Why has Andhra Pradesh stopped developing?

Environmental movement of the poor

For many disadvantaged communities in developing countries, environmental issues are not a luxury but a matter of survival. In India, such concerns are expressed in the protests of broad social movements. By Sunita Narain

All over India there are protests against infrastructure projects and what is commonly called "development". Three examples:

- In the past four years there have been repeated clashes between farmers and police on the outskirts of Noida, a suburb of Delhi. The farmers defend themselves against motorway and urban development projects because they do not receive adequate compensation. Landless farm workers, for example, get nothing, even though their employment opportunities are destroyed.
- On the construction site of a coal-fired power plant in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, police shot and killed around 10,000 demonstrators. The people there reject the power plant because it needs water that they themselves depend on.
- It would be a bit far-fetched to describe the Naxalite uprising in the central Indian forests as an environmental conflict. But it has a strong ecological dimension, because the Maoist militias there mainly exploit villages and forest dwellers, whose traditional livelihoods are threatened by what the federal and state governments declare as development: mining and other changes in land use.

Such protests are widespread. It can be said that practically all infrastructure projects and new industrial settlements are fought by affected people who fear for their livelihood. These local communities are at the forefront of India's environmental movement and are its most determined activists.

For them, environmental protection is not a luxury, but a question of survival. It is not about solving the problems of growth. The protest is against growth itself.

The people affected know that mining and deforestation cause their water points to dry out or to lose pasture and arable land. They know they are poor. And they say loudly and as clearly as possible that what others call development only makes them poorer. That is why they question the prevailing development paradigm.

I call this phenomenon the environmental movement of the poor. You are right, because the development projects use local resources - minerals, water, land. But they are not creating jobs to compensate for the people who are losing their traditional way of life. Misunderstood “progress” destroys more income than it creates. Therefore, everywhere in India there is an outcry from people who are fighting against development themselves.

How next? I feel that we need to listen to the voices of protest instead of choking them off or dismissing them as backward looking or naxalism. It would strengthen our democracy to enable participation in development matters.

Of course, Indian forest law requires that the village assemblies in the tribal areas must give their written consent before a project is decided. Public hearings on ecological impacts are intended to provide a platform for the people affected. In practice, however, the authorities usually manipulate and evade these procedures. Public hearings and even video recordings are faked. The concerns raised are mostly ignored and projects in the name of industrial development are pushed through. That has to stop.

Lots of green mutinies

The massive green mutinies are a test of Indian democracy. There is a need for new, high-performance industrial and infrastructure projects, but it must also be measured against the increasing criticism. We will have to realize that we cannot work against the will of our people.

In the rich nations, some - not all - people adhere to alternative environmental ethics. They find solutions in the ruling paradigm by buying organic and fair trade products, driving hybrid cars and installing solar panels on their roofs. The Indian middle class is following this example. No doubt they all mean well. Still, what they do is just a drop in the ocean.

The challenges facing humanity are far too great for less destructive consumption to suffice. The environmental movement of the poor teaches us that technological repair of environmental damage that has already occurred is not enough if more and more damage is occurring at the same time.

The rich world, despite its investments in energy efficiency, has failed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Cars use less petrol these days, but people drive more and own more cars. The emissions continue to increase.

Limited growth

The affluent world must find ways to achieve economic growth without fossil fuels and only within limits. It has held onto its destructive economic model for decades, although it has long been clear that neither it can go on like this in the long term, nor can the rest of the world follow its example. The rich nations have not made adequate adjustments to their lifestyle - and that is why multilateral politics have failed to stop climate change. In practice, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol are worthless. The poor in developing countries feel the consequences of the greenhouse effect most painfully.

Obviously, our planet cannot withstand the currently practiced energy-intensive growth models. The earth's resources are limited and the risks associated with energy production are enormous. Humanity must find new ways to use less energy and produce different energy and more energy - all at the same time.

Drastic restrictions are necessary. However, no government speaks of restricting consumption. We know efficiency is part of the solution, but efficiency without sufficiency is meaningless. The priority cannot be to satisfy the greed of the most powerful. It must be about meeting the simple needs of the poorest.

But the rich nations are still unwilling to acknowledge the obvious: growth has limits unless we grow differently.

The best democracy could bring to India would be to redefine the way we evolve. What is certain is that growth in the future will require doing much more with much less. Our path to growth will have to be based on economy and innovation. The challenge is to allow a large number of people to share in the fruits of development. To do this, growth has to be invented that is both affordable and sustainable. Only democracy and again democracy lead to the right change.

But only when the most powerful nations in the world accept that their growth must have limits will the global community of states embark on this new path. It is possible - and must be done.

The question is whether urbanites and middle classes in India and around the world are learning this lesson fast enough. We cannot afford the expensive, repairing environmental protection that tries to heal severe fractures with complex bandages. We have to realize that our future depends on joining the environmental movement of the poor and finding new answers to old problems.