The Environment, the State and the Left in South Asia

Environmental protection doesn’t seem to be a priority for South Asian states. But more troublingly, neither is it for the region’s Left. How to move beyond this impasse?  

What is the relationship between people and the state in South Asia? This question can be approached through the lens of people who are agitating, making demands and then feeling the response meted out by the state. As the institutions line up, or hide behind one another casting blame around, it is possible to get a glimpse of shadowy state structures. What certainly does not happen to the state is a sudden realization of its obligation to people or developing an agreeable relationship that can bring people into state forums of decision-making.

So we were surprised to hear that the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) in Lahore was pleased we had come out to protest their ineffectivity, by which we meant, no air monitoring system in Lahore, not a single monitor, while thousands were coughing, with burning eyes, in what has become the annual smog fest in the month of November-December in the long belt stretching from Delhi to west of Lahore. The theory the EPD had been told was that “civil society” makes demands, and thus the state is kicked into action, and a response or remedy is put in place. Now that we had appeared, they could kick the question, as to how to clean the air of Lahore, up into the nether regions of the state. The raw, visible facts of the severely polluting and damaging air was not sufficient for them to carry out their job – there was this feedback loop of the appearance of civil society that had to be completed. (We also asked for an end to coal plants and other polluting sources. The coal plants part was just ignored as the question went through the channels.)  

Fair enough, maybe, except that was the last we heard from the EPD for 2016. Later we heard a few million rupees were allocated towards an assessment of needs, including a review of existing environmental law. This involved another loop – a far more opaque one – involving the pricey appointment of advisors and consultants and the purchase of overly expensive air monitors which were not actually installed. This second, internal loop showed us how the state works, though where it gets this kind of money is anybody’s guess.  

Fast forward to November-December of the following year (2017), when the smog season descended again. This time, a larger protest at the EPD was less effective in producing an immediate response, but “civil society” was in it for a longer haul. We pulled together a meeting, and a facebook page. The meeting had the inevitable discussion on whether India was to blame for the smog in Pakistan.  In fact, the burning of crops in Punjab and Haryana in India does contribute, along with air inversion, to the concentrated smog in the Lahore environs. Having dealt with that hot button question, it settled into what is to be done in Lahore.

Using its access and expertise, “civil society” or really, a handful of us, took the matter to the Lahore High Court, dramatically carrying an air monitor into the courtroom and showing a reading of particulate matter as 494 ug/m3 to the judge, whereas a safe level is 60 ug/m3. We obtained a thunderous decision by the Chief Justice, who demanded the immediate installation of air monitors and the publication of air quality details. Meanwhile, a few enterprising individuals imported air quality monitors and then sold them using the facebook page. Every now and again somebody shows a screenshot of the current measurement. The levels are invariably “dangerous” and hazardous, including when taken inside a house. The state, on the court’s order, reported levels in real time on its website but only for a single day. And not since. I mean, who can blame it? Why tell us what we know, what we feel with our noses, and skins, eyes, and throats when there is no solution in place? The Chief Justice’s order ultimately shows up as weak, despite the bombast. Is the judicial arm of the state only good for showing up the yawning fissures - the gap between law and fact – within the state?

One actual “solution”, it seems, is both technical and political. If the farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh ploughed the dried stalks (mostly of paddy straw) after the harvest underground rather than burn them in the open, that would greatly mitigate the intensity of smog as felt a few hundred kilometres away. This requires political will and cash to supply the farmers with the necessary equipment. An inquiring observer would here also ask: why do we have this smog problem nowadays, rather than years earlier when we had even more farming? It seems that recent changed cropping patterns and crops, as instigated by Monsanto and their political intermediaries, are culpable here as explained in an excellent piece by Arvind Kumar.

However, now that we have a few air monitors in and around Lahore, we know that pollution levels are still way too high even when there is no crop-burning.  Industrial fumes, brick kiln smoke, power plant fumes, burning of petroleum coke and furnace oil, and waste- burning: these all continue to blow hard and black and fill the air. Indoor smoke from wood-fired stoves is another long-standing source of black lungs in the region and is moreover a gendered issue given that women spend by far the greater amount of time near the stove. The lack of clean energy (or rather, the reliance on burning fossil fuels) is really a core uniting thread that runs through many of these “sources”.

However, dirty energy or air pollution has not (yet) generated in its opposition a broad people’s movement in a region where active violence and reduction of people’s freedoms, landlessness, evictions, insanely rising prices, unemployment, shrinking of a public sphere, and digestive illnesses are endemic. This is even though chronic respiratory illnesses are rising as a top “killer”. More than a quarter of the entire world’s “early” deaths are traced to air pollution in India. The scale of the crisis is huge. Eight out of every ten Indian cities breathe toxic air. Yet, it is a second-order problem for political organizations (just like most environmentally related issues like dried up or polluted water bodies, and pesticides in food).

Recognizing the broad swathe of humanity that is being affected, surely political priorities have to change. The discourse on growth has to change. Just look at the impact of “high growth”: while it took 60 years for India to have 100 million vehicles on the road, in six recent years alone, another 100 million were added. And close to half of the cars use diesel. While nobody would dare to use the word “de-growth” as a response, that is in fact what it is as China bans all road construction and demolition of housing for a few critical months of the year to tackle its own severe smog problem.  

So, what if we were to make theoretical linkages between “the greater or more fundamental problems”, the first-order problems, and environmental issues, the second-order issues? This could take us in some interesting diversions – for instance, if we try and relate “toxic masculinity”, which is a first order problem for the feminist movement, with toxic air, a second order problem or corruption, a first order problem, with the failure of environmental governance (this relationship is more obvious, but still possibly misses the point of surplus global capital and its search for investment). How do we make these linkages?

Here’s another suggestion: we could argue that the state is not only repressive but also productive – it (alongside its master, Capital) has produced aggressive, competitive, consumptive, neoliberal selves and social orders, in either religious or secular guise. This process is simultaneous to the commodification and over-consumption of public goods (note: clean air has been fully consumed). Thus we could say a powerful identity is sold as a trade-off for the destruction of public goods. In other words, think of all the status symbols – the smart phone, the Macbook, the plastic water bottle, the metal water bottle, the plastic shopping bag, the sanctifying religious meetings, the branded clothing – as bribes, because they encourage us to forget that some people continue to have access to clean air (through the purchase of expensive air filters and cottages in the hills, or through relocation to cities which have strong regulatory regimes) and clean water (as when you purchase filtered water) even as most don’t. People, especially in the middle class strata, are thus continuously siphoned out of forming a movement of protest. And the corrupt, internally fragmented, privatized and compromised state facilitates this divide.  It certainly cannot overcome it.

As for political priorities, I hope to have suggested that the chronic pollution of our fundamental intakes – the so-called basic material needs of air, health, water and food – leads to the social necessity of cleaning up the land, water and air. This in turn means there is an urgent need to build an ecologically grounded politics and a politically grounded ecological approach which seizes the initiative from the ultimately elusive state and the opportunistic political class.  Anything else reflects only a partial vision, is only for the short-term, is for someone's profit not yours, and only adds to the existing complex of problems in which we find ourselves drowning or should I say, choking.

Saras Ali is a researcher and resident of Lahore. 

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