June 29, 2014

Environment, Development and Corporate Hindutva

Archana Prasad

ALMOST a year before it came to power at the centre, the present minister for environment, Prakash Javadekar termed environmental clearances as a new form of “license raj.” This comment was made in the context of the slowdown of the economy and he accused the ministry of environment and forests of being a “roadblock” in the path of development. Then, following this very line of argument, the BJP manifesto promised that it would relook into the procedures for environmental clearances and reframe the environment clearance laws in a manner so that there is no confusion and there are “transparent and time bound clearances.” This has been reiterated by the new environment minister who aims to provide clearances to 200 infrastructural projects on a priority basis --- literally within the first hundred days. His counterpart in the power and coal ministry is adding to the pressure by vocally stating that one time expansion plans for existing coal mines and power projects should get “automatic clearances.” Though this thrust is not new in this drive, it has acquired a new meaning today as the Modi government has used the rhetoric of nationalism and religious symbolism to showcase its priorities in the environment and development debate. ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATION OR THANKSGIVING TO BACKERS! One of the changes being proposed in the system of environmental clearance is the online filing of the ‘terms of reference’ document, which is considered the first step in a screening of the projects. On June 5, 2014, i.e. the World Environment Day, the ministry of environment and forests issued an order stating that all applications for prior environmental clearance should be mooted on line. The processing of these online applications is to be done by designated impact assessment consultants and firms, and they are expected to be processed within a fortnight of application and placed before the environmental impact appraisal committee. The granting of the TOR in a fast track mode is being followed up by including more and more modernisation and expansion projects in the list of activities which do not need prior environmental clearances. But this dilution of an already weak environmental regulation regime shows that the government is not interested in stopping the corporate loot of natural resources. Rather it is intended to accentuate the penetration of corporate capital in the conflict ridden regions. Given the political and financial backing the Modi led BJP election campaign received from the corporate houses, such a fast track methods can also be seen as the Modi’s thanksgiving to the corporate sector. This naked push towards the consolidation of corporate capital is being legitimised in two ways. First, several institutions of the government have selectively begun branding many movements and groups opposing corporate penetration in resource rich areas as a threat to “national economic security.” While the Left and democratic movements have always pointed out the danger of the links between social movements and foreign funded non-government organisations (NGOs), it is the selective focus on anti-nuclear and anti-mining protests that has raised several issues. For example, one might ask why several other foreign funded NGOs (especially the Sangh Parivar NGOs backed by foreign funds and corporate charities like Bill and Melinda Gates foundation) have not been questioned in the same way. DEMOCRATIC ACTIONS BEING THREATENED Further, one may also question the assumption that all protests like the anti-Jaitapur movement led by the Left and democratic forces or the struggles of the people in the case of Vedanta and POSCO, and struggles for food sovereignty and security are influenced by the studies of these foreign funded NGOs and not by the actual, ground level deprivation and experience of the exploited and overburdened people. Hence the branding of dissenting actions and advocacy as a threat to national economic security may be interpreted to mean that any anti-corporate political action will be stopped by the new government. Democratic movements must ensure that enforcing the regulations and accountability rules for the foreign funded NGOs does not become an excuse to target all anti-corporate political action by a government which is meticulously showing its gratitude to its corporate political supporters. Second, the ministers pushing for a dilution of environmental regulation have cited Gujarat as a model for handling transparent clearances and managing mines. This proposition is true in only one sense: Gujarat is an epitome of the lack of environmental regulation and intense corporate loot of water and mineral resources. This was stated by no less than the Gujarat High Court in its judgement of February 14, 2014 where it ordered the Gujarat government to shut down all illegal mines lacking clearances. It was noted that out of nearly 8,000 minor mineral mines and quarries only one had the prior environmental clearance. If this is the model to be followed, then the government of the day is using its brute numerical majority (supported by only 31 percent of the people) to push the agenda of its political masters. In this context it is pertinent to note that the Modi government has shown its concern for addressing environmental problems only when it overlaps with its own religious preference. In its current priorities it has made a Hindutva icon, Ms Uma Bharati, as the mascot of the Ganga cleaning programme. RELIGION AND GANGA REJUVENATION PLAN The significance of the river Ganga is not lost to BJP supporters. After all, Modi himself had stated that he had been summoned by Ganga Maa to represent Varanasi and to restore her purity. Following this line, Ms Uma Bharti has already stated that saints and sadhus will be in the forefront of the Ganga rejuvenation programme. This type of environmental politics is not new to the Sangh Parivar. In the mid-1990s the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had backed the anti-Tehri dam agitation of Sunderlal Bahuguna by using similar symbolism. In other words, the use of environmental protection as a way of religious mobilisation by the BJP government cannot be ruled out. This objective of religious revivalism is being combined with the commercialisation of the river. Rather than studying the best way of water use for local needs along the 2500 km long banks of the Ganga, the plan aims to develop a tourist hub along the bank. This is clearly inspired by Gujarat’s Sabarmati project which displaced at least 5,000 local families and became a conduit for the sale of prime real estate to corporate developers. Not surprisingly, many eminent ecologists have termed this plan as old wine in a new bottle. The newness of this plan is precisely that it is intended to be linked with Hindutva revivalism. Hence the term being used is not river development but river rejuvenation, by which they mean restoration of the spirituality of the river, along with its purity. From the above discussion it is clear that the environmental agenda of the Modi led BJP government is meant to serve the interests of corporate Hindutva. While regulations are being eased in the name of national economic security, the genuine issue of environmental protection is being used, in fact misused, as a cover for religious mobilisation. In this situation, compliance with and strengthening of environmental regulations can serve as a good political instrument to stop the corporate penetration in conflict ridden but natural resource rich regions.