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Why They Succeed or Fail

Whither Environmental Movements?

Sagar Dhara

Production of goods and services for human society happens in the economic sub-system, for which raw materials and energy are drawn from the environment, and wastes from the production system are dumped back into it, where they are broken down into harmless substances.

Inequality happens in the economic sub-system. People have struggled against inequality for millennia. Yet, they succeeded in overthrowing an unequal system only in the last century in the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Since the industrial revolution began 300 years ago, the volume of raw materials being extracted from the environment and wastes being dumped into it has increased exponentially, putting both the source and the sink functions of the environment under stress. Environmental stress initially manifests as a local problem, e.g., scarcity of firewood in Kurnool or drinking water at Kolleru Lake, or high pollution levels around thermal power plants such as Ramagundem. Accordingly, people's responses are local—they can choose to suffer the environmental injury and allow their quality of life to degrade, or migrate out of the area or fight to mitigate the problem. All three choices entail a cost to people.

The oldest well known people's movement to conserve environmental resources in India is the Bishnoi movement to protect the Khejarli forests in Jhodhpur district that dates back to the 18th Century. Inspired by Rachel Carson's Silent spring (1960s) and the Club of Rome report, 1974, environmental movements began to happen in India from the 1970s, around the same time that they began in Europe and North America. Amongst the better known people's movements that attempted to conserve natural resources are—Chipko Andolan (1973) to protect forests in Tehri Garhwal, Save Silent Valley Movement (1978) to cancel a dam construction proposal in the Nilgiris biosphere, Jungle bachao Andolan (1982) by adivasis in Singbhum district to cancel government orders to replace sal with teak in the Singbhum forests, Appiko Chulavali (1983) to save the Western Ghat forests, Narmada Bachao Andolan (1985), which started out as a human rights movement to get a proper rehabilitation and resettlement package for dam displacement persons but converted into an environmental movement.

There are many other movements such as organic/natural farming, anti-GM seed campaign, save lakes and rocks campaigns, animal rights campaigns which fall into the category of movements that attempt to save natural resources.

People's movements have resisted environmental pollution and risk in several places, either from existing or proposed plants. The more important movements are—Bhopal (1984) where the MIC gas victims asked not only compensation for their health injury, but also for medical and economic rehabilitation and spill cleanup, Dahanu (1986), where the local farmers asked for the area to be declared an ecologically sensitive area in order to stop the local power plant from expanding its capacity, Bichidi (1989), where the local people wanted groundwater pollution caused by a chemical plant to be stopped, Tehri dam conflict (1990), that attempted to stop the Tehri dam from being built in a high seismic activity area, Udupi (1995), where the farmers and fishermen fought a bitter battle to stop the Mangalore refinery from polluting marine waters and proposed thermal plants from establishing themselves, Niyamgiri (1998), where the adivasis opposed bauxite mining to protect their land which they held to be sacred, Plachimada (2000), where the local people opposed the depletion and contamination of groundwater by Coca Cola and won this battle after a prolonged struggle in and out of court, Shutting down iron ore mining, Goa and Karnataka (2000-2012), where legal battles were fought to stop rapacious mining in these two states, Nandigram (2007), where people of this village opposed the setting up of a chemical hub and in the struggle 14 persons lost their lives in violence, Singur (2008), where people opposed the building of Tata's Nano car factory, Sompeta (2010) and Kakrapalli (2012), where opposition by local persons to proposed thermal power plants at these villages led to police firings that resulted in the loss of life of 3 persons at each place, Kudankulam (2011), thousands of local fishermen and farmers protested against the nuclear plants being constructed at Kudankulam for fear of the risk of a Fukushima-type accident here, Maddur (2014), where the people protested to Bengaluru city municipal authorities to dispose of the city's solid waste in the city and not in their village.

Many of the above battles were fought not because people understood how these projects may have affected the environment but because people saw the loss of their land and livelihoods as loss of their security and dignity. This was succinctly put by a woman adivasi farmer when she said, "I wish to be a farmer, and not a housemaid in someone's home."

Several proposed projects are likely to cause major environmental battles in the near future. Chief amongst them are the Mumbai-Ahmadabad Bullet train, the Mumbai-Delhi industrial corridor, the Mumbai-Vadodara expressway, compensating farmers for sequestering CO2 emitted by cities.

Of the people's movements listed above, and many others not included above, few have succeeded in achieving what they had set out to do, whereas most failed. Environmental movements in India have had a better chance of succeeding when:

* The battle is against a private entity and the state is not directly involved in the conflict, e.g., battles against the Dahanu power plant and the Bichidi chemical plant succeeded largely due to this reason.

* Action is taken soon after a project is proposed and well before it is granted an environmental clearance, e.g., the building of Udupi power plant was halted for this reason.

* People are united and show their willingness to fight, e.g., proposed projects in Sompeta, Kakrapalli, and Niyamgiri could be stopped only because the people there were united. The groundwater pollution in Plachimada too could be stopped for this reason. The proposed thermal power plant in Udupi could not be built for 10 years as the movement against it was strong. However, 10 years later the movement weakened due to the people getting exhausted and some traders siding with the proposed power plant. The Udupi Power Corporation was then able to build its plant.

* When there is a very strong legal case made out against an offender, e.g., iron ore mining companies in Goa and Bellary were stopped largely through strong legal action backed by good technical data and arguments.

* Many environmental battles in India failed for the following reasons:

* India is a low price and low value of life nation. Injury compensation cases have invariably failed for this reason. The failure to get a reasonable compensation for the Bhopal gas victims or have them satisfactorily rehabilitated medically and economically and have site cleanup done can be traced to this reason.

* Local self governments having weak decision-making power over their environments. Despite several resolutions passed by the Plachimada panchayet opposing the offending plant, the Kerala High Court overruled the panchayet resolutions and gave the offending plant permission to continue its operations. The same story is repeated in several places, including Udupi, Western Ghats, etc.

* Environmental movements often fail because they lack sufficient technical information and data about the impacts of environmental stresses and therefore do not know what kind of demands to make. E.g., antagonists of thermal power plants have never raised demands regarding impacts of such plants on crop yields, cattle health, monuments, water bodies, forests, groundwater contamination due to ash pond leach. Likewise, environmentalists attempting to protect the Western Ghats have not seen the relationship between long range transported acidic gases that will cause forest dieback in the Western Ghats and thus alter water flow in the major eastward flowing rivers such as Krishna, Godavari and the Kaveri, which will trigger conflict between riparian states such as Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

* There is little dialogue and no cooperation between the various strands of environmental movements, let alone between environmental movements and other pro-people movements. Consequently, environmental battles have little support from general public.

* One of the biggest weaknesses of the environmental movement is its acceptance of environmental law which provides for no public participation in environmental management. The law stands subverted and is almost dysfunctional. Asking regulatory authority and industry for transparency and to perform due diligence, which are common demands of environmentalists, is meaningless.

Local and global environmental injuries have the same root cause-use of the environment for extracting natural resources and dumping wastes. Till the onset of the industrial revolution, the harvest of raw materials and dumping of wastes was relatively small. Hence their impacts were visible only locally. With the use of fossil fuels, a dense energy source, the exploitation of nature has grown exponentially. Consequently, environmental human society has now become highly unsustainable. Today environmental gashes such as global warming and peak oil (a term used to depict not just the peaking of oil production followed by a decline, but the rapid exhaustion of non-renewable ores) are visible at the global level.

The two ideologies that have sanctified growth are anthropocentrism and privatisation of nature that facilitated the development of class society, which in its present form is capitalism. Anthropo-centrism prioritises human wants over the needs of all other species and permits humans to use an increasing share of nature to the detriment of other species. Capitalism permits the bourgeoisie to accumulate surplus at the expense of working people. Both ideologies have sanctified a virtuous circle of growth of human activity for 5,000 years. Human sustainability and equality are inalienably related to each other as both support growth and a disproportionate appropriation of nature's bounties. The battle for human sustainability and equality are inalienably related to each other.

Frontier
Vol. 51, No.4, Jul 29 - Aug 4, 2018