Environmental Values, Policy, and Conflict in India

Dec 10, 2002

At an April 14, 2000 Council seminar, Shiv Visvanathan, who heads the Indian research team for the Council's ongoing project comparing environmental policy making in India, China, Japan, and the United States, said that the origins of India's environmental movement are widely misunderstood. See a transcript of Visvanathan's talk by using the link at the bottom of this page (PDF: 61.5KB, 22 pages). Many think that Indian environmentalism arose in opposition to an anti-environmental government (as well as, at an earlier point, British colonial rule), leading to "a backward-thinking anti-ecological state and a pro-environmental civil society." In fact, what is really taking place is "a battle between two [strands] of environmental discourse":

  1. The state is an environmental agency for the control of floods and famine. This notion has predominated for many years, fuelling anti-democratic actions such as the clearing of slums in the name of disease prevention and the relocation of villages for dam building. As the early planner Jawarhalal Nehru said, "Dams and laboratories are the temples of India."
  2. We should be more concerned with the health of ecosystems than with human prosperity. This is still a minority opinion, one that has been manipulated by the Indian government -- for instance when Indira Ghandi made the seemingly innocuous statement that "poverty is the greatest pollution."

"Unless we realize that the state of India sees environmentalism as one of its sources of legitimacy," Visvanathan said, "we cannot realize the vigor with which it has responded to many people who have challenged its environmental discourse." The case studies Visvanathan oversees for the Council's project on environmental values serve as indicators of the dynamics between India's local and supra-local environmental forces, he added.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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