Changing environmentalism


back to issue

IN 1974, deep in the Himalayan mountains of Uttaranchal, the poor women of Reni village gave the government a lesson on the environment. They made clear that the government could cut the forest only over their dead bodies, threatening to hug the trees to protect them from the axe. But their reasons were not greenie-green. It was not that they believed that trees should not be cut; rather it was an assertion of their right to cut the trees.

For them the environment was much more than pretty trees and tigers. Their cause, in fact, had little to do with trees; it was more selfish. Their own lives were so intertwined with the existence of those trees that they perceived their culture and survival to be at stake. Hence, the protest and struggle.

This was also the message of the nationwide environmental movement which spread during the 1980s and 1990s with protests against deforestation, construction of dams, destruction of wildlife, and growing pollution. India never witnessed the rise of green groups like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. It was not ecology but socio-ecology at work –a pro-poor, human-centred environmental ethic compared to the nature-centred environmental ethic espoused by the greens of the West.

Indian environmentalism has always been different from its western counterpart. The concept of ‘protectionist conservationism’ is what prevails across the paradigms of environmental management in the western world. The Indian environmental movement, however, was built on the concept of ‘utilitarian conservationism’. This is simply because of the large numbers of people who live on their environment, that is, they survive directly on what they get from nature – firewood, food, water, building materials, medicines and fodder for their animals. The destruction of the forest would threaten their very livelihoods. This prompted environmentalist Anil Agarwal to coin the phrase that instead of the gross national product it was gross nature product that mattered to rural households; that perhaps the best indicator of economic change in this biomass-based subsistence economy would be to measure the numbers of hours women walk to secure their basic needs – water and firewood.



The environmental movement grew in the 1980s and 1990s building upon the work of thousands of civil society groups and individuals spread across the country. These groups responded to the weaknesses of democratic governance processes in the country. Electoral democracy is nothing but the open political interplay of powerful forces like labour, capital, caste, religion and region. Politicians thrown up by electoral democracy have invariably and everywhere in the world – North or South – failed to reconcile the contending interests of these political forces to bring about balanced social and economic development. It is in the nature of electoral politics to throw up partisan politicians. Only a powerful civil society can help keep the politicians in check.

The environmental movement has received considerable support both from the media and the judiciary. Its relationship with the political and bureaucratic systems, on the other hand, remains weak and often antagonistic. But given the availability of ‘democratic space’ within the country, the environmental movement has grown rapidly over the last three to four decades. It has played a key role in three areas: (i) in creating public awareness about the importance of bringing about a balance between environment and development; (ii) in opposing development projects that are inimical to social and environmental concerns; and (iii) in organising model projects that show the way forward towards non-bureaucratic and participatory, community-based natural resource management systems.



It is time to take stock and to see the emerging challenges for the environmental movement in the 21st century. Some issues confronting the movement are:

1. The rapidly growing problem of pollution because of uncontrolled economic development, further accentuated by bureaucratic corruption and incompetence. Fighting pollution demands scientific expertise. But civil society as yet, remains weak in its understanding of technical issues.

2. The continuing problem of natural resource degradation (like water, land and forest) which is aggravating rural impoverishment, leading to distress rural-urban migration and formation of slums in urban areas. Organising path-breaking community-based projects that alleviate poverty and improve the local natural resource base is one thing, but getting governmental systems to understand and appreciate the relevance of these efforts and force them to change their ways is totally another. While environmental groups have successfully opposed specific projects and even provided models of what works, they remain handicapped in pushing through policy and legislative changes.

3. The emerging problem of ecological globalisation based on global rules that are dominated by the economic interests of the North. Fighting unjust ecological globalisation demands substantial financial and intellectual resources. Unfortunately, our counterparts – the northern environmental groups – tend to be domineering, preferring to set the global environmental agenda on their own.



We, like the rest of the world, have adopted the western industrial-urban model. There are two major problems with this model of growth – it is both resource and capital intensive. The resource intensity of the western model leads to an enormous mobilisation of materials and energy resources, which in turn leads to enormous amount of pollution and natural resource degradation. The destruction of the global carbon, nitrogen and sulphur cycles are good examples of the problems caused by the resource intensity of the western urban model. It shows the inherent toxicity of the model. The capital intensity of the western urban model leads to an inevitable divide between the haves and have-nots in the context of a poor country. In other words, the high cost of urban services means that the majority of people are unable to access them.

