1944 — 2019
Sometimes, we realise the full worth of a person only after they are gone. In life, Darryl D’Monte was known and respected as a journalist and environmentalist. After his sudden demise on March 16 this year, we were reminded of Darryl the good human being, the mentor, the friend, and the loyal comrade in so many causes.
Darryl was the quintessential Bombay man. He loved the city where he lived and died. Till the end, he fought to save it from the greed and indifference of those who only saw the city’s value in terms of monetary gain instead of appreciating its special culture, its irreplaceable natural environment, and the diverse histories and peoples that make up this remarkable metropolis.
I knew Darryl as a journalist but also as a person with whom I shared many common concerns. As journalists, we are expected to appear “balanced” by holding back on stating openly what we stand for and believe in. We try not to be labelled as “activist journalists”. Darryl refused to abide by this norm. He remained, till the end, an open and passionate advocate — for saving the natural environment, against destructive development policy, for the rights of the poor, for the democratic right to dissent, and for freedom. None of this detracted from his excellence as a journalist. He wrote incisively on environmental policy, backing his arguments with irrefutable facts and anchored his writing on the lived experiences of the people who pay the highest price for the deterioration of the environment, the poor.
Far from commenting from afar on urban issues, Darryl dirtied his hands in the nitty-gritty of civic matters. He was intimately involved and concerned about his beloved Bandra, the locality with which he had a historical connect and of which he was a leading civic-minded citizen. There is probably not a campaign in which Darryl was not involved. His commitment went beyond lending his name to causes. It meant practical and detailed work required of a civic activism that yields results. From advocacy to joining demonstrations, Darryl was there.
His understanding of urban issues went beyond his neighbourhood. This is evident in the many articles he wrote of the urban challenges faced by a city like Mumbai. It was also spelled out in greater detail in his landmark book on Mumbai’s textile lands, Ripping the Fabric, The Decline of Mumbai and its Mills (2002). The book is a thoroughly researched account of the battle for the rights of the land on which Mumbai’s declining textile mills were located. Did the men and women who laboured to keep these mills running, have the first right to decide? Or were the owners of these mills, who willfully allowed them to decline and ultimately close, be permitted to redevelop these lands for profit? The answer to that crucial decision, which ultimately tilted in favour of real estate developers, set the tone for what was to follow in Mumbai in the decades since the 1980s. It opened the way for the inequity that is a marker of the metropolis where luxury homes wait to be occupied while millions of the labouring poor remain virtually homeless. The closing lines of the last chapter in the book, called “Whose Mumbai is it anyway?” are almost prophetic: “Unless a city attends to the diverse needs of all its citizens, the fortunate as well as the deprived, it will atrophy.”
This concern for all aspects of urban life and policy was also reflected in Darryl’s views on the environment. He went beyond conservation and preserving the natural environment to questioning developmental policy that refused to acknowledge the need for environmental sustainability, or the rights of the people whose livelihood was linked to a natural resource base.
In fact his first book Temples or Tombs, Industry vs Environment (1985) dissected India’s fascination in the post-Independence era with gigantism and was one of the first to argue for an environmental perspective to be integrated in developmental policy. In the book, he looked at the controversy around the Silent Valley biosphere in Kerala, where a large dam would have destroyed the habitat of the endangered Lion Tailed Macaque.He considered the consequences of unplanned industrialisation in the context of the impact of an oil refinery being located in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal. The book was a path-breaker in arguing the need for integrating environmental concerns as a part of developmental policy rather than as an afterthought.
In his later years, Darryl played an important role in bringing home the urgency of addressing climate change in India. Few journalists have spent time to understand the many complexities of international climate change negotiations and the commitments that national government have made, including the Indian government. The importance of media investigating not just the impact of climate change, but highlighting the gap between professed policy and its implementation, has never been more urgent. Darryl’s voice will be missed but one hopes that the tribe of environmental journalists with whom he collaborated and mentored will continue to pursue this with the rigour and passion that he brought to his writing.
On a more personal note, I will always remember Darryl for his warmth, his sense of humour, his steady friendship, and his humanity. Friends like him are hard to find.