Soil ours, water ours, ours are these forests; our forefathers raised them, it’s we who must protect them. This old Chipko song, translated from Garhwali, drives home the vital message of the trailblazing movement which took off in the early 1970s in the hill regions of what is now the state of Uttarakhand. Courageous, resolute women formed the backbone of the struggle, which involved hugging trees to prevent contractors licensed by the government from clearing forests. It is this key message of community sovereignty – a prerequisite for ecological democracy – that constitutes the predominant motif and the core wisdom of the Anil Agarwal Reader, a three volume compilation of articles and editorials by the pioneering environmentalist who preferred to call himself a journalist. Though these articles address issues that were of contemporary interest in the nineties, their relevance to today’s grim reality reminds us that not much has changed.
Founder of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), India’s leading environmental group, Agarwal’s life was dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis head on by writing about and campaigning for innovative approaches to deep-rooted problems. Whether he was writing about the path-breaking Chipko movement, bringing out CSE’s influential State of India’s Environment Citizens’ Reports or travelling across rural India to document community-based environmental regeneration efforts, Agarwal’s passion for the interests of the poor who are entirely dependent on their natural resource base guided his vision for the environment. In his own words, as quoted in the CSE tribute in their 2000-2002 annual report:
I have never been worried about the Earth. I’m worried about human beings. I was trying to understand what India is all about, what India’s people are all about. And that is how I stumbled upon the Earth. I realised that they have a deep relationship with the Earth, and that is why Earth became important to me.
Laced with a scathing candour and an irrepressible optimism, the elegantly produced Anil Agarwal Reader is a trove of information, knowledge and solutions for such an environmentalism as if people mattered. The first volume of the reader contains Agarwal’s writings published between 1991-1994 in a column called ‘Green Politics’ in the Delhi edition of The Economic Times, while the second and third volumes consist of his editorials in the period 1995-2001 in the science and environment fortnightly Down To Earth published by CSE. Peppered with stories of an India trapped in a quagmire of material deprivation, environmental poverty, bureaucratic webs and, most importantly, mental stupor, Agarwal’s articles employ real life experiences and hard hitting facts to bring us face to face with the depressing reality of our current condition. And crucially, based on practical solutions and real world success stories, he goes beyond today’s cynicism and desperation, to challenge, inspire, indeed, give us the confidence to build a future with democracy at our grassroots.
Through his signal work and writings, Agarwal debunked the false and dangerous notions that the environment was “pretty trees and tigers”, that “smoke was a sign of progress”, and even worse, that “poverty was the greatest polluter”. For the multitudes of India’s poor, the environment is not a luxury. It is a matter of roji roti, day-to-day survival. It is precisely for this reason, as the author insistently argued, that the current paradigm of representative democracy must give way to a participatory democracy in which people would control decision-making concerning development and resource usage. In other words, Gandhi’s concept of Gram Swaraj is even more relevant today, in our market-driven, globalised world.
People’s participation – an oft-repeated, ignored and abused phrase – takes on a refreshing new meaning in Agarwal’s articles, where ordinary people come together to work extraordinary transformations in their environment, and hand-in-hand, their daily lives. In these pages, we read about Sukhomajri – meaning the dry village – situated near Chandigarh amid the denuded Shivalik Hills in north India. Here, pioneering efforts in micro-watershed development by soil-conservationist P R Mishra in the late seventies and early eighties, led to access to grass, wood and water, nearly three times more crop-production, increased fodder availability and greater volumes of milk. The author suggests that such successful efforts at community mobilisation and effective protection and regeneration of natural resources are not one-off developments wrought by a few dedicated samaritans. Instead, they represent a wider social response to the “environmental precipice” on which we find ourselves poised today. It would be wrong to consider the numerous micro-experiments in community management of natural resources as ‘projects’, explains Agarwal. Citing examples including the Chipko movement, he points out that many of these extraordinary developments are “more the result of people’s aspirations than project planning”. Further, he throws light on rural communities where change has been brought about without any external agents at work, such as forest protection efforts in, what was then, the Uttar Pradesh Himalaya.
