Video magazine ignore environmental issues

  • 14/10/1992

SCIENCE and environment are a real no-no for India's leading video newsmagazines, Newstrack and Eyewitness, which have a substantial following among this country's educated, English- speaking middle-class. Operating on the belief that such subjects, however newsy, are a turn-off for the viewer, neither newsmagazine has picked up even as enduring and contentious an issue as the Narmada Valley controversy, in the whole period that it has been in the news. Environment figures only when there is a drought (Eyewitness, August 1992) or some other form of human tragedy (The Radioactive Sands of Kollam, Newstrack, July 1992).

But in its last two editions, Newstrack dealt with the environment by focussing on personalities connected with the subject -- namely the minister for environment and forests, Kamal Nath, in August and social activist Medha Patkar in September. The Kamal Nath story had a pugnacious angle because it sought to establish that despite his Rio splash, the minister's record was largely one of non-performance. Unfortunately, it was Delhi- based to the point of ludicrousness. There are surely more earthshaking environmental issues in this country than the survival of some saplings planted in the capital, or its pollution. For a newsmagazine that does not hesitate to send a correspondent abroad when necessary, carrying out such a geographically limiting investigation on a very broad subject was farcical.

Newstrack investigator Manoj Raghuvanshi also seemed to think it was the minister and his ministry's responsibility to reverse consumer trends such as the use of tetrapack or plastics.

In September, Newstrack used a story on the Narmada issue but centred it on Medha Patkar. It was, apparently, meant to be pegged to the publication of the Morse Report, but was held back by the newsmagazine. The profile is interesting but seems to skim the surface. Patkar talks about herself and her single-minded involvement with the dam issue, but no associate or villager offers insight into her personality, or into where she derives moral authority over hundreds of villagers. Within the limitations of a 10-minute coverage the reporter, Minnie Vaid, does her best to encapsulate the major arguments for and against the dam, and talks to Patkar's bete noire, 85-year-old Babubhai Patel, Gujarat's minister for Narmada. It would have been ideal to carry two companion stories, one on the controversy and the other profiling Patkar. The story ends on a cynical note suggesting both Patkar and the government are doggedly pursuing their separate goals with the common people caught in-between.

The only interesting programme on Doordarshan in recent weeks in the realm of environment was a documentary entitled, The Irulas -- Hunter-gatherers in the Space Age. Directed by Rom Whitaker, scripted by Zai Whitaker with camerawork by John Riber, it was a brisk narrative with some amazing sequences of snake-catching and releasing. A member of the snake-catcher's cooperative, for instance, nonchalantly releases a whole bagful of snakes at one point, and watches them slither away.

The activities of the cooperative are fascinating: it carries out venom extraction and biological rodent control and releases snakes back into the wild after extraction. The extraction is done in public view and people are charged 50 paise per head to watch, takings used by the cooperative to meet its overhead expenses. The impression that lingers in the mind is the matter-of-fact relationship the Irulas have with the snakes they live off. A man catches a cobra, ties it up in a sack, and with it boards a state transport bus to the venom collection centre.

The film, obviously made for foreign audiences, jars a little as it trots out alarming statistics on the number of Indians that die of snake bite every year, and the million dollars worth of foodgrain lost to snakes annually. The film has been made by Eco Media, in collaboration with Conservation India and the Oxfam India Trust.