Interview with Manu Moudgil, 2015 CMS VATAVARAN 'Young Environmental Journalism Awards-Online' Winner

"There can't be more important work than water": Manu Moudgil speaks on how and why water influences his outlook as well as his writings.
Manu Moudgil, on a field trip to Mangalore (Source: Shree Padre)
Manu Moudgil, on a field trip to Mangalore (Source: Shree Padre)

We are pleased to interview Manu Moudgil, India Water Portal's team member, who has won the prestigous 'Young Environmental Journalism Awards-Online', in the 8th CMS VATAVARAN - International Environment & Wildlife Film Festival and Forum 2015. These awards are for excellence in environmental journalism and are presented to an individual who has done exemplary investigative and inspired reporting on environmental issues in the country. 

Manu is an independent journalist, working as a consultant with India Water Portal and has interest in areas of health, environment and the media industry. He also manages GOI Monitor, a web magazine on policy issues. It was an added pleasure to chat with Manu on his recent win on what made him foray into the field of water and what it is that makes his writing what it is. 

The 3 stories that you submitted for the 8th CMS Vatavaran festival: 'Swachh Punjab' is a stinking reality, A case against small hydropower and Surplus yet lacking: Water supply schemes in Punjab, are ‘water-centric’.  When and where did this concern for water issues begin?

My main area of interest in writing was governance within which I used to write infrequently about water. Reading Anupam Mishra and visiting western Rajasthan where the value of water is paramount, I had the realisation that there can’t be more important work than that on water. But it was only after joining India Water Portal that I got introduced to so many aspects of water, all of which are vital to life. 

Favourite writer 

Anupam Mishra. His writings connect the past with present so beautifully. I am sure that many people have been reintroduced to Hindi because of him.

A journalist, you are now with India Water Portal as a consultant. What is the most interesting thing that writing has taught you? 

Being open to new ideas and people.

How does the idea of a new write-up come about? Where does the research material come from?

Ideas come from everywhere. Travel throws up a lot of ideas for future use. Generally talking to someone and reading work by others is always helpful. Depending upon the topic, research material may come from people on the ground or through publicly available study papers. Nowadays, a lot of government data is also available in the public domain which helps a lot but a good story can’t just depend on data. The information should be verified on the ground because many a times, secondary information is half-baked or not in the right context.

What are the kinds of stories that you enjoy writing about, ideas that get your words racing?

I love to write about community relations with the environment and how it is under strain due to various factors. Oral history around conservation practices always catches my attention. 

Most over used cliché by green reporters

Sustainability

Do you experience writer’s block ever?

Of course, writer’s block is an essential part of the process. Most of the time, it happens when I am not focussed and hence is a good warning sign. A good solution for me is to put my personal experience from the field into the story. That captures my interest and also enriches the story.

Do you find people easy to talk to in the course of your travels? Is there any interesting incident that you would like to share with our readers on the people that you have met and spoken to?

Thankfully, in villages, people still love to connect. They appreciate the fact that you have travelled all the way to meet them and many a times go out of the way to make you feel comfortable. But then there are times, they feel puzzled about why you have come from so far to talk about, let’s say, their irrigation channels because for them it is mundane. 

Once I was travelling to Barmer, Rajasthan, and in the local bus, this teenage boy kept asking why I have come so far to look at their wells. I told him these wells are unique because they access water trapped in layers of soil, much above the saline water table. He was still not convinced.

In Punjab, villagers often suspect you to be a government official who has come to conduct a survey for a new social welfare scheme. Once a man said I could not be a journalist because I was not taking notes. I showed him the voice recorder but he still did not trust. But mostly, people are very open and willing to share their thoughts.

Do you believe that writing on water and related issues caters to a specific audience? Is your writing targeted keeping a particular audience in mind?

Not really. Water is everywhere and we are all connected to it. I try to write a human-interest story involving people and their experiences around water. Though there are times technical terms have to be used, the effort is to get everyone on board. 

What do you feel is the impact of your stories on the people that you write about? 

It’s not always the story but the whole process, especially the field visits, which leaves an impact because many of them don’t use the internet or are not comfortable with the language. I try not to just access information from the people but also tell them about whatever I have learned on the specific issue which might be a solution from somewhere else or a government policy. 

One of the stories I had submitted for the award on the impact of small hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh, caught the attention of the authorities who then formed an inquiry committee on the same. It may or may not lead to positive results in the end. Having said that, it’s gratifying when a story leads to some action on the ground.

How did you decide to participate in the Young Environmental Journalism Awards?

I saw the invite for applications at a google group for environment journalists. I satisfied the age limit criteria and thought of giving it a shot. 

What were your immediate thoughts on learning that you had won the Young Environmental Journalism Award-Online?

Well, I would be lying if I say I never dreamt about this but the news still took me by surprise. I was left numb as CMS Vatavaran is a big thing in the field of environment. And the thoughts that came next were: “Wow, I have made it”!

Why do you think that you won?

I guess one of the reasons is that the stories I sent were field stories from far off areas and also on topics which have not been investigated much like small hydropower or high toilet coverage leading to surface and groundwater contamination. In addition, I also feel that when compared to print, online journalism on environment is still in a formative stage and hence less competitive. The competition will get stiffer by next year. So, we can say I was lucky to be below 35 and doing online stories on interesting topics at the right time. 

What does winning this Award mean to you and your work?

It means a lot. It’s a first award ever and will definitely help me carry on. Though I would have continued doing the work that excites me even otherwise, this recognition has validated the past decisions I have made, especially that of leaving the mainstream media space. 

Favourite quote:

Act out of love, not fear.

If you could interview or write on any one person in the world (dead or alive), who would that be?

It has to be Gandhiji. He has inspired so many and his ideas have traversed generations. We don’t know much about his thoughts on the environment because it was not under threat; independence was main issue at that time. But his ideas of self-governance, non-violence, naturopathy, cottage industry and community living sit well with ecological conservation. He was also inspired by various religious texts, which emphasise on the divine relation between man and nature.

Which qualities of yours do you feel help you write better?  

I have written on various subjects including health, transparency law (RTI), media ethics, agriculture, forests. All this knowledge gathered over the years enriches my writings as no topic is stand-alone. I also consciously avoid hurrying up things, because that always impacts the quality. For a field story, I like to meet as many people and visit as many places as possible; and India Water Portal gives me that freedom to explore. Also, I am always willing to listen and learn. For me, meeting different people is the biggest remuneration of being a journalist.

Environmental journalist whose work interests you

Lately, I have started following photographer and writer Arati Kumar Rao who is very good at descriptive writing and connecting the dots.

What are the challenges you constantly face in your writings? 

For a long form journalist, writing for a thrifty online reader is always the biggest challenge. Though we try to use baits like visualisations, it’s tough to compete with enticing content from the fields of politics and entertainment. One thing I really want to work on is my vocabulary especially about the plant and animal world. I find it difficult to recreate the environment in the story. That restricts the writing to 5 Ws and 1 H. which, though factually correct, gets boring.

I recently figured out , that there are a few clichés that tend to I repeat in every story. Have started keeping my eyes open for them lately!

Are there any thoughts you would like to share with our readers? What would you like your readers to take back after reading an article written by you?

Well, people need to understand that the environment is not something external to us. The polluted water that we ignore will come back to haunt us. It’s high time we stop being at war with ourselves.

The CMS VATAVARAN Young Environmental Journalism Awards will be presented on October 11, 2015 at Convention Centre, New Delhi.

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