Will We Value Our Independence?
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia
India’s economic structure has been built over centuries on a stable ecological foundation. Our current government, however, believes the opposite... that a stable ecology is predicated on a strong economic foundation. It is this dangerously mistaken notion that prompts our government to believe that India's pursuit of economic development justifies dismantling the very ecological foundations on which not just the economy, but our entire social structure rests.
Not surprisingly, what is broadly referred to as the “environmental” movement (itself a diverse mix of fisherfolk, tribal communities, conservationists and activists of all political hues) is justifiably alarmed. Any hopes we had of an improvement from the corruption and scandal-ridden UPA-2 were swiftly dashed, and the worst fears of many were realized as the new government set about “fast-tracking” clearances for big dams, mines, roads and ports, ignoring the environmental and social impacts of their misadventures.
The clearance spree was clearly not enough. Knowing that hasty clearances that ignored the letter and spirit of India’s environmental laws would be subject to legal challenges, the government has set about weakening virtually every law that currently protects natural India. In an era of climate change, this now places human communities in harm's way on an unprecedented scale.
In a democracy, under normal circumstances, we should have effective recourse. But we see that the check-and-balance mechanisms built into what used to be among the finest environmental laws in the world, are being dismantled. All to facilitate the conversion of life-support natural ecosystems, upon which 1.3 billion citizens are dependent, to profits being reaped by a cabal of corporates... in conivance with planners and politicians blinded by GDP ambitions.
Public hearings, already a farce in most cases, are now officially not required for many categories of projects, including some of India’s largest mine expansions. The provisions of consent for affected communities in the Forest Rights Act and Land Acquisition Act were next in the firing line. And stung by the temerity of the National Green Tribunal, which has in recent years overturned several clearances, the government has made no secret of its desire to curtail the Tribunal’s powers.
However, after spending the best part of 40 years fighting for the survival of natural India, I can say with clarity and conviction that attacks on India’s democratic traditions and the space for dissent are even more worrying than the piecemeal dismantling of our environmental laws.
The administration is doing its best to vilify those questioning the headlong rush for GDP maximisation at all costs as “anti-national” and “unpatriotic” - questioning motivations and hinting at hidden agendas on the part of NGOs and activists to “keep India backward”. The intolerance for criticism and dissent has been clear from the heavy handed government action against Greenpeace and other NGOs and activists, including completely illegal attempts to first block funds from abroad, and then prevent Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai from travelling to the UK.
The freedom to stand up for what I believe in – and the freedom of my neighbor to vehemently disagree with me – is what makes India great. When the government starts to viciously target a certain set of beliefs –that India’s prosperity demands a healthy and living environment – simply because it has decided to back a “GDP growth at all costs” model, all of us who cherish India’s democracy and tradition of free speech should be worried. Without these core values of dissent and democracy, we will not be able to protect our rivers, forests, tigers and ancient cultures. This Independence Day, even as we commemorate those who laid their lives on the line to secure us freedom at midnight, we must ensure that their struggle has not been in vain. An India without the freedom to dissent will not be a truly independent India.
Read more: 1) Tigers or coal? 2) Elephants or mines? 3) Mindless mining:
Author: Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia.