Madhav Gadgil has become a hero of late, among certain sections in Kerala. The report submitted by a panel headed by him had designated the entire hill range (Western Ghats) as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). I’m not an ecological expert and am no one to comment on the merits and demerits of the report. But, there are certain political implications for the narratives spun around this report. And that requires a close reading.
There’s no question that every state in India has to comply with environmental safeguards. After all, disasters don’t differentiate between opposing camps – be it politics or environmentalism. However, since all of civilisation is built on the premise of taming the environment (from agriculture to industry to housing), we also need to understand that environmentalism as ‘preached’ in India cannot be severed from its politics.
Among all the prominent environmentalists in India, very rarely do you come across a Dalit or an Adivasi. There’s a reason for it.
Most post-colonial environmental critiques point to colonialism as the reason for environmental degradation. It’s not that there’s no truth in it. But the counter-narrative cannot be an essentialist reading of pre-colonial environmental sensitivity. Madhav Gadgil in some of his studies, for instance, even justifies caste as a system of ecological adaptation, obscuring the way in which the same system dehumanised large sections of the population – not just after Europeans colonized this land, but even before.
In any society, nostalgia is popularized by its aristocracy. And several Indian environmentalists hark back to this nostalgia. I cannot imagine what kind of nostalgia the oppressed classes have about their past. But whether it’s their resentment or nostalgia, one thing is certain – a nation will never project that as its glorious past. The golden past of a civilization always implies life as reported by its aristocratic ancestors. From that point of view, even the resistance against Hindutva (an aristocratic conception of how Indian society should be structured) by other upper-class members could be interpreted as the fight of the benevolent aristocrats, who stand up for its underclass, against the malevolent ones. And mind you, not even the most benevolent ones have Dalits and Adivasis in their closest circles – at least, it’s very rare. It typically remains a club of the “sensible” haves, who have probably read their Marx, Foucault and Fanon.
Environmentalism in India is deeply entwined with a certain traditionalism which ultimately plays into the hands of today’s fascist politics. Many politically naïve liberals fail to read this. Here’s Anand Neelakantan writing in the New Indian Express: “Traditionally, Kerala had given a lot of respect to environment… Every house had a serpent grove and a pond bordering it. The belief was that one should not even take a twig from the sacred grove. People feared that anyone who violated this sacrosanct rule would die of thirst. This created a chain of mini forest all throughout the state. It was a unique way of tying up belief with environment protection… This belief has helped in preservation of some sacred groves in Malabar. The wave of rationalism that swept during the communist movements in the 60s and the collapse of the joint family system ensured large-scale destruction of such groves. It was progressive to destroy the groves and liberate people from the superstitions. I have lovely childhood memories associated with the groves where fantastic creatures like Yakshi, Madan and other supernatural forces lived. These were destroyed to give way to houses or shops.”
It reads all nice and romantic, doesn’t it? You see, “Every house had a serpent grove and a pond bordering it.” Every house! And everyone had a house! Through one wistful passage, Neelakantan transforms his childhood into the childhood of every Keralite, with a serpent grove and a pond bordering it. Oh yes, every Pulaya and Paraya in Kerala had houses with serpent groves and ponds. They were all invited to upper caste houses and served food in their dining rooms. There was no untouchability and all of them had such a lovely time with Yakshi and Madan and other supernatural forces. Sigh! And what destroyed this romantic past? According to Neelakantan, and perhaps many others who miss this glorious past, it was “the wave of rationalism that swept during the communist movements of the 60s” – when the downtrodden told their feudal masters that enough was enough, it was payback time. But those who miss the past also miss the irony embedded in the past.
Environmental concerns are real. There is a science, and states need to take note. Prioritize what matters: safety, disaster reduction, jobs and equity. However, the measures that the states take should never be at the cost of the sustenance and progress of those at the bottom. Most importantly, let’s learn to sift scientific facts from romantic narratives. Because most times people fall for the narrative than for the science. And that helps a certain kind of politics.