Arrests are nothing unusual for Medha Patkar. When she was detained by the Delhi Police on Monday she was fighting for another cause of the people. Twenty five years ago the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) was born in the crucible of protests and detentions. A quarter century is a long time in the fight for people’s rights and when these rights are nowhere in sight, frustration is natural. It is all the more so when one considers the number of protests she has led against development projects since then. A casual reading of her Wikipedia entry would make one almost believe that India was in a revolutionary mood.

There is one common thread that ran through the kind of protests that Patkar led. When the offensive project, be it a dam, a nuclear power plant, a manufacturing plant or anything else that robs peoples of their land, is stopped, the movement also stops. So what does one do then? Create another movement.

Today Patkar is not only associated with NBA but is also part of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM). From saving land and preserving the environment (NBA), NAPM, along with other activists, sought all manner of rights—food, health, information, everything—for India’s poor citizens. Creating NAPM was a shrewd move as it shifted the economic basis of protests in a bid to make them sustainable. This worked well until the watershed election of 2014 petered out the idea of rights too.

The economics of this switch in activism is interesting. Environmental activism is all about deferring current consumption for a better and secure tomorrow. If rivers are polluted in the wake of industrialization and forests denuded for mining, nothing will be left for the coming generations. The activism of rights, in contrast, is about current consumption without any care for making savings for years and decades ahead. The story has interesting twists that reflect the confusion and the lack of economics among these activists.

The switch was so thoroughgoing in the past decade that today there are hardly mass movements for environmental causes. It is not hard to understand why. Not only is it unfair to ask a poor person to defer consumption when he is at the rock bottom of the economic ladder but it is unlikely that he will do so. This is a big reason why environmental movements remain isolated in patches and die out rapidly. So when Patkar tries to barge into the office of the Union water resources minister Uma Bharti, she does not even make it to the front pages of newspapers. No one wants to hear about the Narmada Andolan except, of course, persons in far away Badwani.

From the late 1990s, and especially after the Supreme Court’s judgment on the Sardar Sarovar Dam in 2000, activism shifted gears thoroughly in favour of rights. Rights were sought for almost everything—food, information, health, land, homes, anything. These were not conceded fully. Had that been done, the country’s environment would have been destroyed totally. For example, the right to traditional forest dwellers to land was conceded by law in 2006. It was never effectively implemented. In the process a lot of forests were saved: the poverty of the poor dwellers in these forests would have forced them to consume anything that came their way—trees and animals alike.

This is the background to the infamous policy paralysis of the past years. Because activists of both stripes—environmentalists (deferred consumptionists) and closet-socialists (current period consumptionists)—came to have such sway on the government, it was paralysed. A good example of the confusion and its perverse effects was visible in the laws enacted in this period. These were legislated without devoting any thought to their effects. One type of law militated against the environment (The National Food Security Act, 2013 would have either required more intensive agricultural practices or outright seizures of foodgrains from producers or resort to imports) while the others created their own problems (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act, 2005, sought to preserve watersheds, build productive assets etc). Matters would surely have come to a crisis if these laws were allowed to pan out in the years and decades ahead. It is not surprising that the new Union government wants to water down some of these laws. The mess will take some time to be sorted out.

What any society should do with its resources—consume them away now or save them for the future—is dependent on how it takes economic decisions. Whatever be the means to achieve a balance, economic history gives us one warning: governments cannot order preferences of a mass of citizens. India’s lost decade, 2004-2014, is a good example of what goes wrong when the government tries to tinker with individual preferences. Economic confusion prevails and growth sputters to a halt.

As to Patkar and other activists, it is not a bad idea if they learn the basics of economics before prognosticating on corporate greed. In the meantime, their protests will require protestors bussed specially for the spectacle. The poor may have no roof over their heads but their economic decisions are rational, unlike those of their activist friends.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist takes stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at siddharth.s@livemint.com. To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist

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