Children in schools, morning walkers in parks, executives on the metro – India was masking up much before the world was hit by Covid-19. Even cricketers on the field had taken to checking the AQI more often than their performance averages. Unbreathable air, toxic water and carcinogenic residue from chemical fertiliser in the soil are the arch nemesis of a healthy life. Last year in just Delhi 54,000 people died on account of toxic air, according to a recent study.
So, it is baffling that as India goes to ecological hell-in-a-hand-basket green activists would support a farmers’ protest that seeks to preserve an environmentally unsustainable mode of agriculture. However well-intentioned their activism may be, the green lobby cannot be absolved of their obligation to study the facts. Any rough and ready guide on climate change will reveal the link between state-awarded indirect subsidies for fertilisers, power and produce and the coming climate apocalypse.
What then explains the incongruity of environmentalists supporting farmers seeking to preserve the damaging status quo? Is it just the folly of urbane idealism? Or is their cause being hijacked by political motives? Government managers are convinced that the intervention by environment activists is just the latest political hit job on PM Modi. Why else, they ask, would the contentious “toolkit” lament India’s plunge into fascism when its authors know that the farm laws were passed by Parliament?
Of course, the agitating green groups have denied any political motive. But they are yet to plausibly explain the contradictions in the toolkit urging foreign influencers to join protesting farmers to prevent “state-sponsored violence”. The last time a link was made between an Act of Parliament and the possibility of state-sponsored persecution was during the anti-CAA and NRC protests. Then the connection was made by the mainstream left.
Seen from the point of view of the political right, little distinguishes the green lobby’s activism from the left’s political project, which does little to further their cause. From enlisting Greta Thunberg to casting the protesting peasantry as the toiling proletariat at the mercy of “exploitative imperialists”, climate activists appear to be borrowing from the Marxist playbook that only serves to isolate a large portion of the public.
Even in the United States, conservatives view Thunberg as a meddling cardboard conscience-keeper, mouthing lines scripted by the ultra-left. After the toolkit and its authors were outed on social media, Modi supporters also now share this American conservative view. In fact, the state, quick to pounce on an opportunity, slapped sedition cases against green activists and farmer leaders for allegedly working to further a “foreign destructive ideology”. While for the moment the court is not impressed, one fears the damage has already been done.
Historically the spectre of insurrection by a “foreign hand” has been used by governments to impeach eco-socialists in the court of public opinion. Kudankulum comes instantly to mind. Globally, groups like the Extinction Rebellion or even the Fridays For Future that counts Disha Ravi as one of its founders, have attracted attention by resorting to audacious tactics – occupying public squares, blocking roads for “guerrilla gardening”. Yet they have failed to win the support of climate sceptics. One study notes that these environment advocacy groups are viewed with suspicion because “they don’t build bridges with or speak of values held dear by conservatives, business or even working classes.”
Green groups in India got a front-page view of this resentment. Instead of being thankful that a polluting plant had been shut down, local worker guilds placed ads in newspapers targeting eco-warriors who had succeeded in shutting Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi. The ads implied that the activists had acted politically to benefit India’s copper producing arch-enemy Pakistan. In stark contrast, although the Chipko movement in the seventies put forests on the political agenda its organisers were careful not to be seen as a means to a political end. The ideological honesty of the eco-socialists helped them grow awareness and generate goodwill. So much so that then PM Indira Gandhi halted logging in the Himalayas for 15 years.
While the Chipko movement could afford to remain apolitical, today India teeters on the edge of a climate-change precipice, rendering such a stance ineffective for climate activists. But, instead of relying on established political intermediaries, India’s climate “causerrati” could do their movement a favour by forming their own national political party. By placing all their cards on the table, not only will climate activists be able to test the state and the public’s commitment to democracy but also to green causes.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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