Assertion of environmental citizenship by the people of India is the need of the hour. And it is the original citizens of India, the Adivasi (first citizens), who have had the courage to assert environment citizenry, and deliberate Rta (Sanskrit for “truth” or “order”) dharma. To protect their forests and sacred hills, the indigenous forest communities organised protests initiated by the Sanyukt Jansangraha Samiti against the mining of Deposit 13 of the Bailadila iron ore mine in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district. It is similar to the uprising a few years ago of the Dongria Kondhs of Odisha who eventually won a David-and-Goliath battle against mining giant Vedanta Resources.
The Hindu Vedic principle of Rta dharma — and similar principles in Sikhism, Sufism and religious thoughts of other indigenous communities in India — provides guidelines to counter the irresponsible decisions made in the name of development by governments and private stakeholders benefiting from environmental clearances. In the book The Work of Nations, author Robert Reich states that the nation that judiciously manages water, soil and other natural resources will be the global success story.
The Hindu concept of Rta dharma, explained by Kapila Vatsyayan in her essay ‘Ecology and Indian Myth’, states that the moral duty of communities is through karma towards sustaining and maintaining Rta (cosmic natural order). The same thought is reiterated in the Guru Granth Sahib: The book enunciates a concern for the environment as an integrated approach to life and nature by stating that air, water, earth, and life — all originated from the True Lord who resides in each one of us and requires protection. Islamic scholar Sigrid Nökel offers similar ideas through terms such as fitra creation as natural order; tawhid — that all things in the world are related to one another and are, as aspects of God, valuable and worthy of preservation; and, that khilafa refers to the role of mankind as the trustee of creation.
The inherent culture of entrusting sacred identities through the articulation of beliefs, rituals, art and myths form collective memories and ownership to protect the environment. The myth of Krishna punishing the serpent Kaliya, who polluted the river Yamuna, is one example. This traditional wisdom in the semantics of development is marginalised — building roads, setting up industries, creating infrastructure spell short-term gains for the few and apocalypse for humanity as a whole.
Culture is the human response to a geographical context that dictates the way communities dress, eat, design houses, and celebrate. Even the manner in which language — sounds evolve — is inspired by natural environments. Social groups, traditionally, create livelihoods by harnessing available natural resources. Not factoring cultural wisdom to conserve natural environment impacts geographies and, in turn, reconfigures cultural responses.
Consider the importance given to the elements such as earth, water, air, and fire, in Vedic hymns, and in gaathas or myths. The tribal rising to protect their sacred mountains in Chhattisgarh or Odisha, is a recollection of the metaphor of the mountain that symbolises the mythical centre and the axis of the world as represented in the idea of Meru and Kailash; it is a physical form that harbours water, soil and vegetation. “The disturbance in water, earth, vegetation, river and mountain ecology system has threatened all manner of life. mythically, Seshnaga (the cosmic serpent in the sea) upholds the earth.which is threatened,” writes Vatsyayan.
The community ownership expressed in the protests in Chhattisgarh requires duplication in many more areas. The approaching national water emergency “is not because of lack of rains or water bodies, but mismanagement of resources on the ground,” says water warrior Farhad Contractor. The Rta dharma towards water, for instance, is expressed in rituals to clean waterbodies in Rajasthan and to appease water spirits in Uttarakhand. Air pollution defies the concept of Vayu, the god of pure air, in the Vedic ethos. Cutting of trees, escalating construction without consideration to secure water catchment areas or aquifers, is letting loose the tamsic energies: Tamas, in Samkhya Hindu philosophy, refers to a proclivity to generate sickness, dullness and inertia. These gaathas needs to retold and understood by the community to assert environmental citizenry.
Citizens can no longer afford to wait for governments to address these life-changing issues. To counter government schemes which may create short-term jobs but lead to long-term and permanent damage to soil, water and land, there is only one alternative: Citizen action leading to community governance through “prakriti panchayats”. There are precedents — in 2009, the Eco-Sikh Conclave strategised ways to address individual responsibility through groups. One-time protests such as the Chipko Movement or individual groups’ uprising cannot be a permanent solution. A systematic citizens’ network of environment panchayats to promote Rta dharma is required. What is needed is the will to support, and to ensure, environmental protection for and by the people of India.
The writer is a cultural activist, an academic and a performing artist