An idiot's environment

TV AS a medium pays only passing tribute to the environment. Even the advent of the World Environment Day on June 5 went virtually unheralded. Doordarshan was conned into treating its long-suffering viewers to something called Prakritim Vande, subtitled Transparencies on Nature (sic), a series of paintings by Komala Varadan, with a predictable commentary in English on Indian traditions of revering Nature. As a programme to mark E-Day, it was a non sequitor.

In fact, the BBC's abdication of responsibility in this context contrasted oddly with its all-out effort to fuel war nostalgia on and around June 6. The channel gave live coverage to the ceremonies to mark the Allied landings in Normandy (on D-Day's 50th anniversary). Even otherwise, BBC does not give as much coverage to environment issues as one might expect from a cerebral channel. WTN's Earthfile, which the BBC airs with politically correct regularity, is just a patronising filler.

Meanwhile, Doordarshan has commissioned Miditech, a new TV software production house, to do a series of indepth reports on the state of India's environment. The team has traversed the length and breadth of India for a year, training its cameras on Project Elephant, the Jharia (Bihar) coal mine fires, fluorosis in Ennore (Tamil Nadu), the pollution of the Yamuna, Corbett National Park and the east-coast road in Tamil Nadu. However, the viewer will have to wait for the relaunch of DD's 3rd channel to get the picture.

A larger issue is whether anything in the documentary format will grip the viewer's imagination as much as a primetime serial with a ficitionalised presentation of issues that matter -- like done in the episode of The Flying Doctors telecast just before E-Day. This Australian serial, in which the chief protagonists are doctors of a helicopter hospital service to the outback, seems to be written by somebody with a definite ideological position.

"Alternative lifestyles come to Cooper's Crossing," was how the serial was introduced by the Star TV announcer. The 1-hour episode was a minor masterpiece. It starts with a caravan of what look like gypsies or hippies stopping at a small town Down Under. However, they turn out to be young people headed north to take part in a demonstration to save the rainforests. One of them is a qualified psychologist who has rejected Western psychology in favour of alternative medicine. They pay their way by selling handmade scarves, singing, and giving massages.

A 10-minute short from Malaysia tells a story that is beginning to sound sickeningly familiar now -- of indigenous peoples displaced from their habitat by the building of a large dam. The Bakun dam in Sarawak is one of those concrete monsters which will generate 2,400 MW of power not only for Sarawak but peninsular Malaysia as well.

As a displaced person tells the camera, "The government has cheated us. They promised us free water, free electricity, but we have to pay for it. There is no land to grow rice." Since the cash economy is new to these people, they are now struggling hard to survive. Their fishing and hunting skills have become redundant.

They cannot revert to their original lifestyles because land has become scarce. As an activist points out, when the government is spending billions of dollars on a project, the least that is expected is that sufficient information should be made available to the public for it to decide the merits of the dam. But ministers and bureaucrats have released only bits of information, which could be doctored evidence. The relentless march of modernisation without even a passing glance at the people whom it is supposed to benefit is obviously not an Indian invention. Nor is the obsession with big dams.