And now for something completely different

Earlier today, my friend Rafat sent over snaps of some of our earliest reportage. This is circa 1998, from our first job at now-shuttered A&M, India’s first magazine on advertising and marketing. Am pasting them below and noting – with much pride and approval – the pun in one of these headlines, for a report on a tieup between an ad agency and pr firm. 🙂

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Power. The ignorance it engenders. And some photographs.

Towards its end, “The Post”, Spielberg’s film on the Pentagon Papers, says: “The role of the press is to serve the governed, not the governors.” Which makes one think. Who are these people we are meant to be serving in India?

Take a look at the snaps above. These people — belonging to Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat — were photographed in the last three years. So much of our policy debates play out in their name. And yet, how little we know about them. And how static/outdated even that limited awareness is.

Some of this is about distance. Out of sight equals out of mind. Ergo, the periphery gets far less attention than what surrounds the centres of power.

And some of this is about power. As Brett Walker writes in The Lost Wolves Of Japan, “Power engenders a peculiar kind of ignorance: dominant humans almost never take the time to really get to know the peoples, plants, and animals they subordinate”. A curious drive to diminish is at work here. As Walker writes, we rejected the notion that flora/fauna might have their own emotional lives — reducing them to just gene-directed automatons. They come to be seen, not as discrete individuals, but as a broadly similar category. Which is something that Barry Lopez writes about in Arctic Dreams. About how the Inuits knew the personalities of every caribou, seal and what have you around them. Killing any of these, for them, was a far more considered process than it is for any big game hunter.

With biodiversity, some of this is due to a resetting of power dynamics between us and other species; some of this is due to how our thinking changed (more focused on what can be measured, for one, keeping the scientific method in mind) after the enlightenment; And partly, as in the case of Japan’s wolves, is about economic imperatives trumping old cultural systems.

As Walker writes, such diminishing, for want of a better word, extends to humans as well. We see it every time a demagogue wants to stoke up bigotry. The process starts by reducing their targets to broad categories — reducing flesh and blood individuals to identity markers (like Jewishness or Islam or the colour of their skin or caste) they cannot transcend. We also see it in governance. An instance: Back in 2011, when the Planning Commission wanted to delink minimum wages and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, activists organised a workshop in Delhi where they called Montek Singh Ahluwalia for a discussion. The audience? Mostly NREGA workers. Faced with the task of explaining to the workers why they should get less than the minimum wage, each of the visibly discomfited bureaucrats said their piece in English — and then left instead of staying for the discussions.

So much easier to clinically discuss workers/poor as an abstract category defined through a couple of traits than see them as real, living people.

There are questions here for us reporters as well. This stuff about our immediate context determining our priorities raises questions about us knowing whom to serve. A related question takes us further beyond. How does one serve? Report without knowing much about these people, or the latest forces acting on them, and the risk of us mischaracterising the problem/fighting the wrong battle cannot be ruled out. Take one instance, is today’s agrarian crisis in India is the same as the agrarian crisis we faced ten years ago? Or are there subtle (or large) differences?

Journalism is a knowledge producing trade. It needs method — if we are to capture a representative slice of whichever emergent process we report on. Ignore such questions. And we will end up with journalism with unchanging — and increasingly irrelevant — analyses which cannot do good.

Which is why India needs far more local reporting. For deracinated hacks like me, one answer, I guess, is to keep doing periodic deep dives into the field to update our understanding re the issues we write on. Essential given the rapidity with which societies change.

Another, I think, is to maintain a certain watchfulness towards how our brain arrives at its conclusions. To be aware of the cognitive traps we carry with us. And to work correctives for those into our reporting/writing process. To get time/freedom to report. And to read more — especially about the unknowns.

PS: I am blogging more than before. I used to when this blog was hosted at http://www.fracturedearth.org. And then, I got busy and the blog just became a place where I aggregated links to my reportage. Trying to change that now.

