Sustenance Vs. Sustainability


Written by Kapish Agrawal

 Illustrated by Suryansh Srivastava

A few days back, I came across a wonderful lecture series on ‘Justice’ by Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel. Unlike what I expected of a seminar on law, the audience was rolling with laughter and hooting. He went on explaining these precarious, yet very real, daily life circumstances involving some sort of decision-making, and wanted the students to explore their own ‘sense of justice’. More often than not, he did not even have to refute wrong answers – they themselves giggled and curled back into their seats. Among the varied set of reactions – some confused, some indignant – the only commonality was that each of these stories was scalable and analogous to some of the largest dilemmas in our society. 


Although analogies have been a part of our history for long, most of the time they have had to do with explaining things. Using them to dig deeper into how one understands the world was new to me. Philosophers did use thought experiments, but they mostly embodied certain conditions. Of course, this method presumed that we practice what we preach. However, if anything, this only makes it easier to hold us up to it. So I reckon, why not give it a try.


It’s a simple story - Mother brings home a pie that is supposed to last at least a week. She cuts the portion for day one and turns to the three children lined up. Each of them looks at her with equal hope of a larger share. The healthy eldest wants it for the taste. The younger one wants a sweet addition to the meal. And, the youngest depends on it for nutrition. How would a mother distribute the pie? What would you do as one? Would the piece be cut equally or in a particular order? 

If the answer appears to be extremely obvious, let us try and hold ourselves up to it. 


“I have a dream. Quite like many others, to settle in one of the largest cities in the world – Mumbai. Top-notch infrastructure, tall buildings, fast cars, four-lane roads, global connectivity, and world-class health facilities. I want to experience them all.”

“What you see here is my favorite township among all the others upcoming. You would be surprised to know that this is just half of the entire project. There’s a lot more to come. I am sure much what is undesirable in this picture will be cleared off. After all, illegal settlements are a huge source of pollution in metropolitan cities. Otherwise, as an upcoming resident, I will surely petition the Courts. I am positive that their decision will support a cleaner environment. Even the Delhi High Court has supported cleanliness.”


This is an average millennial looking to a future full of opportunities and a good life. Seemingly, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming and wanting a clean environment. If what they say doesn’t sound absurd to you, let us put it this way. 

One day, the eldest and the younger child began to discuss how important it was for the pie to last longer. They thought of approaching their mother and asking her to cut saving shares from the everyday portion in an inverse descending order. That is, the eldest would give the least out of their share, and the youngest, the most. Furthermore, the eldest justified it by citing their effort in helping mother carry the pie to the house.

Now, this seems to have the potential to make the situation slightly more questionable. 

Wildlife conservationists, many of them from former aristocratic families whose hunting war directly responsible for the decimation of animals and birds across India, embody a form of elite environmentalism that runs counter to the political and social concerns that drive ‘the environmentalism of the poor

One of the guiding principles for bodies like the NGT has been the ‘Polluter-Pays-Principle’. PPP believes that if those who pollute will have to pay; they are likely to pollute less. Then, what about those who can afford to pay without any limits, right?

Dr. Amita Baviskar, an anthropologist and sociologist at Ashoka University, calls ‘these initiatives instances of bourgeois environmentalism’. She says,

‘for them [bourgeois environmentalists], environmentalism is a mode of expression and addressing their anxieties about themselves in relation to their habitat. Concerns about health and hazard, beauty and order, pervade this mode and have precedence over issues of life and livelihood that are central to the ‘environmentalism of the poor.’’ 

She describes these bourgeois environmentalists as a heterogeneous group that encompasses a ‘range of attributes in terms of income and consumption, education, occupation and property ownership.’ They are the ‘padhe-likhe log’. However, it isn’t just empirical. It often is a shared sensibility that is also harboured by those losing because of it. 

One need not mention the true cause behind the high levels of environmental degradation. 


In any case, what is ‘environmentalism of the poor’?

This would take us back to the roots of the green movements in India. They began in the 1970s, not with academic pamphlets from the ‘people of science’, but with peasants from the Alaknanda Valley hugging trees – later called the Chipko Movement. In addition to protecting the forests, volunteers were protecting their rights to sustainably use them. Indian environmentalism focused on a relationship of exchange between humans and nature. 

Author Ramachandra Guha separates this from the lab-originated post-materialistic environmentalism of the West. Unlike their Indian counterparts, they presumed that only those beyond materialistic concerns could participate in this ‘elevated act’. Now, whether being beyond something presumes having possessed it or sheer indifference to it, is a separate debate. However, since the poor could not become eco-friendly, they could not earn in eco-friendly ways. This brings us back to square one – ‘Environment vs. Development’. 

‘Over the years, Indian environmentalism has become urban-centric, it may well be considered the secular urban religion that adds a cause to the life in the cities’, says Prof. Chaitanya Ravi from FLAME University. In such a case, those with no access to sustainable means have nowhere to go. Alas, their unsustainable actions to survive with the bare minimum are the only wrong in this green world. 


Responsible for killing 13 people, she was still at large, away from the village. A large team of officials from the local authorities continued trying their luck at tracking her down. Cameras, drones, hunter dogs, a motorized paraglide and what not! Witness calls kept flooding in the police control room. Some were actionable, while others were out of her sheer terror. The previous few weeks had been really stressful for the locality. Her fear did not leave villagers in the day, let alone the nights. 

