Speaking science from the Kannada stage

A space of his own...Nagesh Hegde started the Bhoomi publications to give voice to writings on ecology and environmentPhotos: (cover and centre spread) Murali Kumar K. and Nagesh Hegde’s album  

Before one embarks on the daunting task of saying who Nagesh Hegde is and his importance in the Kannada world and society at large, it is perhaps of more use to say what he means to me, and there will be hundreds in total agreement with me. Nagesh Hegde is an embodiment of Kannada -- as one would understand the land, its language, and culture. Every concern of his invariably passes through the Kannada soil before it acquires universal proportions. This man of science -- who speaks emphatically on ecology, environment, food, farmer, education and a whole lot of other things -- comes from the same space as Kuvempu, Shivaram Karanth and Subbannna for whom Kannada was the epicentre of all their beliefs. So you will find Nagesh Hegde in remote corners of the State working with local groups, or writing for small time local journals and magazines as passionately as he would for prestigious publications.

With over 40 books on science in Kannada to his credit, Nagesh Hegde tries hard to take the conversation away from him, and make it issue centric. However, those who know the self effacing man, also know his enormous commitment, and his impassioned self. The manner in which he quietly articulates sordid truths about human greed and its impact on environment has made an impact on thousands of individuals and groups across the state and elsewhere: Nagesh Hegde nurtures their desire to change with affection and hope. Nagesh Hegde is not merely an important voice keeping a watch on the way this world is heading: he is someone who upholds that linguistic choice is also encapsulated in our ethical choice -- there is no one without the other.

Excerpts from an interview.

In your imagination, what constitutes the Kannada world?

Everything that affects the life of a Kannadiga -- his language, culture, tradition, technology and ecosystem. The list is pretty long!

You studied at the premier institutes of this country -- IIT and JNU. Yet, for you, the most crucial issue was to work in your “Kannada world”. You brought back yourself into the thick of local struggles and local issues. Can you explain this choice that you made?

It was destiny, not choice! I used to read a lot of Kannada novels when I was a student. I was made editor of the school magazine. I couldn’t shake off the craze for reading S.L. Byrappa, Kuvempu, Shivaram Karanth, Basavaraj Kattimani etc even after opting for science in the college. Books used to be my secret companions even in laboratories. And I used to write for Kannada magazines like Kasturi and Sudha when I was in IIT and JNU. This was my world and I could not think of going anywhere else.

Commitment depends on one’s individual verve and I don’t think institutions have any role in shaping anyone’s urge to get involved in social issues. Yes, IITs even now leave a lot of scope for developing your taste for music, art and literature. JNU offers huge academic space for extra-academic activity. They are different from other ordinary colleges because you have a cosmopolitan community there.

You became a journalist, but you used that space to speak of science in the most non-conformist way. Was this space available for you or did you have to negotiate for it? Today, even the country's top newspapers do not want to publish bitter truths or sad stories.

Will you also then comment about the state of newspaper industry and its ethics today? Do they serve a local language, land and its culture or do they serve the global corporate interest?

Partly the credit for carving my career path should go to the young Editor of the newspaper group that I joined: he too was from JNU. He recruited me for the Kannada daily ‘Science and Development Correspondent’, an unusual designation for a vernacular journalist even today. I was a boss unto myself because no one knew what kind of assignment to give to me. I used to roam around institutions like IISc, IIHR, IIAP, RRI and some industrial labs in search of stories and lo, I did fetch far more interesting stories than what the usual reporters would file. For example, I was the first one to report that bovine offal was added to cattle feed to enhance nutrition, which led to a serious controversy in those days .

My entry into journalism was coincidental with the arrival of scientists like Madhav Gadgil, AKN Reddy, Vandana Shiva, S R Hiremath, Kusuma Sorab, H Sudarshan in Bengaluru who heralded environmentalism in Karnataka. Dr. Shivaram Karanth too had just begun his foray into green issues. Besides, it was a formative year for Raitha Sangha too under the leadership of Prof . Nanjundaswamy. There I was, in their midst as a journalist - with a formal degree in environmental science to boot. The time was ripe. There were several movements in those days- labour movement, consumer movement, farmers movement, theatre movement, environmental movement, students movement and even Kannada (Gokak) movement.

