Sterlite Copper to Vizhinjam port: The history of environmental racism and why India’s development is opposed

Instead of being lauded for its climate achievements, India finds itself bullied by environmental pressure groups and the church

Abhishek Banerjee and Akshita Bhadauria August 30, 2022 10:49:13 IST
Sterlite Copper to Vizhinjam port: The history of environmental racism and why India’s development is opposed

Fishermen continue to protest against the construction of Vizhinjam port. ANI

Let us begin with three representative examples. Since 2016, the Central government has embarked on the Char Dham highway project. This is an ambitious design to expand 900 km of roads into an all-weather highway in the mountains of Uttarakhand. Besides the benefits for tourism and industry, the government argued that it needed the roads to be at least 10m wide for army vehicles to pass, in the event of war with China. But environmental groups got into the act. And in 2020, they got the Supreme Court to pass an order restricting the width of the road to just 5.5m.

After a long court battle, the government finally won the right to expand the road in December 2021. But think of the years lost in between. And what about the superpower on the other side? Do you think China is waiting for environmental clearance to build roads and railways that can rush PLA troops to the Indian border? So who benefitted from this delay?

What if we asked the same question about the protests by environmental and church groups that shut down the Sterlite Copper plant in Tamil Nadu in 2018? Some 20,000 people who were employed, directly or indirectly, by this massive manufacturing unit lost their livelihood. Within two years, India went from being a net exporter to an importer of copper. Now we are hit with a copper import bill of around $2 billion each year. This money mostly goes to Chinese companies.

In the most recent instance, there are now widespread protests against the construction of Vizhinjam deep sea port in Kerala. If the port had been completed, it would have given serious competition to Colombo port and Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean. But apparently, the project is leading to coastal erosion, and environmental groups say we can’t have that. Also, the church shares this concern for our coastline, and has thrown its full weight behind these protests. Again, China is so lucky.

We could go on and on with more examples, but the common features between them are already clear. First, India loses out on jobs, economic growth and suffers threats to its national security. Second, there is not much of a BJP vs Congress domestic angle to these protests. The only beneficiaries appear to be foreign interests, generally China. Remember that every delay comes at a cost. Even if protests and litigation are not ultimately successful, they have taken away time, money and resources that could have been used elsewhere. Even when they lose, they win.

Why environmental groups never threaten Western interests

Now compare this to what is happening in Europe, and much of the Western world in general. Ever since the war in Ukraine sparked an energy crisis, they moved swiftly to start their coal-fired power plants back again. In an Orwellian move, the European Parliament voted to declare nuclear power and natural gas as forms of “green energy”. The EU also became the top investor in the world’s tallest dam, located in Tajikistan. But farmers in Gujarat cannot have a few meters added to the height of Sardar Sarovar Dam. Isn’t that right?

Where were the environmental groups? They pretended to make some noise. But they fell in line quickly. They tweeted against it but did nothing on the ground. None of the European moves got bogged down in decades of protests and litigation as it happens here. The so-called civil society knows better than to go against the interests of the countries which fund their activities around the world. Instead, they unleashed a vocal campaign to shame India for increasing its oil imports from Russia!

That is a lot of hypocrisy, you might say. Yes, there is probably some of that. But what if I told you that the truth is much darker?

Environmental movement was born out of racism

In 1916, a very influential book appeared, titled The Passing of the Great Race,” written by Madison Grant. The book theorised that white people, specifically northern Europeans with the lightest skin and blue eyes, were the superior race. With the passage of time, the book warned, the dominance of the Nordic peoples would be threatened by an increase in the population of other, inferior races.

But Madison Grant, the author of the book, was no fringe element. Indeed, he was one of the pioneers of the conservation movement, chairman of the New York Zoological Society, and a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History. Back in the day, anyone could hunt or fish or pollute, and there were no rules. Madison Grant and his contemporaries pushed for the US government to set up more national parks, where nature would be protected. They led the earliest conservation efforts, such as bringing back the American bison from near extinction.

There were others, such as Berkeley professor Joseph LeConte, Henry Fairfield Osborn of Columbia University, or David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford. These were people who made environmental protection part of the public consciousness for the first time ever. In the early 1900s, they ran the Sierra Club, which lobbied against the construction of a dam that would provide drinking water to the city of San Francisco. Sound familiar?

Grant and Osborn and Jordan were among the leading thinkers of the Progressive Era in American politics. During this time, the idea of the government regulating big business, and protecting workers’ rights and the environment, was born.

The problem? These thinkers also believed that the government had a duty to regulate the population itself, and get rid of the “inferior races” and “undesirables.” Their reasoning was simple and chilling. The resources of the earth are finite. As the environmentalist groups say today, there is no Planet B. And so, these finite resources should belong to the “superior races”. For instance, Osborn was also a founder of the American Eugenics Society, which argued that Jews and non-whites did not deserve the same treatment as the Nordic peoples. David Starr Jordan was among the patrons of the Human Betterment Foundation. The aim of this latter organisation, quite literally, was to “improve” humanity through compulsory sterilisation of those deemed unfit. Other heroes of the modern progressive left, such as Margaret Sanger, dedicated their lives to reducing the population by getting rid of “undesirables,” including poor people, the physically or mentally impaired, and people of colour.