Finally, one of the witness calls seemed substantial and the authorities decided to act. It was from a young man who had seen her near the market. Wondering where her next target would be, the police left in all preparedness to arrest her. Some amount of investigation finally resulted in a confrontation in an open ground. The police carefully approached her from nearly all directions. Sensing an abrupt end to the situation, she ambushed one of the parties approaching her. One thing led to another and she was shot in self-defence during contact.

No, this isn’t a scene from Bandit Queen.. These were the turn of events that lead to the death of a man-eating tigress called Avani (officially called T1), in the Yavatmal district of Maharashtra. 

Although the credibility of the events has been questioned and is sub judice, the aftermath is the more intriguing part. They could not have been more contrasting. While the world condemned the actions of the forest-department and the state, villagers from the adjacent villages of Pandharkawda-Ralegaon danced in joy. For them, it marked the end of constant fear. 

The movement to avoid Avani’s hunt had been running for long. People from across the world called it the injustice of a trigger happy forest department. What does this do, if not question the basic tenets of justice in our society? We exhibit the best of humanity while bestowing animals with certain rights ‘relative to those of the humans’ in consideration. However, it gets cloudy when the basic interests of human survival clash with those of the wild? Deciding the legitimate course of action is not the task at hand. It is to disintegrate the approach that is also seen in many cases like this. 

Imagine the eldest asking the mother to stop cutting a portion for the youngest, in order to save the pie for the future. 

Dr. Baviskar has also discussed this group of environmentalists ‘at odds with the environmentalism of the poor’ – ‘wildlife fanatics’ and ‘green missionaries’. She writes, ‘[they] propagate an agenda of authoritarian conservation by creating protected wilderness areas that exclude forest dependent local people. Wildlife conservationists, many of them from former aristocratic families whose hunting war directly responsible for the decimation of animals and birds across India, embody a form of elite environmentalism that runs counter to the political and social concerns that drive ‘the environmentalism of the poor…[they] fail to recognize how their resource-intensive affluent lifestyle destroy wildlife habitats worldwide. Such habitat destruction is the primary cause of the loss of biodiversity that they purport to save. This doublethink is the defining feature of bourgeois environmentalism.

On another day, the eldest brother decides to protest against the small share of the pie they got after the savings cut – it was an encroachment of rights, they said. Once again, citing their contribution in helping to carry the pie, they asked the mother to stop cutting a saving from their share. Not only did they make this demand, but distrustful of the mother, they also decided to involve other elders of the family in a task that was hers to do. 

Bourgeois environmentalists are not only different in their approach, but also their methods. Often, instead of communicating with municipal authorities, ‘taxpayers’ chose to involve courts and the media by adopting a rights-based approach. Their distrust in the bureaucratic procedures prevents them from engaging in the ‘politics of compromise and accommodation’. They are seen preferring to use their contacts and raising their concerns in the higher echelons of power, with very little ‘noise’ from below.  

Over the years, courts and quasi-judicial bodies have become beacons for not just environmental justice, but also environmental policy execution. And, the disproportionate influence of different classes over these institutions is more than visible. Out of all the sectors of environmental justice, in the National Green Tribunal, the percentage share of compensation cases in the total is only 2-3%. One may ordinarily consider it the success of the law, but the accounts from ground-zero are enough to defy these claims. Here, judgments of the Hon’ble Delhi High Court on cycle rickshaws and cars need no mention. Sadly, reaching the courts takes more monetary resources than what our forest communities or urban poor possess.

These biases in our body of environmental justice exist not just in practice, but also in theory. Some of the principles of sustainability, although not ideologically tainted, are logically incomplete for sure. One of the guiding principles for bodies like the NGT has been the ‘Polluter-Pays-Principle’. PPP believes that if those who pollute will have to pay; they are likely to pollute less. Then, what about those who can afford to pay without any limits, right? Sadly, this is the smaller issue of the two. It can be easily limited by enforcing ceiling limits. The larger question is not the ability to pollute, but the ability to avoid its ramifications. 

Imagine mass resettlements due to the rise of sea levels as a result of global warming. Who according to you would be able to procure safe migration to the countryside? And who will have to take refuge under substandard conditions?


Certainly, many may have wondered, Why doesn’t the mother just give the most to the youngest – who needs it—and a little lesser to the elders since their wants are dispensable? 

Journalist Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain provided a similar solution. In a pamphlet called ‘Global warming in an unequal world’, they discuss emissions and the distinctions between ‘survival emissions’ and ‘luxury emissions’. Published nearly two decades ago, an argument so old, for a debate so new does appear surprising. Sadly, neither is the problem new nor are these solutions. Many sustainable solutions like these were lost in the margins of Indian policymaking. The rising concerns for the environment offer us a chance to revisit these works on Indian sustainability. As author Ramachandra Guha points out, Indian policymakers and civil society will soon need their own brand of environmentalism – that is suited to the country’s structure and resource distribution. 

I would have failed to express if this article leads to a binary of the poor and the environmentalist. Neither will our nature benefit from it nor does environmentalism have space for a class struggle. As we also discussed earlier, it is the thinking, not the privilege!