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The Undeclared Emergency: Political rights and the environmental crisis

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

The illegal arrests of climate activist Disha Ravi and dalit labour activist Nodeep Kaur shows a growing trend in India - the suppression of gendered and marginalised voices by a misogynist state. Their so-called crimes were rather strange. Disha shared a protest toolkit in support of the Indian farmers’ protest while Nodeep protested for labour rights at an industrial unit in Haryana. But if one looks a bit more closely at these trends, it reveals a rather troubling and dangerous rhetoric that needs to be unwrapped. It showcases a chilling reality that only certain rights are permissible in a democracy and the state is all powerful to determine who has those rights, how they are exercisable, and when its citizens are permitted to utilise them. However, one might ask: why is the environmental crisis entangled in all of this? The arrest of Disha and the outrageous attack on climate activist Greta Thunberg’s tweet in support of the Indian farmers’ protest reveals that this dangerous political rights rhetoric has got entangled with how the environmental crisis is managed and by whom. The “environmentalism rhetoric” put out by the Indian state is similar to the “ecofascist” rhetoric of Nazi Germany, and this stems from a growing divide between elite environmentalism and grassroots environmental movements, along with a compartmentalisation of environmental problems that does not acknowledge the connection between land, labour, and democratic rights.

Today’s climate and environmental activists have brought “people” to the core of the movement along with the racialisation of bodies and environments under the neoliberal governance regime. Elite environmentalism promotes a sort of “crisis management” without any understanding of the historical marginalisation of communities nor the ways in which neoliberalism has impacted vulnerable populations. In 2019, Greta (2019) stated,

“we live in very dark times in many different ways and it feels like the situation in our society is getting worse at the same time as the planet is getting worse. Everything is moving in the wrong direction and we cannot fix the climate without fixing all these other issues-they have to be combined.” (para. 18)

Greta was specifically referring to this deeper connection of the environment, racism, economic inequalities, etc. Though the Indian government claims that the farm laws address pollution and climate change, they fail to address the measures in which some of these laws will marginalise the farmers, especially the landless and bonded labourers. Rather, the farm laws promote the privatisation of the farm sector. In order to defend these agricultural laws, the state gets Mohinder Gulati, Former COO, United Nations Sustainable Energy for All, to write a letter to Greta Thunberg on the environmental crisis and farming in India. The letter is not only condescending and patronising but also promotes a neoliberal agenda to address the climate crisis without addressing the marginalisation and vulnerability of communities under a changing climate. It does not state how privatisation of the farm sector will actually reduce crop burning pollution, food wastage, the water crisis, and corruption. Gulati (2021) strangely goes on to state that, “India has adequate institutions of Parliament, Courts, Media, and Public opinion to allow peaceful protests and open dialogue to solve its myriad problems of poverty and development” (para 7). He does not acknowledge the fact that forests have been cleared for development, pollution from coal production has increased, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been dismantled to minimise public consultation, and peaceful activists have been arrested. Gulati (2021) instructs Greta by stating,

“We need global consensus for implementation of the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals. Walking into the thicket of local political issues, often mired in a battle with corrupt and vested political interests, would undermine your ability to keep the moral high group to exhort World Leaders into action for a sustainable future.” (para.8)

Achieving the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals is probably on everyone’s minds. But achieving these international milestones at the cost of curtailing political rights is questionable if not outrightly unjust. This comment by Gulati (2021) portrays how the Indian state only cares about its global “environmental and climate image” while refusing to engage with its citizens on the environmental crisis or other pressing issues. So even though there is a state that talks about sustainable development and climate justice, there is a rather strange disconnect on how the state is functioning in terms of outlining these policies and engaging with its citizens on it. The contradiction in this rhetoric is this larger fascist control of environments and racialised bodies. The contradiction stems from both a political and economic mode of functioning, where the Indian state believes in a neoliberal ecomodernist approach of functioning with a big disconnect in farmers and adivasi (tribal) rights to land and common areas like forests and water resources. This form of elite environmentalism is more of a public relations stunt while new climate activists consider human and political rights to be the core of environmentalism.

The siloed nature in which some of these issues are looked at result from a deep historical divide on how nature and the environment is academically and in policy disconnected from the farming community. Ramchandra Guha (1989) and Amita Baviskar (1995) wrote about this linkage between peasant revolts and larger environmentalism. We still see these disjoints in the understanding of the commodification of land and labour within the agricultural system and access to lands and forests. Today’s climate activists have been trying to center this aspect of land and labour, and the marginalisation of communities within the core of their environmental discussions both at the United Nations and at the state level. In 2019, Greta’s speech at the UN epitomised this connection,

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky one. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money, and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” (para 2).

Greta and Disha’s support of the Indian farmers is trying to bring about this connection and deeper reconciliation that all systems are interrelated. However, these rhetorics are getting swayed away as anti-national, seditious, and anti-climate. The illegal arrest of Disha and the defaming of Greta is one of the ways in which the state and large parts of our society are truly disconnected from the environmental, political, and social crises.

An undeclared emergency is in the making and at its core is the epistemological understanding of fascist traits in the form of violent crackdown of protesters, internet blackouts, arrests of opponents, manufactured information, propaganda, etc, along with this larger emergency of a changing climate. Cartoonist Alok’s illustration visually captures this undeclared emergency; it is not only the climate that is changing but the very foundations of a democratic society.

Both these emergencies have one thing in common, which is the hyper-capitalistic nature of human societies with neoliberal economic policies at it’s governing core. Fascism in all its forms comes through the racialisation of bodies and environments where unfortunately we are seeing it unfold in the Indian state’s single minded discourse in which the state is paternal and the emperor is all knowing. Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier (1995) echo some of this in their cautionary writings on Nazi Germany’s ecological movement and its entanglement with fascism. They state,

“The necessary project of creating an emancipatory ecological politics demands an acute awareness and understanding of the legacy of classical ecofascism and its conceptual continuities with present-day environmental discourse. An ‘ecological’ orientation alone, outside of a critical social framework, is dangerously unstable.” (Biehl, & Staudenmaier, 1995, p. 20).

The “undeclared emergency” is an entanglement of both this larger political and environmental crisis. The arrests of activists is not only an attempt to silence a pushback but also signifies that the state is scared of a growing threat towards its ideological leaning on both political rights and environmentalism. This romantic vision of how we need to address the environmental crisis is what constructs this “undeclared emergency”; for with the destruction of nature comes the suppression of marginalised voices. If these voices are outspoken, they are racialized and branded as terrorists and anti-nationals. Let us not fall into this trap of ecofascism on the pretext that it is good for the environment or climate. Decentering this larger fascist rhetoric of environmental protection to focus on protests that connect with land, labour, forest, water, and political rights is crucial for a functioning democracy and the environment.

Works Cited:

  1. Baviskar, A. (1995). In the belly of the river: Tribal conflicts over development in the Narmada Valley. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press

  2. Biehl, J., & Staudenmaier, P. (1995). Ecofascism: Lessons from the German experience. San Francisco, CA: AK Press

  3. Guha, R. (1989). The unquiet woods: Ecological change and peasant resistance in the Himalaya. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press

  4. Gulati, M. (2021). Letter to Greta Thunberg [Letter]. Retrieved from

Cite as: Fernandes, Denise. (2021). The Undeclared Emergency: Political rights and the environmental crisis. Aruna Global South Blog. February 24.

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