Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

2014 HAS brought In­dia’s en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment to a cross­road. On the one hand, there is a greater ac­cep­tance of our con­cerns, but on the other hand, there is also grow­ing re­sis­tance against the re­quired ac­tion. More im­por­tantly, ev­ery in­di­ca­tor shows that things on the ground are get­ting worse. Our rivers are more pol­luted, more garbage is pil­ing up in our cities, air is in­creas­ingly toxic and haz­ardous waste is just dumped, not man­aged. Worse, peo­ple who should have been in the front line of pro­tec­tion are turn­ing against the en­vi­ron­ment. They see it as a con­straint to lo­cal devel­op­ment. They may protest against the pol­lu­tion from neigh­bour­ing mines or fac­to­ries, but even if they suc­ceed their liveli­hood from nat­u­ral re­sources is not se­cure. They are caught be­tween min­ing com­pa­nies and foresters. Ei­ther way, they lose.

We must also re­alise that even as en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems have grown, the in­sti­tu­tions for the over­sight and man­age­ment of nat­u­ral re­sources have shrunk. While the en­vi­ron­men­tal con­stituency has grown, core be­liefs have been lost. In this way, the un­der­ly­ing pol­i­tics of en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment has been neutered.

It is im­por­tant we point out the fun­da­men­tal weak­nesses and con­tra­dic­tions in the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment. It is only then that we can de­lib­er­ate on the di­rec­tion for fu­ture growth of the move­ment.

Firstly, we have lost the devel­op­ment agenda in en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment. In­stead of work­ing to re­gen­er­ate the nat­u­ral cap­i­tal for in­clu­sive growth, we have in­creas­ingly framed ac­tion as devel­op­ment ver­sus en­vi­ron­ment.We have dis­con­nected en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment from devel­op­ment. Man­age­ment of nat­u­ral re­sources—swing­ing be­tween ex­trac­tion and con­ser­va­tion—is leav­ing out of its wake mil­lions who live on the re­sources. Th­ese peo­ple can­not af­ford ei­ther the degra­da­tion of re­sources or pure con­ser­va­tion. They need to utilise nat­u­ral re­sources for their liveli­hood and eco­nomic growth. In this way, the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment is in dan­ger of mak­ing enemies of the very peo­ple whose in­ter­est it is work­ing to pro­tect.

We need to move be­yond con­ser­va­tion to sus­tain­able man­age­ment of nat­u­ral re­sources. En­vi­ron­ment must be­come In­dia’s devel­op­ment agenda again. This is im­per­a­tive.

Se­condly, the de­bate on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues is in­creas­ingly po­larised and seen as ob­struc­tion­ist.In real life we need to go be­yond ab­so­lute po­si­tions so that there is some res­o­lu­tion and some move­ment for­ward. In an ideal world, there should be enough trust and con­fi­dence that once we begin to move ahead, there can be re­views, as­sess­ments and course cor­rec­tion. This is dif­fi­cult in the cur­rent sce­nario where the world is un­evenly di­vided be­tween those with the pol­luters, min­ing com­pa­nies and dam builders, and the rest. In­sti­tu­tions that can help re­solve con­flicts have been weak­ened. Trust is lost all around, so the worst de­fence plays out.

But play­ing de­fen­sive does not work in the long run.The en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment is able to stall, but not stop, en­vi­ron­men­tally dis­as­trous projects. Worse, since there is no space for the mid­dle ground that can al­low dis­cus­sion on how a project should func­tion if al­lowed, there is no im­prove­ment in the sit­u­a­tion on the ground once the project is sanc­tioned.The en­tire en­ergy is in­vested in block­ing projects and once a project is cleared the mission is lost. There is no em­pha­sis, or even ca­pac­ity in many cases, to look at the al­ter­na­tive that would mit­i­gate en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age.

Thirdly, en­vi­ron­men­tal strug­gles are in­creas­ingly about not-in-my-backyard (nimby). This is un­der­stand­able but the prob­lem in a highly in­iq­ui­tous coun­try like In­dia is that nimby can sim­ply mean that peo­ple do not want some­thing in their backyard, but it can move to the backyard of some­one else who is less pow­er­ful.

We must re­alise that even as mid­dle-class en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism will grow, which is im­por­tant, it will not be enough to bring im­prove­ment or change. This is be­cause so­lu­tions for en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment re­quire in­clu­sive growth. Oth­er­wise, at best, we will have more “gated” and “green” homes and colonies, but not green neigh­bour­hoods, rivers, cities or coun­try.

Fourthly, and most crit­i­cally, one has to look for so­lu­tions and not just pose prob­lems.The search for tech­nolo­gies and ap­proaches to en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment will have to recog­nise the need to do things dif­fer­ently so that sus­tain­able growth is af­ford­able to all. One must also recog­nise that strength­en­ing the in­sti­tu­tions is vi­tal; we can­not im­prove per­for­mance with­out in­vest­ment in boots on the ground.

This de­mands a new way of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism to em­brace ideas with­out dogma but with ide­al­ism and pur­pose. This en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism will have to move be­yond the prob­lems of to­day and yes­ter­day.And for that we bet­ter im­bibe the pol­i­tics that will de­liver this.

For de­tailed es­say on new en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism please see the re­port, State of In­dia’s En­vi­ron­ment 2015

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