Indian TV opens eye to environmental issues

  • 14/04/1993

ENVIRONMENTAL issues are making their mark on Indian television. Doordarshan features the science and environment programme Turning Point each week in a prime-time slot, hitherto reserved for Hindi serials. News programmes such as The World This Week and Parakh also frequently spotlight coverage of environmental conflicts.

A recent edition of Parakh featured a moving story: the vandalism by CPM workers of the Parassinikkadavu snake park in Kannur, Kerala. The attack was to protest the defeat of CPM nominees in an election to a hospital governing body. The president of the charitable society managing the park had won the election. Reading about vandalism was one thing, but seeing a charred king cobra or a langur or porcupine limping brought home more vividly the sheer madness of this unprecedented attack.

Though a month late, the Parakh story brought alive an issue that many may not have noticed in the newspapers. The question the Parakh reporter raised was: To what depths will political hoodlums descend?

The same edition of Parakh also focussed on the plight of 3.25 lakh inhabitants of West Bengal's Burdwan district whose only supply of groundwater is contaminated with arsenic. As a result, they suffer from skin diseases, bronchial ailments and cancer. It is a decade-long problem and all that the state government has done is to install filters on some tubewell taps and identify those yielding contaminated water. The people are aware of the danger, but they continue to use the polluted water because they have no alternative.

. . . but video news prefers hotter stuff

AS HAS been said before in this column, environmental issues just aren't "sexy" enough for video news magazines. But, when the issue involves conflict, they do, as in the case of the March edition of Eyewitness.

The Eyewitness report concerns local community versus national park authorities -- between the Gujjar community near Dehra Dun and the Rajaji National authorities who want to evict them. The story is not new, but it lends itself well to television, shot as it was in the picturesque Himalayan foothills. For regular viewers of Eyewitness, it was also a welcome change from the obsession of video magazines with personalities and politics.

The Gujjars were originally given rights by the British to graze cattle in the forest from which they now face ouster. More than the reporting, the Eyewitness camera captures beautifully the simple dignity of these people, while emphasising that the Gujjars have protected the forest all these years. But the report doesn't substantiate this claim with an explanation of how the Gujjars did this.

The advantage of film over print is that it can dramatise an issue in a way that mere words cannot, though the issue tends to get simplified. To actually see the ramshackle condition of the resettlement colony for the Gujjars, built at Pathri at a cost of Rs 3 crore, is to demonstrate convincingly how endemic corruption is in such projects. And, it raises the question: Must the government invariably build such ghastly alternatives for people used to living in natural forests?

The Eyewitness story proposes the government should hand over the Rajaji National Park to the Gujjars to manage. The viewer cannot help but think that had the government been sufficiently innovative and sensitive to attempt such an experiment, there would not be as many intransigent community-versus-government conflicts in forest areas.

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