And now for something completely different

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No ‘End Of The Year’ cycle ride (see this and this and this) this year. One of my two co-conspirators was scrambling to finish his long overdue book — writing, not reading, it. The other was busy prepping for a marathon. And so, January 2018 saw the ‘End Of The Year’ trek. Eleven days of walking in Arunachal Pradesh’s Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary.

How was it? Life shrank to the basics. The quest to stay warm. Finding quiet patches of forest and sitting there with little more than the spotting scope. A few minutes of sitting still and the forest would come to life. And then, up went the scope as I gaped at the birds in one of the most biodiverse places in India. Back to the campsite by two or so. A quick lunch. And then sitting down to read The Lost Wolves Of Japan, write in my journal, or a smaller walk followed by sitting down to watch the sun go down. By seven, it would be getting seriously cold. And so, dinner. Nip into the tent and read some more. And asleep by eight or so.

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These days were therapeutic. Over the past months and years, the brain has felt increasingly like a slab of meat getting electric jolts of stimuli with rising rapidity — emails, social media notifications, messages, the news cycle itself. The fallouts have included a collapsed attention span. A deepening addiction to the dopamine hits of social media. Increased stress levels thanks to a surfeit of uncivil conversations on social media and elsewhere.

The costs of all this run high. My friends find me more irritable, more graceless than before. At a time the work needs to be more rigorous than ever, I find myself saddled with an attention span butterflies would spit at. And so, with the end of ‘Ear To The Ground‘, my reporting project for Scroll, I have been trying to disentangle myself from some of this. The twitter account has been deleted. After reading books like Irresistible and The Shallows, I am trying out new restrictions on distraction/interruption technologies like cellphones and the internet.

The initial results — before I headed for Eaglenest — were promising. With twitter out of the way, the brain found itself reading more. Two standout books read during this period included Superorganism on how insect societies evolved and function, and Island Story where author JD Taylor cycles around the UK to give us an excellent introduction to pre-Brexit Britain. Two other books — Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch and Steve Wick’s account of William Shirer’s years reporting on the Nazis from Berlin — raise the important question on what it takes to truly belong to the time one lives in. Other notable books were Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story Of A Brief Marriage, a hagiographic — but instructive — account of Manga artist Osamu Tezuka, and more.

The hike helped consolidate some of those early gains. Partly because these days were marked by the complete absence of any connectivity. No phone signals. And no power source to charge the phone anyway. This ebbing of stimuli and the resulting silence brought in some calm. The forest too imposed a mindfulness towards the ongoing moment. And so, the brain gradually began getting used to a new normal — of doing a few things in a day, each for extended amounts of time. The challenge now is to hold onto these gains — instead of lapsing back to the old normal. In that context, a friend has suggested this book called Deep Work that I have just ordered.

In other ways too, the hike was useful. It is important for us green hacks to be reminded of why we do what we do. At one level, Eaglenest is one of the more primeval forests I have seen. Ancient trees that soar up high and all that. And yet, it was impossible to escape mankind’s stains on this place. My guides and I saw signs of hunting. In the snap below, that building is our campsite at Sisni, and the reddish stuff in the foreground is the coagulating blood of some unknown animal. This is what we saw shortly after reaching Sisni.

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In the park’s southern reaches, logging by Bodo groups is said to be underway. Walking through the park, one encountered plastic. Gutkha packets. Abandoned cement sacks fraying into thin plastic strips. Beedi packets. Plastic bottles. Broken glass bottles. An abandoned floor mat. Wafer packets. One could go on. Things came to a head on the day we saw elephant droppings which contained a piece of tarpaulin.

