People´s Lives and Developmental Choices
by Sumi Krishna
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1996
Writings on the theorisation of the relationship between environment and development, realistic or spiritualistic, have a long record. The book under review is a good addition to that list. It is based on Sumi Krishna´s close exposure to several field situations that represent various dimensions of this complex relationship in India. Credit should go to her for not underestimating the complexity of that relationship, and thus, for remaining restrained in prescribing instant national level solutions, as is quite common among the so called “alternative-wallas”.
The strength of the book lies in the attention to analysis, and not to mere prescription. It does, however, fall victim to the weakness that the text is rather inward-looking and pays scant attention to the external linkages that influence the processes of economic transformation and environmental consciousness in India.
The prelude in Ms Krishna´s book, which is aptly described as “the human factor in environment” provides the scenario in which her analysis is set. The series of stories here provides the backdrop, albeit partial, of the emergence of stress in the environment-development relationship in India. The various responses to environmental issues are categorised in three compartments, which are described as popular, managerial and progressive. This is a refreshing departure from the general practice of clubbing environmentalists, of all types and in all situations, as one bundle of well-meaning knowalls busy in pointing out what has gone wrong in the world. The functional relationship of environment and development today, or more precisely of natural processes and economic processes, are of course too dynamic and complex for such a sweeping classification.
The analysis and categorisation presented by the author can, however, only be taken as a starting point for further clarification and not as the last word. But it is important to give some attention to the categorisation in order to make the best use of its potential.
The first category of environmentalists has been identified as “popular” who are seen to be linked directly with Gandhian philosophy and tactics. The second category is identified as “managerial”, relating it to the formal institutions of governance and research for environmental decision-making.
The third category is identified as “progressive”, giving it a close identity with Marxist viewpoints. The author declares, and rightly so, that “despite the differences among them, the ideological boundaries between the approaches remain fuzzy”.
The chapter dealing with the “limitations of management” provides important examples showing that when crucial steps are taken, they are mostly guided by individual priorities and motives of the decision-makers. The example of decisions related to the negative externalities of limestone quarrying in the Himalayan foothills of Dehradun has been described. From the available literature, one cannot disagree with the author that the stoppage of limestone quarrying in Dehradun was made possible more due to the presence of “influential resident environmentalists” than by any commitment to ecological stability in the fragile foothills.
The absence of any reference in the chapter on institutions to the great number of Indian universities and institutions that are supposed to generate scientific knowledge to help human development in the country is disappointing. The scientific community of India, excepting a few individuals, has retained an unfortunate and calculated silence on critical environmental issues. As a result, the country is faced with a great number of critical situations in which independent assessment of environmental impact is needed, but a very ill-developed independent knowledge base exists within the huge scientific institution.
Whether it is in the case of decisions on dams, or impact of power generation plants, or the relation of mineral extraction and the environment, etc, critical policy decisions on environment have mostly been taken by ministers and administrators, often keeping political advantages or image building in mind. In those cases where some sort of consultative process with selected scientists have taken place, the deliberations have often been kept away from the public eye with the help of the Official Secrets Act.
In the next four chapters the author ably addresses several key problems of environmentalism in India. The most interesting one is the selling of ´tradition´ in environmental activism. In criticising the negative environmental impact of the urban-industrial life-style, many environmentalists in India tend to glorify ´tradition´. The hardworking women of Garhwal or the Gonds of Bastar or any other community with low-energy subsistence lifestyle are the ones who are praised. If where they live is any indication of how these environmentalists that belong to the “city dweller´s nostalgia” school develop these ideas, New Delhi should be a rainforest-covered village with a sustainable “hunting-and-gath-ering” lifestyle. This above dichotomy, as the author points out, should not blind us to the difficulties of these externally glorified living conditions and the environmental degradation associated also with them.
The part of the book that is of greater significance for decision-making in India, is the second section, which deals with issues of population as well as technology. Addressing the issue of intensive agriculture, and in contradiction to the gross simplification propagated by Western eco-fundamentalists (and their Indian counterparts), the author throws important light on the gains and losses from the green revolution.
The problem with Sumi Krishna´s book, however, arrives a little later when the author declares that “most Indian environmentalists—regardless of whether they subscribe to the popular, managerial or progressive approaches—endorse the concept of sustainable development as the only path forward”. What is true is that since the publication of the Brundtland Report in the 1980s, the very concept of “sustainable development” has remained a mere jargon and, presently, is on its way out of fashion. It is difficult to accept that most Indian environmentalists view this equivocal term as the ultimate goal.
Of course, one cannot expect all the issues of environment and development to be handled in a single publication. But, at the same time, it is difficult to refrain from identifying the one important gap in the book if its title is to be justified. The term “development choices” has been included in the title, which implies that people can and have the option of exercising choices over the economic pattern of their lives.
Since the book was published in 1996, which saw the continuing process of widespread liberalisation of the Indian economy, it should be natural to expect the author to examine the external linkages of both the Indian economy and of the environmentalists. When the economy of any country has developed close links with the world economic system, the question of development choice becomes a difficult one. The environmental risks associated with quick growth in GNP, supported by the transfer of production facilities from the industrialised countries to the countries in the South, needs to be addressed in a serious way.
Similarly, the links ol Indian environmentalists with international donors and NGOs constitute another important segment of environmental politics. It is important to keep in mind that major donors and NGOs in the industnalised countries provide substantial financial support to environmentalists in the countries of the South. It would be naive to consider such assistance as representing unadulterated philanthropy. In a period when international negotiations are often providing binding guidelines for changing national environmental laws, a look into the role of the Indian environmentalists who participate in almost all the international meetings on environment with financial support from industrialised countries should have found some place in a book on environmental politics.
These gaps in addressing external issues in environmental politics make this otherwise refreshing publication appear inward looking.