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As many powerful countries stared at an economic haze that refused to settle down, green concerns took a back seat in most parts of the world. The story in India, though, was a bit different. Here, the noise about environmentalism may have died down but the subject itself picked up steam.
A case in point was the recently concluded climate change negotiations in Durban. After two years of playing a deal-broker at the talks, ready to accept almost whatever was asked of it to be one of the big boys, the UPA decided to step into the lead role instead. While Europe played an astute game of using small islands and least developed countries to demand a new treaty, India stood by its principles - it asked for equity to be put back on the table. Did everything go as planned? No. But it has postponed the fight and given back environmentalism its stature.
The year held out the promise of a new climate regime post-2020. India can now fight over the next three years for an equal bargain. It also sent a warning signal to the government to put its house in order. India can no longer afford an ill-organised response to the challenge of climate change or the negotiations that happen around it.
Pleading recession, Western economies backed away from earlier international commitments - there was no money coming for the poor countries to cope with climate change issues and there was little assurance that help would be forthcoming in the near future.
It was a year that left many members of the green brigade, especially those who belong to the urban middle class, befuddled. Jairam Ramesh moved out of the environment ministry and with him the sonic boom he had unleashed about environment too subsided. It became evident that official environment activism was just that - a lot of noise. Environmental and forests clearances were as flawed and easy to get during his tenure as they were before;the halt on controversial projects was only temporary. Corruption cases came tumbling out. Institutionally the business of environment looked as shaky as it had ever been.
Environment became a legitimate political tool and a topic of fervent drawing room conversation. Tiger wallahs prayed for more prey and less 'human interference' even as the corporate world launched campaigns to save the big cat, yet again. Some got busy trying to import the cheetah.
Many middle-class environmentalists and even the government continued to mix up their definitions of green activism. They only saw it as campaigns to save bees, birds, trees, plants and animals (mostly big, dangerous and magnificent mammals) and not of resource sharing. The consequences of this misguided zeal caused much misery: tribals in forests and the poor everywhere continued to fight, at times violent, battles to regain control over their resources. For example, a year after Posco's integrated steel plant got clearance, villagers in Dhinkia (the site of the plant) continued to fight pitched battles with the police and goons to defend their lands.
The debate over mining turned bizarre at times with some environmentalists demanding an absolute lock down on coal excavation and thermal power plants, and the industry wanting a free hand to plunder at will. A few who demanded a rational energy plan were told that India had never drawn up one. Irrational energy plans - high snuffing on nuclear power, unachievable thermal power targets - continued as the UPA fumbled through post-Fukushima protests.
As the government sat over a rather controversial land bill it forgot that environment is about what grows under and over the land, but it is also about the land. So, land reforms like the Forest Rights Act, Panchayat (Extension to Schedule Areas) Act remained half-baked processes and good ideas that were let down by their progenitors.
Was it all gloomy then for the greenies? Not really. The tiger count was healthy and there were more young biologists looking beyond the big cats. There were more grassroot fights brewing over environment issues and people became better equipped and trained to battle for their rights against industrial pollution and unjust resource take-over. Some of these battles even went in favour of the Davids of the country. The industry carped about environmental clearances but settled back (at least for a while) when data showed that they have had it easy this year. They even got the first environmental responsibility code imposed on them. The solar mission hoping to give a new thrust to renewables in the country took off finally. The food security bill went a step further and even the most ardent believers of the 'danda regime' noted that there would never be an end to left-wing extremism without even-handed development.
Was enough done in 2011 for the environment? No. But even as the rich world took a break from environmentalism, India and its citizens continued to fight ardently for their own patch of green.
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