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These are familiar processes. Take habitat destruction. Assam seems to be getting a lot of its timber from the forests of Arunachal (Which is what we saw during last year’s cycle ride to Namdapha as well). A lot of Arunachal’s political economy pivots around road construction. These roads, built in a manner which results in frequent landslides (see below, road between Kalaktang and Tenzingaon), seem to create livelihoods more through road construction than economic activity engendered by these roads. The outcome is a constant building/expansion/relaying of these roads with accompanying environmental impacts — the damage to hill slopes; an influx of underpaid road crews who cut trees for firewood/to clear plots for farming; etc. ; the damage to hill slopes. And then, there are the local communities. Leading economically marginal lives, they too fall back on the forest for firewood — to use or sell.

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The Lost Wolves Of Japan touched on this desire for economic improvement. Japan used to worship wolves. And then, after the Meiji restoration kicked off a modernisation project in the country, it began seeing wolves as a threat to Japan’s ranching businesses. And hunted/poisoned the species into extinction. Economy trumps culture. Not to mention old systems of restraint/respect towards other species. Across India too, economic marginalisation — due to inquities in wealth distribution — seems to be taking similar tolls on human-biodiversity relationships.

Eaglenest has fared better than most parks. It draws birdwatchers from around the world — and uses them to run highend tourist camps with some of the proceeds going back to local communities. But even so, for all manner of complex reasons, buy-in from one community (Buguns) seemed to be higher than the other (Rupens).

All this triggered large questions. Was tourism growing? Was it helping everyone in the communities or were the gains flowing to a few? If tourism was rising, was hunting coming down? Or had it already made enough inroads to reduce the numbers of megafauna? At the same time, do we make a mistake by focusing on hunting? Isn’t habitat destruction the biggest threat to the park?

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In all this, the forest department’s response was ineffectual. Understaffing is high. Budgets are low. There is a certain wariness towards tangling with the Rupens, whose members were said to be hunting/picnicking in the sanctuary — which looked like male-bonding/insistence on persisting with old tribal cultures to me. All this seemed to have bred a passivity where the forest staff I met had stopped challenging even the processes they could — like ensuring construction crews brought back all the cement sacks they took into the forest, safe plastic disposal by the camp operators, and so on.

Walk through the park and one saw forest department boards talking about the campsites. Each of them described the location and then spelt out the department’s conservation infrastructure sited there — “An anti-poaching camp of the forest department is located here,” as the board below says. The catch? None of that exists on the ground. It is all governance on paper. There is a larger observation on the Indian state here. In 1992, the Supreme Court banned all logging in the North East. But in the absence of a functioning state administration, that writ too exists only on paper. At the most, formal players cannot log. The informal sector (not to say non-state actors) chop away with impunity. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

All this adds up to heartbreak. Those elephant droppings with tarp. A leopard cat cub we saw which had been separated from its mother. I do not know if it is still alive given how young it is, how cold Eaglenest is at this time of the year, and those hunting expeditions. One evening, a bull elephant carefully walked around our campsite through the undergrowth instead of coming up onto the path. Watching it walk into the gathering dusk, it was hard not to feel anxious for its future.

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And yet, there is everything to fight for. Last year, I went walking in the Alps. One thing that stood out about that trek — apart from my bone-tired fatigue — was how empty those forests were. Eaglenest, despite the pressures acting on it, still has staggering biodiversity. One day, in two hours, walking just 8 kilometres along the road, I — massively clueless about bird species — saw no less than 20 different species. Eaglenest is said to have no less than 500 species of birds alone.

All of which is what we saw, in March 2015, at Mizoram’s Dampa Tiger Reserve. Huge biodiversity, yes. But with deep poverty and militant groups posing threatening the forest in their own distinctive ways. And, again, an ineffectual state — thanks to a combination of cash-strappedness as well as governmental indifference.

There is complexity here. As I finish this post, I am wondering about all the other layers/nuances I have missed. I need to think about all this a great deal more. Probably head back to Arunachal on rejoining work. And try to see where the solutions lie — Local communities? Getting government institutions to work better? Or, as a friend says, creating employment for people to reduce pressure on the forests — which also calls for a recasting of the elite capture that characterises states like Arunachal.