Environmental security isn’t an obstacle to development – it’s a basic human right
Photo Credit: Raveendran/AFP
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At an intrinsic level, our battles against environmental threats are the same: whether we are citizens of Delhi gasping for clean air; residents of Chennai struggling for survival in a rain-logged city; or forest-dwellers in Mahaan resisting the takeover of the sacred lands that have belonged to their families for generations. This year, on International Human Rights Day, it is worth reminding ourselves of how inextricably our human rights are tied to our environmental rights.

At a meeting in Ammelia village in Madhya Pradesh last year, as the Mahaan Sangharsh Samiti was beginning to gather support for its resistance to the threat of a mining company seeking access to their land, an official from the local district collector’s office told people that they were opposing an alluring opportunity for the community’s development. That they could look forward to the company building a bridge, providing roads and improving access to schools and hospitals. As many in the gathering mulled over what sounded like an attractive proposition, one of them raised the obvious question: “But why are you here to talk on their behalf? Shouldn’t this be your responsibility anyway? And why do we need to trade away our forests, our village, or our lives to the company, for them to give us these?”

It is all too easy to tout the development narrative. Everyone wants jobs, everyone is looking for food on the table, money at hand, and a “secure future” for their children. But what sort of future, at what cost, and to whom? Whose human rights are we forfeiting to secure further privilege for a select few? And who really benefits from this skewed definition of development?

Sadly, the areas rich in natural resources and minerals are often the poorest in human rights indicators. Most of them have suffered long histories of exploitation, deprivation and development-linked displacement. The very idea that industrialisation will result in economic growth that will automatically trickle down to all sections of society and ultimately bring about social progress has flaws. “Growth” is inevitably linked to employment or to a source of livelihood (which is not only a right guaranteed under the Constitution but also a basic human right).

Symbiotic values

For the trickledown theory to be really considered a success, large-scale industrialisation in a region should, at the very least, end up with the region prospering and local citizens getting promised jobs. But this does not happen, as was revealed by Right to Information documents obtained in Singrauli (an industrial cluster in Madhya Pradesh with 11 operational mines and nine thermal power plants). Only 234 people have found employment there, although as many as 2,205 people were promised jobs by the Anpara Thermal Power Plant. Worse, with tracts of forest, agricultural land and common land being diverted for large-scale industrial expansion, direct and indirect displacement has risen.

When those responsible for development talk about their vision, they make conciliatory noises about “striking a balance” with environmental concerns. But in reality, there is a constant attempt to dilute and weaken – if not outright ignore or violate – any environmental laws that stand in their way, just so that they can get the next mine sanctioned, the next forest cleared, the next Special Economic zone built on reclaimed wetlands. If we continue this unfettered development with scant regard for the environmental or human impact, it is inevitable that we will bear the consequences – as we have already in Singrauli, Delhi, Uttarakhand and Chennai.

It is important that development, environmental and human rights are not seen as competing with each other, but as values that coexist and mutually enrich one another.

The development paradigm cannot exist without acknowledging human rights and environmental justice. It takes a great deal of courage to raise questions about development projects in the face of their overwhelming popularity. But as a society we need those awkward questions asked and divergent views discussed before arriving at decisions that will affect us all and generations to come. Our rights, to Freedom of Association and Freedom of Speech, are meant to guarantee the space for consideration of those questions and for constructive dialogue.

Development for all

We all deserve a voice in determining our future. At present, India is in the spotlight at the climate change talks in Paris for playing a leading role in demanding an equitable agreement. However, back home, it is taking decisions that will dilute the rights of marginal communities and environmental legislation. What’s worse is that those who question these decisions or raise concerns about their impact are branded anti-national. As Greenpeace, INSAF and other civil society leaders have said in a petition to the United Nations Secretary General on the occasion of Human Rights Day, true leadership bears the responsibility of securing space for healthy dialogue and promoting genuinely participatory democracy which would help build a more just, equitable society.

Greenpeace and civil society stands with India in demanding accountability from the major climate polluters and in demanding action to prevent the major polluters of the future. We have expressed optimism that if India makes decisive moves in the climate negotiations, in the process forcing richer countries to move too, billions will be grateful to India’s leadership. Similarly, Greenpeace stands with vulnerable communities in demanding environmental rights and demands accountability from corporations and governments putting these at risk.

Only when we are willing to listen to each other, respect each other’s rights, and genuinely consider alternative perspectives can we guarantee sabke saath sabka vikaas and design a development model that will truly combine human rights and environmental justice. But first, it is critical that freedom of speech and democracy be secured, and a healthy dialogue with civil society restored.