Development that compromises our dignity cannot be an exercise in nation-building.
CLIMATE change is a concrete fact that is felt by far more than those who understand it. The latter are the classes having access to scientific disciplines. Philosophers and philanthropists; lawmakers, judges and lawyers; sociologists, historians and anthropologists; glaciologists and marine biologists; curators, photographers and filmmakers, account for the classes that have, today, taken up the onerous task of building a consensus around the fact that is climate change.
And yet, the reports and treatises that form the exposition of this fact, are, as I mentioned, hardly understood by the people. In our daily lives, we, the people, feel climate change in forms that an educated consensus fails to account for – the sensations of blistering heat in Delhi, and submergence in Madhubani. We are the perturbed emerging generations, dispossessed adivasis, the dissonant educated classes, and then some.
In India, some of us, such as lawmakers, cite the absence of verifiable empirical knowledge when questioned about climate change. Judges, being unelected, find it beyond the realm of their powers to transcend obiter. Our court of last resort quite justifiably felt compelled to side with the working classes that are wholly dependent on illegally operating industrial units. After all, which court can take a stance against us, the people? Even so, it doesn’t take empirical evidence or elaborate theories of ‘rights of nature’ to sense the disquiet.
What exactly are we feeling in India during these times? A lot, to say the least, even if I consider the limitations of my own thought processes and that of the English language – anguish, grief, resentment, stifled and suffocated, to enumerate some of the feelings. Some of us were arrested in the process of raising our voices against a mega steel plant in Dhinkia (steel demand); some were killed in a protest against a copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi (copper demand); some were out in the scorching heat to try and stop heavy machinery from moving into our home in Hasdeo Aranya (coal demand); some of us saw Lohari, our village, submerged because of a dam (electricity demand). Ostensibly, these are some of the millions of events over the centuries since industrial revolution that have cumulatively changed our climate. It is my sense that this loss of land, livelihood and our intrinsic value as human beings cannot be undone by a treatise or court judgment, let alone these words, and surely not by ascertaining the additional weight of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The loss of land, livelihood and our intrinsic value as human beings cannot be undone by a treatise or court judgment, let alone these words, and surely not by ascertaining the additional weight of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
And while, upon rigorous research or perhaps intuitively, some of us may find steel and copper plants, coal mines and dams to exacerbate climate change and its impacts, we stand to lose something far greater, that is, our dignity and our sense of belonging in this republic. And that, I hope, is a loss we can all feel deeply enough to understand.
To be sure, what we felt is as concrete as climate change. There are real lawsuits, books, reports and judgments addressing the instances of unsustainable development that I have mentioned. However, seldom have these addressed the profound loss of our dignity that untold and thoughtless development of this republic brings about – we can’t breathe because of it.
Dignity and bandhuta
Dignity escapes simplistic definition and yet is fundamental to our shared human condition.
The Supreme Court has held that ‘dignity’ is a component of the fundamental right to life under the Constitution. In this sense, the loss of dignity strikes at the heart and soul of our Constitution. In this context, the Preamble indicates in so many words that the “Sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic” of India is to promote fraternity among us, in the process “assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation”.
As some have commented, individual dignity is a necessary precondition to achieve national integrity, for how can a chain be stronger than its weakest link. A loss of our dignity would therefore also be a loss of ‘bandhuta’ (we are all bound to and with each other) found in the Hindi version of our Constitution, which when reduced to the English language, becomes ‘gendered’ and known as ‘fraternity’ (brotherhood).
We ask ourselves: are we to be discriminated against based on our place of birth that happens to bear these resources?
I have attempted to explain the tensions between development and national integrity. Development that compromises our dignity cannot be an exercise in nation-building. On another plane, we feel the climate changing via a loss of our dignity, somewhat like how the war in Ukraine has raised cooking oil prices – disparate at first, hopefully intuitive on consideration.
While courts may exercise restraint when it comes to drawing connections between climate change and development, restraint in the face of the loss of dignity would be the undoing of our democracy. A stifling of our voices in environmental decision-making would thus amount to a fact situation under which we approach our constitutional courts, using a dignity-centric pathway. The reason why this pathway is crucial is that it is weaved in the language of the law – dignity is protected under Part III of our Constitution through, as I have indicated, an unbroken line of judicial precedent, and bandhuta forms a key pillar of our Constitutional morality.
While courts may exercise restraint when it comes to drawing connections between climate change and development, restraint in the face of the loss of dignity would be the undoing of our democracy.
It would be remiss of me to ignore the gendered, colonial and imperial roots of fraternité. I would, however, understand it to be ‘bandhuta’. We are bound to and with each other, as also with nature. What could be more egalitarian and eco-centric than that?