that people predict large scale devastation because of the bumper to bumper dams being built here. And in 2013, sadly, we were proven right. Due to the hydel projects, large tracts of forests had been chopped, silt had been dumped in the river and labour colonies built right next to the river bed. What happened in Uttarakhand was nothing less than a ‘Himalayan Tsunami’. Of course there was heavy rainfall, but the Himalayan tragedy was exacerbated due to the impact of the mega projects. One of the chapters in my book deals extensively with what happened in Uttarakhand and why it happened.
How were you involved in the prevention of illegal mining in Goa? And are you aware that recently the Chief Minister of Goa announced that the ban on mining in the Western Ghats would be ‘reviewed if a BJP government comes to power at the Centre’. Please comment.
I can’t say I was involved in the prevention of illegal mining in Goa. But in one of the chapters I have written about the incident where we were physically assaulted by the mining mafia, they tried to snatch our camera. They were operating illegally on forest land. I have done many environment investigations but to be honest that one time I was genuinely scared. I wasn’t sure how we would get out as they had surrounded us and blocked our way. Even when we called the police they supported the mining guys, not us. But I have a lot of faith in institutions. I came back to Delhi and filed a petition before the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court. Based on our visual evidence, that mine had to shut shop eventually! As for the Chief Minister of Goa, yes indeed it is sad how he has done a u-turn. He was the person who exposed how illegal mining was ruining Goa and changed his mind as soon as he came to power. But that’s why I don’t trust politicians; I have more faith on our judiciary.
What has the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, done or not done in the 21st century? Could you share with us some critical environmental issues that need the government’s urgent attention?
The MOEF is an extremely important institution provided it is allowed to do its job. We have the best environment laws in the world and many robust systems in place. I just hope with the new government the MOEF will be allowed to function according to their mandate. I think the most critical issue that needs attention is the state of our rivers. Look at what we are doing to our national river, the Ganga? Imagine the plight of our other rivers.
Could you list some of the critically endangered species in India and what in your opinion needs to be done to protect them?
If you will notice my book focuses on many of the lesser known species and moves away from the obsession with charismatic mega fauna. I have focussed on species like Hoolock gibbons and the Hog deer. I would like more scientific research and protection for the lesser known species. We also need to mainstream or generate interests in tiny creatures like frogs and insects. I think we will also need a policy on how to protect species that live outside protected areas. Too much conservation work is focussed on species inside sanctuaries, but what about those that live outside?
The continuing man-animal conflict keeps appearing in the national news on a daily basis. Tigers, leopards and elephants are often at the receiving end because humans encroach upon their habitat. What is the solution?
I think scientists have provided solutions. I think there is now evidence that translocating or shifting the problem elsewhere will not help. For instance in Karnataka, the plan is to translocate 25 elephants out from one district where conflict has increased. Yet in neighbouring Tamil Nadu one NGO, Nature Conservation Foundation has found ways to minimise or reduce this conflict and teach people to live with the elephants through innovative interventions like a mobile alert that sends out an SMS to where the elephant herds are on that day. So solutions are there, but they require us to accept that wild animals do live in our backyards. I don’t think translocation can work always. It should be our last option
What are you working on now?
I have spent 8 years working on conservation and another 8 years in environment journalism. I am taking a break, spending time reading up more on my subject, travelling round the country promoting my book and looking at ways to get back to more hands on work in conservation… As that is where my heart lies… In conservation first…Journalism or writing later. Let’s see where the future takes me. I also want to focus more on solutions. I have spent too many years talking about the problems, I want to now write and highlight people who are working on solutions to environment problems.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and environment journalist. As a Biologist she ran an animal ambulance for injured primates, helped set up a rescue centre for them, and built rope bridges for the Colobus monkey in East Africa, and spent a decade with snake charmers across India on a community conservation project on a sustainable livelihoods project.
As a television journalist, she has reported on some of the biggest environment stories of our times . Her repertoire of reporting ranges from the Arctic, to the rainforests of Indonesia. Her celebrated TV series- Saving the Ganga’ for the news channel CNN-IBN ran in six regional languages including History Tv 18 India and was one of the highest rated TV shows. For this series she undertook a 2400 km journey as she followed the river Ganga from its source the Gaumukh Glacier across five states to the Bay of Bengal where it empties into the sea. In the second series she spent six months trailing the Western Ghats from north to south, meeting the people that inhabit one of the worlds ‘hottest hotspots’ and filming the unique biodiversity of this landscape for a programme entitled ‘Saving India’s Western Ghats’ .
Her environment investigations led to the shutdown of an illegal shopping mall on the river bed of the Yamuna, an illegal mine in Goa that was operating on forest land and helped halt the destruction of the wetlands that were home to the Sarus cranes in Uttar Pradesh. Winner of the Green Oscar, in 2006 her reportage has helped push environment stories from an obtuse segment on television to prime time news space. Broadcaster, environment editor, writer and closet baker, she now lives a more ordinary life in New Delhi with her dog Musibat ( Trouble) and her husband Vijay Bedi.
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