I had a conversation last Friday evening with a man whose village is under threat of submergence beneath the reservoir which will rise behind a new dam that is being proposed for his home valley in North-east India. He has been instrumental in organising his community's response to the proposals, although the protests have thus far fallen on deaf ears. He feels that the entire culture of this remote Himalayan community will be devastated by the plans to harness hydro-electric power. He fears the disappearance of a language, an identity, a way of life. He told me that he is prepared to die to protect the land which he inherited from generations of ancestors, and that what is currently a very peaceful State could turn into a hotbed of political violence if the Government of India's plans to build dozens of new dams come to pass.
Meeting someone who has stoically come to terms with such an existential threat was an incredibly humbling experience. Our discussion happened on a bus journey after the first day of the Centre for Science & Environment's Anil Agarwal Dialogue on Green Clearances in New Delhi. The event sought to bring together civil society actors from across India to share experiences of the process by which large-scale industrial construction projects are given 'environmental clearance', i.e. deemed to be of insignificant threat to local ecological and social systems. It quickly became clear that the system of granting environmental clearances is in serious need of reform, and that the momentum and agenda for change must come from civil society.
|A campaigner from Bihar makes his views known. Source: CSE|
Granting environmental clearance to a project clearly involves large measures of judgement and ethical deliberation. What is to count as 'tolerable' environmental damage has to be decided by some combination of utilitarian and deontological reasoning. At the core of the objections to current government practice is a revulsion at a utilitarian, developmentalist discourse which places the need for economic growth far above concerns for environmental justice in the list of national priorities. Objectors often draw on deontological arguments which seek to stake-out the boundaries of environmental and social damage which should not be crossed, regardless of perceived national benefit.Yet in addition to these ethical fault-lines a number of epistemic problems took centre-stage in the discussions. There is widespread mistrust of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process. Numerous examples were given of reports being literally copied-and-pasted by environmental consultants of questionable accreditation, or of fundamental errors being made which undermined the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the entire process. Information and data also seems to be a scarce commodity in many situations, and government figures have been subject to frequent challenge and rebuttal by environmental campaigners.
When a project such as a dam is proposed, a public hearing is often held to gauge the views of the 'affected persons'. But this procedure was frequently described as a 'farce', as hearings were often held after decisions had been made or their outcomes had no impact on the decision making process. Stories emerged of seemingly deliberate efforts to exclude certain groups of people from these events, for example by holding hearings at great distances from the affected areas, effectively marginalizing those who could not travel so far to come and make their voices heard.
|A public hearing concerning a proposed Uranium mine in Jharkand. Source: CSE|
Elements of Jasanoff's reading of Indian civic epistemology struck me as being present in the Delhi conference hall. In particular, the scarcity of reliable information and the fraught economy of trust were defining elements of the environmental clearances debate, as were the entangling of the epistemic and the ethical and the prevalence of epistemic contestation. But what was perhaps most striking was the sense that these elements of public reasoning do not just reflect a national 'style' or 'culture', but actually go some way towards constructing - performing even - the very nation which is the subject of the discussions.
|Discussions continued long into the evening in the CSE office, once the conference hall had been cleared to make way for a wedding. Source: CSE|
CSE has long been a body which has brought people together from across the nation to share knowledge and experiences, and to build a nationwide movement for social and environmental justice. For my friend from the North-east this was his first contact with other Indian environmental NGOs, even though he's had many visits from American and European charities. What CSE is doing is contributing to the construction of a national consciousness of these issues, and this is an activity which arguably dates back to the publication of CSE's first 'State of India's Environment' report in 1982 which brought together regional expertise to present, for the first time, a picture of environmental injustice at a national scale.
Being privy to these discussions was a great honour, and I was deeply inspired by the commitment, the passion and the bravery of the many people I met at the Dialogue. Here's hoping that by sharing these experiences and by campaigning for regulatory change some justice may come the way of my friend in the North-east, and to all the others who are facing-up to such incomprehensible threats.