Editor’s pick 2019: Elections, climate change and extreme weather events

  • If the most important development in India in 2019 were the national elections, the equally important parallel story was the struggle of the common citizen to bring their environmental issues into the electoral process.
  • The year was also a witness to a string of extreme weather events, that continued happening in different parts of the country for months together.
  • As Mongabay-India moves into the third year of online publication, we look at some of the stories that gave a unique take to the developments in the year.

The national elections dominated the happenings of 2019. So did a string of floods, drought and cyclones. In our second year of publication, we at Mongabay-India extensively covered how environmental issues impacted the elections. Our staff writers and contributors also reached out to cover the extreme weather events as they were happening across the country.

We had started our Environment and Elections series before the state elections to Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Telangana and Rajasthan. We continued it into the national elections 2019 and ended with the Maharashtra and Haryana state elections in October this year. After the new national government was formed we followed through on whether environmental issues reflected in the new policies.

Our coverage on the string of extreme weather events was as intense and frequent as the events themselves. In the August-September period, the simultaneous extreme weather events that occurred had us grappling to keep up. While in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra the drought crippled villages and towns in summer, after the monsoons started, Mumbai flooded multiple times this year. Floods in the western districts of Maharashtra were compounded by dam mismanagement.

Landslides devastated the Western Ghats districts of Kodagu in Karnataka and Wayanad in Kerala. Floods in Assam returned again this year. The image that stayed in everybody’s mind was that of animals from the Kaziranga National Park swimming to safety to higher ground.

We reported stories on air pollution returning with a vengeance this winter in the northern Indian states and the Delhi national capital region; diseases moving from animals to humans; invasive plant and animals breaking into new territories; fall armyworms and African large snails invading farms; and poaching and wildlife trafficking finding new routes across international borders.

Our stories – published under the Creative Commons non-derivative licence – continue to be picked up for republication by other online media. We had successful co-publication projects with The Bastion, Citizen Matters and the Nepali Times.

Our series Hewing the Regulatory Tree kept a tab on how the national and state governments continued to dilute environmental laws and policies. This included developments related to the forest policy and the Forest Rights Act of 2006. We continued to report on infrastructure projects and their impact on the environment. Also, we reported on the progress made in the renewable energy sector.

In 2019, we started two new series. As the Indian economy grows its global footprint is also growing, and this we are following through the Connected Environment series. When 1.3 billion people consume, the need for resources is not limited to within India’s national boundaries. Unknown to many, India is the highest importer of palm oil, which in turn promotes deforestation in Indonesia. Similarly, India’s needs for hydroelectric power skews Bhutan’s ability to decide its river policy. Environment Explained will declutter some of the environmental concepts and events.

Let me list 10 stories that I feel broke new ground in 2019. The list is indicative and may not include many other excellent stories from the year.

Punjab farmers’ widows respond to apathy by standing in elections

This election field report by Mayank Aggarwal covers the agrarian crisis that came out into the fore before the polls, but was later subsumed in the national security discussions. This story talks about the problems faced by the farmers of the irrigated Green Revolution tracts of Punjab, near the Pakistan border, where the farmers are more scared of the floodwater from the Sutlej river than from military threat across the border. The farmers in the country’s granary have been killing themselves and their widows were contesting elections to make their grievances heard.

Widow of a farmer is fighting the 2019 elections in Bathinda against the mainstream political parties. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

Rat-hole mines: Negating human lives and ecology

Using the news peg of a flooding accident in the rat-hole coal mines in Meghalaya, Sahana Ghosh takes a comprehensive look at the social and economic reasons for communities continuing with the dangerous practice of digging for coal in these unsafe pits. Her story explores the reasons why the practice continues even after the National Green Tribunal banned it in 2014.

India’s National Green Tribunal in 2014 proscribed rathole mining of coal and its transportation over concerns for the environment and labour conditions in the tribal-majority state of Meghalaya. Photo by Sannio Siangshai.

Weather forecasting to move from information-based to impact-based forecast

M. Mohapatra, the director general of the India Meteorological Department, in an interview to Mayank Aggarwal, states that the Indian monsoon is losing its regularity and is becoming a string of extreme weather events. This statement from the country’s top weather forecaster gives the seriousness of climate change on India’s weather pattern, and in turn, has the potential for adversely impacting the country’s agriculture and economy.

The Indian monsoon is losing its regularity and becoming a string of extreme weather events, according to the IMD director general. Photo by Raji Warrier.

She guards Mumbai’s defence against climate change

In this human interest story, Kartik Chandramouli interviews Seema Adgaonkar, a forest official who worked with the Mangrove Cell of Maharashtra’s Forest Department. The gutsy official worked to protect the mangrove patches of Mumbai, from habitat destruction and encroachment. Mangroves are the city’s defence against riverine flooding, sea-level rise and tidal waves.

Seema Adgaonkar in a Mumbai mangrove. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli.

Protesting against neglect, Manibeli village in the Narmada valley decides to boycott Maharashtra polls

In an election-related story before the Maharashtra state elections, Kanchan Srivastava visits Manibeli village in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra, which is closely upstream to the Sardar Sarovar dam and has been partially submerged by the reservoir water. The villagers had decided to boycott the election since there is no electricity and road even after 72 years of Independence. From the dark night of their homes, the villagers watch the bright lights around Sardar Patel’s Statue of Unity.

Residents of Manibeli who have decided to boycott the elections due to apathy of the politicians. Photo by Kanchan Srivastava.

Why the ancient myristica swamps need more protection

This story by Neha Jain is a comprehensive roundup of the situation of myristica swamps of the Western Ghats. This forest type has potential for dealing with climate change, but is currently a shrinking and threatened ecosystem.

Knee roots protruding from the ground, which help trees to exchange gases in waterlogged conditions. Photo by Malhar Indulkar.

Marathwada parched as watershed conservation remains neglected

Meena Menon visits the drought-hit villages of Aurangabad, Beed and Jalna districts of Maharashtra during summer. She finds dry wells and a long wait for water supplied by tankers. However, some of the villages that have practised watershed development have an improved water situation compared to the neighbouring villages. Why are these interventions neglected, she asks?

When the tanker comes – filling water in Chorala village of Jalna district. Photo by Meena Menon.

Major transnational wildlife crime could catch India by surprise

Sahana Ghosh interviews conservation biologist Samuel Wasser, who talks about the use of DNA analysis to prevent wildlife poaching and trafficking. Wasser mentions that he is initiating collaborations to establish a pangolin DNA reference library in the Wildlife Institute of India.

Samuel Wasser with elephant tusk seizure made in Malaysia. Photo courtesy of Samuel K. Wasser/Animal Welfare Institute.

Much ado about a highway

Arathi Menon writes this comprehensive report on the National Highway 766, which connects Bengaluru in Karnataka with Wayanad district in Kerala. This highway is closed at night since it passes through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and night traffic has resulted in many wildlife roadkills. This has led to protests in Kerala, which sees the highway as the lifeline for those travelling to and from Bengaluru.

About 19.7 km of NH 766 that connects Karnataka and Kerala, passes through the core of Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.

Peatlands are crucial carbon sinks but they are not on the map

Participating in the 25th Conference of Parties (CoP-25) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Kartik Chandramouli, speaks with international experts on the importance of peatlands for sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Despite their role as a sponge for carbon, they have not even been mapped properly across the world. They are being destroyed through habitat and land use change.

Only 3% of earth’s land is peatland but it contains twice the amount of carbon as the world’s forests. Photo by Hans Joosten.
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