|Before the dam.|
|After the dam.|
The west sloping terrain with the high Western Ghat mountains occupying half the land area, the biologically rich rainforest ecosystems, high rainfall and an agricultural system most suited to the humid tropical climate, are the living backdrop of the people of Kerala. The innate knowledge about the fragility and vulnerability of ecosystems has been jeopardized in the name of development and progress. In the face of the present ecological crisis and environmental disasters that Kerala is facing now, it is no wonder that people have responded spontaneously and strongly against the destruction of vital life –support systems. As early as the 1960s people have been raising questions on the very ethics of the model of development; especially basic facts about for whom development and at what cost. They have started questioning not only the viability of and sustainability of the western model of large scale development, but also its suitability to our culture. The social, ecological and generational justice which was being undermined by such indiscriminate ecological destruction and impoverization of communities dependent on natural resources for sustenance, was also questioned. In all these struggles, public dialogues and debates, women have taken a prominent role, perhaps much more than in other conflicts.
The basis of this paper is the year long study that was done with women involved in grassroots environmental movements in Kerala and also individual women who have been for many years raising basic and ethical questions regarding development and civilization. The grassroots movements in Kerala connected to environment have undergone a drastic shift in approaches, strategies and attitudes. The latter has witnessed changes from trying to maintain a so-called romantic version of a utopian world to raising basic questions about development and science. The most striking shift that has happened is the presence of women in the struggles that are linked to, and which exemplify, the real ground reality where resources are depleted or taken away from the actual beneficiary in the name of progress. In fact many of these struggles question not only the inequality and unfairness of the process but are also representative of the politics of sustenance and survival. It is here that the voices of women involved in the struggles discover the basic ethics of Gandhiji’s often quoted aphorism –“ the world has enough for everyone’s needs but not enough for everyone’s greed”. The most important aspect of the movements in which women are involved that echo Gandhiji’s philosophy is in passive resistance strategies that clearly contextualize “ refusing to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience and use soul force "(Hind Swaraj, p.69). This also transcends the ideology of Swaraj and forces the observer to place it in the larger context of the ethics of living and life that Gandhiji always searched for. (Ramachandra Guha, 2007).
The voices of women in the 20 struggles from various parts of Kerala which has been documented, along with the 20 women who have been raising their voices and concerns about the present development paradigm, bring to light the most significant of Gandhian approaches- the power of dialogue. We have seen the power of dialogue in all the writings of Gandhi- the need to harmonize dialogue with action has been his forte always. In Hind Swaraj, one of the first documents written by Gandhiji, the concepts evolve through close dialogue between the editor and reader. In this time, where no one listens to anyone, the need to use dialogue as an effective means of communication has been felt by women. This is especially poignant in the case of Kerala, where the much lauded People’s Campaign for Decentralized Planning with a concern for Gender Equity, included the Women’s Component Plan. The WCP fell short of expectations and the task to secure the interests of women remained a politically unsupported activity. The presence and absence of gender concerns, along with the rights-based approach that emerges, has been silencing women even in Grama Sabhas and other political forums. It is in this situation that women who have taken up highly localized causes like sand-mining, dam displacement, pesticide overkill and land alienation have raised their voices and concerns to dialogue with the society, the planners and developers and so on.
The women in struggles that have been documented have brought to focus the most common allegation –their lack of morality. The word civilization in Gujarathi means “good conduct” (HS,p. 53). To achieve good conduct there has to be a strict moral code. The women in Vellikulangara, Muriyad, Athirapally, Kainur and Neyyatinkara have redefined morality, chastity, good conduct, in terms that go beyond the physical being, beyond fidelity and domestic/conjugal terms. It is here that they unknowingly and inadvertently adhere to Gandhiji for whom “chastity is one of the greatest disciplines without which the mind cannot attain requisite firmness”(HS, p. 73). The women are also questioning morality as being part of “civilization that seeks to increase bodily comforts and fails miserably in doing so.”
"It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. Do not consider this Swaraj to be a dream. It is in the palm of our hands."
Passive resistance is “the method of securing rights by personal suffering. When I refuse to do something that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul force “(HS, p. 69)
Strength lies in the absence of fear (HS, p. 38)
The women in the environmental grassroots movements of Kerala have been thrown into the face of struggle and opposition and have taken it not by choice or compulsion but because there is no choice at all. But all of them have found immense meaning and fulfillment in the self-sacrifices, the corrections, regulations, abnegations and learning that the chosen path demands of them. They admit that this exposure and the need to go beyond their secluded private lives with a Do or Die attitude has opened a vast and challenging world hitherto unknown to them.With little or no precedence of activism or ideological positioning, most of these women have stumbled, struggled, fallen and stood up with a courage, honesty and steadfastness that their conviction and commitment granted them. The pitfalls associated with fighting the invisible enemy within and outside has empowered them to evolve their own strategies and action plans.It is here that we see the hidden shadow of Gandhian thought and action that seems to be a directing force and strength too. The most poignant linkages that remain as we near the end of this sojourn from one end of Kerala to the other, is the moral courage, the capacity to dialogue, and the realization of their own infinite reserves of fearlessness, that women have rediscovered and rejuvenated in their lives and in the lives of those around them. The new social transformation that this has initiated in Kerala, which surpasses all existing political, social, communal and religious alliances, is the only path to Swaraj as Gandhiji envisioned a century ago. The women here have not read Gandhian thought or do not refer to him in any way, but they ‘perenially return to Mahatma Gandhi while at the same time going beyond him’ (Ramachandra Guha,2007).