Environmentalism and political economy


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IN tracing the journey of ideas, some landmarks stand out. In the sphere of what has come to be known as the ‘green’ discourse, one of the early markers of the impact of developmental products on nature was Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic, Silent Spring.

Ten years later, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth sparked off a debate on whether these impacts would constrain development. 1972 was also the year in which Barbara Ward and Renè Dubos wrote Only One Earth, which explored the nature of the constraints on development. It served as background material for the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. In 1982, Erik Eckholm came out with Down to Earth, a review of the efforts to protect the world’s environment. And in 1992, the Rio Conference discussed the linkages between environment and development.

What will 2002 bring us? And where do we place the Indian debate within this global context? These are questions that may interest both academics and activists concerned with environmental issues. An appropriate way of reviewing environmentalism may be to ask what has been the debate over the last 20 years and what can we learn from it; what have been the ebb and flow of the ideas that have affected us all? Environment itself is a totality that encompasses many parts and wholes and such an essay provides an opportunity to locate various actors within the trajectory of what might be called the dynamics of political ecology, the science of the interaction between society and nature.

As an example of events in this trajectory, the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) held a convention in 1978 at Trivandrum at which it passed a resolution opposing the construction of a dam in the Silent Valley. That represented a significant environmental step, because the convention had gathered groups from all over India to discuss the promotion of KSSPs technique of science popularisation at a national level. Many of the participants were greatly impressed by KSSPs work and ideas and several wanted to immediately undertake similar work in their regions. However, there was a small but significant section that pointed to the socioeconomic differences between Kerala and other states and felt these differences were important enough to affect the nature of science and science popularisation.

In 1980, Science Today published a small piece questioning science,1 which summarised the collective experiences with the application of science and technology in several areas since 1969. Beginning with earthquake relief at Koyna to experiments in drought proofing in Marathawada and pollution control and planning in Shahdol, this article chronicled a growing awareness of how, ‘having built something for use, we neglected to examine how useful it was.’ Thus, ‘there were categories not only within what was observed, but also amongst those who did the observation, and these categories were often in conflict with each other.’ This did not quite harmonise with the notion of ‘popular science’ being promoted by KSSP and echoed what, perhaps, was a step on the road to political ecology.



Two years later, in 1982, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) published the first State of India’s Environment (SoE-1). This was, essentially, a compilation of the work by many researchers and activists over the previous two decades. It also included some brief sections on people’s protests because, by then, several peasants’ and workers’ agitations and (what were then known as) non-party political formations had made an appearance in civil society. The editors’ achievement was to pull together all these contributions into a comprehensive whole that described the enormous degradation of the nation’s environment. However, CSE itself did not advance a political perspective on the causes for this degradation, except to speak on behalf of women and forest dwellers who bore the brunt of the degradation.

During the same year, a small group in Shahdol authored a text on environmental planning.2 Based on eight years of praxis, this publication observed that ‘not only were there hierarchical functions in planning theory, but that people too are hierarchical.’ In contrast to SoE-1’s general tenor, the Shahdol group argued that there was concern for the environment either when profit rates were affected or due to popular discontent. It further stipulated that people’s planning should be ‘that political exercise in allocation and management of resources which improves the well-being of those engaged in production, prevents the harmful by-products of industrialisation, and conserves the natural resources.’ Hence, the group attempted to argue that all man-man and man-nature conflicts were related to the central contradiction over control of resources.



In 1984, the second State of India’s Environment (SoE-2) was published. The editors by then had recognised that there was a ‘politics’ involved in thinking about environment. Consequently, they included a chapter on the ‘Politics of Environment’3 and Anil Agarwal, then Director of CSE, wrote one essay while I was asked to write the other. (It may be pertinent at this stage to observe that CSE has never again asked me to contribute!) Agarwal situated his discussion within existing systems of governance, foregrounding the venality of corrupt leaders, and argued forcefully for equity and community ownership and management of resources. But, having put the issue of political economy on the canvas, he brushed it over with a coat of democratic paint. How communities would actually take over and manage resources, in the face of a rapacious state, was left unattended.



My article began with the observation that ‘different persons give different answers’ to the same question, and located that difference within an understanding of ‘ecobalances and interpenetration of different systems in a generalised world market.’ It built upon the magnificent environmental critique of the Damodar Valley projects by the civil engineer, Kapil Bhattacharya, and tried to show the ecological as well as socio-economic linkages between the impacts of dams, mining, forest laws and occupational hazards. While centralisation of authority failed to protect the environment, it was also clear that, ‘despite the existence of enough evidence of damage, authorities refuse to pay attention.’ Thus, environmental politics needed to be understood in terms of ‘who benefits’, and ‘whose interests are being protected.’

In 1984, an inhuman accident occurred at the Bhopal factory of Union Carbide that impinged upon the understanding of politics of several environmental groups. By then, it may be remembered, Gail Omvedt and Prakash Karat (both with affiliations to left parties) had trenchantly criticised non-party groups, accusing them of being part of an imperialist design of pitting environmental concerns against working class interests. This was allegedly due to the kind of development work these groups were involved in and the funding they received from foreign (meaning western) agencies. Many political groups were (and continue to be) greatly influenced by these arguments and it marked a schism between political and apolitical environmentalists. The subsequent betrayal of the Bhopal victims by the government only sharpened the divide.

However, there were a few attempts to address the divide. For instance, there was the case of retrenchment in Hindustan Aluminium – allegedly sparked off by ‘environmentalists’. In an article published in 1986,4 I observed that Hindalco was itself ‘a prime example of exploitation both of labour power as well as natural resources.’ In effect, what had happened was that there was ‘pressure by a labour union on government to condone anti-people and anti-nature policies,’ and this pointed to a ‘difference of aspirations between leaders and led.’ The environmental issue was used ‘to obfuscate relations between labour and capital and to keep the labour movement within the narrow confines of the economic arena.’ This was equally relevant for the Union Carbide factory, where workers’ protests against repeated accidents in the plant had largely been ignored by both management as well as the unions.



This attempt to break through a narrow concept of ‘environmentalism’ and to link up issues of despoliation and pollution with those of occupational safety and job-centred development, continued in an article on the production of power written in 1988.5 The article noted: ‘The environmental question is not merely confined to pollution of air, water and land. Nor is it just a slogan for afforestation. It is organically related to the drive for generation of greater and greater amounts of energy in the shortest possible time.’ Such a thrust inevitably leads to higher hazards at the work-place, reduced maintenance, and lowered safety. Ironically enough, in 1988 Ramachandra Guha presented a typology for different ideologies of environmentalism, but his category of ‘ecological marxism’ did not admit to any linkage between labour and environment.



By 1990, the first ‘green’ judgements were delivered by the Supreme Court. It was held that the Right to Clean Environment was superior to the Right to Livelihood, both emanating from Article 21 of the Constitution. This, naturally, led to a lively interest in the law and I made a foray into the area of jurisprudence with a fictional piece.6 It explored various legislative codes (such as the Factories Act, the Workman’s Compensation Act and the Environment Protection Act) and the loopholes implicit in them. While the tale, as it unfolded, demonstrated that the ‘dangers inside were related to dangers outside the factory,’ it also attempted to show that justice was being subverted. Government agencies, ministry’s, and boards were set up to protect private interests and so could hardly be expected to serve the public. As one of the characters in the story states, ‘While we, as lawyers, have to work within the framework of the law, the law itself rests on shaky foundations.’

1990 also marked the ‘opening up’ of the economy with the first phase of liberalisation sponsored by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. By 1992, the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution had been passed, the Indian Science Congress session at Baroda was seized of the debate on population versus environment, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development at Rio had been concluded, and the Babri Masjid had been razed.

With this in the background, I contributed an essay to a volume on the attitude of indigenous peoples to the environment. The essay7 argued that the sub-divisional officer sitting in his Rs 270,000 house shared nothing in common with the tribal for whom he was constructing a Rs 2,500 hut under the rural housing scheme. It pointed out that myths and fables, whether of the 19th or the 21st century, were born out of a ‘convenient marriage between revenue and duty.’ It concluded, ‘Refusal to oblige government is not born out of a dullness of mind but is a deliberate and intelligent response to an unwanted situation – as deliberate a political act as civil disobedience.’



In 1993, the World Bank withdrew from the Sardar Sarovar project, a major victory for those trying to advance an alternative developmental paradigm based on the mobilisation of indigenous peoples. In 1994, the All India People’s Science Network organised a daylong debate on the various themes highlighted by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Several senior officers and engineers from the establishment participated in the debate, which ranged over issues of irrigation, power, agricultural production and rehabilitation. During the course of the discussion I made the somewhat controversial claim that ‘displacement is as much one of the design objectives of the dam as power or irrigation.’8 While the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal was the first to propose land for land in 1979, there was no rehabilitation policy prior to 1985, and there is still no national resettlement policy. This, despite the fact that sufficient documentary evidence of the displacement impact of thousands of projects existed from 1864 onwards. Hence, the paper asked the political question, ‘When will there be sufficient evidence?’



The next two years witnessed many minor and major upheavals in different parts of the country on issues of race, caste, ethnicity, region, religion and class. Thus, in the run-up to the general elections of 1996, the possibility of dramatic changes in governance appeared strong. Several ‘people’s agendas’ were prepared by different non-party groups as part of a campaign to further democratise the electoral process. These included the agendas of INREP (Initiative for National Renewal and Empowerment of the People) and INSAF (Indian National Social Action Forum), the resolve of the NAPM (National Alliance of People’s Movements), and the manifesto of the SJP (Samajwadi Jan Parishad). The notion of ‘people’ – so attractive to environmental discourse – lay at the core of these political statements.