For instance, take the example of the flush toilet. The high cost of sewerage systems means that only a small fraction of India’s population will benefit from them. A large proportion of the urban population in India still uses the open environment for its ablutions. The government just does not have adequate money to invest in sewage facilities to serve the entire urban population. The technology is also ecologically mindless. First, large reservoirs have to be built or large volumes of river waters have to be diverted to supply cities with water that can be flushed down the toilets and, then, this water accumulates in the form of concentrated sewage flows into rivers and destroys them. It is for this reason that we need a plan like the Ganga Action Plan, which is now being replicated for other rivers in the country. In the long term, such a human excreta disposal system may spell disaster for the country, both economically and ecologically.



What then will India’s environment look like in the 21st century? Since the country is hell-bent on following the highly material and energy-intensive western economic model, also highly toxic, we can foresee a century of enormous pollution. Asia, with its high economic growth, is today the most polluted region in the world. India too is not far behind. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) recently released the air quality data for 1997 for 70 cities. It shows that the remote hill station of Shillong is the only town in the country where the air quality in terms of suspended particulates – the most threatening air pollutant in Indian cities – was clean round the year. There was not a single day when the air was even moderately polluted. In the other 69 cities, air quality was moderately, highly or critically polluted round the year. While Delhi is indeed one of the most polluted cities in the world – the World Health Organisation monitors the air quality in about 20 cities of the world and Delhi figures high on that list – it is not one of the most polluted cities in India, according to the data collected by the Central Pollution Control Board.

This is the picture when the quality of pollution monitoring is extremely poor. First, there are cities like Varanasi and Srinagar whose air quality is not monitored. Second, in cities where air quality is monitored, the number of monitoring stations is small. Third, a large number of critical pollutants are not monitored. Even this limited monitoring shows horrendous results for Delhi. In 1999, PM10 levels in Delhi reached an astonishing 820 ug/cum – eight times above the specified standard and possibly way beyond anything recorded in any other major city in the world.

Despite all the evidence, what is incredible is that neither the Central government nor any of the state governments have cared to formulate a plan to control pollution and bring it to acceptable levels. If anything is happening – piecemeal or ad hoc – it is primarily because of public interest litigation in the Supreme Court or the High Courts.



Power plants, industry and vehicles are the biggest sources of air pollution. The Centre for Science and Environment has found that between 1975 and 1995 – a period during which the country’s economy (gross domestic product or GDP) grew by about 2.5 times – the total amount of pollutants emitted by vehicles grew by eight times. And since India is just in the nascent stages of industrialisation, power generation, motorisation and urbanisation, we can be certain that pollution will grow by leaps and bounds unless a major effort is made to control it.

Let us see what ecological history teaches us. Pollution grew rapidly in the western countries soon after the economic boom that followed the Second World War – a period during which the West created enormous economic wealth. By the late 1950s, both air and water were extremely polluted. The Thames and the Rhine had become sewers. Japan was suffering from an unknown but horrifying neurological disorder called the Minamata Disease. It was impossible to breathe in Tokyo, London or Los Angeles. This led to a powerful environmental movement in the 1960s, which gained force during the 1970s.



With environment becoming an electoral issue, governments were forced to respond. During the 1970s and 1980s, western governments acted on two fronts. They enacted stiff laws and enforced them with great vigour and, thus ensured substantial industrial investment in pollution control. As a result of these efforts, by the mid-1980s, the Thames once again began to breathe as did the waters of the Stockholm archipelago, and the quality of urban air improved. It thus took nearly 20 years or one generation – from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s – to bring about the change, though the battle is far from won. Western industry continues to produce enormous toxic wastes; carbon dioxide emitted by their power plants, industry and vehicles threatens to destabilise the world’s climate, and both Japan and the EU have discovered huge quantities of dioxin – one of the most poisonous substance known – in their environment.

In India, we are at the stage that the West was in the 1960s. The question is: Can we replicate what the West did in one generation? Will India’s rivers and cities begin to breathe by the 2020s? The answer is: very unlikely. There are three key reasons which differentiate us from the West.

