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An activist-environmentalist

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST


Anil Agarwal, 1947-2002.

THE death of Anil Agarwal at the age of 54 on January 2, 2002 is a loss to the environmental movement in India. He was an activist whose passion, vision and prodigious energy brought environmental concerns from the margins of the public sphere into the mainstream. By asserting that ecological sustainability and social justice are two sides of the same coin, Agarwal helped establish a distinctive identity and direction for environmentalism in the country. Drawing on the experience and insights of people involved in environmental struggles across the land, Agarwal made a powerful case linking ecological degradation to economic and political inequality. This framework for analysis and action went on to become the hallmark of Indian environmentalism, and was globally acknowledged as a powerful and original critique of capitalist development from the South.

The staggering breadth and depth of Agarwal's concerns were demonstrated first in The State of India's Environment: A Citizens' Report. Published in 1982 by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the non-governmental organisation (NGO) that Agarwal founded and directed along with Sunita Narain, this monumental document presented, for the first time, an overview of India's ecological problems. After a decade of rising environmental awareness in the West, the Indian media had begun to cover environmental issues sporadically. However, the dominant perspective was elitist, focussing on protecting wildlife from the exploding population of the poor and their livestock.

In this context, Agarwal's report was an eye-opener. No mere compendium of environmental ills, its detailed examination of ecological degradation, especially the burden borne by women who have to deal with the decline of the biomass-based rural economy, offered a powerful perspective for understanding the relationship between environment and development. This lucid and readable account was a cooperative effort that involved voluntary organisations and individuals across the country. Widely read, it was translated into Hindi, Kannada and other languages. The Report gave voice to a nascent 'red and green' environmental consciousness within the country, creating links between ecology and social justice.

Anil Agarwal's perspective was further clarified in The Second Citizens' Report of 1985, which concluded with his essay on 'The Politics of the Environment', essential reading for anyone interested in the environment. After documenting the state of India's forests, rivers, cities and industries, Agarwal argued here for holistic management of land and water resources in the country. The report analysed the potential roles of the government and voluntary agencies and of legislation in bringing about change.

While the first two reports attempted to cover all aspects of environmental change in India, the three subsequent reports acknowledged the impossibility of such an exercise in spite of the huge expansion of environmental journalism which included the CSE's own magazine Down to Earth. Thus, the Third Report focussed on floods and the Fourth Report on traditional water harvesting methods. However, the Fifth Report was a disappointing miscellany (review carried in Frontline, September 24, 1999). While the first two reports drew on a network of activists from all over the country, the last three were primarily based on the CSE's in-house research and commissioned studies. This shift was part of the growing institutionalisation of the CSE; its establishment as a successful NGO was accompanied by a gradual fading of its links with mass movements.

Although Agarwal did not champion any social movement after Chipko, and his support for that other great environmental cause - the Narmada anti-dam struggle - was inexplicably muted, he did consistently make the case for local control over natural resources. His vision, as articulated in Towards Green Villages, emphasised decentralised control by village communities as a strategy for environmentally sound and participatory rural development. The focus on the village as the locus of action was exemplified in the CSE's celebration of small initiatives such as Sukhomajri in Haryana, Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra and the Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan. These experiments in water harvesting and land management were brought into prominence by the CSE's efforts in documentation and dissemination. If, as Ramachandra Guha argues, every thinking Indian grapples with the ghosts of Marx and Gandhi, Agarwal should definitely be placed close to the Gandhian end of the spectrum.

Like many Indian environmentalists, he did not trust political parties or trade unions as agents of collective struggle, but preferred to pin his hopes on NGOs which he believed could pressure the state into action. The shift in Agarwal's political activism towards closer collaboration with the state probably began during Rajiv Gandhi's prime ministership, during which period he often briefed the Cabinet and senior bureaucrats on environment and development. It was probably then that he was persuaded that winning over key politicians would be an effective strategy towards influencing environmental decision-making.

In the last decade, the CSE has hyped Digvijay Singh, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, highlighting the State-wide Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Mission that claims to create decentralised institutions for sustainable land and water management. Agarwal's uncritical endorsement of Digvijay Singh's environmental credentials appalled many mass organisations in Madhya Pradesh that regularly face the brunt of state repression in their struggle to claim the rights of poor adivasis to the resources of forests, land and water. Continuing adulation for Digvijay Singh's government, combined with a studied silence about its policies which are seen to be increasingly extractive, could be said to have muddied Agarwal's record as an outspoken, independent voice for environmental justice.

AGARWAL'S skill in mounting sustained and hard-hitting environmental campaigns is best exemplified in his work against vehicular pollution. The CSE's 1996 study report titled Slow Murder showed Agarwal at his best, brilliantly dissecting the problem, assigning responsibility and not hesitating to name names. The CSE pointed out how petroleum refineries, automobile manufacturers and regulatory authorities, as well as skewed transport priorities, have variously contributed to the poisoning of air in metropolitan India. Its analysis was followed by a concerted media campaign which precipitated a series of events that finally led to the Supreme Court's orders regarding the phasing out and conversion of polluting vehicles in Delhi. The masterly use of evidence in the study embarrassed several corporate firms into cleaning up their act, at least on the surface. While air quality has improved in the national capital thanks in part to Agarwal's initiative, the controversy over whether compressed natural gas (CNG) is the best alternative fuel rages on after the demise of its leading votary.

Agarwal will also be remembered for his compelling intervention in the international debate on climate change. He called the negotiation a case of 'environmental colonialism' that refused to recognise the huge disparity between the North and the South in the consumption of resources, and which nations bore primary responsibility for global warming. The politics of production and consumption, both global and local, was a key theme in Agarwal's work. By identifying unexplored environmental problems and addressing them cogently, he set the agenda for all environmental NGOs involved in research and awareness-building. His opus, and that of the CSE, has inspired and informed an entire generation of environmentalists.

Amita Baviskar teaches at Delhi University. Her research work focusses on the sociology of environment and development.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 19, 2002.)



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