IN their 1995 classic book Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India , Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha explain the development paradigm as “the iron triangle” where the state helps one-sixth of the population to wrest the natural resources from the five-sixths, consisting of landless labour, small peasants, rural artisans, herders, small-scale fisherfolk, nomads and tribal people.
Although the book was published after economic liberalisation was launched in July 1991, Gadgil and Guha explain the social, economic and environmental situation as it existed before 1991. This was the classical pre-liberalisation framework, where a Sunderlal Bahuguna, a Medha Patkar or the tree-hugging Chamoli women of the Chipko movement in Garhwal pitted their moral strength against the combined strength of the state and industry. Their objective was to protect their access to natural resources and also conserve them.
When economic liberalisation was announced, the people’s movements against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat and the Tehri dam in present-day Uttarakhand were the most well-known environmental issues. In the winter of 1990-91, environmental activists led by Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the tribal people of the Narmada valley took out a protest march from Madhya Pradesh to the dam site in Gujarat. They were stopped by pro-dam activists at Ferkuva, the village located on the Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat border. There was a stalemate and the media covered it extensively.
In the Himalayas, Sunderlal Bahuguna, an ageing Gandhian, was fighting against the construction of the 260-metre-high Tehri dam, which would drown the old Tehri town and many villages upstream of the Bhagirathi and Bhilangana rivers. It was located in the seismically active Himalayan zone. Bahuguna staged several hunger strikes to protest against the project.
Much of the national media were sympathetic to the cause of the displaced tribal people. There was public support for the cause of the weaker communities.
Deeper into the 1990s and the coming decades, the liberalisation process created a paradigm shift in public empathy towards these issues. The equation as perceived before liberalisation was that private industrial capital and the state were two different entities that coalesced to deny people access to natural resources. The citizen had to lodge his protest with the state. This is what Gadgil and Guha classified as the iron triangle.
When the impact of economic liberalisation started becoming evident in the mid 1990s, the boundaries between private capital and the state blurred and it was difficult for citizens to pit their moral strength against an amorphous entity. The educated and the employed lived and drew sustenance from the liberalised economy. Thus, the broad-brush protests of the anti-Narmada and anti-Tehri dam movements became ineffective in dealing with environmental problems.
It was necessary to have specific, targeted action. Thus, by the second half of the 1990s, environmental activists in India, like their counterparts in the West, took to filing cases, campaigning through the media, lobbying with Members of Parliament and launching email campaigns. These were project-based environmental confrontations.
The national consciousness changed in the years following 1991. It was not as if the issues and concerns of the tribal people of the Narmada valley vaporised overnight with economic reforms. It was just that the same issues failed to gain traction with the larger Indian public. The country was occupied with other concerns and aspirations. Liberalisation changed the relative position of the middle class. Efforts for economic growth aimed at increasing the consumption of the middle-class market. Economic pundits estimated this class to be between 250 and 300 million, equivalent to the population of the United States. There were goods and services chasing middle-class money. Participation in the share market gave the middle class a sense of ownership of industry. There were better roads, faster cars. Low-priced airlines made air travel possible, which for the earlier generation was an unaffordable indulgence. International and domestic travel destinations vied with one another to welcome the middle-class Indian. The consumer became king.
The new economic space gave the middle class a new political voice. Until then only the rich or the poor were feted by political parties, but after economic liberalisation Union Budgets were designed to help in the growth of the middle class and its consumption.
When the Central government started supporting the growth of information and communication technologies and the service sector in the late 1990s and early 2000s, economic growth and employment opportunities moved from farms and industrial estates to cities. Bengaluru was the first city to register this growth, followed by Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune and the National Capital Region. The voice of a new breed of urban middle class, young and ambitious, started dominating the national discourse.
The larger public forgot about the people’s movements against the Tehri and Narmada dams although all through the 1990s there were long sit-ins against these projects. In a brief burst of life, the movement against the Sardar Sarovar dam came into national focus in 1999 when the writer-activist Arundhati Roy led a yatra into the Narmada valley along with a group of people from New Delhi.
Other people’s environment movements were viewed less sympathetically. One of the earliest independent power plants, promoted by Enron Corporation, faced people’s protests owing to the adverse impact the power plant had on the coastal environment of Dabhol in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. A project by Thapar DuPont Ltd, to manufacture nylon 6,6 yarn and fabric in Goa, had to be abandoned because the local panchayat resolved not to permit it. Again, in the mid 1990s, Sterlite Corporation was forced to move its copper smelter from Ratnagiri in Maharashtra to Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu as a result of people’s protests.
