Chapter 3 Rethinking Indian Environmentalism
Industrial Pollution in Delhi and Fisheries in Kerala
May 1, 2006
The two cases described in this chapter—regardless of which theory you subscribe to, Shiva’s “spiritual ecology” or Guha’s and Gadgil’s “political ecology”—give lie to the widespread belief that it is possible to generalize about "Indian environmentalism.”
Air pollution control in Delhi, where the policy solution—namely the closure of thousands of factories around the city—directly impacted the livelihoods of residents from industrialists to casual workers, with doubtful improvement for air pollution.
Fisheries management in Kerala, where international aid efforts to modernize the fisheries presented fishers with a fundamental choice: to maintain their traditional practices, which are more sustainable, or to adopt mechanized technology at the risk of depleting marine resources.
The Delhi air pollution study shows that when values get labeled as “environmental,” a project is more likely to receive national and international recognition and support. In this case, the middle classes regarded the plight of the workers, who lost their jobs when the Supreme Court ordered the closure of polluting factories, as the unavoidable cost that must be borne for the sake of lessening the city’s pollution. Even prior to factory closings, poor working conditions had rendered factory workers more vulnerable to the toxic burden; they were also the ones who had to bear the cost of the government and the middle class’ new green agenda. The study demonstrates the interrelationship between two forms of environmentalism, with the green agenda of the rich leading to greater social and economic marginalization of the poor and their concerns over fair distribution of resources and safe working conditions.
The Kerala study highlights what happens when new technology (in this case, outboard motors and large fishing trawlers) is introduced to a community where people have been earning their living in the same way for generations. How did the Kerala fishers make sense of their lives in light of their new choices? Contrary to romanticized images of people in traditional communities clinging to their indigenous practices as part of their identity, in fact artisanal fishers share many of the same interests in access to markets, capital and technology as their “capitalist” rivals. As a result, the authors argue that the case demands a more complicated account of the material and symbolic relationships between people and resources than is represented by the familiar narrative of “a superior group…usurp[ing] the business terrain of a disempowered tradition….”
Plank-Built Canoe Returning Home at Alappuzha, Kerala, India. Photo Courtesy of SIFFS/ICSF Photo Gallery
NOTE: Unless otherwise indicated, the following notes and suggested resources were supplied by the chapter authors or the editor.
Theories of "Indian Environmentalism"
The two case studies challenge the dominant perspectives on Indian environmental action. The two main analytical approaches, spiritual ecology and political ecology, assume a specific form of “Indian environmentalism.” However, as the chapter authors argue:
Both the Delhi and Kerala campaigns challenge analysts to come up with more complex and contingent accounts that do justice to the dynamism and creativity of the social actors they seek to represent. One of these challenges is to the very notion of an “Indian environmentalism.”
- Vandana Shiva’s spiritual ecology theory views Indian environmentalism as a critique of Judaeo-Christian values, such as the desire for mastery over nature. Her approach has a strong feminist dimension, arguing for a rediscovery of the “feminine principle” in human relations with nature. See Vandana Shiva. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India . New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998.
- The political ecology of Ramachandra Guha and Madhav Gadgil sees environmental conflict as a confrontation between the state and the working poor, whose livelihood depends on access to natural resources. Environmentalism here is interpreted as resistance to state-sponsored development. Indian environmentalism, according to this framework, gives priority to the subsistence needs of the poor. See Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India. London: Routledge, 1995.
DelhiIndian Middle Class Environmentalism
- For a review of the literature on Indian environmentalism and the middle class, see Emma Mawdsley’s essay “India’s Middle Classes and the Environment,” in Development and Change 35, no. 1, 2004: 79-103.
The Supreme Court and Environmental Law and Policy in India
The Delhi case demonstrates the powerful role of India’s Supreme Court in Indian environmental politics.
- For a brief discussion of how the Supreme Court in India came to decide on fundamental rights issues, see “The Role of India’s Supreme Court in Public Life.” Environment 46, no.3, April 2004, p.25. This article draws heavily from two 2002 books by S.P. Sathe and S. Divan and A Rosencranz. (See below.)
- S.P. Sathe. Judicial Activism in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002. This volume provides a historical overview of the evolution of India’s Supreme Court into an activist institution and an analysis of the place of judicial review in the political process.
- S. Divan and A. Rosencranz. Environmental Law and Policy in India: Cases, Materials and Statutes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2002. This volume provides a comprehensive compilation of the leading cases in environmental law in India, an overview of the regulatory framework, and additional materials promoting critical discussion.
