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Monday, May 17, 2010

Giving her all for the green cause

Teresa Rehman
It was Karachi-based journalist Shabina Faraz's passion for environment that helped bring climate issues to the mass-circulating Urdu press..

Sensitising society to environment.

A cynical editor from a leading Urdu newspaper in Pakistan once told her, “Who would read drab and lacklustre stories on environmental issues? You have exceptional writing skills. You should concentrate on political writing.”
This observation, fortunately, did not deter Karachi-based journalist Shabina Faraz from pursuing her passion for the environment. Today, she is credited with having introduced environmental issues in the mass-circulating Urdu press in Pakistan. Through sheer persistence, Shabina managed to push her climate stories into the Urdu media, past unyielding editors, and eventually won the hearts of many readers.
So much so, that the same editor who had advised her to concentrate on politics earlier, proposed to start a regular page on environmental issues, although he still remained sceptical: “Are you sure you will find enough issues to write regularly on the environment?” he had questioned. His scepticism was well-founded though; the Urdu press normally did not have much to say about environmental issues.
   But for Shabina there was no looking back. She recalls how her writing actually influenced government policy. For instance, in 1999, the authorities gave a petroleum company permission to undertake exploration activity in the Kirthar National Park, located in the Kirthar mountain ranges of Sindh. Spread over an area of 3,08,733 hectares, it was Pakistan's first National Park to be included in the 1975 United Nation's list of National Parks around the world.
   Protesting against the exploration activity was not easy. Although civil society groups and NGO activists had taken a stand against the government's decision, the media was indifferent to it. There was only one television channel, PTV, at that time and it was government-run. “The private channels came much later — in 2002. In such a situation, the role of print journalists assumed importance,” she recalls.
Lone campaigner
Slowly English newspapers started focusing on the issue. Shabina was the lone campaigner in the Urdu media, which reaches out to hundreds of thousands of ordinary readers. As an editor of the Urdu environmental weekly Jareeda, supported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), she wrote detailed and compelling reports explaining in layman's language what exactly a national park is, its importance and the legal aspects. After a two-year crusade, the government was forced into withdrawing its decision.
   For the journalist this was a personal victory. She now found it easier to write on other environment-related issues. Support from her readers grew, followed by general public attention.
She won many accolades and awards; it was a proud moment for her when she received the Green Journalist Award 2009 from Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani. The award was in recognition of her work on climate change and women in Pakistan.
   Shabina had indeed come a long way. Born in 1965 into a family with a strong literary background, she majored in Urdu literature. As a child, she had read the works of Mirza Ghalib, Meer Taqi Meer, Meer Dard, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Muneer Niazi and Nasir Kazmi. “It was difficult to grasp many things then. But I was eager to learn,” she says. Of course, there was one other thing that was close to her heart: the environment.
   Equipped with a Masters Degree in Urdu Literature from the University of Karachi, she did not take the conventional path to academics but instead started working as an Assistant Editor with the Jasoosi Digest Publications, the largest group of entertainment magazines in Pakistan. She wrote many short stories and translated classical stories from English to Urdu during this phase. Three television dramas and two documentaries in Urdu followed. While doing this, she also managed to introduce environmental issues in stories for the first time.
The turning point
The turning point came when she was invited by the IUCN for a five-day workshop on Forest and Wildlife at Faisalabad. It opened a whole new world of possibilities. She started writing on environmental issues for the Jang group of Publications, the largest media group in Pakistan. “Here, 95 per cent of readers read Urdu newspapers, with 85 per cent reading the Jang. I felt like I was doing something worthwhile,” she says.
In 1995, Karachi witnessed unusually heavy rains. The old port city has two rivers, the Malir and the Liari, running through it, besides many rain-fed drains. However, the land mafia and influential citizens had encroached on the drains and, as a result, after the heavy showers, the entire city was flooded.
   “We pointed out the illegal encroachments and published the original maps of the city. After a month, the authorities took action and demolished many high-rise buildings. I am happy that as a journalist I could manage to mould public opinion on the issue,” she says.
   But the government's efforts on environment are only cosmetic, she says. “It declared 2009 as the National Year of Environment, but organised only two conferences,” she rues, adding, “Pakistan's electronic media revolves around politics and politicians and stories of corruption. If they telecast any environment-related news they fail to cross-check facts and tend to look at every environmental issue through the lens of corruption and politics,” she says.
Getting people together
Shabina has created and supported the Forum of Environmental Journalists of Pakistan with the help of IUCN. Today, grassroots organisations seek her advice; television channels HUM and AAJ TV invite her for talk shows on the environment; and even the regional language press like the Sindhi media often reprint translated versions of her articles. She also works with BBC Urdu and has written a book on environmental issues in Sindhi for children. Soon it will be a part of school curriculum.
   She is now delving deep into the lost water resources of Pakistan, like the legendary Saraswati river, which disappeared because of geographical and climate changes. “We have already lost three civilisations — the Indus, Mohenjo-daro and Harappa — to climate change and water scarcity,” she says.
Women's Feature Service / The Hindu Business Line

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