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“The rise of environmental justice struggles throughout the state… slowing down the neoliberal juggernaut, but not stopping it”.

October 16, 2020

J Devika is a researcher and teacher at Centre for Development studies, Thiruvananthapuram. She is a historian who brings to bear that training to engage with contemporary issues. She writes in both Malayalam and English and translates between the two languages. She offers her commentary on www.kafila.online and collects/translates the writings of/on Malayali feminists on www.swatantryavaadini.in.

J. Devaki: The activist community is under threat in Kerala.

Praveen Gupta: The discourse on Climate Change continues to be deeply Eurocentric? Understand the likes of ‘Swatantryavaadini’ provided Kerala a strong tradition and spread?

J Devaki: Yes, I tend to agree – climate change and the Anthropocene are indeed grand narratives and tend to be Eurocentric. But that does not mean that they are either all-pervasive or impervious to local interpretation. The effects of chaotic climate are felt everywhere in the world for sure, and we draw upon resources from all over to make sense of it. The climate change discourse is only one such. A great strength of environmental activism in India has been that it has refused to take its eyes away from the local and regional context, even as it engages with global discourses, and all this it does with considerable critical acumen.

A great strength of environmental activism in India has been that it has refused to take its eyes away from the local and regional context, even as it engages with global discourses, and all this it does with considerable critical acumen.

Swatantryavaadini is a collection of the writings of early twentieth century feminists – or women whose writings qualify to be called feminist. Again, feminism is a global discourse, and its Eurocentrism has been challenged repeatedly from the margins. If you look at this work, you will notice the complexity of transnational exchanges which do not fit into a simple coloniser/colonised binary.

PG: Have the recent devastating floods led to increased activism?

JD: In Kerala, I cannot really say that it has. It should have led to a wholesale rethinking of our recent development trajectory from an ecological perspective. Given the claims about Kerala’s left traditions, many expected this. But no. The truth is that the very little is left about the Left, and the new economic rightwing orientation of the government can hardly see the importance of ecological stability in capitalist growth.

There is growing fear, however, among more and more sections of people, about rampant destruction of the environment, but there is little commitment among them to heal the damage through changing lifestyles. There is even denial of ecological destruction.

It has been the other way round: for example, rock quarrying, which was identified by scientists of the Kerala Forest Research Institute as contributing heavily to the destruction of the Western Ghats and exacerbating the damages done by the floods, has only been further encouraged in the state. And people protesting rock quarrying – local people, that is – have been handled quite roughly. There is growing fear, however, among more and more sections of people, about rampant destruction of the environment, but there is little commitment among them to heal the damage through changing lifestyles. There is even denial of ecological destruction.

PG: What drives the affected people into a self-denial mode? Does this aspect of climate psychology or sociology mellow down activism?

JD: From our research on the local self-government’s response to heavy, persistent industrial pollution at the island of Eloor in Kochi, it appeared to me that the insights of environmental psychology about denial of environmental destruction are very valuable indeed, especially for those of us who desire to change mindsets. The response of residents to environmental pollution at Eloor closely resembles that which has been called ‘socially-organised denial’ in the literature on climate change denial.

The response of residents to environmental pollution at Eloor closely resembles that which has been called ‘socially-organised denial’ in the literature on climate change denial.

It is now widely agreed that the ‘information-deficit’ model of climate change denial which claims that better and more accessible, scientifically grounded, reliable information will convince people is not adequate to make sense of denial – that is, knowledge is necessary, but may not be sufficient. For instance, some sociologists and psychologists now argue that the apparent indifference of people in the face of a veritable flood of information and knowledge of climate change may be a form of grieving. 

Psychologists studying climate change denial point out that the increased perception of death-risk that ‘risk society’ allows may actually activate ‘distal defenses’ which keep death thoughts unconscious – and one form they take is of bolstering the existing world-view even when it is not sustainable in plain view. In our interviews at Eloor, we were struck by the fact that elected members almost never volunteered to broach the topic of pollution until we suggested it explicitly to them; there was much diffidence about speaking of it. From our data, it appears that both the ‘proximal’ and ‘distal’ defenses that Dickinson talks about seem to be at work at Eloor.

I am talking about just one site in Kerala, but this maybe at work on a much larger scale.

PG: What is happening at Eloor and why could the community around the Periyar river not mobilise corrective action?

JD: In Eloor, industrial pollution has been a constant, severe problem since the 1970s at least, and though there was activism there against it, and though this activism caught much attention in Kerala and even reached global forums, it was unable to change local mindsets. In fact, the activists here were even able to be part of the Local Area Action Committee set up under the aegis of the Supreme Court to stop the chemical pollution of the river and for two years, they wielded considerable influence. However, this did not translate into widespread acceptance of the activists’ stance on the environment.

People who grew up there were nostalgic not for Nature but for national public industrial culture. The activists, however, had roots in the earlier farming and fishing livelihood culture which was exactly the opposite!

