Fourth CSE Media Fellowship: Innovating Survival: Sustainable Development and Livelihoods in India’s North-east
November 15, 2004 – December 15, 2004
The Fourth Media Fellowship was a one month fellowship from November 15, 2004 to December 15, 2004. The fellowship offered journalists from print and other media an opportunity to travel, research and write on the survival and livelihoods issues in the seven states of north eastern India – each with its unique problems and triumphs.
India’s north-east – largely neglected by mainstream media – is a veritable cauldron of lifestyles, issues, practices and contentions. Immensely rich in terms of natural resources and biodiversity, the region offers possibilities of exhaustive research on how the people have (or have not) used these resources to survive through the ages. While most traditional livelihoods and sustainable development models in the region are fighting against annihilation with their backs to the wall, there are those that have withstood the ravages. Novel survival and livelihood strategies have also emerged in response to new challenges.
Through a range of ‘Suggested Areas of Focus’, the fellowship attempted to raise and – eventually – answer some critical questions: what makes the north east different from the rest of India? What makes the seven states different from each other? How do the people live in these regions, with little development and hence little livelihood opportunities? How does the resource rich region sustain itself? Have the people found an alternative means of livelihood that is sustainable? What has been the relation between the state and the people in terms of resource sharing? The suggested areas of focus were:
Traditional medicine and its practice
Customary and traditional laws and their impact on community forest management (CFM) and joint forest management (JFM)
Floods and watershed management
Women, livelihoods and governance
Conservation as a livelihood
Agricultural transition: from non-cash crops to cash crops
Economic liberalisation and its impacts on livelihoods
Livelihood strategies linked to biodiversity
Moreover, issues in north east are seldom covered in the ‘mainstream’ press; it is confined to the pages in the region or the occasional supplement on the region. Except of course the insurgency stories. Hence the fellowship was an excellent opportunity for people outside the region to observe, understand and report in-depth on the region.
The Selection procedure
An external jury of experts was invited and the dossier of application was presented to them for perusal, recommendations and selection. The jury members were:
Mr Sanjoy Hazarika, Managing Trustee of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research. He is also the consulting editor with the Statesman, where he edits and publishes the North East page every Saturday. His work on migration and self-governance is highly regarded.
Dr P S Ramakrishnan, Professor of Ecology at the School of Environment Sciences, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is a well known figure in the field of environmental sciences, and is an expert on northeastern ecological practices and agriculture.
Dr Roshmi Goswami, programme officer for sexuality, reproductive health and human rights, Ford Foundation, New Delhi. She has worked extensively on gender related issues, reproductive health and women in armed conflict situations. She is also the founding member of the Northeast network.
Dr Monisha Behal, director programmes, Northeast Netwok, New Delhi. Dr Behal, a social activist, has a deep interest in women's issues. She has undertaken extensive work in the north-east region in capacity building of smaller NGOs. She undertakes training and education of NGOs in the areas of women's health, crafts production, communication and accounts.
Ms Vichitra Sharma, formerly with the Press Institute of India and the European Commission, she now freelances. She started the magazine, Grassroots, published by the Press Institute of India.
The external jury met for the final selection on October 20, 2004. The parameters for assessing the candidates included originality of ideas; grasp of issues covered; relevance of the issues covered; range of the issues covered; analytical skills; writing skills; and initiative. The jury was requested to finalise the selection of journalists for the fellowship, enrich proposed story ideas with fresh perspectives and suggest ways to make future fellowships more challenging and meaningful.
From the short-listed 26, the jury selected the 4 most promising candidates for awarding the fellowship grant. Extensive modifications were suggested by the jury in the work proposals of almost all the candidates. In the days that followed, MRC informed the candidates of their selection, conveyed the jury’s suggestions to them and received their consent on these modifications.
This fellowship saw just four fellowships being granted. This was mainly because of the average proposals received. The jury agreed to giver lesser fellowships instead of approving inadequate proposals.
Impact of the Fellowship
Individually, the fellowship exposed each candidate to a vital area of concern. It brought them face-to-face with the entire gamut of issues related to north east, and helped them understand the complexities of the region. Many of them realised the enormity of the issue for the first time, and have felt encouraged to keep writing on it.
Some of the reports generated by Assam Tribune’s Sivasish Thakur have reportedly been noted by both the forest department and the Bodoland Autonomous Territorial District, especially the ones on the security of the Manas National Park. While some stories by Anil Yadav, freelancer with Rashtriya Sahara, provided readers in other parts of the country an opportunity to read about the biodiversity of the region and the illegal trade of medicinal plants. This was other than the usual insurgency and flood stories that appear in the newspapers.
We present here the fellows, their profiles, work and experiences and their reactions to the fellowship.
Anil Yadav is an experienced journalist, currently working with Dainik Jagaran, Lucknow. He has reported on important issues and events in the state from the Ayodhya movement in the 1990s to the assembly elections and assembly proceedings. He has also travelled the North East to study insurgency and socio-cultural changes in tribal communities.
In his proposal for the fellowship, Anil wanted to study (a) The ‘Jugar’ boats on Brahmaputra in Guwahati as the source of livelihood for the fishermen (b) Erosion of the Majuli Islands and steps taken to prevent it (c) Open cast mining in Meghalaya and steps taken by government and miners to modernise the age-old techniques (d) Bamboo-based water harvesting systems in Manipur, and (e) Depletion of medicinal plants due to uncontrolled trade and the trade route.
The jury felt that the proposal did mention relevant topics of concern, but was too broad and lacked focus. The members suggested that Anil should be asked to select and pinpoint a particular region within Arunachal Pradesh where trade in medicinal plants is causing depletion of some particular species. They also suggested that the trade route of a particular medicinal plant could then be traced down from Arunachal to Delhi or other wholesale markets. Other points they thought important were the economics and business trail of extraction, and the impact of extraction on biodiversity as well as the society in the chosen region. He was asked to submit a re-worked proposal.
The re-worked proposal Anil sent focused on the illegal and rampant trade in medicinal plants and herbs causing serious threat to bio-diversity and tribal social fabric of north-east. Particularly in Arunachal Pradesh, regular trade in herbs takes place in interior villages but the main centres are Bomdila, Pasighat, East Kameng (Pakhul wild life sanctuary) and Namdapha reserve forest in Changlong district. Shillong is one of the main centres in N-E. Other centres are Tejpur, Guwahati, Dibrugarh, Goalpara, Silchar (Assam) and Aizwal (Mizoram). Mukro in Jaintia hills, bordering Karbi Anglong district has been identified as a large scale centre for trading in Usnea (Lichen) species.
His story ideas included the economics and business trail of extraction, impact of extraction on bio-diversity, impact of trade on tribal society, business chains: from villages to metros, and attitude of government and traditional tribal councils.
Anil published five exhaustive stories in Dainik Jagaran, Lucknow between December 23 and 28, 2004 and in Purvanchal Prahari between December 10 and 14, 2004. His first story was on the illegal trade in medicinal plants and herbs rampant in Arunachal Pradesh and the helplessness of the forest department in stopping it. The story elaborates the route by which the medicinal plants are smuggled across the state into Assam to the medicine markets of Kolkata and Delhi and finally to the pharmaceutical companies. The story also highlights the complicity of officials from the agriculture, forest departments and the police.
The second story highlighted the use of the government machinery in smuggling of medicinal plants. Whatever government system has been established to preserve biodiversity is now being used for smuggling. The story informs how agents of pharmaceutical companies have established contractors in interior villages of the state where they pay the tribals to get plants get the medicinal plants for them.
The third story talks about the dangers to the various medicinal plants due to this illegal trade. These herbs are gradually disappearing as tribals sell them off to traders to earn a livelihood. The experts who are aware of the dangers to these plants are unable to explain the crisis to tribals.
The fourth story focuses on the government’s efforts raise awareness amongst the tribals to stop smuggling of medicinal plants. The government in order to save their vote bank have started encouraging tribals to farm medicinal plants and is providing support too. But the ground situation is that the tribals are not availing the support due to the complex conditions. The officials use fake names to complete their paperwork. The fifth story concentrates on the difficulties faced by the tribals in farming and selling the medicinal plants, even though the government has schemes and grants to encourage farming.
Principal Correspondent, The Hindustan Times
Manish Tiwari has had an extensive carrier as a journalist. He has worked with the Indian Express in Delhi, Down to Earth magazine and then shifted to The Hindustan Times, Chandigarh, where he is writing on Punjab politics, economics, environment and grassroots initiatives. He holds a professional degree in journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi.
In his project for the fellowship, Manish proposed to study the causes of floods, and the extent of damage caused by the floods in the Brahmaputra river, focusing on Assam. He also sought to look at the paradox of acute water scarcity in some regions. He also proposed to examine the watershed management initiatives in Sikkim, Arunachal and Meghalaya, their role in controlling floods and the extent of community involvement in these initiatives. The jury approved Manish’s work plan without any changes.
Manish did three stories, which were carried in The Hindustan Times between December 25 and December 28, 2004. The first story was on the hydel power projects proposed in the North East and their impact on the ecology and the local population at the same time the claim of the government that dams would control floods.
The second story was a full page on the floods in Brahmaputra that appeared in the Sunday magazine section of The Hindustan Times. The story focused on impacts of floods in Assam, the impact, flood control measures and their failure in providing protection to the affected communities. The story also focused on the causes of the floods mainly the destruction of wetlands and watershed management as the possible solution. The story brought out the extent of the flood problem. According to Manish, large scale tree felling along with faulty government policies in solving the flood problem was one of the reasons for the floods.
The third story was a short piece on drought in Cherapunji, which receives an annual rainfall of 11,000 mm.
P Madhavan, masters in Gandhian thoughts from Madurai Kamaraj University, Tamil Nadu, is now a development photojournalist. He did a diploma in photography from the Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi. He did a photo documentation of the struggles of women mine workers and women affected by mining in their environments. The photos were exhibited at the Third International Women and Mining Conference. He also did another photo documentation project compiling the status report on hazardous waste facilities in Delhi. The project was a part of submission made to the Supreme Court of India. He also put up a photo exhibition on Uranium mining in Jaduguda, Jharkhand and Domiasiat in Meghalaya. This exhibit was an event at the World Social Forum.
Madhavan had proposed to study coal mining West Khasi Hills. He wanted to visually present the coal mines – abandoned, explored and exploited – the people, and contaminated fields, rivers, resettled colonies and homes around the mines. These families had turned to coal and limestone mining due to Supreme Court’s ban on timber logging and trading activities. In West Khasi Hills region, coal is mined by a primitive surface method called ‘rat hole’ mining. It is a major source of air, water and soil pollution and also has tremendous health impact on the mine workers.
The jury approved Madhavan’s original work plan and expected him to generate entirely new images and new photo-features.
Madhavan published stories and photographs on the charcoal makers of West Khasi Hills in The Statesman, New Delhi and Down to Earth, New Delhi in December 2004. His story in The Statesman talked about the charcoal trade, which emerged as the alternative livelihood since the Supreme Court banned logging. He reported that the effect of charcoal extraction on forests was perhaps worse than that of timber felling. Down to Earth published an interview done by Madhavan of a charcoal maker of Umjarian village in the West Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. The same story was also published by the Shillong based magazine, Eastern Panorama.
Staff Reporter, The Assam Tribune
Sivasish Thakur has been writing on wildlife and biodiversity issues of the region. He was awarded the R N Borooah Memorial Award for reporting on environmental issues for the year 2003. He was previously with the other major English language newspaper of the region, the Sentinel. Sivasish has been in the field of journalism since 1998 after having studied English from Cotton College, Guwahati, Assam.
Sivasish’s work proposal sought to find out the reasons behind the transformation of a valuable biodiversity rich area into a national park – the Manas – which has been devastated by extremist action and the extent of damage it has caused. How the possibility of conservation as a livelihood was extinguished by extremism? He also proposed to look into the role of forest management policies and practices like JFM in the existing situation. The level of understanding that people of the adjoining areas have about the loss of flora and fauna and their involvement in conservation efforts.
The Jury approved Sivasish’s work plan with a few additions. Firstly the jury suggested him to also look at areas surrounding Manas, where the situations were similar. The jury said that few grasslands around Manas could be explored as the management practices there were bearing fruit. Also captive breeding of small animals could be explored. Further the jury informed that between Manas and Siliguri there was a forester’s kingdom, where there was a practice called canopy-lifting operations (CLO). Under this old trees about to die or dying were cut down to let others grow and the timber was used. But in the ‘80s, it was found that in the interiors foresters, in the name of CLO, had clear-felled forests. The jury suggested that this practice could be investigated.
Sivasish published three reports in Assam Tribune between December 18, 2004 and December 25, 2004. The first report on the impact of insurgency in Manas national park, informed that more than the insurgency the ensuing negligence of the government and forest department destroyed the habitat and the biodiversity of the region. That long after insurgency had finished, there were no visits made by forest officers and patrolling by guards was rare. Due to this breakdown in the security, poaching became rampant and continues to degrade the forests. As a result of all these conditions, the forest cover has reduced drastically and the entire rhinoceros population has been wiped out. In this report he also highlighted a case where the forest officials working with the forest villagers and the All Bodo Students Union managed to check poaching and the reducing forest cover.
The second article was on the revival of tourism in the park. The third article was on the question of restoring the national park. The story highlighted the lack of a restoration plan for the sanctuary. The report said that due to encroachments in the forest the habitat was under pressure, which was causing deforestation and the rivers changing course. With the traditional rights of the forest villages having been lost with the declaration of Manas as a protected area, the villagers had also lost interest in conservation. The report however pointed out that the administration was only starting to wake up and had taken a few steps towards stalling further degradation.
According to Sivasish since there hasn’t been such extensive reportage on after-effects of insurgency and social unrest in Manas, both the state government and the Bodoland Autonomous Territorial District have taken note of the reports and pledged their commitment to restore Manas.
What is ‘good food’? Food that is free of contamination and adulteration, that is prepared in a way which does not harm the environment. Food that is wholesome, that does not compromise our health. The definition and understanding seems simple enough, but the issue is far more complex.