- For a discussion of the role of the Supreme Court in Delhi’s air pollution control policy-making, specifically in relation to vehicular emissions control, see R.G. Bell et al. “Clearing the Air: How Delhi Broke the Logjam on Air Quality Reforms” Environment 46, no.3.April, 2004. The essay is available on the Resources for the Future website, along with supplementary information, including an extensive timetable related to air quality reforms in Delhi.
- For specific environmental legislation, see A.S and R.S Bedi. Encyclopedia of Environment and Pollution Laws. New Delhi: Orient Law House, 2002.
The Social Construction of the Public Interest
The Delhi case study demonstrates the tacit cultural assumptions that determine the everyday practices of different social groups. In the chapter, Amita Baviskar argues that middle class assumptions of the working class as inferior shaped the articulation of the “public interest” in Delhi at the expense of the interests of the poor. Her argument follows a vast body of literature that argues that social position (e.g., class, race, or gender) shapes the individual’s knowledge of the world. These worldviews are perpetuated through habits, language, and institutions. See for example:
- Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s groundbreaking treatise The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1967.
- Pierre Bourdieu. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
- For a collection of essays on the cultural politics of race and nature, see Donald S. Moore, Jake Kosek and Anand Pandian eds., Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
The Public Health Discourse
As discussed in the chapter, historically conceptions of caste and of life-cycle events related to pollution, such as birth, death, or menstruation shape the Indian notion of pollution. This contrasts with the West, where notions of pollution are shaped by a “biomedical discourse around toxicity and risk” (Page 212). Yet, Delhi’s clean air campaign was organized around a new discourse about improvement and “ideal cities,” reminiscent of well-established colonial and postcolonial discourses surrounding public health and hygiene projects.
Particularly relevant here is the substantial body of work on the technologies of “bio-power” as inspired by Foucault—that is, technologies employed in the regulation of what society considers licit and illicit forms of conduct with respect to the body. Indicative references on public health concerns include:
- Timothy Mitchell. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics and Modernity. Berkeley. University of California Press, 2002
- Paul Greenough, “Pathogens, Pugmarks, and Political ‘Emergency’: The 1970s South Asian Debate on Nature,” in Paul Greenough and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. Durham, eds. Nature in the Global South: Environmental Projects in South and Southeast Asia. Duke University Press, 2003.
- Emma Tarlo. Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
- M.R. Anderson. “The Conquest of Smoke: Legislation and Pollution in Colonial Calcutta” in David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha, eds. Nature, Culture, Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995. See especially Anderson’s discussion on social improvement and smoke abatement in colonial Calcutta (pp 328-335).
On the creation of ordered urban spaces see:
- James Holston. The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
- Teresa P. R Caldeira. City of Walls: Crime, Segregation and Citizenship in Sao Paulo. Berkeley: University of California, 2000.
- Neil Smith. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London: Routledge, 1996.
The Impact of the Anti-Pollution Campaign on Delhi's Working Class
As this chapter demonstrates, the cost of the environmental campaign in Delhi was disproportionately borne by the city’s poor. The closure and relocation of thousands of industrial units in Delhi had devastating effects for the more than a quarter of a million workers who lost their jobs.
- For a discussion of the extent of the impact of the policy on Delhi’s working class, see this report produced by Delhi Janwadi Adhikar Manch (DJAM- Delhi Socialist Rights Forum).
Many workers who lost their jobs during the closure and relocation of polluting firms in Delhi did not receive any compensation due to their non-permanent working status (Page 179). The table below provides examples of the make-up of five factories that were closed, illustrating the extent of use of casual and contract labor in some of the affected companies.
|Company||Workers Total||Pemanent Workers||Casual Workers||Contract Workers|
|G.D. Rathi Steel Ltd||329||29||300|
|Birla Textile Mills||2800||800|
|K.L. Rathi Steel Ltd||480||200||55||225|
|Shriram Foods and Fertilizers||1281||564||654|
There is very little written and published in English about the fisherworkers’ movement in Kerala. Below we provide some useful sources, all but one of which (the FAO report) are published only in India.
- Gabrielle Dietrich and Nalini Nayak. Transition or Transformation? A Study of the Mobilisation, Organisation and Emergence of Consciousness among the Fishworkers of Kerala, India. Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, March 2002.
- Mathew Aerthayil. Fisherworkers’ Movement in Kerala (1977-1994): The role of Non-Party Political Organizations in Social Transformation in India. New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 2000.
- P. R.G. Mathur. The Mappila Fisherfolk of Kerala: A study in between Habitat, Technology, Economy, Society and Culture. Trivandrum: Kerala Historical Society, 1977.
