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Ramachandra Guha: The trouble with radical environmentalists

By Gauri Gadgil

Well-known historian and writer Ramachandra Guha discusses the crisis in the environmental movement today, how environmentalists are always looking for impossible ideal solutions, and why development must place equal emphasis on ecology, social justice and economics. After all, he says, isn't democracy all about harmonising conflicting interests?

Historian Ramachandra Guha was professorial fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. He has taught at Yale University, the Indian Institute of Science and University of California at Berkeley, where he was the Indo-American Community Chair professor in 1997 and 1998. He is the author of an acclaimed study of the Chipko movement, The Unquiet Woods, and co-author of This Fissured land, An Ecological History of India and Ecology and Equity. He has also written a critically-acclaimed biography of Verrier Elwin titled Savaging the Civilised.

Professor Guha is also an authority on Indian cricket and has edited the Picador Book of Cricket. His work has been translated into several Indian and European languages. He is now a full-time author and columnist whose research focuses on environmental history (especially of India and South Asia) and social ecology.

Recently he has been in the news for critiquing Arundhati Roy's stand in her recent essays on the environment and development.

You have said that the environmental movement is in a crisis today. Why?

The problem with the environmental movement today is that the more creative marginal voices and protests have been pushed out. The media has been responsible for the fact that only radicals are heard. No one wants to listen to a logical, reasoned argument on anything like how to solve the water crisis in Kutch. The environmentalists have only themselves to blame for this. They only like to highlight this vocal and wholesale opposition to, for one, globalisation and markets.

But we cannot live without the market; we cannot live with no contact with the outside world. We have to learn to regulate and use (the market) for our best purposes. This kind of extreme position - no market, no globalisation, no government -- is all bad. You have to identify creative and responsive elements within the system and work with them. So these extreme positions that environmentalists take, which make them feel very good and righteous and get them into the papers, are not ultimately helpful.

There can never be a perfect solution to any global problem. There can only be less bad and more bad solutions. The problem with the environmentalists is that they want an ideal solution, which is not possible.

Thirty years ago, when no one cared about the environment, it was all right to be screaming and shouting. But 30 years down the line, I think much of this behaviour is irresponsible. I think the environmental movement is in a crisis now. I think a lot of new creative thinking needs to come in. The voices of the middle ground have to be heard much more.

This is where the environmentalists are often out of touch with what the ordinary citizen wants. The ordinary citizen wants better houses, better means of transportation, decent clothing, good food, and all this can only be provided through more efficient utilisation of resources. An ordinary citizen is a middle-of-the-road person. Ordinary citizens in a democracy want some kind of incremental solution. They don't want a totally pro-development policy or a pro-indigenous people or environment policy. They want opposing interests to be harmonised. Which is what democracy is all about... harmonising conflicting interests.

And this is even more the case for rural citizens. Some of the more extreme activists decry the role of the market, the role of modernisation, but the ordinary villager will be happy to exchange their position for his.

There is a wonderful story that was told to me by a Dalit poet, a well-known Kannada poet called Devalur Mahadeva, about why Ambedkar wears a suit and in all his statues he is shown wearing a suit. This, he said, is because Dalits are not supposed to be wearing a suit. Why do people worship Ambedkar in a suit? When Gandhi wears a loincloth, people say, "What sacrifice!" If Ambedkar wore a loincloth they would say, "Aakhir woh to Dalit hai, aur kya pehenega (After all he is a Dalit, what else can he wear?)."

So you see, the ordinary villager wants a better life. Anyone who rides a cycle wants a motorcycle. Everyone yearns for a better life, which means more economic efficiency, better use of technology, entrepreneurship, the market -- all things that activists are so suspicious about and demonise.

But that doesn't mean you go the whole hog and say 'Consumerism Zindabad' and ignore the social and ecological factors.

So all three are important. Once you have this principle, then you can look for small solutions, but solutions that recognise that all three are important.

What role does industry have to play in development?

Industries today like Infosys, Wipro and ICICI have contributed a lot of their money as well as efforts towards society. And this is a start -- they can move from education to health to ecology and so on -- to music, literature, art.

It doesn't help if extreme environmentalists demonise industry along with the government, the markets, the scientists. I think we have to work with progressive-minded industries, progressive-minded bureaucrats. And environmentalists often just see that as "the establishment". We cannot do without each of these, we cannot do without efficient and broadminded industries, we cannot do without publicly-oriented research.
For example, the Sontheimer Association did well to take money from the Bank of Maharashtra. Many social groups don't do this. But why shouldn't the Bank of Maharashtra, which is a Maharashtrian bank, contribute towards attempts to conserve the folk culture of Maharashtra? Why shouldn't Infosys, which is a Bangalore-based company, be persuaded to improve the quality of life in Bangalore?

Unfortunately, you will never have heard Medha Patkar, whom I admire greatly, say anything good about an industry or a government official.

I praised Infosys in my debate about Arundhati Roy, not so much Infosys as the corporate sector in Bangalore. And immediately among the radical environmentalists I became suspect because I had said a good thing about some industries. You have to discriminate. You may have some good things going on within the government, within industry. But unless you identify those progressive and socially-conscious industries, and those honest and committed government officials, how can society ever solve its problems?

