South Asian Dialogues On Ecological Democracy
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Deepening the Understanding of ‘Ecological Democracy':

Strivings to make it part of Common Sense  

All of us live with nature and relate to it in our everyday lives. Our daily life patterns and annual cycles, our greetings referring to the weather, our leisure time activities, all reveal the cultural assimilation of this relationship. Yet, in our imagination of development and in its operationalisation, we ignored its significance for decades so that now, large sections of the urban middle class do not consciously relate to nature and take it into consideration while making decisions either for themselves or for society at large. This is the section that is most articulate on public issues and from which our policy makers, politicians and powerful sections tend to come, thereby influencing larger public perception. SADED was conceived of in 2002-03 in order to address this gap in Indian, and South Asian, public discourse including in political and policy spheres. SADED's attempt over the past years has been to bring the relationship of human beings with nature centre-stage in public discourse, and therefore use of the term ‘Ecological Democracy'. While ‘Comprehensive Democracy' (Pratap et al, 2001) has been the overall framework with which we work, the ecological dimension is foregrounded in order to fill the gap in public discourse. since political democracy, social justice and material equity have been major thrust of public policy debates and contestations for long, ecology related issues were relatively new introduction to public discourse in the region.

It is gratifying that the concept is gaining currency, mostly in the civil society and engaged-academic world. Ecological democracy and ecological justice are increasingly heard in discussions, and in some writings (Agarwal, 2010; Shrivastava and Kothari, 2012). Radical Ecological Democracy has been formally defined and proposed as the path forward in a well received book by Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari titled the ‘Churning the Earth: the Making of Global India'. Discussions by the Siemenpuu Foundation on ED have been referred to by environmental movement scholars (Sneddon and Fox, 2008). We have so far addressed the activist communities and, as their critical mass develops, we hope to device strategies of addressing the lay community and making Ed part of common parlance as well.

However, the term ‘Ecological Democracy' can be interpreted in multiple ways and hold different meanings. It can be found in literature at least since the late 1990s, having been used in relation to the term then gaining currency, ‘sustainability', or on how states can espouse both liberal democratic structures and ecological policies. Most of the literature on ED since then has attempted to define how a nation state could be characterised as ‘an ecological democracy' as against let's say ‘a liberal democracy' (Dietz, York and Rosa, 2001; Mitchell, 2006; Whiteside and Bourg, 2006). “While few scholars provide an explicit definition of ecological democracy, the concept (or some variant) has been employed to illustrate the means by which rapid ecological and environmental change pose significant problems for existing democratic structures, and to prescribe alternative decision-making processes that are more conducive to ensuring ecological well-being” (Mitchell, 2006). By and large, this was a state-centric view of ED. It relates to the political and economic structures and policies that impact on the environment, but does not spell out the social and cultural aspects underlying the human relationship with nature.

The literature also acknowledges the need for further refining of the concept of ED, but somehow, the term has not got much attention relative to the rise of ‘sustainability'as a concept (Mitchell, 2006). Countries sushi as Ecuador and Bolivia have addressed the rights of nature in their constitutions and therey may qualify to be termed ‘ecologicla democracies' in a sense. However, given the contingencies of statecraft and prevailing political economy, the economic policies even in these countries continue to go counter t the requirements of sustaining natural environments. Thus the state-centric view of Ed is found to be inadequate, but only diverse forms it have been proposed in this literature.

Sustainability as it is now used, does not always communicate the central ideas of either ecology, democracy or equity. Sustainability, in dominant discourse, has become more about ‘economic growth with equity'i.e. more consumption for all, and ‘green technologies'i.e. techno-managerial solutions that limit the environmental impact of increasing consumption.

