(Sample Material) Gist of IIPA Journal: Environmentalism, Ecology and Voluntary Movement Harsh Sethi

(Sample Material) Gist of Important Articles from IIPA Journal

Topic: Environmentalism, Ecology and Voluntary Movement Harsh Sethi

The voluntary sector is a mixed bag of groups and individuals of different size, ideologies, areas of operation and concern, funding sources and affectivity. The sub-sector of environmental groups, thus, shares all the strengths and limitations of the voluntary sector as-a whole.

Within the environmental sector, the first problem that the voluntary groups face is that of lack of expertise and understanding. Ecological science is of recent origin and there is an overall lacunae of scholarship and understanding. Thus, notwithstanding the growth in the number of ‘counter-experts’ and the conscious forging of links between the voluntary groups and universities and research institutions, lack of data and understanding end up diluting many of the arguments that the voluntary groups come up with. Given their limited budgets, most groups, individually or as part of a network, find it difficult to either retain expertise or carry out environmental impact analysis. The fact that most data, of whatever quality, lies with the government, which hiding behind the garb of confidentiality, makes it near impossible to put together a convincing argument. The Bhopal disaster is a case in point, where even the meteorological data on wind speeds and direction so central to any attempt at computing he numbers likely to be affected by the MIC leakage was denied. No official institution was willing to test samples of water, plant life, food, etc. In such a situation, where the Union Carbide and the Union Government could marshal “scientific evidence and expertise”, the ill-equipped and fragmented voluntary groups could do little. The wonder is that they did manage to do what they did.

The size and scattered nature of voluntary groups causes another problem. Even if a worthwhile case can be made, the effective strength of a group or even a network of groups to carve out a “sympathetic hearing space” in an extremely hostile environment is severely limited. Many of the protest efforts are labelled as anti-development and anti-progress if not anti-national; certified by their opponents as products of an anti-diluvian Luddite world-view, branded as agents of Western imperialism, and then sought to be cu-opted or crushed. Innumerable examples can be cited to demonstrate that even asking for rigorous implementation of the various environmental legislations is no guarantee that the State will not come down with a heavy hand. In fact, the relationship of the voluntary groups with officialdom turns out to be extremely ambivalent—support to some agencies on some issues, and a neglect, if not a snuffing out, of others.

Even the strategy of petitioning the courts through invoking the provisions of public interest litigation often serves little purpose. Forgetting for a moment the inherent limitations of court procedure time, money, etc., or that judgements are not necessarily implemented or even that law and justice are not synonymous categories—the court-based strategy may not even open up a public debate. As mentioned earlier, the Tehri Dam, though still listed for hearing in the Supreme Court, was given clearance by the Government of India only a few months back. Similarly, the conflict on continuation of limestone mining in the reserved forest areas of the Doon valley, even with the court petition being based on a study carried out under the aegis of the Department of Environment, did not lead to any positive action by the government. In f act, the few instances of positive intervention by the State can be directly traced to the interest shown by the highest political authority in the land. In all other cases, ‘success’ has only come through a militant and collective resistance by the affected people, and that too in areas where the urgency shown by the State in its development thrust is somewhat limited. Thus, while the Koel-Karo project has been successfully stalled to date, efforts in the Singrauli region to resist the development of the coalmines, super thermal power complexes, and associated industrialization continues to be pushed through. The fact that well over 150,000 people have been forcefully displace more than once, is not seen as an issue of concern.

All these leave the voluntary groups in a somewhat difficult position. Lack of effective concern/sensitisation in the decision-making elite, lack of the data and expertise to open up a meaningful public debate, the relative inefficacy of the various environmental legislations and the law implementing agencies force the few voluntary groups which have an organic mass base into a mode of protest an confrontation. Whether it is the Singhbhum Ekta Group in Koel-Karo or the Citizen’s Committee in Balliapal, what has worked, at least transitorily, is collective resistance and non-cooperation. The fact that this opens up the groups to a charge of being anti-development and anti-national only makes things worse.

The issue in a final sense is not one merely of the tactics an strategy of mobilisation and organisation—the indication we may get if we focus only on questions relating to the size, effectivity budgets or expertise of the agencies. Rather it is to understand that it is one of the politics of natural resource conflicts in the widest sense—of who has a right to decide what use is to be made of which resource, by whom, and for what purpose. Struggles over natural resources are only partly related to issues of distributive justice. More fundamentally, they relate to our understanding of ma and nature.

To put it in another way, why is it that the costs of development can be so easily wished away, either as historically necessary or to be responded to at an undetermined future date? Why is it that the charge of being anti-science, anti-development, even anti-national finds such a ready resonance in the mainstream mind and culture? Is it that those affected are part of the margins of our society-dalits, tribals, women—who are not to be taken seriously? Is it that what matters is immediate material gain, and that environmental effects take a long time in surfacing? Or is it that in our (to be read by the elites) acceptance of the dominant development paradigm-consolidated through the desire to rapidly approach the prevailing Western standards of consumption—dissent, particularly based on cultural terrain that is seen by the elite as backward, can be remorselessly and ruthlessly suppressed. The relationship of a people to their environment from which is drawn their culture, the meaning they give to life, is a notion totally incomprehensible—to be dismissed as romantic, archaic, and harking back to the past.

The real problem that anyone working on the issue of ecology thus, has to confront, and this includes the voluntary groups, is the mindset formed by the post-Cartesian worldview—where modern science the reason of State development and progress all are read a coextensive. It is not insignificant that even a letter to the Prime Minister signed by six prominent citizens appealing that the Narmada project be reconsidered, opened up such a barrage of hostile criticism in the Gujarat media, that no local person was willing to speak up on the issue.

The voluntary groups are, thus, faced with a seemingly irredeemable situation. Lauded for their undoubtedly leading role in sensitizing policy-makers and public alike to the gross ill effects of ill-planned and insensitive developmental inter vent ion; wooed for their greater ability in mobilising and organising people for participation in the official eco-development projects, they face a hostile presence if they step out of line. None of this is to argue that their role is confined to mere tinkering or the provision of alternatives. The different voluntary initiatives do need to be given due credit for opening out, albeit in a limited manner, a Pandora’s box of concerns that the State will find difficult to bottle up, and they do need to keep up the pressure through these activities. Nevertheless, given their relatively greater organic links with the’ rejects’ of the development process, they need to more creatively explore the thinking and debate on development alternatives in the country, particularly with respect to production and consumption choices.

For this, there is much to learn from the Chipko Movement in the Himalayas. A movement, whose roots can be traced back to the twenties of this decade when the first major struggle against the Forest Policy enunciated by the British took place Chipko today represents a mass involvement of common people which has struggled successfully against commercial felling of green trees, for local use and control of community resources, against lime-stone mining, against the Tehri Dam, against alcoholism and drinking of tea—all without a clearly recognizable organisation and leadership directing it. It involves Gandhians, Marxists, as also other political shades, but its real strength is derived from a building up of the local cultural texture—a cosmic view which looks upon forests not as a resource for commercial exploitation but as bearers of fresh air, water, and soil. It is the “culture and community orientation axis” that gives Chipko its unique strength, such that even in the final decades of the twentieth century, we have an ongoing and living example of practising alternatives.

It is by learning from the experience of Chipko or the Jharkhand Movement in the Santhal Parganas or even the water sharing experiments of the Pani Panchayat—just to name a few—that the voluntary groups can extend their undoubtedly valuable work. Only by delving deep in the still alive cultural traditions that exist outside the ambit of mainstream statist and techniques development discourse, can the voluntary movement keep the option of exploring social alternatives open. There is, in a manner of speaking, no one else.

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