Environmentalist, prove thyself

It is getting imperative for green dreamers to marshal together their facts and place hair-tearing emotion on the backburner

By Uday Shankar
Published: Thursday 30 June 1994

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)AS CAMPAIGNS against environmental degradation by unsound development strategies gain momentum, environmentalists all over are coming under increasing pressure to substantiate every charge they make. Gone are the days when appeals in the name of pristine nature stirred many souls to shed tears for vanishing woods and endangered birds.

In India, too, campaigns for environmental preservation and sustainable development have become more "realistic" and articulate in the past 2 decades. Today, critics of the prevalent development policies -- or "environmentalists", as they have come to be called -- are an influential lobby in the country.

Compare this with the days of the Chipko movement in the '70s. Despite being a remarkable effort to link survival with nature, more people seem to be aware of Chipko now rather than when it was in full swing. To take another instance, efforts to save the Silent Valley in Kerala succeeded not because of mass appeal, but because the small group of people who took it up represented the upper crust of Indian society. They carried enough clout to get their protest noted by none other than the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. All this while, however, the common people barely knew what was happening.
Straddling the fence Nevertheless, the environmental movement has gained a lot more ground today. Perhaps the best example of this advance are campaigns against projects like the Sardar Sarovar and Tehri. The existence of a village called Manibeli is acknowledged in most urban living rooms in the country, and not merely because the Sardar Sarovar project is going to submerge it. The headlong dive of Manibeli into the water guzzling houses of New Delhi, for instance, is a tribute to Indian environmentalists.

But this is a mixed blessing. Even people whose callousness degrades the environment are now reconciled to the fact that environmental concerns can no longer be wished away. Many of them are putting, if not their acts, at least their arguments, together. As a result, every argument advanced by the critics of a project or a development policy invites a counter-argument. The debates are increasingly being contested with hard facts and scientific reason rather than hair-tearing emotion.

Much as the eco-activists abhor it, the onus of proving that a policy or a project is flawed continues to be on the critics, even as the protagonists of development subject them to ever closer scrutiny. But between the critics and the advocates of unbridled development there is the huge mass of people who refuse to commit themselves either way.
The sceptical majority These are the people who are still not convinced of the arguments on either side and they would like to pass judgement strictly on the merits of each case. However, if the Indian environment and sustainable development are to be internalised as fundamental guidelines to determine national policies, this is the section of the society which has to be convinced. Needless to say, a tremendous responsibility rests not only with the leading lights of the Indian environmental movement but also on the less known, although by no means less significant, activists. The transformation of the struggles for sustainable development into mass movements would depend on how many of the fence-sitters are roped in.

In this context, some recent trends are disturbing, to say the least. One is at once reminded of the May 8 press conference held in Jammu by former environment minister Maneka Gandhi. According to reports, she claimed that last year 35,000 farmers in India had been killed by pesticides. She also alleged that about 9,000 people had died last year after consuming contaminated meat.

Where does this information come from? It is undeniable that every year many farmers get affected by toxic substances used in the fields. Many people may be dying from contaminated meat, too. Still, where does the former environment minister and leading environmental campaigner get these statistics from?

Given the ground realities, it is next to impossible to quantify the exact number of casualties, especially in rural areas. Are we to assume that all or even most of the victims of pesticides -- usually farm labourers or small farmers -- went to hospitals where autopsies were done on them and the results compiled nationally? Anyone even slightly familiar with rural India knows better.

It is important to take note of such observations when they come from someone like Maneka Gandhi because she is the only national politician who receives popular attention because of her articulation of environmental issues. For the sake of the cause that she champions, she cannot take liberties with facts that run-of-the-mill Indian politicians resort to; simply because environment is about survival and survival is too serious a matter to allow carelessness.

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