Between a rock and a hard place

Teaser Image Caption
Garbage dump in the Nagarjuna Canal. Photo by Praveena Sridhar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stunning victory in the recent national elections has flummoxed pundits and laypersons alike. In 2014, he had stormed into Raisina Hill on the rallying cry of sabka saath, sabka vikas (with all, development for all). However, this time the word vikas was conspicuously missing in his election speeches. For good reason—with rising joblessness and worsening farming crisis, not to mention a flagging economy, his government had little to show for the tall promises he had made five years ago. But, an astute tactician that he is, soon after the terrorist attack in Pulwama in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, he ambushed his rivals by swiftly deploying national security as his prime election gambit.

Political scientists have offered various explanations, aside from the national security manoeuvre, for Modi’s spectacular return to power. Some believe it was his charisma of a strongman, further enhanced by the lack of a credible alternative from a scattered opposition. Some put it down to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) well-oiled and cash-rich election-winning juggernaut propped up by a legion of dedicated foot soldiers. A few liberal thinkers attributed it to the rise of Hindu nationalism on the ruins of Nehru’s “idea of India”. Still others suggest it was probably because Modi succeeded in blurring caste and class lines that have traditionally defined electoral politics in the Hindi heartland. A partisan media, one might add, also played handmaiden.

Can saffron and green mix?

While scholars try to unravel the implications of Modi’s phenomenal win for the secular and liberal character of the Indian republic, environmentalists too are anxiously trying to read the oracle to see what the future of green politics in India might look like under a regime that is not only culturally right wing but also decisively neoliberal in its economic policies.

Such a government willy-nilly creates strange predicaments and contradictions for the practice of a green politics that embraces values such as social justice, sustainability, nonviolence, and diversity of life. Picture working with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the cultural impresario of the BJP, which subscribes to the caste system but which, or at least a faction within it, also believes in protecting the environment. Similarly, while it may justify the use of violence to defend a brand of Hindutva that vilifies, say beef eaters, it also salutes the traditional Hindu reverence for the diversity of life.

Things turn messier as Modi’s disruptive mix of liberal economics and majoritarian politics begins to disrupt almost everything that lies at the core of green politics. In the circumstances, green activists, who often find themselves on the wrong side of the present dispensation, have to confront some difficult moral and political questions—how does one collaborate with a state on green issues even as it rubbishes cherished values of a secular and liberal democracy? Or how does one defend the right to criticise a government for its environmentally harmful policies without being vilified as enemy of the state or the nation? These are prickly dilemmas getting out of or around which may require new imagination and loads of pluck.

The rise of Modi parallels the rise of authoritarian right-wing leaders around the world, predominantly in the rich west; Donald Trump in the US, Victor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, to name a few notable ones. Each of them without exception understands the terrible impact of economic globalisation on their respective working class and has exploited this fact to win elections. The left probably has a deeper appreciation of this, but as Paul Kingsnorth, an English writer-activist, recently wrote in The Guardian, the right “also understand what the left refuses to see: that the heart of the west’s current wound is cultural rather than economic. What is driving the modern turmoil are threats to identity, culture and meaning. Waves of migration, multicultural policies, eroding borders, shifting national and ethnic identities, globalist attacks on western culture: all that is solid is melting into air.”

American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes that this global shift to the right has something to do with the old left-right political schism giving way to a new rupture between globalism and nationalism. While globalism is seen as the ideology of the new bourgeoisie that roots for an open, diverse and liberal world in which individual rights are more important than allegiance to a community or nation, nationalism is all about loving your own people and nation above everything else—hence popular appeal of slogans like America first or Indian first. Haidt argues that the current rash of right wing nationalism in the west is a consequence of the arrogance of globalism.

Modi seems to mimic the muscular nationalism of Trump and Erdogan, for he too has provoked and tapped into the idea of an exalted and exclusive sense of cultural belonging amongst the majority Hindus. However, unlike others, he has somehow joined globalism at the hip with neoliberalism. He truly believes that a liberal, globalised economy is the talisman that will deliver millions of Indians from chronic poverty.

Neoliberal or not, almost all the resurgent right-wing leaders also happen to think of environment as an inconvenient and dispensable obstacle to economic growth.

Environmental apathy

For some observers, an even greater worry is that Modi’s almost messianic appeal amongst the masses may not bode well for the future of democratic green politics. The fact that Modi won a second term handsomely despite not fulfilling many of the promises he had made to the nation suggests that those who voted for him yet again are willing to forgive him his acts of commission and omission. As one poor man told a TV journalist: “What use is job or development when the nation’s borders are insecure?”

If people are willing to sacrifice bread-and-butter issues at the altar of an imagined threat to national security, where is the room for green politics, one might ask? In fact, a survey done by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) in 2018 found that of the 2.73 lakh people interviewed, about 12 per cent thought water and air pollution were top priority issues. Little wonder, environmental concerns such as water crisis and dirty air, not to mention climate change, which has severely dented the lives and livelihoods of millions of poor Indians, hardly figured in the recent election campaign of any political party.

This is not to say that people aren’t asking tough questions about the deteriorating state of their environment. However, they remain far and few between, confined mostly either to a small section of the urban middle class, who usually invoke the statute books to right an environmental wrong, or to protesting tribal communities, who are often muzzled by state power. For instance, several tribal hamlets in Jharkhand’s Khunti district have been protesting the state intruding into their lives and appropriating their natural resources like forests. Through a traditional form of resistance called Pathalgarhi in which they erect stone slabs to assert their territorial sovereignty, they have been demanding that the state respect and uphold their right to self-rule as guaranteed under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Until that happens, they refuse to cast their vote.  

Sadly, though not surprisingly, such voices of resistance are lost in the cynical maze of electoral calculus. In other words, in the winner-takes-all first-past-the-post system, political parties can afford to ignore them.

Green rhetoric

Be that as it may, the political manifestos of the two main players in national politics, namely the BJP and Congress, tell a curiously different story. The Congress in particular gives a long shrift to the environment—tackle “air pollution a national public health emergency”, protecting coastal zones, making “local communities the custodians of forests and shareholders of forest resource”, among other promises. Given its past environmental record, it almost sounds like an electoral plea bargain. However, as social scientist Shiv Visvanathan wrote in The Hindu, “the party’s critique of a governance model where ‘the regulators have become controllers shows’ that it has (at least) become both self-reflective and self-critical.”

The BJP manifesto, on the other hand, beats around the environmental bush. Even as it makes the right noises about air pollution, water crisis and climate change, it makes no bones about its pursuit of high economic growth through rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. The former almost reads like a lame apology for the latter’s environmental wrongs. The manifesto also reaffirms Modi’s staunch belief in the redemptive power of technology to fix almost any problem, especially those arising from its very application that tend to be predominantly environmental in nature.

(Not) missing the wood for the trees

That said, while the Congress might appear to be more “green” in its manifesto, the fact remains that it is as committed to a liberal economic order as its triumphalist rival. What really makes them appear like chalk and cheese is their respective cultural ideologies—Congress’ secular, liberal, and pluralist India versus BJP’s conservative and majoritarian Hindu Rashtra.

When it comes to commitment to green issues, it is more a matter of degrees and kind. For, we mustn’t forget that it was the Congress that opened India’s doors to economic liberalisation in the early ‘90s, which inevitably led to a steady undermining of environmental oversight architecture it had erected earlier. Over the next two decades, as India’s economic engine chugged at a furious pace, environmental conflicts over natural resources also burgeoned. In its pursuit of a high GDP, the state, ruled for the most part by Congress-led coalitions, not only rode roughshod over environmental laws but also quelled with brute force popular resistance to forcible takeover of lands for development projects like dams and mining. In an article in The Hindu, historian Ramachandra Guha had criticised former PM Manmohan Singh as being the “most actively hostile” to the environment. For Singh, Guha wrote, “economic growth must always take precedence over questions of environmental sustainability”.

Indeed, were it not for the natural constraints of a coalition government, not to mention the resilience of social movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the Congress party may have had more ecological blood on their hands.

It was only towards the end of its second term that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) tried to redress some of their environmental excesses through legislations like the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR 2013), which through various provisions, like mandatory consent of 70 per cent of the landowners before land acquisition, made it difficult for governments and corporations to acquire land for developments projects and setting up industries, many of which were potentially damaging to the environment. Congress coined the euphemism inclusive growth to justify such attempts that were aimed to soften the blows of rapid economic growth. However, truth be told, the UPA was already reeling under a series of scams and that these legislations were nothing more than an electoral ploy, however seemingly progressive, to appease millions of poor voters who had been rendered homeless or jobless as a result of the government’s ecologically destructive fetish for a high GDP.

