The cause of environmentalism has been embraced by precisely those who are doing the most environmental damage.
World Environment Day has come and gone, and I say good riddance. For those concerned with the ecological health of the planet, the day brought little reason to cheer. The theme of this year’s celebration, organised by the UN, was “seven billion dreams; consume with care”. Fully in line with neoliberal orthodoxy, the theme emphasises individual aspirations and the centrality of consumerism (even while advocating “responsible” consumption). But perhaps it inadvertently provides useful advice: we should “consume with care” all the propaganda, the claims to be environmentalist while actively undermining the ecology of the planet. The sad truth is that the cause (or at least the language) of environmentalism has been embraced by precisely those who are doing the most environmental damage.
Not only that, but the so-called ‘environmentalist’ cause is being force-fed to those who have little room for dissent. This is the uncomfortable truth that remains unspoken in a cheery news article in The Hindu, headlined ‘Tihar Inmates Chip in for a Green Delhi’. The article details the efforts of an NGO called the Hind Bhartiyam Foundation to “make the air cleaner” by getting prisoners in Delhi’s Tihar Jail to make recycled planters with saplings that would then be distributed to Delhi residents. Also part of the effort is an organisation called Kavi–The Poetry-Art Project, which encouraged inmates to write poems that would be handed out along with the planters.
Writing poetry and planting trees are both noble pursuits, but it is a bit unseemly to use prisoners to do this work, especially because of the much larger problems facing inmates at Tihar. The Delhi jail is infamous for its abysmal living conditions, and the violence, corruption and squalor that define everyday life in the prison. The prison is dangerously overcrowded, housing twice as many prisoners as it is designed to hold. Frequent, mysterious deaths are often passed off as suicides.
Writing poetry and planting trees are both noble pursuits, but it is a bit unseemly to use prisoners to do this work, especially because of the much larger problems facing inmates at Tihar.
And forced labour is an everyday fact of life. Courts have mandated that prisoners sentenced to rigorous imprisonment must be put to work. Companies in the automobile sector, like Minda Furukawa Electric, have taken advantage of this provision, setting up mini-factories in Tihar Jail, supposedly as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility activities. But most of the benefits seem to be accruing to the companies, not to society. As a Tihar jail superintendent explains, “The companies get a captive, uninterrupted labor supply…Prison wages are much lower than wages paid outside, and once trained, a worker can’t leave and join a competitor.” These are the conditions in which inmates are making planters and writing poems.
It’s bad enough to be celebrating ‘eco-friendly’ products made in conditions of forced labour. But this isn’t even the worst part of the article in The Hindu. That comes with the revelation of where these products are heading: “Visitors to the DLF Promenade Mall, Vasant Kunj will receive recycled planters to take home to plant and nurture.”
Delhi residents may recognise that name. It is part of the luxury mall complex that was built about a decade ago in the Vasant Kunj section of the Delhi Ridge. The Ridge, a set of low hills that marks the end of the ancient, much-eroded Aravalli mountain range, is prized by environmentalists for its water recharge capacities and the shelter it give to flora and fauna. The malls were built despite a sustained environmentalist campaign against them, which featured both protests and litigation.
It’s bad enough to be celebrating ‘eco-friendly’ products made in conditions of forced labour. But this isn’t even the worst part of the article in The Hindu. That comes with the revelation of where these products are heading.
The movement died when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the malls, even while recognising their potential ecological costs. Part of the verdict read: “In hindsight, it is evident that the location of large commercial complexes in this area was environmentally unsound.” However, despite this, the Court decided to allow the project to continue, stating, “Many proponents have constructed very substantially…Awarding clearances even with conditions is largely a compromise with de-facto situation…At this stage only damage control is possible.”
The main winner in this case was DLF, which laid claim to two of the three malls in the complex. Maruti Suzuki and ONGC have also built headquarters flanking the malls. The whole complex, then, reeks of environmental irresponsibility, and not just in its siting in an ecologically sensitive location. Maruti Suzuki has done more than any other company to promote the widespread use of cars, one of the biggest sources of the chart-topping air pollution in Delhi. (The company also benefits from prison labour, as it gets parts from suppliers like Minda Furukawa Electric.) And all those cars are, of course, fuelled by the products that ONGC unearths.
DLF has played its own dubious role in the ecosystem of the Delhi region. It has led the way in decimating the water supply and blighting the landscape of Gurgaon. Forced out of Delhi by the government’s land nationalisation efforts, DLF found a willing governmental partner in Haryana, and it engineered a wild expansion process in a zone that the Delhi Master Plan of 1962 described as “handicapped for want of good water sources.” In this landscape, DLF let loose the processes of land speculation, large-scale construction, and conspicuous consumption, marked by water-depleting luxuries like golf courses and water parks.
DLF has played its own dubious role in the ecosystem of the Delhi region. It has led the way in decimating the water supply and blighting the landscape of Gurgaon.
Now DLF, and its Promenade Mall, wants us to celebrate World Environment Day by perusing products made by prisoners. This is devious, but perhaps not unexpected from a company like DLF. More surprising is the organisation that has set up shop right behind the Promenade Mall, on another section of the Ridge: The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), supposedly a premier environmental organisation. TERI officials saw no problem building on the ecologically sensitive Ridge, because a corrupt government had deemed it a commercial zone. But then again, maybe even this shouldn’t be such a surprise, as TERI has teamed up in the past with both ONGC and Coca-Cola, a company hardly known for its ecological enlightenment. If this is what environmentalism means today, then I say again: good riddance to World Environment Day. The fight against companies like Coca-Cola and DLF—that is the real environmentalism, even if it is not recognised by UN holidays.