Learn to walk lightly

In Sikkim, bowing to local protests, the government has cancelled 11 hydro-electric projects. In Arunachal Pradesh, dam projects are being cleared at breakneck speed and resistance is growing. In Uttarakhand last month, 2 projects on the Ganga were put on hold and there is growing concern about the rest. In Himachal Pradesh, dams are so controversial that elections were won where candidates said they would not allow these to be built. Many other projects, from thermal power stations to Greenfield mining, are being resisted. The South Korean giant posco’s iron ore mine, steel plant and port are under fire. The prime minister has promised the South Korean premier the project will go ahead by August. But local people are not listening. They don’t want to lose their land and livelihood and do not believe in promises of compensation. In Maharashtra, mango growers are up in arms against the proposed thermal power station in Ratnagiri.

In every nook and corner of the country where land is acquired, or water sourced, for industry, people are fighting even to death. There are wounds. There is violence. There is also desperation. Like it or not, there are a million mutinies today. Like it or not, there will be two million tomorrow. Unless we understand these protests are not just about politically motivated people stirred up by outsiders and competitors to obstruct development.

I have written this before. After I visited Kalinganagar, where villagers died protesting against Tata’s project, I wrote this was not about competition or Naxalism. These were poor villagers who knew they did not have the skills to survive in the modern world. They had seen their neighbours displaced, promised jobs and money that never came. They knew they were poor. But they also knew modern development would make them poorer. It was the same in prosperous Goa, where I found village after village fighting against the powerful mining lobby, where people told me they were fed up because mining rejects destroyed their agriculture and dried-up their streams. These were educated, even skilled, people. But they did not want to drive the trucks of the miners. They wanted to till their land. Make money. Live well, if not rich.

This is the nub of the matter: we just cannot believe people, poor or relatively rich, do not want to leave their land, when we promise them jobs. We can only see their wretched poverty. We cannot understand their reason.

This article is not about them, but us. It is clear we need dams, steel plants and thermal power projects. These are key to our need to develop. We know this, and so we refuse to understand them. Used to getting our way, we are working to fast-track our development, through fiat. Our response is two-fold. First, we want to change and weaken environmental regulations in the name of streamlining procedures and providing single-window clearances to industry. Last year, the government, under pressure on environmental safeguards, changed the rules of the environmental impact assessment (eia) procedures. The idea was to ‘cut’ red tape and to give fast clearances. There is now pressure to give de-facto clearance to all mining projects that have been given a clearance to prospect for minerals. There are also murmurs about removing thermal projects from environmental clearances. And now, a powerful grouping of real estate movers and shakers are demanding no clearances be required for urban projects—malls, residential areas, whatever.

We also justify this process, saying the institutions that grant clearances are corrupt and incompetent. We do not say these same institutions have been made corrupt because we have promoted procedures for our convenience and access to decision-making. We do not say the eia is not worth the paper it is written on, or that the consultant is given money by us, not to assess a project but to get it cleared. We also do not demand these institutions must be given more staff, more facilities and more ways to do their job.

Second, we lose patience. And with it, we are losing our humanity. Today, people are in a dirty war even as we stoop, to stop at nothing to quell the fight. Our tactics are well rehearsed. We first work on the leaders. If we can’t buy them, we threaten them. If that fails, we hide behind the might of the state to ensure protest is muzzled.

But what we should realise, fast, is these strategies are not working. Yes, we get our way in some cases, for some time. But what resentment and anger, even hatred, we create, in our own backyard. We must realise these struggles are not ‘time-pass movements’ (as the slang goes). These are about survival. The fact is in India vast numbers depend on the land, the forests and the water they have in their vicinity for their livelihood. They know once these resources are gone or degraded, they have no way ahead.

This is the environmental movement of the very poor. Here, there are no quick-fix techno solutions in which the real problems can be fobbed off for later. In this environmentalism, there is only one answer: changing the way we do business, with them and with their environment. It will demand we reduce our need and increase our efficiency for every inch of land we need, every tonne of mineral we dig and every drop of water we use. It will demand new arrangements to share benefits with local communities so that they are persuaded to part with their resources for a common development.

If we can listen and learn, maybe this environmentalism of the poor may teach not just us, but the entire world, how to walk lightly on earth. Maybe. Just maybe.

—Sunita Narain