'Environmental Issues in India: A reader'
edited by Mahesh Rangarajan. Pearson Education India (2006)
'Environmental Issues in India: A reader' edited by Mahesh Rangarajan. Pearson Education India (2006)

Environmentalism of the poor

Southasian newspapers today carry more articles on environmental issues than they ever have before. Perhaps they are forced to do so. There is now relatively indisputable evidence of global warming, including glacial melt and altered weather patterns. This year has already been witness to more extreme weather events than have been seen during any year since the early 20th century. Bitter conflicts over surface water increasingly govern international relationships, and certainly determine inter-state issues within India. More and more, there is a sense that we are on the cusp of a global environmental disaster.

Yet like the rest of the world, governments all over Southasia carry on as though little were amiss, despite distinct possibilities for appropriate action staring them in the face. It is pertinent to ask at this point: Why are urgent environmental concerns not being met with effective policy action, despite the fact that we tend to possess both the knowledge and the resources required to do so?

Part of the reason for our continuing negligence on environmental issues is that, by and large, the average person has little understanding of the complexity of the issues, be it scientific origins, politico-economic linkages or historical cause-and-effect. Few people, for instance, would make the connection between conservation of wetlands (including urban rivers and swamps) and flood control in a mega-city such as Bombay. This is not to say that the person on the street does not feel the impact of ecological problems in various ways. But in Southasia today, there is hardly any literature available for an individual to develop greater understanding of the complex interrelationships behind environmental problems. Newspapers, at best, deal with them in a fragmentary and superficial manner – and, more often than not, inaccurately. As a result, the public constituency for environmental conservation is thin, scattered and localised.

Into this vacuum has come Mahesh Rangarajan's Environmental Issues in India, which brings together a rich collection of voices that treat contemporary environmental problems from a wide range of perspectives and disciplines. Though this realm has remained largely unknown to the public, scholars have for decades been conducting serious research into the political, social, economic and scientific causes behind our developing ecological crises, and it is on this that Rangarajan's book has drawn. The fact that a substantial number of articles in this volume were written by independent scholars rather than what one may call mainstream academicians provides for much-needed presentation of alternative points of view. Important topics from the health of forests and water to pollution and public action are discussed by such eminent scholars as Sumit Guha, Madhav Gadgil, Romila Thapar, N S Jodha, Ramachandra Guha and Ullas Karanth.

The ignorance of affluence
Apart from analysing various environmental problems in depth, the Reader does a good job of capturing the flavour of India's environmentalist traditions and knowledge. Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha describe India's vibrant civil society, made up of a mind-boggling variety of rights groups. Activist groups are grassroots-based, and have their origins in local natural-resource conflicts, often working stridently against industrial and developmental pressures. Indeed, the people have over the centuries evolved culturally unique ways of protesting and responding to environmental challenges. If the mainstay of the anti-Narmada movement was the hunger strike, so too did the people of Garhwal express their umbilical attachment to their forests through the Chipko (Hug the Trees) movement. In counterpoint to the modern-day Greenpeace method of direct action, we Southasians have had our own satyagraha answers, inspired by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Therefore, we need not learn only from the environmentalism of the West, and can hark back to our home-grown version.

Despite the ready evidence of alternative approaches, then, why do we continue to slide down the environmental slope? As one goes through the Reader's chapters, a startling realisation emerges: perhaps we, the elite (both economic and governmental), are not concerned about environmental disaster because it affects us the least and the last? Some time ago, the Indian Express carried a cheeky opinion piece suggesting that Indian Railways was not receiving the safety reforms it needed because India's elite rarely travels by train. Could the same be true of our environmental crises?

As Dunu Roy points out in his essay, there is far more to environmental science than the science – there is also politics. For instance, the current conventional thinking is that poverty engenders and exacerbates environmental problems, but the set of papers in this book gives ample proof that the reverse is in fact true. Indeed, it is clear that it is the ravenous appetite of urban consumerism that is leading to the rapid deterioration of the environment – not the precarious, low-calorie lifestyles of the poor. It comes as no surprise that a recent survey of garbage heaps in Delhi confirmed that the per-capita weight of garbage produced by slum-dwellers is but a small fraction of that produced in the city's elite areas.

Even as affluence accelerates environmental degradation, degrada-tion itself has been far more costly to the poor. The submergence of islands at the edge of the Sunderbans due to rising sea levels is, first and foremost, impacting communities of fishermen who have always been at the mercy of cyclones and myriad other natural dangers. As pointed out by Nagaraj and Raman in this volume, the majority of victims of the Bhopal gas leak of 1984 were illiterate and poor. The displacement caused by the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat, as described here by Sanjay Sangvai, also hits the lowest strata of small-scale farmers. To a great extent, the victims of both environmental decline and development processes belong to economically and socially marginalised groups. The playing out of this inequality – in case after case chronicled in this book – is itself cause for concern, and puts a question mark over India's proud claim of being a vibrant democracy.

Environmental Issues in India is an unprecedented collection, and needs to be on every serious student's and educationist's bookshelf, for the purposes of both quick reference and an in-depth understanding of India's environmental situation – and of society's response to it. This is serious scholarship; the authors are not merely statistics-toting armchair environmentalists or government consultants, but rather people who have been involved in and assiduously studied processes and movements in the field. The fine showcasing in the Reader will have relevance far beyond India's borders. At this juncture in Southasia's history, the book encourages us to ask: Can the environmentalism of the poor ever converge with that of the rich?

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Himal Southasian