Arundhati Roy said software industries are responsible for the displacement of 40 million people. That was one of her typical remarks. There is no connection at all.
Firstly they use very little electricity. Other industries use much more. And for the first time, you have industries that are investing in primary education... giving back some money to society. You must applaud this instead of making nasty remarks about them.

What role should writers and other artists play in the environmental or other social movements?

There is no general prescription for who should participate in what movements. But whoever does so must do so with both sympathy for the movement and an understanding of the movement.

Also, once anyone else gets involved in a movement, they should remain involved in a sustained way. There is no point in flitting from one cause to another.

This is even more so in the case of writers. Since writers have the advantage of being able to communicate and put their thoughts across more clearly, having been trained to do so, they are at an advantage. And along with this advantage should be the obligation to understand each cause fully before writing about it.

Do you really think it is possible to work out a process of development where social equity, ecological stability and economic efficiency are all given weightage?

For any development to take place, first of all we need the awareness that all three are important. First you need all three - ie economic efficiency, some kind of social equity and ecological stability - as ideals to work towards slowly.

Unfortunately what we did in the past was not recognise that all three are important. In the first years of India's development, from the '50s to the '90s, we felt social equity was the most important and economic efficiency was disregarded. After the '90s, economic efficiency has become most important, and social equity is disregarded. But in both cases, ecological stability has been disregarded.

The great contribution of the environmental movement has been to bring this issue to the front. Once you recognise that all three are important, then you can start looking at how it is practical to incorporate the three.

Because market-oriented economies don't see ecological issues as important, we must not commit the reverse mistake -- of not seeing economic issues as important. We have to understand that nature is a complex system and that you cannot use it in a careless way. You have to have a vision that incorporates all the three -- ecology, economics and society. You cannot have one global development plan. It cannot be done from the centre -- it has to be worked out locally.

Let us shift now to the subject of your recent research: forest laws. What factors led to the amendment in the forest laws in 1990, after they had remained practically unchanged for more than a century?

Pressures from both up and down -- grassroot pressure from below and voices that listen from the top. The whole complex of issues, starting with grassroot mobilisation, the international debate on deforestation and biodiversity, solid work by scholars and scientists, empirical research showing the consequences of promoting authoritarian forest laws combined with a sympathetic bureaucracy. The coming together of all these led to policies like the joint forest management (JFM) programme.

What is the World Bank's role in this development?

I have not really studied this, but I don't think it is very positive. The World Bank has this big problem -- they don't look for local solutions. For example, they are imposing JFM on Uttaranchal, which has its own Van Panchayat model, which don't depend on the forest department. So they are converting existing, well-functioning Van Panchayats, which have been functioning from the 1920s, into JFMs.

The World Bank thinks one model should be applied everywhere. The problem with the WB is not that it is evil or corrupt or something. Just that it has one universal solution. It suddenly decides that this is the way in which problems should be solved... poverty should be solved. Once upon a time it was large dams, now it is JFM. Regardless of whether it is Peru or Chile or Somalia or India, regardless of whether it is Uttar Pradesh or Karnataka, it wants to apply the same model. It seduces officials with foreign trips and so on, but by and large I don't think the World Bank is playing a very positive role. They have no understanding of the issue... they have very simple-minded solutions to all problems. One cannot expect Washington to understand what is the case in West Bengal or Maharashtra. So I think the World Bank should not be involved in this... not because it is evil, but because it is poorly informed. It is not really the appropriate agency to understand local issues.

Has thinking in the forest department changed over the years? Even recent reports of the Forest Survey of India blame the increase in population and the way of life of forestdwellers for the loss of forests.

The thinking has changed a little bit. Some young officials are genuinely concerned about what is happening. You do have this kind of report in the forest department because they need to find scapegoats.

Has the population explosion over the last 50 years meant that even if the villagers are given back use of the forests, it will be difficult to reverse the changes that have taken place?

I don't think so. Take the case of West Bengal. Some of the forests there were very degraded. A few years ago, they went back to joint management involving the villagers. Two things happened. Not universally, but in some areas. One, people who had migrated to cities came back. Because they now had an income from the forests to depend on. The second, even more interesting, was that once the villagers were actively involved the sal forests grew so well that the elephants started coming back. Herds, which had not been to the area for decades, came back there. This of course created problems like crop-raiding, but this is an indication of how fast the forests grew back.

I don't think there is such a population pressure that one cannot manage the situation. The reports say that because bureaucrats have to save their skin and they can't say that they were wrong, they just say too many people, or too much livestock.

What is your opinion on the concept of reclaiming land for tribals?

That would be very important all over India. One of the problems that tribals are facing is that their land is not regularised and the government finds it very easy to throw them out if say something like minerals are found. In Orissa, parts of which were princely states, no proper surveys were done and no land given. The Orissa government also did not bother to regularise the land after independence. In a place called Kashipur, the tribals were cultivating land, considered it their own. A lot of bauxite was found, a Norwegian company came in, and the government just threw them out.

Tribals have not had proper land deeds and so on, and this must be changed. They want their right to land and this must be changed all over.

Do you believe that tribals are being brought into the mainstream against their wishes?

That is only partly true. They would of course like to retain control over their forest. They would like to retain pride in their culture. They would not like these sanctimonious missionaries who say don't dance, don't sing, don't drink. Of course they take pride in their culture. But they would like their children to be educated. They would also like to equip their children to participate on terms of equality with the world.