The last column (“How The Hindu covered the 1984 Bhopal calamity”), published on June 21, 2010, has been well received. Referring to an observation made on the Three Mile Island accident and its aftermath in The Hindu's leader on Bhopal published on December 5, 1984, a reader has made some comments. The relevant paragraph reads: “This led to a re-examination of the design, operations, and safety features in nuclear stations across the world and, as a result, the dangers associated with nuclear power plants have been drastically reduced.”
The reader, Dr. Siva Kandasami (Coimbatore), an independent structural consultant who has worked in the nuclear industry, makes a case for “enhanced clarity in perception”: “Despite the best of efforts and technological advances, the grave threat of accident in a nuclear plant is real and the consequences are undisputedly lethal. As a fall out of the Three Mile Island accident, better safety mechanisms have been designed and in fact only the probability of occurrence has been drastically reduced and the dangers remain. To bring some realism [into the discussion], the recent accident (in July 2007) at the sensitive Sellafield thorium reprocessing facility in the U.K., which shockingly took eight months to comprehend, indicates the increasing complexity in modern plant operations.”
The reader's concern over the continuing threat from nuclear installations is understandable. But the leader writer's focus in December 1984 would have been on a proper inquiry into the functioning or malfunctioning of the safety mechanisms in the Bhopal plant. Hence the comparison with the Three Mile Island accident in which there was no loss of life or injury to anybody. The characterisation of the Bhopal tragedy as “the worst environmental disaster in history” and the reference to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant and the Sellafield Ltd. (formerly known as Windscale), a thorium reprocessing facility in U.K., take the discussion further — to the growing environmental awareness among people besides the real, continuing risks in operating nuclear reactors despite improvements in their design and safety aspects.
On April 26, 1986, less than two years after Bhopal, a major accident in a nuclear plant at Chernobyl in the Ukraine region of the Soviet Union sent shock waves across the world. It caused the dislocation and resettlement of over 3,36,000 people, although the official count of the dead was only 52. The disaster proved to be a teacher by negative example. It raised public awareness of industrial, and especially nuclear power industry, safety across the world and led to tangible improvements on the ground.
Chipko and Silent Valley
Although conservation, environmentalism, and ecology have all been familiar to India since the early 20th century, mass awareness of the specific issues is only of recent origin. An effective environmental movement began to take root in India only in the 1970s. The Declaration of the Conference of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 helped create a lot of interest in environmental studies in India. In fact, two strong movements emerged, one in the Himalayan region in the north, the other in the Western Ghats region of the far South in the mid-1970s. The Chipko Movement of the North predates, by a few years, the “Save Silent Valley movement” in Kerala and Southern India.
The Chipko Movement comprised a group of villagers in the Uttarakhand region of India who were opposed to commercial logging. The first direct action was spontaneous. It was staged in 1973 by the people of Mandal village in the forest area of the Upper Alaknanda Valley against the Uttar Pradesh government's decision to allot a plot of forest land to a sports goods company. The people were naturally angry considering that the authorities had refused them permission to use the wood in the forest to make simple agricultural tools.
Thanks to the encouragement of a non-governmental organisation, Dasoli Gram Swarajya Sangh, a group of women led by an activist entered the forest and encircled the trees, preventing the men from cutting them down. Poor women hugging trees with a view to preventing forest guards from felling the trees has become an iconic image for the environmental movement in India — at its best. Leading the struggle for justice was an array of iconic figures like Sunderlal Bahuguna and the writer Mahaswetha Devi. From resisting the felling of trees to mobilising people against large-scale displacement through the construction of big dams, the movement spread its wings, bringing in tens of thousands of men and women. The leaders' commitment to the Gandhian strategy of non-violent protest has proved to be an important moral advantage.
Role of the media
Another tangible advantage for the champions of the Chipko movement was sustained support from the news media. The communication and people skills of the movement's leaders, many of whom had an academic and scientific background combined with activism, certainly helped. In the 1970s, several universities conducted workshops for journalists on conservation, the environment, and related issues. These developments enabled journalists to reach out to the people with competent, and often expert, inputs from environmentalists. Today, almost all newspapers publish articles on environment-related issues on a fairly regular basis, although there is much scope for qualitative improvement. The Hinduhas been publishing an annual Survey of the Environment for nearly two decades now.
Kerala Minister for Forests Binoy Viswam, for one, has appreciated the contribution of the media in creating popular awareness of the need to protect and improve the environment. In an interview published in the online edition of The Hinduon the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Silent Valley Movement in December 2009, Mr. Viswam rightly called attention to the fact that one of the most important positive changes in social attitudes during the half century following the formation of Kerala was the growth in environmental consciousness. He attributed this growth to the message of the Stockholm Convention of 1972 and to the ‘Save the Silent Valley' movement in his State. The movement was a turning point in that it demanded and brought the attention of society to matters not discussed or attended to previously. ‘Save the Silent Valley' was launched against a hydroelectric project cleared by the Planning Commission in 1973 and taken up for implementation three years later by the State Government. Had the project been implemented, it would have submerged a beautiful rainforest on the Western Ghats, adversely affecting the flora and fauna in the Valley, besides ruining its ecosystem. Thanks to a seven-year-long non-violent struggle, a progressive response from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the Centre's eventual denial of permission to the project (based on the recommendation of an expert committee headed by an eminent scientist, M.G.K. Menon), the project was abandoned in 1984.
There is little doubt that there has been a significant rise in the number of Indians aware of, and concerned over, environmental issues. This number will increase further and attain critical mass when more working people start realising that pressures on, and threats to, their lives and livelihoods are very real when imbalances are created in the system. Apprehension of the adverse impact of global warming and climate change on agriculture and water availability has brought in a new dimension. This is where the Indian news media, which have not done a bad job so far of covering climate change issues, need to raise both the qualitative and quantitative levels of their efforts — with help from scientists and other experts.