Efforts to cause change, however, often run into bureaucratic hurdles. Take, for example, the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, which sought to give more powers to the Central Government in the management of forests and forest resources. As pointed out by Chandi Prasad Bhatt of the Chipko movement, this Act sought to prohibit forest-dwellers from carrying out almost any activity, be it building a ropeway across a river or traditional irrigation channels. Further, Agarwal explains the serious problems and contradictions involved in privatising or corporatising degraded forest lands, which alienates the poor from the very resources on which their lives depend. Even worse, when people take initiatives to fashion change, the government erects barriers of distrust and hostility. For instance, take the case of a tribal settlement called Motewadi near the town of Manchar in Pune district, situated next to a barren hillock belonging to the forest department. In the early nineties, despite petitioning government officials in very influential positions, the villagers’ request to plant trees on the hillock did not draw a positive response. Adding to this dangerous cocktail, the government throws people out of protected areas, thus disempowering them by eroding their natural rights to their habitat. But India’s poverty cannot be alleviated without an ecological revival. And as the author never tires of telling us, the decisive way forward towards such a regeneration is to put people first.
‘The challenge of the balance’ is how Agarwal describes the task of bringing about just development, which protects the environment and the poor from harm, in the South. The world’s cultural diversity must be protected if its biological diversity has to be conserved. In more ways than one, these are two sides of the same coin, our cultural diversity being a direct outcome of our “extraordinary biological diversity”. Pitiably, the treasures of traditional knowledge – for example, our traditional water-harvesting systems – which this cultural diversity has bequeathed us so that we can harness and protect our natural environment, have choked and died a most pathetic death. Lakes, tanks and step wells have become cesspools and dumping grounds.
Having forgotten the “value of the raindrop”, we are now running after the mirage of mega-projects, notorious for being socially unjust and environmentally destructive. Agarwal warns us that unless “a combination of good politics, good economics and good science, together with mass public participation” is deployed to manage water, millions of Indians will die from its shortage or pollution. He does not, however, stop at mirroring this catastrophic reality. Instead, he offers hope based on practical solutions such as water literacy. Furthermore, he advocates that the State’s role should be restricted to helping the poor help themselves. This will put an end to water profligacy and engender millions of small projects such as the exemplary work of the Tarun Bharat Sangh, an organisation in Rajasthan committed to forest and water management issues.
North-South politics, the 1992 Earth Summit, and the ravages of globalisation also find a significant place in these articles, published at a time when the doors of the Indian economy were prised open for the IMF’s “structural adjustments” and foreign multinationals. Structural adjustment overburdened the poor, pushing them to the margins of survival, owing to huge cuts in the rural development budget and a reduction in the value of labour and natural resources because of currency devaluation. The author argues that ‘green trade’ – which is enforced by the rich countries through trade restrictions and embargoes on environmentally unfriendly products and countries – makes Southern countries “more unequal partners in global trade”, which leads to a debilitating impact on resource management.
Agarwal also indicts the North for its unsustainably high levels of consumption which have dragged the world onto a path of environmental degradation and destruction, and criticises its ludicrous attacks that Southern countries are mismanaging their environment. Why cannot Bangladeshis stop American citizens from enjoying and exploiting natural resources to a point that would threaten the very existence of the lower Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, owing to rise in sea levels caused by global warming? The author’s insistent repetition of such questions reminds us of the grossly unequal world we live in, where “environmental diplomacy” is employed to manipulate bureaucratic structures such as the Kyoto protocol. Negotiated to suit the ever growing consumerist appetite of the rich countries, this toothless protocol is a cover for them to conveniently, indeed criminally, find ways around taking “effective and measurable action” for a better environment, and a better world.
Despite the repetition of ideas, concerns and issues in some of the articles in the volumes, what emerges overall is a thorough picture of India’s environmental crises – covering a wide spectrum from North-South politics to realities at the grassroots – and a blueprint for comprehensive change. And for such change, become your own government, says Agarwal, like the people of Hamirpura village in Rajasthan, who disobeyed government orders and built traditional water harvesting structures to recharge groundwater and revive a river. For only when we stop looking to the government with expectation, and whole-heartedly make the agenda of socio-political and environmental change our very own, will true Swaraj take root in our soil.
~ Neeta Deshpande is a freelance writer based in Bangalore.