Last week, the National Green Tribunal suspended the environmental clearance granted to the Posco steel project in Orissa. For several months, the local people had been demanding the scrapping of the project, alleging that it will destroy their livelihood opportunities and the ecology of the fertile area. Last summer, anti-Posco protesters blocked the roads leading to the site by laying down on the ground.
Forty years ago, a similar protest — using the body as a weapon — was internationally lauded as heroic. This was the Chipko movement. From then onwards, environmental protests have attracted public support. Some, like the protests against the Silent Valley Project in Kerala in the late 1970s and ’80s, were successful. Others, like the battle against the Narmada Valley project could not succeed but did set a precedent. But things have changed dramatically in the last 10 years. It is becoming increasingly difficult, in fact, even dangerous, to defend our environment.
Take the case of Amit Jethva, who was well known for his work in the Gir forest area and often used the Right to Information Act effectively. He was gunned down in 2010. Bhopal-based Shehla Masood, a tiger activist, was killed in 2011. Her murder may not be linked to her work, but she did have powerful enemies thanks to her work as an activist. There are also other ways by which environmentalists are silenced: law suits, police deployment and a hostile government. Defending the environment in India is becoming a much harder and riskier task. Whether people work alone or in groups, they are brutalised in many ways. There are two key reasons for this.
First, non-State actors who vandalise our environment and trample on people’s rights are becoming brazen. They are buoyed by the negative drift in the government towards the environment and its protectors. The most recent example of this is the killing of an IPS officer who took on the mining lobby in Madhya Pradesh. You may say that the officer was not an environmentalist, but the fact is, he did stand up for it.
Second, large sections in the government have begun to view environmental issues as inconvenient obstacles to their model growth, based on conventional macro-economics. This model does not take into account the value of our ecosystem vis-a- vis mining, infrastructure and steel plants. Remember how the idea of no-go areas for coal, proposed by the ministry environment and forests, generated so much heartburn among other ministries, and had to be finally diluted? Sure, we need coal but the plan’s objective of protecting good forests was dismissed without a thought. When people’s rights get intertwined with the environment, the government’s position becomes even more hardened. Listening to opposing views is no longer on the menu.
But in India, environment is about people, including the poor, and their survival. As awareness, coupled with environmental distress increases, people will have to fight harder to keep natural resources intact. The government must take these voices seriously, instead of ring-fencing the environment as an arena where it is enough to ban plastic bags, create green buildings and use natural colours.
India needs a green re-think. Why shoot the messenger when the message of environmental protection offers India an excellent insurance cover in the era of climate change and economic slowdown?
Bharati Chaturvedi is the founder of Chintan, an NGO, which was recently awarded the first US Secretary of State’s Award for Innovation
The views expressed by the author are personal