Rio fever hits the networks

The mother of all summits grabbed a good deal of telecast time recently

By Sevanti Ninan
Published: Tuesday 30 June 1992

MANEKA Gandhi, eat your heart out. India's Green Queen was nowhere in evidence as the mother of all summits (as one TV commentator described it) was discussed repeatedly on television. It was Kamal Nath all the way, trotting out the same arguments and examples each time over, on Doordarshan's current affairs slot, on BBC's Assignment, and on The World This Week.

And if there was an unofficial spokesperson for this country, it was Anil Agarwal of the Centre for Science and Environment, who also said much the same thing on both DD and BBC. He got startlingly aggressive on the BBC programme: "The South should very firmly and very boldly say that we want a better management system for the earth. And then if Mr Bush or Mr Kohl or Mr Major says we are not prepared to do that, then you slap them on the face and say you are not interested in saving the environment."

In the run up to Rio, environment in general became news. The BBC took to slipping in stories from both the South and North into its hourly World Service bulletins more, it seemed to this reviewer, from the South than from the North. There was, for instance, a story on Singrauli and its power stations as an example of the kind of environmental disaster that could occur in the Third World.

India became the country "where the Taj Mahal is turning yellow from pollution" and Brazil and some of its neighbours got constant attention for the perilous rate at which they were decimating their rainforests. All the more criminal an activity, when you consider that the North is now dependent on these rainforests for its biodiversity. The last, of course, was left unsaid but implied.

Doordarshan, too, did its bit with news bulletins carrying environmental stories as a matter of course. For instance, in its May 30 bulletin, it had an item on deforestation in Cherrapunji, which had resulted in below average rainfall both in 1990 and in 1991. This was quickly followed by a positive feature on the conservation-conscious Rajasthani community, the Bishnois. And in a curtain-raiser on UNCED, telecast in mid-May, it did its usual talking heads routine, attempting to outline what the chief bones of contention would be.

To represent the West, it got Delhi's US Information Service chief, who was an apt choice to convey the South-can-lump-it intransigence of his country. Stephen Daichi argued that the US was willing to concede (very much in passing) that it had been a contributor to global warming, but if the South thought it could get away with demanding "astronomical" sums of money, it had better think again. "Let's get real, there is no money in this world, there never has been, and there never will be, where people are going to contribute large amounts of funds to a programme in which there are no conditions, no criteria...." A contemptuous view guaranteed to make southerners splutter. Unfortunately, Daichi was not put on the defensive by having his country's record cited to him, DD reporters being unused to countering aggression on TV with facts and figures.

On balance, the most clarity and objectivity on the subject came from a single BBC programme, The Survivor's Guide to the Earth Summit, which was telecast on May 27 and 28. It assembled a British panel to watch inputs from India and the US and comment on crucial issues which would emerge at Rio.

The Indian report began in inimitable BBC style, with a middle-class widow in Delhi acquiring a fridge, for which she had been saving for four years. It then went on to discuss the volume of sales of such fridges (1.5 million of this model were sold in the past year) and what this meant for the environment because the cooling agent used in them, CFCs, were being phased out in the West for having contributed toward damaging the ozone layer. What would it cost for India to switch to a more environmentally-sound technology? About US $50 million. Who should pay for this, the North or India, which has far more urgent claims on her resources?

The American report began with huge gas-guzzling automobiles bumping each other in what was described as a demolition derby. "Americans," said the voiceover, "have been having a binge." It went on to elaborate the point with statistics and the indignation of the South fell into perspective: the average American, it said, produced 25 times as much industrial and municipal waste as a South person. In contrast, Indians recycled everything.

The summing up made it clear that the South held the solutions to the situation created by the profligacy of the North, but its agenda was different, because its priorities were different. There was resentment in the South that the North was setting the agenda for the summit. While what was needed at Rio was a decision by the North to change its ways, the South had not managed its forest resources in an exemplary fashion either. And that there was a rich-poor divide, not just in the world, but also within the South.

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