The ‘Ecopolitical’ Imperative and the Janta Parliament


Janta Parliament, Environment session – courtesy Let India Breathe

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, goes an old Chinese saying.  In the present context, that single step – and an absolutely essential step – for reclaiming the soul of India, is the coimng together of the social movements, non-party groups and the political parties – and this was accomplished in the six-day Janta Parliament held from 16-21 August as an online event. Organized by Jan Sarokar – a forum of 31 organizations and loose platforms ranging from Left aligned women’s organizations, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) and National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, to loose networks like Not In My Name – the people’s parliament managed to bring together many political parties together as well in the event. As a kind of base paper, Jan Sarokar had prepared a comprehensive 75-page document entitled ‘People’s Policy for Post-COVID 19 Times‘ covering important and urgent policy initiatives on practically every aspect of economic and social life. Attended by representatives of the Congress, the Left parties, the RJD and AAP among others, the people’s parliament session ended with the representatives of the parties present affirming support to the perspectives emerging out the resolutions adopted, which they felt could form the basis for a Common Minimum Programme not only for the political parties but also between parties and social / people’s movements.

Ecopolitical Imperative

This brief comment is not meant to be a full-fledged analysis of the People’s Policy but is concerned with what can be called the “ecopolitical imperative” – the imperative of bringing the ecological question on to the centre-stage of politics rather than continue pretending it is only the business of social movements and “NGOs”. Most political parties love to pretend that they alone understand the imperative of “Development” and can take “hard” decisions which the “soft social sector” of social movements and non-governmental organizations has no sense of. This being the case, ecological issues, despite affecting us every minute of our existence – from the toxic air that we are forced to breathe to the disappearing underground water and sewage bearing rivers – remain outside the purview of “hard politics”.  And this is the reason why, at least a statement from some of the political party representatives gives some hope – though it is entirely possible that this too may also turn out to be a statement made for effect, not meant to be taken seriously.

The discussion in the “Environment Session” of the Janta Parliament and the resolutions  passed in it focused on an urgent plan of action for ecological security. The resolutions and the discussion are as comprehensive as they can possibly be but the point that needs to be underlined perhaps, is that “ecological security” is a self-contained entity, not an end in itself; that the ecology question has become central to the political question of how we imagine not the remote future but the future that is already at our doorsteps.

The coming of the ecology question to the centre of politics only highlights, in a manner of speaking, the complete bankruptcy of mainstream politics. Ecological concerns are not just about trees and rivers that we encounter in some aesthetic reverie but are present in everything that we do. Covid-19 itself is an outstanding example of the combination of factors directly linked to the ecology – and to “Development” – that have brought us to this situation. Loss of biodiversity, disappearing forms of insect and animal life, crowding in cities and innumerable such factors combine to produce threats like Covid-19.

However, if all this still sounds too distant and “soft”, I will take two instances of how the political disavowal of the ecological/ environmental questions actually works out in practice.

The Unemployment Issue

Take for example the “unemployment” problem. There is no doubt that this is a serious issue both among the educated and among the non-literate. In our days of Leftist student activism we used to simply demand “full employment” (sabko shiksha, sabko kaam went the slogan), failing which, in recognition of the state’s failure, unemployment allowance. Never did we consider where it was that we we want employment. In those days of state-led development, perhaps sarkari naukri (government employment) was assumed to be the most desirable. But then times changed and with the entrenchment of neoliberal orthodoxy, all governments from Right to Left, started believing that new jobs can only be created with new and more industry. Which industry? What kind of jobs? Well, wherever Capital finds it profitable to invest. If it is a Nano car, do we really care? Have the political parties thought about the fact that what we need is a smooth and efficient public transport system, not one which will produce more and more pollution and guzzles up more and more oil, as it goes along? Basically, the idea is that Capital has to be wooed and everything provided to it on its own  terms if the “unemployment” issue is to be tackled. And the youth or student organizations do not seem to have applied their minds to it so they continue simply demanding more jobs.

In late 1996, the Supreme Court delivered a judgement shutting down 168 ‘hazardous and noxious” industries in Delhi. 167 of these industries (the abbattoir was temporarily exempted) were ordered to be closed, rendering tens of thousands of workers jobless. In a second round, in November 2000, anywhere between 30, 000 to 90, 000 units were to be shut down as per the Supreme Court’s orders, this time for being in “non-conforming”  areas according to the land-use plan spelt out in Delhi’s Master Plan. In this round the number of workers thrown out of jobs went easily up to a few lakhs. Some of us who happened to come together on that occasion, under the banner of the Delhi Janwadi Adhikar Manch (DJAM, comprising trade unions and workers from affected industries as well as individuals), in order to prepare  a response to this situation realized very quickly that the response could not be simply one of “reopening closed units” and giving back workers’ jobs. In one case, it was pollution caused by the units they were employed in and in  the other, it was about urban planning and the politics of modernist land use in Master Plans in general, that were responsible for taking away the jobs of workers – without their having anything to do with it. I cannot go into the complex set of issues that are involved in these two cases where the Supreme Court took suo moto notice and after eleven years  delivered a judgement without even once having heard the workers’ voice.

For the present, my interest here is in underlining how the employment question is no longer – and can no longer be innocent of the environment question. Where you want employment, in what kind of industry, and what is the answerability of that industry to the larger community of the area where it exists – all these are tangled questions. So is the case with urban planning and one of our responses from DJAM was that if one actually looks at the politics of it, vehicular pollution, even in 1996, contributed much more to the pollution of Delhi’s air than did these industries. It was impossible to escape the conclusion that alongside the nature of industry, we could not but also confront the larger question of urban planning.

In such a situation, to simply “demand” jobs seems to me to be myopic in the extreme but more importantly, it points towards a way of thinking about employment in conjunction with the larger vision about the economy.

Polluting Industries’ Relocation – The Global Story

Lawrence Summers, Chief Economist at the World Bank, in 1991 signed a memo, where it was argued that the World Bank should be encouraging the “migration of dirty industries to the LDCs (least developed countries)”, for as he put it,

“I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City.”

It was later claimed that this was meant to be sarcastic so even if we give Summers the benefit of doubt, there is absolutely no denying the fact that all the industries that moved out of the highly industrialized North within a few years of this memo, moved to those parts of the world that were not just low-wage (the standard Marxist explanation) but equally, were lax in terms of environmental regulations. In the worst case scenario, the corporations could simply buy their way out, where getting environmental clearances for their industries was concerned.

Look at the clearances given by the Modi government, during the pandemic, to mining, industrial and infrastructural projects or the way it has modified the Environmental Impact Asssessment laws (still in draft stage but expected to be passed) and no one can be in any doubt that the estimation of those corporations was correct. The much talked of “profit squeeze” and “accumulation crisis” in the West/ North in those days was a consequence of the high costs of adhering to environmental regulations as much as it was due to high labour costs.

In fact, so rapid was the movement of these industries out of the industrialized world that already by the end of 1994, when the Uruguay Round of GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) negotiations was coming to a close, there was panic in the USA. Unemployment kept rising as jobs moved overseas along with the industries – remember the Trump campaign and the supporters he gathered fom those rendered impoverished as a consequence? That was when the Northern governments came up with the “social clause” that would link trade to labour and environmental standards, including union rights – in the vain hope that that might deter these units from relocating. The actual story of GATT and the formation of the WTO is not relevant here as much as the fact that once again, we see that employment and the polluting nature of industry are absolutely crucial  players here as well. The question of environment and pollution are central to this story and if the main political class remained oblivous to its devastating impact in the United States of America, that was what brought in Trump – simply on the assurance that he would get the jobs back.

It is important therefore, that the attempt made by the “We, the People Campaign” last year with its manifesto Reclaim the Republic (February 2019) to link the environment question to other issues has now been taken up even more systematically by the Janta Parliament. We need to keep underlining the ecopolitical imperative and insisting upon it continuously so that the beginning made now actually becomes the first step of the longer journey.

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