Have an idea? Be ready to go Round & Round

02 Jul,2019

 

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Parts of Mumbai are flooded as I write this. People were killed in Pune and Mumbai after walls crumbled under heavy rainfall. As the monsoon hits India, late and furious in some areas and scanty in others, we’re likely to forget the interconnectedness of things.

When I say we, I mean journalists and if we get off the case, governments will be overjoyed that the pressure is off and they can get back to politicking. And then there’s the people. How much do they care?

What I’m talking about is water and water is connected to the drought situation across parts of India and water shortages are connected to the environment and official inefficiency and human callousness. But all these together do not make sexy stories. Lack of water is life-threatening, has long-term consequences and needs both short-term and long-term thinking. But the lack of water is not as exciting as a young Bollywood actress giving up Bollywood for religion. OMG! Islam!!! Now that’s juicy stuff, enough to keep Twitter busy for two days.

Indeed, an overdose of water is far more interesting than the lack of water. Notice the number of photographs and videos you will see of parts of Mumbai today. Jaw-dropping and astounding some of them. But remember if someone chucks a bucket of water in Hindmata, there will be flooding. So also for Milan Subway in Santacruz or any subway which is below sea level and road level. And connected to every extreme weather event is human destruction of the environment.

The last few weeks have seen the media, one must be fair here, put in a massive effort to focus on water, especially the lack of it. Last week’s We The People on NDTV had an excellent show on water, gathering people who know about water and shortages, rather than a bunch of politicians and political supporters who are there to provide entertainment. The anchor Gargi Rawat was well-informed and therefore conducted the discussion with sobriety. Of course, not what the average TV viewer wants when you can have people beating each other up, whether physically or metaphorically or some juicy religious hatred and bigotry on full display. Ah well.

Print and web have also focused on water shortages, and there has been heavy cross-media “borrowing” or so one hears. But the message has been put out there strongly: India’s water shortages have disastrous consequences. Some discussions have only focused on the prime minister’s new concern about water. But, promising piped water to every house without focusing on why water in India is vanishing is just one more grand “jumla” plan. All optics and no substance but don’t expect to see or hear much on that. The big mandate, you see. Can’t question that. The people have spoken.

Regardless, the more we ignore the problem, the worse it is going to get. And yet, how far can the media help?

I have a little personal grudge here. Bear with me. My father, 81, has been trying to find solutions to India’s water crisis. The biggest guzzler is irrigation and amongst all the crops in India, sugarcane is the worst. In 2015, DNA very kindly carried an article which my father, Arijit Banerji, wrote, on the benefits of replacing sugarcane with sugar beet to save water and land.

https://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-in-times-of-drought-sugar-beet-is-economically-more-viable-than-sugarcane-2207821

This was a good lesson on how the official behemoth works and the frustration of being a single person shouting at the world. There was some good response from the general public. Then someone suggested, send the article to mygov.in. The result of that was endless spam from GOI and the PMO. Wonderful. Someone took the suggestion to a government research institute in Lucknow. Yes, yes, they said, we have heard about this, but where’s the money.

Then it was suggested that since my father and the new chief minister of Punjab Amarendra Singh were from the same school, why not send it to him. So now my father gets spam from both the PMO and the chief minister of Punjab.

Then actor Aamir Khan launched his Paani Foundation. Bells rang all around. Maharashtra. Water crisis. Sugarcane farmers in distress. The DNA article and some additional research was sent to them. A very sweet (if a trifle patronising) email came back saying “how interesting”. Dead silence after that but thankfully no spam.

A friend spoke to an international NGO which works on agriculture in India. They came up with the same shibboleth about sugar beet being European and therefore cannot work in India. Which means they never read the article or had closed minds. O dear.

A family friend started growing sugar beet on his farm as an experiment, and is happy with the results. More on that when he’s ready to go public.

Earlier this year, as the fights between sugarcane farmers and sugar mills got intense, and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis mentioned sugar beet, The New Indian Express carried another updated article by my father.

http://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/2019/apr/16/sugar-lobbys-bitter-tactics-hurt-india-1964808.html

A senior government bureaucrat has now shown some interest. In four years, two people have taken a workable solution seriously, beyond spam and lip service.

In the meantime, no water in Chennai (look up the Cauvery water dispute and Tamil Nadu’s agricultural choices). Indus aquifer losing water rapidly. No water across the plains of India. More “development” plans to cut trees, forests, mangroves. It’s all connected.

How far can a media effort go if the people themselves are not interested?

I have no answers.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

 

 

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