I never thought I would be writing an obituary about a friend and a colleague. Darryl D’Monte — journalist, author, environmentalist, human rights activist, and, above all, a good human being has passed. He died on March 16 in a hospital in Mumbai, a city he lived in, loved and fought to save from environmental destruction.
I knew Darryl for decades, as a fellow journalist with whom I worked for a short period in a newspaper, but more than that as a person with whom I shared many common concerns. Apart from his stints as an editor in Indian Express and Times of India, it is Darryl’s pioneering work as an environmental journalist that will be long remembered.
When he wrote about the Silent Valley controversy in the 1970s, where a dam would have destroyed precious biodiversity including the habitat of one of the world’s rarest and threatened primates, the Lion Tailed Macaque, the concept of “environmental” journalism was unknown. Yet, it is the controversy surrounding the dam in Kerala, and the prospect of habitat destruction, that yanked the issue away from conservation to questioning developmental policy. Eventually, the campaign to save the area led to the creation of a national park that would be excluded from the project area of the dam. In his book Temples or Tombs: Industry vs Environment (1985), Darryl has recorded this early environmental battle between the interests of saving the natural environment and the demands of development.
Although Darryl worked for much of his life in mainstream media, he never gave up his convictions on environment, human rights, civic and urban issues and on the rights of the most marginalised. Indeed, being a “committed” journalist was a label Darryl wore unapologetically. Through his reporting, he established that even if we, as journalists, have strong convictions, we can report with rigour and professionalism. His environmental reports stood out for the absence of polemics and for the thorough research that they contained. This kind of reporting set a gold standard for generations of journalists that have followed in his footsteps.
Darryl consciously mentored others. In the cut-throat competitive world in which journalists operate, this stood out then, and stands out even more now, as an unusual trait. But he was more concerned that the issues — whether to do with loss of biodiversity, destructive developmental policies, or climate change — were addressed by many more journalists than just those of his generation. By setting up the Forum for Environmental Journalists (FEJI), Darryl extended support and opened up opportunities for scores of journalists, many from outside the big metros who are not plugged into professional networks, to be trained in environmental reporting.
It is the city of Mumbai, with which Darryl was closely engaged, where he is most remembered and cherished. In Bandra, where his family has lived for generations, he was a known person, actively engaged in civic and cultural affairs — always ready to battle against insensitive and environmentally destructive developmental plans initiated by the municipality or the state government.
His book Ripping the Fabric: The Decline of Mumbai and its Mills (2002) is especially important from the perspective of the city’s maldevelopment: Darryl captured the indifference of the government to the rights of workers and its willingness to accede to the millowners and land sharks who only saw Girangaon (the area in central Mumbai once known for its flourishing textile mills) as prime real estate. In hindsight, what began then in terms of myopic city development has now cascaded into a situation where Mumbai has become a city in perennial crisis.
Till the end, Darryl never tired of raising the red flag on this. His most recent intervention was questioning the wisdom of building a coastal road to accommodate the needs of a small, well-heeled population owning private vehicles at the cost of the livelihoods of Mumbai’s fisherfolk, its coastal environment and the needs of the majority who have to contend daily with crumbling infrastructure. Unfortunately, the state government is determined to push ahead with the plan and the courts, so far, have not been sympathetic to the pleas of the fisherfolk.
There is never a good time for anyone to go, but this was not a good time for Darryl to go. His sane voice is needed today more than ever before. As this country hurtles towards becoming a violent and fractious society, where the voice of people at the margins is drowned, and where saving the environment is just empty words as policy forges ahead to destroy it, the passion of journalists like Darryl D’Monte is irreplaceable. One hopes the legion of younger journalists he mentored will carry forward his legacy.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 19, 2019, under the title ‘Goodbye, Darryl’. The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist.