Citizens must rally

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Some people’s movements have helped the cause of environment in India, such as the Chipko movement. But these have not translated into people’s participation in all the most important causes which concern them. This must change, says Rishi Aggarwal.

Citizen movements or individual efforts have played a key role since Independence in shaping environmental laws and policies in India. Whether the concern has been for saving the rich biodiversity of the Western Ghats, the successful Silent Valley protest or your own backyard like the few ladies who objected to their forests being cut in Garhwal and sparked the Chipko movement, or a broader issue like solid waste management across the country where Almitra Patel filed a Public Interest Litigation in 1996 resulting in the formation of the Solid Waste Management Rules of 2016, citizens have been at the forefront of protecting our environment, making our authorities accountable and shaping policy.

Most citizen movements are reactionary in nature and in response to an event which is seen adverse to the good of the environment. There are issues which are local in nature, and then those which are wider and systemic. There are movements of the English speaking and those of the non-English speaking. There are campaigns which rely heavily on judicial support and there are campaigns which draw their support from popular public support. There are campaigns of the rich, and then there are campaigns of the poor and the dispossessed. A Narmada Bachao Andolan still refuses to capture the imagination and fancy of those staying in the cities, especially the middle class, because they see it as an unnecessary obstruction to a development pattern they have subscribed to.

Citizen movements happen far and few in between and can be difficult to sustain beyond a few bursts of activity. Understanding the exact impact of the campaigns is important, and more important, understand how the movements need to be supported. I will use a few examples below to drive the point across. The subject is important and a very vast one with a number of facets to discuss and a small article can only touch a few aspects.

Why did the Chipko movement not catch on?
While the Chipko campaign caught the fancy of the nation and the world and the word chipko has become a clarion call for action in numerous small campaigns in cities around the country, it is important to understand what has been the impact of the movement in informing policies around natural resource management in Uttarakhand itself, and in forming policy across the country. The movement was not just about trees, but about the importance of ecology in our daily lives and the need to conserve the same. “Ecology is the only permanent economy”, is the term that Gandhian and philosopher Sundarlal Bahugana coined then.

And yet, the two decades of the post liberalisation era saw a slew of damaging hydroelectric power plants take over river after river in the Uttarakhand Himalayas and the whole belt, producing disastrous consequences. No citizen movement could question the flawed governance and decision making behind awarding these hydro-electric projects. Chipko was not just about saving a few trees, the movement should have moved beyond trees and intervened to ensure that two rivers and their important tributaries, which are held religiously in such high esteem be saved from such projects. There was resistance and much questioning, but in the end the political economy and a certain thinking prevailed.

Similar is the case with preserving our natural reserves from mining and roads passing through them or the shrinking wildlife corridors, the absence of which is a sure death knell for the animals we wish to save and provide for. We are yet to see a citizen movement of scale.

Rash planning harms ecology
I have been increasingly spending time in the Uttarakhand mountains in the Aglar River watershed and it has been saddening to see how the villagers have not been able to come together to stop the Eco Task Force (with technical guidance from the local Forest Department) from planting completely wrong species of trees as part of the eco restoration work being carried out. Species like Silver Oak and Cyprus have dominated the planting regime of the ETF since 1994 when the work started. By now many of the trees are tall and firmly established on the hill sides.

Villager after villager can be found cursing these trees as being of no value, and in fact damaging the ecosystem. There is enormous local knowledge about forests and ecology. It is difficult to meet a villager young or old who does not know his or her trees well and the various uses or benefits of the trees. There is universal agreement that the degraded ecology is no reason for not planting the right species like oak, khadki, bhimal, walnut, padam and many others, which would nourish the soil as well as provide valuable produce like fodder, firewood, ropes, timber etc. And yet the opposite has happened.

