July 2014
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Fighting lone battles for public good

Rishi Aggarwal feels perturbed about the fact that only a few people in India go to extraordinary lengths to impact issues which affect all, while millions are completely missing in action.



Activism and the environment share a very close relationship. Most environmental issues we face depend very closely on activism for results. But for activism a number of environmental issues would see steady deterioration.
For the past decade, in the matter of saving the mangrove forests along the coast of Mumbai, it was my constant retort that left to environmental laws, environment department, IAS officers and other bureaucrats or even the constitution of the land we would not have a single acre of mangrove forests surviving in Mumbai. This in spite of the fact that there is a law of the land - a notification called Coastal Regulation Zone (1991) - which after a good amount of thought, thought it fit to protect the mangroves. All laws and government departments mean nothing unless somebody in the society chooses to exercise the apparatus. A favourite saying goes like this: ‘the government is like an axe, if you let it hang on the wall it rusts, if you use it regularly it stays sharp’. Activism most of the time is what happens when millions of citizens do not use the government leading it to become rusty. A few people then have to struggle hard to make the axe work.

Fight for mangroves
A few of us including me in the late 90’s and the early 00’s worked steadily to counter the designs of the real estate interests and those within the government willing to support them. We came out in the streets in the neighbourhoods of Versova and Lokhandwala, distributed pamphlets to morning walkers who were enjoying the solace and clean air next to the mangroves, met government officials, moved the courts and did everything to save around a 1000 acres of mangrove forests in the immediate vicinity. In the process we received very good support from the media as well which had a very good leveraging effect. Saving these forests ensured that these areas were spared of the effects of the disastrous floods of 2005 since the mangroves accommodated all the excess water in the system.
Society has a lot to thank activism for. The freedom struggle and the resultant freedom from colonial rule was a result of the activism of hundreds of thousands of people. Activism has led to cleaner air in Delhi at one point of time though the long term results are certainly not something to be happy about. We have activists fighting for years to save the Ganga and many other rivers in the country, who keep hope alive. Activists help expose corruption and other wrong doing in a number of government departments meant to work for public welfare. All activism spurs from a certain hunger for moving beyond carnal humdrum existence and alleviate oneself to live life on a higher plane - to endeavour “to fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance run.”

Elements of activism
What can be the essential elements of activism? Activism begins with having a strong opinion or position on an issue and progressively moving on to impact it. People can then write letters, speak to the press to highlight the issue or convey their position along with it, stand with banners or posters, go viral online, heckle politicians or relevant stakeholders, become part of working groups that are meant to look into solutions. Consensus building can be a big part of the activity.
Almost all of environmental activism has its origins in the industrial era and it is synonymous with this ‘new’ way of living we have taken to. It first originated in the now completely industrialised nations where people realised that this new form of resource hungry lifestyle came at a high cost to the natural environment. Being blessed with abundant choices in consumer goods did not mean that people did not value a city with clean air, or rivers which they could swim in or a hike in the countryside without encountering heaps of garbage. Almost all of these effects - highly polluted air, rivers and mountains of waste were a creation of industrial processes which supplied goods to the millions. Importantly it has to be remembered that activism in this regard is not about enjoying a pollution free view or a swim or a hike; the high pollution was leading to serious health implications and even mortality in the industrialised countries towards the middle of the last century.
The polluted Thames in London, the London smog of 1954, the sorry state of the Rhine and the Danube in mainland Europe sparked agitation and action. In 1970 a group of environment and peace activists kicked of the Earth Day celebration in America, which was celebrated by millions across the country. The subsequent build up of public opinion led to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts in the United States.

Fighting a lonely battle
In India we have some very good examples of activism through the past few decades, but unfortunately advocacy groups here do not receive the strong resource support here as they do in the western world. Most activists fight a lonely battle receiving little volunteering support and far lesser monetary support which can help in hiring further resources. The result is that in India we are almost forever in a fire fighting mode on most issues. Individual activists will keep making noises and that may or may not get covered in media, thousands will read it and sympathise and do nothing to support the efforts and the world goes on while the issue remains the same or deteriorates. I have always believed that the strength of the western world is in its activism and the kind of dynamism they show in allowing dissent and accepting change. The superlative cleanliness and services that Indians enjoy in Europe and US is the result of a number of individual activists and advocacy groups having worked hard at some point to clean up the state of affairs.
Activism need not be about engaging in some great act of bravado. It can be as simple as choosing to be aware of issues which affect you directly. Activism could be having a broken sewer in your street fixed or saving the big mammals or the rain forests or fixing the transport systems of your city.
I am forever surprised of the little amount of interest that people have in the governance systems that deliver all the small and big services in our daily lives. Sometime back I was on season two of Satyamev Jayate in the third episode covering solid waste management in India, and it was this same amazement I was left with when a number of people who saw the episode remarked how little they knew of the malpractices that govern solid waste management in our cities. No rocket science in understanding what is going on, just that nobody takes any interest. I think everybody who considers himself to be a citizen of any country needs to take some time out in their life to engage in understanding the systems that contribute to day to day conveniences and services.
Activism is not something you need to do in perpetuity - once an activist, always an activist. Everybody should commit to at least one instance of activism in their life. I really think that it is unfair that a few people should go to such extraordinary lengths to impact issues which affect all and that millions should be completely missing in action. An easier way of being an activist can be to support another activist or advocacy group.

The writer is an environmental activist based in Mumbai and has been closely engaged with a number of issues of Mumbai for the past 15 years. He is also a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai.




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