| About the querulous left
This article is about an interesting, important, but as yet little-analysed phenomenon in contemporary Indian politics — the entry into the environmental movement of the organized left.
Through the Seventies and Eighties, Indian environmentalists were the target of sharp attack by the two established communist parties, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Communists distrusted the environmentalists because they worked with social groups — fisherfolk, pastoralists, tribals — whose interests were different from, and sometimes even opposed to, the interests of their own core constituency of workers and peasants. Thus when industrial pollution killed the River Chaliyar in Kerala and put hundreds of small fisherfolk out of business, the CPI(M) worked to keep the factory going, even though it was owned by one of India’s least-liked capitalist families, the Birlas.
Communists opposed environmentalists, in practice; but they also opposed them in theory, for asking critical questions of modern science and technology, and for suggesting that modern industrialization might face ecological limits. Greens were, from the classical Marxist point of view, merely a bunch of reactionary Luddites. But, it was suggested, they were not merely foolish but also dangerous — playing into the hands of the American imperialists who did not wish to see India emerge as a strong and self-reliant power.
Let me recall here a conversation, held c. 1981-2, with a friend who had been an undergraduate with me in Delhi. I was in the early stages of a dissertation on the Chipko Andolan, and had just spent several days in the company of Chipko’s leader, Chandi Prasad Bhatt. My friend, on the other hand, was now an active member of the CPI(M). When I explained to him what I was working on, he commented that if it opposed the felling of forests, the Chipko movement was on the side of reaction. For forest felling fuelled the paper industry, where laboured the advanced guard of the working class, who would lead the proletarian revolution of the future. From the point of view of the Marxist catechism his logic was irrefutable. But it left me feeling uncomfortable. How could a man of such manifest sincerity and social commitment as Chandi Prasad Bhatt be, even “objectively speaking”, a reactionary'
At the time, Indian environmentalists were often dismissed as CIA agents — a charge, ridiculous though it was, not so easy to shake off, at a time when American foreign policy disadvantaged India, and when there was an Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty in place. But in 1989 the Cold War ended. Then in 1991, two events even more momentous for Indians took place: the Soviet Union broke up, and India embarked on a programme of economic liberalization, upturning decades of an autarkic, state-directed policy of economic development.
In this, radically changed, context, Indian Marxists began to look more benignly upon Indian environmentalists. Ecology now became a handy stick to beat the enemy with. For the manifest reality of environmental degradation shot a hole in capitalist triumphalism; this was one illness the market could not cure. On the contrary, it seemed to make it worse.
Many greens shared this suspicion of the market; albeit from a communitarian, rather than socialist, point of view. Liberalization and globalization, they argued, encouraged avarice in individuals and undermined social solidarity. Thus, through the Nineties, Marxists and environmentalists made common cause against the opening out of the Indian economy. They worked together, for example, in struggles against the Enron power plant in Maharashtra and the Cogentrix unit in Karnataka.
There were good, solid reasons for opposing Enron and Cogentrix. Both these projects were rushed through by corrupt politicians, and both would have negatively impacted the environment and local communities. However, this opposition to specific projects soon became subsumed in a wholesale denunciation of the market and globalization. The fact that Enron and Cogentrix were foreign-owned was crucial here; for it helped paint them as agents of an aggressive Western imperialism.
The movements of the Nineties helped strengthen the strand of the environmental movement that privileged opposition above all else. Both Reds and Greens began speaking of a “second independence movement” to free India from the forces of “neo-colonialism”. The rhetoric became more extreme. Few talked any more about reform in the energy, water, transport or forest sectors. Instead, the call was for systemic change, for the overthrow of the present corrupt regime and its replacement with a presumably perfect one.
The playwright Michael Frayn has said of his fellow British leftists that they find it “easy to jeer”, but “very hard to do anything” positive or constructive. Long before him, George Orwell had also commented with feeling on the “generally negative, querulous” attitude of the left-wing intellectual. This kind of obligatory, knee-jerk, anti-establishmentarianism is in fact characteristic of radicals everywhere.
In India, though, this negativism had been tempered by the heritage of Gandhism. For Gandhi knew that even the “enemy” had something to offer you; thus his respect, for example, for notions of British justice and equality before the law. He knew also that it was not enough to oppose exploitation — one had to work towards less exploitative alternatives; thus his revival and upgradation of village crafts, and his emphasis on manual labour for all, regardless of caste.
This, so to say Gandhian, heritage was once a very visible presence in the Indian environmental movement. It informed the work of Chandi Prasad Bhatt, who has strong claims to being the first modern Indian environmentalist, and also to being the greatest. It inspired countless others to work on practical programmes of water management, energy conservation, afforestation, and recycling. And it encouraged scholars to chart practical policy alternatives to projects and practices that destroyed environments and livelihoods with them.
Tragically, these reform-minded environmentalists have no voice in the media, which tends to give space only to extreme views, to ignore work being done, solidly but quietly, to restore ravaged ecosystems, to conserve water and plant trees, to promote energy-efficient technologies. The times call for a proactive and constructive agenda for environmentalism. What we hear, however, is a mostly negative and reactive one. Prodded by the media, and by the left, environmentalists are encouraged to whole-heartedly oppose the market, the state, globalization, enterprise. This might perhaps get them some (short-term) attention, and a few (also short-term) converts, but at the cost of a further alienation from the majority of Indians.
For the ordinary Indian is not an extremist. He, and she, are not totally pro-development, or pro-environment, or pro-large dams, or pro-indigenous peoples. He, and she, want opposing interests to be harmonized. That, indeed, is what democracy is about — the harmonizing of competing interests.
In the Seventies, when the environment was thought to be a rich person’s fad, it was perhaps understandable if activists (and writers) used high-blown rhetoric, if they, so to say, were prone only to scream and shout. But thirty years down the line such methods are less acceptable, and less productive. There is a greater acceptance now of the need for sustainable technologies and ways of life. What people now want are solutions, methods and means to harmonize the conflicts between different social classes or communities, and between human aspirations and the needs of nature.
At the same time, the aspirations of Indians for a less deprived lifestyle have greatly risen. They want better houses, better means of transportation, decent clothing, good food — the kinds of things that can only be provided through the more efficient use of resources.
The Greening of the left has probably been good for the left; exposing it to aspects of social deprivation that it previously ignored. But whether the company of the comrades has been good for the Greens is another matter altogether.