Don's Diary

January 23, 1998


Odd. I thought I was flying to Bombay but my ticket says "Mumbai". Appearance and reality are very different in India. The only people to call Bombay "Mumbai" are foreigners.

However, working out the correct name of the city is the least of the traumas confronting the new arrival. Consider the shock of driving past millions of people who live on the streets and the stench of pollution hanging over the city. There is the lethal combination of wild Bombay traffic and the suicidal tendencies of the city's taxi drivers. Nevertheless, a few hours' sleep later and a stroll in downtown Bombay changes my perspective. Bombay is a friendly city - even the beggars extract rupees from you politely - and on every street corner there are market stalls and goodies. Time for shopping, then the journey to the former hill station of Lonavla, halfway between Bombay and Pune for a three-day symposium on how the media in the developed and less developed worlds cover environmental issues.


Five hundred people are killed on the 200-km road between Bombay and Pune every year. It is difficult reconciling the gentle people one encounters with the psychotic maniacs behind every steering wheel. We climb the cliffs behind Bombay and the view is spectacular. But I could do without the close-ups of crashes that line the road. We are greeted by Graham Chapman of Lancaster University, the prime mover of the seminar and associated research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. He chides us for our Western attitudes to road safety and explains that Hindus have no fear of death since they know that the next life is better.


In Pune I meet Keval Kumar, my Indian collaborator, for the first time. Before now our relationship had been strictly email. Along with Professor Chapman and myself, Dr Kumar has co-authored the book to be launched at the seminar. After a quick tour of Pune, formerly Poona, we admire the surprising amount of press coverage our seminar has attracted. There are articles in, among other papers, the Pune editions of The Times of India and the Indian Express. Keval explains that it is a complete coincidence that all the reports have been written by his former journalism students.


The seminar is hosted in a lakeside retreat overlooking one of India's first hydro-electric projects, built at the turn of the century by Tata, a massive conglomerate which seems to be involved in everything from trucks to hotels. But Tata is a company with a human face; it has its own environmental team looking after the reserve surrounding the hydro-electric project. Along with the ESRC, Tata has sponsored the seminar. I open the discussions by introducing a recent Channel Four documentary that argued that the doom-laden claims of western environmentalists were unjustified. The programme sparks lively debate.


A main theme in the discussions is that the real battle is not between international environmentalists and global conglomerates, but between local environmentalists and local entrepreneurs. The rapid deregulation of the Indian economy means that the old checks and balances have disappeared and there is now no shortage of local entrepreneurs willing and able to take advantage.


Enough theory. Erach Bharuch, head surgeon and chief administrator at a hospital in Pune and eco-campaigner, wants us to visit the environmental frontline. This is a hill resort nestling under an ancient hill fort and bizarrely called the Sahara Holiday Village, for Bombay's growing middle class. It is being built on grazing land bought from illiterate peasants at a fraction of its real value. Construction work is also damaging flora and fauna. At the entrance Bharuch and I take photographs. Immediately, security guards shout at us to stop. Bharuch ignores them and so, reluctantly, do I. Soon more guards come, brandishing large sticks. Unabashed we continue. Next comes a man with a 12-bore shotgun; and still the doctor holds his ground - thankfully my colleagues restrain me from taking more photographs. Then the manager appears. He says the doctor can take as many photos as he likes. With three former prime ministers on the Sahara's board of directors the project's future is assured.


After the excitement of the Sahara Holiday Village, the midnight "ride of death" back to Bombay holds few terrors. Until, that is, "old India hand" Chapman tries to prevent us getting into the taxi. He shouts: "That man tried to kill me. He brought me here and I'll never go in his cab again." But our plane will not wait. Keval has a quiet word with the driver and we are driven back by the only non-suicidal driver on the road. Perhaps Keval cautioned the driver with an insight into his prospects in the next life?

Ivor Gaber

Professor of broadcast journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London and a co-author of Environmentalism and the Mass Media; the North-South Divide, Routledge.

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