On the other hand, in the VK articulation of ‘Comprehensive Democracy', we viewed ED as one dimension of a democratic ‘way of life', the other dimensions being ‘political democracy', social democracy', ‘economic democracy' and ‘cultural democracy' (Pratap et al, 2001). The limitations of our paradigms for structuring society and its progressive urges, that were created in the late 19 th and the 20 th century, the ideologies and traditions like Marxism have run their course in their traditional form. Now a days there is a global search for re-imagining and expanding the notion of democracy to all dimensions of life and not just the separation of organs of state and periodic elections and an independent judiciary. This is just political democracy. Different sections of people are fighting for their rights and hence are seeking different types of democracy. Like Dalits are seeking social democracy to have an equal status as to the Brahmins. Tribals for their rights are seeking cultural democracy. Similarly people are seeking economic democracy so that everybody gets a dignified livelihood engagement. So the first global requirement is that we have to re-imagine and expand the notion of democracy in such a way that it approximates the idea of life, flow of life and all its dimensions, i.e. at all levels of society, form the village to the global, should be democratic.An instance of anti-democratic developments is that thetransnational corporations are becoming stakeholders in organisations like WHO and ILO. This trend has to be completely reversed. There is no other way out. This will only happen through a global shared understanding. We need to have intermittent global face to face global meets. WSF was a most creative innovation of such meets. It was seeking to destroy the high priest image of the academics and activists and making them equal to others in society by destroying the activist and ordinary people divide. It was seeking to approximate change actors and processes to the society and the society ' s aspiration to transform itself to a better future. But that idea has unfortunately run its course for a complex set of reasons. One of them is that our progressive ideologies could not renew themselves and the popular imaginations and promises they made to the people in Latin America were not able to be upheld. So the conspiracies of the right succeeded in Latin America, Brazil and other places. WSF was born out of the larger upheaval of institutionalized authoritarianism backed by the US in South America. But it played a big role in bringing in the progressive regimes in place. Now the limitations of the progressive ideologies has come to the fore, and we need to reimagine our democracy in a manner that societies liberative urges transform the society as a whole rather than making it a stagnant society. So a paradigm shift in the transformative politics is in the offing.

In the VK formulation of comprehensive democracy, all dimensions are integrally bound and were separately considered only for the ease of analysis and understanding. All dimensions would have to contribute towards all the others so that each of them would have to address issues of ED, just as Ed would have to incorporate each of the others. For instance, agriculture for food production impinges on the earth and generates a specific human-nature relationship. Therefore, under the rubric of ED it must be undertaken in ways that are least disruptive and most restorative of soil and water. As economic democracy, there must also be a just distribution of the resources of land and water that are needed for agriculture. Gender relationships in the division of labor and its recognition in agriculture would contribute to social democracy. State policies and schemes that create such conditions would require political democracy. Given the dynamicity of society and nature, all these together would require ongoing processes of democratic dialogue and decision making that can handle the power equations in each sphere and choose trade-offs between competing priorities that would have to be negotiated. In order to undo the limitations of ‘dialogue', non-violent individual and collective assertions (satyagrah) are an integral part of democracy.

From this perspective then, ED can primarily be viewed as a way of life that rests on a just relationship of human beings with nature. If the emphasis is on ‘democracy' we could also see it as an arrangement that supports ecological justice, i.e.e equal access of all human beings to rights over natural resources, and equal distribution of impacts of environmental degradation. However, either of these alone is very simplistic and does not adequately address the ground realities of real life contexts that include unbridled rising aspirations for consumption of ‘relative' as against ‘basic' needs, the implications of this for resources drawn from nature and the degradation of nature, and the complex politics of overcoming inequalities in situations of historical deprivations. If we see that neither the emphasis on the ‘ecological' nor on ‘democracy' is complete without the other and attempt to include both in our definition, we open ourselves to the complex task of ‘deepening' the understanding of ED and how human civilisation, and nation states within it in their present form, can work towards achieving it. This is the challenge SADED set up for itself.

The closest definition of ED to this understanding found in other writings is the following:

“An ecological democracy seeks a dynamic balance between the ecosphere and humanity, and between and among humans. An ecological democracy pursues sustainability in all aspects of life. It constitutes not merely a political form, but a way, with many potential expressions and manifestations……In an ecological democracy, sustainability is not merely a biological process, but a social force for healing humanity's excesses. Sustainability must be the guide for dynamic interactions between humans and ecosphere, and the political, economic and social interactions among humans. In particular, this means economic growth results in ecological improvement, not ecological destruction” (Morrison and Morrison, 2011).

Over the decades SADED's work has been able to bring focus to the links between the various sectors of development relating to environmental issues, such as the dependence of livelihoods of the marginalised majorities on nature, the intimate relationship of adivasis and their way of life with nature, the disruption of these through dominant developmental interventions and the attempts to conserve or restore these through civil society and social movements. It has, also brought a greater understanding of the ground level issues and links of environment, food security, health and health care into the ED discussions. Thereby it has contributed to the popularisation of more comprehensive understandings of the role of nature and of addressing environmental concerns through social and political actions by state and non-state actors. It has done this through various processes of dialogue across sectors and actors, through development of and participation in relevant networks, and engaging in public debate and discussion at local, national and international levels.

