Once again, election season is upon us. In fact, in India, it never seems to end. And for some political parties, it's perennial.
From now until the results are declared for the Assembly elections in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, and Puducherry on May 2, we can expect little else in media coverage apart from the political circus.
For the news media, the electoral battlefield provides endless possibilities and a chance to increase readership and viewership. Elections are guaranteed to be entertaining with every politician extracting the maximum advantage from media attention. Yet, increasingly, elections have been reduced to a few personalities; the issues that matter to the majority of voters slip into the background.
No doubt, despite the election frenzy, the coronavirus pandemic and the effort to vaccinate a large section of India's population will continue to be a part of the news cycle for some time to come as this crisis shows few signs of abating at present.
Yet, the political tamasha unleashed with the announcement of elections should not let us forget the perennials, the stories that are either told in passing, or only when there is a tragedy of such overwhelming proportions that they cannot be ignored.
Issues like hunger, poverty, unemployment, caste discrimination, inequality, atrocities against women, human rights, and persecution of minorities – the list is long. We remember, and the media addresses these, when there are atrocities, like the disturbing number of incidents involving Dalit girls being killed in Uttar Pradesh, or reports that remind us that almost a third of Indian children continue to be stunted and malnourished.
When a natural disaster occurs, such as in on February 7, we are reminded that global warming and climate change are not academic issues but a living reality for people in fragile ecological zones as interview with Ravi Chopra of the People's Science Institute in Dehradun spells out.
We remember then that these very areas have suffered in the past, that we in the media investigated and reported about those disasters and that the government appointed committees to investigate and recommend policies that kept in mind ecological factors. And that after all that, the developmental plans put in place, such as building hydroelectric projects in this fragile ecosystem, continued as if nothing had happened. Until it did again.
Even if governments have short memories and choose to forget lessons from previous disasters, the job of the media to continue to focus on some of these issues cannot be overemphasised. These issues slip from popular consciousness if our focus shifts, or disappears altogether, making it virtually impossible for the people living in such perennial disaster zones to be heard by those who make policy.
The same argument can be applied to industrial pollution and neglect of safety measures by industries using hazardous materials.
On May 7, 2020, out of the LG Polymer chemical plant at R R Venkatapuram in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. Eleven people died and hundreds were affected by the gas in the villages around the plant. The reason was malfunction in the cooling system in two chemical tanks that had been left unattended.
In the wake of the accident, the media woke up. Stories were written. We were also reminded that this accident was smaller in scale but similar in several ways to what is still called the world's worst industrial disaster: the Bhopal gas tragedy where 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate escaped from a in December 1984. Thousands of people were killed that night and many more in subsequent months and years. The health of those who survived was permanently impaired. And till today these victims of the Bhopal tragedy feel they never got justice.
But the point about remembering Bhopal was that it brought up the issue of location of industries using hazardous chemicals. The people most affected that night in Bhopal were those living in a dense settlement literally outside the gates of Union Carbide. Thirty six years later, those who suffered in Visakhapatnam were those living in close proximity to the LG Polymers plant. What has changed?
This unchanging scenario of industrial location is replicated in the way industries continue to pollute air, water and land despite environmental laws, and the existence of institutions that are tasked to ensure their implementation. This is one of the more distressing facts to emerge from the latest report released by the Centre for Science and Environment, or CSE.
The Central Pollution Control Board set up a Comprehensive Environment Pollution Index, or CEPI, in 2009 with a view to monitor industrial clusters and the pollution levels around them.
Between 2009 and 2018, reports the CSE, rather than an improvement in these levels, there has been a sharp deterioration. Of the 88 industrial clusters that were monitored in this period, air quality had deteriorated in 33, water quality in 45, and land pollution had increased in 17. In other words, despite a system that kept track of whether the industries located in these places were following pollution control norms, the environmental parameters had become worse.
Surely, this is a statement not just about the inefficiency of pollution control boards, or rather their inability to enforce environmental regulation, but also the attitude of those owning industries that continue to pollute and stop only if caught and/or penalised. We also need to investigate how badly the health of people living near these polluted industrial clusters has been affected.
Going back to Uttarakhand, in 2010 the National Green Tribunal Act was passed. This was done expressly so that people affected by developmental projects, such as thermal power plants, or mining, could have a say before these projects were cleared under provisions of the Environment Protection Act 1986.
However, often poor communities do not hear about a project, or that it has been cleared, until the process is almost complete. By the time they can get organised and summon up the resources to file an appeal against such a project before the National Green Tribunal, it is often too late because a time limit has been set.
This by Jay Mazoomdaar in the Indian Express points out how the NGT continues to dismiss appeals on minor technical grounds rather than being sympathetic to the people who turn to it. It had replaced the earlier National Environmental Appellate Authority precisely because an independent and fair system was needed to hear the complaints of project-affected communities that are often also the most marginalised. In this instance too, there is a story still waiting to be told about the groups that turned to the NGT, who they are, and how they see the future.
Environmental journalism is at the cross-section of politics, policies and people. It is challenging precisely for that reason as it asks of journalists an understanding of all this as well as technical aspects. Gone are the days when newspapers had environmental correspondents tasked to investigate and write such stories. Now it is left to dedicated organisations like CSE and its journal, , , a portal specialising in environmental and conservation related stories, or the .
The deterioration in our natural environment, and the continuing and willful pollution of our water, air and land, takes the heaviest toll on the poor, but ultimately affects everyone. Despite this, environmental concerns have hardly ever featured in election talk or on the agenda of political parties. It is highly doubtful that the election season we have entered will see a change in this.
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