It did not take long for these ideas to make their way to the Nazis. The young Hitler wrote a touching letter to Madison Grant, referring to Grant’s book as “My Bible.” Decades later, during the Nuremberg trials, Nazi doctors would cite this book as the “scientific” basis for their efforts to get rid of people and races considered not worthy of survival. No, the environmental movement was not about saving the unicorns and admiring the rainbows.

Involvement of church in protests is a form of imperialism

The most curious feature of these environmentalist protests in India is the involvement of the church. Both in the case of Sterlite Copper and now Vizhinjam port, the church played its hand quite openly. But why? From the era of Mussolini in Italy to that of Duvalier in Haiti, the church does not have a great track record of standing up for the rights of common people. From Galileo to Darwin, they do not have much of a track record of standing up for science either. All across the world, but especially in the United States, Christian conservatives consistently deny the science of climate change. Could they care that much about environmental degradation in Tamil Nadu or coastal erosion in Kerala?

We tend to forget that the Church is more than just a religious organisation. It is also a sovereign state with significant influence in world affairs. It issues its own passports and has embassies around the world which enjoy full diplomatic immunity. It has its own banks which own large assets, all of which lie outside our jurisdiction. Its bishops and archbishops in India, as in any other country, are not appointed by the local population, but directly by the Vatican. Would we let officers of any other foreign government, be it the United States or Russia or Pakistan, involve themselves so directly in political activity in India?

We have to discuss conversions, which are the stated objective of the Church. Or as the Pope himself put it during his 1999 visit to India, a “harvest of faith on this vast and vital continent”. What does it mean when someone, especially a ruler from Europe, refers to Indians in terms of a harvest? The Church divides India into its own administrative units, called dioceses, and appoints an officer to oversee each one of them, known as a bishop. The job of every such officer is to ‘save’ the local population, by securing their loyalty towards a ruler in Europe. This is just ‘white man’s burden’ all over again. How is this not imperialism?

Hinduism is an indigenous faith tradition, rather than a collection of traditions that is thousands of years old. The geography of India, its mountains and forests, play an essential role within the faith. The waters of the Ganga, Narmada and Kaveri all play an essential role within the faith. Even our seasons, the crops we grow, the trees and the animals that we have here. A mango leaf would mean nothing to someone in America, for instance. Mangoes don’t even grow there. Hinduism is tied to our land, to Bharat itself.

Once upon a time, the world was full of such faith traditions, from ancient Greece to North America to Australia. One by one, they fell to the influence of Abrahamic faiths, and Communism. In this regard, the Hindu civilisation of India stands out, perhaps as a last remaining outpost. As such, political activity by the church, whether under the guise of environmentalism or anything else, must be viewed as a threat to our sovereignty. A form of colonialism, we would say.

And in this respect, one must also question the modern progressive left. The environmental movement in particular, is supposed to be full of ‘woke’ individuals. You say that you are sensitive to past injustices, especially those against people of color. How come you have made common cause with missionaries who intend to strip away an indigenous culture, take away our stories and traditions, even our names until we are all called Jack, John and Mary?

India is a trailblazer on setting and achieving climate goals

Do you know which is the only major nation that managed to meet its 2020 emission reduction targets under the 2015 Paris agreement? Ask the United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP. It is India. While developed nations such as the US or Canada and most of Europe lag behind, India forges ahead. By 2030, India has pledged to meet a full 50 per cent of its energy needs from renewable sources. India’s installed solar power capacity has grown nearly 10 times since 2014. By 2070, India aims to achieve net zero.

Anyone who sees the hundreds of shiny new electric buses on the streets of India’s major cities will know that this is a nation that is serious about saving the environment. And why is that? Not because of environmental groups, but because of the values inherent in our civilisation. We worship this land, remember? It was given to us by our ancestors. We hold it in sacred trust for our future generations. We want to save this land, not an afterlife.

But instead of being lauded for our climate achievements, India finds itself bullied by environmental pressure groups and the church. They want us to give up our cultural identity, cripple our economy and sacrifice our national security interests. In return, they offer to save our souls.

Or they give us globalist, feel-good rhetoric about how we are all in this together. Perhaps we are not. If we were, maybe developed nations would not be lagging behind India in meeting their climate goals. So any time an environmental activist says that we humans are polluting too much, do not let them off so easily. Yes, it is unsustainable, but let us dissect that “we”. Which particular group of people do you have in mind? Who do you think is taking too much? And who do you think is not entitled to the resources of the earth? If you dig into the history of the environmental movement and the incentives of those who run it today, the answers might surprise you.

Abhishek Banerjee is an author and columnist. He tweets @AbhishBanerj.  Akshita Bhadauria is a political commentator. She tweets @a_singh_b.

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