Environmental Values, Policy and Conflict in India

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Shiv Visvanathan argues that the very language of modernity does injustice to traditional knowledge; it is a modernity that does not value the multiplicity of discourses that exist. 

Presented below are excerpts from his paper presented in the seminar by the Carnegie Council-sponsored project “Understanding Values: A Comparative Study on Environmental Values in China, India, Japan and the United States.”

The first case study is about shifting cultivation. I’ve found one of the most interesting things about Orissa is that there are one million people engaged in shifting cultivation there.

You can look at the history of shifting cultivation as a policy document, and there’s no indication of its policy. You’ll find in colonial documents that shifting cultivation is classified as “waste.” The second way it is classified is “primitive.” The third is “pre-modern.” The minute you use any of these three categories, you’ve pre-determined the subject to the language of museums. The minute you museumize the practice of shifting cultivation you give it a certain kind of value. But by placing that antiquated value on it, you devalue any current worth because you place it in the past that you have already gone through, rather than the future that you are going to encounter. The genocidal impetus of social science has to be taken into account in these situations. If you create these dualistic languages, you will not have the kind of discourses that can create the alternatives we are looking for.

The existing groups that practice shifting cultivation today have no language of defense. They are often defended by anthropologists who “go native” and not by members of their own community. In fact, the Bastar shifting cultivation case study is being conducted by a student of mine who went so native that it took us some time to bring him back. It’s very interesting to look at what happened to him. He had this notion that the Bastar way of life was a state of absolute perfection. This is the same thing Leo Strauss once said to a teacher of mine: “Your caste system is so perfect, why would you want to change it?” But the thing is, it is changing. The language of Leo Strauss and anthropology can’t defend it from this change. The question is: What kind of a language will defend populations that are dying out? What kind of language do we use beyond the language of genocide or ecocide to defend a way of life within everyday terms?

It is in this context that shifting cultivation becomes interesting. I want to emphasize this again and again: there is no essentialism to many of these languages. You can’t actually invent the language of ecologism to protect a way of life. What you can have is two sets of tactics, both coming from modernity. On one level, you have the universities, which tell you the only right thing for India is rice cultivation. You have the calendar, which only looks at a linear notion of time, going against other varieties of time in which shifting cultivation functions. What you have within the discourse of democracy is the notion of the standard citizen, living in linear time—that is, living outside of agricultural time,living outside of ecological time. I don’t think that the current notion of citizenship has a notion of ecological time. A citizen is born in industrial time. A citizen is born in clock time. In fact, today a citizen is recreated in digital time.

Until you bring back what I call the wider embodiments of citizenship, which the feminist movement in a way is trying to do, as is the ecology movement, you cannot discover the kind of discourse of environmentalism associated with shifting cultivation. It is necessary to be aware of the different discourses that democracy has lost: the varieties of time; the varieties of embodiment, a different relation between work and nature. 

Our second case study looks at fishing trawlers. A lot has been written about this issue. What we have is Marxism and ecology, my two preoccupations for a long time, which, similar to the shifting cultivation case, have no notion of citizenship that allow for the kinds of marginalities that exist. If you are tribal, if you’re a woman, if you’re a peasant, if you’re an old person, there is no logic of citizenship for you; there is only the logic of obsolescence.

The fishing struggle come into prominence because there were unorganized workers. The problem is a very simple one between groups of traditional fishermen versus modern trawlers. The question is one of mediation between modernity and tradition, between ecology and justice, between two different notions of value.

Let me give you a simple example. At spawning season, the fishermen in Alappey will starve, but they won’t go out to fish because they know that at that time they would insult and hurt the fish catch. The trawlers, however, will go in. Here are two frameworks of value: one which actually allows for fasting and feasting, allows for cycles of time, and another which only conceives of linear time. If there’s one thing we have to emphasize today in our theories of democracy, it is the multiplicity of notions of time. Notions of multiplicity of time allow for a new meaning to the notion of death and obsolescence than you have today. In the modern theory of democracy no citizen actually dies. This conception of citizenship doesn’t work in the notion of death in a systematic way. What these new discourses do—and I will give you a simple example—is to bring science back in an interesting way. The interesting question is not “big trawlers versus small trawlers,” “traditional fishermen versus modern fishermen,” but, “How does science intervene ecologically and non-violently in these discourses?”