- Aliou Sall, Michael Belliveau and Nalini Nayak, “Conversations: A Trialogue on Power, Intervention and Organization in Fisheries,” Chennai: ICSF, 2002. Here the authors compare Senegalese, Canadian, and Indian fishers’ struggles for their rights.
- For an assessment of how fishermen’s organizations have influenced government policies on fisheries management in India, Indonesia and the Philippines from the preeminent authority on Kerala fisheries, see John Kurien, “Studies on the Role of Fishermen's 1988 Organizations in Fisheries Management: The role of fishermen's organizations in fisheries management of developing countries (with particular reference to the Indo-Pacific region)” FAO Fish. Tech.Pap., (300):29–48
- See also John Kurien, “Ruining the Commons and the Response of the Commoners: Coastal Overfishing and Fishworkers’ Action in Kerala State, India” in D. Ghai and J.M. Vivian, eds. Grassroots Environmental Action: People’s Participation in Sustainable Development. London: Routledge, 1992.
Marine Fishing Policy in India
- For an excellent up-to-date overview of the marine fishing sector in India see ICSF’s India’s Marine Fisheries Sector: An Overview. Go to ICSF's website to access the full document.
The Development Model and Its Critique
Kerala became an experiment in international development during the 1950s with the Indo-Norwegian project. For a discussion of the creation of India’s development regime as an effect of the contestation between the colonial state and nationalists, see David Ludden, “India’s Development Regime,” in Nicholas Dirks, ed. Colonialism and Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.
Since the 1980s, a wave of critiques of development discourse have pointed out the hidden assumptions within models of assistance and global participation, arguing that prejudices and inequalities were scripted into the forms of participation that were made available to third world economies. See:
- Partha Chatterjee, “Development Planning and the Indian State,” in T.J. Byers, ed. The State and Development Planning in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995, where Chatterjee argues that the post-independence modernizing elites, lacking adequate social power to force through an agenda of radical change, opted for a “passive revolution,” in which they incorporated traditional social organizations such as caste, and pursued gradualist and non-conflictual development strategies.
- Arturo Escobar. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, for a critique of the development discourse in a global context.
International Actors in India's Marine Fishing Policies
In the Kerala case study, Subir Sinha and Kavita Philip explain that during the 1990s the processes of globalization and India’s government’s neoliberal economic policies brought international actors and organizations into the disputes on fishing policies in India. (Pages 228-230)
- Early on, one international organization concerned specifically with the problems of Indian traditional fisherworkers was the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which in 1979 established the 20 year Bay of Bengal Programme (BOBP). BOBP aimed to improve the living conditions of fisher communities in the Bay of Bengal by promoting sound management practices of small-scale fisheries. In 2003 the Bay of Bengal Programme Intergovernmental Organization (BBP-IGO) was established between the governments of India, Bangladesh, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. BBP-IGO’s objectives are “to enhance co-operation among member countries, other countries and organizations in the region and provide technical and management advisory services for sustainable coastal fisheries development and management in the Bay of Bengal region.”
- The rapid decline in sea turtle populations worldwide has also put India’s fishing practices and policies under international scrutiny. As discussed in the chapter, international conservationist pressures in this area are often locally interpreted as an imposition of unfair trading conditions, rather than genuine environmental initiatives. In one of the more prominent cases, the use of TEDs (turtle excluder devices) was at the center of a 1996 WTO dispute between India and other Southeast Asian countries and the United States, following the United States’ imposition of a shrimp export embargo on these countries (The U.S. lost the suit). Nevertheless, in response to international pressure and rising local concerns, in 1999 the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, in collaboration with UNDP, launched the “National Sea Turtle Conservation Project.” Today many local environmental organizations, among them the Wildlife Protection Society of India, Goa Foundation, Atree and others are active in this area. International organizations involved in sea turtle conservation projects in India are the UNDP and the WWF.
Center for Science and Environment
One of India’s leading environmental NGOs which played a critical role in mobilizing the middle class to support government action to control Delhi’s pollution, CSE “aims to increase public awareness on science, technology, environment and development.” For factsheets, news and policy updates on pollution in Delhi, see the Clean Air Campaign section. See also CSE’s influential book Slow Murder: The Deadly Story of Vehicular Pollution in India, whose publication in 1996 launched the Clean Air Campaign.
International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF)
The International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, an international non-governmental organization, promotes “the establishment of equitable, gender-just, self-reliant and sustainable fisheries, particularly in the small-scale, artisanal sector.” The site provides access to official documents, research, and news related to fisheries, and hosts a database on Indian legal instruments.