One, pollution control has yet to become an electoral issue in India. India’s politicians have not shown any serious interest in controlling pollution. They lack the courage to take on the big polluters – the corporate sector, which has shown a singular lack of interest in controlling pollution. The government’s own companies and power stations are heavy polluters. And politicians do not want to take on the small polluters either because they constitute important vote banks. Therefore, India’s electoral democracy is proving to be weak in confronting the scourge of pollution. As a result, India’s pollution control laws are not worth the paper on which they have been promulgated and few expect that this situation will change in any real sense in the near future.

Two, pollution control requires both enormous discipline and effective regulation. Given the state of political and bureaucratic corruption, it is extremely unlikely that pollution control laws will be enforced with any level of effectiveness.



Three, pollution control will require heavy investment. Given that India’s current per capita income is far lower than what the western countries had achieved in the 1950s, it is hard to see this investment being made. Unless, of course, decision-makers find cost-effective measures and not take recourse to the usually cheaper (and ineffective) precautionary measures or the extremely expensive curative measures. Government must ensure that companies – big or small – meet certain minimum standards or face severe penalties. But neither our politicians nor bureaucrats have any idea of how to do this; nor do they want to do anything – the polluter-politician-bureaucrat nexus being extremely strong.

What does this mean in terms impact on health? Today, about a million people die each year due to water pollution – and this is still largely because of the traditional form of pollution, which results from human filth. The new water pollution will add all kind of horrendous diseases like cancers and neurological disorders. It is estimated that at least one lakh die each year from urban air pollution. Thus, at the least one million or more will continue to die from pollution each year in India. This figure will probably rise to 2-3 million a year with a growing pollution. And tens of millions will suffer from high rates of illness and a poor quality of life.



The impetus for change, if any, will not come from the electoral part of India’s democracy. It will come from those elements of Indian democracy which give its people certain rights – the right to free speech, the right to form associations, and the right to protest, especially the right to go to court. In other words, exactly as in the West, it is India’s civil society that will have to literally browbeat the country’s elected representatives into action. In fact, the fight against pollution will succeed only if it becomes a people’s movement – an urban people’s movement that can count on an active group against pollution in every town and city of India working together as a unified force.

This will not be an easy task. The interests supporting the status quo are strong. Misinformation drives the game. Unfortunately, most scientists are employed within governmental institutions where only a few are ready to speak out. Despite the high levels of particulates in India’s urban air, the Centre for Science and Environment has been unable to find a single scientist in the country who has studied the health effects of this pollutant. In such a situation, every attempt will be made to divert attention to inconsequential issues. In fact, the easiest technique is to find a problem for every solution. Therefore, it is imperative that the environmental movement itself acquires scientific expertise or finds willing scientists to work with it, and then finds willing judges to tame the politicians and bureaucrats. Otherwise, striking a balance between environment and development will prove to be an elusive task.



The strongest environmental protests in India have centred around dams. While the government was moved to stop dams that were destroying rich forests, these protests have failed to stop dams where rehabilitation was the key issue. This only highlights the government’s belief that someone must pay the price of development. As the displaced are usually fewer in number than the beneficiaries, electoral democracy does not always favour them.

A humane rehabilitation policy, one acceptable to all parties concerned, still remains elusive. The country’s water managers are yet to revise water supply and hydropower strategies. As a result, struggles against dams have at best only managed to slow down state-sponsored progress on their construction and investment, but are unsuccessful in influencing the country’s future water development policy and programmes.

Even as environmentalists have protested against dams, many rural communities have expressed displeasure against environmentalists for the way protected areas have developed in India. India’s biodiversity is in crisis. The conservation strategy evolved to deal with this crisis was state-dominated and anti-people. It did not give people a role in the management of their habitat and resources. The underlying principle of forests and wildlife management remains one of separating people from their immediate natural environment in order to save it, rather than make them participants in its management.

In retrospect, it is clear that while the environmental movement may have been grounded in socio-ecological ethics, governmental response to the movement was certainly blind to this aspect. Over the years, environmental policy and legal frameworks have largely followed the western paradigm of conservation built on principles of exclusion and protection. As a result the legal framework follows a command and control system, which empowers the state that is made responsible for everything – from protection of forests, biodiversity, water use, to control of pollution, and so on.

Equally, that sustainability will arise not out of rhetorical concepts like caring for future generations but out of hard political issues like the patterns of resource control within existing generations, the nature of democratic decision-making structures and equality between decision-making groups. The greater the access to knowledge and participation, the greater will be the chances for a decision-making process in favour of economic sustainability.

