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India’s “environmentalism of convenience” threatens forest-dwellers’ rights

  • The author outlines the rise of an “environmentalism of convenience” in India.
  • This includes environmental standards that increasingly come with a legal framework that makes it as easy as possible for businesses to comply, the government and industry demonizing as “anti-development” any efforts to toughen the standards or to address human rights, and the government’s quelling of dissent in order to streamline decision-making.
  • This post is a commentary — the views expressed are those of the author.

India has a rich history of environmental justice movements, particularly on the part of forest-dwelling communities protesting colonial-era forest laws and development projects. The tradition gained momentum with the Chipko movement in the 1970s, in which indigenous Adivasi women in the Tehri Garhwal district of Uttaranchal state asserted their rights over trees to prevent them from being felled. And it carried on to the ongoing Narmada Bachao Andolan movement, beginning in 1985, in which communities in the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra oppose construction of dams on the Narmada River.

These and other Indian movements resulted in the passage of progressive laws promoting environmental and social values. An important example is the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, a product of legal and political struggle by forest dwellers across the country. The FRA, which came into force in 2008, recognizes the rights of forest-dwelling communities over their traditional lands and resources.

Yet the FRA has been under threat since late 2013. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has been attempting since then to restrict an important provision granting local village assemblies — called gram sabhas — the authority to approve or deny development projects proposed in forest areas under their jurisdiction.

In April 2015, indigenous Adivasi and Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh, India, protested an ordinance doing away with a requirement that local village assemblies consent to any land acquisitions in their jurisdictions before they can proceed. Photo by Arpitha Kodiveri.

Driving this and other changes was a newly appointed high-level national committee headed by former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramaniam. In late 2014, the Subramaniam committee submitted a report recommending that key environmental laws, including the FRA (which was technically outside its mandate), be amended. For one thing, the report proposed overturning the current requirement that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change certify that proposed development projects comply with environmental standards. Instead it proposed allowing project proponents to self-certify.

A parliamentary committee formed to look into the Subramaniam committee’s recommendations rejected them. However, last fall the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change hired consultants to create a legal framework for implementing them.

This drastic shift coincides with the intention of the present government under Prime Minster Narendra Modi to streamline environmental laws in order to stimulate business development. As part of this effort, in early 2014 the government waged another attack on the gram sabhas. This time it passed an ordinance doing away with a requirement under the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013 that gram sabhas consent to any land acquisitions in their jurisdictions before they can proceed.

These legal maneuvers are one part of the story of the rise in India of what I like to call an environmentalism of convenience. Increasingly, environmental standards come with a legal framework that makes it as easy as possible for businesses to comply. The government and industry demonize as “anti-development” any efforts to toughen the standards or to include questions of human rights. And the present government quells democratic values of dissent in order to streamline decision-making.

Environmental activists have faced sedition charges under previous administrations, as in 2012, when 11 protesters challenging the construction of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu were charged with sedition and arrested. The quashing of dissent by the present Modi government began in 2014 with the arrest of Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai. She was preparing to present a case before British parliamentarians to protect the Mahan forest in Madhya Pradesh from plans to install a coal mine by Indian energy company Essar. The government prevented her from boarding a flight to London, impounded her passport on the grounds that she would defame India abroad by speaking about human-rights abuses, and arrested her on charges of criminal conspiracy, criminal trespass, house trespass, defacing property, unlawful assembly, and cheating. She was eventually released on bail. The government also froze Greenpeace’s Indian bank accounts on grounds of violating the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). However, the High Court of Delhi, upon hearing a petition from Greenpeace, immediately reinstated access to its bank accounts.

After this defeat in court the government began systematically targeting environmental organizations that receive foreign funding, asking many groups if they were complying with the FCRA. This may be a legitimate ask by the government. However, its broad application, such as the freezing of funding to organizations from the Ford Foundation and the closure of numerous groups for failing to comply with FCRA, makes it clear that it is being used as a political tool to quell civil society groups and silence the difficult questions they are asking.

More recently, on February 20, three unidentified assailants attacked Soni Sori, an Adivasi tribal activist from the mineral-rich belt of the state of Chhattisgarh, with a substance that appeared to be acid. This attack took place in an environment where respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the rights of tribal people comes at the cost of denying mining companies rights to Adivasi land. For instance, in August 10, 2015, the government of Chhattisgarh, in an unprecedented move, passed an order taking away the FRA-guaranteed forest rights of tribal people in a village called Ghattbara in order to make way for coal mining. Though the present government is not directly responsible for the violent attack against Soni Sori, government attempts to dilute the rights of Adivasis to their lands have created an environment hostile toward activists.

Another example: in a historic judgment in 2013 India’s Supreme Court enforced the consent provisions of the FRA, supporting the decision of gram sabhas in 11 villages in the state of Odisha to forbid the installation of bauxite mines. This was seen as a landmark victory in which tribal rights trumped big mining interests, and it fueled similar struggles around the country with hope. But this victory is now in danger of being overturned. On February 25 the Orissa Mining Corporation approached the Supreme Court to challenge the gram sabhas’ decision. The court has yet to hear the challenge but if it eventually overturns the judgment it will further erode the consent powers of the gram sabhas granted by the FRA.

In my work as an environmental lawyer specializing in forest rights, I often confront questions like these: “Why do you oppose development in the national interest?” “Why do you stand in the way of profit and progress?” Environmental-justice movements around the world critique these development paradigms and notions of progress, but what India is experiencing now is a change in the perception of environmentalism itself.

It’s not that environmental considerations are being sidelined. Rather it’s that the only environmental goals the government and middle-class citizenry embrace are ones that are convenient to address and do not fundamentally challenge the growth motive. When it comes to the environment, the present government focuses almost exclusively on sanitation and renewable energy. India desperately needs both. But both also conveniently avoid deeper questions of land rights and tribal interests, particularly in mining areas where development pressures are greatest.

Environmentalists in India also confront perceptions that they are unpatriotic or “anti-national” — a hot-button term in India. In March a student leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi was arrested on the grounds of sedition for alleged activities that hurt national sentiment, sparking mass protests.

As an environmental lawyer I find it difficult to contemplate a future for India’s forests where activists and impacted communities have become fundamentally inconvenient. Sadly, that seems to be where my country is heading. India’s environmentalism of convenience has risen slowly. It all began with the previous government’s inquiry into environmental organizations and has resulted in the creation of a hostile environment for activists and dissenters that all too often turns violent and even deadly.

If we dilute our environmental and human rights standards and open our forests to large-scale mining, what will become of our rich biodiversity and forest-dwelling communities? I find myself asking this question while hoping — perhaps naively — that things will change and the fate of our forests will be bright.