Ishan Kukreti is a journalist covering land and climate sustainability for Scroll.in through Report for the World. Don’t miss his Instagram #TakeoverTuesday as part of our November Corps Member Spotlight.
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The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you began considering career options, what did you find compelling about a career in journalism?
Honestly, it wasn’t like I had much to choose from back then. I needed a job and the graduate degree in history that I had wasn’t much help in securing it. I was able to get a seat in a year-long journalism course in one of the J-schools in India; I started out as an unpaid intern and then a reporter. But over the years that job has turned into an exciting career because journalism allows me to explore intellectual curiosities and constructively act on them. I was sure of writing about the environment and I never compromised on that. I merged the environment beat reporting with my understanding of environmental history from my graduate studies and found the mix really exciting and fairly unexplored. The fact that you can always read on the job is a big added bonus.
Why is land and environmental sustainability an important beat in India?
Environmental sustainability, inducing issues around land, will decide where this country will be in the next couple of decades. Our air and our rivers are polluted; landslides have increased in the Himalayas mountains; the monsoon is changing patterns. We have to manage all these problems while ensuring that there is social and environmental justice.
The development that has taken place since India opened its economy back up in 1991 has wreaked havoc on the environment, and the fruits of this development haven’t reached most people. The environmental destruction to sustain this development has further reduced the capabilities of people.
So, some of the most under-developed areas of India are those where the coal that keeps all of our lights on is mined. The preservation of biodiversity through a network of protected areas has led to large-scale evictions, leaving thousands homeless. Unsustainable agricultural practices since the launch of the Green Revolution in the 1960’s have created cancer hotspots in traditionally agricultural areas. The monsoon is altering and ravaging the farm sector, fueling farmer suicides and distressing migration to urban areas.
All of this can only be managed through an environmentally sustainable approach to development.
What has been one of your biggest challenges as a journalist on the environmental beat in India?
In general, the biggest problem is that newsrooms don’t consider the environment important. Although this is changing now (as the news from COP26 made it to the first pages of many national dailies), this lack of interest in environmental issues means that it is very difficult to find platforms that allow one to write nuanced environmental pieces. I am lucky to have found a place – Scroll – that lets me run around in jungles and river basins, chasing tigers or tracking pollution.
Among other targets he dubbed “five elixirs,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s net-zero emissions goal, set for 2070. Though this is two decades past the mid-century target set by the IPCC, this is the country’s first-ever declared emissions target. How realistic is this goal, when weighed against other policies for economic growth, for example? What areas of policy should we be following as indicators of progress toward net-zero emissions in India?
The IPCC’s “Global Warming of 1.5°C” report from 2018 talks about global net zero emissions by 2050 in the context of limiting warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels and global net zero emissions by 2070 to limit it to 2 C. Environment is inherently political, and international negotiations more so. Therefore it is important to mention here the inequality in emissions historically and the difference in today’s per capita emissions between developing and developed countries.
Keep your curiosity alive, be passionate about what you do, read as much as you can and then some more, especially environmental sciences, law and history and (at the risk of sounding like Joe Rogan) approach the truth in an environmental story like it is a spectrum.
Having said that, I think net zero emissions by 2070 for India is a doable target. Net zero emissions is the balancing of anthropogenic emissions by anthropogenic removals. This is dependent on developing carbon capturing technologies. These technologies will have to be built well in advance for the developed world to meet its 2050 net zero target. After that it’ll only be a question of equitable distribution of these technologies to developing countries—including India—to achieve their targets.
To me, journalistically speaking, the four announcements apart from net zero are more interesting. They are much shorter in time frame (by 2030) and achieving them can be quite messy. I am definitely keeping an eye out for the progress made there.
What has been the most impactful story you have written so far as a Report for the World corps member? Why was it impactful?
I think my latest story on air pollution in the Indo-Gangetic Plains in northern India is worth mentioning here. I took a portable air quality monitor and travelled around 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) to find out how bad the air quality is and what the government is doing to improve it. The fact that the story was published the week of Diwali – which was followed by a weeklong smog incident – really made the story relevant. It provided a nuanced answer to the frustrating question, “Why isn’t the air quality getting better?”
Your story about the building of a new diamond mine near the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh has been shortlisted for the Thomson Foundation’s Young Journalist Award in the environmental category. What advice do you have for aspiring journalists in India, who would hope to report on environmental issues?
Keep your curiosity alive, be passionate about what you do, read as much as you can and then some more, especially environmental sciences, law and history and (at the risk of sounding like Joe Rogan) approach the truth in an environmental story like it is a spectrum. So, for instance, when I was researching the diamond mine story, people kept telling me that the local communities were either completely for or completely against the mine. But, on the ground, the situation is far more complex, and that is something I explored in the story. There was no single truth, in the form of the local community either wanting or not wanting the mine: their attitude is somewhere between these two extremes. In a way, the story is about these multiple and often conflicting demands of various stakeholders placed upon forested landscapes. If you haven’t yet, then I’d urge you to read the story. The best green stories are found buried in the grays of reality.
What environmental story in India do you feel has been overemphasized or misunderstood internationally? What story would you like to see receive more attention?
I’d say that most international coverage around Indian environmental issues (which is quite rare to begin with) is very over the top and is skin deep at best.
More stories exploring issues of climate justice appearing in the international media would definitely be a welcomed development. So, within the context of phasing out coal, stories dealing with the issues of a “Just Transition” for the coal mine workers would lend some sanity to the mostly polarized debates around ending coal consumption by India. And these are not even exotic, hard-to-grasp ideas. There are many brilliant researchers across the world who are working to bring out the nuances involved in transition debates or climate justice in general. Bringing more rigor and nuance to environmental stories in general will also be great.
How is your reporting tangibly serving Indian society and or making it a better place?
Honestly, tangibly serving society or making society a better place is a long process, which requires a lot of effort by a lot of people. A single journalist can hardly make that happen. I think my role as a journalist is limited to being a bridge connecting all these ongoing efforts across geographies. I think it’s too early to say whether I am doing that successfully.