Time for new environmentalism

  • Wishing all our readers and visitors a happy world environment day, with the hope that the world will continue to work towards paying a little more than mere lip service to the cause of environment and development.

By Sunita Narain

India’s environmental movement is at a crossroads. On one hand, there is a greater acceptance of our concerns, but on the other there is growing resistance against required action and, more importantly, every indicator shows that things on the ground are getting worse. Our rivers are more polluted; much more garbage is piling up in our cities; air is increasingly getting toxic; and hazardous waste is dumped, and not managed. Worse, people who should have been at the frontline of protection are turning against the environment. They see it as a constraint to their local development and even as they may protest against the pollution of neighbourhood mines or factories, they have no reason to believe that their livelihood from natural resources is secured. They are caught between the mining companies and the foresters. Either way, they lose.

So, I believe, it is time we took stock of developments and future directions. In the past four decades—the beginnings of India’s environmental movement can be traced to the early 1970s, when the country saw its first environmental movement (Chipko), the launch of Project Tiger and enactment of the water pollution law—much has changed. And yet, not changed.

The worst indictment is that over 700 million people in India still use dirty, polluting biomass
for cooking food and that an equal number defecate in the open. They do not have access to the basics—clean water, hygienic toilets that do not end up polluting rivers and groundwater, and energy for lighting or cooking. Clearly, somewhere we are going wrong, very wrong.

We must also realise that even as the problems have grown, the institutions for their oversight and management have shrunk. Many actions have been taken but, equally, many more actions that have been taken have come to naught. Most importantly, while the environmental constituency has grown—many more people are interested in environmental issues—principles of environmentalism have got lost. In this way, the underlying politics has been neutered.

It is important we point to the fundamental weaknesses and contradictions. It is only then that we can deliberate on the directions for future growth of the environmental movement. In my view there are distinct trends that need elaboration.

One, 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’.

As a result, even though environmental imperative is now better understood, the constituency which is asking for protection has changed or will change. The management of natural resources—swinging between extraction and conservation—is leaving out millions who live on the resources. These people cannot afford either degradation of the resources or pure conservation. They need to utilise the natural resource 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.

The debate on environmental issues is increasingly polarised and seen as obstructionist. In this way, the positive agenda gets negated and lost.

Environmental struggles are increasingly about not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY). This is understandable as people are the best protectors of the environment and are saying that pollution must not happen in their backyard. But the problem in a highly iniquitous country is that this can simply mean that we do not want something in our backyard, but it can move to some place where the less powerful live.

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

It is important also then to look for solutions, not just pose problems that do not go away. But this search for technologies and approaches to environmental management will have to recognize the need to do things differently so that sustainable growth is affordable to all. It also recognises that new age institutional strengthening is vital—we cannot improve performance without investment in boots on the ground.

This demands a new way of environmentalism—one that can move beyond the problems of today and yesterday—to embrace ideas without dogma, but with idealism and purpose. But for this to happen, it is time we imbibed politics that will make this environmentalism happen.

For media queries relating to this: Rakhi Jain, rakhi@cseindia.org / 8130041469.