Between local and global responsibilities


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ENVIRONMENTALISM in India, like in most parts of South Asia, began mainly as an integral part of local level activism for broad social justice. The spontaneous resistance and protests by the affected parties, when and where the lives or livelihoods of a number of people or communities were threatened by the environmental impacts of activities initiated by others, came to be identified as environmentalism.

Over the decades, however, the dominant imaging of environmentalism in India has altered from voluntary, decentralised and people-centred resistance to a more centralised and organised activity, one marked by linkages with international donors. Nevertheless, from the Chipko Andolan to the many public interest litigations (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court on various issues related to the environment, the achievement of environmental activism in India remains impressive.

As Indian society and economy transform along the path of economic globalisation, which we seem to have accepted as an inevitable and integral part of the ‘global process’ and the only pathway to economic development, environmentalism in India too has transformed quietly but steadily. Emerging from the stage of community based voluntarism, as exemplified by Chipko (Bandyopadhyay, 1999), environmentalism in India is now more identified with activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Central to the above is a set of educated and motivated individuals mainly from urban areas, often with easy access to funding institutions and the media, working together for either conserving some significant natural entity or opposing an activity that is environmentally destructive. Members of this new brand of environmentalists rarely emerge from among the population or communities directly affected by the related environmental damages or transformations. But given their broad commitments, urban connections, wider information base, easy access to the media and financial strength, the present day environmentalists have succeeded in disseminating information to influential segments of the public, thus creating a larger support base for their causes.



Despite its long and impressive record of success, Indian environmentalism remains predominantly reactive in nature, partially because of the poor performance of the formal law enforcing and regulatory mechanisms when faced with threats to environmental security. The popular resistance and the PIL against the continuation of environmental destruction from limestone quarrying in the Doon Valley (Uttaranchal) stands as a trendsetting achievement in this respect (for details see Bandyopadhyay, 1989).

The dismal state of environmental administration in the country has been well captured in the observation of the Supreme Court of India: ‘If the mere enactment of laws relating to the protection of environment was to ensure a clean and pollution free environment, then India would, perhaps, be the least polluted country in the world. But that is not so’ (as cited by Divan and Rosencranz, 2001:3).

Notwithstanding the presence of some committed individuals within the administrative and legal institutions, whenever the cause of environmental protection has to be advanced against vested interests, it has been achieved mainly through non-governmental efforts and popular movements. Such continuous fire-fighting seems to have left the Indian environmentalists with little time to devote to thinking about strategies for the future. As a result, the dominant image of the Indian environmentalists has remained of a group of people ‘very good at opposing, but not good at generating a positive vision for the future.’

In the coming years, as India progresses along the path of globalisation and grows to be the most populated country in the world, what will be the main challenges for environmentalists? Relying on the environmental Kuznets curve, can we afford to uncritically accept the present form of globalisation without concern about the pathetic level of effectiveness of our monitoring and law enforcing machinery? Will it be possible to ensure a safe environment for the people and protect the natural ecosystems only by constantly running to the Supreme Court with PILs?



Given the absence of high quality home grown policy research on crucial environmental issues, where and how will the knowledge base for supporting environmental protection measures be developed? We need to think beyond the globalisation that has suddenly appeared on our political-economic horizon as inevitable. There are, after all, other ways to promote globalisation, like cultural and environmental security for all people, global access to information, protection for the important natural ecosystems and so on.

Recent environmental discourse and public debate in India tends to interpret all environmental issues in the global context of North-South relations. A link is assumed between our environmental problems and the pattern of natural resource consumption in the industrially advanced countries. This promotes a form of environmental nationalism that allows us to sit quietly and blame environmental degradation on the countries of the North without assuming responsibility of taking remedial measures.

While such a North-South dichotomy is surely valid in the case of some important global issues, like climate change, it will be incorrect to forget the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ existing in all parts of our own country, as far as consumption patterns are concerned. While talking about environmentalism in India, we need to address the domestic factors of unsustainable consumption and environmental destruction with the same zeal with which we address similar issues in relation to the North.



However, over the past two decades, a drift in our environmentalism away from the processes that threaten the immediate survival at the local level can be noted. This is directly related to criminals gaining access to the political-administrative structure of the country. Though some feeble concerns are expressed about this serious threat to our democracy, there are no signs of any concrete action.

Environmentalists today frequently encounter not the police, but the politically supported mafia when protesting against environmental destruction of important wetlands, crucial forest ecosystems, or a poisoning of water resources as a result of pollution by local vested interests. Whether in the metropolis’ or in remote villages, attacks on those who protest against environmental destruction receive little media attention.

The killing of forest protection staff is commonplace and sometimes finds mention in the local press. But even if environmental activists are not protesting in reaction to any destruction, and have shown proactive ways of avoiding future problems, they can become objects of physical assault, as shown in the recent case of Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh (Rajasthan) who has been leading a water conservation movement in that semi-arid state. Direct non-violent action is becoming rare. As remedial public protest in real life becomes more difficult, one now sees the formation of support groups in cyber space. The danger is that such protests may prefer to mouth abstract criticism of the ‘evil designs of the WTO or the World Bank’, ensuring media attention without much risk.

