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Sunita Narain: Yes, in my backyard

Middle-class environmentalism offers no appetite for changing lifestyles that will minimise waste and pollution

Sunita Narain  |  New Delhi 

The environmental movement is based on the idea that people do not want something bad in their vicinity: not in my backyard, or Nimby. This concept has driven change across the world and continues to be the reason why projects, from shale gas exploration in the US to wind power in the UK, face protests. Ordinary people, but with power because they are part of the voting middle class, take up these issues because their lives are affected. The fight is personal. It is another matter that their fight has national policy ramifications — most often for the better. But there is also a downside to Nimby: if not in my backyard, then in whose backyard should it be allowed? This question must be answered.

Across Kerala, people are saying that they do not want garbage dumps, compost plants and even sewage treatment plants located close to their colony or their village — they say these will cause pollution, are noxious and dangerous for their health. In Thiruvananthapuram, the protest has come to a head, with villagers from Vilappilsala – where the city’s garbage was being dumped – defying even Supreme Court orders to allow garbage to be dumped in their backyard. In the same city, protests are being held against a compost plant that, the middle class says, “smells” and “pollutes”. In this densely populated state, virtually all land is taken. All land is somebody’s backyard. But the Nimby syndrome is not unique to this state. In Pune, the village of Urali Devachi has repeated said that it has had enough of the city’s garbage. In middle-class and professional Delhi, there is anger against a new waste incinerator, which people say will cause pollution and endanger their health. “Not in my backyard” is the call to arms. People do not want projects that pollute their immediate environment. They are fighting for their right to clean air and clean water. This makes sense.

These seemingly urban struggles are not so different from millions of pollution mutinies raging across tribal and rural India. We just don’t see the link. In Niyamgiri, where tribals said no to Vedanta’s mega bauxite mining in their sacred forest; or in Gujarat, where farmers fought a cement plant being built on their water body; or in Kudankulam, where fishermen fear the nuclear plant in their vicinity; or in Goa, where people are building barricades against iron ore mining near their farms. In each of these struggles, people directly dependent on the environment – their livelihood comes from natural resources of land, water and forests – are demanding change. They say these projects, which will destroy or degrade the environment, will impinge on their lives.

But with one crucial make-or-break difference. When urban and middle-class India, as across the world, faces environmental threat, it does not stop to ask: in whose backyard, then? The fact is that garbage is produced because of our consumption. The fact is that the richer we get, the more we need to throw and waste — the more we pollute. This consumption is necessary since it is linked to economic growth models that we have decided to adopt as our own. But we forget that the more we consume, the higher the cost of collection and disposal, which we cannot afford. So, we look for Band-Aid solutions. In middle-class environmentalism, there is no appetite for changing lifestyles that will minimise waste and pollution. At least, not as yet.

The environmentalism of the poor, on the other hand, is asking that development be reinvented, so that it can do much more with less. It is simple. If we cannot mine under all forests; or build dams on all rivers as we please; or build polluting thermal power stations in homes of people; then there are limits to growth as we know it. We can grow, but only if we do it differently — not business as usual, but business unusual. It will demand we reduce our need and increase our efficiency for every inch of land we need, every tonne of mineral we dig and every drop of water we use. It will demand new arrangements to share benefits with local communities so that they are persuaded to part with their resources for common development. It will also demand we look for economic growth in natural resource sectors like agriculture, fisheries and forestry to deliberately provide employment and livelihood options for millions of people — not build economies, which are jobless but growing.

In the environmental movement of the very poor, there are no quick-fix techno solutions in which the real problems can be fobbed off.

Moreover, the history of the western environmental movement is different from ours. It began after these societies had acquired wealth. They had the money to invest in cleaning, and they did. But because they never looked for big solutions, they always stayed behind the problem — local air pollution is still a problem in most western cities, even if the air is not as black as ours. Climate change is showing its deadly face.

Therefore, the slogan for next-generation environmentalism must be different. Not-in-my-backyard should give way to in-my-backyard because only then we plan for development, which is sustainable, because we know we have to live with it. The planet then becomes our backyard.  

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First Published: Mon, July 09 2012. 00:21 IST