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A Million Mutinies: Raising India's Environmental Awareness

Save Oil, Save Future, Chandigarh, India (Nice Logo/Flickr)

Save Oil, Save Future, Chandigarh, India (Nice Logo/Flickr)

Given the fact that India is a fairly vibrant democracy, we also get supported very much by the judiciary and the media which are the other two pillars in terms of managing the country's system. I'm also going to talk about issues in terms of some of the rural challenges and some of the urban challenges because really they're distinct. And one of the key issues that we face in India is the fact that, over the years, the Indian government has really followed a very colonial way of managing our natural resources, which has legally excluded local communities from control or management decisions.It's particularly important because environment in a country like India is not a luxury but a basic survival for people. And this is something very important to understand because in most parts of the north, the environmental movement has been distinct from the developmental movement in the US or in Europe for example. The environmental movement has been far more conservationist in its ethic whereas, in countries like India, resources are a part of communities' systems of management. And therefore, we have a far more utilitarian base in terms of how we manage our environment. And the entire environmental movement has been far more developmental in its perspective of what needs to be done. It's also important because in a country like India, people literally live on the environment. The environment isn't something that you talk about after you've had it in a book but having some trees and some tigers. It's the very basis of well-being. You live on the land, the water, the building material, the bio-diversity in terms of the medicinal plants. Your other issues of survival literally come from the environment. And that's what we've often said that really an indicator of economic well-being should not be the gross national product, which is how countries measure economic progress, but the gross nature product.

It's also important to recognize that this is something that we're learning in terms of what needs to be done for the future but exclusion was not the way of the past. If you look at water, for instance, the British, when they came to India, called India “hydrological society,” simply because it's an interesting thing to note that it only rains about 100 hours in India. And therefore what you're talking about is a system in which you can store, collect and distribute water. And there are two parts of India which are very fascinating to be able to compare. Most Indians have grown up being told that we have the wettest place on earth. India is the wettest, the tallest of everything. And well, we are the wettest place on earth. The wettest place on earth is a place called Cherapunji which is in Meghalaya. And it gets 15 meters of rainfall annually. And yet, if you go to Cherapunji and you go to a certain guest house in Cherapunji there's a sign that says, “Water is scarce. Please use it carefully.” And yet, there's another part of India -- the desert of India, Jaisalmer, which is at the edge of the desert adjoining Pakistan. And there, it only rains about 100 millimeters of rainfall. So from 15 meters to 100 millimeters and yet Jaisalmer has never known to be evacuated because of lack of water. And therefore, for us, the big issue has been in India to say, “It's not just the quantum of water but really the wisdom in how to use it, how you store it and how you distribute water.” So what you really need to do is to re-create some of the traditional systems of water management in which communities played an essential role in terms both of management as well the distribution.

But what we're also seeing in India is that water has become a starting point for change in many of the really outstanding experiments thatwe're seeing in rural India. It's important to see both the crisis aswell as the response to the crisis that we're seeing today. And the response to the crisis really is from local communities, invariably a good non-governmental organization, but then essentially talking about the kind of institutional strengthening at the local level in which ecological regeneration leads to economic change. And, in many of these villages that you're talking about whether it is Sukhomajri Village, near Chandigarh or Raleganshiddi Village in Maharashtra you're talking about incredible economic change built on the good management of land and water resources. And this really becomes something as a way ahead for a country which is really talking about how is it going to deal with constant and recurring doubts as we have today.

Soit's important to see this from a point of view of how communities are reasserting their village. Many people are part of the Chipko movement,but I don't think many people understand the Chipko movement, which isreally a movement high in the Himalayas where women were hugging treesto protect them from the loggers who would come there, was not a conservationist movement. It was not a movement to protect the trees.It was really a movement to assert rights over who will have the rightto cut the trees. So what the women were really saying was that, “It is not that we don't want the trees to be cut, but we have the right to cut the trees -- these are our trees.” And therefore, as I said before, the environmental movement in India has been very developmental in its perspective. The issue has been very much how do we use the natural resources. How do we use them and what is the political economy inwhich we will control the change? And that is really the issue in terms of the environmental movement.

If you look at another case, which is very close to Delhi where Tarun Bharat Sangh which is in Alwar District. In 1980 the johadswhich are local water harvest instructors -- I talked to you earlier about traditional water harvesting systems and they were really built on the ethic of rain-water harvesting, as we call it. But when they built these johads, the irrigation department came in and said that they were illegal. And they said that they should be broken down because, by law, every drain in India belongs to the government. Andit's part of the system of management in which you essentially appropriate the rights to govern natural resources and in which you say that the local communities really do not have the ability to be able to manage resources which are in their own backyard. When the same area or village planted trees, it was called illegal because, again, under the Revenue Act, if you were to plant trees on revenue land, even if it was degraded land across -- lost to your village, it would be illegal. And if it was forest land, you would go to jail as per Indian law.

But what has been amazing in most of these cases is that people have just continued doing what they want to do. And the state has had to essentially say that it can do very little about it. In 1990, it wasreally incredible to see that these villages then through these local rain-harvesting structures regenerated entire rivers. And this has really been one of the most fantastic things to see. We took the Indian President -- I don't know if you heard about this but we do an annual award to the best environmental community -- village community. And we gave the first award to this village because of the rainfall harvesting structures they've done. They've brought to life three rivers in the desert. I mean, this is the most incredible thing to see. When you could see that the river was a perennial river but it used to flow just about two to three months in a year. And because of the structures they've made, the river now flows the entire year. And, we took the --we invited the Indian President, we asked him if he would give the award to the community and he is a very sweet man and so he said, yes,he would. And then we went back to him and said that everybody comes to Rashtrapati Bhavan which is the presidential palace to take an award. Isn't it time you went to a community and gave them the award? And itwas quite an experience to take him to this village community, which has done rainwater harvesting. And because of which it has regenerated its rivers to get the President of India to give them an award.