It, therefore, appeared useful to take this as background material to write on ‘people’s politics’9 as a commentary on an alternative vision of society. The analysis showed that, ‘all these non-party declarations, while representing a break from traditional electoral practice, conformed to a notion of a democratic, secular, egalitarian, and sustainable society’ – all of which had been mentioned in the Janata Dal manifesto before the elections, but ignored by the United Front government after the elections! The various manifestos agreed that the major hurdles were communalism and liberalisation, gender inequity and violence. But they did not have a common definition of ‘people’, apart from a vague unspecified consensus on ‘dalits, women, tribals, and backwards.’ And, compared to the resolutions passed at a National Convention of Rural Workers, ‘there was a gap between people’s demands and "people’s agendas".’



This gap between perception and reality formed the core of an exposition on child labourers published in 1998.10 The essay posed three theoretical questions: What is the ethical basis for deciding the rights of child labourers? Who decides these rights? And, how do child labourers make their views known? It further illustrated the paradox of governance, that ‘those who preside over exploitative and unjust systems are also those who prescribe its remedies!’ The state was that apparatus, in a position of authority, whose task it was to conceal exploitation in order to protect production. It, therefore, determined the categories of knowledge and the contours of prevailing logic.

In challenging this worldview, within which the ethics of children at work was located, the paper attempted to bridge the gap between generations: ‘Children desire both work and play. Working men and women too want meaningful work and play.’ By taking examples of forest regeneration, children’s education, and gender-driven transportation in Himachal, it tried to show that people’s rights, which had been appropriated could be reappropriated. ‘The system cannot be changed by taking away the world’s children. The struggle is not only for what the society and state are willing to concede but to change society and state.’



Working people’s struggles demand a theoretical basis for sustaining themselves as well as for changing the system which forces them to struggle. But the production of theory does not necessarily follow this imperative. Thus, for the 5th World Conference on Injury Prevention and Control in 2000, I tentatively chose to revisit an earlier theme on occupational safety.11 The context had been set by the closure of ‘polluting units’ in Delhi and the loss of thousands of jobs. The courts were beginning to take a meddlesome lead in initiating actions that lay in the realm of the executive and legislature. Much of this initiative sprang from concerns with the environment and the propaganda blitz launched by ‘environmentalists’ with special interests. Hence, it was necessary, once again, ‘to expose the ideological roots of the careless worker.’

The paper traced the growth of ideas, from the compensation-safety apparatus of the late 19th century to the merger of principles of pollution prevention with those of occupational safety in the 1990s. It dwelt on the contemporary relationships between ‘international finance capital and working conditions, with the direct impact of globalisation on industrial development.’ Thus, new hazards were emerging for workers and consumers and, therefore, new principles were required for the evolution of safety measures. The paper brought together elements from diverse campaigns on the right to information, right to organise, right to resources, right to health, right to participate, and added a right to vulnerability, to suggest a fundamental right to safe livelihood.

For an essay such as this, there really is no conclusion because the learning experience builds upon the past to construct the future. But perhaps it may be possible to set up some temporary landmarks. I obviously belong to one school in the environmental university. But, as this essay demonstrates, this school exists in conjunction with the others, conflicting with them, searching out fallibilities, asserting its own dynamic, and constantly, perpetually, unceasingly, learning about the world outside the university. So what have we, who belong to this particular school, learnt over the last two decades?

We have, I think, re-learnt the old lesson, but in a new context, that the nature of knowledge, of learning, is determined by class interests and the conflicts between them. Thus, our university is as much prey to the political economy of production for greed (while millions teeter on the brink of survival) as is any other institution in civil society. We have to see our university as part of the world and, hence, the environment is everything, and we have to grasp the linkages between all phenomena. In particular, we have to comprehend the linkage between environment and work, between the food-gatherer and the tool-producer.

The challenge that such an exploration throws up is not merely a change in lifestyles, but a revolution in state and society; not just the right to be human, but in defending and enlarging human rights. This is the heart and the brain and the muscle of political ecology – that we hauntingly wage war against all oppression and exploitation, against all injustice and violence, against war itself.



1. ‘What is Science For?’ Science Today, Bombay, October 1980.

2. Planning the Environment. Co-authors: S. Ghotge, A. Gupta, A. Deshpande. Gandhigram Press, Madurai, November 1982.

3. Politics of Environment-II; State of India’s Environment – 1984-85 edited by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain. Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 1984.

4. ‘Environment and Politics’, Economic and Political Weekly, 15 November 1986.

5. ‘Energy, Work and Danger’, paper presented at the seminar on Energy and Environment. Institute for Cultural Research and Action, Bangalore, August 1988.

6. ‘The Legal Eye’, Economic and Political Weekly, 1-8 December and 15 December 1990.

7. ‘Myth, Fable, and Guile: The Art of Survival in Shahdol’, in Indigenous Vision, Peoples of India, Attitudes to Environment. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1992.

8. ‘The Accountability Principle’ (unpub.), People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, September 1994.

9. ‘People’s Politics: The Third Force?Lokayan Bulletin 12(6), 1996.

10. ‘Rights of Child Labour: Ethics, Production and Nation-State’, Economic and Political Weekly, 31 January 1998.

11. Labour and Safety: Science, Technology, and Society. Paper presented at the Fifth World Conference on Injury Prevention and Control, New Delhi, March 2000.