Ten happy years later, almost all the movements were silenced by the deafening sound of TV serials. Instead of pouring on to the streets with placards on Sundays, people were glued to the TV to watch Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana and Mahabharath . Humlog, and then Nukkad followed. That was the end of street shows.

Ensnaring the people with the magic world of fun and entertainment continues even today, spilling over to the newspaper world. TV and newspapers are competing and complimenting each other in enthralling people with the make believe world of advertisements, relegating the real issues. Even now newspaper industry is not serving what the people need. Most newspapers today are in advertising business. News is just a secondary product.

You worked with some of the most wonderful activists and environmentalists. You have been part of several ecological movements in various parts of Karnataka. Can you recall some people and incidents that made a lasting impact on you?

There are many. But the one uppermost on my mind is this one. Dr. Shivaram Karanth while flagging off the ‘Save Western Ghats’ march thirty years ago in Bhagamandala, pointed to an earth mover and told: “These machines do thousand peoples’ work overnight. But they also take away a thousand jobs and the gap between poor and rich will be a thousand times wider.” I cannot forget it...

Apart from writers like G.T. Narayana Rao and a few others, there has been no science writing in Kannada. But for you, someone of my generation would never have read Science in Kannada. What made you write in Kannada?

Also, most of our thinkers and writers have been emphatically saying that a knowledge system should evolve in Kannada, else, it will also be the death of language. Are there any efforts being made to develop Science, Maths etc in Kannada?

You are hiding the answer within your question! There was near vacuum and my entry was easy. Besides, writing popular science in vernacular language requires three kinds of facilities: access to latest information, a platform for publication and love for language. Being a media person the former two were no problem. And I was lucky to have people like H.S. Krishnaswami and Y.N. Krishnamurthy as my guides. They wrote in lucid style on commerce and humanities. I adapted their style for science.

Nowadays long form writing has nearly vanished in schools and colleges. Let us not talk about science and maths. Written language itself is becoming algebraic, all symbols and notations!

Which do you think are the most important environmental struggles that have taken place in Karnataka and met with significant success?

How do we measure success? The Kaiga movement is supposed to be a failure. That was the first anti-nuclear movement in Asia that got global attention. It forced the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) to sit up and take note of the chinks in the atomic armoury. Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) was forced to spend considerable part of its budget on measures like re-greening the area, conducting regular health surveys, carrying out regular safety drills around the Kaiga Nuclear plant -measures that were never taken hitherto in other places like Rawatbhata, Narora and Kakrapara. Anti-nuclear activists of Uttara Kannada actively campaigned and help stall uranium mining in Gogi. Social awareness in Karnataka about nuclear hazard is such that the NPC cannot dare dump nuclear wastes in Kolar Gold Field. It had to bury the idea! Is that a success? No! Because the hazardous wastes are now stockpiled around the reactor itself.

Environmental movement in Karnataka started first with a protest against Bedti Valley hydro-electric project. The protest brought many academicians from across the nation together. There was the first-ever national conference against large dams in a small town Sirsi. A collection of the proceedings of the conference was published as a book ‘Major Dams- a second look’ (Published by the Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi) which is considered as the basic reference material. The proposed Bedti dam is shelved. Still, I cannot call it a success because environmental activists could not stall the neighbouring Sharavati Tail Race project. Over 700 hectares of pristine forest was submerged.

Then there was this ‘successful’ protest against monoculture plantation. Activists burnt rayon fabric in presence of Dr. Shivaram Karanth in Harihara to protest against cultivation of eucalyptus. Plants were uprooted in Shimoga, Sagara, Teerthahalli etc. Dr. Karanth went to High Court against the newly established Karnataka Plantation Corporation by the forest department. He won the case and the new corporation was nipped in the bud. That was a major victory. But monoculture plantations of both eucalyptus and acasia spread like wild fire both in North Kanara and Shimoga districts. Local people now are struggling against the menace of wild boars, bisons and monkeys. Native people are forever deprived of wild medicinal plants and other usufructs trees.

The biggest real victory for the activists was in closing down the iron ore mining in Kudremukh. The activists have also forestalled a ship-breaking unit in Taneerbhavi, a barge mounted power plant near Mangalore, a thermal power plant in Chamalapura, near Mysore. They forced the Karnataka Pollution Control Board to install a waste processing unit in Kolar industrial area at Bidar. Small victory, but that set the example for other industrial complexes in the state.

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