In a significant recent essay (Hindustan Times, 6 April), BJP’s general secretary Bhupender Yadav said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has alerted us to the perils of unsustainable development ... Gram Swaraj, coupled with integral humanism, is the only way to counter the setbacks that we will face.”
He is absolutely right.
The COVID-19 crisis (and concurrent ones like climate and inequality), has exposed the hollowness of a model of development based on unrelenting exploitation of nature and workers, frenetic global trade and travel that pathogens can happily take a free ride on, and emaciation of people’s control over their own food, health, and livelihoods.
It has also brought into sharp relief that even when a virus makes no distinction between the rich and the poor, the actions taken in response (such as India’s lockdown), have a disproportionately negative impact on the latter.
Gram Swaraj Success Stories
Fortunately, there are already many initiatives of ecologically sensitive gram swaraj – eco-swaraj – and humanism, to learn from.
Dalit women farmers of the Deccan Development Society in Telangana have achieved food security and sovereignty, using organic, dryland, millet-based approaches. In the process they have fought off gender and caste discrimination. They will not be starving in the midst of the lockdown.
The revival of organic cotton based handloom weaving in Kachchh has opened up dignified livelihood options, enabling young people to return from exploited labour in industries. Not for them, the need to travel for precarious, daily wage labour.
90 villages in Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, have formed a Mahagramsabha to govern their area, create sustainable livelihoods based on use of the forest produce over which they have control under the Forest Rights Act, and empower women to be able to be equal partners in decision-making. Likely, they have enough in the forest and fields to last the virus crisis.
Adequately empowered, a panchayat in Tamil Nadu working with the Tribal Health Initiative managed the virus crisis with full community distancing, health, and checking measures.
Kerala’s community planning process and programmes like Kudumbashree for women, and Nagaland’s communitisation, have been progressive government programmes helping build similar capacity.
BJP’s Actions Speak Louder Than Words
So, full agreement with Yadav. But his assertion that this is the BJP’s vision rings hollow.
Since 2014, his government diluted or sidestepped many laws for environmental protection, democratic rights, and labour security. It has reduced the time taken to clear ‘development’ projects so drastically, that a systematic scientific assessment of ecological impacts is impossible.
It has done away with public hearings for many kinds of projects, and sidestepped the need for community consent for diverting forest land. And much more along similar lines.
No wonder that India’s global ranking on the Environmental Performance Index dropped from 141 to 177 (out of 180 countries) from 2016 to 2018. Rather than strengthening people’s right to participation (what else is swaraj?), the BJP government has diluted existing empowerment laws like the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
In its 2019 election manifesto, the BJP’s cited gram swaraj as “one of the pillars of Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of India”. But what did it describe under this? Charity offerings like piped drinking water, housing, roads, etc. Nothing on empowering gram sabhas (or urban area sabhas), for instance by giving them the financial and legal powers they so seriously lack.
In the same Manifesto, its environmental superficality was also evident. For instance it claimed: “We have ensured speed and effectiveness in issuing forest and environmental clearances for eligible projects due to which we have added around 9000 Sq. Kms to the forest cover of the country. We are committed to maintaining this pace through adoption of cleaner practices to make our nation a greener country.”
‘Forest and environmental clearances’ are euphemisms for allowing forests to be destroyed for mining, dams, expressways, industries, and the like, supposedly offsetting this with ‘compensatory afforestation’.
But even a schoolchild can tell BJP that no plantation can replace a natural forest.
The destruction of natural habitats has been one of the major sources of pathogen emergence across the world, and BJP has done nothing to stem it. From 2014 to 2018, over 124,000 hectares of forest land was given away for non-forest use, and 519 ‘development’ projects allowed in India’s Protected Areas and their Eco-Sensitive Zones.
Now that it has Kashmir under its full control, it is rapidly giving away forest and wildlife areas. The Himalaya, the Western Ghats, the North-east, all with global biodiversity significance, continue to be opened up for highways, dams, tourism, and mining.
Not Just BJP, Congress Also Failed to Understand What Was Needed
Indeed, for both the BJP and Congress, the biggest blind spot has been the misplaced faith in economic growth as a driver of development (with its structural base in capitalism, statism, and patriarchy). We are extracting 1.5 times what the earth can replenish; continued economic ‘growth’ will only make things worse.
A study in 2008 by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Ecological Footprint Network showed that India was already using twice its biocapacity. If sustainability is what BJP wants, it has to replace GDP growth with well-being approaches that put life and livelihoods first, such as what Bhutan has tried and New Zealand is trying now.
If we had heeded Gandhi’s sane advise to help communities become self-reliant rather than concentrate power in Delhi, we’d have had many more examples of ecologically conscious swaraj. But, with the exception of the occasional laws like RTI enabling citizens’ empowerment, successive governments in Delhi have only paid lip-service to the concept.
Without a fundamentally new avatar, therefore, the BJP’s promise of swaraj is dangerous doublespeak.
(Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh, Pune. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)