Bahar Dutt was born in 1975 to SP Dutt and Prabha Dutt, who belonged to India’s first female journalists and she grew up in the metropolitan city of New Delhi and New York. Ever since she was young, she was interested in nature, which later led her to become a conservationist. She worked for ten years in local projects in the Indian rural countryside and in New Delhi and then she started her career path as an environmental journalist. Bahar Dutt has recently published her first book called The Green Wars, which is a unique confession of a powerful lady with a deep interest in nature conservation.
You have studied Social Work at the Delhi University, worked for seven years with Saperas (snake charmers) and then graduated from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology in the UK. Have you always known that one day you would do the profession you hold now?
All I knew was I wanted a career around nature and animals. As I was growing up I realized that in a country like India where millions of poor people live off the forest, you have to work with people to work with animals. Hence I started working with the snake charmers.
What were the beginnings of your conservationist career like? Did you have to fight for your values with your family, friends or colleagues?
No, not at all. I was very lucky that my family was quite supportive and in fact was quite used to disappearing for long days on end to the countryside for my work with snake charmers. I used to volunteer at an animal shelter close to my house and my mother was quite used to my picking up stray dogs and cats from the street. I then as I grew older started visiting a snake charmer colony in Delhi. I believed if we wanted them to stop using snakes, we had to give them livelihood options as these are poor communities with little skills for anything else. The first day I visited them they threw snakes at me as they didn’t trust me. But henceforth started a ten year long tryst with them.
What was the turning point that led you to a transition from a conservation biologist to an environmental journalist?
The turning point was when India’s economy was opening up roads through tiger reserves, mining in our best forest areas and the blatant violation of our environment laws by politicians and corporates. While the Indian media focused on poaching, no one was talking about the disappearance of habitats – rivers, wetlands and forests. That’s when I decided I wanted to become an environmental journalist to focus on such stories.
When starting your work as a conservationist and later on as a journalist, you promised yourself to focus on lesser known species instead of reporting about India’s headline animals such as tiger. Why did you make such a decision?
In India animals like the tiger or the elephant make it to the front page. But what about the status of other species? Do we know for instance that we have species such as the Fishing cat or the Gharial in India? That’s why in my book, too, you will notice I have focused on our lesser known species.
Have you ever felt that being an investigative environmental journalist was dangerous? Were there times when you thought of quitting the job to start something easier?
Investigations are challenging but also the most rewarding part of journalism. I did a story on a mine in Goa that was operating illegally on forest land. My camera crew was attacked and the cops decided to support the mining mafia instead of us. I do remember feeling a bit scared then, but I managed to get out of the situation, come to Delhi and using my footage, file a case in court, the mine was then shut down. If your facts are solid, no one can scare you.
The core idea of the book is that currently in India, there is a huge conflict between the development and the environment. How can India handle economic growth and protection of the environment at the same time?
India needs to work on a low carbon economy. For this it first needs to convince its people and politicians that this is important. Right now we want to construct thermal power plants, high rise buildings and expressways through forests. If we as a people decide that fresh air, nature and clean water are as important then there are other ways to develop which will not be so damaging for our biodiversity. There are many such good examples but first we must convince ourselves these are important.
What do you think about the anxiety of the Indian government over the foreign funding of NGOs which are accused of restraining the growth by protesting against large development projects?
I think it’s a masterstroke as the idea is to project environmentalists as anti-national. Anyone who questions coal mining is anti-Indian. I ask them – is caring for our forests and clean air anti-national?
You once said “It’s all about the money, honey.” What is the role of money and corruption with regards to protection/destruction of natural habitats in India?
I think we never want to explore small options. Big dams involve big money. If it wasn’t about money, then we would look at small dams, rainwater harvesting, recharging our groundwater and minimizing transmission losses on the grid instead of just blindly constructing more and more thermal power plants or dams in the Himalayas.
How would you react if somebody accused you of having elitist opinions by denying rural people their right to development while you are an educated person who can enjoy all the facilities in a metropolitan city such as Delhi where you live?
If you read my book, it says that the local people should have the right to development and decide what kind of development. Displacing millions of people from their land or cutting down their forests to set up your factory, how is that development? If a mine is indeed bringing development to a region, then how come our most mineral rich states are most backward?
What was your biggest professional failure?
I don’t like to think in terms of winning or failing. But definitely as an environment journalist the challenge lies in your story making it to prime time news. That is a professional challenge for sure, especially when your stories are against a leading corporate or politician. So I like to think in terms of challenges than failures.
In your book you mentioned that while your friends were making their way to Ivy League colleges and double-digit salaries with corporate firms, you were out there in the nature spending adventurous days never knowing what you would learn. How do you see your life nowadays, when you meet some of your friends? Do you have a feeling of fulfillment?
Of course, as I said in the book, I spend my time being out under a clear blue sky following wild animals or unraveling the secrets of nature and telling stories around it, what could be more exciting?
Do you try to reduce your carbon footprint?
Yes, all the time though I am not sure I succeed all the time. I try to walk as much as I can I try to be a responsible consumer in terms of what products I buy, I like to check where they are sourced from. I am now also becoming conscious of how much my food has travelled to get to me.
What do you think is the most characteristic feature of the Indian society?
I believe that Indian society is good at adapting to difficult situations, I believe that we are a very innovative society who is used to surviving despite all odds. That is why I am optimistic that despite all our huge environmental problems we will figure a way out of them. I believe we are essentially a society that believes in being close to nature.
What are your plans for the future? Any new books?
I hope to create a space close to the city where I live (Delhi) where people can come and be one with nature. I am also working on another book idea that I hope will be more in the positive space.
In case you want to get a copy of the book Green Wars, you can buy it on Amazon.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Copyright: Bahar Dutt