This World Environment Day saw many messages coloured in green, appealing to be part of the ‘change’ and save the environment for future generations. With the memory of the Tuticorin massacre still casting its shadow, I felt the need to write this.
We can see the urban middle classes take up causes like no plastic usage, reusing and recycling plastic bottles, saving water and getting behind slogans like ‘Swachh Bharat’, posting about climate change on Facebook and Twitter. There is another side to the debate on the environment which the urban middle classes mostly avoid.
We could see this other side when people thronged the streets of Thoothukudi to save their land and their water from pollution. In Thoothukudi, people came out to the streets, protesting against the Sterlite Copper Company which wanted to open its second smelting unit.
For almost two decades, people kept complaining about the deteriorating quality of air and the numerous incidents of suffocation because of the poisonous gases let out from the factory. But the state governments and the two big parties of India receiving donations from the firm to which the factory belongs, ensured that the industry was running. On the 100th day of the protest, police fired on protesters, targeting and killing many organisers of the movement.
Now people are being targeted and many are choosing to remain underground, lest they are caught by the police and a false case is filed against them. Here, the issue of environmental pollution has become a question of life and death. The poisonous gases let out by the factory was choking their livelihood slowly. This is much more severe than just cleaning your neighbourhood with a broomstick and posing for photographs.
Today, Shimla is facing an acute water crisis. People are mostly seen on roads trying to fetch water.
A report published by the Centre for Science and Environment estimates that so far, 830,000 hectares of forest land has been diverted for developmental projects between 1981-2011 and in the past 50 years, 50 million people have been displaced, of which 40-50% were members of tribes.
While the urban middle class feels proud of national development, millions are snatched away from their natural habitat. The middle class boasts about throwing waste in the dustbin but they may not even know the final destination of the waste. Many villages which are near big cities are badly affected by urban waste. Their land, air and water have become poisonous.
One of my acquaintances, on being asked to accompany me to a slum, humbly denied, saying, “My dear, I feel dreadful on seeing the plight of people. I will end up losing my one week’s sleep.”
I have come across many who think like this. This fear of losing sleep upon confronting the reality of how those less privileged than then live endangers their placid life. They are afraid of this! This fear has erected walls between the slums and the elite houses in Delhi. Thanks to the Indian media, who time and again cook up stories about development, the wall of apathy has been strengthened.
To shake people out of this apathy, the poor are required to lose their lives to the brutal violence of the state.
Recently, the slums of Mumbai have been coloured. The roofs and walls of the slums have been colourfully painted. This act of making the slums look appealing (demeaning the lives living inside) to appease the people on the other side of the wall is disgusting! This wall of apathy, showing off ‘environmental awareness’, cannot be changed by appeasement but has to be smashed.
We must not forget that while the middle classes face a little discomfort, there are people who are dying – at times in horrifying manners. And when things like these happen, our conscience needs to wake and speak up. Otherwise, all this pretence of environmental awareness is sheer hypocrisy.