Bahar Dutt is an award-winning conservation biologist and environmental journalist, and former editor and columnist for CNN-IBN.
As the daughter of SP Dutt and Prabha Dutt, who were among India’s first female journalists, and sister of well-known journalist Barkha Dutt, her family have heavily influenced Bahar’s career path. She first earned a degree in social work from University of Delhi. Bahar then pursued wildlife conservation at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology from the University of Kent.
She has worked for over ten years on crucial wildlife conservation projects in India and abroad. She spent seven years with the Bahelias, or snake charmers, across Haryana and Rajasthan in northern India, working with them to combine their knowledge of snakes and musical abilities into public performances and education without the use of snakes. As the environment editor at CNN-IBN, she covered a range of stories travelling to far and forgotten corners of this country to expose the nexus between the mining mafia, politicians and corporates. Her reporting influenced policy and led to the stoppage of many illegal projects coming up on wetlands and forests.
Bahar recently released her new book, Green Wars. The book draws on her experience as a conservationist to explore the tension between a developing Indian economy and saving the planet, and how this can be resolved.
Shining Hope Foundation spoke to her about her life, her on-going mission to fight for the environment and encourage sustainable conservation by involving local communities, and the role of the media in highlighting the global environmental challenges of the future.
- •Was environmental conservation a childhood passion, or something that has emerged more in your adult life?
It was a childhood passion to be close to animals and nature. I have learnt only in my adult life that I can make a career out of it! My dad had a job with Air India and we were in New York as kids. I would walk up to random strangers on the street and hug their dogs; that is my first memory of being crazy about animals and of course being scolded for doing this!
- •So how did a young female biologist turn into an investigative environmental journalist?
I worked on a rural community conservation project with snake charmers as I believed that if you want to work on conservation issues you must know how to work with people. So I worked for ten years travelling to villages across northern India, working with them helping them find livelihood options that weren’t in conflict with wildlife laws. As I was doing this India’s economy had opened up our forests and were being diverted for roads, highways and power plants. All great except no one in the media was talking about the diversion of our most precious wilderness areas. That’s when I decided I would turn to journalism.
- •To what extent do you think the environmental media can help in crusading for positive attitudes in the country?
The media plays a huge role in India and maybe everywhere. We now have special shows dedicated to the ‘good news’ or positive stories because everyone is fed up of hearing the bad news all the time. In my own work experience I have seen change because of a story we did on an illegal mine or an honest forest officer who helped save a forest. If you shine some light on the good work, it has a multiplier effect and someone always comes forward to help.
- •Your new book is presented across twelve chapters in the form of a chronicle of activities of your life and observations to date, as a conservationist and journalist. You also highlight a number of less-known animals – such as finding fish-eating crocodiles (Gavialis gangeticus, pictured) with mutilated snouts, disfigured by fishermen who didn’t want them eating their fish in the Chambal River in central India. It’s just one of many stories related in the book that are typical of the tension between environment and development in India. What is the reason for these ongoing conflicts, do you think?
The reason for this ongoing conflict I don’t think is environment vs development. It’s about greed and corruption. There is big money involved in a power plant or a large dam. We don’t want to pursue the alternatives that are lighter on the planet because they don’t make money. It’s all about the money honey!
- •To what extent are you motivated by anger, frustration, and hope?
I get frustrated and angry, but then along comes hope in the form of individuals doing fantastic work, I draw my energy from them. And from conservationists working across the country silently and efficiently in their own way.
- •Do you have any inspirational mentors?
I draw inspiration from many individuals. My Professor at the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent, Nigel Leader Williams who is now at Cambridge University. And Chandi Prasad Bhatt who led India’s first Chipko movement in the Himalayas against deforestation.
- •Finally: what can members of the public do to foster positive change in environmental conservation, do you think?
I have tracked many climate change summits as a journalist, including the biggest one that was at Copenhagen. That was our one big opportunity for the world to have come together but we got too caught up in our political positions as developed vs developing nations to do something for Planet Earth. I am not a cynic but I am not sure if in this diverse world we can get different countries to come together to the table. We need more political commitment from ALL countries be it developed or developing nations. Easy to say, tough to practise I guess!
The book, ‘Green Wars- Dispatches from a Vanishing World’, written by Bahar Dutt is published by Harper Collins, India.