06/01/2010 05:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

India's Own Deepwater Moment

While the world's attention is focused on the terrible oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, India is suddenly facing it's own Deepwater Moment. It's council of ministers-the political representatives who make key policy decisions for various departments (called Ministries in India)-severely disagree on the importance of protecting the environment. Many of them believe that giving place of priority to green issues is incompatible with India's growth ambitions. But India's Ministry for Forests and Environment (MOEF), responsible for environmental protection, has surprised everyone by firmly refusing to bend the rules, no matter what. Ironically, a set of progressive policies aimed at sustainability has caused a fierce political clash. They have pushed several key political players to suggest that decisions made with environmental considerations in mind are a nuisance.

Take the case of coal mining. Just this year, the MOEF superimposed maps of forests on maps of nine important coalfields. They then came up with the idea of no-go areas-places which were so thickly forested that mining would be banned there. This didn't go down well with the Indian Prime Minister's Office, which asked the ministry to reduce the no go areas by 30 percent. If this didn't happen, they argued, India would lose the opportunity of mining over 600 million tons of coal each year. By this math, saving thick forests is a loss-making proposition! Meanwhile, the MOEF refused to shift by more than 5 percent. A recent, uncharacteristically chatty press release on it's website said, "High economic growth can be inclusive only if environment and development go hand-in-hand which will mean saying "yes" in some cases, "yes, but..." in some cases and a firm "no" in some others."

While these battles are being fought in files and through political lobbying, another brutal war, spread across 223 of India's 604 administrative districts, is rapidly unfolding. This is the violent, bloody battle against the state by the Naxalites, a movement that began in 1967 to fight for justice for the landless poor. In the last few decades, it has turned into an armed battle against the state, leading to an undeclared internal war in large parts of India. According to the Centre for and Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, the movement's violence has resulted in 998 deaths in 2009.My back of envelope calculations, based on media reports, suggests that in 2010 alone, the Naxalites and their colleagues, the Maoists, have killed at least 350 persons-both para-military personnel and regular folks going about their daily business. These include a recent tragedy where a hundred and eighty people, including several children, were killed in a railway accident when the tracks were sabotaged.

What is the connection between this frightening war and the environment?

According to a report by a well respected Indian environmental organization, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), 2.6 million people have been displaced by mining projects. Nearly half are people closely dependent on natural resources, but these are severely polluted by mining too. Put another layer of complexity on this-many of these areas display appalling literacy rates and rampant poverty. No one today doubts that an important reason for the emergence of grassroots support for today's angry, violent mass movement is because the people here have never received any assistance from the state in their struggle to rise above acute poverty. And they have never shared any of the benefits of the mining on their own lands either. Across the country, the trends are that local populations experience dispossession not tangible economic benefits from mining. If more and more forested lands are opened to coal mines, and other mining given easy permissions, the poor will lose even more of their lands and even more of our rich forests- valuable carbon sinks-will vanish.

The reason this is India's Deepwater moment is because, like the United States of America, we've arrived at the crossroads. Not only have we to face hard questions, but we also have to answer them decisively. Should we mine our energy out of the earth despite its tragic environmental and social consequences? Can the armed forces and the police get a few million dispossessed people to shut up, so business as usual can continue? Is any of this even sustainable?

This is the first time in recent history that India's Ministry of Forests and Environment is actually taking big steps to protect the environment. But if the rest of the Indian government fails to support this move, it will miss the woods for the trees. Mining coal or any other mineral does not equal easy progress. For hundreds of thousands of people, it implies being jettisoned into acute poverty. They might never be able to claim back the forests they lose, or their lands. But the events all around India today show they will strike back hard, because they have so little to lose. By default, the MOEF, with its ambitious plans to save India's forests, is also offering us tangible opportunities to prevent a civil war in the future. We should grab it.

Sign up for our email.
Find out how much you really know about the state of the nation.