From the frying pan into fire

But the voters had other ideas and the rest, as they say, is history, and which is still in the making. However, buoyed by a robust majority in the Lower House, the newly crowned Prime Minister Modi further ratcheted up the pace of economic reforms. In his quest to make India an economic superpower, his government has gone about diluting, undermining, and even bypassing any law that comes in the way of doing business with ease. For instance, they tried hard to dilute the LARR, albeit in vain, as they could not muster requisite support in the Upper House. They undermined the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), enacted by the Congress in 2005 and which Modi ridiculed as an emblem of Congress’ 70-year misrule, by reducing its budget. Now, in order to divert forest lands for industrial and infrastructure projects, Modi’s government is trying to water down the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights)Act, 2006 (also called the Forests Rights Act or FRA), which gives forest-dwelling communities the legal right to live and manage their forests. For the same reason, the present government has diluted laws that protect ecosystems like rivers and coasts.

And yet, ironically, the UN hailed Modi as a Champion of the Earth. Evidently, he has very smartly finessed a pro-environment international image through two flagship schemes, namely make India open-defecation free and make solar energy the linchpin of India’s low-carbon economy.

Modi’s faith in the market economy as well as in the transformative power of technology, especially in fixing environmental malfunctions, makes him half an eco-modernist (the liberal half being missing). How this ambiguity or dichotomy plays out in the future in relation to India’s democracy and its bulwark institutions like the judiciary, non-profits, media, and universities, will be crucial for green politics in India.

Lowering the bar

This is not the first inflection point in the trajectory of environmental politics in India. In the 1990s, a brigade of grassroots struggles against big dams led the charge of green politics. These social movements, often led by urban middle-class intellectuals, not only exposed the deep flaws of capitalist industrialisation but also offered alternative models of development that were socially just, democratic, and ecologically sustainable. But after two decades of resisting the march of neoliberalism, mostly under Congress-led governments, these movements have waned out of sheer fatigue. But large dams, following a brief lull, are back as substitutes for dirty fossils fuels in the fight against climate change.

As the Indian sociologist Amita Baviskar recently wrote in a journal called Thesis 11: “As large dams continue to be built, their critics have shifted the battle off the streets to new arenas—to courts and government committees, in particular—and switched to a techno-managerial discourse of maintaining river health.”

This privileging of environment over social justice, Baviskar argues, has “narrowed the potential for radical critique”. In fact, if you leave aside isolated examples like the Pathalgarhi movement, the language of green politics has been by and large reduced to a techno-legal vocabulary. The fight against air pollution, in which the sole aim seems to be building a strong legal case based on loads of pollution data, is a perfect example of environment trumping social justice.

New rules of engagement

The fizzling out of social movements and the rise of techno-legal environmental discourse appear all of a piece with Modi’s technocratic worldview, which is forever impatient with grassroots resistance and participative democracy—it is far easier for the state to fight and win battles in the court than on the ground, as expert and legal opinion is always elastic while people are always messy.

The rise of the middle class, which voted overwhelmingly for Modi in the recent elections, is yet another factor that may have a bearing on green politics. So far, the majority middle class view of environment doesn’t extend beyond NIMBY (not in my backyard). As long as their needs are satisfied and their backyards are tidy, they have little qualm about dams and mines displacing tribal communities, or real estate projects evicting slum dwellers. However, as the aspirational middle class becomes a sizable proportion of the total population—expected to account for half of India’s population in 2050, its take on the environment is likely to define the contours of India’s future green politics, just as they are doing currently in Europe, where green parties have made big gains in the recent EU elections.

But 2050 is still a distant date. In the short term, say over the next decade, it is unlikely that any of the political parties would turn significantly green, and even more unlikely that a green party would become a key player in Indian politics. Much would depend on whether the Modi-led government can ensure a decent quality of life for millions of aspirational Indians while at the same time squarely meeting the clear and present environmental challenges of air pollution, water crisis, and climate change.

Modi might even succeed in at least staving off the environmental crisis with the help of his technological fixes. But whether he would be able to keep his divisive cultural politics apart from the urgent questions of economy and environment is a moot question. Equally moot is the question of whether votaries of green politics can find ways and means of engaging with a political party and a government that doesn’t share their core beliefs.

Disclaimer: This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung India. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.