August 2023 saw another historic event besides the Chandrayaan landing. It happened half a world away from India. The people of Ecuador voted to halt an oil drilling project that would have decimated a crucial biodiversity area, the home of two tribes. Never before in the world has the extraction of oil been halted by organized popular pressure. In another referendum, inhabitants of the capital Quito outlawed mining in a biosphere reserve adjoining the city. The campaigns were not restricted to tribal peoples. They were steered nationally by youthful environment activists.
The referendums were held alongside Ecuador’s national elections. In India, the Supreme Court has opined that our constitutional channel for the people’s voice is elections, not referendums. The example of Ecuador suggests the two are not incompatible. The environmentalists won 59% and 69% votes respectively in the two referendums. Virtually no candidate in the national elections polled half these numbers.
India has seen broad-based environmental campaigns across regions and communities. The iconic example is the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The Chipko movement was largely a local initiative, like the protracted struggles of the denizens of Niyamgiri in Odisha and Hasdeo in Chhattisgarh. An urban equivalent would be the outcry against the expansion of a copper smelting plant in Tuticorin.
These protests come at a price. Even when the campaigners win, they pay dearly. Thirteen people died in police firing in Tuticorin. The Niyamgiri movement has been punctuated with arrests all through. Why then do the protesters persist? As corporates and governments would convince them, ‘developing’ their home terrain would promise a better livelihood in mining and industry.
Our indigenous peoples are not fools. Living as close to the margin as they do, they can clearly assess the threats to their survival. They know only a handful of them would benefit from the industrial order replacing their rugged but supportive ecosystem. It would spell the end of their viable community life. The people of Bengal’s Deocha Pachami lead a hard life as it is, racked by silicosis from the local quarries they work. But they fear a deeper upheaval from the projected open-cast collieries in the area.
There is another level of resistance that we might call spiritual for want of a better word. At Niyamgiri, a major issue was the significance of the hills in tribal religion. Beyond such explicitly religious beliefs is a far deeper sense of life values and powers organic to the environment. It is not only a spiritual but a visceral perception. In the post-industrial world, this primordial environmentalism is engaging radically with modern environmental science to postulate a total life of the earth where every element, living and non-living, sustains every other. Concepts like Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis (best known to many from Amitav Ghosh’s works) reaffirm the lived reality of human existence in a setting of total nature. The Ecuador referendum strengthens this ethos.
Beyond all material objections (though those are powerful), it is this gut sensibility that agitates us on hearing that the largely unspoilt and biodiverse forests of the Nicobar Islands will make way for an airport, container terminal, tourism hub and much else, with ‘compensatory’ afforestation no closer than Haryana. This is a particularly egregious instance of the mindset that views a single-crop commercial plantation as adequate replacement for a pristine biosphere.
State management of the environment is increasingly subverting itself by easing restrictions on mining, industry and tourism. This accords with India’s general approach to environment and climate change. We are enthused by alternative energy and smart cities — measures that revamp but do not threaten the industrial economy, ensuring new manufactures in place of old ones. Creating this comfort zone is better than doing nothing, but seems perverse and laughably inadequate while we continue to despoil the natural environment. Our water bodies, from local ponds to mighty rivers, are degenerating at an alarming rate, even as groundwater levels plummet. Our forest cover is depleted by any practical definition of the term — not as prescribed in the new Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, whereby only land officially classified as forest under a 1927 law qualifies for protection. The Supreme Court had extended the earlier law to all land matching the commonsense definition of a forest. As happens repeatedly these days, the government has circumvented the law by simply rewriting it.
No human law can override nature’s. Today, India’s cities are annually inundated to an extent unimaginable with this regularity even ten years ago. Municipal authorities may be gravely at fault, but that is not the chief reason. We are facing the wrath of the elements in a world in disequilibrium. Urbanites who ride out the danger at their door so nonchalantly will hardly be moved by forests vanishing a thousand miles away, or the Himalayas scourged by landslides and flash floods, with melting glaciers as a background theme.
Let me end with a special alert for my city. We have heard enough by now of the crucial role of the East Calcutta Wetlands in the city’s survival. It disposes of Calcutta’s entire sewage and stormwater, not only without cost but with substantial productive output from fisheries and market gardens. There is, quite literally, nothing like it in the world. Yet we are content to decimate it in an orgy of misguided ‘development’ — schools, colleges and hospitals, a popular art centre, housing estates galore — ensuring that the city chokes on its own swill in our children’s lifetime or even our own.
The last five years have seen exponential havoc in the earth’s soil, air and water. The once-complacent West is learning this to its cost from an unbroken spate of floods, storms, wildfires and heat waves. New York found itself choking with ash from burning forests in Canada, and the desert state of Texas faces repeated floods. This is not the dream West of green card aspirants and package tourists. Nor can we wish our own precariously poised environment to buckle under such an assault. Far better learn from the ground-level efforts of humble Ecuador.
Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University