Meet Bahar Dutt
Photo: Bahar Dutt.
A conservation biologist, her thesis was on Amazonian primates at the world-famous Jersey Zoo. She is currently CNN-IBN’s Environment Editor and her work resulted in the channel winning the Sanctuary-RBS Wind Under the Wings Award 2008. A recipient of over six national and international awards, she speaks here to Bittu Sahgal about her life, her on-going mission and the role of the media in highlighting the consequences of India’s fast-eroding ecological security.
Was wildlife a childhood love, or a later involvement?
I grew up in Delhi and, New York for a bit when my father was posted there with Air India. Though I cannot boast of weekend getaways and jungle treks, books were my way of reaching out to nature. I grew up reading Gerald Durrel and promised myself that someday I would visit his zoo! When I went to the U.K. to do my Masters in Conservation Biology that dream actually did come true!
And how did a young female biologist turn into an investigative journalist?
For that I have my mother, Prabha Dutt, to thank. She was one of the first women journalists in India when gender equality was a wishful dream. When she wanted to cover war, she was asked to write on flower shows! I am comparatively blessed. My parents never once pressurised me to take up a mainstream, well-paid career and I was able to work with a number of NGOs before honing in on what I do now. The callousness of powerful people triggered me into fighting for both wildlife and the innocent communities they victimised.
Television and wildlife conservation! As a woman you could hardly have chosen tougher options.
Actually, women journalists have it pretty easy today. It’s people like my mother who were the pioneers. On the conservation front being a woman can sometimes be challenging. I often had to go off alone to distant villages to observe how snakes were traditionally trapped and since only men did this work, it took ages for them to accept me. Today, I am a part of their lives and am invited to many meetings that their women still do not attend!
The snake charmers really took over your life for a while, right?
They did! I worked closely on the livelihood issues of snake charmers across Haryana and Rajasthan. They helped me focus on reality and led me to ditch romantic notions of ‘communities living in blissful harmony with nature’. It made me realise that wildlife conservation involves working with people and engaging them rather than just dismissing them as ‘impediments’ to conservation. I also learned that wildlife conservation cannot work in a vacuum. Seven years with them grounded me in ways I cannot even begin to describe.
Did being a woman leave you particularly vulnerable at any point?
As a journalist I was better protected than as a conservationist. The camera is a sort of protective shield that is denied to those working on hard conservation issues, often against very powerful and ruthless people. I have the luxury of moving away from a problem and people tend not to mess with the media. Having said that, many of the stories I have covered have involved illegal factories on forest lands and projects cleared without proper environment permissions. I was personally threatened during my filming of a mine in Goa (Sanctuary Vol. XXVIII No. 5, October 2008), which was operating on forest land. Goons had surrounded us and a car tried to run us over. They wanted my tapes, but they never got them. Another time I questioned Mulayam Singh Yadav on the issue of construction of an airport in a Sarus Crane habitat and his people later tried to stop us from filming the cranes and even roughed up my camera person. Man or woman, it’s part of the game.
Many! My mother for sure. She taught my sister and me to take life head on and, with my father, taught me the value of personal space without which it would be difficult to achieve anything significant. Nigel Leader Williams, at the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent, who helped build my conservation foundations and taught me to prioritise hard science over idealogies and emotions.
When you shut your eyes, which wildlife moments come rushing in?
Gosh! A lot. The antics of Angolan colobus monkeys on the coast of Kenya, where I had worked with people who built bridges and ropeways across a highway so that the primates could cross safely. A mesmerising moment in the Tsavo National Park at sunset when a herd of elephants came to drink. Watching a cobra swimming in the Sundarbans… One exquisite moment runs into the other.
Photo: Bahar Dutt.
You work with cameras, but must have been influenced by books? Do you find time to read?
I read. A lot. Wildlife Wars, Richard Leakey’s biography, was one book I can’t get out of my mind. It underscores the huge dilemmas that a policy maker must confront. Democratizing Nature by Vasant Saberwal and Ashwini Chhatre, heavy for young readers, has sharp insights on the politics of conservation and development. No amount of television can stop books from influencing people, in my view.
But clearly television is unquestionably a more immediate, perhaps even more powerful tool.
Yes, television is bigger than life, but it needs to go beyond pretty pictures and escapist wildlife footage. It must peel away the layers to reveal the underbelly of conservation to be truly effective and make a difference. I focus on hard issues such as the turf wars between developers and conservationists, or the reality of tigers vs. tribals, in preference to the predictable point-counterpoint interviews that tend to typecast vital issues in a simplistic and myopic manner. Journalists on the environment beat need to be just as robust and credible as those who report on politics, health and development.
And you believe that the reports that emerge can make a real difference?
Absolutely. My story on the illegal mining in Goa saw the State Government and the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) order the mine to be shut. A shopping mall on the riverbed of the Yamuna was ordered closed by the Delhi High Court, post a report we aired. Several stories I have worked on have been the basis of public interest litigations by activists and conservation groups. Solid television journalism can work.
But it can’t be easy? How do you deal with anger, depression and frustration? And is hope part of your scheme of things?
Anger spurs me on, frustration is best kept at bay by perseverance, without which no battle can be won and as for depression, I have no time for it at all!
How can one not have hope when you see the new breed of conservationists who are out there engaging with people, politicians, policy makers and doing whatever it takes to save species and habitats? These new conservationists stay away from the trap of ideological debates (tigers vs. tribals). Hope also wells up when I see the tolerance of communities who live close to wild animals, yet refuse to contemplate war against them. Farmers in the Rann of Kutchh, for instance, who stay up the whole night protecting their crops from wild asses but never once think of killing them.
How did you manage to find such a perfect niche in CNN-IBN?
When the channel was being set up in 2005, I met Rajdeep Sardesai and said I wanted to cover environment issues in a different, tough way rather than turn it into a soft, feel-good beat. I spoke to him about politicians, land mafias, corporate environmental crime, of how the stripping of India’s forests was an attack on the most vulnerable communities. He gave me all I wanted and more. I only report on wildlife and environment issues, I select my own stories and projects and the channel has not killed any of my stories to date and has, in fact, aired them on prime time. I feel blessed. I have now dived under the sea in Lakshwadeep, walked through forests in Arunachal threatened by dams and followed endangered primates such as Phayres leaf monkeys and hoolock gibbons. All this with one of the finest production teams in India.
Thanks Bahar for being who you are. You give people like me reason to have hope for tomorrow. I am sure many young journalists must want to emulate your example.
Freshers wanting to work on environmental issues are a source of great satisfaction for me personally. I get loads of calls, emails and requests from young persons. I have an intern on my team right now who even moved from Mumbai to Delhi so she could learn how to cover environment stories. Juhi Chaudhary, one of our reporters, actually worked with Sanctuary’s Kids for Tigers and gravitated towards investigative journalism. These kids have a passion for these issues. The electricity is palpable when one of their stories is about to go on air. It’s not just infectious, it’s positively inspirational!
First appeared in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXIX No. 1, February 2009.