In other words, environmental sustainability demands the construction of a political order in which the control of natural resources rests, to the maximum extent possible, with local communities who are dependent on those resources. Decision-making within that community must be as participatory, open and democratic as possible. The environment is not about planting trees or protecting tigers, it is about deepening of democracy. It is this message that the environmental movement needs to articulate with greater force and conviction to ensure that its protest is translated into effective policy.



Over the last 15 years, the world has seen a virtual explosion of intergovernmental negotiations to formulate international environmental treaties. This ‘ecological globalisation’ is an inevitable result of the ongoing processes of economic growth and economic globalisation, which not only stitch the world’s economies together, but also take national production and consumption levels to a point that threatens the world’s ecological systems.



The process of ecological globalisation is driven by the fact that levels of production and consumption have reached a stage that what one does in one’s own country has major impacts on neighbouring countries or even on the rest of the world. Even simple things like the use of a refrigerator or an air conditioner can today destroy the world’s ozone layer; running an automobile or cutting a tree without planting another can destabilise the world’s climate. And, using a persistent organic compound like DDT in India can mean life-threatening pollution for human beings and other life forms in the remote polar regions of the world, these compounds being slowly but steadily carried to these regions by the world’s oceanic currents and air streams. Never before have human beings needed to learn to live in ‘one world’ as now.

But globalisation was not accompanied by any form of political globalisation. As a result, no political leader is sufficiently interested to ensure that the emerging global market or the emerging global ecological policy is managed in the best interest of the maximum number of people and on the basis of the principles of ‘good governance’. In fact, the emerging rules and regulations generally tend to be based on the principles of ‘business transactions’. Therefore, environmental diplomacy has turned into petty business transactions built on principles of mutual benefits regardless of their societal costs, instead of governance systems that are built on principles of democracy, justice and equality.

For instance, the negotiations to prevent climate change, often described as the most serious threat facing humanity and the world’s entire biosphere, are marked by a deep crisis because of the asymmetric burden sharing they threaten to impose on the nations of the world. If climate change is to be averted, then there is no option other than for all nations to reduce their per capita greenhouse gas emissions substantially. This will require ‘reinventing the energy system’ – moving away from a fossil fuel based carbon economy to a net non-carbon economy – which could not only impose economic costs but also take a long time to implement, maybe as much as a century or more.



Precious little can be done to bring about the needed technological transformation in the next few decades. During this period, the traditionally high emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGS) will continue to emit high quantities, while traditionally low emitters of GHGS, especially those witnessing high economic growth rates, will also become high emitters. High emitting nations argue that efforts made exclusively by them to reduce large quantities of GHG emissions will not only be negated by the increased emissions from developing countries, but also impose a high cost on their corporations making them globally uncompetitive. They argue that such efforts will result in relocation of polluting industries, resulting in economic and job losses in the West. It is a burden that they cannot accept. Developing countries, meanwhile, point out that being late entrants to western-style economic development, their populations are economically poor, and they have a legitimate right to demand an equal right to the use of the available ‘common atmospheric space’. This asymmetry in burden sharing, demanded by developing countries, has created considerable tension in the climate change negotiations.

In these negotiations, the role of the southern environmental movement is critical. Whatever be the strengths or shortcomings of the final outcome of these environmental negotiations, they provide the brick and mortar for something that is going to be important in the 21st century – an amorphous but still highly significant form of global environmental governance.

Unfortunately, with negotiations being conducted in far-off global capitals and often beyond the prying eyes of national media institutions, civil society in most countries, especially the developing ones, has little or no knowledge of the politics of these negotiations and is, therefore, in no position to keep on top of global environmental politics, far less to intervene. This disempowerment of civil society, especially in the South, is a matter of concern. Even though India, for example, has a free and powerful press, its reportage of these negotiations is abysmal both in quantity and quality, despite the country’s long-term economic and ecological interests in them. There is thus an urgent need to improve information flows in this area in order to promote civil society participation to keep our governments on track at the global level.

In conclusion, it is clear that the environmental movement in India will have to go much beyond firefighting and protests against individual projects. It will have to strategise on how it can play a role in changing the policy that makes India the disaster it is today.