MUCH CAN BE LEARNED living in India’s complex and diversified culture — where every issue, challenge and scene, even the intermittent pulse of India, is rooted. To me, an idealistic environmental student, India’s culture represents one of the most difficult challenges the fight against climate change faces.
To ameliorate the most severe impacts of climate change and primitive sanitation, environmental policy must be ambitious and life altering. Prof. George Jose of Christ University’s Law School states, half-jokingly, India is “fit for an authoritarian leader.” Many students here in Bangalore would acknowledge it is the only way the populace will commit to meaningful change.
This begs the questions: Can we really expect India to combat climate change, the planet’s most imminent environmental threat? Can the U.S. and other developed nations bring unprecedented environmental policy reform to a culture with rampant poverty and ineffective sanitation?
Indians are protective of their culture. After 3,000 years of colonial rule, myriad kingdoms and oppression, it is new to the influence of western culture and ideals. In a nation where 80% of the population is Hindu and the ruling political party is Hindu Nationalist, there is an attachment to antinomian beliefs that prevent the populace from acknowledging more immediate public policy needs. This is further accentuated when one contrasts the more urban, educated population with those living in rural villages.
Take, for example, the issue of a village union known as “Khap panchayat” in north India (it also exists in smaller forms in the rest of the country). Khan panchayats were created by upper caste Jats (ethnic group of North India) to consolidate their power and position around the 14th century, and are united by caste and geography. The main rule in Khap panchayats is that all men and women in Khaps are siblings. A group of ten to fifteen men settle disputes and control the lives of young people within a Khap. Khap panchayats imposes autonomous laws through riots, fines and, in many cases, killing or forcing victims to commit suicide in the name of honor.
In Haryana, a state in north India, a Dalit (lowest caste) girl committed suicide after she was gang raped by four boys. Instead of condemning or adjudicating the incident, the Khap said girls should be “married off early so that rapes can be avoided.” Due to usual widespread corruption and scant enforcement, Khap panchayats have thus far been given cart blanche to impose arcane rule and forego Indian law. The disconnect between village culture and the urban lifestyle in India continues to grow.
Such archaic rule and philosophy is not an anomaly in India, however. Nor does it limit itself to outlier groups. Since 1986, communal violence just between Hindus and Muslims (both groups, together, comprise over 92% of the population) has led to tens of thousands of deaths. Most notably, to Americans, is the Gujarat riot of 2002 in which current Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over and was denied entry into the United States until he became Prime Minister. As a member of the BJP, a notoriously Hindu Nationalist party who have instigated violent communal deaths over the years, Modi has an a priori commitment to Hindus.
When a train filled with Hindu pilgrims returning to Gujarat stopped in a town in which Muslims comprise over 40% of the population, and had been historically prone to religious violence, Hindu activists began chanting religious slogans. Within fifteen minutes of the stop, the train ignited killing over fifty-nine Hindu passengers. Modi’s, at that time the Chief Minister of Gujarat, closest aides endorsed a widespread strike that would lead to a month of violence in which mobs of Hindus rampaged, raped, looted, and killed over 1,000 Muslims with over 150,000 displaced as a result.
Despite a federal government report that found the train fire was accidental rather than ignited by Muslims, Prime Minister Modi continues to deny any wrongdoing. To put this in clearer context, one would have to go back to the 1991-92 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat over a Mosque that Hindus thought was the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of many Hindu gods. Despite a Supreme Court order that had, at the time, ruled the Mosque stay intact, L.K. Advani, the leader of the BJP at that time, mobilized mobs and fanned the flames of a holy war that would claim the lives of over 1,000 people; most of whom were Muslims.
Hindu-Muslim tensions have been the source of conflict for over 1,300-1,400 years. The issue here is not simply the more destructive historical angst, but the sanction of such behavior. Just as the act of throwing trash on the streets or allowing seven to eight year old children to work construction labor in unsafe conditions rather than abiding by the compulsory education law, unsustainable and unlawful behavior is commonly sanctioned.
India’s struggle between antiquated values and a determination to become an economic powerhouse has opened it to a wave of western commercialization. What these examples illustrate – just two of many core cultural issues – is an aspect of environmental policy that is eschewed by the western world. In the United States, many youth have an insatiable need to protest, demand, and call for collective action on climate change. In India, and other emerging economies, issues such as food insecurity are a far greater concern. There is ubiquitous corruption to tackle. Poverty to crawl out of. Farmer suicides to address. The short term is all most can afford to think about.
As a visitor to India, I grow easily frustrated at the bureaucracy: the lack of a trash collection program, traffic enforcement, union rights for construction workers, enforcement of the compulsory education system, the list goes on. It is commonly known that any dealings with government, unless you offer a worthy bribe, require saintly patience – a level that far exceeds whatever patience we save for the year back home at the department of motor vehicles.
Faced with India’s seemingly intractable issues and deficiencies, I can’t help but feel climate change is an afterthought. Even if India was able to commit to the initiatives called for by the International Panel on Climate Change, how enforceable would they really be? More to the point, if Bangalore, one of India’s most successful cities, cannot muster up a decent trash collection program, how can we expect India to enact any major environmental initiatives?