Will India’s Environmental Crisis Ever Become A Real Part Of Elections?

In his book, “The Great Derangement”, author Amitav Ghosh writes, “For the body politic, this vision of politics as moral journey has also had the consequence of creating an ever-growing divergence between a public sphere of political performance and the realm of actual governance: the latter is now controlled by largely invisible establishments that are guided by imperatives of their own. And as the public sphere grows ever more performative, at every level from presidential campaigns to online petitions, its ability to influence the actual exercise of power becomes increasingly attenuated.”

This can be paraphrased in the form of a question: If the government does not act on what people expect from them, remains popular and gets re-elected, does there remain any meaning of the democracy for the society?

In India, especially in recent times, with demonetisation, the difference between ‘performative’ and actual governance has become extraordinarily clear. The general emphasis of the government has been on being performative. Take the example of the inauguration of Sardar Sarovar Dam over the Narmada in the Gujarat, by the Narendra Modi. While the performative: inauguration of the dam by Prime Minister and his lofty ‘speech’, got enormous media and public attention, the struggle of people, who have been displaced, agitating for proper compensation and rehabilitation did not get any significant attention. In this context, one worries if environmental issues can ever become part of ‘real’ electoral agenda.

The myth of the rigid dichotomy between environmental protection and the development paradigm needs to be broken in the public consciousness for any further conversation and movement to happen. Another myth which needs to be broken is that of considering peoples’ movements as obstructionist. Recently, senior journalist Shekhar Gupta tweeted, “Narmada irrigation/power project is India’s most transformational. For 56 years, it has been people of Gujarat versus career activists. People won.

His tweet, in a way, testifies the existence of both the myths. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a peoples’ movement, articulated the social, environmental and economic disasters that a big dam creates. Hundreds of thousands of tribal and poor people have been displaced and their livelihoods lost, thousands of hectares of forests and fertile land have been submerged, and, those who are displaced have not received proper compensation and rehabilitation. Had NBA not been there, how would these issues have come into the knowledge of larger public and policymakers?

The assertion that people won also need examination. The new findings on big dams conclude that they are not socially, environmentally or economically feasible. Environmental challenges do not exist in isolation. Environmental degradation affects the most marginalised communities the most, who depend on the environment for their livelihoods and sustenance directly. The paradigm of sustainable development essentially addresses this myth of dichotomy. However, changing the perception around peoples’ movement remains a challenge.

The NBA is one example of organising people on a social and environmental issue. Can people be asked to vote on an environmental issue? The water crisis and agrarian distress, which are in a way causal to each other, present an opportunity to organise people electorally around it. One does not vote on the basis of just one factor.

How the challenges of economic distress of the farmers, climate change, mega water crisis and the government’s apathy are being articulated coherently and logically in the farmer’s movements going on in India today is interesting. In the southern phase of Kisan Mukti Yatra, one of its leaders, Yogendra Yadav, mentioning the ‘unmanaged groundwater situation, unabated river sand mafia, unresolved Kaveri dispute’ asked, “Isn’t the Tamil Nadu drought a man-made calamity?”

The precarious situation of groundwater in India is directly linked to the farming crisis, as agriculture in India is almost entirely dependent on groundwater. It is also related to the challenges of safe drinking water and sanitation in rural India. Sand mining is a question of ecological sustainability a the river, and is a branch of corruption, with a complex political economy. The inter-state water dispute is a constitutional, political, social and cultural question.

These are inter-related narratives which need to be bundled and politicised. Currently, only farmers have been talking about it. But, the groundwater crisis affects urban India as well. A river equally belongs to urban India too. Yet, one finds little mobilisation in the urban areas around such issues. Even in rural India, the degree of emphasis on issues other than economic stress and their acceptability needs an examination.

Nonetheless, some leaders are willing and able to stop and consider this. However, climate change presents an unprecedented threat to the prevalent patterns of consumption. Given the obsession in India with economic growth, how and for how long the efforts of these leaders would be considered as satisfactory?

Beyond addressing the economic concerns of a class interlinked with the environmental issues – how a larger narrative for environmental governance and a change in the developmental paradigm can be built is the ‘real’ challenge. This no doubt requires a cultural shift. Can it ‘really’ be achieved through electoral politics? Or, do we need someone like Sadhguru of Isha Foundation to take up the ‘burden’!

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