My mother’s home town is a place called Banda, on the UP side of the Uttar Pradesh/Madhya Pradesh border in Bundelkhand. It is a place of harsh terrain, rocky soil, and very low groundwater, where people joke that the soil is more likely to breed dacoits than crops. During the summers there is a nine day period of intense heat which locals call “navi” or somesuch, and I have seen the temperatures soar well into the 50 degrees Celsius area.

Such heat is not shocking to the local people, although it is quite literally a physical shock to the human body to be out and about in such temperatures. We are just not designed to cope, and have to figure out different mechanisms, using earthen housing, high ceilings, and other modifications to deal with it.

With modernity and electric fans, then coolers and now air conditioners have been introduced to some people’s homes, but many do with only the first. That they survive, and thrive in their own fashion, is only made possible because they have a vocabulary to deal with such conditions.

This was a conversation a few of us had when earlier this year the temperatures in much of northern India breached 40 degrees Celsius and hit, briefly, the 50 degrees Celsius range in a few places. A friend from Rajasthan, Yudi, also mentioned that they were used to dealing with such temperatures from time to time.

The key difference that climate change brings is that it forces us to confront situations for which our language has not trained us.

Yudi and I may have been familiar with over-50 degree Celsius temperatures, but most of those who now had to deal with that crippling heat did not even know how to articulate what their bodies were going through.

At a recent panel discussion hosted by NewsLaundry, my fellow panelists talked about how much of the media does not even have the proper words to speak of this. I mentioned that at the multi-language website that I edit, The Third Pole, we use “jalvayu parivartan” for climate change.

Bibek Bhattacharya, who edits the Climate Tracker at The Mint, responded, “Quite a mouthful, isn’t it?”

The redoubtable Keya Acharya agreed. She said that one of the key things we need to do to actually get to grips with our challenges – challenges which are already here and not in some far off future – is to strengthen our reporting in the languages other than English in which so many of the reporters who have their ear to the ground reported.

The earth that births us and shapes us also shapes our language. The words that are needed for those living by the sea, or in mountains, or by the river, or in the desert, by their very nature need to express differing realities. Sometimes a link language, such as English, hides more than it reveals.

Mahtab Alam is a Delhi based multilingual journalist, researcher and podcaster on politics, law, media, literature and human rights. He was the founding executive editor of The Wire Urdu, and currently works as the managing editor of the Media Fellowships program at National Foundation for India. Mahtab is also a guest podcaster with and the founder of Radio Urdu, an exclusive platform for podcasts in Urdu. In 2021, he received the RedInk Award for Excellence in Journalism.

How is the environment discussed in the Urdu media?

In the Indian Urdu media, the discussion on environment or environmental issues are either event or disaster driven. In other words, they are largely, if not entirely, discussed when there are some events around the environment such as tree plantation drive, local government officials holding meetings around awareness/evaluation ahead of a flood, environment day, etc. Or, if there has been a loss of life and/or property due to massive flooding, drought, landslide, etc.

There is hardly any detailed or informed discussion on what happens after these events/disasters and why calamities are becoming a regular feature. Most importantly, there is no discussion about the policies and politics concerning environmental issues. As a result, the Urdu readership and viewership are not aware about these matters.

Why does it matter?

There are several reasons why informed discussion and reporting on environmental issues is important in Urdu media. First and foremost, the Urdu understanding audience is so large that one can hardly afford to miss it.

As per the latest Census, Urdu is the seventh most spoken language of India, with nearly 63 million people who speak the language, with countless newspapers, magazines, and web-portals. Unlike, other Indian languages, it has a pan-Indian presence. There isn’t a single state or Union Territory in India where Urdu speaking, reading, and understanding population is not present.

Not just the north indian states (such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand which have a large Urdu knowing population), states like Maharashtra and West Bengal as well have pockets where Urdu is the medium of communication.

Even a state like Tamil Nadu has certain pockets where Urdu is widely read and understood. Three South Indian states – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka have a huge Urdu speaking population. There are five-six states where Urdu is either the second-most spoken language or as good as the second official language.

Moreover, in other five-six states, it is the third most spoken language. Even if there’s a conservative (there are no definitive) estimate of 25%-30% of Urdu knowing people primarily consuming their information in Urdu, it is still a very large group of population to be ignored.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, most of the Urdu speaking population is directly affected by environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, flood, drought, etc, as majority of them belong to lower socio-economic strata of the society or live in the parts of the country or Indian cities which are the epicentres of mis-governance. Some of these areas are the dumping grounds for all kinds of waste.

Often, they are not even aware of its long-term impacts. This is partly because these issues are discussed in languages which are not understood by them.

The climate crisis is usually felt through water – floods, droughts, rights to access water. How have these issues been addressed in the Urdu media?

As pointed earlier, it is largely event and disaster driven. Hence, until and unless there isn’t an event or a disaster, there is no discussion on it. Even in the reports and discussions on floods, droughts, and lack of access to water resources, etc, there is hardly any value addition and perspective provided.

In my considered view, given the importance of the matter and its impact on human lives, these stories should go beyond headlines and present the larger picture. So that the readers can understand the enormity of the situation and the life-threatening impact that it can have on them and their livelihood.

What is one big example of good or bad reporting on climate/environment issues in the Urdu media that you would like to highlight?

In October 2020, Hyderabad [which has a substantial Urdu speaking people and is home to many Urdu publications] witnessed massive flooding killing nearly three dozen people. One can find several news stories about it in Urdu media. However, there is hardly any in-depth report/story on how the flooding was linked to rapid infrastructural development, which has further altered the natural course of water bodies in the city. As a result, the readers and viewers of Urdu media are often not able to take these issues up to the government or other stakeholders.

Similarly, there are several other areas in the country which have a substantial Urdu-knowing population and are routinely affected by environmental mismanagement, but it is rare to find reports and informed analytical pieces on these issues. Even this year, Hyderabad witnessed massive rain but there is hardly any discussion on its long term impact and mitigation plan in Urdu media. Unfortunately, this isn’t only about Hyderabad.

This is largely because Urdu newsrooms face a resource crunch – both financial as well as human. This is also linked to the fact that environmental issues are not considered issues of concern. In order to address some of these issues, there is an urgent need to not just train Urdu-medium journalists to report on these issues in a better fashion, but also to incentivise their efforts.

Until and unless that is done, it is too much to expect low paid and non-trained Urdu media persons to start reporting and writing in the manner that it should be done.

What is the big issue we should be thinking of, but is rarely discussed.

I think we are yet to discuss the mental health impact of environmental degradation the way it should have been done. I am not sure if the larger leadership is even aware of the fact of how the two are interlinked as the connection between them is rarely discussed in a language/manner which is understood by the wider audience – even those who don’t have sufficient vocabulary to comprehend it fully.

This is largely because, till this day, environmental issues are considered to have marginal significance and are largely reported/analysed for English-speaking audiences. Given its importance, it should be mainstreamed urgently.

Moreover, the language needs to be simplified and humanised without losing its essence. And that is only possible when original content creation/reporting will start happening in non-English Indian languages.

We need to stop our reliance on translations as soon as possible. Because more often than not, it becomes cumbersome to read the translated stories, apart from the fact that a crucial message is lost in translation.

This article was first published on Environment of India.