Time for new environmentalism

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

2014 has brought India’s environmental movement to a crossroad. On the one hand, there is a greater acceptance of our concerns, but on the other hand, there is also growing resistance against the required action. More importantly, every indicator shows that things on the ground are getting worse. Our rivers are more polluted, more garbage is piling up in our cities, air is increasingly toxic and hazardous waste is just dumped, not managed. Worse, people who should have been in the front line of protection are turning against the environment. They see it as a constraint to local development. They may protest against the pollution from neighbouring mines or factories, but even if they succeed their livelihood from natural resources is not secure. They are caught between mining companies and foresters. Either way, they lose.

imageWe must also realise that even as environmental problems have grown, the institutions for the oversight and management of natural resources have shrunk. While the environmental constituency has grown, core beliefs have been lost. In this way, the underlying politics of environmental movement has been neutered.

It is important we point out the fundamental weaknesses and contradictions in the environmental movement. It is only then that we can deliberate on the direction for future growth of the movement.

Firstly, 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. We have disconnected environmental management from development. Management of natural resources—swinging between extraction and conservation—is leaving out of its wake millions who live on the resources. These people cannot afford either the degradation of resources or pure conservation. They need to utilise natural resources 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.

We need to move beyond conservation to sustainable management of natural resources. Environment must become India’s development agenda again. This is imperative.

Secondly, the debate on environmental issues is increasingly polarised and seen as obstructionist. In real life we need to go beyond absolute positions so that there is some resolution and some movement forward. In an ideal world, there should be enough trust and confidence that once we begin to move ahead, there can be reviews, assessments and course correction. This is difficult in the current scenario where the world is unevenly divided between those with the polluters, mining companies and dam builders, and the rest. Institutions that can help resolve conflicts have been weakened. Trust is lost all around, so the worst defence plays out.

But playing defensive does not work in the long run. The environmental movement is able to stall, but not stop, environmentally disastrous projects. Worse, since there is no space for the middle ground that can allow discussion on how a project should function if allowed, there is no improvement in the situation on the ground once the project is sanctioned. The entire energy is invested in blocking projects and once a project is cleared the mission is lost. There is no emphasis, or even capacity in many cases, to look at the alternative that would mitigate environmental damage.

Thirdly, environmental struggles are increasingly about not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY). This is understandable but the problem in a highly iniquitous country like India is that NIMBY can simply mean that people do not want something in their backyard, but it can move to the backyard of someone else who is less powerful.

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

Fourthly, and most critically, one has to look for solutions and not just pose problems. The search for technologies and approaches to environmental management will have to recognise the need to do things differently so that sustainable growth is affordable to all. One must also recognise that strengthening the institutions is vital; we cannot improve performance without investment in boots on the ground.

This demands a new way of environmentalism to embrace ideas without dogma but with idealism and purpose. This environmentalism will have to move beyond the problems of today and yesterday. And for that we better imbibe the politics that will deliver this.

Embedding the environment in sustainable development goals

The two cultures revisited: The environment-development debate in India

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • Editor observed that

    Editor observed that "Fourthly, and most critically, one has to look for solutions and not just pose problems." -- Environmentalism is not posing problems but is showing solutions. Here the problem is the implementing agencies are not interested in implementing the solutions. Swash Bharat -- Clean India, is limited for slogan and show some characters on television shows. Take the case of domestic waste -- some character show that they are cleaning the area and wait until the photographer takes a photo. The fact is in Hyderabad [GHMC] around 6000 tons of waste is generated every day. Of this around 50% is openly burnt on the streets or in the parks or dumped in to water bodies/nalas. The rest is taken to dump site and there it is burnt. The environment law says the degradable waste can be used to produce power or compost and the rest must be put in to a scientific land fill. Pollution control boards never took any action on municipal commissioners, who are encouraging open burning of waste nor implementing the aggrements to supply degradable waste to power producing industries. This can be done by any individual or groups of volunteers under clean India. It must be implemented by the government agencies as it involves lot of money and man power requirement. Like this many such activities must be carried out by the government only. Nobody enlight the Prime Minister or Chief Minister of the respective states except appearing on TV programmes. This must change.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Little change of our daily

    Little change of our daily life style can reduce the carbon foot prints in a considerable level provided we think for our FOOD HABIT ( less meat ), control of smoking & chewing tobacco, conservation of electricity
    (produced by coal fired ), using of pool cars or mass transport when you are travelling alone, AC temp control for better energy conservation, using of solar power wherever possible, Participated in CSR activities for GREEN BELT development , awareness buildup with NGOs in your leisure hours etc

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Rightly said...Environmental

    Rightly said...Environmental management is not stopping all projects...it means providing proper technologies and alternatives so that the project can be done with minimum effects on nature and livelihood and also follows stringent monitoring measures.....SEJUTI SARKAR DE, Society for Natural resource Management and Community Development (SNRMCD)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Great article.

    Great article. Congratulations Madam.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply