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A Message From The Chennai Floods: It's Not Anti-National To Question 'Development'

14/12/2015 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A young Indian woman walks under an umbrella through floodwaters in Chennai on December 1, 2015, during a downpour of heavy rain in the southern Indian city. Heavy rains pounded several parts of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and inundating most areas of Chennai, severely disrupting flights, train and bus services and forcing the postponment of half-yearly school exams. AFP PHOTO/STR / AFP / STRDEL (Photo credit should read STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

The highest rainfall in a century has brought Chennai to its knees. A proud and vibrant city has been laid low by water for the second time in a decade. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar attributed the intensity of the Chennai floods to climate change, a reversal of his own position in the space of a few days. How ironical then that his government has consistently derided people who have raised warnings about environmental disaster as anti-national!

Environmentalists, urban geographers, social activists and other critically engaged citizens have consistently been talking about the perils of a development which ignores ecological sustainability and social justice -- only to be told that they were against progress. A more damning criticism is "anti-national", supposedly working on behalf of foreign interests. It becomes a self-reinforcing myth: People asking legitimate questions about the indiscriminate use of resources, the careless dumping of waste products or the scant concern for the environment are labelled traitors.

People asking legitimate questions about the indiscriminate use of resources, the careless dumping of waste products or the scant concern for the environment are labelled traitors.

A list of the spatial and temporal dimensions of human interference in complex eco systems includes the Mumbai floods of 2005, the Ladakh flash floods five years later, the deluge in Uttarakhand in 2013 and the flooding in Chennai. Unplanned urbanisation and destruction of nature's capacity to discharge water has inflicted a disproportionate toll in all these cases.

In the case of the Chennai floods, a popular English phrase, inverted, sums up the situation best: Man proposes, god disposes! In Chennai nature proposed and man disposed: disposed the flood plains that store water, disposed urban waste into storm water drains shrinking their carrying capacity and disposed environmental norms and common sense.

I've watched aghast as images of death and destruction in Chennai flashed on my television screen these past few weeks. I've also marvelled at the sense of solidarity and purpose that ordinary people are showing in trying to mitigate the worst effects of the flood waters. Climate change may or may not have caused the excessive rainfall, but human stupidity definitely worsened the damage.

Environmental groups and individuals have been warning for years about the ecological and social disruptions that our current resource intensive model of development causes. They have mostly been brushed aside as a nuisance. Lately a more disturbing trend of branding them as enemies of the state has emerged. The Greenpeace case is a textbook example of this.

Priya Pillai, a campaigner with Greenpeace, was prevented from going to London by Indian immigration authorities in New Delhi because her name was on the government's "no fly" database. The intelligence bureau had apparently dubbed her anti-national and issued orders to prevent her from leaving the country. Her crime: She was travelling to London to talk to British MPs about the ecological and social impact of coal mines in Mahan in Madhya Pradesh.

People who see the dirty underbelly of development probably have a deeper understanding about the country -- its marginalised sections, the ecology and the economy...

The government argued in court later that allowing Pillai to go to London would have created a "negative image" of India, discouraging investments, a view which the court dismissed, noting that Pillai's right to travel "cannot be impeded only because it is not in sync with [the] policy perspective of the executive. Criticism, by an individual, may not be palatable; even so, it cannot be muzzled", as this excellent story explains.

At least Priya Pillai and Greenpeace were in the spotlight. There are countless individuals and organisations across India that fight a lonely battle to save a patch of earth, a river or a disadvantaged community from the fallout of development or corporate greed. A friend of mine, who is a climate activist and was working for a campaign group, had his bank account frozen by the Ministry of Home Affairs as part of the Greenpeace fallout. The ministry gave no reason for the action and he feared that his name had been added to the dreaded "no fly" list. Fortunately, he managed to travel abroad.

Let's be clear about one thing. Muzzling dissent is not something that has started since the NDA government came to power. The UPA and several state governments used the iron fist of the state to crack down on individuals asking uncomfortable questions. More than 8,000 sedition charges were filed at a single police station against people seeking answers about the safety of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu. Press reports indicate that journalists in Tamil Nadu face the threat of defamation charges if their stories run afoul of the government. This seems to have affected their ability to report on the Chennai floods.

A common thread running through all these actions is the blurring of the distinction between the government, state and the nation. Criticism of the government or its policies is not equal to hating the country. In fact, people who see the dirty underbelly of development probably have a deeper understanding about the country -- its marginalised sections, the ecology and the economy -- than folks for whom patriotism is framed purely in terms of snapping to attention when the national anthem is played at a movie theatre.

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