Battles for the commons

We need water, electricity, roads, buildings, materials to make the things we like and the industries that make them.  ‘Development’, however, has claimed an enormous human and environmental cost.  Not just because dams and roads and buildings are not possible without some loss of forest and displacement of people.  But more because of poor planning, a certain disdain for environmental laws and promises of compensation, a propensity to cut corners when it comes to keeping the air and waters clean, and a tendency to turn a blind eye to peoples’ suffering.  Health and livelihoods are force sacrificed, cultures are threatened.  People have lost faith in governments.

And they are fighting back*.  But only a tiny fraction of these battles are won.  Ritwick Dutta, one of the few full time environmental lawyers in India, said in a talk last year that of 20,000 to 30,000 projects that are ‘legally’ sanctioned every year in the country, only about 50 get challenged and most of these go through anyway.  This is despite the fact that India is unique in the powerful legal machinery available for environmental protection.

There are several stories of local people in rural areas in India taking on multinationals and the government to protect hills and forests, land and water that are integral to their way of life**.  There are several similar battles that are fought in other parts of the world.  The most recent story I read is about tribes deep in the Amazon fighting against a dam that might displace them, depriving them of their land and livelihood.

Loss and pollution of land, water and air is an urban problem too.  The Bhopal gas tragedy is probably one of the most well known cases – the struggle for justice has been going on for more than 30 years now.  Chronic complacency has ensured that other cities like Delhi are struggling to breathe, and those like Bangalore have lost several lakes. There were ‘floods’ last year in Chennai after rainwater, with nowhere to go due to built up catchment areas and clogged streams that would have otherwise drained the water to the sea, inundated roads and homes***.

Perhaps this was good in a way – people in cities seem to have woken up to the reality of environmental unconcern too.  Another recent ‘battle’ I came across is by a group of artistes who use classical South Indian music to decry damage done to water bodies around Chennai, the Ennore creek in particular**** – damage done due to decades of government and citizen apathy.  ‘Ennorila seinji mudichan unnoorila seyya varuvaan’, they warn; ‘They might do to your place what they did to mine’.

Will the warning be heeded? Will urban battles be more successful than rural ones?

* Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas) is a wonderful project that catalogues environmental degradation and peoples’ resistance against it globally. Here is an article about the project.

** EJAtlas has several examples.  Ritwick Dutta in his talk outlines a few cases too (go directly to ~38.30min of the talk for a quick overview of several cases if you don’t have time to listen to the full talk).

*** Here is a post about this and other such catastrophes that happened last year.

**** The story of the Ennore creek here and here.


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