For 2004, an article of faith

When our designers sit down to make the year planner that comes with the year's first issue, they look through the issues of the magazine in the past year to draw some icons from the central themes. They have an unenviable task. At Down To Earth , we begin with a disadvantage. The business of media and communication demands a certain unwritten dictionary of popular references. Such a dictionary doesn't exist with regard to matters environmental. It is a bit like trying to describe smells in words...

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- WHEN our designers sit down to make the year planner that comes with the year's first issue, they look through the issues of the magazine in the past year to draw some icons from the central themes. They have an unenviable task. At Down To Earth , we begin with a disadvantage. The business of media and communication demands a certain unwritten dictionary of popular references. Such a dictionary doesn't exist with regard to matters environmental. It is a bit like trying to describe smells in words. The English language doesn't have enough terms to describe what nature's olfactometer can sense.

Take another example, that of rain. Scientists have an elaborate classification system for clouds. India's folk culture has scores of terms for different types of clouds depending on their rain-delivering potential -- nowhere more so than in Rajasthan, which gets the least. But in popular culture, a cloud is a cloud is a cloud. So how do we improve our reader's sensitivity to rainwater, the only solution to the widespread water scarcity in our sub-continent? In our reader's mind, we compete with a large range of popular references and images, and we have a small arsenal of communication devices. The cover feature of our October 31 issue brought the wisdom of India's folk culture -- its numerous rural water managers who solve water disputes -- to the fore. It is the keen observation of these ignored experts that has produced the vast folk lexicon of cloud terminology.

In the past year, though, the amount of attention we have paid to water harvesting in the magazine is much lower than in previous years. But then water harvesting has become a popular term today, not a keyword in a database of natural resource management. Not ignoring it completely, we have been paying greater attention to some other pressing matters.

In our first issue of 2003, we tried our hand at selling the idea of managing urban waste as a common property resource (CPR) in common effluent treatment plants (CETPs). CPRs are in a bad shape even in villages that still have some of the community fabric. To expect them to work in towns and cities, where the community fabric is more tenuous, is not an easy proposition. Where is the language of cooperation within our city communities? We try, through this magazine, to cobble together such a language, to give shape and form to the unspoken anguish that is making our cities hellholes. We proposed a framework to make these plants work in cities because there really is no other way to prevent our rivers from turning into sewers. Perhaps few years later, you will notice that the CETP and the terminology of its maintenance would be used by newsreaders like they use exit poll and pollution data today.
In May In May, we took you to the troubled state of Kashmir where a political solution seems as elusive as ever. The existing terminology of negotiating peace in the state does not factor in environmental imperatives at all. But few people pay attention to the fact that most of the means of livelihood in Kashmir are based on governance of natural resources -- agriculture, forestry, tourism and handicraft are all based on sensitive use of the ecology. A crucial aspect of militancy in the state is the rising unemployment. Political instability has aided environmental degradation. We proposed a roadmap to reverse this; to improve environmental management and reap political rewards. A parliamentary committee took note of the story and invited Down To Earth to brief its members on the matter.

If we brought you new perspectives on stagnant and polarised issues, we also took you through new frontiers. In the heat of June, we took you to the frozen continent of Antarctica, taking a critical look at 20 years of India's scientific engagement with an uninhabited but crucial land mass. 20 years it will also be, in 2004, to the worst industrial disaster of the planet in Bhopal. We brought you a detailed report on the status of compensation and treatment, as well as the threat from the existing stockpile of contaminants on the Union Carbide factory. We presented a clear overview of the confusion over genetically modified crops in India, and introduced you to the 190 villages in Orissa that officially do not exist -- a testimony to official amnesia about people displaced by developmental projects, but also to survival's overwhelming tenacity. And when bad news got so overwhelming that it brought in cynicism, we looked for stories of hope in places as cut off as Ladakh, where self-government is making exemplary progress. We kept up our relations with India's pesticide lobby by bringing you the laboratory reports of pesticide residues in bottled water and soft drinks.

Each issue of the magazine is not just an effort to come to grips with developments as they happen but to also intervene in favour of a good direction. A raid upon the unknown, unexplained, incomprehensible. The advantage of being a magazine without competition is that we set our own terms of reference. The disadvantage is that we don't draw the benefits of competition, of a market of common references. Our main point of reference remains our reader. In this new year, we look forward to a closer relation.

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