Sunday, June 22, 2014

Going after the green

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 22, 2014

Pocket of rich biodiversity.Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
Pocket of rich biodiversity.Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Crimes against women have been constantly in the news. But crimes against nature remain largely unreported.

Given the current climate, with the Intelligence Bureau claiming that non-governmental organisations like the crusading international environmental group Greenpeace, are detrimental to India’s progress, and with the ubiquitous ‘foreign hand’ making a serendipitous comeback, such crimes are likely to become invisible, noticed only by those who have been damned as ‘obstructionist’ or worse still, ‘anti-national’.

As I tend to identify with that tribe, let me address this column to the elements that ensure that our physical environment does not become an endless landscape of roads and buildings, leaving no space for the unregulated, the wild, the unexpected that only the natural environment, left inviolate, provides.

A big part of this unregulated environment is trees. Today, they are in danger. They will drown as more dams are built, or the height of existing dams is raised. They will be razed to make way for infrastructure — roads and highways, airports, electric power stations. They will be stifled and killed by the concrete pavements surrounding them in our expanding cities. They will be excavated from our forests to make way for open-pit mines producing the minerals considered essential for a ‘modern’ India.

The former environment minister Jairam Ramesh and the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi both spoke of the need for toilets rather than temples. Will anyone now say that India needs more forests not freeways? That even if factories, roads and railways, airports and sea ports are essential, so is a tree cover that saves the soil, replenishes the water, provides sustenance to millions of forest dwellers, cleans the air and absorbs some of the filth and poisons being generated by our modern lifestyles, poisons that will accumulate in the atmosphere and ruin the health of future generations.

The new environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, whose ministry is also supposed to take care of forests and address climate change, is a man in a hurry. He wants to clear ‘obstacles’ to progress in the form of pending environmental clearances. To do that, he wants to change the old criteria that classified forested areas as ‘violate’ or ‘inviolate’. The latter category was formulated to ensure that nothing — no project, no mine, no dam — could disturb certain forested areas.

The parameters set out to decide whether a forest area is ‘violate’ or ‘inviolate’ are the quality of the forest area, the produce it generates, its biodiversity, hydrological, social, aesthetic and economic value. All these are essential. So in what way can this list be ‘rationalised’ or altered by the new minister? Why should these parameters be changed? The only reason would be to find a way to grant clearances to projects that will go against these criteria.

Forests are also about people, not just trees. An estimated 350-400 million people in 173,000 villages live within forests, or depend on them. That is not a small number. So if forests are destroyed, to make way for a mine, a factory, a dam, a power plant, there are people whose lives are also destroyed. The previous government passed laws protecting their rights, giving them the power to decide whether a forest area can be diverted to other uses.

What will happen to these rights? In the name of ‘progress’ and fast-tracking environmental clearances, will laws like the Forest Rights Act be revised or negated? If and when this happens, will the voices of those who have fought for the rights of forest dwellers, and for the protection of our remaining forests, be heard?

These are questions that need to be asked now, not after policies are put in place that facilitate the destruction of the natural environment and that deprive nature-dependent communities of their rights. If environmentalists are apprehensive about the future, they are justified. So far, nothing has been said or done to assuage their fears.

Despite this, what they can and must do is document the importance of fighting to preserve the environment — in the way the TreesIndia Group is doing on the India Biodiversity Portal ( Spend a few minutes on this site. It will give you a sense of the wealth that we have in India and what could disappear without a trace if we don’t speak up now on behalf of nature.

(To read the original, click here.)

Saturday, June 07, 2014


The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 8, 2014

Relatives of the Badaun victims.
PTIRelatives of the Badaun victims.
We have run out of words. How does one express outrage, disgust, despair when two Dalit teenage girls are gang raped, murdered and hung from a mango tree in UP’s Katara village?

No candlelight vigils this time. In the long list of such crimes against Dalit women, against all women in this country, this one has been noted. Katara has seen the usual procession of politicians offering sympathy and funds and the media displaying more than a passing interest.
But they have left now. Before long, Katara will slip back into anonymity. And even as the mothers and fathers of lost, raped and murdered daughters continue to mourn, we will fail to understand the real meaning of what is happening to our society.
Ever since the widespread outrage following the December 16, 2012, gang rape of a physiotherapy student in Delhi, talk about rape has become mainstream. Rapes are not minor items on the crime pages. They are given more space in print, and talk time on television. But at the end of all this, when yet another horrendous crime is reported, what do we do? We read, we rage and then we turn the page.
We move on without accepting that what we are witness to is not just an increase in the incidence of rape and sexual assault but something that can best be defined as a ‘rape culture’. If two teenage girls forced to go before day break to ‘relieve’ themselves, as newspapers like to put it, because their village has no toilets are raped and murdered, what else is this but a culture of rape? We need to stop talking about statistics. Instead we should ask what has brought us to this point where women cannot go about their daily tasks without fearing rape and assault.
‘Rape culture’ is not unique to India. In the U.S., for instance, people are talking about it, triggered by the recent incident where a 22-year-old man went on a shooting spree killing six people, including five students of the University of California at Santa Barbara. In a video he uploaded on the Internet, he claimed he was doing this to avenge his rejection by women even though he considered himself the ‘Alpha male’.
The shooting has raised questions not just about the terrible and incomprehensible gun culture in the U.S., but also the misogyny and the sense of ‘sexual entitlement’ that makes men justify assaulting women who reject them.
Social media has seen an outpouring with over half a million people responding to the hashtag #YesAllWomen. In an interview with Democracy Now!, writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit says #YesAllWomen was in response to the argument that all men are not bad. “We know not all men are rapists and murderers, are not abusers and misogynists, but all women are impacted by the men who are,” she said. “We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.”
Solnit said that her country needed to “stop treating rape as sort of isolated, aberrant incidents and treat it as a widespread problem that arises not from anomalies in the culture, but from the mainstream of culture.” We might argue that, in India, violence does have a specific caste context, for instance, and not just gender. Yet, her point about rape now being part of mainstream culture is relevant.
It is not just the number, the types, or the location of rapes, but the culture that allows men to believe that they can assault women at will that we must confront. If men continue to believe that they have ‘sexual entitlement’ and that women do not have a right to reject or resist, then this culture of rape will continue to grow.
As we mourn for those two young women, we must stop and ask ourselves: Is this the society we want? If not, what are we doing to change it?
(To read the original, click here.)