Part of the reason for this is to be found in the local history of Eloor – it was the hub of nationalist industrialisation from the 1950s, which once embodied the Nehruvian idea of industrialisation. People who grew up there were nostalgic not for Nature but for national public industrial culture. The activists, however, had roots in the earlier farming and fishing livelihood culture which was exactly the opposite! But there were other reasons as well. Civil social activism, especially intervention, in Eloor was (a) made possible from above, through the intervention of the Supreme Court, and (b) technical in nature. The activists were also dogged by the fact that they were fighting both public and private sector chemical industries – and were up against the combined power of all the major trade unions, and not just the large private corporates.

PG: Who are the major defaulters? Are these state-owned industries?

JD: In Eloor, yes. And that is a huge hurdle.

PG: The Silent Valley was one of the early high-profile projects that drew major ire of environmentalists. To what extent did they succeed?

The Silent Valley struggle was perhaps the major success story as far as environmental struggles in Kerala are concerned... on the one hand, ecologists and popular science activists advanced different sorts of scientific and technical arguments, and on the other hand, poets and writers created new metaphors that ignited people’s imagination and gave them the power to ask fundamental ethical questions.

JD: The Silent Valley struggle was perhaps the major success story as far as environmental struggles in Kerala are concerned. This success was the result of the fact that what began as a technical discourse was expanded into a much larger discourse that posed fundamental questions about human beings’ ethical relationship to the non-human. This was done by the poets and writers who joined the movement. So on the one hand, ecologists and popular science activists advanced different sorts of scientific and technical arguments, and on the other hand, poets and writers created new metaphors that ignited people’s imagination and gave them the power to ask fundamental ethical questions.

PG: Kerala has 100% literacy and a communist government; you still witness major environmental breaches? Is activism not community led?

JD: Well, neither literacy nor communism guarantees good sense about the human future, especially our ecological future. The activist community is under threat in Kerala. Ecological activism is increasingly dubbed anti-people, Maoist, a foreign conspiracy and so on, like elsewhere in India. Only that a much larger public sphere – and one with many folds – assures that these threats are not always successful. The government however simply ignores activist voices – and encourages terrible disaster – for instance, Adani’s ongoing ecological misadventure at Vizhinjam which is wiping out Thiruvananthapuram’s beaches and threatening several coastal hamlets. The government was forewarned of this disaster many times by activists and scientists, but it all fell on deaf ears. The meager disaster relief doled out in times of crisis are little relief, they are even a mockery…

The activist community is under threat in Kerala. Ecological activism is increasingly dubbed anti-people, Maoist, a foreign conspiracy and so on, like elsewhere in India.

PG: Despite close co-existence with nature unlike why do we still see environmental depredation in Kerala?

JD:  Close co-existence with nature in Kerala was once an integral part of life here; but no more, except among our ecosystem people. Only part of the environmental activism in Kerala could be called that fueled and led by ecosystem people. The rest (including the Silent Valley Campaign) is largely middle-class. In the 1980s, there were two streams: you could perhaps call them the Romantic and the Rationalist. Of these, the Romantic stream urged people to examine ethical questions on their relation to non-human life, created new myths and metaphors that built a new imagination and cosmology, and often relied on a prelapsarian idea of Nature. The Rationalist was more inclined to treat Nature as a resource, and so favoured cost-benefit analysis and technical approaches. Both these were advanced by the middle-class and centred on conservation.

The rise of environmental justice struggles throughout the state – around many issues including sand mining, granite quarrying, waste dumping, water shortages, wetland destruction, chemical poisoning (Endosulfan) and so on – was not accompanied by a reimagination of environmental activism.

In the 1990s and after, with greater consumption and resource predation, questions of environmental justice became equally or more important. But as this was deepening, the official response (evident in Kerala’s experiment with decentralised planning for development) was of ‘resource mapping’, focusing on sustainable use alone.  The rise of environmental justice struggles throughout the state – around many issues including sand mining, granite quarrying, waste dumping, water shortages, wetland destruction, chemical poisoning (Endosulfan) and so on – was not accompanied by a reimagination of environmental activism. So, these continue to be fragmented though numerous throughout the state, slowing down the neoliberal juggernaut, but not stopping it.

PG: Is increasing frequency of wild elephant deaths a manifestation of human animal conflict?

JD: Yes indeed. Such conflict has been discussed since the 1920s at least when plantations expanded in Kerala. Now however, the problem is far more than wild elephant intrusion. The human-animal interface has narrowed alarmingly, and so we see wild animals far away from forests, seeking food in waste dumps and preying on crops. Wild boars, for example, are roaming around towns; wild otters are now all over in thickly populated river sides far away from forests. , and so we see wild animals far away from forests, seeking food in waste dumps and preying on crops. Wild boars, for example, are roaming around towns; wild otters are now all over in thickly populated river sides far away from forests.

The human-animal interface has narrowed alarminglyDiseases like the monkey fever, once localised in the Karnataka Western Ghats, now appear in Wayanad. This affects not just human beings, but also animals. People turn hostile (especially when mechanisms for compensation are sluggish and inadequate) and plant traps or poison animals.

Diseases like the monkey fever, once localised in the Karnataka Western Ghats, now appear in Wayanad. This affects not just human beings, but also animals. People turn hostile (especially when mechanisms for compensation are sluggish and inadequate) and plant traps or poison animals. But poisoning also occurs when wild boar and gaur forage waste dumps near human habitations; such cases have also been reported.

PG: My best wishes for all the amazing work you do!

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