Ecological Democracy and the SDGs

It is in this context that we see the current adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the global agenda for the coming decades as an opportunity to generate and bring greater attention to dialogues around issues related to ED. Since the SDGS stand on the three pillars of environmental integrity, social justice and economic prosperity, they potentially approximate the idea of Comprehensive Democracy. However, the SDGs, as articulated in the official statement and in its dominant operationalisation, are not being viewed adequately for their links with political and cultural dimensions. We believe that without contextualising the SDGs in the specific situation of each society from global to local levels, and without integrally addressing the various environmental social, economic, contexts together with their cultural and political dimensions, these goals can not be attempted. Therefore, we contend that ED will be helpful in understanding the pathways to Sustainable Development and to moving towards the SDGs. We therefore propose to use our work in the next phase to contextualising the SDGs in India and other South Asian countries.

Ecological Swaraaj : a concept beyond Ecological Democracy

In our engagement with strivings on the ground for ED, we have deepened our own understanding of what goes into the making of ED. The challenges of making these links part of social ‘common sense' and thereby incorporated consciously into people's lives and into state policies and programmes have become more evident. We recognise that this requires a different collective ethical and moral vision. Over the years, we have moved from using the concept ‘ED' to Ecological Swaraaj', with ‘swaraaj' reflecting the sense that Gandhiji gave it in the anti-colonial struggle. As we understand it, the term ES expresses the deeper human strivings better than does ED. In ES, the individual and the collective human spirit are closely intertwined. It includes the community and the state as ever-enlarging concentric circles of relationships and action. Thus it is not state-centric even while it incorporates the role of the state in its societal vision. It includes the moral dimension as individual conscience and spirituality as well as collective ethics and norms. Its approach is to contribute to empowering all peoples to practice ED with dignity.

It is with this deepening understanding that SADED initiated its work on ‘Meaning of Life and Meaningful Life' and developed strands of Health Swaraaj. In this move, besides concentrating on the subjects directly related to natural environments (such as agriculture, water, issues of adivasis, rights of informal sector workers that constitute 90% of workers in India and other south Asian countries, developmental and social issues of the Himalayas) we seek to understand the human urges and resources of knowledge and practice that can support democratic relationships with nature and between human beings. We also attempt to explore the informal and institutionalised resources of knowledge and practice that can be of help.

The Meaning of Life, Meaningful Life series of lectures called upon leading persons of the ‘alternatives' among civil society, social movements and political leadership to reflect on inner human strivings and their relationship with nature and the human collective. The series has been very well received by members of our network and its larger ecology. The lectures have provided intellectual and spiritual resources for ED activists to continue to address the very great challenges that they face, especially the frustrations inherent in such work. They have opened up areas of discussion in civili society that were almost taboo in secular discourse, such as the spiritual dimension of life, and the role of religions in furthering ED/ES. In the future we propose to continue the series as and when appropriate speakers become available.

Traditional Societal Institutions and their Potential Role in Deepening ED/ES

In the next phase we also propose to explore the possibility of institutionalised forms of spiritual mooring and knowledge generation, specifically religion and the various health knowledge systems, for their contribution to further deepening the understanding as well as spread of acceptability of the concepts of ED/ES.

The recent encyclical of the Pope, that re-examines the interpretation of the catholic church of the earth being created for human beings and places human beings in the midst of nature such that they are a part of it and responsible for it, is a valuable resource for dialogue on ED through institutionalised religion that influences large numbers across the globe. We plan to use it as the basis for dialogue with leaders of all religions in our region to make their statements on how they view the relationship between human beings and nature. Fro this we plan to have a platform for inter-faith dialogue called the ‘Dharm Jigyasu Manch' (Inter-Faith Forum for Critical Dialogue).

Traditional health knowledge systems also have a whole philosophy of human life and its relationship with nature and with different elements of society, that affect each ones physical, mental and spiritual state. We hope to engage more with these knowledge systems to understand how they can help in deepening the understanding of ED/ES.

The proposed activities under each of these that we propose for the coming two years are given in detail in the application and the annexed log frame.

Ritu Priya

March 2017

Hony. Convenor SADED


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South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy