The problem

back to issue

CONFLICTS over the ownership, control and mode of utilisation of natural resources are hardly new. As populations grow, new communities are born and constructed, markets expand and new and more productive technologies come into play, alterations take place in both man-nature and man-man relationships and conflicts arise between livelihood patterns and lifestyles.

Few fields of enquiry, policy-making and social movements have attracted as much attention as the environment. Seminar, for instance, has repeatedly returned to this complex of concerns: Managing Our Natural Resources (406), Parks, Protection and People (426), Wildlife (466), Floods (478), Environment: Myth and Reality (486), Protecting Nature (494) and Wastelands (499) – just to refer to the thematics explored in the last decade.

And as the field has evolved, moved, to use Vina Mazumdar’s evocative phrase ‘from the footnote to the main text’, the differences of opinion among researchers, policy-makers and activists have sharpened. Hardly surprising, not only because of variations in interest and location, but because what issues are identified as worthy of attention and how and in what framework they are addressed has to work through both ideologies and the weight of accumulated knowledge.

How the field itself has changed over the past few decades is a fascinating area of enquiry. In the early years of our post-independence history, nature was treated as a given, a resource to be managed through superior application of science and technology. Harnessing nature in the service of mankind was the oft-used phrase. In many ways, it was only after the publication of Rachel Carson’s classic, Silent Spring (1962) and then the influential Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth (1972) that our decision-makers and intelligentsia realised the importance of prudence, of limits to intervention in nature.

But even then, environmentalism was seen more as a concern of the West – the scare about the exhaustion of non-renewable resources, pollution and so on. For us, as Indira Gandhi’s famous statement in the Stockholm conference well captures, ‘Poverty is the greatest pollutant.’ It took dozens of struggles as also a range of international meetings to firmly locate environment on the country’s social agenda.

Historian Ramachandra Guha in Environmentalism: A Global History talks of various waves of environmentalism, ‘an early period of pioneering and prophecy, culminating in recent decades in a widespread social movement. We might thus speak of a first wave of environmentalism, the initial response to the onset of industrialization, and a second wave, when a largely intellectual response was given shape and force by a groundswell of public support.’ He also points out that while environmental problems were not unknown in the past, the perception of a crisis is definitely more recent. Equally, while the industrial city was the prime generator of ecological degradation, the burden was most acutely felt in the countryside and the colonies.

Socially too, the different waves of environmentalism have brought to the fore different actors with varying social projects – be it the early Luddite responses to industrialism, romantic and spiritual invocations of nature and tradition, the subsequent interest in the preservation of resources for future consumption, leisure or aesthetics and, more recently, perceptions of an inter-connectedness, Earth as Gaia, where the actions of one affect all.

It was somehow uncritically assumed that the environmentalism of the South would follow a trajectory similar to that in the North and West. Little was it realised that the major conflicts in societies such as ours – tropical, agrarian and often densely populated – are more around the use and control of renewable natural resources – land, water, forests, seas and air – than non-renewable, exhaustible resources like hydrocarbons. Equally, in our case considerations of political economy are mediated by the presence of communities, both made by and dependant on nature, in the form of struggles over common property resources. Hardly surprising that issues of equity and social justice play such a crucial role in our ecological imagination.

To return to our prime concern in this issue – the struggles and consequent policy responses and discourse in the early years were dominated by forests (Chipko, Appiko), dams (Narmada, Tehri), degradation of the countryside as a result of mining (Rayagada, Doon Valley), the indiscriminate use of pesticides, unsustainable extraction of groundwater, fisheries in the oceans and so on. These issues formed the major objectives of the Environment Protection Act and the Ministry of Environment and Forests. It is symptomatic that the discourse came to be dominated by those aligned to social movements.

Over time each of these issues/terrains has come to be defined differently, resulting in a shift of the locus from resistance against unfair exploitation by the state and vested interests, almost an expression of an anti-development logic, to one of careful collaboration towards sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. The Chipko movement in the ’70s led to a complete ban on the felling of green trees in the Himalayas. Two decades later, as Haripriya Rangan’s work ‘Of Myths and Movements: Rewriting Chipko into Himalayan History’ so dramatically illustrates, the local populace chafes against centralised restrictions on developmental intervention and desires greater local control for local use. Similarly, we have seen a veritable explosion of joint forest management models, challenging the exclusive prerogative of the forest department to manage the properties under its jurisdiction.

Similar trends can be traced in the struggle over dams – be it for drinking water, irrigation or power. Struggles over just compensation and rehabilitation have grown to question the logic of large multi-purpose dams. And resistance from the ground or through networks of supporters now equally involves the formulation of workable alternatives – microhydel schemes, minor irrigation and watershed projects and so on. Even prestigious wildlife and national sanctuary projects, for instance Project Tiger, have got redefined as communities in situ are recognised as legitimate bearers of rights.

Alongside is the emergence of new issues and sites of contestation. It is only in the last decade that we turned our attention to the urban environment – forced by a crisis of drinking water, pollution generated health problems, or the unsustainable extraction of resources. This has demanded new research, and has brought in new actors. The ongoing tussle in Delhi over the introduction of CNG buses or the relocation of polluting industries has generated fresh pressures and conflicts – crucially on jobs vs health, challenging middle class imaginations about the city.

Equally troubling are the new concerns about biotechnology and genetically modified crops. So far we know little about how these technologies will remake our lives, what rules and laws need to be formulated to govern the transition, and whether we are into a new era of irreversibility. Finally, there are the new concerns about global warming, holes in the ozone layer, or the implications of the melting of the polar caps. Few of us could have imagined, even a couple of decades earlier, how these seemingly esoteric concerns can radically alter conceptions about the biosphere.

As indicated earlier, many of these new trends and redefinitions can be traced to a combination of fresh knowledge generation as also the emergence of new actors in the environmental domain. The Narmada story is symptomatic. Earlier it was the issue of compensation and rehabilitation of potential oustees. Since the state governments in question seemed impervious to the struggles and arguments of those affected, over time the movement built up a complex and impressive alliance of actors and interlocutors – affected people, voluntary activists, media people, lawyers, scientists – appealing to the national government and the public at large. Since the project involved external financing, the terrain soon shifted to, not exclusively, the World Bank, western capitals, international bodies looking at social and environmental implications of large projects.

More than any other project/struggle, the Narmada process encapsulates a bewildering variety of issues and actors – challenging many of our favoured formulations on democracy, rights, development, science and progress. It also raises disturbing questions about how the arrival of new actors changes the very definition and politics of the struggle. Locally, for instance, the emergence of the courts, their interpretation of Article 21 and the right to life has had a profound impact on the future of developmental intervention. For the first time we are beginning to recognise the importance of the right of consultation, even prior approval, and not grant to states the natural right to act in public interest.

Similarly, the entry of non-national actors brings local struggles under an international spotlight, permitting foreign powers to intervene in what were seen as exclusively national issues. With the WTO regime now intervening even in issues like drinking water and helping convert ‘free’ resources into commodities where rights of investors are placed at par with consumers, we seem to have entered into a new, possibly frightening world. To get a flavour of the interests at work, just read the draft of the National Water Policy (2002).

It is unclear as to how those engaged with such issues interpret these shifts. There is a strong tendency towards foregrounding local control over local resources, often using the language of community and tradition. Others see the trend towards integrationism and more complex structures as inevitable and thus advocate a policy of negotiation and cooperation between different stakeholders, locally, nationally and globally. The implications of the paths we choose will be profound, for alongside affecting our lives they define the choice set for the generations to come.

This shift away from the certitudes of the past, a clear identification of heroes and villians, and a broad acceptance of the causality chain in the discussion of environmental degradation is deeply unsettling. This issue of Seminar explores these and related questions in the hope of contributing to a more reasoned and reasonable discourse.