This is not to say that the global level environmental issues are irrelevant. Environmentalism in India very much needs to address the longer-term global issues in environment like global climate change, bio-safety or inter-national waterbodies. However, while addressing the more glamorous global issues, the down to earth and local environmental challenges related to the survival and well-being of the average citizen should not be ignored.



A farmer whose field crops are failing under water stress, is likely to have little interest in following the debate on global warming. Similarly, women who have to collect the daily biomass requirements of the family from distant mountain forests and rush back home trekking kilometres along steep hill slopes, are unlikely to be excited by the issue of future benefit sharing in case they conserve the biodiversity of the forests and a multinational company finds a biotechnological use of a suitable medicinal herb from the same.

For common people, the gathering of their immediate survival requirements from the environment gets the highest priority. Reversing the present trend of declining grassroots protest should form the most important agenda for India’s environmentalism today.

By the middle of the 21st century, when our population touches 1.6 billion, India is expected to overtake China as the most populated country in the world. In many North-South platforms, the high population of China and India, which results in a low per capita resource consumption, has been used for comparison against the high per capita resource consumption in the countries of the North. Agarwal and Narain (1992) used this tactic with particular success in the debate on the emission of greenhouse gases and negotiations related to the Framework Convention on Climate Change.



However, away from the global arithmetic, when one is confronted with the realities of domestic environmental challenges, the dependence of a very large population on limited and common environmental resources is clearly a problem. In the next few decades, close to 750 million people will live in our villages while an equal number will be located in urban areas, where the basic environmental amenities are already under severe stress.

We have also targeted for a rapid economic growth, which will have its own environmental impacts. Conflicts over basic natural resources like water and biomass are bound to expand and become more acute, exposing the natural resource base to the risks of destruction. The domestic ‘North’ in the country will try and corner the scarce resources in ways no different from those used by the global North, and possibly in a more blatant and ruthless manner.

Some environmental writers are of the view that our cultural traditions of environmental conservation would help find ways to address future environmental challenges. Quotes from the Vedas are expected to assure people that ideas of environmental conservation were central to India’s ‘traditional culture’. However, the reality speaks for itself. After all, rampant deforestation in present day South Asia started not only with the arrival of the ‘rapacious’ Europeans.

With the near doubling of India’s population in the future decades, and with the ambitious level of economic growth targeted, threats to the natural environment could escalate rapidly. In order to address the challenges posed by this rapid transformation, which will have a pace not hitherto experienced, a blind dependence on the perceived ‘cultural tradition of environmental conservation’ would be another way of avoiding the problem.

Fortunately some environmentalists have started to take up the generation and propagation of a new culture of sustainable consumption and environmental conservation as an urgent pro-active task. This needs follow up. Otherwise, in the coming decades it may be difficult to provide environmental security to our people and avoid major homegrown environmental catastrophes.



Ever since the Rio summit (1992), the common people have been exposed to the issues of global environmental governance. The Kyoto Protocol, the debate on biotechnology and biosafety, the environmental implications of the WTO, have all been addressed by environmentalists from India in numerous national and international platforms – from Rio to Copenhagen, Seattle to Singapore.

Handling global environmental issues effectively needs quite a different insight and complex preparation. Anyone who has closely watched global environmental meets is well aware of the great variety of stakeholders involved and the amazing cross current of interests behind such events. Be it national governments, UN agencies, MNCs, individual consultants, and finally the umpteen NGOs – overtly or covertly – all are seen as trying to ensure their access to larger parts of the cake being baked in the process of the global meeting. Who gains and who gets used in such platforms is a matter very different from what meets the naked eye.



Over the years, NGOs have acquired substantial visibility in global events like the Earth Summit and the Social Development Summit. The trend is not going to change in the forthcoming Johannesburg summit on sustainable development. Together with governmental participants, there will be a few thousand non governmental participants too. Today, many of the leading international NGOs have annual budgets running into millions of dollars. In many small countries of the South, important international NGOs exercise strong influence, both on governments and civil society. To get an objective picture of the issues in global environmental governance, a wider awareness of the functioning of the NGO world is necessary, especially given the financial linkages between NGOs of the North and South.

Intergovernmental negotiations are complex, and simplistic statements from many NGOs rarely cut any ice. Nevertheless, NGOs play an important role, not always obvious. Sometimes, timely intervention by NGOs have made positive impacts. More commonly, radical NGOs as well as politicians from the South only indulge in strong anti-North rhetoric. For seriously advancing national interests in global platforms, a great deal of information, research, analysis and networking is necessary.

Though many individuals from the South regularly attend various international meetings on global environmental governance and NGO participants from India have provided crucial inputs to project a view from the South, it is not all grain in the market place! With little support from homegrown research, what role do these participants play in global platforms? Who is saying what and why at global meetings needs monitoring and analysis. It is of vital importance that environmentalism in India takes a more informed and organised approach to following and participating in these meetings. This is not an easy task, because of the complex cross-currents present at such events.



As an example, the debate over the WTO process can be cited. Environmental impacts of globalisation and some of the WTO agreements have been the subject of debate by many NGOs since the 1980s. Nevertheless, globalisation remains inadequately defined even as our politicians have bought into it wholesale. Nor is there any clear understanding of the environmental impacts of this form of ‘globalisation’ and what preparatory steps need to be taken.

Many of those who write about the links between globalisation and the natural environment (Anton, 1995) mainly emphasise the negative consequences. In contrast, there is an increasing volume of more recent literature that credits the growing responsibility of the economic system towards environmental sustainability to globalisation (Mol, 2001:13). Thus, environmental opinion on globalisation remains open-ended, as evident from the view of Sachs et al. (1998:8) that: ‘Come what may, the 21st century will be the century of the environment – either the century of ecological catastrophes or the century of ecological transformation.’

The process of globalisation has, in the last few years, been strongly identified with the World Trade Organisation. India is not only a founder member of the WTO, its economy has been strongly influenced by it. As a result, our environmentalism needs to take the WTO agreements into full consideration, not only for their global implications, but also local.



During the WTO ministerial meeting at Seattle in November 1999 in which an agenda for a new round of trade liberalisation was to be hammered out, a coalition of diverse anti-globalisation groups staged a strong demonstration. India had argued against any fresh round of trade negotiations as long as the Uruguay Round agreements remained adequately implemented. This was why it stoutly opposed the expansion of the negotiating agenda beyond the built in agenda of the Uruguay Round.

Two years later, in November 2001, the next WTO ministerial conference did take place in Doha, where a new round of trade negotiations was launched. This finally received support from India’s commerce minister, Murasoli Maran. The complexity of the WTO process and the effort needed for arriving at an informed position in respect of the environmental implications of globalisation will be apparent from the two completely different ways in which two economists have interpreted the outcome of the Doha conference. Basu (2002) observed that after the Doha conference: ‘The opposition of the developing countries, particularly India is neutralised. A careful analysis will show it is the defeat and collective suicide of the developing countries.’

Panagariya (2002), on the other hand wrote: ‘A key condition for faster economic growth in countries such as India is guaranteed access to open world markets. And the only institution that can deliver this access is WTO…

WTO remains the best guarantor of our trading rights. Anyone who thinks otherwise only need to contemplate a world without WTO.’

The fundamental divergence between these two positions is a clear indication that globalisation is not a readymade and pre-determined process at the end of which lies prosperity. Each step towards globalisation taken by governments and the pictures of future prosperity painted by the politicians, need to be scrutinised with the highest professional competence available to the non-governmental system. Gains from the process of globalisation, whether economic or environmental, should not be seen as a given. Rather, it has to come out of organised hard negotiations backed by professional inputs.



Some non-governmental individuals and organisations in the South, who are constantly present at global platforms, take recourse to presenting simplistic and sensational North-South interpretations of global issues. As examples, look at the writings on the ‘patenting of neem’ or the breast-beating about ‘stealing of Basmati’. In order to address such issues competently and strengthen our negotiating position, this is not enough. What is needed is advocacy backed by serious and sustained professional research.

Environmentalism in India has to work towards this aim. Continuous international travel to attend the various global meetings needs a lot of funds. At global platforms, NGOs from the North are more visible because of their financial strength and organisational skills. In many cases who attends from the South is often a reflection of choice by large NGOs from the North.



The possibility of rich northern NGOs exerting influence on the selection of participants from the South through offer of travel grants cannot be ruled out. Associated with this is indirect control over the opinion of participants. In the era of liberalisation, NGO voices have found an important space in international platforms. Indian environmentalism needs to seriously address the mechanism through which the ‘voice’ of the South is represented in these international platforms.

In an interconnected and globalising world, the local and the global responsibilities for environmentalism are like two eyes of an individual; they complement each other to offer a more objective and accurate vision of the world.



* The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of the organisation to which he is affiliated.



A. Agarwal and S. Narain, Global Warming in an Unequal World. Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 1991.

D. J. Anton, Diversity, Globalisation and the Ways of Nature. International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 1995.

J. Bandyopadhyay, Natural Resource Management in the Mountain Environment: The Case of Doon Valley. Occasional Paper No. 14, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, 1989.

J. Bandyopadhyay, ‘Chipko Movement: of Floated Myths and Flouted Realities’, Economic and Political Weekly 34(15), 10-16 April 1999.

D. Basu, ‘After Doha: a Defeat for the Developing World’, The Statesman (Kolkata, edit page), 11 and 12 January 2002.

S. Divan and A. Rosencranz, Environmental Law and Policy in India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001.

A.P.J. Mol, Globalisation and Environmental Reform. MIT Press, Cambridge, 2001.

A. Panagariya, ‘India at Doha: Retrospect and Prospect’, Economic and Political Weekly 37(4), 2002, p. 284.

W. Sachs, et al., Greening the North: a Post-industrial Blueprint for Ecology. Zed Books, London, 1998.