I want to talk about a friend of mine who died recently. He was addressing this problem when he was in Madras. He said, “You’ve got these small fishermen, you’ve got the kind of resources they have, you’ve got the kind of communicative system they have, and then you’ve got the ‘big guys’ who don’t need your help, because their idea of science is the latest Japanese invention. How do I intervene?” And so he started by looking at anthropological records. What he found was that many of these fishers used to carry a coconut trunk on the back of their boats and the fish used to be attracted to it. He said, “If that can be scaled up, I’ve got an artificial coral reef.” Fish are always attracted to a coral reef, or to junk piled into the sea. They find these places secure, so they come and lay eggs there. What he did was build fish aggregation devices the size of this building in order to attract more fish.

The trawlers sank these devices. They could not accept that something that came from the traditional fishing culture would increase their catch. The only language they understand is that of science. This is a clear example of modern science ignoring what could be useful techniques culled from “traditional” knowledge in its focus on technology. 

When you come to the Delhi pollution case, our third case study, what you confront is something new.

It’s very interesting that when you look at the logic of cities today, it is the Indian middle class that is the greatest proponent of environmentalism, without understanding the genealogies of it or the political implications of it. In the Delhi pollution case, which was the attempt of one judge, Kuldip Singh, to create a “green” city, the first thing you realize about the judge is that he had decided in advance to be a “green” judge. 

Singh wanted to beat the link with the criminal empire, so he became a “green” judge. In this vein, he presented a series of cases, which had the effect of overloading the Supreme Court. Today you have a Supreme Court which is passing laws not just on traffic, but on why you shouldn’t spit betel inside government offices. When you overload one agency of the government that performs all these functions, then it takes over the complete civics of a modern discourse. From spitting to vehicular traffic to whatever. You create problems about education, politics, pedagogy. You create problems with the sort of knowledge base within which the Supreme Court is functioning. Is it going to rely solely on one discourse for its recommendations or is it going to look at the variety of discourses within which law comes to play? Is law just a hammer for pounding one little nail, or is it a repertoire of choices within which different kinds of discourses are articulated?

The Supreme Court rulings collectively became a critique of industrial pollution, even when industrial pollution only constitutes ten percent of the pollution of Delhi. The real source of pollution is vehicular pollution. But the Supreme Court was not able to make a single stand on it, because no man in Delhi is ever going to give up his scooter or his car, but you can throw the poor across the city or further. So this is the problem. You have today a Supreme Court which is trying to create a “green” city without having a notion of the city, without having a notion of labor, without having a notion of industry. At the same time, the Supreme Court sees itself as a modernizing body. The greatest beneficiaries of these Supreme Court rulings have been the old industrialists who have put investment into the first industrial revolution industries and now want to shift their finance capital into the third industrial revolution industries. They love it because each one of them has closed down these industries on ‘green’ terms, and then re-invested in them as real estate, which is the real source of money in Delhi.

I will say it again that when we look at this multiplicity of discourses, we have to look at a frame. What we see today, especially when we look at this notion of modernity in itself, is that we have a modernity that lacks any sense of self-reflection. A modernity which has no sense of the genealogy of its own values, and an elite middle class that sees itself as a vector of globalization, without any sense of what that vector involves in either magnitude or direction. We must put this new discourse back into a certain kind of political picture. Otherwise, what we have is the antiseptic nature of an environmental discourse happier on American campuses than on the ground in India.


Courtesy: Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. www.carnegiecouncil.org

Shiv Visvanathan


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