Why is it that in the same geography where the Chipko movement originated in contemporary memory and which is a catch word and inspiration for micro movements around the country, could the villagers not intervene in time? Why could the villagers not influence the thinking of the Eco Task Force and their local Forest Department, and if need be carry out an agitation to ensure that the right tree species are planted? If cutting of trees illegally is wrong and can inspire public movements, then planting the wrong trees can be considered even more wrong and doing even longer damage. Once planted, a wrong forest will exist for decades not allowing for the benefits which otherwise would have accrued from a forest with the correct species. This is not the case with Uttarakhand alone, but around the country. Participatory forest management has been a buzzword for decades, and yet we do not have a citizen movement of scale around the same.

The story of our waste
Waste being generated in our cities does not create the attractive image of an environmental movement like a Chipko or conserving the Western Ghats, but is has serious consequences for our natural environment. Millions of tonnes of solid and liquid waste is being dumped on land or rivers across the country annually. It is exhausting the capacity of the ecosystems to bear the load. It was the effort of a single citizen which brought about the Solid Waste Management Rules during the 1990s many more enlightened individuals and groups added enormously to our knowledge and practice of how to manage solid and liquid waste in our cities and towns. Two decades later, we still do not see the rules being implemented. Something as simple as segregating waste at source is not implemented at source in households across the country. There is no mass countrywide citizens movement around the same.

It becomes difficult to identify the planning of cities in a manner such that they consume less energy as an environmental cause. It does not provide for those images from the natural world. And yet, how we plan our cities and the course of urbanisation, is one of the single biggest environmental causes. Some people have over the past two decades tried hard to shape how we develop and design our cities. If our cities consume less energy, produce less waste and yet provide increasingly better quality of life to the residents, then it has a win-win outcome. And yet our cities are being designed and governed in a manner that they consume more energy and generate more waste. Instead of being public transport and walking and cycling friendly, cities are built for cars and lead to traffic jams and air pollution. The crux of the matter is that in India we do not have the right number of citizens who are environmentally minded enough. And I stress on the word enough because there is no shortage of naive environmental concern and knowledge, which really does more damage than good. People have simplistic notions around planting trees, cleaning beaches and rivers, or banning plastic bags. In India we also do not see institutionalised citizen environment movements like those in Europe and the United States, which successfully draw large numbers, have systematic funding from individuals, and carry on activity comfortably over decades. We do not have the equivalent of a Sierra Club or Greenpeace and it would be important to introspect why. Our campaigns are more and more centred around an individual and his or her personality, and have no chance of continuing beyond a certain number of years.

There is now one form of environmental campaign or cause championing which is more in the nature of personal glorification. By now a number of Hollywood stars have moved in to support causes and that has got the fancy of a number of wealthy or otherwise around the world, who wish to be seen as saviours of the planet. The lack of understanding or talent or a long term commitment does not stop them, and a strong drive to be popular propels their efforts. The resulting event management can create a lot of light and noise but does not translate into any real gains.

Serious campaigns are relegated to a niche audience, and the numbers are few. Campaigns like beach cleaning activities or tree planting drives or for that matter, the Rally for Rivers which hardly warrants any serious discussion, will see large numbers being mobilised across geographies. Those who initiate and drive these campaigns are champions at designing the right narrative and then controlling it tightly. They are clued into what drives numbers and understand the audience better than they understand environmental issues as such. And in this context, those who are driving serious environmental campaigns see themselves feeling increasingly incompetent and clueless about what to do and for whom. Environmental campaigns are ultimately a social construct and rely on patronage and numbers. After years and decades of hard work if their work is not able to get any support then it becomes difficult to justify the effort. Burn out anyways brings activity to a halt. The environmental challenges we face are serious and I do not see us as a society rising to the situation adequately.


Rishi Aggarwal

Rishi Aggarwal is a Mumbai based environmentalist who has for almost two decades been closely involved with numerous environmental campaigns primarily in Mumbai but also adding voice to national issues. He speaks from a personal context of the challenges in sustaining campaigns.

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