If these environmental protests got very little national attention, the agitations against the nuclear power plants at Jaitapur (Maharashtra) and Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu) got even less empathy and attention. Until the launch of liberalisation, the dispossessed and marginalised people had taken up the cause of the environment, but from the 1990s onwards environmentalism became the concern of the middle class.If environmentalism was a cause before the 1990s, it became an industry and a profession later. Concepts such as ISO 14000 certification, setting up of effluent treatment plants and reworking of industrial systems to reduce emission levels and costs developed a green industry and also provided employment opportunities.
Rio Earth Summit There was another factor that supported this change. Within a year of the economic reforms process being initiated, in June 1992, the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro happened. The Climate Change Convention came into being with its common but differentiated responsibilities for countries to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. India was well inside the developing countries group, with no binding emission targets. India became a destination for environmental investment for carbon credit by developed countries under the Clean Development Mechanism. Developed countries could acquire carbon credit for investments made in India.
The impact of the middle-class renaissance was felt through increased judicial activism in the mid 1990s. On the eve of his retirement in December 1996, Supreme Court judge Justice Kuldip Singh gave a series of judgments on environmental cases ranging from tannery effluent pollution to the environmental impact of shrimp aquaculture and the damage to coastal environments.
In the same year, the Supreme Court bench consisting of Chief Justice J.S. Verma and Justice B.N. Kirpal issued the first of the many court orders on a writ petition filed by T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad against the Union of India. When Thirumulpad petitioned against the state’s mismanagement of forests, the Supreme Court took it upon itself to get the entire forest governance and management in the country reviewed. It kept the case open under a continuing mandamus and was heard by the Supreme Court until it was transferred to the National Green Tribunal in 2010.
Although in 1992 there was greater devolution of power to cities, towns and villages through the 73rd and the 74th Amendments of the Constitution, the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Act of 2005 took away the devolved powers of panchayati raj institutions in select pockets. Even though the SEZs were created to promote export-led growth, they became controversial for parcelling out land to the private sector, where land meant for industrial development was used for other purposes. The most well-known conflicts relate to the chemical industry-based Nandigram SEZ in West Bengal and the steel industry-based Paradip SEZ in Odisha for the South Korean company POSCO.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, at the fag end of its term in 2014, refused forest clearance for the bauxite mining project of Vedanta Resources at Niyamagiri hills, also in Odisha, after 12 village councils of the Dongria Kondh rejected the project.
Interestingly, even while the national consciousness and successive national governments neglected the cause of the poor and the dispossessed, Congress president Sonia Gandhi initiated a series of rights-based laws during the UPA’s tenure between 2004 and 2014. The Food Security Act, the Forest Rights Act and the Land Acquisition (Rehabilitation and Resettlement) Act were designed to have a positive impact on the livelihoods of the poor and also on the environment.
However, when the UPA lost the 2014 general election, the urban middle class attributed the defeat to these “populist” pieces of legislation. The 2014 result also reversed the political trend that had been in place since the commencement of the economic reforms. For the first time since 1984, a national government had a strong mandate enabling it to set its own agenda and also implement it.
Within 20 days of coming to power in 2014, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party initiated two actions relating to the environment. One, the Narmada Control Authority permitted the Gujarat government to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam by 17 m. (The Narmada Bachao Andolan felt this move would add more than 250,000 people to the displaced list while the process of rehabilitation of those already displaced had not yet been completed.) Two, the government accused Greenpeace India of anti-national activities. The non-governmental environmental organisation’s accounts were frozen. An Intelligence Bureau report stated that activities of NGOs such as Greenpeace reduced the country’s gross domestic product by 2 to 3 per cent.
In the Budget speech in 2014, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley laid emphasis on supporting the neo-middle class and on developing smart cities and rurban centres in rural areas, making it clear that the NDA government gave top priority to the urban middle class.
Fast-tracked clearances When Prakash Javadekar was Minister of State for Environment, before he was recently promoted to Cabinet rank, he boasted that he had fast-tracked environmental clearances. In its anxiety to speed up environmental clearances for projects, the NDA has missed the spirit of the process, which was designed to safeguard the environment and the communities that depend on it for their survival. Added to this is the continued effort of the government to weaken the provisions of the Land Acquisition (Rehabilitation and Resettlement) Act and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
Gadgil and Guha’s iron triangle has become stronger over the years. The urban middle class has joined the list of adversaries of the weaker communities since the economic reforms started 25 years ago.
S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist.